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The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, dysfunctional family, holidays, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Shakespeare, Uncategorized

Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

If you are from a certain era you know this song. One of the biggest hits of 1969, the music and lyrics were written by Bobby Scott and Bob Rusell, but it was the version recorded by the Hollies that put the song over the top. (Trivia alert – Elton John plays keys on the track!) In many ways it captured the zeitgeist of the times – the young people were determined to watch out for each other, care for each other, have each other’s back, and to do so unconditionally and non-judgmentally. It was communal, and it was community. Still today folks whose souls were shaped in that era will call each other brother.

The song has been buzzing around in my brain over the last days, really since I’ve returned from #RTI, known in the vernacular as ‘rabbi’s camp.’ A once a year retreat in rural Maryland for Conservative rabbis from around the country, that is marked by great davening, deep learning, and sincere and serious sharing. I am convinced one of the reasons ‘campers’ come back year after year is because we can truly let our hair down. We pray and learn together during the day, we play guitar and drink scotch and wine at night. We wear t-shirts and jeans, old sweaters and junky baseball caps. We talk and share, compare shop, tell our funniest funeral stories and saddest wedding stories (yes you read that correctly), and wrestle with issues both congregational and movement wide.

But I think more than anything else we support each other. The rabbi business can be lonely. RTI is a place where rabbis can unburden the burdens, openly voice the doubts, and allow the vulnerability to seep through the polished and professional veneer. In letting our hair down we let our hearts out, something we rarely have the chance to do or the place to do it in. This can be difficult, even painful sometimes, but it also can leave you feeling a little bit lighter, brighter, and clearer, and a lot more grateful. You know you’ve got colleagues who are also wrestling – intensely wrestling – with what it means to do ‘God’s work.’

Of course the title of the song has a double meaning. Heavy is the key word. Not weight wise, or course, but existentially. ‘Its heavy, man!’ Deep, hard, mystical, full of awe, troubling, difficult, glorious, inspiring. Back in the day ‘heavy’ could mean any of those things, or all of them. In other words, a one word description of life. Or, maybe, of being a rabbi.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

And here a link to the Hollies version of the song on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT57tjz9py8

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The Needs of the Many…

You Trekkies out there might recognize that quote from the 1982 Star Trek film The Wrath of Kahn.  Spock is speaking to Captain Kirk (was it Admiral Kirk in that one?) explaining why one life (in this case Spock’s) should be sacrificed so that many other lives can be saved.  The full quote is ‘logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.’  It is an idea that makes us uncomfortable in the modern age, when we have a tendency to place the needs of the individual at the top of the priority list, sometimes even to the detriment of the ‘many.’   But that idea – that community trumps the individual – is very Jewish.

There are many examples of this in the tradition.  Perhaps the classic illustration is that a holiday effectively cancels out shiva, thereby robbing an individual or a family of the chance to mourn the loss of a loved one.  The halachah (Jewish law) explains that in this case the communal need to celebrate the holiday takes precedence over the individual’s need to sit shiva.  The holiday must be a joyful time for the community, and shiva would diminish that joy.  The community ‘wins’ while the family ‘loses.’

There are other examples in the tradition.  One commonly cited is the requirement of building a parapet (a guardrail) around one’s roof (Deuteronomy 22:8).  This is an expense and inconvenience for the owner of the home, but Torah requires it for the protection of others.  Community takes precedence over the individual.

Which leads me to a phone call I received this afternoon.  A woman, asking whether I would be willing to write a note explaining that her grandchild should be exempted from state mandated vaccination requirements for religious reasons.  She was surprised when I told her I couldn’t write the note because Judaism did not support the idea in the first place.  In fact, Judaism would suggest the opposite – the individual’s perceived need (to not be vaccinated) must give way in the face of the community’s need for the protection that a vaccinated population provides for all.

This logic can be extended to other pressing issues of the day.  The NRA, for example, makes its living by arguing that the right of the individual to own a gun should trump the right of the community to be safe from those who abuse guns.   Judaism would say exactly the opposite.  The community’s right to be safe must take precedence, even if it impinges on an individual’s gun ownership.

Talk about counter cultural!  Ah well, as the old saying goes the role of clergy is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.  It ain’t easy, but somebody has to do it.

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54 Days

Been going back and forth a bit about this one and whether to post, and if so what to say. In part I worry that any comments about the topic (which I realize I haven’t identified yet) will be perceived of as some kind of kvetching. And maybe I am kvetching (is that cathartic?). But an article that appeared this week in the Forward about the stress and strain of rabbinic service, along with my own recent experience of working 54 straight days, leads me to believe that this is an issue those who care about the Jewish community should be talking about more often and more openly. Perhaps this post will become part of that conversation.

I know a fair number of people who work hard. Many hours, much pressure, expected to manage unmanageable responsibilities. The rabbinate often has all of this. But two things distinguish rabbinic work from other professions. One is that the vast majority of professionals have defined days off. The rabbi may have a designated day off (only one day, mind you!), but she often has to work on that day. Funerals and Brises come up. You can’t say to a family ‘sorry I can’t do your father’s funeral that day, I can’t make it to your newborn’s bris – it is my day off.’ Sometimes meetings happen on that day that you need to be at. Other times you’ve been so busy that you need your ‘off day’ to catch up on your work! Looking through my calendar I figure I end up working about half of my days off (my wife will tell you more). Not always the entire day, not 8 hours (or 10 or 12, which I often work on regular days), but still working. Have to put on a suit and tie. Take time that you expected to spend on something else – family perhaps? – and use it for work. The fact that I just worked 54 consecutive days means by definition that I worked 7 straight days off (one per week) in that stretch.

This piece is connected to the other thing that is unique about rabbi’s schedules, namely, in large part we do not have control over them. Obviously this is not entirely true. But not uncommonly we receive a call that requires us to change around our entire day’s schedule, or possibly even our week’s schedule. Cancel appointments, work on an evening when we had planned to be home with our families, even take time that we hoped to use to prepare a sermon or a class and use that time to meet an immediate, pressing need. And of course every canceled appointment has to be rescheduled. The sermon has to be written. The class has to be prepped. The problem is I am already booked tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, schedule full. Well, I have time on the afternoon of my off day because I haven’t scheduled anything … See how this works?

Last spring my wife had a big birthday that coincided with Mother’s Day. A year or so before I blocked the day, determined to do something nice with my wife. As the months went by, I was pressed to officiate at two different weddings and multiple unveilings on that day, and I refused, keeping the day clear. It was a great day. In the end, we took two of our kids with us on a day trip (our oldest was away at college.) We walked, we talked, we shopped a bit, saw some sights, ate out together. What families do on their Sundays, I guess. I loved every minute of it. But I also remember at some point in the afternoon that it all felt so strange. Why? Because it was the first time I had done something like that with my family (when not on vacation and out of town) in years. Many years – in fact I can’t remember the last time.

Another anecdote. Our son (our middle child) is off to college this year. He had a fall break of a full week in October (something more schools seem to be doing). I was looking forward to having him home, to spending a bit of time with him and catching up. But it was a particularly busy week. A couple of funerals, a Saturday night wedding, shiva minyanim that of course were not planned. I was out of the house early, home late every night. All of a sudden I realized that he was leaving the next day. I had literally barely seen him. You probably know the Harry Chapin song Cats in the Cradle. I felt like I was living it.

These are my personal regrets, the things I wonder and worry about, the doubts creeping in about whether I should have done it differently. At the end of the day every thing is a trade off, but not every trade off is worth it. The bottom line is this dynamic is shared by many rabbis (many clergy folk in general), and it is not healthy. It isn’t good for the rabbi, it isn’t good for the congregation, and it isn’t good for the community. I am not sure what to do about it, but I intend to spend some time wrestling with it in the coming months. Thank goodness I have wonderful lay leadership and supportive and talented colleagues. I’ll come back to this topic off and on as I navigate it a bit. And I will keep you ‘posted.’

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