Tag Archives: rabbinate

The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.



Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, dysfunctional family, holidays, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Shakespeare, Uncategorized

The End

Some of you may remember the song by the Doors.  Released in January 1967 on their eponymously titled debut album, it was a 12 minute long guided tour through the brilliant yet burning mind of Jim Morrison, the group’s singer and lyricist.  When asked about the song he explained it was written originally about breaking up with his girlfriend.  Maybe so.  But with its explicit references to death, its images of twisting snakes and preternatural lakes, it has always been viewed as an exploration of the end of life, of saying goodbye not for a day, not for a time, but forever.

When I was in college I spent a semester hosting a late Sunday night/early Monday morning (midnight to 5 AM) radio show on the campus station.  Mostly I played Grateful Dead bootlegs and album side long jams from the Dead’s Europe ’72 record or the Allman Brothers At Fillmore East (check out the 23 minute Whipping Post on side 4 if you haven’t heard it in a while).  But every show, precisely at 2:15 in the morning, the station’s phone would ring and a young man would request The End.  Seeing as that he was probably my only listener how could I not comply?  It was a bit eerie, hearing Morrison’s oily voice coming out of the station speakers, no one else around, the campus dark and quiet during those predawn hours.

Of course when you are young death is a distant concept, an idea you are aware of but that for the most part is entirely disconnected from your reality.  Not something that actually happens to you or those you love.  Maybe even a bit romantic, Romeo and Juliet-esque.  But rabbis know differently.  Death is a day to day reality, it is a destination, a shared fate, a deep chasm we all cross.  Death don’t have no mercy in this land, sang the Reverend Gary Davis.  Amen to that, brother.

Of course most of the time we all live in that ‘suspended state of disbelief.’  That we’ll wake up and have a normal day.  That we will walk God’s green earth, feel the breeze, watch spring blossom in its fullness, talk with our neighbors, enjoy time with our family and friends, work, eat, drink, read the paper.  Just a normal day.  What did Garcia sing in Black Peter?  “See here how everything lead up to this day, and its just like any other day that’s ever been.”  And the truth is we have to live like that. You can’t go about your life as if you are Max van Sydow wandering through some Ingmar Bergman film, Death trailing and tracking you every step of the way.  So seize the day you have, live fully, be grateful, enjoy the little moments and the great ones as well.  Walk out from under the shadow and soak up the light.  In today’s vernacular, that is how we (rock and) roll.  All of us, one way or another.

One last thought.  After referencing the Doors, the Allmans, the Dead, it is only appropriate to go all the way back to the words of the Psalmist:  “This is the day that God has made.  Let us exult and rejoice in it.” (Psalm 118:24)  Amen to that as well.


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Yes it is true that AIPAC has a long standing habit of inviting presidential candidates to speak at its annual conference. McCain, Clinton, and Obama spoke at the conference in 2008, Romney did it in 2012 (via satellite), and the list goes on and on. So it was no surprise that yesterday (3/21/16) on the AIPAC main stage there was a parade of potential presidential power with each of the remaining candidates, (except, oddly, Bernie Sanders, the only Jew in the bunch) giving their two cents to the crowd, in various and sundry ways repeating the same mantra over and over again – America will always stand by Israel. It was business as usual at AIPAC, and even if the candidates jabbed at each other in the course of their remarks, they all stuck to the central AIPAC talking points, as expected – or is that required? Anyway, you get the picture.

What was different this time, however, was the controversy surrounding AIPAC’s invitation to Donald Trump. On the one hand, he is the leading Republican candidate – how could they not invite him? On the other hand, there are many in the Jewish community who feel that his public statements are often in direct conflict with Jewish values. A group of rabbis organized a silent protest to Trump’s AIPAC talk, getting up and walking out just as he began his remarks. The leaders of the Conservative Movement (Chancellor Arnie Eisen and Rabbis Julie Schonfeld and Steve Wernick) published an Op Ed the day before Trump’s speech, raising four objections to Trump’s character and candidacy, and wondering whether it was wise to highlight him at a conference that is in many ways about Jewish community. (you can read the text of their statement here: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/jewish-americans-wary-trump-takes-aipac-stage-article-1.2570993)

It was an interesting conundrum for the AIPAC leadership to navigate. It is true, everything is a trade off, and politics makes strange bedfellows, etc. etc. But did we really have to go there? Are we prepared to set aside core communal values for political expediency, for a potential leg up should the unimaginable happen and Trump actually ascend to the presidency? By inviting Trump AIPAC answered that question in the affirmative. I wonder if they were surprised at the references to ‘Palestine’ in his remarks? For someone who ‘studies the issues, who knows them better than just about anyone,’ that was a noticeable slip that gave the faithful in the crowd pause. I have no doubt it will be corrected and explained in the days ahead.

If you are a lover of roots music, you have probably heard of Robert Johnson, the original blues man. Johnson came from the Mississippi delta, a poor black man who somehow almost singlehandedly created a style of music that would become famous world wide. He only lived into his late 20s, and recorded a mere 30 or so songs in his entire career. But without Robert Johnson it is possible to argue that you wouldn’t have the Rolling Stones, or Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton or the Allman Brothers, possibly even Bob Dylan. The question about Johnson was this: how did one man have such a huge influence? Where did his almost preternatural talent come from?

The legendary answer to that question is that Johnson one day met the Devil at dry and dusty crossroads in the deep delta. A deal was made – Johnson secured his short term talent and a long term legacy. But he lost his soul. Whether you believe the story or not, it is hard not to read it as a cautionary tale.

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Life and Death

The phrase always stays with me. It occurred twice in my bar mitzvah Torah portion in different forms, most dramatically in Deuteronomy 30:19: “I call Heaven and Earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life! – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord Your God…” In the synagogue where I grew up the bar mitzvah boys actually had to translate the Torah into English as they were reading it, line by line, phrase by phrase. And that phrase – life and death – caught my attention, even as a thirteen year old.

You grow older, you begin to understand how problematic the verse actually is. Really? As if we actually have a choice, as if we can change the decree of fate, as if we are in control. Of course you can work with the verse, massage it, step outside of the literal and look for the metaphoric. And that can help. Here is one way to do it: the verse isn’t about quantity, but quality. Belief doesn’t guarantee a certain number of years, but it can help you find greater meaning in whatever number of years you do have. And that works pretty well, actually, at least for me. It rings true, it just feels right.

But yesterday I had an experience that let me see the verse through a different lens. A funeral, and I was at the cemetery with the family. Two siblings burying a brother who had died suddenly. As we were walking the casket to the grave, a family member approached me with an iPhone. A baby had been born into the family, just as we were arriving at the cemetery. Here was a picture of the newborn, swaddled, tiny hat on, bright black eyes peering out at a new world.

Life and death, death and life. One member of the family leaving this world, and literally at the very same moment a new member of the family arriving. We call it the cycle of life, and at times it can be vey powerful. What we are linked into. How we are connected. For each of us it begins with life and ends with death. But for families, for the generations that come and go, death and life are not really endings or beginnings, they are instead part of a tapestry, a history, a narrative that goes on and on. Even after we are physically gone we are still a part of it all, our image woven into the tapestry for others to see, our part of the narrative written in words that are read long after we are gone. In this weaving, this writing and reading, this telling and remembering, we also choose life.

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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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Repeating Sermons

The old story is that a rabbi, after a long career, after preaching hundreds upon hundreds of sermons, realized that in truth there were only two sermons he had ever given. One, be good. The other? Be good Jews.
Of course that is an exaggeration, but there is a fair amount of truth to it. After all, how much can you really say? How many original and profound thoughts can one person have? This past weekend I spoke four times – Friday morning at minyan, Friday night at services, Saturday morning at services, and Saturday night at services. And I also taught the Torah study class Saturday morning. Here is how I would grade my talks: Friday morning, fine; Friday night, not too bad; Saturday morning, nice try; Saturday night, also fine. I did not repeat from one to the next. Hopefully a few of the people who heard my remarks got something out of it, learned something, thought about something in a new way. But the truth is, if not, it is not the end of the world.
At the kiddish after services Saturday a congregant (a long time regular), in the course of conversation, said this to me: “Rabbi, I know you repeat sermons sometimes, I remember you’ve said the same thing once or twice before.” She is one hundred percent right. I have certainly taken sermons I’ve given in the course of the year and reused them (with alterations) for the High Holidays. And I’ve taken sermons I’ve given in the past (and classes, for that matter) and reused them as well. After all, if it was truly worth saying once, it very well might be worth saying again. In fact I am right now thinking about using the sermon I gave about Israel a couple of weeks ago in one form or another on either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The math works in my favor – when I gave it on Shabbat, there were about 120 people at services. On the High Holydays there will be 1400 people in the room – so at least 1250 of them won’t have heard it! And besides, of the 120 who did hear it the first time, some of them won’t remember it anyway.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of the most talented and thoughtful (and truly original thinkers) in Conservative Judaism once remarked that when the Mishnah attributes a teaching to Rabban Gamliel, it will often say ‘Rabban Gamliel was in the custom of saying..’ That is to say, even the great Rabban Gamliel repeated his remarks from time to time. So whether it is right or wrong, it is always good to be in good company.

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If I Forget You O Jerusalem…

I’ve never been a big fan of metrics, but sometimes the numbers are so significant that you must pay attention to them. My congregation has an active FB page, with over 700 ‘likes,’ and a common post will garner 2-350 hits. On Sunday morning I posted a text version of the sermon I delivered on Shabbat. It was about the current situation in Israel and the idea that the real threat to Israel is not physical, but rather spiritual and moral. So far, the post has been clicked on more than 2000 times. Something is going on here. The question is, what?
The obvious answer is that Jews are deeply concerned about Israel right now. The missiles continue to fall, Israelis are constantly scrambling for the nearest bomb shelter, and Israeli soldiers are losing their lives in Gaza. The Jewish community is worried, frustrated, scared, and angry, and any information about Israel, any column, any article, any – sermon – is being devoured with an unusual level of interest. Israel is on the radar screen. It is front and center in the mind of the average Jew. Add to that the fact that when the ‘matzav’ (situation) is as it is, people want to know what their rabbi thinks about it, and voila – 2,000 plus clicks!
But I think there is also an additional layer that is part of the dynamic, maybe for the first time, or at least the first time on a large scale. And that is that people feel conflicted. Publicly they staunchly support Israel, they go to pro-Israel rallies, they call their elected officials to make sure that Israel is being supported. But privately, in small conversations, in their own minds and hearts, in the office of their rabbi, they tell a different story: they are worried about Israel, but they are also disturbed by the loss of civilian life in Gaza.
I can hear already the cries of “blasphemer!” This is something that shouldn’t be said, let alone written! But it seems to me a person can be concerned about the civilians of Gaza and still support Israel’s right to defend itself. Is that easy? Perhaps not. But is it possible? Yes. And I would even argue it is necessary.
Why? Because that concern, at the end of the day, comes from the same place that our love for Israel comes from – a deeply Jewish place. A place of morality, of understanding intuitively that ALL human beings are created in the image of God, a place of concern for justice and a true, deep, and powerful yearning for peace.
Jerusalem we will never forget. Not now. Not ever. In knowing that perhaps we can realize that there is space to consider, and to remember, even more.

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