Tag Archives: Beth El Congregation Baltimore

The Work of Our Hands

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/27/19 –

     On three separate occasions I have been involved with the rabbinic ordination ceremonies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Once was my own ordination, the very moment I became a rabbi in my own eyes.  The other two times I was asked to participate in the ceremony by ordaining rabbinical students.  The ritual is simple but powerful.  The person being ordained is called forward, and words of blessing are spoken.  Then a tallit is taken and placed upon the student’s shoulders, and as the hands of the ordaining rabbi rest on the student’s shoulders, the student is for the very first time publicly called ‘Harav’ – rabbi.

     That ordination ritual comes in part from a scene in this morning’s Torah portion, one of the most poignant moments in the entire Bible.  God tells Moses that his time is almost up, that he is about to die.  God takes Moses to the top of a mountain outside the land, and shows him the place where the Israelites will make their home.  That in and of itself is painful – Moses, who has given everything to God and to the people will never see the fruits of his own labors.  But it is the simple exchange between Moses and God that follows that I find so striking.

     Moses says to God ‘OK, God, if I am not going to be the leader, then go ahead and appoint someone else to lead this people.’  And I’ve always felt this is Moses’ way of saying ‘God, no one else can do what I do!  If you think you can find another person to fill my shoes, go ahead, good luck!’  I’ve always read Moses’ response as a way of indicating to God that he is indispensable, of trying to remind God that God needs Moses, otherwise the whole project will fall apart.  

     But God’s response is devastating, at least that is the way it has always seemed to me.  Immediately, God responds to Moses:  קח לך את יהושע בן נון – just take Joshua! אשר רוח בו – he also has the spirit of God – וסמכת את ידך עליו – and lay your hands upon him.  In other words, God is saying, don’t worry Moses.  It won’t be hard to find someone to fill your shoes!  In fact, Joshua is right here.  So if you don’t mind, ordain him in front of the people, and he’ll be the leader from this point forward.  And that moment of ordination, that transfer of power, is marked in the Torah by Moses laying his hands upon Joshua’s shoulders.  At that very instant the people know that Moses is out, and Joshua is in.  And it is that laying of hands that became the symbol in Judaism of the transfer of authority, from one generation to the next, which is why it is used during rabbinic ordination ceremonies down to this very day.

     I’ve always wondered how Moses felt at that moment.  Wasn’t he crushed by God’s response?  Wouldn’t it have been nice if God had paused, at least for a minute or two, and said ‘You know you are right Moses, it won’t be easy to find someone to replace you!’  Bit it is like Joshua is right on the tip of God’s tongue!  God doesn’t even say ‘nice job Moses, here is a gold watch, I’ll set you up in a nice condo in Boca.’  No words of praise, no words of thank.  It is all matter of fact.  It is done in a second, almost before you even know what happened. It isn’t hard to imagine Moses standing off to the side, while Joshua, now suddenly the center of attention, is surrounded by the people.

     The passage has reminded me, as I encounter it year in and year out, of the all too common indignities of aging that confront us as the years go by.  One of the most difficult challenges that families face is the take the keys away moment.  I suspect you know what I’m talking about.  The family feels a person’s driving is no longer safe.  They fret and worry that the person might hurt him or herself, or someone else in an accident.  But they also know that driving is a major measure of independence, and that to take that away from their loved one will cause hurt and pain, embarrassment, and even anger.  But eventually, whether by hook or by crook, whether by force or subterfuge, those keys are taken.

      This scene plays out in our lives over and over again, in ways large and small.  It might be the moment you switch from a weekly singles game in tennis to a doubles game.  Or maybe it is the first year that the seder no longer takes place at your home, but moves to the home of a child or grandchild.  Some people retire from work willingly, eager to let go and enter a less stressful and demanding time of their lives.  But others have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, and they want to stay in the game for as long as they possibly can.  What was it that Bette Davis said?  Getting old ain’t for sissies.  And I’ve always understood the encounter between God and Moses in this morning’s Torah portion as that kind of moment, a moment where something is taken away from Moses, where his independence is lost, and his self worth is diminished.

     But I also wonder if Moses found some comfort in that moment that he laid his hands upon Joshua.  Because in a sense that means he had done his work well.  That because of his teaching, because of the way he had mentored Joshua, a new leader was ready when the time came.  Moses knew Joshua well, they had worked together, he must have been proud of him, he must have known that Joshua was qualified for the job, and that if anyone would be able to do it, he would be the one.  

     This is not to say that the moment wasn’t hard for Moses.  I am sure it was.  But maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Maybe balancing the sense of loss he felt was a sense of accomplishment.  That moment of semicha – of laying on the hands – is a moment of continuity, of acknowledging that we are part of a stream of tradition, that moves from one generation to the next.  And if we play our part well, then we will know that our values and the traditions that mean so much to us will be carried forward by the next generation, and the one after that.  

     So let us play our part.  To the best of our ability, with whatever strength God grants to us.  Knowing that no person is indispensable – not even a Moses.  But knowing also that if we are blessed in the course of our lives what we create can truly change the world for the better.  Consider these verses that conclude the 90th Psalm –  ויהי נועם ה׳ אלוקינו עלינו ומעשה ידינו כוננה עלינו, ומעשה ידינו כונניהו – The favor of the Lord our God be upon us.  God will establish the work of our hands.  The work of our hands God will surely establish.

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Eastern Europe

A text version of my remarks from this past Shabbat (7/6/19) –

     As I think most of you know our Beth El group has just returned from its Eastern European trip.  In a ten day span we visited four cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, and Berlin.  A trip to Eastern Europe that focuses on Jewish history is not ‘fun’ – it is not a vacation that you return from feeling refreshed or recharged.  Each day you wrestle with difficult and often painful moments from the history of our people.  You are faced with questions that often are unanswerable.  A trip to Israel is celebratory, you are rejoicing in what has been found.  But a trip to Eastern Europe is elegiac, you are mourning what was lost.

     At least for me that sense of loss was pervasive, as day after day we were reminded of Jewish communities that had once been centers of Jewish life that no longer existed.  It is often striking to me how the Torah portion we read on any given week will in some way reflect the lives we live and the issues with which we wrestle.  This week our portion is Korach, which tells the tale of the ill fated rebellion that Korach and his followers launch against Moses and Aaron.  You’ll remember the narrative – Korach publicly challenges Moses, accusing him of setting himself above and apart from the people.  Moses responds, telling Korach there will be a public ritual, almost like a spiritual shoot out, between Moses and Korach and his followers.  

     The very next day the ritual is enacted.  Korach and his followers on one side, Moses on the other.  At the moment of confrontation, what is it that happens?  The earth opens, and Korach and his followers are swallowed up, never to be seen again.  Here is the verse from the Torah that describes that moment:  וירדו הם וכל אשר להם חיים שאולה – they went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them – ותכס עליהם הארץ – and the earth closed over them – ויאבדו מתוך הקהל – and they vanished from the midst of the community.  I’ll give you just the English so you can hear it straight – “They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them, the earth closed over them, and they vanished from the midst of the community.”

     That is what happened to Jews of Europe.  Before the war in Warsaw had the second largest Jewish community in the world, second only to New York City – 350,000 Jews lived there, close to %30 of the city’s population.  Today there are fewer that 2,000 Jews.  And that is a story told in one way or another in every major eastern European city.  To sum it all up, before the way 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland alone, and today there are fewer than 10,000.  Literally town by town, community by community, city by city, the Jews of Eastern Europe were swallowed up by Nazi Germany, like a great, vast chasm had opened up in the earth, and almost over night they were gone.  Some 75 years later the Jewish population of the world has still not recovered.  Before the war there were more than 16 million Jews in the world.  Today there are maybe 15 million, almost all of them living in Israel and here in the US.  

     So our group struggled with that pervasive sense of loss.  We said kaddish near a barbed wire fence in Birkenau.  We walked through a crematorium in Auschwitz, our heads low and our eyes cast to the ground.  We stood at the platform of track 17 just outside of Berlin, where the Germans had deported Jews, sending them from their homes to the camps, never to return.  And we walked through the sumptuous halls and gardens of the villa where the Wannsee conference was held and the details of the so called Final Solution were meticulously discussed and recorded.  These are experiences that can not be summed up in a sermon, experiences that I think we will all be pondering for a long time.

     But as difficult as the trip was at times there were moments of light and life.  In Krakow we had dinner at the vibrant JCC, the center of Jewish life in that area.  Johnathan Ornstein, the charismatic director, spoke with us about his mission of revitalizing Jewish life in Krakow.  He told us stories about young Poles discovering that they had a Jewish grandparent, or even a Jewish parent, and that they were coming, one by one by one, to the Krakow JCC to explore what that means, and to think about Judaism and Jewish life.  When we left the building that evening the JCC’s courtyard was filled with young people dancing and singing, drinking and eating, and we couldn’t help but feel the energy and the sense of hope that Jewish life could continue to grow there.

     On Shabbat, on Friday night, we davened in the Maisel shul, a synagogue from the 1500s that is now a museum of Jewish life in Krakow.  A small Jewish community led by a young rabbi meets each week, holds services, sings and prays, and maintains a sense of Jewish community and ongoing Jewish life.  As our Cantor and members of our congregation helped to lead the service we truly felt part of a world wide Jewish community, supporting one another, caring for each other, and sharing in our common history and brotherhood.  

     The tour guides we had in both Prague and Berlin were Jewish, having grown up in Israel and moved at some point to Europe where they now make their lives.  They were proud of their Jewish identities, proud to be guiding a group of Jews, and I believe they felt that part of their mission was to not only convey to us the history, but to remind the cities we visited that there is a vital and vibrant world wide Jewish community, that Jews will come to visit Eastern Europe and by doing so we bear witness to what happened, but we also symbolize the ultimate failure and defeat of the Nazis.  At Birkenau and also track 17, after we said the kaddish we chanted the Shema, as if to say despite what we’ve seen we still have faith, despite what happened here Judaism survives and thrives, despite the sadness we might feel we still hope.  Hope beats so powerfully in the Jewish heart, and עם ישראל חי – and the Jewish people continue to live!

     One last vignette.  Our farewell dinner took place at an elegant restaurant in Berlin.  Towards the end Dr. Bor played a few songs on his clarinet, with the Cantor singing along.  Suddenly he played the opening notes of Hatikvah, and we all stood up, singing together Israel’s national anthem, a song entitled the Hope that is a symbol of Jewish freedom and the Jewish future.  The lyrics of the song were written by an Eastern European Jew named Naftali Herz Imber in the late 1880s.  It was a striking moment, and a striking way to conclude our trip – a group of Jews from Baltimore, singing the lyrics composed by a Jew who lived his life in the lands through which we had just traveled, lyrics that became the national anthem of the homeland of the Jewish people, and singing those words together, publicly, in the heart of Berlin.  

     This is a translation of the words you know so well in the Hebrew – As long as within our hearts the Jewish soul sings, as long as towards the east, towards Zion, looks the eye – our hope is not yet lost.  It is 2000 years old – to be a free people, in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

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To the (Jewish) Graduates

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/15/19.

Wednesday night Becky and I watched with pride as our nephew Ezra graduated, with 27 fellow classmates, from Krieger Schechter Day School.  The ceremony included the singing of Hebrew songs, words of Torah, and as you might expect presentation of diplomas.  It concluded with Rabbi Josh Gruenberg of Chizuk Amuno blessing the 8th grade class using the words of the Birkat Cohenim, words that happen to appear in this week’s Torah portion – May God bless you and keep you – May Gods light shine in your life, may God grant you grace – May God’s countenance turns towards you, may God bless you with peace.

     Many of you know those words because we use them to conclude Shabbat and Yom Too services here at Beth El.  They are also frequently heard at weddings and baby namings and brises.  And it struck me as I heard them Wednesday night that it was a particularly Jewish way – especially since the words were spoken in both Hebrew and English – that it was a particularly Jewish way to conclude a graduation ceremony.

     And it got me thinking about what kind of message I might give if I was asked to address a class of graduates, all of whom were Jewish?  What follows is my address to the Jewish graduating class – wherever they may be – of 2019.

My dear graduates:

     I stand before you today as a representative of the Jewish community.  That idea – of Jewish community – might not mean all that much to you today.  You live in, in fact you have grown up in, a world where  – particularly for younger people – everyone is blending together, and many of the traditional distinctions between people and communities are being broken down.  I am not suggesting that is necessarily bad, but I am suggesting that it is OK to see differences in people, and to be proud of those differences, even to celebrate them.  There is a distinctive Jewish approach to family life, to communal responsibility, to education, to charity, to civil rights, and to many other things as well.  I hope in the years ahead you’ll embrace that distinctive Jewish approach and embrace it with pride.

     I want you to know today that we need you.  With an aging population and a low birth rate, youth is a precious commodity in Jewish life today.  We need your spirit and optimism, we need your energy and enthusiasm, we need your presence in our synagogues and federations and JCCs.  I know all the research!  I’ve read all the articles that describe your generation as a generation that doesn’t join formal institutions, that doesn’t buy in to traditional structures, that doesn’t sit on boards, that prefers to meet in a pub and not in a sanctuary.  But we also know (because studies have told us) that your Jewish identity is important to you, that you are proud to be Jewish.  We know that you are determined, in a new way, to make the world a better place because you are in it.  And we know that your time is precious and you want to live healthy and balanced lives.  

     And so what I also want you to know today is that you need us.  You need us to help you deepen and strengthen your Jewish identity.  You need us because at some point you are going to need a strong Jewish community.  You need us because without synagogues, and without federations, and without JCCs, the Jewish identity that you are proud of will not be able to continue to exist.  You need us.  And I hope you know that we are trying to meet you where you are.  We are creating coffee houses and meditation and yoga centers, we are hosting cooking and card playing work shops, we have book clubs and High Holy Day hiking workshops, we have rock and roll musicians playing in our sanctuaries, we have self help gurus speaking from our lecterns.  We have young leadership networking programs and wine tasting events.  And yes, if you really want to know, we will absolutely meet you in a pub.  Happily so.  We know you want to be better people, more moral and ethical and accepting and caring.  We know you want to engage in Tikkun Olam.  What I ask you to consider is this:  embracing your Judaism is a way of embracing your humanity, of growing in spirit.  It doesn’t have to be done in the way we did it – by sitting in services and going to Hebrew school.  But it has to be done, and we can help you do it, if you will let us and if you will guide us.

     I would be remiss if I didn’t say a word or two about Israel.  There is a growing gap between us regarding the Jewish homeland.  We often see Israel as threatened and the underdog, as a small country living in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood.  We remember the wars in ’67 and ’73, we lived through those moments.  Some of us remember when there was no Israel, when Jews had no place to go during the Second World War when the Nazis were determined to destroy the Jewish people.  To you WW II is an almost mythic memory.  Your entire lives Israel has not been in a war, and you know that Israel’s army is the most powerful in the Middle East – by far.  You see Israel as strong and dominating, as technologically advanced but morally challenged by its ongoing struggle with the Palestinians.  And you see that in Jewish communal life today your views about Israel are often unwelcome and unwanted.

     We owe you a seat at that communal table.  Your voice needs to be a part of the Israel conversation, and if we have excluded you from that conversation it is our fault, and not yours.  And we need to do better.   So I hope in the years ahead you will join us as we wrestle with and find meaning in Israel, respecting our views and the history we bring to the table, but with a promise from us that we will do the same for you.  I truly believe that you can help us to understand Israel’s challenges moving forward.  But I also believe that we can help you to understand Israel’s history, and that together we can help one another help Israel to be a place of which we are all proud.

     There are so many other things we should talk about, a whole laundry list of ideas and challenges and opportunities that are just around the bend for you.  Your Judaism, I hope, will play a role in all of it.  I hope you’ll remember the history of our people, its challenges and its triumphs. My grandparents were immigrants, which means that your great grandparents, or great great grandparents were, and that is something we shouldn’t forget.  I know this probably seems like its a long way off for you, and its presumptuous, but I hope one day you’ll have children – we need more Jews in the world!  We have to talk about marriage, an institution that is under siege today, but a primary value in Jewish life.  We need to talk about Jewish literacy, which is on the wane.  I am sad to say we need to talk about anti-Semitism, which at one point I thought your generation might not have to deal with, but it looks like I was wrong.  The list goes on and on and on.

     But the rabbi should not.  A graduation speech shouldn’t be too long.  I know you are eager – not only for this ceremony to be over, but also to begin the next stage of your life, to get out there into the world and spread your wings, and hopefully fly.  As you do let me leave you with this – May God bless you and protect you.  May God’s light shine in your life, may God grand you grace.  May God’s countenance turn towards you, granting you light, life, and peace.  

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Creative Process

People often ask about how sermons are constructed, wondering where I find ideas of what to talk about, why I choose certain references, what my creative process is.  Here are a few thoughts about the sermon I gave this past Shabbat, posted yesterday, that might give a bit of insight into how a sermon comes together (at least for me).  You can read the sermon text here.

First off, the hardest thing in my experience is deciding on the topic.  It seems on the surface like there are a million and one things to talk about, and I suppose there are.  But not all of them seem like they make for good sermon material, not all of them sound interesting (to me), and not all of them are appropriate for pulpit preaching.  Sometimes it feels like finding that idea is comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  You know it is in there somewhere, but it can be awfully hard to locate!

My ideas generally come from one of three places.  First, something from the weekly Torah portion.  It might be a verse, it might be a word, it might be something in the commentary.  But I often find my topic while flipping through the pages of the portion.  Secondly, I commonly find a sermon idea in something that happens in the course of the week.  A meeting I’ve attended, a conversation I’ve had, something I’ve seen, an interaction between two people at the bank.  So be careful, the rabbi is always watching! And the last source for me is the news.  An article I read in the paper, or something I hear on the radio.  That might not necessarily be a current event, but could be a reference to the anniversary of an important historical moment, or a strange factoid, or a story about another cultural custom.

Once I have my idea a process of free association begins to unfold.  Sometimes it is sort of organized, and I might jot a few notes down here or there, but mostly it happens in my head, and often when I am walking our dog around the neighborhood.  (interestingly I generally do that without my mobile phone)  How this works I honestly am not exactly sure.  I think it has something to do with just giving my mind the space to float a bit, to think about things not immediately connected to anything in particular.  But I suspect that sermon kernel is running in the my back of my head the entire time, like a kind of undercurrent.  And so my thoughts are constantly being pulled into the orbit of that sermon, a process that I think is more unconscious that conscious.

As best I can, I’ll try to walk you through that process in terms of this past Shabbat’s sermon.  First off, the initial idea.  I was looking through the portion, came to the end, and there in the Hebrew was the Masoretic note about the conclusion of the book of Leviticus, and how many verses are contained in the book.  I stared at that note for a moment, and I thought ‘endings!’  That might be a viable sermon topic, because after all, we seem to be interested in endings.

Then the free association process was off and running.  Game of Thrones had just ended. We were reading in synagogue the end of a book of Torah (Leviticus).  The last word of the book, when looked at with the last words of the other four books of the Torah is interesting.  That led me to thinking about famous last lines of novels, and I thought it might be fun to include a few and see if people in the congregation could identify them.  I went back to Game of Thrones and began to think of other famous endings of television shows.  The most famous of all (at least back in the day!) was the last episode of MASH, a show that was an important part of my growing up (here is a link to the last few minutes of that episode).  Many of the pieces of the puzzle were now on the table.  There were two questions – first, how should they be assembled?  And second, what is the point of all this?

Time to walk the dog!  And so, as our trusty pooch meandered through the neighborhood, the pieces of that ‘sermon puzzle’ began to take shape.  The order, what should come first, what next, what connected to what.  At the end of the half hour walk I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to put those pieces.  Then it was a matter of doing it, worrying a bit over transitions, weaving strands.

But there was a last piece nagging at me, which was that the Torah itself is a book that doesn’t have an ending.  Deuteronomy ends and the people are still outside of the land.  How might that connect to all of the other material about endings, about wrapping things up and concluding stories?

Then it occurred to me that might be exactly the point.  The experiences of our lives, by and large, do not end in neat and tidy sentences, carefully constructed to perfectly conclude a moment.  Instead, our lives are more like the (lack of an) ending in the Torah. We are perpetually just on the cusp, just on the other side of that (Jordan) river, always looking towards that Promised Land but never quite arriving there.  We are always in a state of having one more river to cross.

Which is the name of the last track on Bob Weir’s solo album Blue Mountain, released in the fall of 2016.  I love that record.  In it Weir wrestles with his own mortality, with the passage of time, with the importance of taking that next step even in the face of daunting odds.  And that song gave me the last paragraph of my sermon text.  One more step, one more river to cross.

One last note – the title I gave the sermon when I posted it on my blog – At the End of All Things.  That line comes from Tolkien’s the Return of the King.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo lie exhausted, having finally completed their quest and destroyed the ring of power. It looks as if they are about to die, and Frodo says to Sam “I am glad you are here with me.  Here at the end of all things, Sam.”

So there you have it.  A bit of Torah.  A dash of Game of Thrones.  A nostalgic fondness for MASH.  A good dog walk on a beautiful afternoon.  Some Bob Weir for good measure. And a little Tolkien sprinkled in.  Mix it all up, type for a while, and you never know what you’ll come up with.

Sorry about the length of this post!  Anyone who read to the end, I owe you a scotch!

 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Grateful Dead, Jewish thought, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

At the End of All Things

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/1/19 –

     A few moments ago before we put the Humashim away I asked you to look with me at the last verse – and specifically the last word – of the the book of Leviticus, as well as the single line underneath the verse, that summarized the number of verses in the entire book.  I would not expect anyone to remember the total number of verses – does anyone happen to?  859.  But maybe a few of you remember the last word in Leviticus, which is?  סיני, Sinai in the English, as in Mt. Sinai.

     It has long been noted by biblical scholars that the last words of each of the books of the Torah have been carefully and intentionally chosen.  Taken together they offer a five word summary of the Torah’s main narrative.  Here is how that works – the last word of Genesis?  מצריים – Egypt.  Of Exodus?  מסעיהם meaning ‘their journeys.’  Of Leviticus, as we just established, Sinai.  What about Numbers?  The last word of Numbers is יריחו – Jericho. And the last word of Deuteronomy, the very last word of the Torah?  ישראל – in English?  Israel.  

     Now think of the five words in order – Egypt – they went down to Egypt.  They left Egypt, and began their journeys.  They reached Sinai.  They prepared to cross into the land at Jericho.  And then, they became Israel.  So the authors and editors of the Torah text are very careful to make sure that they end each book in exactly the right way, choosing a specific word that is thematic and summarizes something about the book that it concludes, and also the general thrust of the Torah’s story.  You find a similar idea in the structure of the entire Hebrew Bible, again, the very last word of the Bible carefully and intentionally chosen – anyone happen to know what it is?  ויעל – and he went up, as in going up to the land – making aliyah.  

     Any writer worth his or her salt will tell you how important endings are.  Whether writing a long novel or a short essay, that last sentence and those last few words – and possibly even the very last word – can be agonizing to find and put together.  You probably won’t remember a sentence that is somewhere in the middle of a book or essay, even if it is beautifully written.  But a powerful last sentence can stay in your mind.  I’ll give you a couple of last sentences from novels and lets see if you can tell me what book they come from:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” – Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.  It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”  A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens

“The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years.  All was well.”  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

     Along these same lines I’ve been thinking recently that we’ve all become a little bit ‘ending obsessed.’  That mostly expresses itself in our approach to the endings of TV shows.  When a beloved show is coming to an end there are weeks and sometimes even months of speculation about what will happen, how the loose ends will be tied up, and whether the ending will be satisfactory to the loyal fan base.  And then once the last show is finally broadcast the debate begins!  Was it well done, or not so much?  Was it what was expected?  Did they answer all the questions that needed to be answered?  We’ve seen this happen over the last years with Mad Men, with the Sopranos, with Lost, going back a bit further with Seinfeld.  And of course we’ve just been through this a couple of weeks ago with the final episode of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  Anyone follow the series to its bitter end?  Even if you didn’t watch it, it was hard to avoid it because of how intensively it was covered in the media.  Almost 20 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, which was an all time record for an HBO broadcast.   

     But that number pales in comparison with the most watched final television episode of all time – which was?  MASH, in 1983.  (Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen) 106 million people tuned in to watch that last episode, and Hawkeye Pierce’s final farewell hug with his buddy BJ Hunicutt.  At the time there were only 233 million people in the entire country – so a full %45 of Americans watched that last episode.  Not taped and watched later, not streamed, not DVRd, but watched – at the same time.  

      You know maybe it is just a human thing.  From biblical times down to this very day we love a good ending.  The last episode of the beloved show, the last movie in the series – see Avengers Endgame! – the last words of the great novel.  Or the last verses of a book of Torah when we stand and listen for the Chazak like we did this morning.  We like a narrative to come to a conclusion.  We like a quest to be fulfilled.  We like the characters to finish whatever their task is, and then to ride off into the sunset.  It was true in biblical times, and it is still true today.

     BUT – biblically there is one significant exception to that rule.  Which is that the Torah itself is a book without an ending.  It is an incomplete narrative, an unfulfilled quest.  Because what are the Israelites and Moses searching for in the Torah?  What are they looking for?  What is the quest that is at the core of the Torah’s narrative?  The land of Israel!  The Promised Land!  That has been the whole point from the very beginning.  Forget about Exodus, even going back to Genesis, Abraham is promised by God that one day his descendents would inherit the land – לזרעיך נתתי את הארץ הזאת – to your descendents I give this land! God says to Abraham in Genesis 15. 

     But when the Torah ends, and the last verses of Deuteronomy have been chanted, the Israelites are still not there.  They are outside the land, on the western bank of the Jordan river, looking over the river at the city of Jericho, and beyond Jericho to the hills that lead up to Jerusalem.  They can see the Promised Land, but they aren’t yet in it.  And that is where the Torah ends. 

     That simple fact has often been used to illustrate the point that is summarized with the following phrase – life should be about the journey, not the destination.  And there is some truth to that.  But I think also that the Torah’s ending – or probably better to say lack of an ending – is the tradition’s way of acknowledging that although novels may end with a beautifully crafted sentence and exactly the right words, the events of our lives rarely do.  You remember the old Yiddish saying – Man plans, and God – laughs.  Our lives are complicated, often messy, and in many cases out of our control.  Plans go awry.  The narrative strands of our lives don’t all neatly come together.  

     The Torah reminds us that sometimes it is enough just to reach the edge of the Jordan.  That means we are a step closer to the place we want to be.  But it also means there are many steps we have yet to take.  As we continue to take them – day by day, month by month, year by year – may we do so with family and friends, and with God’s guiding presence as a part of our lives.

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Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

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Purim vs. Passover

A text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat –

     If you don’t mind I’d like to begin by doing a little bit of calendaring with you, reminding you of a couple of important upcoming dates on the Jewish calendar.  First of all, one week from Wednesday night is the beginning of Purim, and we have a wonderful evening planned: a Purim carnival for the young, we’ll have the Bible players, a kind of biblically oriented minstrel group, giving us their take on the story of Esther; also a class that evening about the holiday, and then the culmination of the evening, a robust reading of the megilah combined with our very own version of the Masked Singers of Shushan, where you’ll be asked to guess at the identities of Beth El staff and members as they sing popular songs while wearing ridiculous costumes.  Again, that is all happening one week from Wednesday evening, activities beginning at 5:15, right here at Beth El.

     But if Purim is a little over a week away, that means that Passover can’t be far behind, and indeed the first seder is exactly six weeks from last night.  Believe it or not I actually know two people who have already started cooking for Passover!  Just in the last few days my wife Becky has started encouraging me to try to finish any hametz that we have around the house, from cookies to candy to beer, and I am sure that Seven Mile Market is laying in a large store of brisket for the coming weeks.  The truth is on the Hebrew calendar Purim and Passover are just about a month apart, both holidays falling on the 14th day of their respective months.  

     And what I would like to do with you for a few minutes this morning is to think about the two holidays together, sort of holding one up against the other.  To start that process I’ll ask a simple question that we’ll vote on – the question is which holiday is more important.  If you think that Purim is more important than Passover, raise your hand.  Now, if you think Passover is more important than Purim, raise your hand.

     No question what we’ve just seen reflects the general perception of the two holidays, and for good reason.  After all, Purim is, at least these days, largely understood as a holiday for children.  Even the adults who celebrate dress up in costume, there are comical activities going on in shul, there is a carnival, the reading of the Megillah is often filled with shtick, even the story of the Megillah can be read as a kind of dark comedy where everything gets flipped upside down, sort of like something from the imaginings of the Coen brothers, the creators of Fargo.  Purim is a lot of fun, but not much more than that.

     Passover, on the other hand, is on a totally different level.  It is, first of all, the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.  By far!  Statistics show that upwards of 90% of Jews make sure to get to a Passover seder.  Just to give you something to compare it to, only about 60% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur.  Passover is also complicated, with all of the rituals and the special foods for the seder plate and the haggadah text that leads us through the evening.  Passover is about serious themes – it is about freedom and human dignity, it is about the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, and what is more, Passover tells the origin story of the Jewish people – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us, bringing us to the Promised Land and freedom.  Passover is serious business!

     And Passover has other advantages over Purim.  It is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals commanded by the Torah.  Purim isn’t even mentioned in the Torah!  Purim lasts one day – you are in, you are out!  Passover is a festival that is celebrated for?  8 full days!  Passover has its own special version of kashrut.  The list could go on and on.  So it is no wonder that in the poll we just conducted, the vast majority of us voted for Passover as the more important of the two holidays.   

     Which is why I have always been puzzled by a very strange teaching in our tradition about what the messianic era will be like.  And our Sages said that when the Messiah finally arrives, the Pilgrimage Festivals – Sukkot, Shavuot – and Pesah – Passover! – will no longer be celebrated.  But Purim will still be observed.  Let me say that once more – our Sages believed that in the messianic era we won’t have to build sukkoth any more, or shake the lulav and etrog, or study Torah on the night of Shavuot – or sit down at a seder table, and celebrate Passover.  But we will still have to gather together to read the Megillah and to celebrate Purim.  

     So despite our vote, in some way and for some reason our Sages believed that there is a message in Purim that is more important that the messages of Passover.  That there is an idea that Purim represents, that is more significant in some way than all of those values we associate with Pesah.  What could it possibly be?

     And I think the answer to that question has to do with the often noted fact that God’s name does not appear in the Megillah.  So on March 20th, when you all come back for Purim, and I hope you will, follow along closely with the reading of the Megillah, and you’ll see that there is no mention of God, anywhere, in the Book of Esther.  But 6 weeks from now, when you are sitting at the seder table, take a moment and start counting how many times God’s name appears in the Haggadah.  Just in the kiddish alone, including the shehechiyanu, you have 9.  And as you flip through the pages you will find God referred to over and over again, often by name.  Think of it like this – God is not on a single page of the Megillah.  But God is on virtually every page of the Haggadah.  

     And that is because the core question of the Haggadah is ‘what did God do for us?’  The Haggadah, at least the first half, is in many ways an answer to that question.  God took note of us, God performed miracles for us, God took us from slavery to freedom.  And we thank God for God’s kindnesses.  That is Hallel!  What did God do for us?  That is the question of the Haggadah.

     But the question of the Megillah is an entirely different question.  The story of Purim asks ‘what did we do for ourselves?’  And it answers that question by showing how, with incredible courage, in the face of enormous odds, Mordecai and Esther saved the Jews of their time.

     And I think the message the Sages saw in Purim that they didn’t see in Passover is that salvation ultimately must come about through human action, not through God’s miracles.  If you want to make the world a better place, if you want to heal the world, if you want to make the world into the kind of place where one day the Messiah might actually come – then you can’t ask the question ‘what will God do.’  But you have to ask the question ‘what will we do?’ And when you ask it over and over and over again,  then that world can become a reality.

     Now I love Passover.  It is my favorite holiday, and it is only 6 weeks away.  But Purim is first, and it has a powerful – and often over looked – lesson about the responsibility we all have, through the way we lead our lives, to create together a better world.  Let’s celebrate that message on Purim in 10 days, and carry that message with us through Passover and beyond.  Kein Yehi Ratzon

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