Been a while. I was laid up with a nasty bug that has been making its way through the synagogue staff, and then I’ve been trying to catch up. In that scramble blogging tends to slide down the priority scale as you struggle to do what needs to be done that day (or sometimes that hour) with some modicum of competence. Sometimes that is all you can hope for, just that the wheels don’t fall off, that the bus somehow shuffles along from point A to point B and arrives with everyone safely seated. Maybe it wasn’t the most memorable trip, the most dazzling or mind-bending or life-changing, but you did help folks move a little ways down the road.
Which brings me to this past weekend. A series of days that really only happens in the context of large congregational life. From Friday to Sunday we had two funerals (one Friday afternoon, one Sunday afternoon), and four b’nai mitzvah (two Saturday morning, one Saturday evening, one Sunday morning). Oh yes, and a Friday night dinner for the scholar in residence. Of course two eulogies must be written somewhere in there, charges composed for the bar and bat mitzvah students, the services themselves conducted with their various liturgical complications.
It all came together fairly well. We’ve got a good team, the staff works hard, everyone pitches in, does their job, contributes. There are little glitches here and there, but for the most part we are the only ones who notice them. After all, most of the people who came through our doors over the weekend are so far out of their element in the synagogue they hardly know what is correct or incorrect anyway. That being said, we do take pride in what we do, and we are professionals, perhaps not always the most complimentary word, but there is something to be said for it. Sometimes simply getting the names right is a victory in and of itself.
Not that we don’t have moments of nahas. We truly do feel proud of the kids, of how hard they work, how much they put into it. It might be a blur for us, particularly in a weekend when we are going from family to family to family. (Please, God, help us get the names right!) But for the families, particularly for the students, we hope they’ve had a positive experience that will stay with them for many years. Perhaps even a formative Jewish moment that will in some mysterious way help to shape who they are as people and as Jews as they grow into adulthood.
That is a future hope. Sometimes it can also be a reward in the present. We have to hope for both.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to be one of the highest grossing movies of the season, the New York Times this week ran an article about the need that reality show producers feel to continue to ratchet up the stakes of their televised ‘games.’ The Times article reported that while filming a French version of the popular American show Survivor a contestant was killed. We are still a bit too civilized to show the actual death on air, but for how long? The sad truth is that the death will raise the show’s ratings, not the opposite. It seems that the gap between Suzanne Collins’ (author of the Hunger Games trilogy) fictionalized future world where the government uses televised death games to keep a restive population under control and our own present day is not that great after all. Anybody out there surprised?
And as I type this the NFL, our true modern gladiator sport, is wrapping up its regular season and preparing the country for the playoffs. In a season where the public eye has turned more and more towards the dangers of the game, how debilitating it is for so many players long term, and the immediate danger of repeat concussions, the public appetite for football has never been higher. Revenues for the league are expected to top the 25 billion dollar mark this year (yes that is with a ‘b’), and the dark secret is that as we cover our eyes to avoid watching the horrendous collisions on the field we spread our fingers so as not to miss a single big hit.
As a rabbi working in Baltimore (and a football fan in my own right) I know that the true religion in town takes place in a cathedral filled with 70,000 screaming fans dressed in purple on Sunday afternoons. But I also know that long ago Judaism eschewed the trial by fire of the arena for battles of the intellect. In many other ancient cultures the coming of age ritual was of a physical nature – the young man had to survive alone in the wilderness for a period of time, or go on his first hunt. Judaism transformed the physical trial to a ritual of the mind and spirit, studying sacred text and publicly participating in a communal service. Note there are no winners and losers – instead, success is predicated on a young person’s willingness to put in the time and effort, by doing so showing him or herself, and the community, that Judaism will be a guiding force in that young person’s life.
Without question one of the reasons the NFL has become so popular is that our children are raised on sports from a young age, many of them from the time they are 3 or 4 years old. It is no accident that as religion becomes less and less popular, sports becomes a more and more important part of family life. In conversations I have with parents wrestling with this tension I always remind them of one fundamental fact: almost without exception their children will not be playing sports in any serious way after they are 20 or so years old; but they will be Jewish for the rest of their lives.