Tag Archives: community

Satchmo

If you are a lover of jazz you no doubt will recognize the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter, composer, and singer who left his mark on the music world during a groundbreaking 50 year career.  Satchmo would have celebrated his 115th birthday yesterday, on August 4th.  He grew up in New Orleans, the grandson of slaves, and the son of a delinquent father and a mother who turned to prostitution.  He quit school when he was 11 years old, worked odd jobs, and spent much of his time in the bars, hostels, and brothels of New Orleans.  Somehow he survived the turbulence of his youth.  Perhaps saved by his love for music, his genius, talent, and stage presence enabled him to become one of the most beloved performers of his time.  Today he is simply remembered as one of the all time great jazz artists.

A strange and little known fact about Louis Armstrong:  he wore a Magen David – a Star of David – wherever he was and whatever he was doing.  What an odd symbol to be chosen by a young black man from New Orleans!  But behind that Star of David is a story.  When Armstrong was as lost as a boy could, when his own parents had deserted him and he literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together, he found work in a junk hauling business.  That business was owned by the Karnofskys, a Jewish family from Lithuania only recently arrived on US shores.  The family saw how lost Armstrong was, and how lonely he was as well.  They took him in, fed him dinner, sat him at their table, talked with him, treated him with dignity and respect.  As he got to know them he realized the Karnofsky family was subject to prejudice and hatred in much the same way that he was as a black man.  And yet they didn’t give in.  They worked hard.  They lived with purpose and determination.  They had almost nothing, but what they did have they were willing to share.

In later years Armstrong wrote a short book about the influence the Karnofsky family had on his life.  At just the right moment his path crossed theirs.  For a time they walked together, sensing a shared fate and intuitively understanding the deep need we all have to be accepted and to belong, to have people in our lives who care about us and believe in us.  The Star of David reminded Armstrong of where he had come from, and how far he had come.  But it also reminded him of the lost young boy he had been, and the kind family he met along the way that helped him become a man.

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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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The Kosher Person

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/30 –

When we think about ‘kashrut’ – the question of whether something is kosher or not kosher – the first thought that probably jumps into our minds is food.  But in Judaism the idea of ‘kosher’ applies to other things as well, not only to food.  Can anyone give another example?  One is the Sefer Torah – a Torah that is usable – that we are permitted to read from – is actually called a kosher Torah.  Which of course begs a question – what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher?  With food we have a pretty strong sense of how that question is answered – certain foods are by definition not kosher – pork the most obvious example.  And certain foods can’t be mixed – like dairy and meat.  If they are mixed, the food is no longer kosher.  But what about a Torah?  What makes a Torah kosher, and what might make it not kosher?

Let us first think for a minute about what makes a Torah kosher.  First of all, the materials used to make the Torah have stringent requirements.  The ink that is used to write the letters must be made in a certain way, and it absolutely must be black – any other color and the Torah is not considered kosher.  The parchment, called in Hebrew ‘klaf’ must come from a kosher animal, usually a cow or a goat, sometimes even a deer.  the letters must be written using a special quill, usually one made from the feather of a kosher bird like a turkey.  When sections are sewn together the thread is made from the sinew of a kosher animal.  And if any of these things are not right – if the quill is not proper, or the parchment is not from a kosher animal, or even the thread, the Torah is not kosher, it is not usable.

But it isn’t only the materials that make the Torah kosher.  It also has to do with how the letters themselves are written.  No letter in the Torah can touch any other letter – if two letters are touching, the Torah is not kosher.  Certain letters have to be written larger than other letters – the best example is verse 4 in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the Shema Israel line, where the ‘shin’ of Shema and the ‘daled’ of echad must be written larger than the other letters.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion there is another example – the word Shalom appears in the third verse of this morning’s portion – how do you spell that word in Hebrew?  Shim, lamed, mem, vav, mem-sofit.  And how do you write a ‘vav’ in Hebrew?  One straight down line.  Believe me, there are a lot of ‘vavs’ in the Torah.  And all of them have to be written with a straight, uninterrupted line – except this vav in our word Shalom from this week’s portion.  It has to be written with an interruption in the line – a space – and if that space isn’t there, once again, the entire Torah is not kosher and may not be used.  That gives you just a little bit of an idea of what makes a Torah kosher or not kosher.

What about applying the same idea to a human being?  What makes a person kosher, or not kosher?  It might sound strange in our ears to phrase it that way, again because we so commonly associate that idea with food – but there is a talmudic concept of the ‘adam kasher’ – the kosher person.  In the Talmud this is a person who is deserving of the ultimate respect, so much so that the Talmud says when an ‘adam kasher’ – a kosher person – dies – everyone in community is obligated to make a tear in their clothing, something normally only immediate mourners do.  And everyone in the community is responsible for mourning this person’s loss.  That is the level of respect and love that an ‘adam kasher’ engenders in the course of his or her life.

Now it might seem to you like the High Holy Days are still very far away, after all we sit here at the end of July, and Rosh Hashanah isn’t until the beginning of October!  But the truth is in our liturgical cycle we are already pointing towards the fall holidays.  We read today the first in a series of 10 haftara texts that try to build up our spirits so that we can stand before God with clean hearts and souls at the beginning of the new year.  10 weeks from Sunday night is RH.  I don’t know about you – I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator – but the time is set aside for us, and I think the reason we are given so much time is that sometimes it can actually take quite a while to figure out how to be a kosher person.  It isn’t as black and white as the laws of what makes food kosher or not, or a Torah scroll kosher or not.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the tradition gave us some guidance as we went through this process.  What is it that makes a kosher person?

It is an old tradition during the summer months to spend some time studying Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers.  Probably more than any other text in Judaism, Pirke Avot lays out for us the tradition’s idea of what makes a person kosher.  It deals with ethics and morals, with how a person should act towards his or her fellow, with what kind of responsibility one has in terms of being part of a community.  The material is fairly wide ranging, but there are a few themes that come up again and again, ideals that the rabbis of old clearly believed defined what a kosher person should be.

A number of the ideals are things you might expect.  Be a kind and compassionate person.  Treat others with respect and dignity.  Live with a sense of God’s presence in your life.  All important qualities of the kosher person.  But there are three particular ideals that the text identifies, ideals that are at the core of being an ‘adam kasher’ – that might not normally come to our minds.

The first of them is humility.  The text reminds us that we are no more important that any other person, and that when we begin to feel more important than others – something we all seem to do at one time or another – we have wandered onto the wrong path and need to find our way back.

The next quality of a kosher person is communal engagement and commitment, a sense of communal responsiblity.  In today’s world we tend to emphasize the individual over the community and the individuals needs and rights over the community’s needs.  But in Judaism it is exactly the opposite.  When an individual’s need conflicts with a communal need, it is the community’s need that takes precedence.  As Jews we have an obligation not only to be connected to Jewish community, but to make sure that because of our presence the community becomes a better place for all.

The last thing is to be a learning Jew, to constantly strive to grow through the study of Judaism, Jewish thought, Jewish life, Jewish text, Jewish history.  Tradition understands that we nourish our bodies with food and drink, but that we must always make sure to nourish our souls and spirits, and one powerful way to do that is through the study of Torah – not only the scroll we take out of the ark, but Torah writ large, our ancient tradition with all of its wisdom.

So as we begin our slow but steady walk towards the High Holy Days, and begin to weigh in our minds who we are and who we want to be, we can perhaps keep in mind the wisdom our our sages and an ideal they at least believed we should all strive for – not necessarily to keep kosher, all though that wouldn’t be so bad – but to actually, in the way we live our lives and the quality of our own characters, to BE kosher –

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.

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A Hockey Game Broke Out

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 5/7/16 – and as a post script, the Caps won last night to extend their series to a 6th game –

Of all the major sports the one I don’t pay any attention to is hockey.  Living in this area I know there are some serious Washington Capitols fans around, and I know enough to know the Capitols are on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs, after being the best team during the regular season, so I feel for their fans.  But I always felt that hockey was too focused on violence – on the occasions when I did watch a few minutes of a game while growing up it always seemed to be just at the moment when two players would throw off their gloves, begin circling each other on the ice, suddenly close and violently rain blows down upon one another’s heads.  The old joke to me always seemed exactly right – I went to a fight the other night, and the strangest thing happened – a hockey game broke out!

We might say something along the same lines this week about the Turkish Parliament.  If you follow international news you probably know that on Monday, while debating a new piece of legislation, a major brawl broke out, with members of the Turkish Parliament jumping over tables, hurling coffee and water bottles at each other, and yes, with their fists beating one another until a number of them were left bleeding and dazed.  In a bizarrely fascinating kind of way it is quite something to see, and of course there are a variety of videos available on the internet.

Perhaps in other places in the world people are not shocked by such events.  After all, just over the last few years there have been violent fights in the parliaments of Taiwan and Georgia – not the state, the country – and at least three in the Ukraine alone.  But to watch this kind of thing go on as an American is an entirely different experience.  We know that lawmakers might get verbally aggressive, we know that verbal debates might be filled with tension and acrimony, but we also know – or at least we think we know – that verbal tension and aggression will not spill over into physical confrontation.  We can’t imagine, for example, Paul Ryan jumping over his desk trying to throttle Nancy Pelosi.  If anything there is a powerful sense of decorum in the political chambers of our country, a fundamental understanding subscribed to by all the politicians that as much as they might dislike each other, as strong as their disagreements might be, they will settle their differences through the political process – debate, lobbying, and voting.

And it is something that maybe we take for granted in the US, but we should not.  I would argue it is one of the greatest gifts that our founding fathers left for us.  I remember Rabbi Loeb once saying that Americans go to bed on the night of the presidential election with not a worry in their heads that they will wake up in the morning and see soldiers in the streets of Washington.  Instead, we all know that the losing party will call the victor and congratulate him – or her.  The team of the outgoing administration will meet with the incoming team to give them everything they need in terms of knowledge, access, and power.  And at an appointed day and time the old team will quietly pack up their desks and walk peacefully out of their offices, and the new administration will just as peacefully walk in.  It happens every time, and we take it for granted – but it is truly remarkable, and one of the many things that should make us deeply grateful to live in this country.

But I will confess to you this morning that more than I ever have before I am worried that a hockey game might break out in our political process.  To me it has less to do with the candidates themselves than it does with the rising level of difficulty that we have – the common people – in terms of talking to one another about the important issues of our time.   We all know the old saying – never publicly discuss politics or religion.  But I know from conversations I’ve had with people recently that they can’t even discuss politics with friends they’ve known for decades, or even with their own family members.  The emotional reactions that such conversations produce, the anger and mistrust, even the severing of relationships, make political conversation today different than it was 15 years ago.  Two quick stories.

The first, something that happened to me.  I was driving home just recently, and I noticed a young man running along the side of the road, looking guilty, like he had stolen something.  Then I realized he had stolen something.  It was a Donald Trump sign that he had clearly taken from someone’s lawn.  Now I understand if that young gentleman does not agree with Mr. Trump’s views – it is his right, and he can, and I suppose will, express that in the voting booth in November.  But he has no right to steal a neighbor’s property, and I would argue even more than that the message of his action was exactly wrong – he was essentially saying to his neighbor ‘you don’t even the right to publicly show your support for your candidate.  And when you try to do so I will take matters into my own hand, whether legally or not.’

The second story was a bit more disturbing, told to me by a congregant.  This family supports Hillary Clinton, and by way of showing their support they had dutifully placed a Hillary sign on their front lawn.  They next day they woke up and didn’t see the sign.  When they went out to investigate they found the sign ripped to shreds all over their lawn.  To me that is worse than stealing.  Ripping something to shreds is a violent activity, and I would say – and I can tell you my congregants felt this way – there is an implied threat when someone goes through the trouble of destroying something you have put into place with your own hands.

And what I worry about is that those kinds of actions – actions! – will more and more define our political discourse.  Not the debate of ideas, not the exchange of words – even heated words – but the angry and impulsive deed which leaves no room for honest, well meant dialogue, even if that dialogue is difficult.  I don’t think any of us want to live in that kind of political climate.  I think all of us would be horrified to see a brawl break out in the halls of congress.    But I also think we have to take ownership of this issues, we have to understand that we are all responsible in a way, and therefore we all need to guard against it in our own actions and speech, and to speak out against it when we see it taking place.

In this morning’s Torah portion we read the well known 16th chapter of Leviticus, which is also the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning, describing the ritual the High Priest enacted in ancient times on that sacred day.  There is no question in the text that part of what the High Priest is doing is atoning for the sins of all Israel, everyone in the nation.  My sense of that has always been one of connection – that is to say, when I sin, it doesn’t only impact my life – in some way it also affects you.  And when you sin, I am actually implicated – it is in part my fault.  We are all connected, and each regretful act brings us all down, even if just a bit, while each redemptive act helps us, together, to rise to a higher and better place.

That is the place I would like to get to – a place of collective responsibility, of mutual respect, of meaningful dialogue.  A place where maybe one day we’ll look back and say – you know what?  I went to a presidential election, and a respectful debate about ideas actually broke out –

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Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

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