Tag Archives: prayer

What Did You Say?

Some thoughts about talking and listening from my Shabbat sermon on 7/28.

 Among my favorite phrases in the prayer book is a tiny, two word phrase that can be found – at least in a traditional siddur – at the beginning of every amidah.  The words are not part of an actual prayer –  instead, they are an instruction, like in some prayer books where it will say ‘take three steps back,’ or ‘bend and bow.’  The phrase, in Hebrew, is תפילה בלחש – literally translated, a ‘whisper prayer.’  

     Over the years the way we understand that instruction has changed, in some ways dramatically.  In our community we commonly say ‘we’ll continue silently’, or ‘we will continue with silent prayer,’ but a whisper is clearly not silent – it is quiet, but it is heard, it is audible.  And the original intention of the instruction was not that we should be silent, but instead that even when we are praying privately we should be talking – whispering, yes – but still, talking out loud.

     And the reason I love that phrase in the prayer book is because it so accurately reflects who we are as Jews.  We are inveterate talkers.  There is a young woman who recently began studying with me for conversion, and she comes from a Catholic background.  As part of the conversion process I have asked her to attend synagogue with some regularity, and a few weeks ago she went for the very first time, never having been in a shul before.  We met a few days later, and I asked her what she thought of the experience.  She hesitated for a few moments before she said ‘it was amazing to me that everyone talked through the service!’  She was used to a Catholic mass, where the parishioners sit quietly, reflecting in silence until they are called upon to participate in the liturgy.  But she walked into a shul!  There were a couple of guys kibitzing in the back about the Orioles.  There were people right in the middle of the congregation having a conversation about the weather.  And the talking continued throughout, waxing and waning, some areas got a bit quieter while others got louder, but it never stopped.  Even up on the bimah people were talking while the service was going on! 

     You would never see that in most Christian services, but that is what we Jews do.  It sometimes seems like we never stop talking.  There are many times when I’ve been at Levinsons and the doors open to the chapel for the family to walk out, and there is a loud hubbub of conversation, which takes a moment or two to die down – after all, people have to finish their sentences.  Mind you this is after the funeral director has been out and asked people to be quiet.  We talk during meetings – how many times have you been at a meeting for a Jewish organization and you realize there are multiple conversations going on all at the same time about a variety of topics?  We talk while we eat.  When we read the newspaper we spend half the time reading articles out loud to our spouses.  We are story tellers and kibitzers, in fact we even are known for talking with our hands, in reality an organ that cannot speak.  

     There is something hamaisch about all of that talking.  It is connective, there is a vibrancy to it, and a sense of community and closeness.  But I do worry sometimes that with all of the talking that goes on, what can sometimes suffer is listening.  After all, it is hard to listen when you are talking.  And if Jews are very good at talking, I am not sure we are all that good at listening.  So it is interesting to me that the Shema Yiisrael has become the best known prayer in our tradition.  After all, think for a moment what it means – ‘Hear O Israel’ is our normal translation.  But you could just as easily and accurately translate those words as ‘Listen Israel!’

     Now who is the speaker of those words?  It is Moses.  The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially one long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites.  The Hebrew word ‘shema’ is not actually all that common in the Torah.  In the Book of Leviticus, for example, it appears only 6 times.  But here in Deuteronomy, in the course of Moses’ long speech, he uses the word שמע 92 times.  And in our Torah portion, in the verses that lead up to the Shema Israel verse itself, Moses uses the word שמע 9 times.  We might say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  You almost get the feeling that Moses is speaking, and while he is trying to get his message across the Israelites are kibitzing, and this one is talking to that one over there, and that one is talking to this one over here  – just like shul!  And finally, Moses has to pause in his remarks, and say ‘Hey, listen up!  I am speaking over here!  This is important!  Shema Yisrael!’

     The truth is the root for the Hebrew word shema – the ש מ ע – has multiple meanings in the Bible.  Sometimes it is used in the plainest sense of the word – it just means to listen, to literally hear something that is being said.  Other times it is clearly intended to imply not just listening but also comprehension and understanding.  ‘I have heard’ means ‘I understand.’  And sometimes the Bible uses the word shema to mean obey, in the sense of I have heard you means I will do what you say.  It is a nuanced word, and when we say Shema Israel in the course of our services the intention of the liturgy is for us to have a sense of all of those meanings.  Again, our regular translation of the phrase ‘Shema Yisrael’ is Hear O Israel!  But a better translation might be something like this:  “Listen and concentrate.  Give the word of God your focused attention and strive to understand what this is all about.  Discern God’s will, and be prepared to abide by it.”

     But of course for any of that to be successful the talking has to stop, at least for a few moments here and there.  So we can hear each other, not just what we are saying, but what we mean.  And so we can give ourselves the opportunity to hear, to sense, to understand, to comprehend, what God’s will might be, and from that to decide how we will respond.  I don’t know of any other faith tradition that has a prayer like the Shema.  Normally when we think of prayer we think of saying something to God, of reaching out and trying to communicate with the Divine.  But the Shema is not directed at God in any way.  It is instead directed at us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.  It reminds us to study God’s word, to abide by God’s commandments, and to teach God’s traditions to our children.  And it reminds us that in order to do all of that, and to do it well, we must sometimes stop the talking, and simply listen.

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A Retired Tallit

It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago.  I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service.  In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement.  But those very same practices fascinated me.  It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition?  Authenticity?  Some ancient mysticism?  Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.

Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn?  At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag.  But in my twenties it became a daily companion.  I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame.  But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays.  In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit.  It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled.  Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it.  After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.

This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year.  I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully.  I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart?  I put it on on bad days and good ones.  Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude.  There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers.  I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.

As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare.  The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear.   Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload.  The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed.  And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.

It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart.  I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest.  It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today.  One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim.  But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was.  There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, continuity, Jewish life, liminal moments, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

Problems of Prayer

This text of my Kol Nidre sermon from 9/29/17 –

One week ago tomorrow, on Shabbat afternoon, I took our dog for a long walk around the neighborhood with our niece Lily.  Lily is the daughter of my brother and sister in law and just starting second grade, and as we walked we talked about various things – school, a strange bug we saw, the dog, cracks in the sidewalk – I guess pretty typical conversation with a seven year old.  That morning she had come to Shabbat services, so I figured I would ask her what she thought about shul.  ‘How did you like services?’ I asked.  ‘It was pretty boring,’ she said. ‘What was boring about it?’ I asked.  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘you just sit around and say all those prayers.’

And I don’t know if Lily’s comments reflect your experience of shul, but I can tell you they brought back memories of my own childhood, and sitting in services next to my father, particularly on the High Holy Days.  I had a general sense of what page the service ended on, and I would keep my finger in that place of the prayer book, counting the number of pages we had left to go.  It was always exciting when the rabbi skipped a bunch of pages – for example, we’d go from page 60 to page 70!  That was great!  We were that much closer to the aleinu!

But if the prayers were challenging for me, what I did enjoy about shul were the various scriptural readings of the holidays.  I liked hearing about Abraham and Sarah, I enjoyed the dramatic narrative of the High Priest and the YK day ritual that we read tomorrow morning.  And I particularly liked the story of the prophet Jonah, that we will read at Minha tomorrow afternoon.

I am sure you all remember the story of Jonah.  He is asked by God to deliver a message to the city of Nineveh and its residents, to tell them they have sinned but that if they repent they will be spared.  As a child I didn’t know much about sin and repentance and all of that business, but I did love the part of the story where Jonah is swallowed up by a ? big fish!  In my mind I tried to imagine how Jonah could have survived for three days and nights in the fish’s belly.  I thought about how big the fish must have been to swallow a man whole.  I wondered at how dark it was, Jonah all by himself, deep under the water, with no light and no source of comfort or hope.

And my favorite part of the story came at that moment – that low and dark moment in Jonah’s life – when the text tells us he prayed to God from the belly of the fish.  קראתי מצרה לי אל ה׳ ויענני – In my trouble I called out to God, and God answered me.  מבטן שאול שועתי שמעת קולי – from the darkest place I called, and You heard my voice.  I don’t know how my niece Lily would feel about that prayer, but for me it has always had a distinctive power, and it has grown even more compelling as I’ve aged, and certainly as I’ve worked in the rabbinate over the last two decades.

There is a simple reason for that – in my eyes, Jonah’s prayer reflects the human experience, that at the difficult and dark moments of our lives, the moments of doubt and pain, the moments of loss, the moments of fear, the moments when we feel hopeless – at those moments we turn to God, we call out for help, and we seek God’s presence.  But over the last few years I’ve become worried that we do that less and less today.  I am concerned that our faith in prayer is waning, and that it has become more and more difficult for us to find in the experience of prayer meaning and value.

Many years ago Alvin Book, a long time member of Beth El, came to see me.  When he walked into my office, in his hands, he held this little abridged Bible.  These were standard issue, given to the Jewish soldiers in the Army during the Second World War.  Alvin told me that he had landed on the Normandy beaches, on June 7, 1944, the day after D Day.  The beaches were still not secure, and the troops were being heavily shelled.  He ran to the closest fox hole he could find, a shallow ditch in the sand.  And he huddled there, and he was terrified, paralyzed with no idea of what to do or how to move forward.  As the shells were exploding he was saying ‘God please help me.’  And he told me he reached to his heart, because it was beating so heavily, and his hand hit the pocket of his uniform, and in that pocket was this Bible.  And for some reason, just really looking for something to help him, he took this Bible out of his pocket, and with shaking hands opened it.  And this is the passage he opened it to –

Out of the depths I call to You, O Lord.  Listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy…

I look to the Lord, I look to God, I await God’s word.  I wait for God like watchmen wait for the dawn…  (Psalm 130)

Alvin told me the moment he read that passage he felt a sense of calm, he felt that God was there with him, he felt he was going to be OK.

Notice that nothing external changed in his situation.  The shells didn’t stop falling.  He was still lying in a fox hole.  He was still in grave mortal danger.  None of that changed.  God did not make a miracle, create a protective shield, or move him out of harm’s way.  His circumstances were exactly the same as before he reached for that Bible.  But there was a transformation that occurred at that moment.  An internal transformation.  Something changed inside of Alvin, something that helped him feel a sense of courage and hope and strength that he didn’t have before.

And you know what?  Rabbis also struggle with prayer.  And Alvin’s story has helped me to understand prayer, how prayer works, and how it can be meaningful in my life, and maybe it can do the same for you.  I think my niece Lily was on to something last Shabbat afternoon – prayer can be enormously difficult for us.  As Lily said, it can be boring at times, after all we sit here for hours on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayer after prayer, and if you are one of those who mark the end of the service with your finger in the Mahzor, you know we still have a long ways to go.  (In fact tonight, 40 more pages to be exact!)  And there are additional challenges – Hebrew not the least of them!  How many of us can read Hebrew well, let alone understand what we are reading?  And even if we go to the English side of the page we struggle with the meaning of many of the prayers, some of them close to 2000 years old, and it can be difficult to understand how they can connect to us and our lives.

But I think the biggest challenge to prayer today is that we have lost faith in its power.  We don’t believe that prayer can be a transformational experience, that it can make a difference in how we live, or who we are.  One of the primary reasons for that is that we’ve come to think of prayer as a process of asking God for something.  And once we ask, our request is either granted or not.  In the simplest of terms, we ask God for a new bike.  If we get the bike, we believe our prayer has been answered.  If we don’t, we feel that either God said ‘no,’ or that God never heard our prayer in the first place.  And if that is the way we think of prayer then we very well may sit here for hours on RH and YK and wonder whether it is even worthwhile opening our Mahzorim.

But what if we think about prayer differently?  What if prayer is supposed to be what happened to Alvin Book on that beach 73 years ago?  That the power of prayer is NOT about making external changes in the world.  God does not miraculously produce the bike!  Instead the power of prayer is about making internal changes, in our own hearts and minds.  And then maybe, when we are transformed internally, we will go out into the world and make it a better place because of our presence in it.

Ten years ago tomorrow, on Yom Kippur afternoon, 2007, the Jewish year 5768, Rabbi Mark Loeb of blessed memory gave his last High Holy Day sermon to our congregation.  Many of you will remember that in those days we recited Yizkor in the afternoon, and Rabbi Loeb spoke just before that Yizkor service.  The Berman Rubin sanctuary was packed, fuller than I have ever seen it, before or since – my guess would be close to 2000 people were in the room.  Rabbi Loeb was in a reflective mood that Yom Kippur, sensing the power of that moment in his life magnified by the most powerful day of the Jewish year, and he delivered his remarks with a characteristic brilliance, but with an uncharacteristic depth of emotion.

At the very end of that sermon he told the following story in the name of Rabbi Israel Salantar:  “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I went out, and worked, and tried, but I found it was very difficult to change the world.  Then I thought I might change my nation, but I found I couldn’t change my nation.  When I realized that, I thought to change my community, but even that was too difficult for me.  Now that I am an older man, I’ve realized the only thing I can change is myself.  And if I can do that, then one day maybe I will be able to change the world.”

Had you asked Rabbi Loeb if he thought that the prayers we recite during these holy days are heard by God, I think he would have said “I don’t really know.”  Were you to ask me the same question, I would say the same thing.  I don’t honestly know if my prayers today will somehow reach God’s presence, in some distant heavenly throne room, or even in any way, shape, or form.  But I do believe with all of my heart and soul that the prayers of my mouth and the meditations of my heart can make a real difference in how I understand my role in this world, in how I live my life, and in how I relate to the people that I love.  And I also know that if those things happen through my prayers during these holy days, then my prayers will have truly been answered.  So may all our prayers on this Yom Kippur arrive at their proper destination, transforming our lives for the good, enabling us all to enter this new year with faith, courage, and hope.IMG_4981

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S.Q.N

It stands for sine qua non, a latin phrase that means ‘an essential condition, a thing that is absolutely necessary.’  What is the bottom line ingredient that is required to make something what it is?  Scotch, for example, might be blended or single malt, it might be aged in casks made of sherry or oak, it might be smokey or peaty.  But it must be made from malted barley.  That is its sine qua non.  If it isn’t made from malted barley, it isn’t scotch whisky.

I’ve often wondered about the sine qua non of the synagogue.  Does it exist, and if so what would it be?  The study and learning?  The Hebrew school?  The adult education programs?  Social action?  All important.  But if I had to choose one fundamental piece, the one component without which a synagogue would no longer be a synagogue, I would choose the prayer service – the minyan.

After all, the study and learning can happen at a local university with a strong adult education program.  You can participate in social action with a local charity.  Even Hebrew school these days can happen in various and sundry locations – just look at the number of families choosing to hire a private tutor to prepare their child for bar or bat mitzvah.  But the one thing a synagogue does that is unique – its sine quo non – is the minyan.  When ten or more Jews come together to pray.  When the Torah is taken out of the ark and publicly proclaimed.  When the ancient liturgy of our tradition is recited.  The minyan is the synagogue’s raison d’être, its true reason for existing.  Without prayer, the synagogue becomes just another place where Jews gather to be with other Jews.

The problem is this:  the minyan is fading away.  We don’t often acknowledge this, we don’t like to look it right in the eye, but traditional prayer services in the liberal Jewish community are slowly but surely disappearing right before our eyes.  In part because people are busy, and Saturday morning is prime errand time, or golf time.  In part because people don’t have the skills they need to participate (the Hebrew is a serious problem).  In part because people don’t find meaning in it, they don’t believe the act of prayer can be transformative in their lives and characters.  What to do?

It is first important to recognize that there is no magic pill here.  It isn’t simply a matter of finding the right charismatic rabbi or cantor.  It isn’t just arriving at the proper recipe for the service itself, just a tweak here or there, or even a radical rearrangement, and all will be well.  It is a much more complicated equation, multi-layered, involving education, programming, community, and leadership.  Minimally – as a beginning – we need to create opportunities for people in our community to deepen their knowledge of and connection to our prayer services, our minyanim.  Some of this is familiarity.  Some of this is study and discussion.  Some of it is practice!  And some of it is having a safe space where all of these things can happen.

It is this space we are hoping to create with a new ‘learnin’ minyan’ that we will be holding at Beth El.  Meeting the first Shabbat morning of the month, from 9:45 to 10:30, this minyan will be a combination of prayer and study, of delving into the themes and motifs that drive our liturgy while at the same time (hopefully) increasing the number of tools that are available to access those themes and to participate in those prayers.  I have believed for a long time that there is deep meaning in prayer, and that the very exercise of praying can be truly transformative in our lives.  Join us on this journey and we’ll see if we can convince you of the same.  We will meet in the Rabbi Jacob Agus Library, immediately following the Torah study class.  Beginning January 7th.

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Filed under American Jewry, celebration, clergy, community, Jewish life, prayer, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, Uncategorized

Tevya and Tisha B’Av

this a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/13

I would like to ask you to think with me for a moment about one of the most beloved scenes in the history of musicals, in the most beloved Jewish musical of all time.  The musical itself?  It must be Fiddler on the Roof.  And the scene?  So many great ones, but arguably the greatest of the great is the conversation that Tevya the milk man has with God just before he begins to sing ‘If I Were a Rich Man.”  In that dialogue an exhausted and almost defeated Tevya walks his horse back to the family home at the end of what we would call in today’s parlance a ‘bad day.’  The horse has gone lame, and Tevya begins to talk to God.  He complains a bit – kvetching would be the technical term.  “Dear God – was that necessary?  It is enough you pick on me.  What have you got against my horse?   Sometimes I think when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself lets see, what kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevya?  I am not really complaining – with your help, God, I am starving to death.  So what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune.  If I were a rich man”…and you know the rest.

Of course Tevya in this scene, and perhaps throughout the entire musical, is at least on one level a metaphor for the Jewish people.  Downtrodden, exhausted, in dire straights, facing a series of seemingly unending challenges, persecuted by the Cossacks – that is Tevya’s story – and that is also the story of the Jews.  And Tevya has other qualities that also represent the Jewish people –  he has a Jewish sense of humor, a strength of will and determination, a dedication to family, and despite Tevya’s ongoing misgivings about God, he has a kind of unbreakable faith in God’s goodness and God’s presence.  In a sense God is Tevya’s constant companion in Fiddler.  Despite his hardships, his troubles and tzuris – Tevya remains a believer.

You may remember that last summer there was a a new book by Harper Lee published.  It was hard to miss it – it was covered by every major news agency, talked about on TV and radio, blogged about on the internet.  Anyone remember the name of the book?  Go Set a Watchman.  There was so much fanfare about it because Lee had published only one other book in her life – which is?  To Kill a Mockingbird.  In the end it turned out that Go Set a Watchman wasn’t actually a new book.  Instead it was a first draft of what would later become the masterpiece that we are all know so well.  What really caught people’s attention about the new book was that it told an alternate story.  Scout – the young protagonist in Mockingbird – is an adult in Go Set a Watchman.  She lives in New York, not in a small southern town.  But most significantly, the beloved character Atticus Finch, so memorably played in the movie version by Gregory Peck, who in To Kill a Mockingbird is a courageous champion of civil rights, is portrayed in the new book as a bitter racist.

This made people crazy.  You were taking a beloved story, beloved characters, and changing them – and not for the better.  And probably even more difficult for people, you were taking a symbol – Atticus Finch, a character who stood for wisdom, goodness, fairness, and equality – and you were destroying it.  The character was beloved.  People felt they knew that character, felt a certain ownership of him.  And the new book had in a way taken Atticus away from them.

I don’t want to take away your Tevya.  And there is no new version of Fiddler that will begin playing on Broadway soon.  But I would like to take a moment or two this morning to imagine an alternate version of the story.  On the surface this Anatevka looks the same as the original.  Poor Jews living in the shetyl, struggling to get by and to maintain their dignity and their way of life.  But under the surface things are different.  Because in our version of Fiddler the beloved character of Tevya has slowly, over the years, lost his faith in God.  The hardships of life have worn him down.  He realizes as hard has he has worked he has very little to show for it.  He is disappointed in his children, and he can’t understand why God hasn’t rewarded him for living his life as a faithful Jew.  So he decides to leave that life behind.  He violates the Sabbath without a second thought.  He doesn’t go to shul, doesn’t even worry about keeping kosher, doesn’t wear his tzitzit.  Perhaps he shaves his beard, and does his best to blend in with the gentiles in the village.

He would have every right to do it, to leave behind his faith.  After all, as we see in that famous dialogue with God I referred to a few minutes ago, God hasn’t done Tevya any favors.  And Tevya knows it.  He acknowledges it, he talks to God about it, reminds God of it.  But God never responds.  The truth is, it isn’t a dialogue with God that Tevya has.  It is a monologue.  He speaks, and whether God hears or doesn’t hear we don’t know.  But we do know that God doesn’t answer.

But in the end the real Tevya – the one we know and love – doesn’t seem to care.  His faith remains unwavering, despite the difficulties of his life, and it is precisely that sense of resilience and enduring faith that marks Tevya, that makes him who he is.  That is why we love him, that is why the character has been one of the most enduring characters in all of theater.  If you took that away from Tevya, if you changed his character, we wouldn’t go to see the show, we wouldn’t have his songs humming around in the backs of our minds, we wouldn’t all know his name.

In a sense it is the same way of the Jewish people.  Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the saddest and most difficult day of the Jewish year.  It is a commemoration of the great tragedies of  Jewish history, most prominently remembering the destruction of the two great Temples in ancient Jerusalem.  On this day 1,946 years ago the second Temple was burned to the ground.  The Jews that were still alive were exiled, sent to Babylonia, their lives torn apart, families destroyed, homes and livelihoods lost.  They felt abandoned by God, they wondered whether the ancient covenant that existed between God and Israel, established so long ago by Moses, was still valid.  If there was any point in Jewish history when the Jews might have turned their backs on God, might have walked away, might have permanently lost their faith, that was the moment.  They would have had every right to leave their faith behind.

But they did not.  Instead, they turned their eyes to the heavens and they called out to God.  In a way that wonderful scene in Fiddler when Tevya turns his eyes to the sky and says ‘dear God, was that necessary?’ is a continuation of that moment.  It is a rhetorical question, of course.  It was not necessary.  But it is also a statement – God, I don’t understand, but still I look for You, still I call out to You, still I wait for You.  Despite what has happened I will not turn my back on You.  Instead, as it says in the psalms, אשא עיני אל ההרים מאין יבוא עזרי – I will lift my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?  And the next line of the psalm – עזרי מעם ה׳ עשה שמים וארץ – my help comes from God, who has made the heavens and the earth.

Tisha B’Av is about that moment.  Yes, it is a commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.  But even more so it is a celebration – a celebration of Jewish faith and resilience, of the strength of the Jewish spirit and the unending Jewish search for God.  I hope you’ll all join us tonight for Tisha B’Av services as we continue that search together.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, books, holidays, Jewish festivals, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, dogs, grief, Jewish life, liminal moments, loss, ritual, Uncategorized

When in Shul, Do as the Romans

You are more familiar with the traditional version of the quote, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’ That is to say, when you are somewhere with a different culture you should by and large conform to that culture. At the very least be sensitive to the fact that a culture that might seem strange to you can have deep meaning and familiarity to others. Be respectful, don’t look down on it, and sometimes just go with it. It is, minimally, the polite thing to do.

One of the challenging things about shul life today is that many Jews feel like foreigners in their own sanctuaries. They are so unfamiliar with the service, so uncomfortable with the rituals, and so detached from a sense of meaning and connection to the tradition, that the experience of shul is alien to them, foreign, something they watch from afar but do not engage in.

Of course the synagogue has some responsibility for this. This is at least in part our failure. We have not successfully communicated the knowledge and skills that people need to participate in our services. I know this, I feel bad about it, I sympathize, and yes, we have our work cut out for us. We will keep trying!

But we need partners. We need people who want to learn, who feel that their lack of connection is important, is something they would like to change. I’ve noticed recently how fewer and fewer people even bother to pick up a siddur during services. They come and sit, they watch the proceedings, they seem to pay some attention when sermons are delivered. But I just don’t understand why you would sit in a two hour service and not want to pick up the prayer book. We call the pages. We do a fair amount in English. There are responsive readings you can participate in, even if you can’t read Hebrew.

Think for a moment of the message you give to your children if you sit there with them and don’t open the prayer book. You don’t have to say anything to them – they’ll know. Mom thinks this is boring! This must not be important, dad isn’t following what is going on. And then the obvious question – why should I?

And I know many people can’t read the Hebrew. And I also know that many people are not comfortable with prayer (both of those issues, by the way, we can work on!). But out of common courtesy, please pick up the prayer book. Follow the service. You don’t have to believe it! You don’t even have to believe in God! Besides, you might be surprised, and something in those pages might be interesting, moving, meaningful, dare I say it, even spiritual. But just by picking up the book you are showing you are part of the community. You are saying ‘even if I don’t understand this, I respect it.’ And you are showing your children that this is something to participate in, something to be taken seriously, something that might one day have meaning for them, even if it doesn’t for you.

So when in shul, please don’t do as the Romans. Do as the Jews.

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