Tag Archives: Noah

A Shabbat of Solidarity

Following is a text version of remarks I made yesterday at our Shabbat of Solidarity service.  I am deeply grateful that over 800 people of many different faiths came together to honor the memories of those whose lives were taken away in Pittsburgh.  It was a powerful morning of memory, prayer, and hope.

     We Jews are well practiced in the exercise of memory, both individually and communally.  As individuals we observe the yartzeits of those we have loved and lost, we recite the Yizkor service four times a year, we visit the cemetery, placing our hands on the stones.  As a community we commemorate tragic events from our past, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tisha B’Av, the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient times in Jerusalem.  Even our holidays are often tinged with bitter memories – the slavery of Egypt that we remember on Passover, or the persecution and anti-Semitism of Purim and Hanukkah.  

     And we gather today in part to remember, to look back to exactly one week ago, to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh, to recall the victims, to read their names aloud, and to honor them.  And so we have done.  What happened in Pittsburgh was unprecedented in the history of the American Jewish community, and we know from our long experience that part of our task now as Jews will be to bear the weight of that memory as we carry it forward.

     As we do that in the months and years ahead it is important to say that remembering in Judaism has a purpose.  It is not only about the past, about looking back – it is also, and in some ways more so, about the future and looking forward.  This morning’s Torah portion records the death of both Sarah and Abraham, but the primary focus of the portion is on the future, on finding a wife for Isaac so that there will be a new generation to carry the covenant forward.  We are told three times in Genesis ‘vayizkor Elohim’ – that God remembered – God remembered Noah, and brought him to dry land.  God remembered Abraham, and then rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  And God remembered Rachel, and gave her a child.  In each case God’s act of remembering was for the sake of the future, and of life.

     Which is why I am grateful today that we are also celebrating two events that are about the future.  I pulled Holden aside after services ended last night, and I told him that although he might not have even realized it, the very fact that he stood before the congregation, a young man, and proudly chanted the kiddish, and again this morning proudly was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah – in and of itself that helps us to heal, it gives us hope for a bright Jewish future, it reminds us that there is a next generation, that they will carry our communal memories forward, while finding meaning in their Judaism everyday.  

     And Lauren and Jason, our auffruff couple.  One week from tonight they will stand together under the huppah, a moment that is about faith and the future they will build together in their years ahead as husband and wife.  You cannot help but feel a sense of hope for the future when you see a groom and a bride walk down the aisle.  A new Jewish family has formed, a new generation committing to live a Jewish life and to create a Jewish home, as it was for Isaac and Rebecca so long ago, the love that they shared, the life they made, and the family they brought into the world. 

     And then the baby naming the Cantor and I officiated at last Sunday morning.  A beautiful baby girl, fussing and cooing and squirming in her parents arms, as she received her Hebrew name and was formally entered into the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  Her middle name in Hebrew is Aliza, which means joy.  And we were naming this child one day after Pittsburgh.  Almost exactly 24 hours.  But there was joy – in that child, for her family, in that moment, and in our hearts.  And there is nothing that is more abut the future than the naming of a baby.  Because that is the name by which she’ll be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.  That is the name that one day will be written in her ketubah, that is the name that will mark some of the most significant and sacred moments of her life, and some of the most significant and sacred moments of the future of our community. 

     We will make that future together.  Bearing our sadness, remembering our losses, honoring memory, but at the very same time walking forward with hope and strength, with resilience and dignity, with determination to make a better and safer and more tolerant world for all.  We will mourn our losses, as we have this past week, as we always do, but we will celebrate life, we will welcome babies, we will dance with brides and grooms, we will rejoice with young men and women who are called to the Torah for the very first time, we will celebrate our holidays, light the candles of our menorahs in a few weeks, and sit at our seders in the spring, and recite the words of our ancient prayers on this Shabbat of Solidarity and every Shabbat.  

     And so may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace for us, for Jews everywhere, for the world.  May we dedicate today to the memory of those who lost their lives last week, but also to the future that we will build together – in the months and years that are ahead – God willing a future of hope and peace and dignity for all people in all places – 

May that truly be God’s will!


Leave a comment

Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, grief, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Imperfections (Superman vs. Spiderman)

     There is a traditional debate about the very first verse of this morning’s Torah portion, and at the heart of the debate is the question of the quality of Noah’s character.  The verse tells us נח איש תמים היה בדורותיו – Noah was righteous man, in his generation.  That can be interpreted in two ways – he was righteous – even in a generation where no one else was!  Or you could understand that to mean ‘in his generation he was righteous!’ – but in another generation, maybe not so much!

     The truth is there is evidence for both sides of the argument.  He was clearly righteous.  God chose Noah from among all the other people on earth to warn him about the flood.  He listens to God’s commands, he builds the ark, he guides his family and the animals into a post-diluvian world, a world after the destruction of the flood.  All righteous behaviors, all proof of the quality of Noah’s character.  

     But Noah also had some problematic moments.  He is the patriarch of a family that seems to have some serious issues.  He drinks to the extent that it has a serious and negative impact on his life.  And perhaps most troubling of all, Noah never warns other people about what is about to happen.  Nor does he challenge God in terms of God’s plans to destroy the earth.  We are waiting for Noah’s Abraham moment – the moment when he says to God “I don’t agree with this, it is wrong!”  Or “Are you telling me no one else on the earth is worth saving?  Save someone else, too!”  But that moment never arrives.  

     Knowing what you know now about Noah, both the good and the bad, the pluses and the minuses, lets take a quick vote.  You will have two choices, please only vote once.  Your choices will be that Noah was purely righteous, regardless of his generation, or that he was a flawed person, and was only considered righteous because everyone else in his generation was worse.  OK – how many of you would say Noah was purely righteous?  And how many of you would say Noah was fairly flawed, and only righteous when compared with others who were worse?

     Now let me ask another question – of those two Noahs, which do you prefer?

     I have to say the I actually prefer the flawed Noah, and in fact I think it is the flawed Noah who is more in line with the general way that biblical characters are presented.  If you think about any other biblical character – from Moses to Abraham to Sarah to King David and on and on, any other major character, you don’t have to look too far to find significant flaws.  Moses struggles with anger issues, let alone the fact that he kills another man in his youth.  Abraham is unaware of the dynamics in his own home that are tearing his family apart.  Sarah is jealous and hostile towards Hagar.  David is manipulative, steals another man’s wife, and ultimately arranges for that man to be killed.  These characters are not only flawed, not only imperfect, but deeply so.  And Noah is right in line with all of them.

     But let me tell why I actually prefer that.  And to do that I would like to shift genres for a moment, and talk about comic books.  (Just another from of literature!)  I grew up reading and collecting comic books, and I always preferred Marvel comics to DC comics.  DC was the line with? –  Superman and Batman and the Flash and Wonder Woman.  And Marvel had? –  the X-Men and Spiderman and the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.  The symbol of DC comics was Superman.  Superman was perfect – תמים היה בדורותיו – perfect in his generation and every generation.  He was impervious to harm, he had strength beyond measure, he could fly through the air, he had x-ray vision.  

     But the symbol of Marvel comics was Spiderman.  Spiderman was stronger than the average person, and faster, but he was by no means impervious.  He didn’t have X-ray vision, he couldn’t fly – he had to use those web cartridges taped to his wrists, which would occasionally run out.  Superman was noble, moral, ethical, never had a doubt as to why he was doing what he was doing, never had a doubt about anything. 
Spiderman was filled with doubts.  Doubts about whether he should even use his powers.  He worried, he failed, he dropped out of school, and then struggled to hold on to a job, and he couldn’t keep a girlfriend.

     And as a kid I looked at Superman, and I couldn’t relate one bit.  Perfect, I think, is boring.  But also perfect is not me.  But Spiderman, with his doubts and his struggles, with his failures and foibles, that was the kind of hero to whom I could relate.  I knew I would never climb walls, or swing from webs on skyscrapers.  But I also knew I would fail, there would be moments when it wouldn’t work out, I knew my character needed work.  Spiderman was my guy!  

     And that is why I liked the flawed Noah.  That is why it has always made sense to me that the Bible’s heroes are mistake prone and emotional, that they struggle with jealousy and anger, that they sometimes  – maybe even often – don’t treat one another well, that they repeatedly fail to understand what God wants of them and to follow God’s commands.  If I opened up the Torah and every character was perfect, completely moral and ethical, righteous and just, kind and wise – go through you list – I would say who are these people?  They are not my people, and they are not like me.  But when I see them struggle and fail, when I read about Moses’ self-doubt, or Abraham’s insensitivty, or Noah’s selfishness – I say boy, that looks awfully familiar.  And when I see myself in the text and in those characters I  can not only relate to them, I can also learn from them.

     So in Moses’ spiritual growth I can see hope for myself and a path to follow.  In Abraham’s deep faith I can find inspiration.  And through Noah’s story I can understand in a deeper way what it means to face the difficult challenges of life with determination and courage.  

     That is why we’ve been reading these stories for some three thousand years.  May we come to them again and again, in this new year and every year, seeing in their heroes our own lives and struggles and flaws, and also the potential we all have to grow in soul, and to live with courage and faith.

Leave a comment

Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized

One Upon a Time

sermon text from Shabbat services on 10/17/15

I want to first let you know this morning that our women’s group in Israel is doing fabulously well. If you’ve followed their escapades on FB at all then you have a sense of what they’ve been up – meeting Israeli women who are important leaders in their communities; repelling down the side of a cliff in Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon, called Mitzpeh Ramon; and spending a couple of days at one of Israeli’s most elegant spas in the Negev. The group is in high spirits, and although they have made some minor alterations to their itinerary, they are all grateful and proud to be in Israel, especially during this difficult time, by their presence supporting our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state, and affirming the connections between Jews that bind us together as a world wide community. This Shabbat they are in Jerusalem, and they’ll be back Wednesday, richer for the experience, and even more deeply connected to one another, to Israel, and to their Judaism.

In a sense at the center of that connection is the Torah itself, the sacred scroll that we take from the ark each week. It speaks to us of the history of our people, of our origins, of the aspiration that we’ve had for thousands of years to have a land of our own. Israel right now is 7 hours ahead of the US time wise, so it is about 6:30 in the evening there, and Shabbat is just ending. But the women’s group went to shul this morning, and when the Torah came out of the ark in whatever shul they were in they rose, just as we did here a few minutes ago. And the story they read from that far away Torah in Israel is the same one we read here, Parshat Noach, the famous story of Noah and the flood.

That is a story that I’ve long understood as a myth, a story placed in the Torah not because it describes real people and real events, but rather because it comes to teach us important ideas about the world God wants human beings to make, a world free from violence and hatred. We know the arc of the story well. (Pun intended) God comes to believe that the earth has become corrupt to the extent that it is no longer reparable, and God decides to destroy the earth, in essence throwing out the first try at creation for a second attempt. But God sees enough in Noah and his family to believe that they can form the new line of humanity, and God chooses them to survive the flood.

Noah builds the ark, loads it with his family and with the animals, all at God’s command. The waters of the flood come, the terrible rains, waters flooding up from the ground, the oceans and rivers expanding until the entire earth is covered with water. The flood lasts for how long? 40 days and nights! And then the waters begin to recede, and Noah emerges from the ark, with his family, with the animals, and they begin to repopulate the world. The story ends beautifully, with God establishing a covenant with Noah, and with God promising that never again will humanity be destroyed. And God even gives Noah an eternal sign that this promise will be fulfilled – what is it? The rainbow.

And I’ve always felt that the Noah story, with its pounding rain and flooding, with its ark and its animals marching two by two, with its rainbow ending, almost reads like some ancient fairly tale. We all remember fairly tales from our childhood, with their princes and princesses, with their kings and queens, with their dark forests and high castles of light. Almost all of the fairy tales my parents read to me when I was young began and ended in the same way – the first phrase, the classic fairly tale beginning, was – ‘once upon a time.’ And at the end of the fairy tale was another memorable phrase. What is it? And they lived happily ever after.

Those phrases would work well with the Noah story that we read this morning. Imagine the beginning of the story like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Noah, who lived in a far away place. One day God came to Noah and told him that a great flood was coming. And the story would go on from there. And then at the end of the story, after God made the covenant with Noah, after God promised to never again destroy the earth, after God placed the rainbow in the sky as an eternal symbol of that promise, the very last line of the narrative could so easily be ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

But if we wanted to use those fairy tale phrases we’d have one problem, which is this: this morning’s portion doesn’t end with the end of the Noah story. After God’s promise, after the covenant, after the rainbow, there is one more story in the portion. The story of the Tower of Babel. It is tacked on, just 9 short verses, but it serves as a cautionary tale. The earth cannot be fully healed. Human pride and arrogance, human jealousy, these things cannot be eliminated from the world, cannot be excised from human beings. And so God scatters humanity, giving each group a different place to live, a different language to speak, different goals to achieve – and with that one act God places into the world, perhaps forever, the suspicion and distrust that all too often mark human interaction. And so we cannot say, with this tale at least, that they lived happily ever after.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Torah chooses this path. The Torah always seems to find a way to reflect human reality, the real human experience, and of course we all know that in real life, in the real world, there is no line at the end of every story proclaiming ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If anything we get to live happily for a time. But inevitably, in real life, challenges arise. Difficulties confront us. We have our share of happiness and sunshine, but also our share of sadness and doubt and darkness. That is true for every person who has ever lived. As someone once said, life is not a fairly tale.

And neither is the State of Israel. It is a great country, one of the greatest in the world today, but it is not a myth. It is a real land, with real people, beset with real challenges and dangers, challenges and dangers that have seemed daunting over the last weeks. If you know anything at all about Israelis, you know they are pragmatists, and at the very same time they are dreamers. They know that life in Israel can often be hard, that times like this when you feel afraid to walk in the street or to send your child to school will inevitably arise. And yet they walk in the streets. They send their children to school. They get up and go to work and drink coffee in the cafes and laugh and gather together for dinner. That is their pragmatism. They know from their experience that even in the hardest of times they can still live their lives with meaning.

But to be an Israeli is also to be a dreamer. To dream of a fertile land rising from the desert. To dream of a great nation where none existed 67 years ago. To dream of a time when לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה – where nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they make war any more. To dream of a world of peace. We’ve kept that dream alive for more than 2000 years. We will not let it die now. And with that dream will be hope, will be faith, will be strength and courage that a better and brighter day will soon arrive for all –

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Israel, sermon

Flood, Fire, Climate Change

here a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (11/8/14)

Interstellar is the name of a new big budget science fiction movie that opens this weekend starring Matthew M.  The premise of the story is that humankind has used up virtually all of earth’s natural resources.  Climate change has wrought destruction across the globe.  Unpredictable storms rage, famine is out of control, and humankind, in a short period of time, is looking at the literal end of the world.   A crack team of astronauts is recruited and sent into deep space with the hope that they can find new worlds that will either be habitable for humans or give humans the resources they ned to survive.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t tell you what happens exactly, but the early reviews have been very positive.

But as well made as the movie may be, Interstellar is hardly original.  Over the years Hollywood has produced dozens of post apocalyptic movies that deal with various end of the world scenarios, from the Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 to Planet of the Apes in the late 60s, and The Road just a few years ago and World War Z just last year. And the truth is human interest in the end of the world – what it would look like, how it would happen, who would survive – is at least as old as the Bible, and probably quite a bit older than that.  If you think of our Torah readings from the last few weeks we have not one, but two end of the world scenarios that play central roles in the biblical narrative.  What are they?

Just a few weeks ago we read about the flood that God brings to destroy the earth, and in this morning’s Torah portion we have the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is true that with the flood it is the entire world that is destroyed, and with Sodom and Gomorrah just a single city, but biblical commentators have long noticed the parallels between the two stories – 1. destruction by natural elements, in one case water in the other fire.  2. in each story a population is destroyed, while one family is saved – with the flood Noah’s family, with Sodom and Gomorrah Lot’s.  3. Also at the conclusion of both stories the male survivor becomes drunk, and in his drunkenness commits a sexually immoral act.  4.  And finally both stories understand that the reason the destruction comes about  – whether by flood or by fire – is because of human action.  In the flood story we read “God said to Noah ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness מפניהם because of them.’”  And in this morning’s portion, when describing the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, that same sentiment is expressed by God – “the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!”  In both stories destruction may come at the ‘hands’ of God, but it is brought about by the actions of human beings.

We may read these stories today and struggle to make sense of them, because we don’t have a reward and punishment theology, we don’t believe that God will judge humankind and finding us wanting bring about mass destruction – and that is the core narrative of both stories.  But what I would like to do for a moment with you this morning is to take God out of the stories – I know that may seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to do – but just for a moment think about the stories without God.  In both cases the narrative would be something like this:  human kind becomes destructive, lawless, dangerous, out of control, unaware of the consequences of its actions, and then something happens – a flood, a fire storm – that brings about terrible destruction.  And that actually is exactly the narrative of Hollywood’s end of the world movies.  Humankind has lost its way – its moral purpose, its ethical compass – and commonly we introduce an agent ourselves that threatens our existence.  A micro-organism that turns people into zombies, a nuclear weapon that wipes out a city, a deadly plague for which there is no cure – or, in the case of Interstellar, climate change, which in the movie has destroyed the environment to the point where it cannot be repaired.  Crops cannot grow.  There are fewer and fewer hospitable places for people to live.  There are terrible storms, unending droughts, tidal waves.  It is a picture of a world gone haywire, and on the edge of being swept away.

Fifteen or twenty years ago that picture of the world on the verge of destruction because of climate change would have seemed just as fantastic and impossible as a world where people turned into zombies.  But today we understand that climate change is not only real, it is serious and growing more and more dangerous by the year.  This week the United Nations released a fifth and final report by its specially appointed panel charged with scientifically investigating the causes of climate change and its potential long term effects.  The report did not paint a pretty picture, and perhaps most alarming of all of its findings is that the window of time in which we can begin to limit the warming of our planet is shrinking rapidly.  According to the report emissions of greenhouse gases caused by humans have to be brought under control within 30 years in order to ward off effects that could be devastating across the globe.  I don’t need to tell you that 30 years is not the distant future.  As Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sang ‘the future is here, we are it, and we are on our own.”

The challenges are daunting.  A solution to this problem will require global cooperation.  Essentially every major nation in the world will have to work together, create standards together, and agree to abide by those standards as quickly as possible.  Resources – from food to financial  – may need to be allocated on a global scale.  On the surface it sounds impossible, too big to even get our heads around, let alone to begin to work these issues out and make progress.  But it has to be done, and it has to be done now.  As it says in the Mishnah, אם אין אכשיו אימתי – if not now, when?  One thing I know for sure is this – if we don’t start, we’ll never finish.

What can be done?  First, we must be aware, knowledgable, and engaged.  We should let our elected officials know that this is an issue we care deeply about.  Political leaders are much more likely to get things done when the think their constituents truly care.  Next week international delegates from around the globe will convene in Lima Peru in the hopes of creating a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  If they can successfully complete their work that will be a first step on a long road, but it will at least be a step in the right direction.

And America has to lead the world in this process, through words and through actions.  The President has been meeting with Republican leaders all week after Tuesday’s elections, and both sides are saying that they want to find common ground to get something done for the American people and to move the country in the right direction.  I hope the issue of climate change will find a way into their discussions.  If it does and they are able to make real progress on arguably the most important issue in the world today, it won’t only be good for America and Americans – it will be a blessing for all people, in all places. –

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized