Tag Archives: midrash

Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Filed under Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, liminal moments, mindfulness, neighborhoods, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, seasons, Uncategorized

Finding the Way to Sesame Street

In many ways I grew up in two neighborhoods at the same time.  On the one hand there was my real neighborhood, my parents’ home sitting at the corner of Leroy and Matthews Streets in Binghamton NY.  That neighborhood was typical for a small town in upstate NY in the 70s.  The homes were filled with white middle class folks, hard working and honest, patriotic, salt of the earth kind of people.  All of the children went to public school, and of course to get to class we walked the half of a mile or so there and back, even from the time we were in first grade.  As far as I remember my family was the only Jewish family on the block.  A diverse group we certainly were not.

But then there was my other neighborhood, a place I visited pretty much once a day, everyday, beginning in 1969, at least up until 1973 or so.  Many of you have also been to that neighborhood, or traveled there with your children or grandchildren.  It is located in a place that was probably intended to be New York City, on a street named Sesame St, and all kinds of colorful characters lived there.  There was Kermit the Frog, the soft spoken and existentially challenged talking frog, often musing philosophically about life’s difficulties.  There was Big Bird, the 8 foot tall bright yellow canary like creature, enthusiastic about life and gregarious in a naive way.  Of course Ernie and Bert,  the Odd Couple-like roommates, one orange and one sort of mustard colored (that was Bert!).  And then you had my favorite muppet, Oscar the Grouch – after all, what could be cooler than living in a garbage can?!

But in a way what was most amazing about Sesame Street was the diversity of the human characters on the show.  You remember kindly Mr. Hooper, Big Bird’s friend, who ran a sort of corner grocery store.  There was a Hispanic family, Maria and Luis, and their daughter Gaby.  There were black characters, white characters, Asian characters and handicapped characters, old and young, every type of person you could meet on a New York street, and in any one skit from the show you might see any or all of them interacting with one of the colorful muppets.

The Sesame Street neighborhood was very different than my actual neighborhood, but I had a sense from watching the show that there was actually a big world out there with all kinds of people in it – I just felt I had not yet had the opportunity to meet them.  Little did I know at the time that I would end up as an adult living in a neighborhood much more like the one I watched on TV growing up than the one I actually lived in.  Becky and I live in a development out in Owings Mills, with probably 40 or 50 homes.  About half of the homes have African American families living in them.  Maybe one quarter of the homes are Jewish.  There are some interfaith families.  There are Indian families and Asian families.  And even plain old Caucasian families.  It is the kind of neighborhood that feels very familiar if you grew up watching Sesame St.

And I’ve been thinking lately about how lucky I feel to live in such a diverse neighborhood.  When you work full time and professionally in the Jewish community you can sometimes loose track of the fact that not every place is like Pikesville.  You spend so much of your time with Jews, so much time thinking about Judaism and Jewish issues, so much emotional energy worrying about the Jewish community and Israel, that you actually need a reminder every once in a while that it truly is a big world out there, that there really are all kinds of folks in the world.  And by the way that God cares just as much about them as God cares about me and my family, or any neighborhood in Pikesville or down the Park Heights corridor.

There is a well known debate recorded in the midrashic literature between two great rabbis, Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva.  Their disagreement centers on one question:  what is the most important verse in the Torah, the one verse that sums it all up? Were I to ask you that question, my guess would be that many of you would cite what we commonly call the golden rule verse, the principle expressed in Leviticus 19, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  After all, that seems to pretty much capture it, and if you follow that one verse at the end of the day you’ll probably be following many of the other laws in the Torah.  And that in fact is the verse Rabbi Akiva chooses – love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, is the Torah’s most important verse.

But the other rabbi, Ben Azzai, disagrees.  He cites a verse from this morning’s Torah portion, a verse far less familiar than the golden rule verse, and on the surface a seemingly strange verse to choose as the Torah’s greatest.  It is the very first verse in the 5th chapter of Genesis, and reads like this:  זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of the line of Adam.  And what follows is a genealogical list that goes on for 31 verses, one of the classic biblical passages that people often make fun of – this one begat this one who begat that one – I think you get the idea.

At first glance Ben Azzai’s choice seems puzzling.  How could a verse that says ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ trump the great golden rule of the Bible, ‘love your neighbor as yourself?’  But if you think about it for a minute or two, Ben Azzai has a point – יש לו על מה לסמוך – he has a leg to stand on.  Because ‘this is the record of the line of Adam’ is based on a fundamental principle – all people come from the same place, in fact, according to the Torah, all people come from the very same person, or persons.  And if that is indeed the truth, then there is no one person better than any other.

I doubt very much whether the creators of Sesame Street were familiar with that midrashic discussion between Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva, but I have a feeling they would have liked it.  Back in 1969 when Sesame Street came on the air for the very first time ideas like diversity, and ethnic and racial tension, and the struggles of the inner city were just as much a part of the conversation as they are today.  No question that is one of the reasons why the show depicted a neighborhood where there are all kinds of people from all kinds of places and backgrounds, but where everyone treated everyone else with respect, and where everyone was understood as being on the same level as everyone else.

You will probably remember the Sesame St theme song.  I am not going to sing it for you, but the lyrics of the first verse are as follows –

“Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away – On my way to where the air is sweet – can you tell me how to get – how to get Sesame Street?”

It is a simple lyric, and a song for children, but we all remember it.  Maybe one of the reasons is because the question at its core is this:  how do we get to a place where all people are respected and treated equally, regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, color, or age?  Sesame Street began to ask that question all the way back in 1969, and we haven’t figured out the answer yet.  But we have to keep looking, and we also have to remember that the search for that place continues every single day –

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Filed under America, Beth El Congregation, Bible, civil rights, community, neighborhoods, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Rage Against the Machine

Imagine that. They had it right all along, the science fiction prognosticators, the paranoid prophets who saw in early computers a danger to humanity. The Terminator, Clark’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – all envisioning a world where the created over takes the creator, where the machines rise up and rebel, changing the course of history forever. Heck, even Mary Shelley saw it in the fevered opium dreams that produced her great novel Frankenstein. The funny thing is we don’t see it, but we very well may be living it.

The midrashic literature, speculating about the way the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, paints a picture of gradual and subtle deception. Over a long period of time, a decree here and an edict there, a new responsibility added one month, a new freedom taken away the next. And then, seemingly suddenly, they were trapped. What is happening to us is not so dire, nor restricting, and it is true, more than anything else we are doing it to ourselves. OK, the huge corporations, the Microsofts and Googles, the Apples and Amazons, they are complicit, perhaps even driving us. But still. And we are going along for the ride earnestly, not hesitating, even saying ‘faster, faster.’ Where are we headed?

To an age of ‘post humanism,’ according to Leon Wieseltier. In a scathing essay published recently in the NY Times he argues that by so fully entering the machine age, by becoming so dependent on data and so connected to screens, we are leaving our humanity behind. Here a quote that brings his point home: “Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Text without context is dangerous. Information without understanding, without wisdom, is meaningless, and perhaps even worse a path to apathy, to disconnection and dismay, to believing that nothing truly matters. What we must remember is that data can only describe our reality, it cannot make meaning out of it. The human element – intuition, insight, wisdom, inspiration – these are the impossible to quantify ingredients that are necessary for human intellectual life. Without them we do become like robots, responding to 0s and 1s, to code and data, knowing that a rose is beautiful, but not feeling that it is.

One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from Lear. Gloucester has been blinded, and he wanders on the heath with Edgar. By seeming chance they run into Lear, who asks Gloucester how he manages to navigate the world without his eyes. “I see it feelingly” is Gloucester’s timeless reply. (Lear act 4, scene 6) And there you have it. To see feelingly means to be sensitive to what is invisible. It is precisely what machines cannot do, and data cannot show us. And it is also, precisely so, the source of our humanity.

You can read the Wieseltier article at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted

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