Tag Archives: God

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, Rosh Hashanah, Uncategorized

Limiting God

There has been a bit of an uproar (maybe more than a bit) in the worldwide Jewish community over the Netanyahu administration’s recent decision to freeze plans to establish a mixed prayer space near the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem.  Liberal Jewish groups have long argued that the sacred site belongs to all Jews, not just those from the Orthodox world, and so should be open to various styles of worship, to include men and women praying together, and women leading prayer and reading from the Torah.  A year and a half ago it seemed as if this long held goal was about be realized when an agreement was hammered out between Netanyahu’s government and  various Jewish groups.  Suspiciously (although perhaps not surprisingly) the agreement was never put into action, with various and sundry excuses offered as to why things were taking so long.  Then last week the announcement was made – the idea was being ‘shelved.’

Netanyahu could care less about the Wall as religious artifact and sacred site.  If anything, it signifies to him the sovereignty of the state.  But he is beholden to the Orthodox members of his governing coalition, and so, pressed to mollify them, he is allowing the Kotel to essentially be held hostage.  This political dynamic has been extensively analyzed over the last few days, and a quick Google search will turn up any number of articles describing it.

So I would like to focus for a moment on another issue, namely that by suggesting there is only one way to ‘do the Kotel’ the Orthodox community is in fact limiting God.  Essentially what they are saying is this:  God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the cosmic Creator of the entire universe, and yet God is also (you’ll please excuse the anthropomorphism) small minded.  That in all of God’s vast power and knowledge God can only accept one narrow path of human behavior in terms of being worshipped.

This is irrational.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  God, in all of God’s vast power, can only accept one way of worship?  Instead, doesn’t it make God greater to understand that God can accept many ways of worship?  That there are a variety of pathways that will ultimately lead to God?  Some are Jewish, some are not.  Even within Judaism, there are multiple pathways.  And if we stop to think about it, wouldn’t we imagine that God is ‘big’ enough to accept them all?

It is true, to a certain extent, and maybe even entirely, that God is inscrutable.  I don’t pretend to know God’s will, and I struggle to understand what God demands of me, of my actions,  of my day to day life.  But I do know that the God I am in relationship with is מי שאמר והיה העולם – the One Who spoke and the world came into being.  A vast force of power and mystery, open to all seekers.  From the 145th Psalm:  “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God in truth.”

Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, Israel, Israeli-American relations, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Looking and Seeing

IMG_3131This striking view of the sky and its roiling clouds, streaked with red, greeted me as I took the dog out for a walk just at dusk.  A simple reminder of the beauty that is in our world, just outside the door, at any moment.  One of the things the High Holy Days reminds us of is to look for this beauty.  The sense in the Torah is that others walked by the Burning Bush, but Moses stopped to look, sensing the miraculous in the everyday.  It was then that God spoke to him.  When we look, what do we see?

Leave a comment

Filed under mindfulness

Elevator Speech

Not THE elevator speech. Not the ‘pitch’ you are supposed to have ready at a moment’s notice, when one day fate places you in an elevator with the one person who can make your dreams come true, if only you can convey your idea. Not that elevator speech. Instead, I am talking about ‘elevator speech’ – the small talk we all seem compelled to make when we share an elevator with someone we don’t know.

It happened to me this morning. I was visiting a patient at the hospital, and had to ride up on the elevator to the 6th floor. Just as the doors were closing a nurse jumped on. For a moment or two we rode in silence, but then we felt compelled to speak to each other. That is what people do when stuck in the elevator. The silence is uncomfortable, we feel uneasy until someone breaks the ice. It could be a comment about the weather, or wherever you are. Just a word or two to acknowledge, if you will, that we are all in this together – the elevator, and even life.

I’ve always suspected that is why Jews murmur when they pray. There are supposed to be moments of ‘quiet prayer,’ but if you look in a traditional siddur those moments are described as ‘tefilah b’lachash’ – prayer in a whisper. The murmuring of prayer in a synagogue rises and falls, has its own rhythm, almost as if a musical motif is being passed from person to person, when one lets it go another takes it up. Whatever the case, the noise never stops. We are noisy worshippers, and doesn’t it always seem that it is precisely when silence truly threatens that the murmuring begins?

Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be silent in front of God, with God. Imagine riding in that elevator with God as your companion. Would you be so awed, so humbled, that you wouldn’t be able to get out a word? Unlikely, especially if you grew up in a synagogue, with its noise and tumult. The Jew feels compelled to say something! Although I don’t think a word about the weather would be in order. ‘Lousy weather today God, don’t you think?’ As my children are prone to saying, ‘awkward!’

In the murmuring, in the rising and falling of human voices, there are hopes and dreams, sadnesses and sorrows, a sense of gratitude and sometimes of relief. What an act of faith it is to break that silence! To believe that somehow, in someway, those words can change our lives, can change even the world.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

God Does Not Vote

In the remarks he made immediately after stunningly upsetting Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary new Tea Party star David Brat said that his win was a ‘miracle’ and he opened his remarks by quoting the Book of Luke in the Christian Bible.  Brat seemed to be implying that God wanted him to win the election, that God chose him over Eric Cantor.

That kind of thinking – that a person knows what God is ‘thinking’ – always makes me nervous.  As far as I know, God is not a registered Republican in the Commonwealth of Virginia, so God did not enter a voting booth to choose one candidate over another.  God doesn’t vote.  And God doesn’t endorse candidates either.  (Neither do clergy, by the way.  From the pulpit at least it is illegal for a member of the clergy to tell parishioners to vote for a particular candidate.)

If you begin to believe that God prefers certain candidates, it follows that God also supports certain policy positions.  That God, for example, prefers the Tea Party’s policies to those of the Democrats’, or Republican’s views to Libertarians.  This is a blurring of religion and politics that is dangerous.  It is not a stretch from there to say that God prefers policies that are ‘Christian’ and not ‘Jewish’ or ‘Muslim’ (or from any other faith tradition, for that matter).

Lets be a bit more humble if we can.  God doesn’t pick or choose candidates.  God does not endorse certain policy positions while disparaging others.  And any person who thinks they know with any degree of certainty what God wants or ‘believes’ (if these are even terms that we can apply to God) is delusional.  So lets leave what God believes to God.  And lets leave the voting to us.  Provided, of course, we are properly registered.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Courage to Quit

a text version of this past Shabbat’s sermon – 

     It is with some trepidation that I begin my remarks this morning by talking about a NY Yankees player, namely Derek Jeter, the shortstop who announced this week that he will be playing his last season this year.  Orioles fans may breath a sigh of relief at the news actually, because Jeter has tormented the Orioles over the years, among many other teams in the league, and I think that there is no question that as soon as he is eligible he will be elected to the baseball hall of fame.  

     And I bring this up this morning not because I am a Yankees fan, which I am not, but rather because of the straight forward and yet at the same time poignant statement that Jeter released this week in which he announced his impending retirement.  The statement is elegant and beautifully done, very humble, and worth reading if you are interested in such things, but it was this particular paragraph that caught my attention:


“Last year was a tough one for me. As I suffered through a bunch of injuries, I realized that some of the things that always came easily to me and were always fun had started to become a struggle. The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward.”


     The realization is one thing.  Understanding that you are just not at the top of your game anymore, that you can’t do it the way you used to be able to do it, and maybe it is time to hang up the spikes. I think people have those realizations all the time.  But acting on the realization is a totally different matter, and commonly instead of letting go, people try to hang on.  Jeter not only realized it was time to go – he actually followed up on it, he acted on it.  He had what my friend Chuck Schevitz calls ‘the courage to quit.’

     On the surface that might sound like a term that is oxymoronic.  Because normally we associate quitting with the opposite of courage.  Courage is about sticking it out, courage is about hanging tough in the face of adversity.  Courage is the can do spirit, the Miracle on Ice, facing up to something when the odds are stacked against us.  It is a value that is woven into our society – the one thing we would never want to be called is a quitter.  I remember my high school soccer coach saying to us ‘it is much worse to be a quitter than a loser.’  

     But the truth is, sometimes it takes more courage to admit defeat, to step away – to quit – than it does to keep plowing forward.  Not that tenacity isn’t an important value – it is!  Where would Jews be without tenacity?  But it shouldn’t be the only value.  And I think you could make the argument that knowing when to quit is as crucial a life skill as tenacity is, or determination, or ‘sticktuitiveness.’  And not just in terms of sports, but in many areas of life.  Knowing when to step away from a job, or knowing when to get out of a relationship, or make a change in a college major, or deciding as you get older that it is time to move from weekly basketball games to weekly golf games.  You’ve got to know when to quit, and then you’ve got to have the courage to do it.

     This week we are reading from the Torah Parshat Ki Tissa, the portion that records the events of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  It is a story that we all know quite well – Moses is on top of the mountain for 40 days and nights, as God is communicating to him the laws of the Torah.  Because Moses is gone for such a long time the people begin to get nervous – they haven’t heard from him, or seen him, they don’t know what has happened to him.  They go to Aaron, Aaron facilitates the building of an idol, the people worship the idol, the Golden Calf.  On top of the mountain God realizes what is going on, tells Moses, and Moses rushes down the mountain holding the tablets of the law in his hands.  He reaches the camp, sees the people dancing around the idol, and then וישלח מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אתם תחת ההר – Moses threw the tablets from his hands, and he shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

     Commentators have struggled for thousands of years to understand how Moses could have done what he did.  Rashi, the classic biblical commentator says that Moses saw the people sinning, and he said to himself how can I give the Torah, something that is holy, to people who are sinners, who are ‘unholy’.  But the simplest explanation is in the text itself – Moses was angry, so upset that he was in a rage, not thinking of what he was doing, like a person who is angry and slams their hand against the wall.  He simply lost his head, and in his anger he broke the tablets.  

     But this morning I would like to propose a different explanation for Moses’ action.  I think at that moment he was faced with a choice.  The mission he had been on, which was to bring the people to God, had obviously failed.  And he knew it!  That moment, when he came down, and saw the people dancing around the golden calf, he knew it wasn’t working out the way it was supposed to work out.  So his choice was this:  either try to stick with the plan, which was symbolized by the tablets, or get rid of the tablets, go back to square one, go down and take care of the people, get things in order, and then maybe try it again.  In a way you might look at it like this – Moses had to choose between God, and the people.  God – God’s perfection, God’s wisdom, God’s Torah, God’s tablets – or the people, sinful, stubborn, imperfect and unwise.  When he threw down the tablets, Moses chose the people.  God would have to wait.  

     And I would argue in that choice Moses showed that he had the courage to quit.  It was time to give up on the plan as it had been conceived.  It wasn’t working – Moses knew it, and I think God knew it too.  But it was Moses who understood that he had to act on that knowledge.  You remember the old Kenny Rogers song about the Gambler – ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.’  Moses knew it was time to walk away, and then he actually did it.

     We should be able to find the same wisdom in our own lives.  With the help and support of family and friends, with our own courage and strength, to recognize when the moments arrive in our own lives, and the time comes to let one door close, so that we can open another one.  I’ll conclude with these lines, from a poem by Edgar Albert Guest called ‘On Quitting:’


How much grit do you think you’ve got?

Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?

Have you ever tested yourself to know

How far with yourself your will can go?

If you want to know if you have grit,

Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How Many Rabbis Does It Take To Name God?

     Back from a fabulous retreat for Conservative rabbis officially called the Rabbinic Training Institute, and affectionately called ‘rabbi camp.’  One evening class our teacher asked us to think of a name for God that was currently important to us.  We went around, one by one telling the class our ‘Godname.’  There were 15 of us in the class, all rabbis.  Some in pulpits, some in day school work, some in chaplaincy.  Not one of us used the same name.  One rabbi said he was recently calling God ‘ribon ha’olamim,’ Master of Worlds, because he had been reading about the nature of the universe.  Another rabbi called God ‘haRahamim,’ the Merciful One, explaining that he could not believe in a God Who was not merciful.  Yet another rabbi called God ‘haRofeih,’ the Healer, saying that she had been making a lot of hospital visits of late.  The name I chose was ‘haMakom,’ literally translated as the Place.  As we continued to go around, each person chose a name that was different, that was specific to something in their lives, some emotion or thought or sense that spoke to them at that time of God’s presence.

     In Ursula LeGuin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea, the young mage Ged learns the importance of names in his magical training.  Each thing in Leguin’s magical world has a true name, and once you know that true name, you enter into a level of intimacy with the thing that would not be possible otherwise.  You can use that knowledge to control the thing with a magical spell.  But the message seems to be that a name holds the essence of a thing’s identity, and knowing it enables the knower to relate to the thing in the most powerful and true way possible.

     This is true in our world, in a different way.   We have all had the experience at some point of realizing an important person knew our name when we thought they didn’t.  Perhaps a teacher, or someone we wanted to become friendly with, or simply someone we held in high regard.  When we realized they knew our name it changed how we felt about them, and in fact changed the very nature of the relationship.  Perhaps it works the same way with God.  We might believe God knows our name.  The question I would like to ask is this:  do we know God’s name?

     On the surface that might seem like a strange question.  But our teacher put it like this:  calling God ‘God’ all the time is akin to receiving an envelope that is addressed to ‘occupant.’  God is really a generic term, a catch all, that can be used to cover any entity living at the ‘above’ address (pun intended).  But if we want a closer relationship with God, a deeper connection, we should work to find God’s true name, or names.  The tradition has dozens upon dozens of names for God.  Each connotes a different quality of God’s, a different way that we might experience God manifest in our lives and our world.  Many names for God are found in the Bible.  Many more in rabbinic literature.  But sometimes we don’t have to look farther than our own hearts and souls to find a meaningful name for God.  The name might (in fact probably should) change over time, depending on circumstances, on our lives, on the world around us.  It reminds us that we probably know more about God than we think.  Names may not be magical, but they do have power.

     So – how many rabbis does it take to name God.  Well, only one.  Or fifteen.  Or both.  You get the idea.  Now look for the name you would use for God.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized