Tag Archives: Jerry Garcia

The Better Angels of Our Nature

This famous phrase comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In large part the speech was intended to be a plea to the South for reconciliation, and initially Lincoln penned a conclusion that offered the southern states a choice between ‘peace or the sword.’ But in the end he was persuaded to change the text so the last sentence read as follows: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle field and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

There is a shared humanity that unites us all, the common threads of home and hearth, of struggle and strength and courage and faith, the universal need for dignity and freedom, the Divine soul we all carry that can open our minds and hearts. At times it seems hard to locate, obscured by the cross currents of events, almost unrecognizable behind the haze of anger and violence that can arise when people give in to the dark side. Lincoln recognizes this. By choosing the phrase ‘better angels’ he implies that there are darker angels that can lead us to places of destruction and hate. We have certainly seen this in Baltimore over the last days.

And yet Lincoln understands the darkness to be something that will pass, a dynamic that cannot sustain itself in the face of goodness and light. He writes: ‘when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ There is no doubt in his mind that ultimately kindness and caring and hope will survive and even thrive, while the dark days will fade into memory and history. It is not a question of will the better angels arrive, it is a question of when. As Jerry Garcia sang in the Grateful Dead song New Speedway Boogie, ‘one way or another this darkness got to give.’

And it will give. There are too many good people. Too many strong leaders of principle. Too much effort and energy and pride invested in Baltimore. This darkness will give. If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day. Hurts will be healed, connections will be strengthened, bridges will be built. And then, after the immediate needs are addressed, after peace and calm have been restored, then the work begins. There are deep seated needs, long standing problems of enormous complexity and challenge, educational problems, societal problems, economic problems, demographic problems that simply cannot be ignored. Problems with how the police conduct themselves, problems that stem from deep racial divides, the list is long and every item is connected to every other. Justice must be pursued. Needs addressed. Dignity restored.

Yes much work to do. But there are great people with great determination and spirit to do that work. If these days become a wakeup call to begin that work anew, we may one day look back and see this as a dark point that became a turning point, a storm that in the end gave way to a clear blue sky. May that be God’s will. And may it be brought about by human hands that work only for peace and hope.



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The Wheel

‘the Wheel is turning and you can’t slow it down, can’t let go and you can’t hold on, can’t go back and you can’t stand still, if the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will’

I’ve always loved this line from the Jerry Garcia – Robert Hunter song the Wheel, found on the eponymous Garcia solo album ‘Garcia’ released in 1972.  The song quickly found its way into the Grateful Dead’s repertoire, and the band performed it hundreds of times over the years, ultimately settling it into that post drums/space slot where it fit so well.  I’ve often wondered about the imagery of that ‘wheel.’  There is obviously something inexorable about it, turning and turning, independent of human influence or the quirky rhythms of human life.

A dream, from just the other night.  End of the fall holiday cycle, so that may have something to do with it.  I am walking along Riverside Dr., a road in the town I grew up in.  I need to get further down the road, but there is a bit of traffic, so I decide to walk – after all, it isn’t far.  A short ways into my journey the weather suddenly shifts.  The wind kicks up, a few flakes of snow begin to fall, and suddenly I am walking through a driving snow storm.  It gets harder and harder to make progress, and the dress shoes I am wearing begin to slip on the snow covered sidewalk.   I look up into a steel grey sky.

If you’ve ever owned a hamster, or even if you haven’t, you know the image of the small furry animal running in place on that wheel.  Whenever we are confronted with that image we probably wonder if we are just a larger, slightly more sophisticated, more complicated reproduction of that image.  Do we ever get any where?  And where are we going, anyway?  How easily the sidewalk can begin to slip beneath our feet!

The Mishnah understands this natural human feeling.  In Pirke Avot we find the following teaching:  You don’t have to complete the work, but at the same time you are not permitted to give up on the task.  In a sense that simple line captures so much of what it means to live a human life.  We fight our battles and face our challenges.  Sometimes we succeed, other times we fail.  But we try.  And try again.  In a small yet profound way, that trying is heroic.

Garcia and Hunter seem to have arrived at about the same place.  When the band was hot the climax to the song reverberated through the great halls, into our minds, into our very bones:  ‘Small wheel turn by the firing rod, big wheel turn by the grace of God, every time that wheel turns round, bound to cover just a little more ground.’

Just a little more ground.  I’ll take it.  Better than walking on a slippery side walk in a snowstorm with dress shoes on.

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The Muse Descends

Neil Young, the great Canadian singer and song writer, once said that the vast majority of his songs come to him whole cloth, lyrics and chords complete.  He wakes up in the morning, rested and bright eyed, and suddenly an entire song floats into his head.  All he has to do is right it down.

If that experience is a regular one for Neil Young, my guess is it is highly irregular for most rabbis.  This is the time of year when we struggle with sermons more so than any other time.  We want to have our very best material, we want to give our congregants, as my predecessor Rabbi Mark Loeb used to say, ‘heaven.’  We hope to be creative, brilliant, wise, poignant, original.  So we slave away.  We write and re-write.  We edit and edit again.  We stay up late into the night, staring blankly at our computer screens, hoping against hope that it will somehow all come together.  It can be a torturous process.

But every once in a while the muse descends.  What calls her, I do not pretend to know or understand.  Some strange and mystical elixir of timing, thinking, energy, and then a door that opens from inside the mind.  Suddenly the fingers tap the keys more quickly.  A page appears, and then another.  Perhaps a sermon will actually be completed before the holidays arrive.  Maybe even two, who knows?

The problem of course is that we cannot call the muse, we do not have the power to choose when she comes and when she departs.  Maybe we learn over time to hone our skills, we develop a sense of the craft of constructing a sermon.  Song writers too talk about the craft, the way a song can be put together with sweat and tears and gritted teeth.  We can wait for the muse, but it sure is good to have a backup plan – sit down and type!

Ah, the muse.  Thinking about her always brings to my mind the gorgeous elegy that Robert Hunter read at Jerry Garcia’s funeral:

An Elegy for Jerry by Robert Hunter

Jerry, my friend,
you’ve done it again,
even in your silence
the familiar pressure
comes to bear, demanding
I pull words from the air
with only this morning
and part of the afternoon
to compose an ode worthy
of one so particular
about every turn of phrase,
demanding it hit home
in a thousand ways
before making it his own,
and this I can’t do alone.
Now that the singer is gone,
where shall I go for the song?

Without your melody and taste
to lend an attitude of grace
a lyric is an orphan thing,
a hive with neither honey’s taste
nor power to truly sting.

What choice have I but to dare and
call your muse who thought to rest
out of the thin blue air,
that out of the field of shared time,
a line or two might chance to shine –

As ever when we called,
in hope if not in words,
the muse descends.

How should she desert us now?
Scars of battle on her brow
bedraggled feather on her wings
and yet she sings, she sings!

May she bear thee to thy rest,
the ancient bower of flowers
beyond the solitude of days,
the tyranny of hours –
the wreath of shining laurel lie
upon your shaggy head,
bestowing power to play the lyre
to legends of the dead.

If some part of that music
is heard in deepest dream,
or on some breeze of Summer
a snatch of golden theme,
we’ll know you live inside us
with love that never parts
our good old Jack O’Diamonds
become the King of Hearts

I feel your silent laughter
as sentiments so bold
that dare to step across the line
to tell what must be told
so I’ll just say I love you
which I never said before
and let it go at that old friend
the rest you may ignore.


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My Brothers and Sisters

text version of sermon delivered on 3/29

This Shabbat is the last in a series of four special Shabbats leading up to Pesah, calledשבת החדש, meaning the Sabbath of THE month, namely the month of Nissan that is about to begin. There is a special maftir reading, and also a special haftara associated with the day, both of which describe the celebration of the Passover holiday, in the the maftir reading, the very first Passover that the Israelites observed in Egypt, smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass – over their homes, and in the haftara a description of a future Passover that will be observed in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
Both texts emphasize the importance of the Passover holiday in the Jewish consciousness, in the first case the sense that the very first communal moment that we shared as a people was a Passover celebration, and in the second case that even in the future, in a time when we are expecting the Messiah, we will still be celebrating the Passover holiday, sitting at our seder tables, and telling the story of the Exodus to our children and grandchildren. That this Shabbat is called HAhodesh, the Sabbath of THE month, also shows how important Passover is in Judaism, calling the month the holiday falls in THE month. And when you add to that the fact that statistics consistently show that Passover is by far the most observed Jewish holiday, with upwards of %90 of Jews managing to go to a seder, it is quite clear that Passover is the Jewish holiday par excellence.
I grew up celebrating Passovers here in Baltimore, as each spring my parents would load my sister, my brother, and me into our car and we would drive south from Binghamton to what used to be, at least, warmer spring weather than we were used to in upstate New York. It was a special time for me each year, not only because I was able to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but also because of the holiday itself, the rituals of the seder night, the special foods, and the almost magical way that Passover has of creating a time that feels sacred. Each year Passover was probably the most deeply felt Jewish time of my childhood, along with the fall holidays, and without question looking back I know that the holiday and its themes became core building blocks of my Jewish identity.
There was another spring experience during those trips south in my youth that helped to shape my Jewish self as well, and that was, strange as it may seem, my celebration of Easter. My mother is a convert to Judaism, so I grew up with one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and when Passover and Easter were close together, we would travel from Pikesville to Catonsville to see them, often on Easter Sunday. We didn’t go to Church with them of course, but we would come for Easter dinner, joining with cousins and aunts and uncles from the other side of my family for a meal that did not have four cups of wine and matzah and bitter herbs, but was festive nonetheless. I still remember to this day running around in my grandparents yard on an easter egg hunt, competing with the other children to see how many eggs I could collect, and I also remember sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, dying the eggs in bright spring colors.
Those experiences first and foremost affirmed my sense that I was part of a larger world, not just a Jewish world. I already knew this from growing up in a relatively small town with few Jews, and the truth is for a time I was the only Jewish child in my elementary school – the only one! But to know that I had family members who were not Jewish, and what is more to know that they had their own faith tradition that was rich and meaningful, reminded me year in and year out that God didn’t only care about the Jews, and that God wasn’t only interested in the Jews, but that God valued, cared about, and was interested in other faith traditions just as much as Judaism.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of Pesach and Easter left me, even at that young age, with the indelible impression that what we share is far greater than what divides us. I could not help but think, as I searched for Easter eggs, that just the night before I had been sitting with a seder plate in front of my eyes, and there next to the shank bone was a roasted – ? – egg! And if you know anything at all about Easter you know that it is a big candy holiday, with Easter baskets filled with chocolate bunnies, eggs, chicks, and jelly beans, and other tasty treats. But did you ever stop to think about how much candy we eat on Pesah? Chocolate covered almonds, apricots, raisins, macaroons – for crying out loud, we even make chocolate covered matzah! I don’t know about you, but I eat more chocolate during the 8 days of Pesah than I do the rest of the year combined! Just imagine my dilemma – after gorging on chocolate Passover treats, the very next morning I was confronted with a large chocolate bunnie – talk about a good problem!
But I learned another valuable lesson from those experiences, also formative in my Jewish identity, and that was that my Judaism made me distinct, it made me different. I still believe to this day that one of the very best ways to learn about yourself and deeply understand who you are and what is important to you is to spend time with who and what you are not. In some ways it is only through those experiences that the lines begin to form, and you start to have a sense that there are certain core parts of your identity that belong to you and make you part of a particular people with a particular history, a particular story, and a particular relationship with God. Certainly that is very much what Passover is about, but isn’t it funny that I learned that lesson in a powerful way on an Easter egg hunt many years ago.
Last night we had the fortune and blessing to share our evening services with the members of Union Bethel AME Church and their spiritual leader Pastor Sembly. Tomorrow morning, our choir and Beth El members will travel to their church, joining together in worship, study, song, and celebration. This is an experience for our congregation that we take great pride in, and although we are not able to do it every year, when we do do it, we always do it in the spring, when the earth comes back to life, when Jews sit at their seder tables, and when Christians celebrate the origins of their faith, come together in Church, and thank God for the blessing of renewed life, and on the Sunday afternoon of Easter share a sacred meal and look for hidden eggs.
It is a time of year when our faith traditions share more than they do at any other time, and it is also the time of year when we are most acutely aware of our own stories our own history, and our distinctiveness. What is perhaps most important of all is to let this sacred season remind us that God Godself rejoices in our difference, celebrates our distinctions, and accepts each of our paths as authentic and true. And also when we hold ourselves up in the great glory of God’s essence, we know deep down that we are truly all brothers and sisters, and that we have come from the same source, the Living God. I’ll conclude this morning with the words of this old Christian spiritual, a song I am familiar with because it was sung many times by the Jerry Garcia Band – the title of the song, appropriate for us this weekend, is My Sisters and Brothers, by the song writer Charles Johnson – here is the chorus –

Walk together little children,
You don’t ever have to worry,
Through this world of trouble
We gotta love one another,
Let’s take our fellow man by the hand
Try to help him to understand
We will all be together for ever and ever
When we make it to the promised land.

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