Tag Archives: Baltimore

Words, Tweets, etc

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat on 8/3/19.

     As Jews we are often referred to as the People of the Book, but we might also just as well be called the People of the Word, or maybe better to say the People of Words.  We are great talkers, conversationalists, and communicators.  We like to talk so much we are known for talking with our hands.  We even have a term in our culture for a person who is a great talker, fondly referring to him or her as a kibitzer.  Kibitz is an interesting word – it comes to us from Yiddish, but it is formed from a Hebrew root – ק ב צ – a word which in the Bible means to gather together.  Have you ever realized that kibbutz (the settlements in Israel) and kibitz (to talk and joke around) are essentially the same words?  Formed from the same root? Why?  Because when you gather together you make small talk, and we Jews have perfected that to an art form.  

     It shouldn’t be surprising.  The truth is Judaism has long been invested in the idea that words have power, that they are significant, going all the way back to biblical times.  The very first story in the Torah, the Creation narrative, is an illustration of the power of words.  The phrase Vayomer Elohim – And God SAID – appears 8 times in the first chapter of Genesis, and each time another aspect of the universe is brought into being.  If you are in the habit of reading the weekly Torah portion, you would know that this week’s double portion, Matot-Ma’aseh, begins with a series of laws about vows and oaths, and the power that those words, once spoken, can carry.  And what is it we call the 10 Commandments in Hebrew?  The עשרת הדברות – what does that mean?  Literally translated that would mean something like the ‘ten utterances.’  And of course next week we’ll begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, called in English Deuteronomy, but its name in Hebrew is?  D’varim!  Words!!  The very first verse of that book begins with this phrase:  אלא הדברים אשר דבר משה – these are the words that Moses spoke.

     Of course we don’t necessarily need the Torah to teach us this lesson, because we know from the experiences of our own lives that words have power.  The old saying that we memorized as children is ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’  That phrase is used as a kind of protective shield when people are saying cruel things, as if the hurtful words will in some way bounce off, not able to hit their mark.  But of course it doesn’t work, and the truth is it doesn’t even really make sense.  A broken bone actually heals – particularly if you are a child – fairly quickly.  But when someone says something cruel to you, that crushing feeling and the sting of those words is remembered for years, and sometimes forever.

     The opposite is also true.  A word of kindness or encouragement or hope can literally change someone’s life for the better.  I vividly remember to this day two phone calls I received after I interviewed for rabbinical school.  The first call was to tell me that I would not be admitted, that I didn’t have the skills or the knowledge that the committee felt I needed to succeed in the program.  About two hours later my phone rang again.  It was a rabbi who had been on my interview panel, and the first thing he said to me was ‘I know you weren’t admitted today, but I want you to know I think you can be a terrific rabbi.’  And those eight words – I think you can be a terrific rabbi’ – literally changed my life.  I would not be standing here right now had they not be spoken to me.  It is that simple.  That is the power the words can have.

     The thing about it is we have a choice with the words that we use.  Maybe as a rabbi I have an extra sensitivity to this idea, because I am often in the position of speaking publicly.  When you are seen as being a leader, what you say – or what you tweet – can make a real difference.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have exactly the opposite effect – they can literally break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or a synagogue, or a community, or large scale, even into a country. 

    That is why the recent tweets from the President disparaging Baltimore and its representatives are so disappointing.  I am not sure why it is people choose to use hateful and hurtful words.  I suppose sometimes it comes from a place of ignorance, and other times from a place of fear.  Maybe people are angry, and they speak before they should – the old hit the send button when you should let that email sit in your draft box over night and reconsider it in the morning.  But I do know that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse and yell and rant and rave, what we ultimately end up doing is diminishing ourselves.  And I also know that the opposite is true – when we use language to encourage and elevate, to sooth and celebrate, when our words are kind and caring and hopeful, we grow closer with one another and we help to make a better world.

     I’ll never forget a number of years ago when I was in line at the bank.  A few people in front of me was a woman whom I know from the community.  The teller had asked her for ID, which she didn’t have.  She lit in to the teller, demeaning him, raising her voice, making sure the teller knew how important and powerful she was, and how unimportant and powerless the teller was.

     To his credit the teller wouldn’t budge, and finally the woman turned around to leave in great anger.  Suddenly she saw me standing there and stopped dead in her tracks.  She was horrified, embarrassed, and after pausing for a moment she said ‘Rabbi I am so sorry.  I never would have used those words if I knew you were standing there.’  Then she walked out.

     I don’t know if that moment changed her behavior, but it changed mine.  Since that day, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I strive to imagine that there is someone in line behind me, someone whom I respect, someone whom I would not want to disappoint.  Imagining that helps me choose my words more carefully, and consider my actions more thoughtfully.  It helps me, to use the words of our siddur from the Friday night service, lay down at night having no regret for what has happened during the day.

     One of my favorite lines in the entire prayer book is the sentence that begins the concluding personal paragraph of the amidah – anyone remember what it is? אלוקי נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה – My God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from speaking deceit – 

     So it should be for all of us.

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How to Create a Sports Fan

This the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/16/15. One brief note. I decided just before I spoke to change the beginning of the sermon, switching what I had written for a few remarks about the recent Pew Study results on America’s religious landscape and how the new data indicates that ‘millennials’ are far less likely to be involved in or connected to congregational life.

We often talk about the idea of ‘l’dor vador’ in congregational life, the sense that the tradition is transmitted from one generation to the next. Just this morning we celebrated together two baby namings, and a bar mitzvah, and these are generation to generation moments, expressions of our hope that Judaism will play an important role in the lives of the young people in our community. So you give a Hebrew name to a child as a way of setting her on a Jewish path at an early stage of her life, you ask teens to prepare for bar or bat mitzvah, in part to give them a formative, hopefully positive, Jewish experience when they are young, that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

Of course the idea of generation to generation doesn’t only apply in a religious sense. There are many traditions that are maintained in families that are passed from grandparents to parents to children. It might be an annual summer family vacation in a particular spot, where year after year everyone comes together as the family. Food can actually play this role – sometimes there is a recipe, a particular dish that is passed down that everyone in the family knows and loves. And another thing that is passed down from one generation to the next is a love of sports. And I would like to think about that with you this morning for a few minutes. How do you take a child, and as he or she grows, create a Ravens fan, or an Orioles fan, a young person who grows to love sports in the course of their young life?

I actually suspect that if we opened the floor and talked about that question for a few minutes we would be able to come up with a pretty clearly defined plan, one that had a good chance of working well. In fact many of us in the room have probably already done this, taken a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, and given them the tools that they needed to be a serious fan of a particular sport and a particular team. But how exactly does this happen? What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgeable, passionate, connected, Ravens fan?

One crucial element, it seems to me, is that you have to start them young, and we do! Most of the babies born here in Baltimore are wearing Ravens or Orioles gear within the first week of their lives. When they get a bit older they play with their friends in front of the TV on gameday, and by the time they are 6 or 7 years old they are watching the games themselves.

And that leads to crucial element number two, which is that they are knowledgeable about the games. They know the rules, how to keep score, what the difference is between a touchdown and an extra point, how many yards it takes to get a first down, and how many balls and strikes it takes in baseball to send someone to first base or to send them back to the dugout. As they get older their knowledge increases, until by the time they are young teens they know more about football or baseball than they know about anything else. Each player, the statistics, the team’s schedules, you name it and they know it. And why are they so interested in it? Initially, because their parents are interested in it. They see how passionate their parents are about it, how important it is to their parents, they see how much time, effort, energy, blood, sweat, and tears their parents put into this stuff. And it rubs off. It makes a difference.

And then you begin to bring the kids to the games. I bet you just about everyone in this room can remember the first time their father brought them to a Colts game, or Ravens game, or the first time they sat in a seat at the ballpark next to their father or grandfather and watched the Orioles jog out onto the field at Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards. And I think you mix all of that stuff together, and it is pretty straight forward at the end of the day. You make a passionate sports fan by starting them young, by sharing with them the knowledge they need to understand and appreciate the game, and most importantly of all, you let them know how important it is to you, how passionate you are about it, how much you care about it. That formula works so well that I feel confident in saying that for the rest of my career in the rabbinate, during the fall people will be showing up here in shul on Saturday mornings wearing purple ties and purple sweaters, shirts, blouses, skirts, socks, you get the picture.

But what I am wondering more and more these days is this: will those future purple wearing folks in the pews be able to daven, to participate in the service, while they are sitting there? Will they care enough to be here in the first place? Will they want to be part of a Jewish community, will they feel that Judaism brings meaning into their lives, will they be as passionate about their Judaism as they are about their Ravens or Orioles? Are we making young Jews as successfully as we are making young sports fans? Let me ask the question I asked a moment ago, but I’ll change the last word. What are the particulars, the details, the necessary elements that will one day magically come together to create a devoted, knowledgable, passionate, connected Jew?

Well, you’ve got to start them when they are young. That includes a baby naming or a bris, it includes a Jewish pre-school, it includes bringing children to synagogue for holidays and programs so the shul is a natural and familiar part of their lives. Then, just like with sports, you have to give them the knowledge. A fundamental understanding of our sacred stories, of the flow of Jewish history, the ability to read Hebrew, familiarity with the service and the most significant prayers. But most importantly of all, you need to let your children and grandchildren know how important Judaism is to you, how passionate you feel about it, how much you care about it.

Two things about that last piece: first, that is something that is very difficult to communicate in a conversation. Because you can tell your children and grandchildren Judaism is important to you, but unless you show them it is important, I don’t think the message will get across. You have to do things – using the sports analogy, you have to watch the games with them, take them to the games, talk with them about the team, show them you feel passionate about it, that it is one of the most important things in your life. If you said to your child ‘I love the Ravens’ but you never watched a game with them, never took them to a game, never talked about the Ravens at home, your child is not going to be a Ravens fan! Why would we imagine that Judaism is different? So bring them to shul – and come with them! Make Shabbat at home, say the blessings, light the candles, have dinner together. Talk with them about what they’ve learned in Hebrew school, read Jewish books, take Jewish courses, so that they can see Jewish learning is an important part of your life, go to Israel and bring them along.

Which leads me to the second thing. It is not a synagogue that makes a child Jewish. It is not a rabbi, or a cantor, or a Hebrew school teacher. We can help. We can give them some of the tools they’ll need. We can provide programs that will give them the chance to immerse in Jewish life, to learn about their heritage and history, to see Judaism as something that is meaningful and powerful. But at the end of the day their sense of being Jewish has to come from you, their parents and grandparents. A child’s Jewish identity isn’t formed in a synagogue, it is formed in a home. So lets make our homes the kinds of places that foster Jewish life and identity, and lets make our lives models for the kinds of Jewish lives we hope our children and grandchildren will one day live themselves. If we can do that, then a decade from now during football season our pews will be filled with purple wearing Jews who will be just as excited about Jewish life as they will about the prospect of the Ravens winning another Super Bowl. And folks, that is pretty excited. Just imagine that.

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A Community Prayer

Our God and God of all the generations:

We come together at this sacred hour in prayer, hoping for Your guidance, looking for Your spirit, needing Your strength. Our souls are troubled, our minds are restless, our hands feel empty. We have watched our community struggle, descending at times into violence and anger, into rage and recrimination. But we have also seen our community shine, with healing and hope, with humanity and generosity, with brotherhood and courage.

God You are the healer of broken hearts and the binder of wounds. Help us to heal our community. Soothe our souls with Your grace. Ease our minds with Your wisdom. Strengthen our hands so that we can be builders of a better world.

And also God bless us. Bless our community, our city, our leaders, and our fellow citizens. Keep us faithful to our heritage of freedom and justice. Help us to banish suffering and strife. Unite us in understanding and mutual helpfulness. And hasten the day when all can rejoice in a world of peace.

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

This famous phrase comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In large part the speech was intended to be a plea to the South for reconciliation, and initially Lincoln penned a conclusion that offered the southern states a choice between ‘peace or the sword.’ But in the end he was persuaded to change the text so the last sentence read as follows: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There is a shared humanity that unites us all, the common threads of home and hearth, of struggle and strength and courage and faith, the universal need for dignity and freedom, the Divine soul we all carry that can open our minds and hearts. At times it seems hard to locate, obscured by the cross currents of events, almost unrecognizable behind the haze of anger and violence that can arise when people give in to the dark side. Lincoln recognizes this. By choosing the phrase ‘better angels’ he implies that there are darker angels that can lead us to places of destruction and hate. We have certainly seen this in Baltimore over the last days.

And yet Lincoln understands the darkness to be something that will pass, a dynamic that cannot sustain itself in the face of goodness and light. He writes: ‘when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ There is no doubt in his mind that ultimately kindness and caring and hope will survive and even thrive, while the dark days will fade into memory and history. It is not a question of will the better angels arrive, it is a question of when. As Jerry Garcia sang in the Grateful Dead song New Speedway Boogie, ‘one way or another this darkness got to give.’

And it will give. There are too many good people. Too many strong leaders of principle. Too much effort and energy and pride invested in Baltimore. This darkness will give. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day. Hurts will be healed, connections will be strengthened, bridges will be built. And then, after the immediate needs are addressed, after peace and calm have been restored, then the work begins. There are deep seated needs, long standing problems of enormous complexity and challenge, educational problems, societal problems, economic problems, demographic problems that simply cannot be ignored. Problems with how the police conduct themselves, problems that stem from deep racial divides, the list is long and every item is connected to every other. Justice must be pursued. Needs addressed. Dignity restored.

Yes much work to do. But there are great people with great determination and spirit to do that work. If these days become a wakeup call to begin that work anew, we may one day look back and see this as a dark point that became a turning point, a storm that in the end gave way to a clear blue sky. May that be God’s will. And may it be brought about by human hands that work only for peace and hope.

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