Tag Archives: Rabbi Steven Schwartz

The Old Knuckle Curve

If you are a baseball fan you know that the game has lost some of its subtlety in recent years.  Today’s baseball is largely about power – namely, power pitching, and power hitting.  Pitchers routinely throw fastballs in the high 90s, and to see 97 miles an hour on the old radar gun has become routine.  And hitters?  Juiced/changed ball or not, home runs are on a record pace this season.  In a game in June between Arizona and Philadelphia 13 home runs were hit.  13!! In one game!  Baseball today has in large part become a question of whether power hitters can make contact with near 100 mph fastballs.  When they do, the baseball leaves the ball park.

And yet.  A few weeks ago my brother and I were at Citi Field watching our beloved Mets play the San Diego Padres.  The Padres had a young power pitcher on the mound, and the stadium pitch tracker regularly reported pitches in the high 90s, many of them 96 mph plus.  The Mets pitcher was Jason Vargas, a 36 year old journeyman left hander (since traded to the Phillies) who has played for 6 different teams in the course of his career.  At 36 Vargas’ arm doesn’t have the ‘juice’ it once did.  His fastballs were reaching the plate at a tepid 88 mph.  His curve ball registered in the low to mid 70s.  And yet somehow, inning after inning, Vargas retired the Padres lineup.  When he left the mound in the 6th he had given up exactly zero runs, while the Padres flamethrower had given up 5.

There was one particular pitch by Vargas that caught my eye.  After he released the ball and it settled firmly into the catcher’s mitt, I checked the pitch tracker.  ‘Knuckle curve’ was the pitch type reported by the tracker graphic.  Oh, and miles per hour? 67.

The knuckle curve is a rarely thrown pitch, a weird hybrid of a curve ball and a knuckle ball, that somehow manages to both curve and float.  Few pitchers have it in their arsenal, and only a crafty and grizzled veteran like a Jason Vargas will throw one in a game.  In most circumstances a 67 mph pitch looks to a major league hitter like the moon floating towards him, large, bright, easy to see and to strike.  But a knuckle curve is a pitch of subtlety, not power.  In its almost leisurely journey to home plate it floats a bit, curves a bit, looks so tempting, so slow, but then at the very moment when you swing it somehow isn’t where you thought it would be.   To paraphrase the venerable Wee Will Keeler, the knuckle curve is thrown where they ain’t.

You see, that is precisely how Vargas pitched those 6 shutout innings.  Rarely if ever hitting even 90 on the radar gun, he painted the corners.  He ‘located’ his pitches.  He threw up in the zone when the hitter thought it was going to be low.  He threw on the inside corner when they expected the outside of the plate, he threw his 88 mph fastball when they were looking for the curve ball.  And he threw the knuckle curve when they were looking for anything but that.

It happens to the best of us.  As we age our bodies just can’t work the way they used to.  Forget about 95 mile per hour fastballs.  We can’t play tennis the same way.  Or hit the golf ball as far.  Or do quite as much yard work.  Or even walk the same distance with ease.  Or drive at night with the same confidence.  We reach for the reading glasses to glance at the menu, we spend a few moments stretching before we get out of bed. And that only takes care of some of the aches and pains.  Even our minds aren’t quite as quick as they used to be.  What we never forgot we sometimes don’t remember, at least not in that instantaneous way we once did.

The question is, have we learned to ‘paint the corners’ over the years?  Have we added a knuckle curve or two to our arsenal?  Do we appreciate life’s subtitles, the quiet moments, the long standing friendships, the small accomplishments, the moments shared with those we love?  There are spaces in life that you only learn to fill as the years go by.  They can’t be charged through, or overcome with blunt force of will.  As the years pass there is an accumulated wisdom that settles in, a patient understanding of what something’s true value is, of what matters most, and of what, in the end, barely matters at all.  When those lessons are learned, it is easier to relinquish that 95 mph fastball.  And you begin to understand, as time goes by,  how sweet that knuckle curve truly can be when it is throw in just exactly the right way.

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Spring

Often in those first few heady days of growing warmth there was still snow and ice along the sidewalks and streets, left over from the long and cold winter.  As it finally melted away it glistened in the sunshine as its dripping rivulets became tiny streams that ran along the curbs, formed puddles and eddies, searching, searching for the river down below.  Sometimes the current was strong enough to float twigs or old leaves in the water, like little boats on their way to some destination unknown.  We stomped on the thin ice layers that formed above the running water and they broke away, shattering with a satisfying crunchy sound.  Meanwhile, above our heads, the first buds were cautiously appearing on the old oaks and maples.  But we were mostly concerned with what was down below.

Despite the lingering cold we shed our jackets, left them lying on the muddy grass or hanging from an old fence post.  Isn’t it an odd thing that 48 degrees in spring feels warm, while the same temperature in late November brings on a chill?  We explored all of the hidden paths we used to navigate from yard to yard and block to block.  We knew them all, could find them in the dark, low fences that divided backyards, worn paths through fields, where certain gates were, what was the best way to scoot along someone’s home so you wouldn’t be seen.  It was a kind of sacred and arcane knowledge that gave us access to a mysterious and secret world where only we could dwell.  Our galoshes were caked with mud as we tramped along, often holding sticks we had acquired along the way.

We talked bravely of things we had seen and done, we recalled memories of summers past and riding the waves at the beach, we worried about school and friends and girls.  We imagined what we might one day do and who we might be.  We took our time, we climbed trees with low hanging branches, testing our dexterity and derring-do.  We stopped for snacks under an old pine, the remnants of candy bars carefully wrapped in wax paper tucked away in our pockets.    Before long the streets would be lined with leaf filled trees.  Summer would stretch before us, its weeks to us like an endless ribbon of warm days and adventures yet to come.  But for now it was spring, and that was more than enough.

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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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A Bad Week for the Jews

There were three Jews prominently featured on the front pages of American newspapers this week:  Michael Cohen, Bibi Netanyahu, and Robert Kraft.

Think about that for a moment.  As my Bubbie used to say, ‘Oy vey iz mir!’

It started with the Michael Cohen testimony.  A congregant came to see me the day he was on the hill and said she had been watching but had turned the TV off, feeling physically sick from what she was seeing.  I asked her if it was because of what Cohen’s testimony symbolized in terms of the state of the union, or because he was a Jew?  ‘Because he is a Jew,’ she said, ‘because I was watching a Jew stand up in front of the country, in front of the world, talking about cheating others, paying off prostitutes, lying, bullying, seeking power and money at any cost, having no morals or ethics, and serving those with no morals or ethics.  I was ashamed.’

Then there was Bibi.  Yes, the indictment (s) – it won’t make his life any easier, particularly with an election a little over a month away.  But much more disturbing was his willingness to play in the same political sandbox as Otzma Yehudit, a far-right politically organized Israeli group that unabashedly expresses racist views and advocates the ‘removal’ of most if not all Arabs from ‘greater Israel.’  Three men tangentially connected with the group were convicted of setting fire to a school where Jewish and Arab children studied together in 2015.  Opposition to Bibi’s willingness to engage this group was so strong that even AIPAC supported a statement from the American Jewish Committee condemning Netanyahu’s actions.  When AIPAC is condemning Netanyahu, you know something serious is going on.

Finally, last, and probably least, Robert Kraft.  One of the wealthiest men in America, and one of its most prominent Jews, a generous donor to Jewish causes, and best known as the owner of the New England Patriots, Kraft was arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution at a Florida massage parlor.  He entered a not guilty plea, but word is there is video tape evidence that will be submitted should things progress to a trial.

When I was going to Hebrew school while growing up we were taught to have pride in the Jewish community, in Jewish identity, and in Judaism’s deep belief in the importance of living a moral and ethical life.  We learned that Jews give charity (tzedekah), that Jews make the world a better place (Tikkun olam), that Jews stand for justice (tzedek).  And we understood, not just from our Hebrew school teachers, but from our parents and grandparents, that we were supposed to live our lives by those values.  That to be a moral and ethical person, to be a person of integrity and honor and honesty, in short to be a mensch – was what it meant to be a Jew.

Perhaps it is just coincidence.  Everyone has a bad week here and there.  After all, the Golden State Warriors, the best team in basketball, have lost their last two games in a row.  But we expect more, and we should.  The Torah teaches that Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations.  It is hard enough to do that in the very best of circumstances.  With the headlines of the last week about three highly visible and prominent Jews, it makes it feel almost impossible.

In his closing statement at the public phase of the Michael Cohen testimony, Representative Elijah Cummings said ‘we are better than this.’  Jews around the world may be saying the same thing about this week’s news.  Let us hope we are right, and let us live our lives accordingly.

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In Defense of Clutter

There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days.  Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives.  Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to  personal transformation.  The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.

One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not.  That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale.  Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away.  This idea seems to me flawed at best.  Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection.  I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there.  Life is not always about joy.  Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.

The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered.  Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!).  Divorce happens.  Responsibility encroaches.  Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect.  Illness confronts us.  Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.

Besides, clutter adds texture.  Clutter is interesting.  All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf.  That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real.  What would we be without our clutter?  Calmer?  Perhaps a bit.  But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves.  Isn’t that weird?  Impersonal?  A bit robotic, even?

The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’  The famous riposte to that phrase still stands:  ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’

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Big Shul Life

Been a while.  I was laid up with a nasty bug that has been making its way through the synagogue staff, and then I’ve been trying to catch up.  In that scramble blogging tends to slide down the priority scale as you struggle to do what needs to be done that day (or sometimes that hour) with some modicum of competence.  Sometimes that is all you can hope for, just that the wheels don’t fall off, that the bus somehow shuffles along from point A to point B and arrives with everyone safely seated.  Maybe it wasn’t the most memorable trip, the most dazzling or mind-bending or life-changing, but you did help folks move a little ways down the road.

Which brings me to this past weekend.  A series of days that really only happens in the context of large congregational life.  From Friday to Sunday we had two funerals (one Friday afternoon, one Sunday afternoon), and four b’nai mitzvah (two Saturday morning, one Saturday evening, one Sunday morning). Oh yes, and a Friday night dinner for the scholar in residence.  Of course two eulogies must be written somewhere in there, charges composed for the bar and bat mitzvah students, the services themselves conducted with their various liturgical complications.

It all came together fairly well.  We’ve got a good team, the staff works hard, everyone pitches in, does their job, contributes.  There are little glitches here and there, but for the most part we are the only ones who notice them.  After all, most of the people who came through our doors over the weekend are so far out of their element in the synagogue they hardly know what is correct or incorrect anyway.  That being said, we do take pride in what we do, and we are professionals, perhaps not always the most complimentary word, but there is something to be said for it.  Sometimes simply getting the names right is a victory in and of itself.

Not that we don’t have moments of nahas.  We truly do feel proud of the kids, of how hard they work, how much they put into it.  It might be a blur for us, particularly in a weekend when we are going from family to family to family.  (Please, God, help us get the names right!) But for the families, particularly for the students, we hope they’ve had a positive experience that will stay with them for many years.  Perhaps even a formative Jewish moment that will in some mysterious way help to shape who they are as people and as Jews as they grow into adulthood.

That is a future hope.  Sometimes it can also be a reward in the present.  We have to hope for both.

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