Tag Archives: Rabbi Steven Schwartz

Angel or Man?

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21.  Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –

     The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS.  There are two people, driving in a car.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife.  And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving.  They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are.  In other words, they are lost.  The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.

     Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by.  The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out.  The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions.  A few minutes later, they reach their destination.  Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man.  The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”

     The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev.  You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young.  In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift.  But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.

     After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home.  Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them.  And of course we know the rest of the story.  Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.  

     But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car.   He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions.  Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears.  Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for?  It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’  Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers.  The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  

     And I mean that literally.  He finds his brothers.  They sell him into slavery.  He is brought to Egypt.  Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country.  When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph.  The Israelites will be enslaved.  Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt.  All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.

     If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger.  They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been.  The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way.  Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting.  He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.

     The question is, without whose knowledge?  It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger.  The Hebrew is ambiguous.  It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way.  But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.  

     The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense.  Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers.  But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting.  Let me explain.

     We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others.  We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it.  But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life.  The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time.  A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day.  All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction.  But because of that small act, everything was different.

     I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story.  We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous.  So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’  Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages.  We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for.  It has been a terribly difficult year for them.  Illness.  Loss of a job.  Just one thought thing after another.  

     You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts.  For a few moments the burdens were lifted.  For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility.  Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah.  Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.

     They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them.  And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had.  The difference they made.  In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know.  But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows.  May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.  

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Winter Reading 2019-2020

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A brief dusting of snow in the mid-atlantic yesterday reminds us that winter has arrived and will be around for a bit.  With longer nights and colder days and the natural inclination during this time of year to hibernate, here are a few books that I expect to be reading over the next couple of months:

The Club, by Leo Damrosch.  It is the 1760s, and on Friday nights in London you can find a brilliant and exceptional cast of characters meeting at the Turk’s Head Tavern.  The Club’s members include Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Edmund Burke.  Damrosch brings these characters alive, and conjures a sense of 18th century Britain where they met, hashing out the intellectual issues of their day.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang.  Nine short stories that explore some of humanity’s oldest questions through the lenses of time travel and alternate universes.  Chiang is the author of the short story ‘Story of Your Life,’ that became the award winning film Arrival.  His prose was recently described in the New Yorker as ‘soulful science fiction.’

The Lost Art of Scripture, by Karen Armstrong.  One of the most important contemporary religious voices, in this book Armstrong attempts to reclaim sacred scripture from the current trend to either read it literally or to discard it.  She argues that scripture is not meant to be read literally, but instead should be seen as a fluid literature intended to open the door to spiritual life.

And a last word (or two).  I’ve just finished reading a wonderful novel called The Overstory, written by Richard Powers.  It is a book about trees, but also about how much we humans have to learn about the world around us, our responsibility for that world, and the humility we should have when faced with the vastness of creation, both in space and time.  Written in beautiful prose, all at once touching, poignant, sad, and hopeful, if you are looking for a novel that can help you contextualize the current climate crisis, this may be it.  I highly recommend it.

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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 11/30/19 –

     Who could have imagined that more than a half century after the very first episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood debuted – on February 19th, 1968 – that Fred Rogers would be a virtually ubiquitous personality.  With not one, but two major movies about his life, the most recent starring Tom Hanks; with article after article and op ed piece after op ed piece, Fred Rogers – now 16 years after his death – has suddenly become one of the most thought about and prominent public figures in the country.  

     On the surface this is an odd phenomenon, to say the least.  I am guessing most of the people in the room this morning remember Mr. Rogers.  Soft spoken and gentle, kind and caring, sneaker and red sweater wearing, his TV show ran for 31 seasons, influencing generation after generation of children as they grew up and watched TV during their formative years.  A child of the late 60s and early 70s, I remember settling in front of an old black and white TV with a screen smaller than the screen I currently use for my computer, and watching Fred Rogers spin his stories, relating life lessons, unpacking issues like anger and sadness, and in his gentle way teaching moral and ethical principles that could help you to be a better person, the kind of person your parents and grandparents clearly thought you should be.

     Mr. Rogers died only a couple of years after his show went off the air.  The TV episodes were still on, replayed usually as part of the early morning PBS schedule, but the person of Fred Rogers entered a sort of quiescent period.  He was remembered, but mostly in a  nostalgic way, the way we remember with fondness a time in our lives – or in the life of our country – with a golden sheen.  Fifteen years ago – probably even ten years ago – if someone had told you there would be two major motion pictures made about the life of Fred Rogers, you probably would not have taken that person’s investment advice.  And yet here we are.  Fred Rogers is so popular right now that there is even an article about his wife – whose name is?  Joanne!  – in yesterday’s New York Times.  She is still alive, and in good health, God bless her.

     I’ve always believed we create the hero we need at the time when we need him – or her – and evidently at this contentious time in our country there is a sense that we need Fred Rogers.  Maybe it is the soothing tone of his voice during a time when people, especially public figures, seem to mostly yell at each other.  We might be attracted to his calm demeanor when everything, and everyone, seems to be so frantic.  Perhaps it has to do with the way he listens in an age when all anyone seems to want to do is talk.  Or maybe it is his fundamental and unshakable optimism that appeals to us, when so much of the world seems dark and hope is hard to come by.  Most likely it is some combination of all of these things.  We are living in unsettled times, and Fred Rogers had a way of making us believe everything would be OK, and reminding us that at the end of the day, we can trust one another. 

     I know that evidence often seems to be to the contrary.  Forget about our country and the deepening divisions that we see everywhere, whether racial or political or economic or otherwise.  All you have to do is take a cursory glance through this morning’s Torah portion to remember how difficult we humans can be, even to the people closest to us.  This morning’s reading contains some of the Bible’s best known stories, all of them focusing on the family of Isaac and Rebecca, and their sons – what are their names?  Esau and Jacob!  

     I imagine you know the narrative well.  It begins with one of the most fundamental of all parenting mistakes, namely one parent favoring one child, while another parent favors the other child.  In this case it is Rebecca who loves her son Jacob but doesn’t care much for his older brother Esau.  But just to make sure things in the family are truly impossible, Isaac does the same thing in reverse, always proud of and talking about Esau, but seemingly not too fond of Jacob.  If you’ve ever known a family like this, you know this is a recipe for disaster, and that is in fact what ensues.  By the time this morning’s reading is done Jacob has deceived his older brother Esau into selling him the family birthright.  Then Isaac tells a group of men that his wife Rebecca is his sister, putting her in a very uncomfortable position, to say the least.  And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the portion ends with Rebecca and Jacob, mother and son, hatching a plot to trick Isaac, their husband and father, into giving the family inheritance to Jacob.  

     And you thought Washington DC was bad.

     Of course the sad truth is that people do nasty things to one another all the time.  Cheat, steal, and lie.  Betray.  Physically harm one another.  The list could go on and on, but you get the point.  It is not always easy for us – and in fact sometimes it is quite difficult – to treat one another the way God wants us to.  To respect one another, care for each other, help and support one another,  sacrifice for one another, give one another the benefit of the doubt.  To live honestly and admirably, and to regularly ask, paraphrasing JFK, not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them.  You see, the Torah lays out the very worst human behavior in front of us, because once you see the worst you have a deeper appreciation for how important it is to strive to be the best.

     Mr. Rogers came at that idea from the other way around.  He also wanted to show us that we should strive to be the best we can be, but he illustrated that by focusing on the positive.  It wasn’t that he denied the difficulties of human nature.  He acknowledged that people make mistakes, hurt others, and fall short on a regular basis.  But in Fred Rogers world that moment of failure was seen as the beginning of something better.  Growing, changing, understanding more deeply, and figuring out how, the next time around, to do it right.

     And I think that is why – at least one of the reasons why – Mr. Rogers is at the front of the national consciousness these days.  We are getting tired of all the negativity.  And we like seeing the spirit of a person who said, over and over again, there is a better way, and you can, with a little help from your friends, figure out what it is.  What was the name of Fred Roger’s show?  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!  I am sure the choice of the word neighborhood is very intentional – a place filled with all kinds of people, and animals, different backgrounds and ethnicities, but working for a common goal.  

     Anyone happen to know the Hebrew word for neighborhood?  שכונה – it comes from the root that means ‘to dwell.’  So the שכונה is the place where people dwell together.  And of course if you just change one letter  – take that ‘vav’, and make it a ‘yud’ – you have what?  שכינה – one of the names we use for God, a name that reminds us particularly of God’s sheltering presence.  The sense seems to be that when we dwell together – truly, not just in place but in spirit – God’s presence is brought into our world.  Mr. Rogers spent his life teaching children – and maybe all of us – that that kind of world is not only ideal, it can be real.  His job was to teach us that lesson – and the rest is up to us.

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The Stranger

IMG_1028 2     It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton NY, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life.  Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead.  Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘the Stranger.’  

     The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car.  The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young.  Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

     You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him.  Anyone remember what it was?  A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer.  The image reflected both the title of the album – the Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

     I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves.  We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world.  We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise.  But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it:  we all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…

     It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera.  Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays.  On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham.  This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed.  You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous.  God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God.  Is this the just thing to do? Abraham demands.  And then Abraham pushes God – what if there are fifty righteous people?  What about forty five?  Forty?  Thirty?  Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten?  And somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, I will spare the cities.

     This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for!  This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared.  To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

     But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the inner Abraham.  This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story.  God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  And after Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also.  To say ‘God, he is my son.  I am not going to sacrifice my son.  Even to you.’

     But what does he actually say?  Not a single word.  Not one.  Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son.  Not one word.

     And I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides.  On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong.  On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

     I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams.  What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record?  What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world.  Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt.  Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt.  Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view.  We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it.  So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

     You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business.  We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves.  And so we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise.  We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

     But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this:  how are we when we get home after a long day of being our best?  Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom?  The attentiveness and caring?

     Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya.  At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked ‘why weren’t you Moses?’  Instead, he says, I’ll be asked ‘Why were you not Rabbi Zusya.’

     I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning.  Because my sense of it is this – when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?’  But I think I will be asked, ‘Why weren’t you Steve?’

     If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare.  You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

“This above all:  to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”

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Shining A Light

Below is a text version of the brief remarks I will deliver tonight at a special program we are hosting at my synagogue called Freedom Song.  The program was created by Beit Tshuvah, a residential addiction treatment center in the LA area, and explores the issue of addiction in the Jewish community.  The stage setting is in and of itself a symbol both powerful and provocative – half the stage is set as a Passover seder table, where the generations of a Jewish family gather to tell the story of our people.  The other half is a 12 step meeting, where addicts gather to tell their personal stories of struggle and salvation.

The program tonight begins at 6:45 with a performance by the Helping Up Mission Choir, to be followed by a performance of Freedom Song.  It promises to be a moving evening.

My remarks:

     During my now more than two decades in the rabbinate I have become intimately familiar with the terrible struggle that families face when a loved one becomes an addict.  All of the emotions – the fear, the guilt, the sense of shame, the bewilderment, the worry, the sleepless nights, the pervasive sense of pain, and sometimes despair, and always, always, the desperate search for a solution.  

     For too long the Jewish community has either ignored the issue of substance abuse in our midst, swept it under the rug, or talked about it only in hushed whispers and behind closed doors.  The old myths of ‘this can’t happen in a Jewish family,’ or ‘Jewish children don’t do such things,’ or ‘Jews don’t drink or use drugs’ have been perpetuated for too long in our community – and that has hurt our families, and made it harder for them to find the help they need, and the support from their community that they deserve.  

     That is precisely why we are gathered together in a synagogue tonight.  The synagogue is the public face of Jewish life, it is the place where Jews gather to celebrate and mourn, to mark sacred time, to learn and study, and to grow in soul.  It is the public square of the Jewish community.  And so tonight, we are gathered together as Jewish community, in our public square, in a public setting thinking about addiction, acknowledging its pain and its presence, but also, I hope, letting our families know that we are there for them, and that they are not alone in their journey, or their struggle.

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What We Stand For – Yom Kippur 5780

A text version of my sermon from Yom Kippur day, 5780 –

There is a story told of a rabbi who was having trouble with a sleepy congregant.  It seems every time the rabbi began to preach, the congregant, within the first couple of minutes of the rabbi speaking, would fall into a sound sleep.  It didn’t bother the rabbi all that much on a regular Shabbat, because that particular congregant – we’ll call him Greenberg – sat towards the back of the shul.  But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there were tickets and people had assigned seats, and Greenberg’s seat was front and center, right in front of the rabbi.

     On the first day of Rosh Hashanah the rabbi begins his sermon, he has worked weeks and weeks on it, and within a minute Mr. Greenberg is out, snoring audibly.  Second day Rosh Hashanah the same thing – two minutes into the sermon and Greenberg is sound asleep.  On Yom Kippur morning the rabbi steps into the pulpit, and there is Greenberg, and again, almost as soon as the rabbi begins to speak Greenberg is out like a light.  But the rabbi is determined, and he starts pounding on the pulpit.  Greenberg doesn’t stir.  And finally the poor rabbi can’t take it anymore, and he yells out ‘Everyone in the congregation stand up!’ – and everyone stands up, except Greenberg, still sleeping peacefully.  And then the rabbi yells, ‘Everyone sit down!’  And everyone in the congregation sits down at once, and it startles Greenberg out of his sleep, and he jumps up to his feet.  

     He looks around, and he is standing right in front of the rabbi, the rabbi standing right in front of him, and everyone else in the congregation sitting down.  “Do you know what this sermon is about Mr. Greenberg,” yells the rabbi.  Greenberg answers back “I can’t rightly say that I do rabbi, but I can see that you and I are the only ones who agree about it.”

     And that is what I would like to think with you about for a few minutes this morning.  What is it that we stand for?  What are the Jewish values that should animate our lives?  What are the ideals that should guide us each and every day?  The moral compass we should follow?  What is it that the tradition would like us to emerge from these holy days with a deeper understanding of and commitment to?

     There are of course many answers to these questions, and many values that guide us, and that I hope we reconnect with during these sacred days.  There are personal, traditional values, like honesty and integrity, work ethic and self sacrifice, kindness and compassion.  In Jewish life family is a primary value.  Education as well.  We might include community in that same list, and charity.  Some would say worry is a Jewish value!  Certainly honoring our parents.  These are the values that we grew up learning about in Hebrew school, from our parents and our grandparents, and each of them is a thread in the fabric that makes up Jewish life. 

     But this morning I would like to suggest three particular values – big picture ideals – that we as Jews should return to during this season of returning.  I find them in the Unetane Tokef prayer.  You all know that prayer.  It begins with the idea that we are like sheep and God is our shepherd.  But it is the refrain of the prayer and its conclusion that resonate most powerfully in people’s minds – The refrain you all know:  בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כיפור יחתמון – On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – you know the rest – who shall live, and who shall die.  That is the first half of the prayer – it is about the fragility of life.

     But then the tone shifts, and the prayer’s powerful conclusion presents us with three words that encapsulate core Jewish values –  ותשובה, ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה – but repentance, prayer, and charity can, in the translation in our Mahzor, ‘transform the harshness of our destiny.’  It is up to us, that is what we are saying, it is up to us!  There are things we can do, courses of action we can take, that can transform us, the communities in which we live, our families, and even the world that God created for us.

     That is the whole idea of Teshuvah.  How do we normally translate that?  Repentance!  But repentance by definition implies that change is possible, and that it comes about through human action. You may have followed in recent weeks the story of Greta Thunberg.  She is a the young woman from Sweden who has become one of the best known climate activists in the entire world.  She was in the States last month to attend a series of rallies and to speak about climate change at the United Nations General Assembly.  She is articulate, bright, and thoughtful, but what she is more than anything else is passionate about her cause.  She believes two things – first, that human activity, especially the production of greenhouse gases, is destroying our climate.  And the second thing she believes is that through her own actions she can make a difference.  That she has the power to literally change the world, and make it a better place because she is in it.

     That is a core Jewish value!  Human action changes the world.  Many of you will remember, in the 1960s, that Jews, particularly young Jews, were deeply involved in the civil rights movement, many of them leaders.  They came to that cause from their Jewish roots,  because they knew the Torah teaches ideals of universal human dignity, freedom, and equality.  And in the 1960s, in part because of their action and commitment, our country changed for the better!  In the 70s the world wide Jewish community united around our Russian brothers and sisters, demanding their freedom and rights, because we all felt responsible for one another.  And with the help of Jews around the world, Soviet Jews emigrated, and the Jewish world changed.  And after WW II and the Holocaust Israel was a common thread through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, a cause that animated the Jewish community, and brought Jews together, and we have watched Israel flourish and because of that the world itself has changed! 

     Those things happened not because God created miracles, but because human beings decided to take a stand.  All you have to do today is open the morning paper to know that our world is profoundly troubled and desperately in need of change.  Anti-Semitism is rising.  Gun violence is out of control.  Racial inequality does still exist.  The gap continues to grow between those with means and those without.  The list could go on and on.  Change is desperately needed in our world – and our tradition reminds us that we are the ones who must bring it about. 

     The second redemptive value in the Unetaneh Tokef is Tefilah – what does that mean?  Prayer!  Our tradition teaches us there must be a spiritual dimension to human life.  The yearning of our souls cannot be satisfied with materialism, despite what we are constantly told by the culture around us.  We need our Judaism to live full and meaningful lives.  You may have seen an article by Bari Weiss, published a month or so ago, on the problem of rising anti-Semitism and how to combat it.  She argues that one thing Jews can do to fight against anti-Semitism is to live more fully and authentic Jewish lives.  To be more Jewish, to do more Jewish things, to grow Jewishly by studying our traditions, our history, and the wisdom of our people.  To make Shabbat at home with our children and grandchildren. To come to services more often!  I just said to someone the other day that I love having 4000 people in the building on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but honestly I would rather have 300 people here every Shabbat morning.  

     And you don’t have to stop with shul!  You can engage in Jewish life through the Associated and its agencies, making a difference everyday in people’s lives in our community.  Or get involved in Israel bonds, or AIPAC, or J Street, or the growing mindfulness movement in Jewish life.  But whatever it is, be proud Jews!  For three thousand years we have been different and distinct, for three thousand years we have lived by Jewish values which at times seem out of date or unpopular or out of step.  But we’ve done it for 3000 years.  We are stubborn, we Jews.  Am k’shei oref, the Mahzor calls us.  A stiff necked people.  We should not stop living that way now.  That is the second value:  live more deeply and fully as a Jew in the new year.

     The last guiding value from the Unetane Tokef is Tzedekah.  Normally when we hear that word we think of charity, and that is in fact the way it is translated in our Mahzor.  It is the check writing and the Blue JNF boxes and the donations to the Associated and its agencies.  It is our annual appeal.  We’ve all been raised on that ideal, those blue boxes and what they represent – giving – that is ingrained in our hearts and our minds.  It is part of what defines us as Jews.  It is Jewish DNA.

     But tzedekah also means doing what is just in God’s eyes.  The root for the word is the same root that makes the word tzedek – justice.  Justice for all people.  It may be that the greatest accomplishment of Judaism is that it has enriched the world with the idea that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God.  And so they should be in our eyes.  That includes all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all faiths.  It includes the stranger, the poor, both the immigrant and the native born.  It includes those who are marginalized and cannot speak for themselves.  If Jews don’t speak for those people, who will?  If Jews don’t stand up for their rights, who will?  Who knows better than we do what happens when justice, and dignity, and freedom are taken away?  That ideal, that all people are created in God’s image, that every person deserves justice, should be at the core of our communal work, and a guiding light in our lives every day.

     It is no mistake that the Sages assigned the words of the Prophet Isaiah for our haftara reading this morning.  It is a text that powerfully demonstrates the responsibility we have to care for one another and for our world.  Isaiah asks, what does God want from us?  And the answer the prophet provides is as clear as the call of the shofar:

 “To let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke, to share our bread with the hungry, to take the wretched poor into our home, to cloth the naked…to take away the menacing hand, and evil speech, to offer our compassion to those in need.”

     In other words, to care for our fellow human beings, and not to judge them.  To stand up to evil, to speak out for truth.  To care for God’s world.  To live our lives according to God’s law.

     If we can live our lives in this way in the year that is beginning, and in all the years to come, then, Isaiah tells us, when we call out to God, God will answer us הניני – Here I am.  Giving us strength, courage, and hope, to make our world – and God’s – the way we know it should be.  May we begin that work soon, may we do it well, and, God willing, for many years –

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Filed under American Jewry, Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yom Kippur

Eternal Songs

What follows is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 10/12/19, a reflection about Robert Hunter, who wrote lyrics for the Grateful Dead.

     Those of you who are obituary readers may remember that just about 3 weeks ago a man named Robert Hunter died.  It is likely you had never heard his name before, but articles about his life appeared in all of the major news papers in the country, and his death was even mentioned on TV and the radio.  You probably would not have recognized the name, because Robert Hunter, as famous as he was in some circles, was an entirely behind the scenes kind of guy, and a bit of a recluse at that.  

     His fame, such as it was, came from his writing – not the kind of writing you normally expect – he didn’t write books, or articles for magazines.  Instead, Robert Hunter wrote poetry, but more than that, lyrics for songs.  And he became famous because the words that he wrote – his lyrics – were set to music and sung by people like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Hornsby.  All stars in the world of rock and roll.  But by far the most important song writing partnership for Robert Hunter was with a man named Jerry Garcia, whom I imagine you’ve heard of, particularly since I am your rabbi.  Jerry Garcia, of course, was the lead guitarist in the Grateful Dead, and Robert Hunter was the man who wrote the words to every original song Jerry Garcia ever sang.

     Hunter lived a long and eventful life.  He was 78 when he died, surrounded by his wife and his family.  He came of age in the late 50s and early 60s, and living in the San Francisco Bay area, he met the Beatniks, and when he was around twenty or so, he became friendly with Garcia.  He was largely self educated, but he loved the spoken and written word, and he fell in love with classic American folk music.  He wrote lyrics in great blasts of creative energy, some days writing two or three songs in a single sitting, words that once given to Garcia became classic songs, staples of the American musical lexicon.  In his writing he referenced psychedelic experiences, old ghost stories, English sailing songs, the blues, mythology and the Bible, and the old west as well, often painting landscapes of a dark America filled with desperate losers.  And yet for all the darkness, the possibility of redemption was always there, just on the horizon, just at the next town or train stop.  In his own words, from the song New Speedway Boogie, ‘this darkness has got to give.’

     I’ve been thinking abut Robert Hunter a lot since he died.  I’ve been listening to Grateful Dead music from the time I became bar mitzvah, and as you know if you were here last Shabbat, that is now 42 years ago, most of life.  His lyrics are always in my mind, a snippet here, a phrase there, sometimes an entire line, but always just under the surface of whatever I am doing, saying, or thinking.  He had a way – like I guess all of the great poets, the great lyricists, the great wordsmiths, of capturing a feeling that you knew from your own heart, and phrasing it in just exactly the right way.  And when Hunter’s words so seamlessly and perfectly blended into Garcia’s melodies and chord changes, and you would hear them sung in Garcia’s ragged tenor, you would simply say, that is me and that is my life.

     And here we are this morning, having read from the Torah Parshat Ha’azinu.  If you were following along in the Humash you know the portion consists of an extended poem that Moses recites in front of the people before he ascends Mt Nebo, where he will die.  Moses’ poem is often called in Hebrew שירת משה, or in English ‘the Song of Moses.’  It got that name because of a verse near the end of the portion, which describes the moment when Moses publicly said these words.  Here is that verse:  ויבא משה וידבר את כל דברי השירה הזאת באזני העם – and Moses came, and recited all the words of this – shirah – this song – in the hearing of the people.

     I’ve often wondered if Moses actually did sing the words, standing there in front of the people so long ago.  I wonder what his voice sounded like, or what melody he would have used?  The words themselves naturally create a rhythm, as all great lyrics do, the syllables of one line often matching the next. Even not knowing or understanding the Hebrew, one can hear the poetry just from those words, their sound and rhythm, and of course when chanted in the Torah, their melody.

     The Torah includes an interesting note about the end of Moses’ recitation of the song, a last comment that Moses makes to the people, in fact the very last thing he ever says to them:  “and when Moses finished reciting all these words to Israel, he said to them:  Take to heart all the words with which I have testified to you today.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Torah.  for it is not a trifling thing for you; כי הוא חייכם –  it is your very life…”

     Tradition teaches us that Moses said those words to the Israelites some 3,000 years ago.  And here we are today, having read them.  As we will next week, and the week after that.  Teaching them to our children and our grandchildren, living them in our lives, finding meaning in them, and a sense of hope and faith and light.  This darkness has got to give.

     Here is another Robert Hunter line, this from the elegy he wrote when Jerry Garcia died in 1995 –

“If some part of that music is heard in deepest dream,

Or on some breeze of summer a snatch of golden theme,

We’ll know you live inside us, with love that never parts;

Our good old Jack O Diamonds, become the King of Hearts”

     The great lyrics truly do live on, long after their singers are gone.  Their words can be heard in our dreams, or in the summer breeze that gently blows through the trees, or seen in the turning of the leaves in the fall, or the softly falling snow of winter.  Those words reside in our hearts and souls, informing our lives, bringing meaning to our days, easing our difficult moments, giving us comfort during dark times, helping us always to see the light in God’s world.

     One last line from Robert Hunter, this the celebratory last lyric from the classic song Ripple:  “Let there be songs to fill the air.”

     so may it always be – 

 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Grateful Dead, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, rock and roll, sermon, Torah, Uncategorized