Tag Archives: the rabbinate

The Glasses

These are the little things that remind us that time is creeping by.  A bit like an honest look in the mirror, one of those moments when you realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore, that you actually do look your age, and that your age is somewhere in the mid-50s!  Who knew?!

And so it was that I set out, just late enough not to turn back, to officiate at a funeral.  I was most of the way down the street when I realized I had left my reading glasses at home.  I’ve been wearing reading glasses for some time now, close to a decade, but until very recently I could pretty much get by without them in a pinch, particularly if the light in the room was good and I wasn’t too tired.  If you use reading glasses yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

But just the last month or so I’ve needed them more and more.  Those little blurry things on that page are letters?  Good light still helped, but trying to read a menu in a restaurant had become impossible – it essentially looked like a series of ink schmears on yellow paper.  Nevertheless, here I was, Rabbi’s Manual in hand, eulogy printed out in 12 point font, and in 15 minutes or so I would be standing in front of a group of mourners, reading from that manual and delivering that eulogy, no reading glasses in sight.

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end it worked out OK.  The light was good, and I adjusted the lectern so it was as far away from my eyes as it could possibly be.  I had just written the eulogy, so it was fresh in my mind, and that also helped.  The truth is I barely need the Rabbi’s Manual.  I’ve read those prayers hundreds and hundreds of times, and they are imprinted in my mind.  It is pretty much like starting the tape and letting it play.  Even so, I’ve seen Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead forget the words to Me and My Uncle, a song he has sung more than a thousand times.  He now uses an iPad so the lyrics are always there, just in case.  So it is with my Rabbi’s Manual.  More of a crutch than a necessity.

And that is the funny thing about it.  As a young rabbi, I didn’t need the glasses.  Everything was crystal clear, whether near or far.  But I sure needed that Rabbi’s Manual.  The thought of conducting a service without one would have terrified me twenty years ago.  Now it is exactly the opposite.  The manual I don’t really need anymore, or at least I know I can get buy without it in a pinch.  But I sure need those reading glasses!  The more experience I have, the muddier things get.  Ah, the wisdom of aging…

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Joseph’s Bones and The Humility of Moses

This a text version of my sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

Tradition has long understood the 7th day of Passover as the day the Israelites crossed through the Reed Sea, finally escaping the Egyptians, and that is why the Sages chose the narrative of the Song at the Sea for this morning’s Torah reading.  It is a dramatic moment, long anticipated, and our custom is to reflect the drama of the text by standing together as a congregation when it is read aloud.  We even participate in the song itself, joining in with the Torah reader when he chants some of the phrases, like מי כמוכה or ה׳ ימלוך לעולם ועד.

But this morning I would like to turn our attention away from that moment of high drama to focus on what is the traditional beginning of this morning’s reading.  As with any great moment of life, there was an extensive amount of mundane preparation that preceded the parting of the sea.  And the Torah gives us a fair amount of detail about those preparations.  The Israelites had to pack their things, and prepare for the long journey that lay ahead of them.  They also had to enact the entire Passover ritual, sacrificing lambs and painting some of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes.  And they went to the Egyptians, who gave them provisions and even gold to take on the journey.  This was all of the behind the scenes hustle and bustle that went on before they left Egypt, before the drama enacted at the Sea that marks the high point of this morning’s reading.

One can imagine that Moses was quite busy during these last hours in Egypt.  He was the project manager, if you will.  The Torah tells us Moses met with Pharaoh four separate times just before the Israelis left.  He also had to give the people instructions, telling them what they needed to do and how they were to prepare.  He must have been running from place to place, from person to person, making sure everyone knew what their role was, making sure that all the preparations had been properly attended to.

And then there is one additional responsibility that Moses carries out, just at the very moment when the Israelites are leaving Egypt, what must have been the busiest time of all for Moses.  The Torah tells us ויקח משה את עצמות יוסף – Moses took the bones of Joseph.  You may remember that at the very end of Genesis, in fact the second to the last verse of the book, Joseph tells his brothers, just as he is about to die – “you must bring my bones up out of here.  Make sure that one day my bones will be taken to the land of Israel.”  And here is Moses – some four hundred years later – fulfilling Joseph’s wish.

What commentators notice about this is that Moses does it himself.  In everything that was going on, meetings with Pharaoh, preparing more than a million people to leave their homes, the religious rites of the first Passover sacrifices, in all of that, one might have expected Moses to delegate the job of retrieving some 400 year old bones.  Even if they were the bones of Joseph.  If he wanted, he could have sent someone important – he could have sent Aaron, or Miriam.  But he doesn’t – he goes himself, and he schleps.

I am reminded of what I consider to be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about being in the working world.  As is so often the case, this lesson came to me not in a classroom or a meeting, but in a casual conversation I had with a secretary, these days an administrative assistant, a conversation that took place now about 30 years ago.  I was working on my Master’s degree at Maryland, and found a part time job working in Rockville for a place called the Care Center.  We had a small office space in the large government complex in Rockville at the center of town, and the secretary of the head of the department sat just across the hall from my desk, and over the months as I worked there I got to know her a bit.

One day we were talking about something – I don’t even remember what – and she said to me that her boss – that department head – was the best boss she had ever worked for.  So I asked the natural question – which is?  Why?  What makes him the best boss you’ve ever worked for?  And she said this:  he would never ask me to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

Now on the surface that is a pretty simple and straight forward statement.   But under the surface there is a lot going on there.  What she was really saying was this:  “My boss and I might have very different jobs, but – he respects me, he values my time as much as his own, he is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and we are in this together, we are working together as a team to do what we need to do.”  And she was saying one other thing – “He is humble.  He doesn’t care what his title is, he is not impressed by his own resume, he doesn’t think he is any more important than anyone else here, including me.  And that is the kind of person for whom I like to work.”

Let me return now to Moses, and the Torah’s understanding of his character.  As large as Moses looms in the Torah, we have very little information from the text about his character.  We are never told, anywhere in the Torah, that Moses is brave, or courageous, or wise, or understanding, or moral or ethical.  In fact, we are only told one thing – directly – about Moses’ character.  We are told that he is humble.  (Numbers 12:3)  And it seems to me that only a person of true humility, on one of the busiest days of his life, would take the time to dig up some old dusty bones because of a promise made 400 years ago.  I guess like the boss of the secretary, Moses also would not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

And I don’t know about you, but that is a very important lesson for a rabbi to remember.  Sometimes in the rabbinate it can feel like every day is the busiest day of your life.  And you are often told all kinds of wonderful things about yourself.  All of it very much appreciated, don’t get me wrong!  But if you are not careful, you can begin to believe your own press clippings, if you know what I mean.  And at the end of the day you have to strive to keep everything in perspective, to remember that you are no better or no more important that anyone else, no more deserving of respect or attention, no less deserving of doing a little schlepping every once in a while.

Because keeping that lesson in mind not only helps you to be a better rabbi, or whatever else it is you might do – it also helps you to be a better Jew, and a better person.  And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we are really all after anyway?

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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Integrity

 

In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.

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Born to Run, Born to Rabbi

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/3/16 –

I find myself thinking very much about children and parents this week, in part because of Gideon’s bar mitzvah, in part because Becky and I picked our son Josh up after his three months abroad, and in part because I just finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography, very appropriately entitled – take a guess – Born to Run!  The book has everything you’d expect from an autobiography of one the greatest rock stars of all time, from the purchasing of Springsteen’s first guitar, to paying his dues  playing in the bars, to hitting it big and forming the E Street Band. These are all the standard tropes of rock and roll narratives, but Springsteen, as he does with his music, plays them better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen.

What surprised me about the book – what I did not expect – was how focused the 500 or so pages are on one central relationship in Bruce Springsteen’s life – his relationship with his father.  Springsteen’s mother is a supportive presence in his childhood, warm and loving and in her own way proud of her son.  But his father was an entirely different kind of person.  Born in 1920, he served in the European theater during the Second World War.  He came back to the States to his home town and went to work in the factories.  He was an old school guy – a blue collar laborer, never went to college, emotionally closed and unable to express himself, a guy who hated his job but would never miss a day of work, a guy who stopped at the bar on the way home to have a few beers – every night.  And would have a few more when he got home, sitting in the kitchen of the family’s small house, often in the dark, waiting for Springsteen to come home.

In a series of vignettes that take place at that kitchen table, Springsteen describes some of the clashes and conversations, many of theme heated, that he had with his father over the years.  Slowly but surely the two men grew in starkly different directions, the factory worker father who valued traditional definitions of manhood and work  watched his son grow long hair and spend hours in his room playing the guitar.  The son who valued freedom and music and expression watched his father grow angrier and angrier, and more and more hostile and withdraw into a shell he used to keep others out his life.

At the end of this long trail of encounters between father and son there is one final, poignant scene that Springsteen brings to life in the book.  The 18 year old comes home, brings his parents into that kitchen, and tells them that he is leaving school, that he will not look for a regular job, and that he is going to dedicate his life to rock and roll.  To put it mildly, the conversation did not go well.  Within a year Springsteen’s parents had moved to California, and Springsteen remained behind, dirt poor, all of 19 years old, playing the clubs and bars of the Jersey shore.  He had no idea at the time that he was, as Jon Landau would later famously write, the future of rock and roll.

I imagine many of us have had conversations like that with our parents at one time or another.  Hopefully not as hostile, not as angry and bitter, but difficult, hard, conversations where we have to tell our parents that our intention is to set out on our own path, to leave behind in one way or another the life that they’ve lived, and maybe expected us to live as well.   My conversation like that with my father happened 25 years ago this month, on a cold December night in Binghamton NY, 1991.  Becky and I had gone to visit my parents to spend a few days catching up.  I had made a decision – a significant decision – about the direction of my life which my mom and dad did not know about, and I was determined to tell them during the time we were there.  One night after dinner my dad and I went into the den, and as I sat on the couch he settled into his beloved leather chair and was about to turn on the TV.  And it was at that moment – again, 25 years ago this month – that for the very first time my father found out I intended to go to rabbinical school.

Now you may remember the old joke about the first Jew elected president, and on inauguration day her mother stands proudly watching the swearing in ceremony.  And one of the dignitaries leans over to the mother and says ‘you must be so proud, the first woman AND the first Jew to be president!’  And the mother leans back and says ‘her brother’s a doctor.’  Well my dad IS a doctor – and I think in the back of his mind he always wanted his oldest son to go to medical school.  And I can tell you in the back of his mind he never had the idea that his oldest son might go to rabbinical school.  He was more than surprised.  He challenged me – ‘what about this?’, he asked.  ‘How are you going to pay for it?  You don’t know Hebrew!’  he pointed out to me.  And he mustered every argument to convince me that maybe this was a crazy idea I had gotten into my head, and that I shouldn’t go.  In the end, to his credit, he said ‘if you are sure go and give it your best shot’ – and I did.

You know the Torah also has a moment like that, a pivotal moment in the relationship between a father and a son.  We read about it in this morning’s portion, one of the Bible’s best known stories, when Jacob, dressed like his brother Esau, enters his father Isaac’s room, intending to trick Isaac into bestowing upon him the first born’s blessing.  I’ve always wondered what it was that was going through Jacob’s mind at that moment.  He knows already that his father doesn’t like who he is, doesn’t approve of his character and his interests, because Isaac has made it clear that Esau is the favorite son.  And maybe part of what Jacob was doing was simply trying to win the approval of his father. So he leaves his true identity at the door, and for a few moments, as he pretends he is Esau, he feels what it is like to be the favorite son.  Maybe the blessing wasn’t Jacob’s goal after all.  Maybe he just – for a little while – wanted to feel his father’s approval and love.

And maybe it would have been different if Jacob had walked into that room as himself.  Would it have been more difficult?  Absolutely – a much harder conversation.  But at least then he would have been true to himself.  And who knows, maybe Isaac would have responded to that, for the first time having a sense of who his younger son truly was.  It is a two way street that moment.  If the child can be honest, and true to him or herself, he’ll set out on his own path, and whether right or wrong, whether it succeeds or fails, she’ll know it is her path, her choice, and her life.

And isn’t the true trick of parenting knowing that a moment comes when we have to let go.  We may not understand, we may not agree, we may not even think its right.  Hopefully we’ve done our best, we’ve given them the tools they need to be the best they can be.  But we have to always remember that being the best they can be doesn’t have to mean being the best we can be.

Maybe that is why Jacob leaves, right after that conversation with his father.  He realizes he’ll never be able to be himself if he stays home, under his father’s roof.  So he walks away, into an unknown future, I am sure entirely terrified of what lies ahead.  But his head is held high, there is a purpose to his step, and he walks on a path that he knows is his own.  May all our children walk on that path when their own time comes – whether they are born to run, or born to rabbi –

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The Rabbi’s Holiday

Thanksgiving, of course.  A day when you actually might not have to  work, when you can stay at home with your family, make pancakes, read the paper, leisurely sip your morning coffee, watch some football later in the day, drink a beer in the middle of the afternoon.  You know, like normal people, normal families, do on weekends.  Those days are few and far between in the rabbinate.

People often say to me after the fall holidays “I hope you are resting up after the holidays, rabbi!”  But I’ve learned that one of the busiest times of my year is from the END of the holidays to Thanksgiving.  Suddenly the weddings begin (I’ve had one every Saturday night for the last month, another one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving).  Unveilings, people trying to get them in before the real cold arrives.  Meetings, delayed by the yom tov days, begin in earnest.  All of the email you couldn’t keep up with during the holiday season you try to wade through.  This year for me funerals as well (nine since Simhat Torah).  Every year through the holiday season an extended stretch of working many days in a row.  This year for me that stretch reached 42.  But who is counting?

I worry about it, I really do.  I worry first and foremost that my children’s main memory of their father as they grew up will be me walking down the stairs, leaving the house, saying ‘see you later,’ and the kids responding ‘bye, dad.’  And that is it.  No games of catch.  No kicking the soccer ball around.  No watching football together on Sundays, or brunches making omelettes together, or raking leaves, or just getting in the car and going for a ride. Zip. Zero. Zilch.  These experiences make up many of the fond memories I have of time spent with my dad while I was growing up, and I just wasn’t able to provide them for my own children.  Deep regret there, no doubt about it.

I worry also about burnout.  Heavy phrase, that.  Sounds almost violent, destructive.  But it also has a sense of hollowing, like what is done to a giant tree trunk to make a canoe.  What you have left in the end from the outside looks good, strong, and stable.  It even floats!  Performs its mission with competence, as intended.  But the inside is gone, nothing there but emptiness.  A literal shell of its original form.  I am often reminded of these lines from one of my favorite Hunter/Garcia compositions, called ‘Comes a Time’:

From day to day just letting it ride
You get so far away from how it feels inside
You can’t let go ’cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come when you can’t feel at all

I understand everything is a trade off.  There are many professions where people work hard, long hours, high pressure jobs, no question about it.  And I’ve been blessed professionally in many ways, serving a fabulous congregation, working with talented and caring people (fun people as well!).  Making a good living (not to be underestimated!).  My children have been able to grow up in one community, something that rabbi’s children rarely do, and I am enormously grateful for that.  But a trade off is exactly what it implies – something gained, something lost.  The question is, what is the price of that loss?

So thank goodness for Thanksgiving!  An actual break in the never ending flow of dedicated time.  A day to spend with people we love.  A day to walk the dog under a fall sky, to watch the last leaves gently fall from the trees, to browse the paper, sip some coffee, watch some football, live life, and just think and be.  Yes, a day like that.  Even for a rabbi.

This the chorus of that Hunter/Garcia song:

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says, “Don’t you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up, you got an empty cup
That only love can fill, only love can fill, only love can fill”

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The Rabbi as Proxy

A word usually used regarding voting.  As in someone may vote by proxy, meaning on another person’s behalf.  They are substituting for you, carrying out a responsibility that is really yours, but that for some reason or another you are not able to fulfill.

Rabbis are often asked to serve in proxy roles.  Not in the sense of voting, but in many other ways.  I’ve had people say to me ‘Rabbi, I just can’t go visit my grandfather, it upsets me too much to see him this way.  Will you go for me?’  I’ve had people ask me to say something to another person for them, something that they felt they were unable to say on their own behalf, that was too difficult, or they were worried they would be too emotional.  I’ve been asked to go in to a room where someone had died to be with the body, when family members felt they were unable to enter that room themselves.

You may remember a 2009 film called Up in the Air.  Starring George Clooney, the movie told the story of a consulting firm that helped companies carry out successful ‘terminations.’  When the company needed to lay off workers, it brought in a proxy to do the job for them.  Someone who was a ‘professional,’ who knew how to do the job the right way.  Clooney played the master ‘terminator.’  He had heard every response, seen every situation, encountered every possible reaction.    He was cool and calm, never raising his voice, patiently sitting and listening and to the best of his ability comforting (as long as it didn’t take too long – he often had a long list to get through!).  It all worked – clean, efficient, unemotional.

Of course that is not the way life works.  If anything, life is the opposite.  Messy.  Just slightly out of control (sometimes more so!).  Emotional.  In fact, very emotional.  Certainly not clean and efficient, and, by the way, not easy either.

The thing about it is this:  proxy works with voting because it doesn’t actually matter whose hand turns in the ballot – the result is the same.  But with real life, my sense is proxy doesn’t work so well.  I can’t, for example, educate children Jewishly in lieu of their parents.  I can go to make the hospital visit, but in the end it is my visit, not someone else’s.  It is the old idea of politicians not being able to get to events and sending aids in their stead.  Just never worked for me.  If you can’t make it, I understand.  But sending someone else?  That is something I guess I’ve never fully understood.

There is a well known statement from the Sage Hillel, found in the Mishnah:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  Somethings you just have to do for yourself.  No one else can do them for you, and get them done the right way.  Not even the rabbi.

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