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Celebrations!

A text version of my sermon from Rosh Hashanah day 2 –

I will confess something this morning, being our season of confession, which is that I am feeling a bit nervous.  Not about this morning’s service, which after all is almost over.  Not about this sermon, which will also be over in a few minutes.  But instead, about tomorrow morning, when many of you won’t be here.  Because tomorrow morning, Shabbat Shuvah, I will celebrate the 40th anniversary of my bar mitzvah.  And some weeks ago I agreed, in honor of this occasion, to chant both the haftara and the maftir tomorrow.  But I’ve been so busy, I haven’t practiced!  So I feel a bit like a bar mitzvah bachor, and all afternoon I’ll be practicing my maftir!

What is helping me is that I know I’ll be in good company.  Not only with all of the bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls who will be celebrating with their families in this new year, but also with all of the congregants who will come to the Torah in the coming months to thank God for reaching a milestone day their lives.  You may know the baseball expression ‘hitting for the cycle’ – what does it mean?  Right!  And there are Shabbat mornings where we have the shul equivalent of that here at Beth El – a baby naming and an auffruff, a 50th wedding anniversary and a 90th birthday, all in one morning.  People come to the Torah to celebrate those moments because they want to connect that important day in their lives with something that is sacred, and they also want to thank God for that gift of time.  Over the years I have been privileged to stand with many couples at the Torah as they expressed the gratitude they felt for the time they had shared and they life they had made.

I don’t know how many couples I’ve shared that anniversary moment with, at this point probably a couple of hundred or more.  But there are two such moments particularly that stand out in my mind.  The first was many years ago, when Sam and Vera Singer came to the Torah on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary.  Sam was a wonderful guy, a bit of a character, and as I was talking to him and to Vera, and saying ‘what a wonderful thing,’ and ‘mazaltov,’ and ’60 years of marriage!’ with a twinkle in his eye Sam leaned over to me – in front of the entire congregation – with his mouth near the microphone – and said ‘rabbi, it seems like longer.’  I will always remember that!

And the second moment, just a few weeks ago, in the Gorn Chapel, when Lucille and Nathan Goldberg came to the Torah to celebrate their 76th wedding anniversary.  I did not misstate that number – they’ve been married for 76 years. That is a rare thing.  It is a wedding anniversary I will probably never see again in my rabbinate.  There are a series of things that have to happen for a couple to be married 76 years.  Obviously they need to be blessed with good health, and to live well into their 90s.  I think a devoted, caring, and loving family around them makes a huge difference as well.  Some luck along the way is a necessity.  And of course they have to have a love, a respect, and a level of caring that nourishes and sustains their relationship for decade after decade.  But they need one other thing, that happens at the very beginning of their relationship – and that is a leap of faith.  Because every anniversary – whether it is the first or the 76th –  begins with a leap of faith.

Certainly that is true for couples.  Every couple faces an unknown future when they stand under the huppah.  Their hope and expectation is that they will find all of the good things that life has to offer – health, a family, financial success, and many years to be together.  But the truth is they don’t know what their future will hold.  Almost half of the couples that marry today will get divorced, and every couple will face significant challenges in the course of their journey together.  And yet they take the chance, and they make that leap.

That was certainly the case for Gertrude Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Like many couples, they were introduced by a mutual friend.  They took a liking to each other, had a first date, and quickly became an item.  It took a few years – and it was Gert Mokotoff who had to pop the question – but they were finally married this summer in upstate New York.  Alvin is 94.  And he married an older woman – Gert is 98.  And that folks is quite a leap of faith.  At their wedding celebration Alvin told the story of their first sleep over.  This is the way he described it:  “We had spent the whole day together, and at night, I set up the bedroom for her, and I was going to be in the next room.  She gets into the bed, and I say good night and start walking out, and she says, ‘Where are you going?’”  God willing, in the summer of 2018 Alvin and Gert will celebrate their first anniversary.  But that never would have happened if not for the leap of faith they took, that they could make a future together as husband and wife.

Of course the same is true for institutions, and even nations.  You may or may not know that Beth El and the State of Israel share the same birth year – 1948.  That means, if my math is correct (which it rarely is) that the modern Jewish homeland will turn 70 this spring.  And this year, 5778, is the 70th time our congregation has gathered together to welcome in a new year.  That does not quite match Nathan and Lucille’s 76th anniversary, but it is striking nonetheless.  And think for a moment of the leaps of faith required for those two 70th anniversaries to come to pass.

This May it will be 70 years since the founders of Israel gathered with David Ben Gurion in Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 14th of that month Ben Gurion banged his gavel on the table, but before order could even be established the 250 assembled guests rose to their feet and spontaneously burst out into an emotional singing of Hatikvah.  When things quieted down Ben Gurion read, live on the Israeli radio station Kol Yisrael, Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  When he finished the last words, Rabbi Yehuda Fishman came to the mic, and recited the שהחיינו blessing.  It was a powerful moment, full of emotion and hope, but who could have known then that in just 70 years Israel would become one of the greatest nations in the entire world?

And who could have known, 70 years ago, when a small group of 8 families came together with the goal of creating a congregation where progressive Jewish values would be embraced, where men and women would sit together, where a vibrant Judaism for the 20th century and beyond would be lived – who could have known then where the congregation’s journey would take it?  Who could have known that in 70 years Beth El would become one of the largest and most respected synagogues in the United States, with 1700 families, open 365 days a year, helping thousands and thousands of Jews to feel closer to their heritage, tradition, and God?

Who could have known?  With the possible exception of God Godself, no one.  And yet 70 years ago Ben Gurion stood and declared Israel to be an independent nation.  And 70 years ago our founders made a pact that they would do their best to bring a new congregational community into being.   76 years ago Lucille and Nathan left a huppah to walk out together into the future.  One month ago Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann did the same.

There is even a rabbinic tradition that it was the leap of faith of one individual that enabled the Jewish people to become a nation.  You all know the story – fleeing Egypt, the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with the Egyptian army closing in behind them.  Moses pleads to God, but God says to Moses ‘you have to do something.’  And the waters don’t move, and the army is getting closer and closer.

But the Sages teach that one individual – Nachshon – begins to walk forward into the water.  And all of Israel, even Moses, watches him.  And the water reaches his waste.  And then his chest.  And then his neck.  And he keeps walking forward.  And he stretches his head up, to catch the last gasps of air before the waters close over his head, and just at that moment the sea begins to part.  And then one Israelite, and then another, and another, and another, begin to follow Nachshon, and when they together emerge on the far shore, they have become Am Israel, the Jewish people.

It all began with a leap of faith.  But if you think about it, so does every human undertaking.  We have limited and imperfect knowledge of the road we travel and the journey we are on.  It is not just Nachshon, or Ben Gurion, or the Singers or the Goldbergs, or even Gert Mokotoff and Alvin Mann.  Each one of us begins a day not knowing what it will hold.  Each one of us begins a new year wondering where it will take us.  May God grant us the faith we need to leap forward into this new year with hope and courage and trust, that our days will be full, our journey fulfilling, and our lives a blessing.

May that be God’s will – כן יהי רצון

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This Land is Your Land…

Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –

Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future.   The past – both ancient and recent –  is everywhere in Israel.  In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat.  On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles.  They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago.  But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post.  These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland.  The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.  In fact, just the opposite.  The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern.  If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them.  This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all.  As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019.  It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time.  Imagine that!  You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.

Imagine that!  From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes.  For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks.  They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.

Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed.  Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we  can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined.  But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same.  And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold –  laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago.  The gratitude.  The sense of God’s presence.  The connection to the history of our people.  Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho.  For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God.  Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.

It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south.  As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.

It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp.  He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter.  He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize.  The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.

Or did he?  There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death.  When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land.  The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.

Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time.  Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people?  Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know.  But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.

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A Dancing Camel?

Like Ahab pursuing his mythic white whale, I’ve been on the lookout for Dancing Camel beer since my arrival in Israel now some 10 days ago.  I’ve been close a couple of times – once today, at the shuk (Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem), where I’ve found the Dancing Camel beer line before.  And before that a number of days ago when I was in Tel Aviv just a half a mile from the brewery/restaurant itself, only to discover that it opened later in the day, and my schedule would not permit waiting.  In both cases the Camel eluded my grasp, slipping away just as I thought I had it in my sights.

But full confession – my disappointment has been tempered by the craft beer scene here in Israel, which is exploding.  There are dozens of breweries, producing hundreds of beers, a number of them quite good.  From Dancing Camel in Tel Aviv to Shapiro Beer in Jerusalem, from Malka in the north to Herzl Brewing with its  ‘blibical beer,’ Israeli brewers are perfecting their craft and producing a variety of stouts, porters, IPAs, dubels, and wheat beers that are delicious and truly worthy of the ‘craft beer’ designation.

Just a few examples:

We emerged from our tour of Akko with its Crusader period ruins, through a gift shop (of course!) and out into a tiny alleyway that leads back to the main square.  Just a few steps down the alley and you’ll find a small Malka Beer ‘tied house.’  The tart and citrusy IPA was a perfect thirst quencher on a hot day of touring.

Or the shuk itself!  Mahane Yehuda can try the patience of a saint on a Friday afternoon, but these days it is filled with tiny bars and pubs where you can cool off, cool down, have a nosh, and of course drink Israeli craft beer.  I watched the undulating sea of shoppers jostling along the market’s narrow thoroughfares while sipping a fruity Pale Ale made by  Shapiro Brewing in Jerusalem.  With a palate scorched by the IPA/DIPA craze in the Sates, this pale ale was a welcome throwback to the nascent days of the American micro scene and beers like Geary’s Pale Ale and the original version of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  What better way to wash down felafel in pita?

Last but not least the Glen Whisk(e)y Bar, located in the heart of Jerusalem (Shlomtziyon HaMalka 18), just a short walk from the Mamilla Mall.  In a room the size of many American kitchens the owner of this classic bar has assembled one of the largest whisky collections in Israel.  But don’t forget about the beer!  15 taps, all pouring Israeli craft beers, the lines well maintained, the beer served to perfection, the pints filled to your heart’s content.  My only complaint?  Even there, at Jerusalem’s beer mecca, there was not a Dancing Camel to be found.

Just one more reason to come back to Israel soon!  Cheers, or should I say l’chayyim!

 

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Our Spring Israel Trip

this a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (3/28) reflecting on our recent trip to Israel –

The image of an altar is at the center of this morning’s Torah portion.  The text is mostly a description of an ordination ritual for Aaron and his sons, preparing them for service to the Israelite community as priests.  The ritual is conducted around an altar, with three sacrifices offered, and the sprinkling of blood, both onto the altar itself and onto Aaron and his sons.  It is not surprising that the altar would be a central image – as an object, it was a crucial component of the ancient sacrificial system, that was practiced by our ancestors until the Temple in Jerusalem was finally destroyed, some 2000 years ago.

The altar that our ancestors used for their worship is described in great detail in the Torah.  It was to be made of stone, un-hewed, to be of a certain size, and perhaps most interestingly to have four horns, one at each of its corners, emerging from the flat surface of the top.  Just a little over a week ago I was in Jerusalem with the 47 people who traveled on the Beth El trip that returned this week, and we had the opportunity to spend an hour and a half or so in the Israel Museum, one of the great museums in the world, and certainly containing one of the finest antiquities collections anywhere.  As I wandered around the museum I rounded a corner, and standing right in front of me was an altar, found at the excavations in the south of Israel, in Beer Sheva, constructed exactly as the Torah describes it – the stone construction, the dimensions, and most noticeably the four stone horns sticking up from the corners.

That altar in the museum is about 3,000 years old, and coming face to face with it, the very week when we began reading the book of Leviticus, with its focus on the sacrificial system, reminded me of the concrete reality of the Bible, the historical memory of the text, in a way that simply cannot happen here in the States.  Of course if you’ve been to Israel you know these experiences happen on an almost daily basis.  The apartment where Joseph Caro wrote the Shulhan Aruch is in Safed.  The stones of the Roman streets where Rabbi Akiva walked are still in Jerusalem.  The ancient synagogues, the villages from the talmudic period, the list could go on and on.  One does not read about Jewish history, or study Jewish history, in Israel – one lives it, walks on it, touches and feels it, lives and breathes it.  There is nothing else like it.

And if ancient Israel doesn’t overwhelm you, modern Israel certainly will.  I’ve been to Israel seven times in the last 10 years, and each time I arrive the skyline of Tel Aviv has changed, new sky scrapers emerging one after another after another.  The sleek light rail now runs noiselessly in Jerusalem.  A high speed train is being built so commuters can get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in about 25 minutes.  We visited an Israel tank unit that was stationed on the Lebanese border, and the young soldiers proudly told us their tanks were the most advanced in the world.   Google and Intel have strong presences in Israel, and all over the world people use apps – like Waze, for example, the popular traffic and direction app – that have been created by Israelis in Israel.

But in my mind the moments that stay with you, the moments that touch you in the deepest way, are the human moments, the interactions with people that remind you of the special spark and spirit in the people of Israel that have made all of what I described above possible.  Let me briefly share with you three such moments that we experienced.

The first was election day.  We were in Tel Aviv, and we took a walking tour through the city that day.  Election day is a holiday in Israel – most businesses and museums are closed.  There was a festive atmosphere in the air as we walked through the streets.  Polling stations were buzzing with activity, and as we walked by campaign workers handed us flyers praising one party or another.  Everyone was excited, invested in the election, talking about the parties and candidates, and in true Israeli style holding no punches.  Some wanted this candidate, some wanted that candidate.  Some were Bibi fans, others not so much.  What was striking about it to me was how different it felt than an American election day.  There was a sense of joy to it all, and in a way it felt like a celebration of the country itself, and an affirmation of its democratic character and values.  And maybe that is why close to %80 of Israelis voted that day.  This was Israel at its best, expressed through its people – vibrant, filled with energy and joy, with a palpable spirit of optimism and hope in the air.

Vignette number 2.  We visited the city of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s sister city, and spent a morning at Netzach Yisrael, a Masorti, or Conservative synagogue there.  We were welcomed warmly, and sat watching the congregation’s rabbi and its teachers conduct a morning learning service with the pre-schoolers.  They prayed, they sang, they laughed.  The teachers put on a wonderful mini-play about Moses that completely captivated the children.  Few things bring joy to the heart like the singing voices of young children, and in this case, with their enthusiasm, and of course with everything in Hebrew, everyone in the group was touched.  Afterwards, we spent time with members of the congregation who generously shared their stories with us.  There was a woman in her 90s who made aliyah from New York now almost 40 years ago.  There was a young man from Cuba who made aliyah just a few weeks ago.  And we were treated to a wonderful surprise – Hannah Deoul, a young woman in her early 20s who grew up at Beth El and had her bat mitzvah here, came to meet us.  She made aliyah 6 months ago, lives in Ashkelon, and who was recently named coach of the under 19 Israeli women’s national lacrosse team.  She was beaming from ear to ear as she told us about how much she loved being in Israel, and as a rabbi who was at her bat mitzvah not so many years ago, I can tell you our entire congregation should be proud.

Last but not least I return to the Israeli tank unit we met in the north.  These young soldiers, 18 and 19 years old, flocked around us as we asked them questions about their jobs, their backgrounds, and their families.  They were gregarious, happy to talk, and probably glad to have a brief break in their daily routine.  They were in turn playful and serious, with the souls of boys, silly, jumping in front of one another when we took pictures.  But they have the responsibility of men, guarding their country at its northern border, a responsibility I can assure you they take seriously and perform with great distinction.

They invited us to climb on top of their tanks, which a number of us did, although  we were told to please not take pictures.  Dr. Bor took out his clarinet and played some Israeli music, and then the Cantor, who was standing on one of the tanks, spontaneously began to sing Hatikvah in his powerful voice.  Suddenly everyone joined in, our congregants, Jews from Baltimore in their 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s, and the young Israeli soldiers, singing together.  We knew in that instant that although we live in different places, and have had in many ways very different lives, we are truly connected as part of one people – Am Israel –  sharing a hope and dream for a future of peace for all people.  As you may imagine, there was not a dry eye.

So there you have it.  A brief snapshot of our trip, and perhaps of Israel as well.  May the hopes that we all have for her truly be fulfilled.  And one day soon, may she know a world where the hearts of all people are turned towards one another in peace.

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