Tag Archives: Simon Schama

Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

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Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Beth El Congregation, Bible, continiuty, High Holy Days, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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Summer Reading List 2018*

Each year around Memorial Day I publish a summer reading list, letting the congregation know what books I expect to be delving into during the summer months.  Happy reading!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel – A post apocalyptic tale of a traveling Shakespeare troupe, this novel explores memory, friendship, family, and asks the ultimate question:  what is it that truly makes us human? (378 pages)

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe – Published in 1968, this book (non-fiction) chronicles the early hippie movement in the San Francisco Bay area, particularly the escapades of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters.  In a time when psychedelics are making a bit of a comeback this is worth a re-read, just after the author’s death at the age of 88.

The Story of the Jews:  Belonging, 1492-1900 – the long fight to survive, by Simon Schama – The British historian has just published part 2 of his history of the Jewish people.  The second installment covers a 500 year span as the Jewish community struggled with what it meant to live in the Diaspora.  Will the Jews be accepted or rejected?  Questions of antisemitism, assimilation, and Jewish identity come to life in Schama’s lively prose, and reading his book reminds us those questions are just as relevant today as they have ever been. (some 600 plus pages!)

The Great Shift, Encountering God in Biblical Times, by James Kugel – One of the best modern Bible commentators, Kugel explores the shifting sense of God that is conveyed by the Hebrew Bible.  Why is God present and active when the Bible begins, but remote and invisible when it ends?  This book is Kugel’s answer to that question.

On Middle Ground, a History of the Jews in Baltimore, by Eric Goldstein and Deborah Weiner – As advertised, a comprehensive history of Baltimore’s Jewish community, from its very first Jews to Pikesville.  Close readers will find that Rabbi Mark Loeb z’l does get a mention! (about 400 pages)

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi – One of Israel’s most thoughtful writers, Halevi explores with frank honesty his sadness at the Palestinian situation, his longing for reconciliation, and his fierce belief in Israel, its mission, and its right to exist.  In a world where we are all too often driven to extreme views, Halevi’s nuanced exploration of the ‘matzvah’ is poignant and necessary.

* As always, a caveat emptor – I may not read all of these books this summer, and I probably will read one or two books not on the list!  Enjoy the reading!!

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Winter Reading

For many years I’ve posted a summer reading list so members of the congregation, if interested, will know what books I’ll be delving into over the summer months.  But the truth is winter is also a reading time, at least for me.  It is dark outside, the wind is blowing, the temperature is dipping.  Inside a single light illuminates a cozy room.  I sit in an armchair, with a thick sweater on, wool socks, perhaps a warm mug of tea, or even better a wee dram of fine whisky.  An open book on my lap, the pages turn one by one, and I am transported to some far off land or distant time.  As the hours go by and the candle begins to burn down and sputter, I hardly notice, for the words beckon.

I’ve loved to read since I was a little boy.  Some of my earliest memories are of flipping the pages of books, or of having my mother or my aunt read to me.  I read constantly, at every spare moment.  I could spend hours perusing the books at my local book store, eyes carefully scanning the covers, hands weighing the heft of each tome, even smelling the freshly cut and printed paper.   That early love of reading has been one of the most important and consistent threads in my life, and the pleasure I felt when opening a book as a lad is even deeper in my adult life.

And in the winter, with the longer nights and shorter days, with less time to be out of doors, there is more time to read.  So here are a few of the titles on my bedside table that I’ll be tackling in the weeks ahead:

I am currently about 200 pages in to Walter Isaacson’s magical biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  The author uses da Vinci’s famous notebooks as a window to peer into the great genius’s mind, and the reader feels as if he is walking along a Milanese city street in the late 1400s watching one of the unique minds of all time unpack the world around us.  The effect is not disconcerting, but is instead a source of wonderment and delight.

Simon Schama has published the second volume in his ‘The Story of the Jews,’ entitle ‘Belonging.’  Schama is a wonderful, anecdotal reporter of history, who writes with lively prose and joy.  This middle volume of his work (I am guessing there will be a third book taking the Jewish story into modernity) covers the period from 1492-1900.  It was a time when Jews began to realize that the world around them might never fully welcome them into its fold.  To be Jewish, Schama suggests, is to always feel as one apart.

Last on this mini-list – Phillip Pullman’s ‘the Book of Dust.’  A prequel to Pullman’s  ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, the Book of Dust traces the earliest stages of his heroine Lyra’s journey, and he explores the societal structures and social norms that drive a fantasy and parallel world that sometimes seems eerily like our own.

Last but not least, check out David Brooks (the NY Times columnist) and his two columns about the best long form essays of the year.  The articles he picks are widely varied in topic, from a story about a man eaten by an alligator to a serious investigation into the current opioid epidemic.  Yet somehow, when viewed as a complete package, the essays form a picture of where we currently are, how we got here, and where we might want to go in the months ahead.

Happy reading!

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the Real Threat to Israel

here a text version of my Shabbat sermon from yesterday (7/26)

     I am about a third of the way through Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people, called ‘the Story of the Jews.’   The book is a 550 page opus written in lively prose that combines analysis of primary source material – letters and artifacts from antiquity – with copious research to produce a fresh and compelling account of our people’s history.  Being a third of the way through puts me right towards the end of the Roman period, roughly around the year 150 or so of the common era.  The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70.  Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba have just had their revolt brutally put down.  Ancient Israel has been in Roman control for more than 100 years at this point, a control maintained by the military might of the Roman legions, something the Israelites could never hope to match, let alone exceed.   

     It is a position ancient Israel was very familiar with.  There were a few brief periods of actual Israelite autonomy, but by and large Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms, were squaring off against a mighty power that almost always ended up controlling them.  Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Rome – that list alone covers close to 650 of the first 1000 years of Israel’s existence.  These were the greatest powers of the ancient world, unrivaled in their time in terms of military might, great conquerers, at their height controlling not only Israel, but for Babylonia, Assyria, and Rome the vast majority of the civilized world.  And yet what is most striking in reading a history of the Jews, century after century, is this:  how those great powers failed, and ultimately disappeared entirely – but at the same time how tiny little Israel somehow managed to survive, sometimes even to thrive, but always to figure out a way to move forward into the future.

     Simon Schama would probably argue that it was the power of the word that gave Israel the strength it needed to outlive and outlast its antagonists.  By this he would mean in a small sense the Torah itself, a document of such power that it could sustain and nourish the spirit of a people even in darkest times.  But he also means by this the world of the mind, the ideas and values that came to define Judaism, Jewish life, and the Jewish people as time went by.  Monotheism.  The principle that all human beings are created in the image of God.  The sense that the only way to live a holy life is to live a moral life.  The power of community and covenant.  These ideas were so powerful that they could not be defeated, certainly not by strength of arms – Medgar Evers, the black civil rights activist from the early 60s said it best – “you can kill a man, but you can not kill an idea.”

     But even more than not being defeated, there is actually a kind of victory that can be achieved through the word, through ideas and values, that can never be achieved through military might.  We’ve known this as Jews for a long time.  It is part of our history, part of how we have been able to survive and over time to create a culture that is at the foundation of the modern Western world.  Many of you learned this idea from a young age when you studied the Hanukkah story in Hebrew school.  We have never emphasized the military victory of Hanukkah, probably in part because it was a short lived victory at best.  Instead we focus on the miracle of the oil, something that has nothing to do with military might, and the song we teach our children to sing for Hanukkah is taken from the words of the prophet Zachariah – לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה צבאות  – Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord, God of Hosts.  As Jews we have always defined our victories by the spirit, not by the sword.

     That is not to say that we haven’t needed the sword over the years, especially in modern times as we have fought to create and then to defend the State of Israel.  What we can be grateful for today is that Israel’s sword is strong.  Maybe right now we are fearful, we worry, we doubt, but the truth is Israel’s army is by far the strongest in the Middle East, and there is not a chance – not even the slightest, smallest, chance, that Israel will be defeated militarily in this war, or frankly any other for a long, long time.  So although I am concerned, although I understand that it is untenable to live in a situation where rockets are constantly falling on your towns, your cities, you homes, I am not afraid – Israel is by far the stronger nation, and this is not even a contest of military power – there is no contest.

     But I do worry sometimes about whether Israel will fail the true Jewish test of strength, that captured by Zachariah – the test of the spirit.  Will she be able to maintain a sense of moral clarity, will she stay true to the values that have defined and guided the Jewish people now for 3000 years?  Will she be not only on the side of might, but also on the side of right?  

     Please do not mistake my point.  I believe Israel has to be in Gaza right now.  A nation cannot tolerate a continual barrage of rocket fire at its civilian population.  Israel has no choice but to do what it is doing.  I also believe that the IDF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties.  When the IDF warns an area that an attack is coming so the civilians can try to get away, those are Jewish values.  And I believe that the responsibility for this war lies at the feet of Hamas, and all they have to do to stop it is to stop firing their missiles.  In this sense Israel is not only on the side of might, she is also on the side of right.

     But I do see at the same time that even as the Iron Dome system protects Israel from physical harm, the shield of her spirit is showing cracks and dents.  The most obvious, the most tragic, was the revenge killing of the Palestinian teenager by three Jews.  That was a failure of the Jewish spirit.  In the ongoing war to maintain a sense of Jewish values and Jewish life, to keep Israel as a proud Jewish nation, that incident was a battle that we lost.  But we also have to understand that there is a context that makes something like that possible – an atmosphere, an environment that exists – in Israel – that makes an act like that even conceivable.  And it is that atmosphere that is threatening Israel much more than Hamas is or ever will.

     I will give you another example.  A week ago or so, when there was a brief humanitarian cease fire, a rabbi I know, and for whom I have respect, who lives in Israel, posted on his FB page the following:  the subhumans are asking for a humanitarian cease fire.  A comment like that is a failure of the Jewish spirit in the deepest sense.  It comes from a place of anger and fear, and probably despair, and hatred, but it does not come from a Jewish place.  And it is precisely at times like this when the words that we use, the thoughts that we express, should be guided NOT by our basest emotions, but instead by our highest ideals and values, by the very best of what makes us proud to be Jews and committed to living Jewish lives.  

     May we remember that during this difficult time for our people, and may those ideals and values guide our lives, and our communities, for many years to come – 

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