Tag Archives: Passover

Our Stories

Following is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat and the first day of Passover, 4/20/19 –

     I am sure you’ve all known someone who is famous for telling stories.  Almost every family has that person.  Maybe an uncle or grandfather or grandmother, maybe a friend.  You can see them getting amped up, getting into story telling mode, their hands start to wave around, their voices rise in excitement.  Often their stories are repeated – you’ve heard them more than a few times over the years.  In fact, we can often repeat the stories ourselves, even finish the sentences, because we’ve heard them so often, and we know all of the punch lines.

     But we love those stories.  As much as we laugh about them, as much as we might roll our eyes, or glance across the table at one another when they are being told, those stories are part of our lives, they are about our families, they reflect our history, our origins, our understanding of who we are and where we’ve come from.  We Jews are story tellers, it is part of our DNA.  Every holiday has its story.  On Purim we tell the tale of Esther and Mordecai and Haman.  On Rosh Hashanah the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the top of the mountain.  On Hanukkah we tell our children and grandchildren about the brave Maccabees and the miracle of a small vial of oil that burned for 8 days.    

     But the story telling holiday par excellence in Judaism in Passover.  Passover is the only holiday where the telling of a story is actually considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment.  The text of the Haggadah itself makes that clear – “even if we are all wise and understanding, all elders, all expert in Torah, מצוה עלינו לספר ביציאת מצראים – we are still commanded to tell the story of the Exodus.  That is the Magid section of the Haggadah, Magid a word that actually means ‘telling.’  It is the core of the Haggadah, beginning with the הא לחמא עניא, including the four questions, the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak, and the extended midrash on the passage ‘My father was a wandering Aramean.’  And even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, even if we know the passages by heart, we are still commanded to tell that story at the seder.

      And we have a particular way of telling the story.  A Jewish way.  If you think for a moment about the old fairy tales, the old stories we heard growing up, they all began and ended in the same way.  The beginning was always what?  ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away.’  And what is always the last line of those classic stories?  ‘And they lived happily ever after.’  In between that beginning and ending you will always find, in one form or an other, a prince and a princess, an evil witch or a dangerous dragon, and in the course of the story the dragon is slain, or the witch is defeated, the prince and the princess find one another, fall in love, get married, move to a beautiful castle, and then that last sentence  – ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ 

    But the Jewish story is told differently.  We don’t begin our stories by saying ‘once upon a time in a land far away.’  Instead we begin our stories by talking about a specific time, a specific place, and specific people.  Last night we said ‘we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.’  An actual time, a real place – Egypt; the villain is a real person, Pharaoh; and the story is about real people – in fact, our ancestors.  That is how a Jewish story begins!

     But we also end our stories differently.  If the fairy tale ends with ‘they lived happily ever after,’ how did we end the seder last night?  Next year in Jerusalem!  What do we mean when we say that?  We talked about this at our seder last night.  What happens if you are celebrating Passover in Jerusalem?  You’ve completed the seder, and you are ready to go to bed, everyone is full and tired, let alone that they’ve had four cups of wine, but you need that last sentence, you need to conclude your story.  It wouldn’t make sense to say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ when you are actually sitting in Jerusalem having your seder.  So what do you say?  Next year in a rebuilt  Jerusalem!  The last line of the seder ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ isn’t about an actual place, it is about a spiritual place and a future time, when one day the Messiah will come, and the world will be healed, and Jerusalem will a symbol of hope and healing and faith.  We don’t end our stories by tying everything up into that neat box.  Instead, we end our stories by looking to the future, with caution, but also with hope.  Next year in Jerusalem isn’t really an ending.  It is a pause, but more than anything else it is an acknowledgement that the story continues.  Today, tomorrow, next month, next year, and beyond.  

     And I think there are two reasons we end the seder that way.  The first is that it reminds us of our responsibility in terms of making the world the way it should be.  When you say ‘they lived happily ever after’ it means they went to their castle, and the story was over.  They were done with their work.  They were no longer interested in changing the world.  But when you say ‘next year in Jerusalem’ it means there is much work to be done, it means that the world needs to be changed, and it reminds you that you have a role in making that happen.  

     But the other thing next year in Jerusalem does is remind you of your role in the telling of the story.  In a story that doesn’t end, someone needs to pick it up, someone needs to carry the thread of the narrative, and bring it to the next generation and the next and the next.  That is what happens at the seder table.  

     There is a scene in the Return of the King, the last volume of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of my favorites.  The hobbits Sam and Frodo have completed their quest, and against all odds managed to destroy the magic ring of the enemy.  They have played their role in the great drama of their time, as we all do in our own way.  And Sam pauses, thinking about all that they’ve seen, all that they’ve been through, and he says this:  “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told!  And I wonder how it will go on after our part.”

     At the seder table we both tell the tale, and acknowledge our role in it.  We look to the past, our past, and recount great deeds and momentous events that miraculously still to this very day continue to shape our lives.  But we also understand on Passover that we have each played a part in this great story, and God willing we should continue to do so for many years, and many seders, to come.

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Elijah the Reconciler

Here is a text version of my sermon from 4/13/19 –

     It may be hard to believe, but one week from today seder #1 will already be over.  This coming Friday night Jews around the world will gather with family and friends, recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, eat their matzah and maror, drink their wine, and celebrate their freedom.  The seder is a series wonderful rituals, from the symbolic foods that we eat, to the four questions that we ask, to the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak that we tell.  

     Were you to ask me what my favorite moment in the seder is it would be hard for me to choose, but if you pressed me I would probably say the moment when we welcome Elijah the Prophet to our seder table.  I have vivid memories from my childhood of intently staring at Elijah’s cup after the opening of the door, always astonished when somehow, seemingly by magic, the wine filled kiddish cup set aside for the Prophet began to shake.  It wasn’t until I was around the age of bar mitzvah that I learned the cup shook because my Uncle Marvin would bump the edge of the table with his thigh.

     At our seders I try to recreate that sense of mystery for the young children who are with us, although our niece Lily, now 9, long ago learned about the thigh bumping trick.   And the truth is my interest in Elijah and my fascination with the idea of the Prophet coming to the seder has stayed with me all these years.  Elijah’s arrival at the seder is a turning point in the ritual, redirecting us from the past we’ve been remembering – the Exodus events, the plagues, the experience of slavery – and pointing us to the future, the potential of a messianic era when pain and suffering will no longer be a part of the human experience.  

     The old joke is how does Elijah manage to get to all of those seders?  He must use the same Uber driver as Santa Clause.  But the truth is Elijah appears in the course of the Jewish year at three liturgical moments – the seder is one – what are the other two?  One is havdallah, and those of you who have come for Saturday evening services know that at the end of havdallah it is traditional to sing the song we’ll sing about Elijah at our seders – Eliyahu HaNavi!  So Elijah’s presence is invoked at every havdallah ceremony.  And when else?  The bris!  According to tradition Elijah is present at every bris, and if you’ve been to a bris recently you may remember that just before the circumcision the baby is placed in a special chair, referred to as Kisai Shel Eliyahu – the Chair of Elijah.  

     The question is why does Elijah appear at these three moments, what is it that they have in common, and the answer is each is a moment of transition.  On Pesah we transition from slavery to freedom.  At havdallah we transition from the end of Shabbat to the work day week.  And at the bris the baby transitions from being outside of the covenant to being on the inside.  And Elijah is the symbolic figure of transition in Judaism, because Elijah, according to the tradition, is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah, and that will be the ultimate transition.

     But if Elijah is the figure of transition in the tradition, he is also a symbol of resolution.  I imagine you know that the Talmud is filled with debate after debate, about just about anything you could imagine under the sun, from dates to rituals to the meaning of biblical text.  And sometimes, in the course of talmudic discourse, the debate is left without any kind of resolution, without any kind of decision being made as to which opinion is right and which is wrong.  When that happens in the Talmud – when there is an unresolved dispute –  you will often find the following word written at the end of the debate: Teiku.  That is actually an acronym in Hebrew – ת – י – ק – ו and those letters stand for Tishbi – Yitareitz – Kushiyot – u’Ba’ayot – which means:  the Tishabite will resolve the talmudic debates and other problems.  Who is the Tishabaite?  Who is the Tishbi?  Elijah!  And the tradition believes that when that day comes, and Elijah arrives to announce the Messiah’s imminence, he will also resolve all of those talmudic debates, telling us which opinion was right, and which one was wrong. 

  That idea of Elijah as the one who resolves debates and fixes problems also has something to do with Passover.  If you were following along with Ben’s chanting of this morning’s haftara, special for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, you may have noticed that in the last lines of the text Elijah is mentioned.  Here are the verses:  “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great, awe filled day.  והישיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם – and he will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

     In other words, Elijah, at least according to this text, will be the reconciler, the one who restores broken relationships in families, who heals the rifts that all too often develop over time between us and those we love.  And so we need Elijah to appear, not only on the night of the seder, but also on this Shabbat, almost a week before Passover, because we know when the holiday comes our family will be gathering.  And we know how painful it is to sit at the seder table with someone with whom we feel distant.  Or how even more painful it is to sit at the seder table without someone who should be there, because of some old, unresolved dispute.

     But it is here where I would differ with the tradition.  Don’t wait for Elijah to come to resolve those disagreements and divisions.  In the seders of my childhood Elijah’s cup moved not because the great Prophet had arrived and somehow sipped the wine.  Instead, as I learned when I got older – that cup was shaking because of human action.  So it is in our own lives and our own families.  When we want to heal a division – in our world, in our families, even in our own hearts – we are the ones who must, to use the words of this morning’s haftara, heishiv lev – we are the ones who must turn our hearts.  That internal turning is the only thing I know of that can lead to the external actions – the call, the conversation, the apology, the decision – that can make the difference between the world we live in now, and the world we want to live in one day.

     May Passover this year bring that spirit into our hearts and into our world – 

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Purim vs. Passover

A text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat –

     If you don’t mind I’d like to begin by doing a little bit of calendaring with you, reminding you of a couple of important upcoming dates on the Jewish calendar.  First of all, one week from Wednesday night is the beginning of Purim, and we have a wonderful evening planned: a Purim carnival for the young, we’ll have the Bible players, a kind of biblically oriented minstrel group, giving us their take on the story of Esther; also a class that evening about the holiday, and then the culmination of the evening, a robust reading of the megilah combined with our very own version of the Masked Singers of Shushan, where you’ll be asked to guess at the identities of Beth El staff and members as they sing popular songs while wearing ridiculous costumes.  Again, that is all happening one week from Wednesday evening, activities beginning at 5:15, right here at Beth El.

     But if Purim is a little over a week away, that means that Passover can’t be far behind, and indeed the first seder is exactly six weeks from last night.  Believe it or not I actually know two people who have already started cooking for Passover!  Just in the last few days my wife Becky has started encouraging me to try to finish any hametz that we have around the house, from cookies to candy to beer, and I am sure that Seven Mile Market is laying in a large store of brisket for the coming weeks.  The truth is on the Hebrew calendar Purim and Passover are just about a month apart, both holidays falling on the 14th day of their respective months.  

     And what I would like to do with you for a few minutes this morning is to think about the two holidays together, sort of holding one up against the other.  To start that process I’ll ask a simple question that we’ll vote on – the question is which holiday is more important.  If you think that Purim is more important than Passover, raise your hand.  Now, if you think Passover is more important than Purim, raise your hand.

     No question what we’ve just seen reflects the general perception of the two holidays, and for good reason.  After all, Purim is, at least these days, largely understood as a holiday for children.  Even the adults who celebrate dress up in costume, there are comical activities going on in shul, there is a carnival, the reading of the Megillah is often filled with shtick, even the story of the Megillah can be read as a kind of dark comedy where everything gets flipped upside down, sort of like something from the imaginings of the Coen brothers, the creators of Fargo.  Purim is a lot of fun, but not much more than that.

     Passover, on the other hand, is on a totally different level.  It is, first of all, the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.  By far!  Statistics show that upwards of 90% of Jews make sure to get to a Passover seder.  Just to give you something to compare it to, only about 60% of Jews fast on Yom Kippur.  Passover is also complicated, with all of the rituals and the special foods for the seder plate and the haggadah text that leads us through the evening.  Passover is about serious themes – it is about freedom and human dignity, it is about the coming of spring and the rebirth of the world, and what is more, Passover tells the origin story of the Jewish people – we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us, bringing us to the Promised Land and freedom.  Passover is serious business!

     And Passover has other advantages over Purim.  It is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals commanded by the Torah.  Purim isn’t even mentioned in the Torah!  Purim lasts one day – you are in, you are out!  Passover is a festival that is celebrated for?  8 full days!  Passover has its own special version of kashrut.  The list could go on and on.  So it is no wonder that in the poll we just conducted, the vast majority of us voted for Passover as the more important of the two holidays.   

     Which is why I have always been puzzled by a very strange teaching in our tradition about what the messianic era will be like.  And our Sages said that when the Messiah finally arrives, the Pilgrimage Festivals – Sukkot, Shavuot – and Pesah – Passover! – will no longer be celebrated.  But Purim will still be observed.  Let me say that once more – our Sages believed that in the messianic era we won’t have to build sukkoth any more, or shake the lulav and etrog, or study Torah on the night of Shavuot – or sit down at a seder table, and celebrate Passover.  But we will still have to gather together to read the Megillah and to celebrate Purim.  

     So despite our vote, in some way and for some reason our Sages believed that there is a message in Purim that is more important that the messages of Passover.  That there is an idea that Purim represents, that is more significant in some way than all of those values we associate with Pesah.  What could it possibly be?

     And I think the answer to that question has to do with the often noted fact that God’s name does not appear in the Megillah.  So on March 20th, when you all come back for Purim, and I hope you will, follow along closely with the reading of the Megillah, and you’ll see that there is no mention of God, anywhere, in the Book of Esther.  But 6 weeks from now, when you are sitting at the seder table, take a moment and start counting how many times God’s name appears in the Haggadah.  Just in the kiddish alone, including the shehechiyanu, you have 9.  And as you flip through the pages you will find God referred to over and over again, often by name.  Think of it like this – God is not on a single page of the Megillah.  But God is on virtually every page of the Haggadah.  

     And that is because the core question of the Haggadah is ‘what did God do for us?’  The Haggadah, at least the first half, is in many ways an answer to that question.  God took note of us, God performed miracles for us, God took us from slavery to freedom.  And we thank God for God’s kindnesses.  That is Hallel!  What did God do for us?  That is the question of the Haggadah.

     But the question of the Megillah is an entirely different question.  The story of Purim asks ‘what did we do for ourselves?’  And it answers that question by showing how, with incredible courage, in the face of enormous odds, Mordecai and Esther saved the Jews of their time.

     And I think the message the Sages saw in Purim that they didn’t see in Passover is that salvation ultimately must come about through human action, not through God’s miracles.  If you want to make the world a better place, if you want to heal the world, if you want to make the world into the kind of place where one day the Messiah might actually come – then you can’t ask the question ‘what will God do.’  But you have to ask the question ‘what will we do?’ And when you ask it over and over and over again,  then that world can become a reality.

     Now I love Passover.  It is my favorite holiday, and it is only 6 weeks away.  But Purim is first, and it has a powerful – and often over looked – lesson about the responsibility we all have, through the way we lead our lives, to create together a better world.  Let’s celebrate that message on Purim in 10 days, and carry that message with us through Passover and beyond.  Kein Yehi Ratzon

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Structured Memories

I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives.  Think of it for a moment.  Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish.  The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing.  And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.

But why the frequency and emphasis?  Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost?  Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments?  Aren’t our losses with us every day?  And if so, why all of these kaddishes?  These yartzeits and Yizkors?

Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by.  I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit:  ‘How long is your loved one gone?’  ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’  Or 10, or 20, or 40.  Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.

There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community.  In that community we understand our experience is shared.  We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history.  And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.

And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering.  Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both.  Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.  Even when the journey of their life has ended.

May their memories always be for a blessing!

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Taking Out the Garbage

This is a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 3/24/18.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had an experience that was both rare for me these days, and also I realized, refreshing, and perhaps even important in an odd way.  I was out and about in the Baltimore area, and as happens about 99% of the time, I saw from across the room someone I know from the congregation.  I figured I would go over to say hello and check in for a moment or two, knowing of course that the person would know I was there, and might feel slighted if I didn’t say ‘hi.’

I went over to the person and reached out my hand to shake hers, and said ‘how are you, good to see you.’  She looked at me with a blank stare, clearly in her mind thinking ‘who the heck is this?!’  Now I must admit my self esteem took a small hit.  One of my own congregants, and she didn’t even recognize me!?  How was this possible?  After an awkward moment or two I said ‘its Rabbi Schwartz, from Beth El,’ at which point she realized who I was, and began to profusely apologize.  I tried to reassure her – ‘please, no worries,’ I said.  ‘Just wanted to say hello.  Have a good time and I’ll see you in shul.’

Now in my poor congregant’s defense, I wasn’t exactly dressed in shul clothes.  She is used to seeing me in a suit and tie, often with a tallis on, and that evening I was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plus I had a baseball cap on my head.  And it was probably in a place she was not expecting to see her rabbi.  So I was totally out of context for her, and for a couple of days in my mind that was how I rationalized what happened.

But then I began to realize that the problem had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with me.  That is to say, why should I have expected to be recognized in the first place?  Am I so important, am I such a recognizable figure, that I think people should know who I am?  What we had here was a problem of humility – namely my own lack of said quality.  I had briefly forgotten one of my chief rules of rabbinical work, which is – never believe your own press clippings.

So it is perhaps propitious that we come to this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, in the week leading up to Passover, which as I expect you all know begins this coming Friday night.  Because in both this morning’s Torah portion, and also in my experience of the Passover holiday, are lessons of humility that I will try my very best to take to heart in the months ahead.  First of all, the Torah portion.

There is a wonderful story told of the Brisker Rav, who was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  It seems that he had a student who was having trouble getting along with his wife.  One day the student arrived early at the Rav’s home.  The Rav invited him in, poured him a cup of coffee, and asked him what was wrong.  The student replied, ‘My wife is giving me a hard time because I refuse to take out the garbage.  Can you imagine that she wants me, a Torah scholar, to actually take out the garbage.’  The Brisker Rav sagely nodded his head, and simply said to the student, ‘let me think about this.’

The very next morning -early – there was a knock on the student’s door.  Much to his astonishment the Brisker Rav was standing at his doorstep asking to come in.  When the student invited his teacher inside the Rav went straight to the kitchen, found the garbage can, and took it out to the street.  When the student asked the Rav what he was doing he simply replied “It may be beneath your dignity to take out the garbage, but I thought I’d show you it isn’t beneath my dignity.”  By the way what the student’s wife said to him was not recorded in the version of the story I saw.  We can only imagine.

But the story does reflect a small and curious detail that our Torah portion relates about the Priests in ancient times, and their service at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Priests were the most important people in ancient Israel, honored and respected as religious authorities and sources of wisdom.  And this morning’s portion describes their day to day duties in terms of their Temple service.  One can imagine that the Priest arrived at work in the morning to great fanfare.  After all, he was going to be doing God’s work for the people, offering the sacrifices, making judgements about which things were pure and which were impure, helping people to recover from illnesses.

But the very first thing the Priest had to do when he arrived in the morning was to take off his fancy clothes, put on his schlepper clothes – old jeans and torn sweatshirt – and then he had to clean out the altar area from the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices, and then carry those ashes outside.  So literally, the great Priests of ancient Israel started their days by taking out the garbage.  And that image is a very helpful reminder to me about he importance of humility – even when, and maybe particularly when – you find yourself in a position of Jewish leadership.

Which brings me to the second thing that helps to reset my humility needle, and that is Pesah, precisely because it is the family holiday of our tradition par excellence.  When I stand here and preach, or lead services, or help you with life cycle events, I am the rabbi, and always treated as such, with respect.  And believe me it is very much appreciated.  But when I sit down at the seder table with my family, even though I am leading the seder, I am not the rabbi.  I am Tali, Josh, and Merav’s dad.  I am Becky’s husband.  I am my parents’s son, Becky’s parents’ son in law.  My children remind me that I don’t know the proper tune to a number of the Passover songs. (which may simply be a comment on my singing)  Becky quietly reminds me I am talking too much, and that we need to get the food out on the table, something my congregants would never do while I am conducting services.  Becky’s parents remind me they knew me when.  My parents remind me they REALLY knew me when.  I think you get the picture, and as you may imagine, it is all very humbling, and it is wonderful.  Sometimes it is good to be reminded that you are no more special, no wiser, no more insightful or wonderful, than anyone else.

Of course in today’s world that is a lesson probably everyone could benefit from.  Certainly our politicians, so entrenched in their own views, so convinced of their own wisdom and that they know better than anyone else, could use a good does of humility.  Maybe they should take a cue from the Priests in the Torah, and show up early to work, change out of their suits, put on their work clothes, and spend a half hour taking out the garbage.  Lord knows there is enough of it in Washington DC.  But I am guessing the list could go on and on, and we could all think of someone we know – whether ourselves, or someone else – who could use a good dose of humility.

The question, of course, is where does that dose come from?  For me, the two best sources are my faith and my family.  My faith reminds me of how grateful I should be for every day and every blessing, of how little I should take credit for and how lucky I am.  My family reminds me of something even more important – who I truly am – which is, just a person like everyone else.

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Crossing Over Into A New Year

I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces.  These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another.  The huppah is one prime example.  The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so.  While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.

Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life.  A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community.  The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.

There are many other examples.  It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).

Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another.  Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again.  There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time.  Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free.  Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever.  Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives.  New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah.  It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast.  But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives.  We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold.  More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time.  2018?!  That seems like an awfully big number.  Wasn’t it just the 1980s?  Am I really that old?  Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?!  New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life.  And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.

The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment:  “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.  Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out.  There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”

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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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