Tag Archives: Beth El Congregation Baltimore

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

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Biblical Math

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 5/27/17

Those of you who know me even moderately well probably know that I am what would today be called ‘math challenged.’  I remember always being this way, from the time math became a bit more complicated, say when I was in 3rd or 4th grade and we started in with long division.  That was pretty much the end of my successful math career.  From that point forward it was a serious struggle.  Fractions made me crazy.  Algebra intimidated me and made very little sense.  Trigonometry left me wondering if I was going to graduate from high school.  In the end – and I am convinced to this day with some help from God Almighty – or at least my trig teacher who had rachmanas on me – I did graduate, and have happily not studied math since I was in 10th grade.  Thank God for calculators!

But what is a ‘mathless’ rabbi to do with this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar?  It is first of all the beginning of the book of the Torah that we call in English – Numbers!  The text begins with a census, which is at the end of the day doing math, counting and adding.  And the portion itself is filled with numbers in every chapter.  Here are just a few examples, chosen randomly:  59,300 (the number of males aged 20 or over from the tribe of Shimon);  603,550 (the total number of males eligible for military service among the Israelites);  22,273 (the number of first born males).  There is even a math problem in the portion.  At one point the text says you have to multiply 273 by the number 5 and you will arrive at an answer of 1365.

Of course the numbers here serve a purpose.  The Israelites needed to know what their number was, how many of them were eligible for military service, how many of them would be responsible for conducting worship at the Tabernacle, or for carrying the objects of the Tabernacle when they moved to a new camp.  But over time Judaism became wary of counting people, eventually preferring not use numbers to count people at all.  That is why in Exodus one of the counting techniques is for each person to submit a half shekel, and then you count the shekels.  Of if you’ve ever been in a traditional shul, and they are wondering if there are enough people for a minyan, they’ll use the motzi instead of using numbers to find out of there are 10.  Try it!  10 words!

There are a variety of explanations as to why Jews don’t count Jews.  One idea is that counting makes people distinct, it in a sense separates one person from another, and we don’t want Jews to be separate, we want Jews to be communal, to be together and united.  But I’ve always suspected that the tradition was simply uncomfortable assigning a number to a person.  Once a person becomes a number they aren’t an individual any more.  They are not a name or a face, they are not part of a family, they don’t have a story.  Instead, they are a statistic, to be analyzed, to be mathematically manipulated, to be thought about in abstract terms.  And there is something about that that is dehumanizing, that takes away our individuality and our sense of self worth.       Some of you may remember the 1981 Police album Ghost in the Machine.  There is a song on that record Invisible Sun, and one of the lines is ‘I don’t ever want to play the part of a statistic on a government chart.’

To me that is a problem of our internet – computer driven age.  We have more ways to turn people into numbers today than we ever have before.  I imagine you know that as you use your iPhone, or your computer, every click is tracked, and there are algorithms at work that make you into a statistic based on those clicks.  This is done to communities as well, or even to entire areas of the country, with what they call ‘big data,’ which is mostly a collection of information about Google searches in your area.

Now there is some accuracy in these numbers , and I am sure there is something important that can be learned from them.  But we certainly know that numbers never tell the full story.  Probably the best recent example of this is the presidential election.  All of the numbers, all of the statistics, predicted that Hillary would win that election and Donald Trump would lose.  But Donald Trump is president of the United States.  And you may remember that right after the election all of the reporters, and all of the sociologists, and all of the pundits, were wringing their hands and saying ‘how could we have gotten it so wrong?’  And I think part of the answer is that they were paying attention to the poll numbers as they came in, but they weren’t paying attention to the people, to the communities, to the personal stories and emotions of the people who ultimately voted.

Unfortunately in our culture today we do the same thing.  We commonly evaluate others – and sometimes even ourselves – by numbers.  What is a person’s salary?  What zip code do they live in?  Even how many years did they live, or how many children and grandchildren did they have?  And we tend to believe that when the numbers are high the story is good.  But I’ve known plenty of people – and I am sure you have too – who have lived long lives, had many children, been paid high salaries, and at the end of the day were pretty miserable.

And the reason for that is all of the things that define the quality of human life that cannot be quantified.  You can’t put a number on the quality of a person’s relationships.  You can’t put a number on a person’s emotional intelligence, on their ability to cope with trauma and tragedy, on the joy or humor or love that they bring into the world.  And I would argue that all of the things – much more so than the numbers – give us a true sense of the quality of our lives.

So truth be told I am not a big fan of this week’s Torah portion and its penchant for counting people and adding them up as if they were something to be packaged or sold.  Instead I much prefer the approach of the prophet Hosea, captured in the very first verse of this morning’s haftara.  והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד ולא יספר – Behold the number of the people Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted – instead, they shall simple be called ‘Children of the Living God.’

And that, at least it seems to me – tells more about the Jewish people than any number ever could.  Now that is my kind of math.

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The Best Colleges for Jewish Students

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 4/29/17 –

This coming Monday, May 1, is the final deadline for high school seniors around the country to commit to the college or university of their choice.  Thousands upon thousands of students are wrestling with that decision this weekend, knowing that the process that began for many of them almost two years ago is down to these last couple of days, maybe even the last few hours.  Today students and their families take into account a whole series of factors that I never even considered when I was applying to college.  Does the school have a food court, for example, or state of the art work out facilities, or Starbucks coffee available on campus 24/7?

In the Jewish community there is also an additional factor that families wrestle with that was not on the table even 10 years ago, and that is what is the school’s attitude towards Israel in particular and towards Judaism in general?  We are probably all aware of the complexities of navigating Jewish life and identity on the college campus today.  The Boycott Divest and Sanction Movement – often called BDS – a movement that very publicly, and often provocatively, challenges Israeli policy vis a vis the Palestinians, and sometimes also challenges Israel’s right to exist – that movement is strong and active on many college campuses.  And there is a growing perception that those campuses are not friendly places for Jews – that they are becoming anti-semitic – and that Jews should perhaps shy away from attending those schools.

Just this past week, the Algemeiner, a right of center web site that covers Jewish news, released a list it entitled ‘the 40 Worst Colleges for Jewish Students.’  The list was compiled based on an attempt to assess some of the following:  the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus, the number of anti-Israel groups, public positions taken by faculty – in other words are there faculty on the campus that are vocally anti-Israel, and also the success or lack of success of boycott-Israel efforts undertaken by campus groups.

The list is not just a list – it is also a ranking – #1 on the list is the absolute worst in terms of anti-semitism, all the way down. Among the 40 schools you will find many of the top colleges and universities in the country, to include:  Harvard, Stanford, Brown, and Swarthmore;  the University of Chicago, UCal Berkeley, UCLA, and McGill University in Montreal;  Oberlin, Tufts, Michigan, Northwestern,  UNC Chapel Hill, Wesleyan, Syracuse, and Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  As you now have a sense, the list is a virtual who is who of the top schools in the country.

Now on the one hand a list is just a list.  Like a list of the top 10 greatest guitar players of all time, or the best quarterbacks of all time, or the worst draft picks of all time, one person puts this list together, one person puts another, one person says its Unitas, one person says it is Marino, one person says Brady, you can argue and debate about it, but it is largely subjective.  The problem with this list is that people are starting to believe it.  So much so that a congregant recently said to me they didn’t want their child – who is a great student and a great kid – they didn’t want their child applying to Tufts – one of the top schools in the country! – because they had heard it was an anti-semitic campus.

The Jewish community has long prided itself on its academic orientation.  Education is a powerful value in our culture.  When our grandparents and great grandparents came from Europe and settled here it was education that enabled us to make better lives for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.  That value is as old as Judaism itself.  The Torah portions we read this morning, Tazria and Metzora, describe the role of the Kohen, the Priest, in ancient Israelite culture.  And the Kohen was a combination of religious leader and medical man, a kind of rabbi-doctor hybrid.  Call it what you will – a docbi or a rabtor?  But he was respected for his knowledge, for the fact that he was learned in the tradition, that he knew the laws of the Torah, that he had studied and mastered his material.  And that respect for study, for education and learning, for the intellect, has stayed strong in Jewish life to this very day.  Which is precisely why, by the way, you find a high percentage of Jewish students at these top universities.

And that is also why I am proud to say that Becky and I will have children at the top two school on that Algemeiner list.  You heard that right – two of the rabbi’s children will be enrolled as students at the top two schools on that anti-Semitic university list.  And why am I proud of that?  Reason #1 – could you imagine what would happen if the Jewish community en masse decided not to send its children to those schools?  We would first of all be depriving our children of the opportunity to study at some of the world’s top universities.  Is this the way we fight anti-semitism?  Or is that the way we let anti-Semites win?  I know a number of you in this room remember a time – not so long ago – when Hopkins had a quota in terms of the number of Jewish students it would admit per year.  After what we fought for – to have equal access to any university in the country – are we going to impose a quota on ourselves?

Secondly, if we don’t get our children onto the campuses of those schools, who on the campus is going to stand up for the stand of Israel?  Who on the campus is going to represent Judaism and the Jewish people?  Who will be on the campus when someone says something outrageous about Israel or the Jewish people, who will be there to stand up and say ‘that is a lie, and here are the real facts?’  Who will be there if our children aren’t there?

We should not be telling our kids to stay away from those schools.  We should instead be telling our kids to flood those schools with applications, we should be strengthening the Hillels on those school’s campuses, we should be talking with our kids when they are in high school about what they might encounter when they arrive on the campus of their choice, so that if they see BDS in action, or if they are in a situation where they need to defend Israel or need to respond to anti-semitism they will know how to do so.  And I would argue that the higher the school is on the list, the more young Jews should try to go there.

So far, that has actually been the case.  Almost every school on the list has a large, active, and vibrant Jewish student body on its campus.  Those students are traveling to Israel on Birthright trips.  They are filling Hillel and Chabad houses.  They are defending Israel on campus, and calling out any anti-Semitism they experience.  They are also having positive and powerful experiences at colleges and universities they love, during their four years in school growing as people and as Jews.

So at the end of the day, Algemeiner compiled a terrific list.  They just gave it the wrong title.  It should have been called ‘the 40 Best Colleges for Jewish Students.”

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S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, grief, High Holy Days, holidays, Jewish festivals, loss, memory, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, the rabbinate, Uncategorized, Yizkor

Caine’ Hara!

Here a text version of my sermon from day two of Rosh Hashanah 5777

It has become a kind of tradition here over the years, begun by Rabbi Loeb, to spend a few moments at some point on Rosh HaShanah contemplating a story with a nice moral to it that comes from the baseball world.  But although I am not a superstitious person – in general – as Becky will tell you about sports I am very superstitious, and given the fact that the Orioles are playing tonight, and my Mets are playing tomorrow night I don’t want to jinx anybody, I don’t want to tempt fate, I don’t want to take chances, so I am leaving the baseball out of it this year, and instead I’ll bring you a different kind of story, one that goes back even further than the Cubs world championship drought, for those who keep track of such things (108 years!)  But as the old saying goes ‘before I speak I’d just like to say a few words,’ and so it is today.  Before our story, another quick tale.

This one is about an older Jewish gentleman who has to appear and testify in court.  He wakes up that morning, puts on his coat and tie, arrives, and when the time comes settles into the witness stand.  The Judge says ‘Mr. Greenberg, will you please state you name and age for the court record.’  ‘Your Honor,’ he replies, ‘my name is Ben Greenberg, and I am 83 years old, caine’ hara.’  The Judge is a little nonplussed, and he says ‘Mr. Greenberg, please re-state your age for the court – just your age.’  ‘Your Honor, I’m 83 caine’ hara.’  The lawyer can see that the Judge is a getting upset, and he says ‘Your Honor, may I give it a try?’  ‘Be my guest,’ the Judge said.  The lawyer steps forward, and says, ‘Mr. Greenberg, how old are you caine’ hara?’  Mr. Greenberg immediately responds ’83!’

Now if 83 deserves a caine’ hara – which it certainly does – what does 113 deserve?  I am sure you have heard of Yisrael Kristol, the Israeli man who a few weeks ago became the oldest human being in the world.  Just two days ago in the Jewish calendar, on erev RH – he celebrated his 113th birthday.   One hundred years ago, when he was 13 and should have had his bar mitzvah, the events of the first world war, the first! got in the way, and so along with his family, he’s decided to have a formal bar mitzvah ceremony now, in his 113th year.  Caine’ Hara indeed!

Yisrael Kristol’s story is a remarkable one, a tale of survival and resilience, of strength of spirit in the face of tragedy and loss, and of the ultimate triumph of goodness and hope and faith.  He was born in Poland in 1903 and grew up in the traditional Jewish world of Eastern Europe, studying in heder as a boy, and living an observant Jewish life.  As a young man he married and had children, but as the prime of his life arrived, the Nazis conquered Poland and laid plans for their Final Solution.  When they established the Lodz ghetto, the Kristol family along with thousands of other Jews was moved there and in those harsh conditions their children died. When the ghetto was being liquidated, Yisrael and his wife were transported to Auschwitz, where she died but he somehow survived.

After the war ended he spent time in a DP camp, remarried, and then in 1950, Yisrael and his 2nd wife made aliyah to the then 2 year old State of Israel.  They settled in Haifa, where Yisrael worked as a confectioner and baker and where he and his wife recreated a traditionally observant family. They were blessed with a son and a daughter, and in time, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Throughout his many decades and to this very day, Yisrael has maintained his religious observance, davening every day with tallit and tefillin, keeping Shabbat, celebrating the holy days of our sacred tradition, and over the last couple of days, with Jews all around the world, he has welcomed a new year and thanked God for another year of life.

 

It’s hard not to see in Yisrael Kristol’s story a reflection of many a Jewish story, the narrative of our people with its ups and downs, its tragic moments and its unexpected triumphs, its sadnesses and its celebrations.  If we are anything we are survivors as a people and as individuals, and certainly the beginning of a new year reminds us of that, in the most intimate of ways.

And if Yisrael Kristol were sitting here with us at Beth El Congregation today instead of his shul in Haifa, we might be itching to ask him the question everyone would love to ask a 113 year old man and which he’s been asked over and over and over again. “What is the secret to long life, how is it that you’ve managed to live all these long years?”  His response has been a mixture of humility and faith, “I don’t know the secret,” he has said. “I believe that everything is determined from above and we shall never know the reasons why.  All that is left for us to do is to keep working as hard as we can, and to rebuild what is lost.”

Those words may not keep anyone alive a moment longer than their destiny will grant them but it certainly seems to me to be a fitting message as we welcome a new year in unsettled times. It’s not easy to look at the world in which we live today without pessimism, distrust, and cynicism.  With constant war, wanton destruction of human life, refugees, terrorism, with the cheating, lying, and stealing we see too often in the business world, with the presidential campaign, and the lies and misrepresentations of the candidates and the influence of big money.  It is not a pretty world out there.  But think about this for a second – Yisrael Kristol knew a far uglier world and his message to us is not of despair but of hard work and faith.  So that our lives can make a difference.  So that we neither withdraw nor abandon hope but instead work and rebuild, and find hope anew.

 

Why, I wonder, would the oldest person in the entire world and his family decide to celebrate such an auspicious event by doing something Jewish?  Yisrael Kristol could have gone on TV, he could have made money with a ghost written memoir or by selling the movie rights to his story. He could have gone out for dinner. (whatever Tio Pepes is in Haifa!)  But instead he decided that standing before the Torah in his small family shul to chant with gratitude “asher bachar banu mikol haamim venatan lanu et torato,” “who has chosen us among all peoples by granting us the Torah,” and “vechayay olam nata betocheynu,” “Who has planted within us eternal life,” was his most precious and meaningful act of celebration of such a rare gift.

So it seems to me as we come together to begin a new year that Yisrael Kristol has a few questions for us.  Are we prepared to continue the work in which we’ve been engaged with our loved ones, with our community, with our country, with the world? Do we have the hope and the resilience – and the courage –  to rebuild that which has fallen down in our lives, to strengthen and rekindle our relationships?  To look at ourselves in the mirror and see both the reality of what is and the potential of what could be?  Can we find the faith to enrich our hopes for a better world? Can we say shehecheyanu “thank you God for granting us life, preserving us, and helping us reach this day and all the tomorrows we will yet be granted” with hearts filled with gratitude and longing for the work ahead of us? Certainly Yisrael Kristol would say “Yes.”  Can we?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks the former chief rabbi of Great Britain used the following image to help us think about these sacred days: “Our life is the single greatest work of art we will ever make. Occasionally we need to step back from our life, like an artist stepping back from his or her canvas, seeing what needs changing for the painting to be complete.” So let us together step back during these next ten days, let us look at our lives, let us work and let us rebuild, let us brighten the colors, touch up the worn spots, fill in the missing pieces, so that the year ahead may be filled with blessings, with hope, and with peace – for us, for our families, for our friends, for all people –

Caine’ hara!

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