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Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.

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Inside Outside

This a text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot 5777 –

If you’ll permit me for a few minutes this morning I would like to go back with you to Yom Kippur afternoon, and our reading of the Book of Jonah.  Jonah is one of our strangest biblical books.  The simple fact that it contains an extended passage where the prophet prays to God while in the belly of a great fish in and of itself makes the book unusual.  Then you add to that the fact that Jonah is a failed prophet – because after all the message he delivers to the people of Nineveh does not come true.  And then there is the story of the plant that grows and then dies in a single day at the end of the book, a story no one fully understands.  But in my mind the strangest feature of Jonah is the way it deals with gentiles, with non Jews.

That is a feature of the book that is often over looked.  The mission God asks Jonah to undertake is to travel a great distance to preach to people who are not Jewish.  Nineveh is a city of gentiles, people who are outside of the covenant between God and Israel, people who probably are pagan in terms of their religious views.  Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who is given this kind of mission.  This may be one explanation as to why Jonah tries to flee from his assignment.  Perhaps he feels that God’s word should only be proclaimed to Jews.  But God clearly does not feel this way, in fact God is so invested in Jonah carrying out his mission that God chases him down, creates a storm while he is at sea so the sailors will have to throw him overboard, provides a fish to swallow him up.  God wants the message to get to Nineveh whether Jonah does or not.

And on top of that, the book of Jonah in general portrays gentiles in a very positive light.  In fact I would argue the gentiles in the book come off looking much better than the prophet himself.  Jonah seems selfish, self absorbed, even a bit petulant.  In technical terms he is a major qvetch.  Throughout the book, Jonah seems to want to get away from God as quickly as he possibly can.  But the gentiles in the book are open to God’s word.  As soon as the people of Nineveh hear that they’ve sinned, they immediately repent and begin to pray to God.  Instantaneously.  From the king on his throne to the commoner.  These people may not be Jewish, but the book sees them as God-fearing people.

And then you have the sailors.  Remember at the beginning of the book, when God first asks Jonah to go, and Jonah tries to run away.  He books passage on a ship, and takes to sea, but there is a terrible storm.  You might remember that Jonah sleeps soundly in the hold of the ship, but while he sleeps, the sailors begin to pray.  Then when they finally realize the storm is because of Jonah, and Jonah even tells them they should throw him overboard, they do everything in their power to save him.  When they finally realize they have no choice but to throw Jonah into the sea they again pray to God, asking for forgiveness, and offering sacrifices to God.

The Book of Jonah is not alone in its positive portrayal of gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.  Remember Moses’ father in law, Jethro?  Jethro is a Medianite, in fact the Torah tells us he is a priest of Median, and he is seen as a wise figure, clearly loved by Moses, and also a person who helps to set up the Israelite governance structure.  You also have Pharaoh’s daughter, who saves Moses in the first place and by doing so ensures the survival and freedom of the Jewish people.  And in Genesis 14 you have King Melchizedek who is friendly to Abraham, blesses him, and offers praise to God.

Judaism has always understood that there are two covenants that God makes with humanity.  One is the covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses and the Israelites, a particular covenant with particular responsibilities that exists between God and the Jewish people.  But there is a more universal covenant that God makes with all people, in the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide covenant.  This shows that God cares about all people, not only the Jewish people, and that God is in relationship with all people.  We do have a special relationship with God, but we do not have God all to ourselves.

That is actually a major theme of the Sukkoth festival.  The Talmud teaches that it is during Sukkoth that God judges the world for water, in other words will their be enough rain for the crops to grow properly, enough water in the year to nourish and sustain people.  Not just Jewish people – all people.  And the sacrifices that were offered in ancient times during this festival were intended to extend God’s blessing to the entire world.  In the course of the holiday 70 bulls were sacrificed, the number 70 symbolically representing the nations of the world.  And tradition understands that these 70 bulls will protect the nations of the world from suffering, enable them to seek atonement for their sins, and help them to create a world of peace.  So in a way Sukkoth is as much about the non-Jewish world as it is about the Jewish world.

I think that message challenges us in two ways.  First of all, it reminds those of us who spend a lot of our time with Jews and in the Jewish community that there is a big world out there, and that God is concerned about the larger world and the people in it just as God is concerned about the Jewish world and Jews.  That may be a particularly important message coming out of the High Holy Days when the Jewish community is almost entirely inwardly focused.  It may also be one of the reasons why on this holiday we are asked to leave our synagogues, even to leave our homes, and to dwell in the Sukkah.  It is outside, in the world, visible, and you can’t hide from the world in a Sukkah, and the world can’t hide from you.

But it also challenges us to examine our own belief, and to reaffirm our dedication to the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  After all, are we going to let our covenantal relationship with God fade away while the non Jews of the world cling more tightly to their covenant?   I would argue that a Jewish identity based only on ethnicity – bagels and locks, national pride, even Israel and remembering the Holocaust – that that kind of ethnic identity will not ultimately be sufficient to maintain a sense of Jewish continuity.  Religious faith is a necessary component if we want to keep Jewish life vital and meaningful.

And that is one of the other things that is wonderful about Sukkoth.  We don’t shake the lulav and etrog because it makes sense!  This is not something that can be explained rationally.  It is instead an expression of faith, both in God, and in the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  May both of those faiths grow stronger in the new year, in our own lives, and in the life of the Jewish people.

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When Mercy Seasons Justice

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (Merchant of Venice act 4, scene 1)

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/27/16 –

I would like you to think with me for a few minutes this morning about two starkly contrasting stories that came out of the health care industry this week.  On the one hand if you follow the news you heard a lot about the epipen.  This is the mechanism that will quickly inject medication into someone’s thigh if they are having a serious allergic reaction.  The best example probably is allergy to bees – if you are highly allergic to bees and you are stung it can be very dangerous, even life threatening.  So you carry an epipen with you.  If you are stung, you inject yourself with the device and the allergic reaction is stopped.  Just out of curiosity – how many people in the room have an epipen?

This week, Mylan, the pharmaceutical company that makes the epipen, announced a fairly significant price hike in the device, which will now cost you around $600 for two pens.  The public outrage was immediate and vociferous.  Internet campaigns were launched, social media was brought to bear, and just Thursday the company announced that they would give some consumers access to coupons which would make the devices more affordable.  But they didn’t change the price – that stayed at the $600 level.  And the fear is that some families will not be able to afford the devices which I believe are supposed to be replaced every year – and that potentially someone will need it and not have.  That is story number one.

The second story is the opposite side of that coin.  In Orlando the major health care network and the hospital where many of the shooting victims from the Pulse nightclub were treated announced they would not charge the victims for any of the services they provided.  Health insurance they’ll take – whatever it pays will go to the hospital.  But the patients will not be asked to cover any additional costs.

Now on the surface, just in and of itself, it is an odd thing to see those two stories sitting side by side in your morning newspaper.  And I don’t mean to suggest that the pharmaceutical company should give up all of its profits and do its work purely for charitable purposes.  To me it is a question of a number of things.  Balance is one of them – what is the proper balance?  If you are in an industry where you are creating life saving medications, how much should you be making?  Should you be making profit to the point where some people will not be able to afford you medication?  How much is enough?  How much is maybe too much?

The idea of ‘doing well and doing good’ has been floating around in the business world now for a number of years.  I remember that as far back as 2009 Bill Gates, the multibillionaire founder of Microsoft, began to publicly talk about the idea of large corporations figuring out how to make money and maximize prophets, while at the same time maintaining a conscience and a sense of social justice.  His argument was that doing good – in other words, giving something back, and making the world a better place – in the end will enable the business to do well, also – to make money and be profitable.

That idea always struck me as a very Jewish idea.  Judaism never – at least in any serious way – was attracted to asceticism, to giving up all of your worldly possessions.  In fact Judaism says there is nothing wrong with doing well – it is something you should strive for, that material goods and wealth are not inherently bad or immoral – they can in fact enhance the quality of your life.  At the same time Judaism does remind us of the importance of giving back, mostly through its idea about tzedakah, the giving of charity, considered in the tradition to be a commandment that every person must fulfill.  So in Judaism it is about balance – you should certainly strive to do well, to succeed and be financially comfortable.  But as you do well, you should also do good – have a social conscience, make the world a better place, and give something back along the way.

In this morning’s Torah portion there is one of those verses that just captures my attention in a particular way.  I do in my life – and I know may of you do as well – try to figure out what God wants of me.  What are the actions I can take in the course of a day, or in the course of a year, or in the course of a life, that would cause God to look down and say ‘that was pretty well done.’  B+  And in this morning’s portion there is one of those verses that raises that question, and answers it.  מה ה׳ א׳ שואל מעמך – what is it that the Lord your God requires of you?  Asks of you?  And the answer the Torah gives is this:  to love God, to serve God with all of your heart and soul, and to keep God’s commandments.

Now, as they say in the vernacular today, TBH – what does that mean?  To be honest, although I like the question quite a bit, I am not a big fan of the answer.  Not that I reject it – I understand the idea that you need to have a spiritual life, that tradition and faith and God should play a role in determining who you are.  What I don’t like about the answer is that it doesn’t give me any practical information that I can take with me when I go out into the world.  It just all sounds a bit vague to me – ‘serve God with my heart and soul, keep God’s commandments’ – I want some specifics.

Luckily for me there is another verse – a very famous verse – which echoes the verse from this morning’s Torah portion that gives me the specifics I am looking for.  It comes from the prophet Micah, we read it as part of the haftara just a few weeks ago, it is the concluding verse of that haftara.  And in that verse Micah the prophet asks the same question the Torah is asking this morning – מה ה׳ דורש ממך – what is it that Lord requires of you?  And then the famous answer – Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

As you may imagine there is a wealth of commentary on that one verse – pages and pages and pages.  I’ve always understood the three parts working together, in two ways.  First, if you apply the ideas of justice and goodness to everything that you do, at the end of the day you will be able to walk humbly with God.  This is classic Jewish thought!  Do what you are supposed to do, do things the right way, and the rest will follow.

But also you need to have both justice and goodness to bring God’s presence into the world.  Justice and goodness are very different animals.  Justice is cold, calculating – think of the image of the scales of justice, always held by a woman, and the woman is always blindfolded – justice is impartial, at least in theory.  So it shouldn’t matter if someone is rich or poor, black or white, it simply is what it is.

But  that kind of blind justice needs to be tempered by, combined with, mixed up in goodness.  It is when justice and goodness are working together that a sense of the sacred can be felt in our world.  It is not just about doing it by the books.  It is also about doing it the right way, with goodness and kindness and mercy.  It is not just about doing well – it is also very much about doing good.  May we all remember that – as individuals, as a synagogue community, and even in the corporate world, a place where maybe that idea is needed most.

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Summer Tour My o’ My!

Even Donna Jean showed up.  Oft maligned back in the day, she was heartily cheered at every show she participated in, every single time she stepped up to the mic.  In a sense that captured the Dead and Company summer tour, 2016.  Summer tour my o’ my!  Like the biggest, zaniest, craziest, wildest, family reunion you’ve ever attended.  Those wacky yet lovable old cousins you’ve known forever, but also new friends and relations.  At SPAC I sat on the lawn next to two young Deadheads, never having seen the band with Jerry, but in love with the music and the vibe and the scene.  Maybe they were 25.  Maybe.  At Fenway Park in Boston, right behind us, another young couple fresh to the magical, mystical, technicolor circus that made the classic bumper sticker oh so true:  there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.  There were babies with their moms and dads, teens out for their first taste of adventure, grizzled old Heads who first saw the band in the 70s.  Sorry – early 70s!  Everybody rocking and rolling, everybody a shaking and a moving.  Shake those bones!  From Connecticut to New Jersey, Wisconsin to California, New York (with its ways and means) to Massachusetts, Colorado to North Carolina, the Deadheads were on the road again.  Out in force.  I would argue the world was a little bit of a better and brighter place because of it.  And a little bit better and a little bit brighter was something we all needed this summer.

But don’t discount the music.  It wasn’t just a massive party running on the gas of nostalgia, a ‘reunion’ tour where old musicians mail it in and play the hits.  That just would never work with the Dead, with their determination to walk to the very edge of the abyss each night, and then just drop down into the vast yawning chasm of improvisational music.  What do they always say?  You can’t make this stuff up.  Fact is stranger than fiction?!  John Mayer playing with the Dead?  With Bobby?  And Billy and Mickey?  How absurd!  How could it ever work?  But work it did, beyond anyone’s imagination and expectation.  The music was fine, tasty, raunchy, beautiful, and often it was smoking hot. Old Deadheads stood slack jawed in the over flowing crowds as this band ripped into some of the classics with a completely fresh take.  How about the second night at Citi Field opening the show St. Stephen > Music Never Stopped > Bertha.  The Help > Slip> Shakedown that opened Irvine.  Or the elegiac, moving, gorgeous, haunting Days Between at SPAC, Bobby somehow pulling from the nether sphere Jerry’s very spirit to stand by him on the stage.  Or John Mayer channeling the classic 1960 Maurice Williams song Stay during the Wheel?  Night after night there were surprises and delights, new takes on old tunes, creative and unexpected setlists.  A band beyond description indeed.

I know, I know, some will say it can’t be.  The muse died when Garcia left this world and went to the great arena in the sky.  The naysayers will never climb back on the bus.  But the thing about it is this – the music lives on.  It is out of the bottle, out in the universe.  It has a life of its own, speaking now to new generations, to younger musicians who will carry the legacy forward, to younger fans who will come to the shows and enact this ancient tribal ritual, who will wonder what it was like back in the day, but who will create what it is in the present, and lay the groundwork for the future.  The last line in the Book of Lamentations is this:  renew our days as of old!  So it was for the Dead and the Deadheads in the summer of 2016.  From sea to shining sea the flag was held high, the spiral light burned bright, and the music never stopped.FullSizeRender

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Will the Real Bible Please Stand Up

“A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage State legislatures to offer the Bible as literature curriculum in America’s high schools.”  – from the 2016 GOP platform document

Leave aside for now the strange phrasing of this statement, perhaps an attempt to call to mind the Second Amendment and its layered meaning in conservative circles.  What concerns me is not the stilted language, but rather a crucial question that lies at the heart of this passage from the 2016 GOP platform, namely:  which Bible?

After all, ‘Bible’ is a pretty broad term.  It can in my mind refer to a number of things.  One of them certainly is my Bible, the Jewish Bible, called in Hebrew the TaNaKh (this an acronym for the Hebrew Bible’s three parts – T = Torah, N = Nevi’im, or Prophets in English, and K = Ketuvim, or Writings).  Of course when most folks hear ‘Bible’ they probably think of the Christian scriptures, which include the Hebrew Bible and add in other material, most notably the Gospels that relate the story of Jesus’ life and ministry. You could also make the argument that the Koran is the Bible for Muslims, and some would say that the Book of Mormon serves that role for the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS – love that acronym – very confusing for an old Deadhead!).

My guess would be those who made sure the Bible reference was included in the GOP platform were thinking about some form of the Christian Bible (there actually are different versions used by different denominations).  As a Jew this idea makes me a bit uncomfortable – why their Bible and not mine?  Why should their version of events be chosen, thereby giving it (intentionally or not) an imprimatur of authenticity not bestowed upon other Bibles?

Now if we are going to say teaching Bible as literature means we’ll teach selected texts from multiple bibles, some from the Christian version, some from the Jewish version, some from the Koran, some from the Book of Mormon, and maybe a few more as well, then I am all for it.  Part of that course would have to remind the students that all of these bibles – all of them – have equal authenticity for the groups they represent.  That is to say, the Christian Bible is authentic for Christians, just as the Jewish Bible is for Jews, or the Koran is for Muslims.  Teaching the Bible as literature, in my mind, would also require exploring the human authorship of these works.  Because, after all, literature is something that is created by human beings, not by God.

A course like that might be helpful in increasing understanding among various faith groups.  It might give students a deeper appreciation for other cultures and faiths.  It might, in a small way, help to create a more open, accepting, and tolerant world.  But the passage in the platform, as written, is just a little bit too vague for me.  If the intent is to use the word ‘bible’ narrowly, as code for a particular Bible, then it is wrong and a clear violation of the separation of church and state.  If the intent is to use the word broadly, as a term of inclusion of various faiths and perspectives, then it sounds pretty good in my ears.  So some clarification please.  Will the real Bible please stand up!?

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Dueling Bibles – the Importance of Defending and Supporting the LGBT Community

This a text version of my sermon from 6/18/16.  My thanks to Bob Weir for his comments at  the conclusion of the Dead and Co show from Bonnaroo .  Folks often ask where sermons come from, and this one in large part started with those comments.

Just a few hours after the horrific events in Orlando last Sunday morning the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, a man by the name of Dan Patrick, sent out a tweet on his official Twitter account that read ‘God cannot be mocked – a man reaps what he sows.’  It is a well known quote from the Christian Bible, Galatians chapter 7 verse 6, that is generally read as a warning to people to remember that their actions have consequences.  But in this context, with the posting of the tweet right after the shooting, and with Patrick’s history of hostility towards the LGBT community, the message was seen in a different light – namely, as his way of suggesting that people who are gay deserve to be punished because of who they are, the lifestyle the live, and the people they love.

As you may imagine the reaction to the tweet was swift and fierce.  It was widely condemned, and within a short time Mr. Patrick had deleted it from his account, once again demonstrating that politicians will stay strong in their views until they realize just how unpopular those views are.  But you almost can’t blame Mr. Patrick for what he did, in fact you might have expected it.  He comes from a religious community and religious background where such views are not only common, but also commonly accepted.  People in his community will often justify the homophobic positions they take by citing scripture, knowing that there are verses in the Hebrew Bible – what they would call the Old Testament – that on the surface seem to forbid homosexual behavior.

There are two things I would like to say about that this morning.  The first is this – if those folks want to read their scripture literally, then they should stick with it all the way, and not just pick and choose certain verses.  Because it also says in the Hebrew Bible that a child who insults his parents should be stoned to death at the city gate, and I don’t see these folks tweeting about that.  It also says, by the way, that pork is a forbidden food, but the last I checked the Great State of Texas was pretty well known for its BBQ pork ribs – not that that is something a rabbi knows much about – and I don’t see anyone in the Texas legislature trying to ban pork ribs or Dan Patrick tweeting about them.

And by the way, when thinking about how we should relate to the LGBT community there are many other biblical verses we might consider.  How about the one in Genesis chapter 1 where it says that human beings are created in God’s image.  All human beings – white, black, brown, gay, straight, man, woman.  All people, regardless of their background, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, are a reflection of God’s image on this earth – and therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.  Maybe the Lieutenant Governor forgot about that verse when he sent his tweet.  What about the verse in Leviticus 19, perhaps the best known verse in the entire Bible – Love your neighbor as yourself.  Or the first half of that same verse, less frequently cited but worth mentioning today – לא תקום ולא תטור את בני עמיך – you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your fellow – that might have been a better one for Lieutenant Governor to send out after what happened in Orlando.

So that is thing number one.  If you want to talk scripture we can talk scripture all day long, and what you’ll see, if you are honest and looking at the big picture, is that the Bible is far more interested in protecting the fundamental rights and dignity of a person than it is in the person’s sexual identity.

Thing number two is this – the Bible should not be read literally anyway.  It is an ancient document that expresses a deep wisdom about the world, that defines values that we use to guide our lives even today, and that for Jews certainly lays out the history of our people and our covenant with God.  But it is also a reflection of what the world was like 2500 years ago, and so it expresses certain ideas and values that today we simply know are wrong.  That is why Judaism has never read the Bible in a fundamentalist way, in other words literally.  Instead, Judaism figured out a way to keep the Bible meaningful and central to faith and worship – after all, here we are this morning, still taking the Torah out of the ark and reading from it – but while keeping it central to introduce changes into the practices the Bible lays out, so the tradition over time can come to terms with new understandings we have of our world and ourselves.

These changes don’t happen all at once.  Sometimes they take years, sometimes even decades.  But they happen.  If they didn’t we wouldn’t be gathered today in a prayer service in a sanctuary, we would instead be offering animal sacrifices, as the Torah tells us to do on the Sabbath day.  If the tradition didn’t change over time there wouldn’t be Hanukkah, or a Passover seder, or the lighting of Shabbat candles, all of which are not mentioned in the Bible.  The changes in terms of how the tradition understands gay rights have been slow, but they have happened, in the Conservative Movement mostly over the last decade.  When I was in rabbinical school if you were gay you had to be in the closet, and if it was discovered you were gay you were asked to leave the seminary.  That was 20 years ago.

But today the Conservative Movement ordains openly gay rabbis.  That became official policy of the Movement, and the first openly gay rabbi was ordained in 2011, just 5 years ago.  The Movement has created a wedding ceremony for gay couples in the last couple of years.  And in response to the Orlando shootings, the Movement released an official statement that in part reads as follows:

“This shooting rampage targeted the LGBT community in the midst of Pride month, a time where the LGBT community comes together to publicly acknowledge and celebrate their identities, their common history, and their struggle for social recognition and equality. The RA has passed multiple resolutions calling on the community to ‘work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life, deplore violence against gays and lesbians, encourage inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews in our congregations, and increase our awareness of issues facing gay and lesbian Jews.’ We know that we stand with people of good will of all faiths in continuing this work.”  And the statement concluded with this sentence:  “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the members of the LGBT community, their families, their friends, and their loved ones.”

That is the kind of statement that makes me proud to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi.

I am about ready to wrap up my remarks this morning, and I suspect you are about ready for me to wrap up my remarks, but if you’ll permit me there is one last verse I would like to point out from the Bible, actually from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse I feel the Lieutenant Governor of Texas should be more familiar with.  This from Numbers chapter 5, verses 6 and 7  – “When a person commits any wrong toward a fellow, thus breaking faith with God, that person shall confess the wrong he has done and make restitution for it.”

If he does know that verse, then the next tweet Dan Patrick sends out might just be an apology.  But while we wait for it, we’ll move forward, supporting the LGBT community in any and every way we can.

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Sports Here, Sports There, Sports, Sports…

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 6/4/16

This is the time of year when the Jewish community begins to plan for next year.  Jewish professionals all over Baltimore are sitting down with the calendars and blocking out dates for programs that will not occur for months, and in some cases almost for a full year.  And one thing we’ve learned, in terms of fall programming particularly, is that if there is any way to help it, never, ever plan an event during a Ravens game.  And believe it or not, when we sit down to calendar the fall, we always have a Ravens schedule right in front of us.

That may seem almost like a no brainier to us today, but it wasn’t always that way.  Even when I first came here the football schedule was not the first thing we thought of when we were thinking about dates.  But today it is just another example of the power, prevalence, and priority placed on sports in our lives.  We are all familiar with this in one way or another.  Maybe for your family it is the Ravens, and you have a twenty week period of your year, from early September to late December, or later if the Ravens go into the playoffs, where absolutely nothing happens on Sunday, because the day is dedicated exclusively to football.  Maybe you are one of those families that spends all weekend, pretty much all year long, schlepping your children around from one sporting event to the next, traveling on weekends for games, running kids to practices during the week, and suddenly you realize that six weeks have gone by and the family hasn’t eaten dinner together one time.

Before I continue, I want to first say something clearly – I think sports is terrific.  I think playing a sport is a great experience for young people, and I think rooting passionately for a team is a great experience at any age.  I grew up playing soccer, and was the captain of my high school varsity team, so it was a big part of my life.  If you know me well you know I love my teams, follow them closely, don’t sleep at night when they lose – which unfortunately, with last year’s Mets the rare exception, my teams seem to do most of the time.  But two recent incidents have me wondering – as I have often recently – if our priorities have shifted just a little too much in one direction.

The first has to do with our military academies.  I became a football fan in the 70s, and if you watched football in the 70s you certainly knew about the Dallas Cowboys.  Whether you loved them or hated them – there didn’t really seem to be a middle ground – you probably admired them, Tom Landry their coach with his ever present fedora, their so called Doomsday defense, but most of all, with the all American quarterback Roger Staubach.  Staubach was a great player, one of the great quarterbacks of his generation.  He played at the Naval Academy, and in 1963, his senior year, won the Heisman Trophy for best college football player in the land.  And then, as required, he served our country in the Navy for six years, to include a tour in Vietnam.  So Staubach took possibly the best 6 years of his athletic life, and set them aside to serve our country.

Contrast Staubach’s experience with that of Keenan Reynolds.  Reynolds has been the star quarterback at Navy over the last few seasons, one of the best football players on the Annapolis campus for decades.  When he went to the academy he knew he was going to play football, but he also knew that after he graduated that he  – like Roger Staubach – would have a five year obligation for active duty.  But just a few days ago the Secretary of Defense announced that Reynolds would not have to serve any active duty time – not a single year.  Instead, he’ll be wearing a Ravens jersey and trying to make the team this fall as its back up quarterback.

The contrasting stories of Staubach and Reynolds are really an illustration of a change in values in our society.  In Staubach’s day duty and country were number one, and they were non negotiable – even if you were a star athlete, even if you were a Heisman trophy winner, when you graduated you owed the Academy and the country five years of service, and you paid that dept.  Today that has changed – duty and country are still obviously important in the Naval Academy – but when you have a top athlete like Keenan Reynolds, suddenly the old values are set aside.  In our sports crazy nation, where people have become used to prioritizing sports since they were little, sports has become number one, and everything else is secondary.

Which is exactly how you arrive at the other sports related situation that has been in the newspapers this week, the goings on in the football program of Baylor University.  Over the last years Baylor has become one of the top football programs in the country, but we now know its climb to the top was fostered by corruption at the very highest levels of the school’s administration.  It was discovered that over the last few years a series of players on the team were involved with documented sexual assault cases.  Some of them were actually convicted in court.  But most of them, believe it or not, kept playing for the team.  What made that possible was that the coach of the team conspired with school leadership to cover up what happened.  It took a while, but the coach was finally fired, and just last week the president of the university, a gentleman by the name of Ken Starr who you might remember from Bill Clinton’s presidency, was forced to resign.  The full extent of the scandal is not yet known, but it seems the motivating factor in many of the decisions made was fairly simple – the success of the football program takes precedence over everything and anything else.

You know, actions have consequences.  This morning’s Torah portion contains one of the most troubling and problematic passages in the entire Bible, so notable the passage actually has its own name – the Tochecha – the Rebuke.  It is a series of curses that the Torah explains God will bring on the Israelites if they do not follow God’s commandments.  Terrible things.  Famine.  Disease.  Destruction.  The list goes on and on.  The problem with the passage, of course, is that we don’t believe that God works that way – we know from our experience that there are times when good people suffer for no reason, and when bad people have long and easy lives.  We don’t believe in Divine reward and punishment anymore.  But the way I read the passage there is a fundamental idea in it that rings true to me – what you do does make a difference.  Poor choices result in bad things happening.  Setting aside good values for bad, living deceitfully, whatever it might be.  There are conscious choices that we make, actions that we take, that will have either a positive or negative impact on our lives, and on our world.

Maybe it is just me, but in my mind it is all connected.  If we are teaching our children from the time they are little that sports is more important than anything else, if we are creating a culture where win at all costs is the operative value, if we are willing to make exceptions for the star athletes, then it is only a matter of time before you arrive at a Baylor University like scandal.  Actions, choices, decisions, have consequences.  The sage Ben Azzai says it well in the Talmud – מצוה גוררת מצוה עבירה גוררת עבורה – one good deed brings another good deed – but in the same way, one bad deed brings another bad deed.

Perhaps it is time to think about how to shift our intense focus on sports, reminding ourselves that at the end of the day it is just a game, and hopefully – there is so much more to life.

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