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Imagination

a text version of my sermon from Shabbat Hol HaMoed Sukkot –

As the Nobel prizes have been awarded in the last week the winners have been making their media rounds, patiently engaging in interviews and answering questions about their work and what got them to where they are.  On the radio a few days ago I heard Rainer Weiss, one of the physics prize winners, talking about his work.  In the course of his interview he referred over and over again to Albert Einstein, saying that his life’s work had in large part been based on principles that Einstein had theorized about more than 100 years ago.  The problem for Einstein was that the technical ability to verify many of his own theories didn’t exist back then.  But today, that technology is in place, and Rainer Weiss’s Nobel prize in physics was awarded because he had finally been able to scientifically prove some of Einstein’s ideas.

It is an astonishing thing to think about.  Even with no way to test many of his theories, without any ability to do trial and error experimentation in a lab, the work that Einstein did more than a century ago has been proven right time and time again, and what is more, to this day remains the fundamental bedrock of modern physics.  Einstein himself often spoke about thought experiments.  He would, for example – in his mind! –  put an imaginary person on an imaginary train, and then imagine that the train was moving at the speed of light.  And then he asked himself questions.  If it was possible to actually make this happen, how would the person on the train experience time and space?  How would someone watching the person on the train experience the same things?  And as Einstein answered these questions, his theories came together.

These thought experiments were so important to Einstein that some believe it was his ability to imagine these things, and not his ability to do complicated math, that made him the greatest physicist of all time.  His original paper on the theory of relativity, written in 1905, is mostly prose with a few relatively simple algebraic equations sprinkled in.  It wasn’t a math brain that set Einstein apart and that made him a genius – it was his ability to imagine things, to look at something that anyone could see, but to understand it and think about it in a totally different way.

It is a little bit like the way another genius, Michelangelo, approached his work.  Art historians have long struggled to understand how Michelangelo created his great sculptures.  To this day the particular techniques he used remain largely unknown.  But the best possible explanation for his greatness may come from the way he was able to use his imagination.  Speaking about one of his statues, he once said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  You and I might look at the same block of marble and see it simply as a solid piece of stone.  But Michelangelo’s imagination was such that in his mind there was a figure locked inside that block – and all he had to do was take the stone away to reveal that figure.  In the same way Einstein could look out at the universe, and in his imagination he saw the physics in it that holds it all together and makes it work.

Einstein grew up in a secular Jewish household, with very little exposure to traditional Jewish life, and in fact he went to a Catholic school for his elementary education.  But I’ve always wondered if his Jewish roots helped to free his mind and imagination, giving him the ability to see things differently than other people.  Judaism would not exist without the ability of Jews and the Jewish people to look at the world at to imagine it in a different way – to use Michelangelo’s phrase, to ‘see the angel and to set it free.’

This is what Abraham was able to do, and Moses as well.  Abraham looked out on a world of idol worshippers, where the people around him offered their children as sacrifices to the gods.  But in his mind he imagined a different world, a world with a loving and forgiving God, a world where human sacrifice was forbidden, and a world where God was unique – where there was only one God.  And because Abraham could imagine this world, could see it in his mind’s eye, he worked his entire life to make that world a reality.

It was the same for Moses.  Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace, where Pharaoh was ‘god,’ in a culture where royalty was everything and slavery was part and parcel of every day life.  But Moses could imagine a different world, a world where values like freedom and human dignity were lived and embraced, a world where slaves deserved to be free.  And because Moses could see that world in his imagination when no one else was able to see it, he walked into Pharaoh’s throne room and demanded freedom for his people.

And that same sense of imagination is at the heart of the modern state of Israel.  Herzl’s famous phrase was אם תרצו אין זו אגדה – if you imagine it, it will come into being.  And he saw in his mind a Jewish state in the ancient land of Israel, when almost no one else at the time could imagine that possibility.  The first settlers who came to the land looked out at a desert wilderness, a barren land, where nothing grew.  But what they imagined was ארץ זבת חלב ודבש – a land filled with milk and honey.  And in their mind’s eye they saw green fields, and orange groves, and vineyards.  And if you go to Israel today, you’ll see with your own eyes how that vision becomes Israel’s reality.

Even our celebration of the festivals is grounded in our ability to imagine a different world.  On Passover we sit at the seder table and imagine that we are slaves.  On Shavuot we stay up all night studying Torah, and in that exercise we imagine that we are at the foot of Mt Sinai, waiting for God’s revelation.  And on Sukkot, we build booths in our yards, eat and sometimes even sleep in them, and we imagine that we are wandering in the wilderness and searching for the Promised Land.

In each case the tradition asks us to look out at the world and to see what is – to acknowledge that fully and honestly –  but at the very same time to imagine what could and should be.  And then to imagine what role we will play in making that vision become a new reality for all.  As Einstein himself said:  “Logic will get you from A to Z, but imagination will get your everywhere.”

Shabbat Shalom, Hag Sameach

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A Stiff Necked People

here a text version of my sermon from the second day of Rosh Hashanah:

This Rosh Hashanah, as we come together to mark the beginning of a new year, there are Jews gathering all over Baltimore in celebration.  Our purpose is the same, whether we are praying here at Beth El today, or at Chizuk Amuno, or at Beth Tfiloh or Oheb or Baltimore Hebrew – to thank God for the year that has gone by, to ask God that in the year to come we should all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and that the world will somehow find a way to peace.  But if our purpose is the same, our traditions – the traditions of our various congregations – can vary greatly.  Baltimore Hebrew folk started their new year picnicking at Oregon Ridge Wednesday night.  People at Beth Tfiloh are bringing in the New Year in their own way, and at Chizuk the same, with their own traditions and customs.

One tradition that may be unique to Beth El that has developed over the years is that commonly there is at least one sermon given on RH, that in one way or another deals with baseball.  This was a tradition that Rabbi Loeb started many years ago, when he spoke about Cal Ripkin and his consecutive game record.  Since that time sermons have been given about the famous base running mistake of Fred Merkel, or the good deeds of the knuckerballer Tim Wakefield, or the pitcher that threw a perfect game only to have it ruined by an umpire’s bad call a few years ago.

The tradition of speaking a bit about baseball at Beth El has become so established that Rabbi Saroken even asked me, just a few weeks ago, what baseball story I would be talking about this year.  And then she had a request – “Do you think,” she said, “you could tell a baseball story about women?  Whenever you talk about baseball, it is about men.”  Now ladies and gentleman, I don’t think I have to tell you that I believe in egalitarian Judaism.  But egalitarian baseball?  That was something I did not quite have my head around, and so I filed Rabbi Saroken’s question in the back of my mind, and it slowly simmered there while I thought of other sermons, and also of potential baseball stories that I might relate to you this holiday.

And then, out of the blue, the answer to Rabbi Saroken’s question appeared in the form of a slender 13 year old girl by the name of Mo’ne Davis.   Mo’ne is the star pitcher of the Taney Dragons, a little league team from Philadelphia that this year went all the way to the Little League World Series semi finals.  She can throw a 70 mile per hour fastball, which I probably couldn’t even see, let alone hit, and in the course of the summer she became the darling of the baseball world.  She was the first girl ever in the 67 year history of the Little League World Series to throw a shut out, not allowing the other team even a single run.  She was only the 6th girl in the history of the event to get a hit.  And she was the first Little Leaguer in history – boy or girl! – the first one – to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

By all reports Ms. Davis is a humble young woman with a good head on her shoulders.  She has handled all of the attention with great aplomb, continues to work hard in school, and at this point has pretty much put the baseball business behind her, because after all basketball season will be starting soon and evidently she is as accomplished on the hardwood as she is on the baseball diamond.  Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile just for a moment or two to consider what exactly it is that enables a young woman to succeed, on such a high level, in a sport that is without question dominated by boys and men.

And the first thing I would say about that is we must take into account the words of the great baseball sage Yoggi Berra who once famously said “baseball is %90 mental, and the other half is physical.”  And although Yoggi’s math is evidently even worse than mine, the point is well taken.  On the surface we might think about Mo’ne’s accomplishments as physical, but the truth is what enabled her to do what she did was only in part her physical ability.  I would argue much more important was her character, her mind, and her spirit – more what was in her heart and her kishkes than what was in her arm.

And I would suspect that among all of her other qualities, she also has one quality that is very often associated with the Jewish people.  Anyone who knows anything about baseball will tell you that a pitcher just can’t be successful unless he – or she! – has a very strong will. Baseball is a team sport, but at its core, perhaps more so than in any other sport – it is a contest between two players, one on one – the pitcher and the batter.  And that, my friends, is a contest of wills.  And in a contest of wills, it is the person who will not give in who ends up on top.

In the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, there is a phrase that appears multiple times, especially on Yom Kippur as a prelude to the recitation of the lists of sins.  Right before the ashamnu we say this:  שאין אנחנו עזי פנים וקשי עורף לומר לפניך – that we are not so stubborn, to say before You, God, that we have not sinned.  We are not THAT stubborn, perhaps, but stubborn we are certainly are.  In the Torah, God Godself calls the Jewish people an am k’shei oref – a stiff necked, stubborn people.  And for those of us who work as professionals in the Jewish community, it would probably be hard to disagree.  It is of course where all of the old jokes come from about 2 Jews and 3 opinions, or the Jew on the desert island who builds two shuls, the one he goes to every Shabbat and the one he wouldn’t set foot in.

Generally stubbornness is looked at as a negative quality, but what I want to suggest today is that there is something positive about being a stiff necked people, maybe even something necessary.  That if we hadn’t been a stiff necked people all these years, then we wouldn’t be where we are today, and possibly we wouldn’t even be at all.  You can trace this all the way back to our father Abraham, about whom we read on Rosh Hashanah, who was stubborn enough, courageous enough, strong willed enough – in other words, “stiff necked” enough – to speak out and say things that others didn’t want said, or to do things that others didn’t want done.  To smash his father’s idols, for example, as the Midrash teaches us, when he was a child.  Or to argue even with God about the fate of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorroh.  You’ve got to have a strong will and a stiff neck to argue with God.  There is a long standing debate about why Abraham was chosen by God to be the father of the Jewish people, and I think you can very plausibly make the argument that one reason was that he was stiff necked and stubborn.

But it is not just Abraham.  Think of David, not yet a king, walking out alone into the field of battle to face Goliath.  Or Esther walking into King Ahashverous’ throne room, hoping he will raise his scepter.  Or Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman. Or in modern times Theodore Herzl traipsing around the world to insist that there should be a Jewish state, and that it should be located in the land of Israel.   We might easily say that if we were NOT a stiff necked people, Jewish history would have been very different, and we might even wonder if there would be a Jewish community – here at Beth El, in Baltimore, and around the world – to welcome in this New Year, 5775.

So at the beginning of this new year, among all the things we are thankful for, let us also be thankful for that strength of will.  God knows we needed it in the year just ending.  Lets make sure we continue to use it in the year that is ahead.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked when we stand up for the State of Israel.  Lets be stubborn about insisting that our children and grandchildren come to Hebrew school so they can be Jewishly educated, even when classes conflict with soccer and lacrosse games.  Lets be stubborn about continuing to engage in Jewish life and rituals even when our children have left home.  Lets be stubborn about giving to Jewish causes, even when there are a million other good causes out there.  Lets be stubborn and stiff necked to stand up for the things we believe in, for the values that we hold, for the people that we love, and for the world we want to see – after all, we are a stubborn and stiff necked people – so we might as well put it to good use in the new year –

may it be a year of health and peace –

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