Tag Archives: rabbi

Looking for God In All the Right Places

This is the time of year when I begin to receive phone calls from congregants who ask me to put in a good word for the Ravens, and with a big game coming up this Sunday agains the Steelers I received a number of those calls over the last few days.  Generally the calls go something like this:  ‘Rabbi, are you going to daven today?’  And I respond ‘yes, I daven every day.’  ‘Well, if you don’t mind, put in a few good words for the Ravens.’  

     These calls always make me uncomfortable, and the truth is there are a number of problematic assumptions that the caller is making.  The first of those is that the caller is presuming I am a Ravens fan, but I am not, I am a Dolphins fan, so if my prayers about the NFL moved God in any way whatsoever the Dolphins would have won at least a Super Bowl or two since 1974, and we’ve seen how that has worked out.  But the other problematic assumption is that those callers are implying that I have access to God in a way that other people don’t, that my prayer would carry weight in the Divine throne room in a way that someone else’s prayer would not.  And maybe even that I have some kind of special knowledge of God, that I understand God in a way that other people are not able to.

     Those phone calls often remind me of the passage we read from the Torah this morning.  It is a bit of an odd choice by the Sages, used both for the Shabbats of Hol Hamoed Sukkot and Pesah, probably chosen for this role because it contains a few brief verses about the Pilgrimage Festivals.  But when those calls about the Ravens reach me it is the earlier part of the Torah reading that comes to my mind.  It is a narrative about what happens between Moses and God, just after the incident of the Sin of the Golden Calf.  

     The narrative of the Sin itself is well known.  To tell it in short form, as it is a busy day this morning in shul:  Moses is up on the mountain? 40 days and 40 nights, the people get nervous, Aaron gets even more nervous, together they make an idol in the form of a golden calf, God gets angry, Moses gets angry, the tablets get shattered, God punishes the people.  For those of you keeping track that is the entire 35 verses of Exodus chapter 32 presented in 46 words.  A little more than one word per verse!

     But what is far less familiar is what we read this morning, what at least I find to be a painful conversation between Moses and God, as they try to process everything that has just happened, the sin, the broken tablets, God’s anger, Moses’ anger, everything that has gone wrong.  And in the course of that conversation, Moses reaches a low point, a point of despair when he is just about ready to give up the entire project.  And at that precise moment, Moses says one thing to God:  הראיני נא את כבודך – ‘God,’ Moses says, ‘please show me what you really are, show me Your essence.’

     Now remember, Moses is God’s guy.  Moses is the one human being God trusts.  Moses is the one God tasked with getting the Israelites out of Egypt.  Moses is the one God called to the top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  Moses is the one to whom God gave the Torah.  And Moses, in a desperate moment, is saying ‘God, give me something!  A little extra strength, courage, hope, something!’

     And what does God say back to Moses?  God says, ‘no!’  לא תוכל לראות את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי – you may not see My face, my essence, because no person can see my face and live.’  

     This is a time of year when I suspect a lot of God searching is going on.  We’ve just spent hours upon hours sitting in shul on RH and YK, praying, fasting, thinking about our lives, and in the course of all that, probably wondering if God will be there for us in the new year, if God will show us just a little bit, give us a sign, let us know that God is there for us.  And I guess what I want to say to you today is that I am searching in the same way that you are.  And I have just as much trouble with that search as you.  In fact sometimes I might have more trouble.  I will let you in on a little secret, just between you and me, please keep it in this room.  A rabbi is no different than anyone else.  You actually don’t need a rabbi in Judaism to officiate at a funeral or a wedding or an unveiling, or to give a sermon for that matter.  You just need a knowledgeable person.  A rabbi might know more about certain topics, because a rabbi has probably studied more than you have.  But a rabbi is not any more special, or more holy, or for that matter, any  closer to God than anyone else.  

     So when you want to call someone about praying to God for the Ravens to beat the Steelers, you might want to call someone who knows a lot more about football and a lot less about Talmud.  Minimally you’ll have the same chances of success.  And you never know, what if God asks about player X,Y,or Z?  I don’t even know the players names!

     I said a moment ago that when Moses asks God for a sign, for a deeper knowledge of God’s ways, God says no.  Full confession, that is not entirely true.  What God really says is ‘You can’t know me Moses, because no human being can know me.  But you can catch a glimpse.  Just the merest hint of My Presence.’  The text never tells us what that experience is like for Moses.  What he felt, or how much he saw, or what exactly happened.  The only thing we know is that whatever Moses got, as little as it might have been, it was enough.  And he continued his search, went back up the mountain, and began to carve the second set of tablets.

     In many ways I feel like our task is the same.  To continue our own searches, and perhaps to see a glimpse – just the faintest hint – of what we are hoping to find.  To look for God in the sukkah, or in the daily minyan, or in our interactions with those with whom we share our lives.  Or in the golden and red leaves of fall.  To walk back up to the top of the mountain, to carve our own tablets, and to every once in a while feel that what we are carving is true.  As a rabbi I can’t honestly tell you how to get there, or what you might find at the top.  No rabbi can.  But I do believe if we make the journey together we will find meaning along the way.

May that be God’s will!

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Strong Winds

Four strong winds that blow lonely, seven seas that run high
All those things that don’t change, come what may
If the good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way –

The lyrics are by the Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson, but they were popularized by the great (and mercurial) Neil Young, on his mega-hit 1978 album Comes A Time, in the song entitled Four Strong Winds. The song is soaked in regret and sadness, in loneliness and looking back. It is a tale of human separation, of the walls that sometimes rise between us and those we love. ‘Still I wish you’d change your mind, if I asked you one more time, but we’ve been through this a hundred times or more.’

I was reminded of Young’s plaintive rendition of the song recently during Shabbat services. From where I sit (literally and figuratively) I often know exactly what is going on inside of one person or another. Someone recently had a loss. Another person is worried about a sick relative. The person in the back corner just lost their job. The person on the isle is going through a divorce. And the list could go on and on.

And so it was that I watched a strange and painful scene unfold. Parents and an estranged child, long since grown to adulthood. The couple, sitting at one end of a row, regular Shabbat attenders. Their son entered the room. There has been almost no contact between parent and child for a long time now, the result of a long forgotten but brutal and bitter dispute that left wounds too deep to heal. The son wandered, looking for a seat. Purely serendipitously he sat in his parents row, on the other end, not realizing they were there until it was too late. But now he couldn’t move. It was a point of pride. So he sat with his back angled toward his parents, staring away from them, fixing his eyes on some point in the distance. He held a siddur loosely in his hands.

The parents also suddenly realized their child sat just a few feet down the row from where they were. When was the last time they spoke to their son? A boy they raised, loved, taught how to read, ride a bike, drive a car, catch and throw a baseball. They were so close, the same Shul, the same room, the same time, the same row. But they could not have been further away. Wrinkles of sadness and regret formed around their eyes and in the corners of their mouths.

Soon the service would be over. The son and his parents would rise, not looking at one another but intensely aware of presence, and with it lost time and a long and lonely journey. It would not end this day. The parents slowly walked out, not looking back. The son? He waited an extra minute or two, pretending to look through the pages of a prayer book. Soon he too would be gone.

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Here Comes the Bride

I am coming off a stretch of 5 weddings the last 6 Saturday nights.  You might think after a while it all becomes like an assembly line.  Arrive 20 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to start.  Park the car.  Find where the bridal party is so the pre-ceremony rituals can be enacted.  Help the witnesses sign the ketubah.  Wait at the head of the procession line as the coordinator makes sure everything is ready to go and the right music is playing.  Walk down the isle.  Make sure everything on the table is there, ready for use – the wine, the kiddush cups, the glass to break.  Chant the prayers, sip the wine, exchange the rings, proclaim the vows, seven blessings, another sip of wine, wrap it up.  It doesn’t change.  For them it is (often) the first time, and hopefully the last.  For me?  I don’t even know.  I would guess 10-15 weddings a year, times 16 years in the rabbinate, would make around 200 weddings, give or take.

Amazingly, it never grows old.  I am not saying I enjoy the time demands, the schlepping out one Saturday night after another.  I don’t stay for the receptions – how could I?  But there is something about it that is incredibly compelling.  Two human beings see something in each other that enables them to say ‘I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”  The good, the bad.  The tough times and the easy ones.  The simhas and the sorrows.  You are the one.  There is something about you I trust so deeply, respect so fully, and love so completely that I think we can do this together, this life thing.  Even though I know it might not work out, I am willing to give it a try.

What a leap of faith it is to stand with another person at the Huppah!  It is so human, so incredibly audacious, so filled with joy and terror and hope and heart.  I think that is why God comes, why one of the Huppah’s symbolic meanings is God’s presence with the bride and groom.  What more compelling human moment could there be?  Even God is drawn to it, even God wants to witness it, to be connected to it.

And to share in it, to officiate at it, is one of the great privileges of the rabbinate, no question about it.  Powerful currents flow through the sacred space that the Huppah carves out.  From the bride and groom, their parents, their family and friends.  When you are in it, when it is happening, you can’t help but be caught up in it all.

I’ve had all kinds of crazy things happen at weddings.  A best man who didn’t speak English once threw the glass at the groom, not understanding my gestures to lay it down at the groom’s feet (it was a whisky tumbler, but everyone emerged OK!).  One time a best man forgot the wedding rings.  Left them in the hotel, which was not where the ceremony was.  We borrowed some from the attendees, right there during the ceremony.  I’ve had fainting brides (twice).  Fainting fathers of brides.  Not yet a fainting rabbi.  As I always say to the couples, regardless of what happens, at the end of that evening you are going to be married.  And they are, despite fainting, flying glasses and forgotten rings.

The moment that always gets me – every single time – is when the bride enters the room.  Everyone waits in anticipation.  The door opens with a dramatic flourish, and there she stands.  Emotion surges through the room.  I don’t know exactly what it is about that moment.  The dress?  The vision of the bride, in the distance, the veil, over her face?  I just don’t know, but it takes my breath away.  Every single time.

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54 Days

Been going back and forth a bit about this one and whether to post, and if so what to say. In part I worry that any comments about the topic (which I realize I haven’t identified yet) will be perceived of as some kind of kvetching. And maybe I am kvetching (is that cathartic?). But an article that appeared this week in the Forward about the stress and strain of rabbinic service, along with my own recent experience of working 54 straight days, leads me to believe that this is an issue those who care about the Jewish community should be talking about more often and more openly. Perhaps this post will become part of that conversation.

I know a fair number of people who work hard. Many hours, much pressure, expected to manage unmanageable responsibilities. The rabbinate often has all of this. But two things distinguish rabbinic work from other professions. One is that the vast majority of professionals have defined days off. The rabbi may have a designated day off (only one day, mind you!), but she often has to work on that day. Funerals and Brises come up. You can’t say to a family ‘sorry I can’t do your father’s funeral that day, I can’t make it to your newborn’s bris – it is my day off.’ Sometimes meetings happen on that day that you need to be at. Other times you’ve been so busy that you need your ‘off day’ to catch up on your work! Looking through my calendar I figure I end up working about half of my days off (my wife will tell you more). Not always the entire day, not 8 hours (or 10 or 12, which I often work on regular days), but still working. Have to put on a suit and tie. Take time that you expected to spend on something else – family perhaps? – and use it for work. The fact that I just worked 54 consecutive days means by definition that I worked 7 straight days off (one per week) in that stretch.

This piece is connected to the other thing that is unique about rabbi’s schedules, namely, in large part we do not have control over them. Obviously this is not entirely true. But not uncommonly we receive a call that requires us to change around our entire day’s schedule, or possibly even our week’s schedule. Cancel appointments, work on an evening when we had planned to be home with our families, even take time that we hoped to use to prepare a sermon or a class and use that time to meet an immediate, pressing need. And of course every canceled appointment has to be rescheduled. The sermon has to be written. The class has to be prepped. The problem is I am already booked tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, schedule full. Well, I have time on the afternoon of my off day because I haven’t scheduled anything … See how this works?

Last spring my wife had a big birthday that coincided with Mother’s Day. A year or so before I blocked the day, determined to do something nice with my wife. As the months went by, I was pressed to officiate at two different weddings and multiple unveilings on that day, and I refused, keeping the day clear. It was a great day. In the end, we took two of our kids with us on a day trip (our oldest was away at college.) We walked, we talked, we shopped a bit, saw some sights, ate out together. What families do on their Sundays, I guess. I loved every minute of it. But I also remember at some point in the afternoon that it all felt so strange. Why? Because it was the first time I had done something like that with my family (when not on vacation and out of town) in years. Many years – in fact I can’t remember the last time.

Another anecdote. Our son (our middle child) is off to college this year. He had a fall break of a full week in October (something more schools seem to be doing). I was looking forward to having him home, to spending a bit of time with him and catching up. But it was a particularly busy week. A couple of funerals, a Saturday night wedding, shiva minyanim that of course were not planned. I was out of the house early, home late every night. All of a sudden I realized that he was leaving the next day. I had literally barely seen him. You probably know the Harry Chapin song Cats in the Cradle. I felt like I was living it.

These are my personal regrets, the things I wonder and worry about, the doubts creeping in about whether I should have done it differently. At the end of the day every thing is a trade off, but not every trade off is worth it. The bottom line is this dynamic is shared by many rabbis (many clergy folk in general), and it is not healthy. It isn’t good for the rabbi, it isn’t good for the congregation, and it isn’t good for the community. I am not sure what to do about it, but I intend to spend some time wrestling with it in the coming months. Thank goodness I have wonderful lay leadership and supportive and talented colleagues. I’ll come back to this topic off and on as I navigate it a bit. And I will keep you ‘posted.’

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A Wedding in the Rain

Literally.  An outdoor wedding, planned for last night, the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend.  It was particularly important to the bride and her family to have the wedding outside because of a gorgeous huppah they had made (that could not be brought inside) and because the site was chosen in part for its view of a building where her father, recently deceased and at far too young an age, had worked.  And the groom, loving his bride, and being in general a sensitive and good hearted person, also wanted the ceremony to take place in the chosen spot.

Of course the old saying is that man plans and God laughs.  Rain and thunderstorms began to come into the area an hour or so before the wedding.  At the scheduled start time the rain was steady, if not torrential.  The facility didn’t really have a backup plan, although we probably could have moved inside, using a makeshift huppah.  But the family decided that the spot (with its view) and the huppah (a dreamcatcher huppah -wow!  beautiful!) were important enough to brave the wet weather.

And so we had a wedding in the rain.  Guests mostly stood under umbrellas (the chairs were quite wet anyway).  The bridal party walked down the aisle, lovely seersucker suits for the men, light tan (I am sure there is a name for that color) for the women.  The groom in a snappy navy blue 3 piece.  The bride came down, a smile on her face and a sense of adventure in her eyes – so reflective of who she is!  There was great spirit, a sense of fun, something not done before, and I think also an understanding that we are all there for the bride and groom, and not the other way round.

Yes, the Cantor and I performed a fast ceremony.  Maybe it was 10 minutes?  But everything that was required was done, and they were married.  What better than a kiss of true love in the rain, bride in her wedding dress, groom in his soaked suit, everyone applauding?  It was a scene out of a movie, the harbor a few feet behind us, roiling clouds overhead, insistent rain shimmering in the deepening twilight.  A memorable night.  A lovely wedding.  And most importantly of all, a fabulous couple.  

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The Kerfuffle Over Knausgaard

I have found over the years in compiling my summer reading lists that inevitably I end up reading a book or two in the course of the summer that didn’t make the original list.  So it has been this summer, first with the Graham Nash autobiography Wild Tales, and this past week with the “autobiographical novel” My Struggle by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.  If you love books and literature you’ve almost certainly crossed paths with Knausgaard (as fun as that is to type it is even more fun to say!).  His novels (so far there are 6 of them) have become the toast of literary Europe, translated now into 15 languages, and they are being devoured, one after the other, by readers around the globe.  The first two volumes are now available in the US in paperback.  It was volume one that I read this past week.

There has been some (relatively mild) controversy about the books.  Some folk say they are typical high literature works – well reviewed by the critics, but in reality rarely read by the general populace.  Perhaps like the other hot book of the summer, the French author Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, Knausgaard is an author people want to know about and be vaguely familiar with, but not actually read.  The books are hard to describe.  They are for the most past long and detailed descriptions of the day to day intimate details of the author’s life.  What he did on a particular New Year’s eve when he was 15. The first time he kissed a girl.  His struggle with a minor speech defect.  What music he listened to in high school, what clothes he wore when he went out.  How he felt the first time he got drunk.  The question of course is why would so many people be interested in reading this record of another person’s life, no more or less interesting than the life of the next person down the line?

I can think of a few answers to that question.  Let me first of all say that despite how it sounds, the book makes for enormously compelling reading.  The prose is fabulous (kudos to the translator).  But in some strange, difficult to explain, almost unnamable way, Knausgaard pulls you in.  My Struggle is actually a page turner, despite the fact that most of its pages describe mundane, everyday events.  Perhaps it is the subtext, the themes that exist just underneath the spare narrative, that pulls the reader into the Karl Ove vortex.  Death.  Creativity.  Love.  Parenthood.  Fear.  Honesty and integrity.  These are all central ideas that the book subtly yet at the same time profoundly explores.  And, no coincidence, these are all themes that most of us struggle with throughout our lives, day to day, hour to hour.  Hence, his struggle is actually ours.  But to look at our struggle from a safe distance, through the lens of another life, allows us to think about ourselves and who we are and how we live in a new way.

At the same time, there is a dark shadow in the book, a sense of fear and foreboding that can be sensed on almost every page.  There is a kind of monster lurking in My Struggle, at least in volume 1, and that monster is Knausgaard’s father.  His step on the stair causes a feeling of panic.  His presence in the house casts a pall over every conversation, every meal, every activity.  It is not a physical power that he wields, but a psychological one.  He is hated and feared by his sons, but at the same time revered and loved.  He holds them captive, and the ‘struggle’ of the title may very well be referring to Knausgaard’s fight to break free, and to live in the light that lies somewhere outside of the shadow that his father casts.

Of course for a rabbi just a month away from the High Holy Days, the novel brings to mind the Binding of Isaac story, read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.  Was this how Isaac felt about his father Abraham?  Was this the way Abraham felt about God?  Perhaps in one way or another we all have such powerful presences in our lives.  How we break the bonds that they create and reformulate those relationships can in some cases literally determine the course of our lives.  Somewhere in there might be a sermon.  Then again, around this time of year I tend to think there is a sermon somewhere in everything.  But I can’t worry about that now.  I’ve got to go out and get volume 2.  Time to start reading.  I wonder what Knausgaard is doing today?

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The Rabbi Incognito

Just back from a fabulous almost 2 week vacation.  Yes, it is important to get out of the office, although email blurs exactly what ‘getting away’ means these days.  But for a rabbi (or I imagine pretty much any clergy person) it is also important, every once in a while, to simply not be recognized.  To be able to walk down a street, go to a restaurant, or a bar, or a store, and be fairly certain that you are not going to run into anyone you know. (This is also, by the way, good for the rabbi’s spouse!)

This is one of the dilemmas of being a public figure.  And it is a good problem!  People want to say hi, to check in, to touch base, to reach out.  And their intentions are genuine, and they are genuinely nice people, and the truth is I am a friendly person and enjoy running into people and the quick 2 minute how are you? good to see you.  I really do.

But there is something to be said for being under the radar every once in a while.  And when I travel I tend to travel, rabbi-wise, incognito (from the Latin – ‘in’ (not) and ‘cognitus’ (known).  An example.  On airplanes, when sitting next to a person I do not know who asks me what I do for a living, I will often parry the question by saying “I work in human services.”  Why?  Because I know from experience that once I say I am a rabbi all sorts of bizarre conversations can ensue, and I don’t want to spend my entire two hours on the airplane talking theology with someone I don’t know.  That simple.  

So for almost two weeks now I haven’t been ‘the rabbi.’  And here is the paradox:  in not being the rabbi, I can simply be Steve; in simply being Steve, I am ultimately a better rabbi.  

That being said, one quick anecdote.  Some years ago I traveled to Scotland with 5 of my closest friends from college.  We had a wonderful time, toured distilleries, played cards, fished for salmon, played golf.  One round of golf played on a very rustic links course outside of Dufftown (in the Highlands for you whisky enthusiasts) ended with two of my friends and I sitting at the clubhouse bar having a pint.  The gentleman who ran the course (and the bar) was a gregarious fellow, engaging us in conversation.  Of course it didn’t take long for him to ask us what we did back in the States.  My one friend sells insurance.  The other was in the real estate business.  And I told the truth – “I am a rabbi,” I said somewhat hesitantly.  

I will always remember his response.  He looked at us thoughtfully for a moment.  Then he said this, looking at us each in turn:  “I’d buy insurance from you, a property from you, and I would come to hear you preach!”

We are still waiting!

 

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