Tag Archives: Bernie Sanders

Finding Your Runway

this a text version of my sermon from day one of Rosh Hashanah 5777

The young couple, looking forward to their wedding, smiled as they entered my office and settled into their seats across from me.  It was a meeting I’ve had hundreds of times over the years, and one I always enjoy.  Talking about the wedding, getting to know the bride and groom, and exploring with them at least a bit their hopes and dreams for the life they will make together as husband and wife.  In the course of those meetings I always ask the couple about their plans for having a family – how many children might they like to have?  When will they start?  I know it is a nosy question!  But if the rabbi can’t ask that question who can?  And the truth is we need more Jews in the world.

But as soon as I broached the topic with this couple, I could tell they were uncomfortable.  They looked at each other for a few moments before the young woman said this:  “Rabbi, we just don’t know if we want to bring children into this world.  It seems like such a dangerous and scary place right now, like it is all headed the wrong way.  There is terrorism and climate change, racism and riots in the streets, shootings in schools, how can we bring a child into this kind of world?”

I was a bit taken aback, but I caught myself and I talked with them about it.  That we need more Jews in the world.  That we need more good people in the world.  That we need hope in the world.  But as I talked, in the back of my mind I was thinking ‘who can blame them?’  I was sitting with them in the first week of September, coming off one of the most disturbing summers probably any of us can remember.  Police were shot in the streets of Dallas and Baton Rouge.  There was horrible gun violence in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  Refugees from the Syrian civil war wandered through Europe.  The terrorist attack in Nice France on Bastille Day.  Financial anxiety as the market teetered and tottered back and forth, the unsettling and frankly sometimes bizarre rhetoric of the presidential campaign.  There were new reports about climate change and rising seas.  It seemed for a while every day the news was worse than that of the day before.

And I also knew that my young couple was not alone in its feelings. We can actually measure these things today, in ways that we never have before.  Big data, as they call it, can be assembled by analyzing the millions upon millions of Goggle searches that take place on a daily basis.  Over the past 8 years internet search rates for anxiety have gone through the roof.  Searches for ‘anxiety at work,’ or ‘anxiety at night’ or ‘anxiety at school’ are the highest they’ve ever been since scientists started tracking such things.  So if you feel that sense of unease that my young couple feels, if you are anxious about the world, worried about what is happening around us, then you are in good company, because it seems that almost everyone is experiencing that in one way or another.

Of course we Jews understand ourselves as worrying experts.  Who worries better than the Jews?  We gave the world Woody Allen and Larry David.  It was Woody Allen who once famously said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and its all over much too soon!”  It is a particularly Jewish joke that the mother who is about to visit sends a telegram that simply reads ‘start worrying details to follow.’  And we are the people who brought the world the phrase ‘oy vey!’   We use the term so often that Penny Wolin, the great Jewish photographer, once remarked that oy is not merely an ordinary word for Jews, but is actually an expression of an entire world view.  This certainly was a summer that deserved a lot of ‘oys.’

I think there is a cogent argument to be made that the presidential election process we’ve watched unfold over the last months was a direct reflection of that pervasive sense of unease and anxiety.  As Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rose in the polls many experts saw them as two different sides of the same coin, in both cases attracting groups of people who felt disenfranchised, who felt they did not have a voice in the traditional political system, and who felt afraid about what the future may hold.  The general sense of both groups was that the country is heading in the wrong direction, and that radical action needs to be taken in order to set it right.

And we also know that come November 8th, when Americans head to the voting booths to elect a new president, many of us will cast a ballot with great trepidation, regardless of which candidate we vote for.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent memory, maybe in history, and I know from speaking to many of you that regardless of which person you vote for you may very well feel uncomfortable with the ballot you cast.  And so even our presidential election, which is so often filled with hope and expectation for a brighter future, I think will be filled this year with anxiety.

A few of you here today are old enough to remember the ringing phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933.  That also was a dark time for our country, it was the height of the Great Depression, and FDR stood in front of the nation vowing to speak candidly and honestly.  What was his memorable phrase?  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  I understand that phrase in two ways:  One, fear can paralyze us, fear can keep us from acting when we must act.  But I also think it means that fear and anxiety can distort our understanding of things, and prevent us from seeing things as they really are.

This morning’s Torah reading is a perfect illustration of that idea.  You remember the story – Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is threatened by the concubine Hagar’s presence in the household.  She presses Abraham to send Hagar away, and he relents.  Early one morning he takes some simple supplies, a loaf of bread, a single skin of water – he gives them to Hagar and he sends her and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness.

Things unravel quickly.  She gets lost, she wanders aimlessly, the water runs out,  and Hagar falls into despair.  She places her son under a bush and walks away to suffer alone, not wanting to see his pain, wanting only to withdraw from the cruel world she sees all around her.  But then the story turns, an angel appears, and Hagar is able to rediscover the strength she needs to carry on.  What is striking about the passage is that Hagar’s circumstances don’t change.  God does not make a miracle for her, but what God does do is open her eyes.  ויפקח א׳׳לוהים את עיניה – God opened her eyes – and then she was able to truly see, and to realize there was a spring of water just a ways away that could sustain her and her son.  The well had been there all along, but her fear prevented her from seeing it.

And I am wondering what the fear and anxiety of our time are preventing us from seeing.  You remember being a child, and your mother or father turns out the lights at night and leaves your room.   All of a sudden any ordinary object – a dresser, a chair, a jacket – could be transformed into a menacing shape.  I feel like that is where we are right now.  Standing in a dark room.  And in that darkness we can lose our way, and in losing our way, lose our understanding of what truly matters most.  The values we cherish.  The people we love.  The expectations we have for ourselves and our lives.  And I think, I hope, that Yom Tov is a time to reclaim what truly matters most.  To dispel darkness, to open eyes, to see with clarity our lives and our world.

I am sure you are familiar with the so called Miracle on the Hudson, the story of the pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who miraculously managed to land a failing jet plane on the Hudson River, saving the lives of every crew member and passenger.   The story is playing in theaters these days in the movie Sully, Tom Hanks playing the no nonsense pilot.  Haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard the movie is ‘OK’ but Hanks is terrific.  Fundamentally that story is about one person who is able to set aside fear and to see something, to perceive it, to truly understand it – in a way others could not.  Everyone else looked at the Hudson and they saw water and a sinking plane.  Sully looked at the same river, and he saw a runway.  What angel gave him that insight, opened his eyes in that kind of way, we will never know.

But what if an angel were to appear to you and God were to open your eyes during these sacred days? What might you see? Could we recognize the wells that are right beside us? If we did we might take a fresh look at our families and see them as the gift they are.  We might reach out to old friends we once laughed and cried with. We might feel compelled to reconnect to a community of faith and service that sustained our people for thousands of years. We could see within ourselves the strength, always there,  to overcome disappointment and fear and anxiety, to emerge with new found hope and faith in ourselves, in those we love, in humanity and in God.

The holidays come each year to open our eyes.  They remind us of what matters most, they give us an opportunity to reaffirm our very best qualities.   The holidays come to help us truly see that there is great light in the world, and enduring hope and kindness and caring in the human heart.  May that be our faith and our fate as we together welcome this New Year.

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish life, mindfulness, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Rosh Hashanah, sermon, Uncategorized

From Generation to Generation

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 2/27/16 –

I have often been told by people over the years that their favorite moment in the service is the singing of ‘l’dor vador’ during the kedushah.  I think one of the reasons for that – along with the beautiful music – is that people know what the phrase means – from generation to generation – and that idea is important to people, it is something they have lived in their lives and believe in.  They know that they have received the tradition from their parents and grandparents, and one of the hopes they have is that they will see the tradition passed on to their children and one day grandchildren.

This sense of ‘generation to generation’ is not only about faith, we do it with many other things as well.  Music is one example.  I remember when Becky was pregnant with Tali, our first, I used to have her stand next to my stereo speakers with her stomach pointed towards the speaker and I would play Grateful Dead music, hoping that somehow through osmosis the baby would grow to love the music that is so important to me.  We also do it with sports – how many young Baltimoreans are given a Ravens or Orioles jersey when they are babies, the parents and grandparents hoping that that will set the child on the path to being a passionate Baltimore sports fan.  Of course we also hope to transmit certain values to our children, a sense of what is important,  of what should be prioritized in life, perhaps an ethical code we hope they’ll use to navigate the world.

And we also, probably more today than ever, hope to give our children our political values.  The way political discourse has become so polarized, I imagine there are quite a few Republicans in the room who would cringe if their children became Democrats, and vice versa.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that for some reason it just doesn’t seem to work precisely the way that we as parents have planned.  Go back to the music for a second – for all of that time Becky spent standing in front of that stereo that was blasting Grateful Dead music Tali basically has no interest in it.  In terms of sports, even in Baltimore you can find the occasional Duke or Pittsburgh Steelers or Yankees fan, a young man or woman with just enough of an iconoclastic streak to buck the trends.

Maybe more than anything else it is the area of politics where our children will take, at least to us, an unexpected turn.  It has been interesting to follow the debate taking place within feminist circles over the last number of weeks about the way younger women in the primary elections and caucuses have been voting for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.  This is making the older feminists crazy.  It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned women around the country that, and this is a direct quote, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”  She has since apologized for the comment, but the fact that she made it in the first place shows you how frustrated the older generation of women is – or at least a segment of that generation – by the fact the their younger counterparts are supporting Bernie.  And in large numbers!  There are some statistics that show that more than %80 of women under thirty support Bernie, a 74 year old white man, and not Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the great feminist icons of our time.

This idea of the younger generation having its own mind is not exactly a new one.  Some of you may remember the 60s and the incredible revolution that occurred with the college generation, the effects of which we still feel in today’s world.  But I would push it back even farther than that, all the way to the Bible itself.  In the Torah that younger generation is symbolized by the figure of Joshua, the loyal servant of both God and Moses.  It is Joshua who is the field commander for the Israelites when they battle against Amalek, the quarterback on the field to Moses’ coach on top of the mountain.  In this week’s Torah portion Joshua, who is patiently waiting at  the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return, calls out in alarm when he feels something has gone wrong in the Israelite camp.  Later on, in the book of Numbers, we know that Joshua will lead the ill fated mission of the spies when they are sent to scout out the Promised Land, and although the spies lose their faith, Joshua manages to stay true.  It is also Joshua who is filled with רוח חכמה – with the spirit of wisdom – in the very last verse of the Torah, when Moses dies and Joshua becomes the leader of Israel.  And it is interesting to note that Joshua has his own eponymously named biblical book, something that even the great Moses does not achieve.

But my favorite story about Joshua is found in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It is in that chapter that God tells Moses that he will be dying soon, that he needs to begin to prepare the people for the next leader.  And I’ve always loved Moses’ response – very canny – he simply says ‘ok, then let God appoint a new leader, someone who will be able to handle the people, do all the things I’ve been doing, take care of all the problems.’  It is almost like Moses is saying to God – ‘go ahead and try to find someone who can do what I do.’  In other words, you’ll never find anybody, you’ll have to keep me around whether you like it or not.

God doesn’t hesitate.  ‘Joshua is right there Moses,’ God says.  ‘Right next to you.  Reach out your hand, וסמכת את ידך עליו –  put your hand on him!’  And what is always striking to me about that passage is that Joshua was standing right in front of Moses, and had been for years.  But Moses had no idea that Joshua had become his own person, with his own talents, his own leadership qualities, his own interests, his own life.  And it wasn’t until God said ‘there is Joshua’ that Moses realized the next generation really was ready to take over, and to begin to do things their own way.  Maybe Moses would agree with it, maybe he wouldn’t.  Most likely some of it he wouldn’t like at all, and some he would probably feel quite proud of.  But that wasn’t event the point.  The point was Moses had to let go, and let Joshua do it in his own way.

We might say the same for our own children and grandchildren.  We do our best to give them the tools they’ll need to live good lives and to be decent people, teaching them whatever we can in the relatively few years they spend living under our roofs.  But somehow, right in front of our eyes, almost without our knowing it, they become adults, with their own thoughts, tastes in music, values, sports affiliations, ways of being and doing Jewish, and even with their own political ideas and loyalties.  And if they don’t match with ours exactly, or even at all, our job at that point is to say so be it.

After all that is what we do our best to raise them to – to be thoughtful, independent individuals who will forge their own paths in every area of life.  That can be challenging at times, but it seems to me it is something to be celebrated, something that means we’ve done our work well.  May our children and grandchildren in turn do their work well, in their own time, and yes, in their own way.

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Bernie Trump and Donald Sanders

Of course they come at it from very different perspectives, and they are reaching very different groups.  Trump is all anger and bluster, aggression and pique, the classic 7th grade bully who has learned over time that if you yell loudly enough and confront people with enough strength you’ll often get what you want.  Bernie is in a sense the opposite – the lovable zaydie who cuddles and cajoles (maybe even nudges!), and whose age and experience give people a sense that he might actually know what he is talking about.  Trump plays on xenophobia, he picks fights, he hurls insults, he talks about how bad things are in America.  He says you have to take care of yourself.  Bernie preaches inclusion and hope, common dignity and human rights, dare I say it socialist ideals!, and he speaks of how great America will be.  He reminds us of the responsibility to care for others.

But despite their different personas and perspectives, in some strange way they have tapped into the same vein, albeit a vein in two entirely different bodies.  They are obviously saying things that certain people want to hear.  People who feel disenfranchised, fearful, suspicious, who feel that the current political system is dysfunctional, that the game is rigged, who want someone to speak on their behalf and to say things that other politicians don’t say, and perhaps by extension to (potentially) do things other politicians won’t do.

The old guard, the system,  the ‘corridors of power,’ the suits, the man, call it what you will – they have all been taken by surprise.  Can you imagine what Hillary is thinking?  “Again?!!”  The great line from Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ keeps coming to my mind:  Something is happening, and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

Do you?  Does anyone?

The dynamics are exactly the same.  Donald Sanders.  Bernie Trump.  Donie.  Bernald.  But the messages are so vastly different!  What a fascinating presidential race it would be to have such starkly different messages face off!  Imagine presenting America with a plate of Trump and a plate of Sanders, and then asking them to choose between them.   Forget about the liberal-conservative divide!  That is small potatoes compared to a Trump Sanders contest.  Which message would the country buy into, which view would ultimately win the day?

Of course we’ll never know.  Won’t happen.  Can’t imagine we’ll actually get there.  In the end it will be Hillary facing of with Kasich or Cruz or Rubio.  Same old same old.  It will be safer, business as usual, and even worse, politics as usual.  Probably better for everyone in the end.  But my oh my, how boring!  Kind of like driving a long ways round just to get back to the place where you started.  Well, at least the view was interesting.

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