Mah Tovu Ohalecha! On Windows, and Pews

First d’var torah at Judea Reform Congregation – July 3, 2015….

These windows, and these pews….they blew my mind when I first walked into this sacred space in November of last year. One doesn’t want to get too far ahead of oneself during the interview process, but I found myself imagining what it would be like to pray in such an open and welcoming space, where the pews are curved to bring worshippers face to face, and the world makes its presence felt with an abundance of natural light. Months have passed since that November day, and things worked out just as I’d dreamed. I know the answer now: It feels great. Continue reading

Bittersweet

Bittersweet. That’s the word many of us have been using around Temple for the last weeks and months. It’s a great word, dating to the fourteenth century. At first it referred only to a type of apple, low in acids and high in tannins. But over time, “bittersweet” came to describe an emotion that mimics the experience of eating such an apple, where the initial smile is quickly followed by a lip-puckering, teeth-licking smack. Continue reading

Rodef Shalom

Shalom, means “peace,” yes, but even more. Shalom means “harmony.” Shalom means “wholeness.” I want to speak about shalom tonight, and about what it means to love it and to pursue it. I love that Temple Mount Sinai chose Rodef Shalom, “Pursuer of Peace,” as the name of the award it bestows on special occasions. I thought it might be fun, and interesting, to explore the roots of that idea. And, as has become my way especially in the last several years, I thought to do so through the lens of Jewish mysticism, as we learn from the words of a modern-day Hasidic master known as the Netivot Shalom. Continue reading

“Toiling for Temple” – A D’var Torah for the Temple Mount Sinai Board

Earlier tonight, I had the honor of offering a d’var torah at my last Board of Trustees meeting at Temple Mount Sinai…

For the past several weeks, our Tuesday afternoon text study group has been focused on Pirkei Avot, a collection of ethical maxims compiled about 1800 years ago which, like so much in our ancient but ever-renewing tradition, remains relevant even now. Given that my mind has been in this book, I thought one of its teachings would make a good point of departure for my last d’var torah at a Temple Mount Sinai Board of Trustees meeting. I’ve chosen a passage from the second chapter (2:2), a teaching of Rabban Gamliel:

וכל העמלים עם הצבור, יהיו עמלים עימהם לשם שמים, שזכות אבותם מסייעתן וצדקתם עומדת לעד. ואתם, מעלה אני עליכם שכר הרבה כאלו עשיתם.

Those who toil with the community should toil for the sake of Heaven; for the merit of their ancestors shall aid them, and their righteousness shall endure forever. And you, [says G-d,] I shall credit you with great reward as if you have achieved it.

There are a few aspects of the Hebrew worth paying close attention to. The first is the verb used to describe what’s being done here: amal, which I’ve translated as “toil,” is stronger than avad, “work.” To my ears, it has a sense of challenge, but also great reward. Ovdim punch in and get paid; amelim sweat the details, and see their work as serving a greater purpose. As members of this Board of Trustees, you are encouraged to think of yourselves as amelim, toiling for Temple, and not merely ovdim, ticking off an item on some to-do list.

The amelim of which Rabban Gamliel speaks toil im hatzibbur, “with the community.” The choice of preposition is important. Your efforts need to be im, with, the members of the congregation. With, and not merely “for,” as though it were your job to be Jewish, or committed, on their behalf. With, and certainly not “above,” as though (God forbid!) being a member of this Board were more about privilege than responsibility. The members of this congregation who aren’t Trustees are neither your bosses nor your underlings. They are your co-workers. Lead from the middle. Be amelim im hatzibbur.

Rabban Gamliel speaks about z’chut avot, the Merit of the Ancestors. It’s an old and important idea in Judaism, that we don’t measure up to past generations, and we’re lucky to have their stored-up goodness working on our behalf. Every time we appeal in prayer to “the God of our fathers and mothers” — eloyehnu velohei avoteinu v’imoteinu–  we are invoking z’chut avot.

What does z’chut avot mean in your context, as Trustees? A few things. First of all, those avot v’imahot who populate our prayers are not at all irrelevant. You are here because hundreds of generations of Jews have drawn strength and inspiration from the past, and haven’t been willing to be the last generation of Jews. We follow in their footsteps, we stand upon their shoulders.

Closer to home, you draw on the strength and the solid work of a few generations of ancestors who preceded you as amelim with this particular tzibbur. You certainly draw merit from Temple Mount Sinai’ forward-thinking leaders of the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries who have entrusted you with a paid-up cemetery and a paid-up building. In this room today are many of those responsible for the third jewel in that triple-crown: a five million dollar endowment. Like all religious institutions in twenty-first century America, you face challenges. But let’s not kid ourselves: every generation of Jews since Abraham has been certain that they would be the last. Are your challenges significant? Sure they are. Are they made less so because you are debt-free, well capitalized, and living within your means year after year? Absolutely. My prayer is that this generation of Temple’s leaders will be wise stewards of those material gifts.

And of our spiritual gifts, as well. Chief among them, the gift of Rabbi Zeidman and his family. The story is told of a Rabbi who inherited his father’s pulpit, and started making changes. The people came to him and said, “But that’s not the way your father did it!” He replied, “I don’t understand your point. I’m doing exactly what he did. Like him, I am making changes.” Temple Mount Sinai is on the cusp of welcoming a new Rabbi with fresh perspectives who will bring a sense of newness and excitement to the congregation. I’m so excited for you, and I’m so pleased that Rabbi Zeidman is succeeding me in this pulpit. I trust that he will do exactly as I have done, and exactly what Rabbi Weiss did before me…which is to say, I trust that he will innovate relentlessly! Let there be no sacred cows, no “But that’s not the way we do things…” You’ve engaged a bright and talented leader. Enjoy the ride! I look forward to hearing great things from this congregation. It will, in many ways, always be my home.

I’ll conclude by invoking our Rabbi and teacher, Ken Weiss of blessed memory. Rabbi Weiss was fond of pointing out that Temple had a Board of Trustees, and not a Board of Directors. I learned from him to cherish that distinction. Directors, he would say, tell other people what to do. Trustees see themselves as stewards and shepherds. Trustees understand what z’chut avot is all about. Trustees are the sort of folks of whom future generations will say, “We stand on their shoulders.”

Be great Trustees. If you are, tzidkatchem omedet la’ad – your righteous efforts will endure, forever.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Spock

 We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…human.

Thus spoke Captain Kirk, eulogizing his friend, Mr. Spock, near the end of the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” His death proved only temporary in the Star Trek universe, of course. Would that we could say the same of Leonard Nimoy, whose expressive eyebrows and subdued delivery brought the character to life over nearly a half-century of television and film. Nimoy died this morning, at home, at the age of 83. Rest in peace, Leib. Continue reading

A Memorable Past…A Dedicated Future!

I wrote this paper for Dr. Karla Goldman in 1996 or so. Our assignment was to explore a significant moment in the life of a congregation using only primary sources available in the AJA. Earlier this morning, I had the chance to walk around Eutaw Place and see the old Oheb Shalom with my own eyes for the first time. I got nostalgic, found the paper still on my drive(!), and decided it would make a fun blog post.

“A Memorable Past…A Dedicated Future!”
Temple Oheb Shalom of Baltimore’s Move to Park Heights Avenue

There is something about home, no matter in what way the term is applied, to which no other place can be compared. Away from home, one may be offered unusual opportunities and rare advantages; and yet one will always long for the scenes in which he decided to make his permanent abode.

–Rabbi William Rosenau, Sept. 5, 1931

For Rabbi Dr. William Rosenau, “home” was Baltimore, from which he had been away during the summer, vacationing in Europe. But more significantly, home was Oheb Shalom Congregation’s Eutaw Place Temple, which had undergone some repair work during the previous months. During that first service back in the thirty-nine year old building, Rosenau voiced a sentiment which can be seen as a theme running through Oheb Shalom’s next three decades. “Opportunities” and “advantages” awaited the congregation in the northwestern suburbs; yet it was difficult for the congregation to leave its beloved home behind. Continue reading

Water those Camels!

A d’var torah for Shabbat Chayyei Sarah…

Even if all the dates were removed from this week’s handout, an astute observer might well be able to guess the season. With so many opportunities to give of one’s time, talent, and resources – mitzvah day, prepping a communal meal, supporting the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry, supporting our own youth through a Sisterhood fundraiser — it’s pretty plainly that time of the year when generosity and altruism come to the fore.

And as if on cue, Torah provides us with a striking example of generosity, altruism, and kindness, in one of the most touching stories in the book of Genesis: Rebekah’s introduction to the family of Abraham.

Let’s review: Abraham is aging, and knows he won’t live forever. His son Isaac, through whom the promise is to be fulfilled, is unmarried. Abraham wants to change that, and sends his servant Eliezer on a mission: to bring a bride for Isaac, someone from the Old Country, across a sea of sand. Heavy-laden with gifts and provisions for the journey, Eliezer sets out with his caravan, ten camels strong. After many days, we must presume, he arrives in Nahor, hundreds of miles from his starting point. He brings the camels to their knees in a resting position, and watching the young women drawing water, he devises a test: The woman of whom he asks, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink,” and who responds, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” — she’ll be “The One.”

Imagine his delight as the test works out so perfectly. No sooner had he finished expressing it than it came true. A beautiful woman, single and from a good family, immediately responds to his request for a sip of water, allowing him to drink his fill. He quenched his thirst in silence, and then, the magic words: “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” She sets about doing just that. Ten camels who’ve traveled many days would drink something on the order of two hundred fifty gallons of water. It’s a Herculean task, and Eliezer can only watch in amazement as she completes it. In short order, he’s met the family, secured their and her willingness to make the match, and returned to the Land of Israel with a bride for Isaac, someone to comfort him after his mother’s death.

In this story, everything hinges on the camels. Camels make such a journey more bearable, and the camels’ prodigious thirst makes the beautiful Rebekah that much more impressive. The story is so reliant on the camels…which is interesting in light of our knowledge that camels weren’t domesticated until several centuries after the age of the Patriarchs! In telling the story of how Isaac and Rebekah came together, the biblical author has given us the equivalent of a tale set in Colonial times that turns on the bride-to-be’s ability to rebuild the servant’s engine and transmission while he waits. And, as biblical scholar Robert Alter points out, the anachronism is uncharacteristic of Genesis, which in nearly all other respects aims for a very accurate portrait of life in the age of the Patriarchs.

What’s going on here? Here’s my answer, which (not surprisingly, if you know me) hinges on a word-play. The Hebrew word for that newly-domesticated animal that was making the world a smaller place in the days when this story was first told around our ancestor’s fires is gamal. And no Hebrew-speaker can hear the word gamal without hearing an echo of the verb gomel chesed, which we usually translate as “perform acts of lovingkindness.” Rebekah, in watering those g’malim, becomes the very picture of g’milut chasadim. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and teaches us a powerful message about what to look for in friends and teachers, to say nothing of the partners with whom we choose to share our very lives. Rebekah’s giving spirit, her energy for the task at hand, her willingness to go the extra mile…all these made her a fitting partner for Isaac, which is to say, a fitting Matriarch for us. No wonder the Torah tells us, a little further on, that Isaac loved her, and that she brought him comfort in the wake of Sara’s death.

Not totally convinced yet? I’ve got more. Remember how Eliezer made the camels kneel when they arrived at the well? In Hebrew, as in English, “kneel” is derive from “knee.” The Hebrew for that place where the femur and the tibia meet is berech, another word rich with spiritual meaning. B’rachah, blessing, shares those letters. Vayavrech hag’malim, “he caused the camels to kneel,” may just as well be vayavrech hag’malim, “a blessing to those who act out of lovingkindness.”

Our ancient forebears told stories about their ancient forebears, and they did it with purpose. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, they learned how to act (and sometimes, how not to act). Rebekah is the picture of decisive action, grounded in compassion and connection. She sees in Eliezer a fellow human in need. She sees in his ten thirsty camels fellow beings, worthy of her concern. Is the story deficient because it includes a historical impossibility, domesticated camels in the seventeenth century before the common era? On the contrary, it’s the anachronism that makes it charming, and carries the point. Baruch sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed be the One who has lovingly taught us these stories, so filled with goodness!

“Eilu d’varim, these are things without measure, which cost us nothing and reward us without end… acts of lovingkindness, g’milut chasadim.” Like Rebekah, may we find our energy boundless when it comes to demonstrating our compassion and concern for the other. Your handout is your guide. Find a way to give, to bless, to generate kindness and compassion in this world. Not only in this season of giving, but every day of our lives, may we be mashkim hag’malim, the camel-waterers, the ones who give the parched places in our world their due…and more.

Amen.

Mortality is Good (Yom Kippur Yizkor, 5775/2014)

God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” We’ve now explored that verse, from the first chapter of Genesis, twice during these holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, we saw how Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas made an anagram of the word m’od, “very,” and heard in the words an optimistic, positive assessment of adam, humanity. Last night, the sixteenth-century biblical commentator Ovadiah Seforno showed us to another understanding, in which the word “very” indicates that the whole of Creation is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And now it is Yizkor time, and our thoughts turn to family and friends who have died. Can we say, even now, that God sees the fullness of Creation as very good? What of the heaviness in our hearts as we remember a beloved, a parent, or God forbid, a child. Is this, too, “very good?” Continue reading

Reveling in our Multi-vocality (Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I brought a text from the very first chapter of the Bible: “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” I told you then that we’d see the verse three different ways before the holidays were through.

We’ve already looked at it through the eyes of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas, Talmudic Sages who saw in the word “very,” m’od in Hebrew, an anagram for the Hebrew word adam, “human being.” For Chaninah and Pinchas, God’s assessment of Creation is positive, and we human beings are the reason why. In last week’s sermon on optimism, I suggested that we could read the verse as a reminder that the essential goodness of humanity — hineh tov “adam” — shines.

Tomorrow afternoon, we will see how Rabbi Meir, a contemporary of Chanina and Pinchas, plays with the sound of the word m’od, offering us a lesson fit for our Yizkor Service: that the “urgency of time” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book) is a gift, and that immortality, if it existed, wouldn’t be much of a blessing.

Tonight, our lesson comes to us by way of sixteenth-century Italy, home to the brilliant biblical scholar Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno. Continue reading

Opening Day (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775/2014)

Picture God. Bearded, longish hair, white robe, standing on a cloud. In other words, picture God exactly as I’ve always taught that we shouldn’t. In this picture, He (yes, for these purposes He’s a “He”) is looking off at earth in the distance. There is a thought bubble over His head: “What…was I thinking?” Below, in large capital letters, these words: “CREATOR’S REMORSE.”

Creator's RemorseYou’ll find that very image on page seventy-five of this week’s New Yorker magazine. It is a pretty perfect cartoon to usher in the New Year, and I would like to think that the timing is no accident. After all, the cartoon editor is a guy named Bob Mankoff who might well be in synagogue himself today. Here on this yom harat olam, this birthday of the world, a cleverly-drawn cartoon depicts God regretting Creation. It’s good to laugh. Because looking back on the year that was….if you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. Continue reading