November 21, 2020 — 5 Kislev 5781
The great preacher in Atlanta, Andy Stanley, has recently given a series of sermons about a topic that is always relevant, especially now. What happens, he asks, when it is what it is, and what is isn’t great. You don’t love it, but you are stuck with it.
Your marriage is what it is. Your health is what it is. Your kids are what they are. Your financial situation is what it is. Your job is what it is. There can be so many areas in our life where it’s not great. We are not loving it. But there is no clear way to change it. No easy way to get out of it. What do you do?
That universal problem has a particular application in month nine of the pandemic, when the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all soaring— and all of us are suffering from Covid fatigue, social isolation and numbing routine. Our Thanksgiving this year is what it is: small, different, disconnected, not like any other Thanksgiving.
When life is what it is, when Covid is what it is, how do we think about it, what do we do about it?
I want to offer a single idea that recurs in the work of the late great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He writes about this idea in at least half a dozen different books. It is the difference between optimism and hope. If you thought optimism and hope were synonyms, Rabbi Sacks teaches us that it is not so.
Optimism, he observes, is a feeling that however bad things might be at the moment, things are going to get better. They just are going to get better. Optimism is an emotion. You don’t have to do anything to be an optimist. You just have to believe things will somehow improve.
By contrast, hope is a sense that if things are bad at the moment, we have work to do together to make it better. Hope is not an emotion. Hope looks like a noun, but in its deepest sense hope is a verb. Hope demands something of us. Hope demands that we act. When we hope, we act to make things more hopeful.
Rabbi Sacks observes that Jews are not optimistic. We don’t just have a feeling that things will get better. But we are profoundly hopeful because we work to make things better. In the language of our people’s national anthem, Hatikvah, od loh tikvateinu, we never lose our hope.
What do we do to make our hope?
To take just one example from Genesis, Abraham is all alone after Sarah dies. Isaac sees that his father is all alone, and he worries that his father is lonely. But he doesn’t only worry. He works to make it better. According to the midrash, he goes to the town where Hagar and Ishmael live, a place called Beer Lehai Roi, and he reconnects Hagar to Abraham, their love is rekindled, they get married, and the last chapter of Abraham’s life is spent not as a lonely widower but with a woman he dearly loves, and in this last chapter they have six more children together. Isaac made that hope happen.
How do we make our own hope? How do we take it is what it is, and make it better?
Nathan, your Bar Mitzvah this morning is an exercise in making our own hope. You did not dream of having your Bar Mitzvah in a pandemic. As you shared so poignantly in your d’var, you are not experiencing what your parents, grandparents or your brother Josh had. You are not having a traditional Kiddush or party. And yet you have convened and brought light into the lives of your family and friends who are tuning in to our livestreamed service. For your mitzvah project, you had wanted to tutor children in math. Now you are doing your tutoring on Zoom, and you are creating lasting connections with your students. That is making our own hope. That is taking what is and making it better.
I want to tell you a story about an object that literally embodies the Jewish expression of hope.
In 1938, a 10-year old boy named Wolfgang Wilhelm Franz Hallo experienced Kristallnacht. His house in Frankfurt, Germany was attacked by Nazis. They shattered glass and crystal. He watched, terrified, holding onto the leg of his grandfather.
One year later, 11-year old Wolfgang boarded a train from Germany to England as part of the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport was a rescue program in which England agreed to permit unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany under the age of 17 into the country. These children had to leave their parents behind—in many cases never to see them again—in order to live with a non-Jewish British family. This 11-year old boy, and his two older sisters, were able to get out of Germany on one of the last trains.
When he boarded that train, this 11-year old boy held in his hand a Kiddush cup that contained an engraving of his first name, Wolfgang.
This Kiddush cup was a birth present. The Nazis allowed Jews leaving on the Kindertransport to take with them one ounce of silver. The Kiddush cup was originally two ounces. And so the cup was given to a silversmith to cut in half. The 11-year old boy clutched this cut down Kiddush cup in his hands on his way to Birmingham, England, where he lived, until, in 1941, he boarded a ship to Canada. On that ship he continued to hold onto the cut down Kiddush cup. He continued to hold onto that Kiddush cup when he boarded a train for New York City. He arrived at Grand Central Station in 1941 quite literally with a nickel, a penny, and a cut down Kiddush cup.
This 11-year old boy, who before his Bar Mitzvah went from Germany to England to Canada to New York, would go on to become Professor William Hallo, one of the world’s leading experts on the ancient near east, and the philosophy of Franz Rosensweig, and a professor at Yale for 40 years. He is also the father and father in love of our members Jacqueline and David, the grandfather, the Opa, of our members Justine, Nicole and Jackson. In the full bloom of his adult life, Bill Hallo used this cut down Kiddush cup every Friday night to make Kiddush. Once it was on a Kindertransport from Germany to England. But it would go on to grace Shabbat dinner tables in New Haven, Connecticut for decades.
This coming Friday, this Kiddush cup will be put to a new use entirely. This Kiddush cup will be used when Opa’s granddaughter Justine and her beloved Jacob stand together under their chuppah. The cup that was once held by frightened 11 year old boy, will, 81 years later, now be used for the wedding of his granddaughter and her beloved in a pandemic–for rebirth, for renewal, for love, for home, for hearth, for hope, for future.
So back to Andy Stanley’s question. Back to all of our question. What do we do when it is what it is, we don’t like what it is, and we are stuck with what it is? What do we do?
We remember what Rabbi Sacks taught us. We remember that we are a people of hope. We take what is, and we act to make it better.
We raise the cup we’ve got to life, even now, especially now. Shabbat shalom.
20 Cheshvan 5781 — November 7, 2020
Paradoxically, it turns out that we are the United States of America after all.
United in our insomnia. Both Republicans and Democrats report not being able to get a decent night’s sleep.
United in our fear. Both parties fear that if the other candidate wins, the very future of our nation is endangered.
United in our alienation from national unity. However you voted, the reality is that about half the country voted for the other candidate. United in not getting that fifty percent.
United in living with a pit in our stomach.
United in handling all this stress not well. We eat too much. We drink too much. We perseverate too much.
The United States of America. United in our dividedness. United in our 50-50 split.
In the face of this division, I want to raise a single question. For each person listening, here is the question: what can I do, what can I personally do right now, to make this grim situation a little better?
We cannot change the fact of our dividedness. It just is. We cannot change the fact of our 50-50 split. It just is. What can we change?
The Torah has deep wisdom for us right now. We, the Jewish people, have always gone by two different names.
One name is Israel. You will remember that Jacob gets this name when, after wrestling with the angel who assails him in the middle of the night, Jacob won’t let him go unless this assailant offers a blessing. The blessing is you shall be named Israel because you have wrestled with beings human and divine and you have prevailed.
Israel is about wrestling. We wrestle with God. We wrestle with one another.
One authentically Jewish move now is to wrestle. And what I want to offer by way of wrestling is easy to say. It sounds like common sense. But if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard to do. It is this: not to think that the person who voted for the other candidate is a bad person. Not to think that if the person voted for the other candidate, you obviously have nothing in common.
I recently received an email from a young person whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah I did about 20 years ago. This person moved back to Boston and is still single. And this person said to me: I have tried all kinds of dating apps, and it is absolutely brutal. So I am doing the old-fashioned thing. Do you know anybody’s adult child or grandchild that might be a fit for me? This person could be rich or poor; successful or unsuccessful; tall or short; athletic or not athletic, Jewishly engaged or not Jewishly engaged. I can work with anybody. The only thing that this person cannot be is a supporter of the other candidate. If they support the other candidate, there is no point in even going out on a date.
That is real. The feelings we have are so deep, and the antagonism to the other side so deep, that the default, in 2020, is that we have nothing in common with the other person. It takes wrestling to resist that and to see that their humanity transcends the candidate they voted for.
Now you might think that the move is to force ourselves to have honest conversations where we try to listen openly and without judgment and to understand the other’s point of view.
But, if we are being honest about it, there are two things you can say about these kinds of conversations. They are very unpleasant. They are very unproductive. There are no new insights. No new facts. No new arguments that change anybody’s thinking. These conversations don’t work, and they usually leave a residue of ill will.
So I think the better move is to acknowledge that we strongly disagree, and I love you anyway.
Can you say that we strongly disagree, and I love you anyway?
Can you feel that we strongly disagree, and I love you anyway?
Can you act on that that we strongly disagree, and I love you anyway?
The morning after the election, a woman named Jeneen Interlandi published an op ed in the Times with the title “I Love My Twin. How Did We End Up So Far Apart?” They are twins. And yet, they are far apart on their candidates, and, like the rest of the country, they stare at each other with mutual incomprehension. And when they have tried to talk about it, it is unpleasant. It is unproductive. It does not work. It leaves a residue. But they are still twins. She concludes her piece with this plea from her heart:
I’m not sure how we get through this moment, but I don’t think it will end when the election is called, or when the new year begins, or when the next president is sworn in…
But I’ve known…for my entire life…that I can never truly win anything if it means losing my twin. I don’t know where that leaves us. I only know that he is my brother, and I love him.
How do we successfully wrestle our way to believe that the person who voted for the other candidate is not a bad person, is bigger than their vote, is somebody we can and need to love anyway?
That is where the other name of the Jewish people comes in. Our second name is Judah. That name comes from our matriarch Leah. All she wants is her husband Jacob’s love. Her first three sons, Reuben, Simon and Levi, she names in order to try to win his love. All these attempts fail. When her fourth son is born, she names him Judah meaning this time I will praise God for what is. Judah is named for that moment, the Jewish people are also named for that moment, when Leah says there are things that I wish were otherwise, but I cannot change them. OK. I am going to praise God anyway, and I am going to focus intentionally on the good.
Accepting what cannot be changed and focusing on the good enables us agree to disagree about the election and to build loving relationships anyway.
Last week a long-time member called me to tell me that she was voting for the other candidate. She said she wanted to explain her reasoning. I said: no need. Vote your conscience. No need to explain it to anybody else, certainly not to me. No, here is my thinking, I want to lay it out there for you. After sharing her thoughts, she said she hoped it would not cause a breach in our relationship.
We come down so differently on the merits. No matter.
The Judah move invites me to see the abundant good in this person, and the long and rich relationship she has had not only with me, but with our whole shul for many decades. I thanked her for her call, and for caring about what I thought, and I told her that our connection is far more important and far more enduring than this election, however much we agree to disagree.
This is a maximally unsettled and unsettling time. The pandemic still roars in month nine. Cases nationally and locally are going up. Our nation is more divided than ever about what to do about it. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is coming, and like the Pesach that wasn’t Pesach, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that were not Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this Thanksgiving will not be Thanksgiving the way we have always experienced it. And on top of all that, bitter and unbridgeable national division stains our nation and our world.
We have all lost so much already. We have all lost too much already. We cannot lose anything more. We cannot lose our relationships too.
I don’t know how to ameliorate the national pain. I don’t know how to connect with voters in other parts of the country who are so different from me, and who see the world so differently.
But I do know one thing. I do know that the people I loved before the election–family, friends, members of our shul–I am going to love after the election. I do know that I will not let this election destroy love.
We are united in being divided. We are united in our 50-50 split. OK. That just is. Now our sacred work is to love one another anyway. Shabbat shalom.
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Parshat Ki Tavo
September 5, 2020 — 16 Elul 5780
The new NFL season begins next week. For the first time in 20 years, Tom Brady will not be playing for the New England Patriots. He will be playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If you are not a football fan, here is some background. Tom Brady is widely regarded as GOAT, the Greatest quarterback Of All Time. In a league in which most players play a short time, get injured, and are replaced by a younger, healthier player—NFL stands for Not For Long—he has played 20 years and counting. In a league set up to promote parity, where every team has the chance to win the Super Bowl, and no one team is supposed to dominate year after year, Brady has led the team to an unrivaled dynasty. In his 20 years, he has led the Patriots to 17 playoffs, 13 Division titles, 9 Super Bowl appearances, 6 Super Bowl victories. His sustained excellence over two decades is literally without precedent. But instead of retiring as a Patriot, or playing another year for our team, he is going to start for another team. And my question is: how should we regard that?
Are we to be angry at Brady because he left our team? Or happy for Brady because he is doing what he wants to do, getting a fresh start, writing a new chapter? Could we, should we, bring ourselves to root for Buccaneer Brady?
This is not just a football question. This is a human question. How are we to understand that what we love in life we can seldom hold onto? In fact what we love most in life all too often slips out of our hands.
We cannot hold onto our children who grow up and grow out. I have heard from so many parents during the pandemic that the big silver lining was that they got to see their adult child who came home, intending to stay a few weeks but staying a few months. It is the first time I have seen my adult child in life, since they from graduated high school, not just for a vacation or a holiday, but for an extended time.
We cannot hold onto our elderly parents as they face the inevitability of aging. I’ll never forget the time I went to our beloved member Dorothy Adelman’s 100th birthday part. She proudly introduced me to her physician. I thanked him for helping get Dorothy to this milestone. He shook his head. No, I can’t take any credit for that, he said. My job is to get my 80 year old patients into their 90s, and when they turn 90, I tell them it is between them and God.
We cannot hold onto our youth, our looks, our wrinkle-free faces, our hair or hair color.
This season of the pandemic has reminded us that the health and wealth we work so hard to attain we cannot always hold onto.
Tom Brady leaving for another team raises the universal human conundrum: all too often what we love we do not own and we cannot keep.
Our Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah has so much to teach us. Sarah is first introduced to us as a barren woman, she had no child. Vatehi sarai akarah ein lah valad. All that we know about her is how much she wanted a child, and how painful it was to her that she could not have that child. At a certain point, she gives up hope. She is after all 90 years old. Abraham is 100 years old. The Torah confirms explicitly what we all know: that she is past her child-bearing years, and when she was in her child-bearing years, she was unable to bear a child.
The Rosh Hashanah reading begins: Vaadonai pakad et Sarah. God pakads Sarah. The question is: what does pakad mean? The term is always translated in this verse as remembers. God remembers Sarah. God remembers the promises God had made to Abraham that he would be the father of multitudes too numerous to count. Belatedly, on God’s time, not on our time, God remembers that promise.
That’s all well and good, and that is the standard translation. There is only one problem with this translation. Rabbi Harold Kushner has pointed out that the word pakad occurs frequently in the Hebrew Bible. But in no other case does it mean remember. Rather, pakad usually means to entrust for temporary safekeeping. A famous Mishnah uses the word in this way: hamafkid etzel chaveiro b’heimah o’keilim, one person entrusts to another an animal or vessels to watch over temporarily. The clear sense of pakad is: I am going to entrust something to you to take care of, to watch over, to guard, but you don’t own it. You will have to return it. Yours for now, not forever.
This definition of pakad most fully makes sense in this story. It is as if God says to Sarah: Sarah, I know you have always wanted to have a child more than anything in the world. I have good news and bad news. Yes, you will have a child. You will at last finally get to hold the baby of which you have always dreamed. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you won’t own that baby. That baby will be yours for now, not forever. That baby will grow up and grow out, and you will have no ability to protect or to control what happens to this child you love with all your being.
On Rosh Hashanah, our Torah reading reminds us that we do not own what we love. What we love is ours temporarily. That’s true for our children, for our parents, for our health, for our life. All of which is ours for now, not forever.
How are we to respond to this sober reality? Is this a downer? Is this a sad fact to lament? Or is there another way to look at it?
Years ago, in one of the great sermons ever delivered, a sermon entitled “To Hold With Open Arms,” Rabbi Milton Steinberg was reflecting on the precariousness of his own health and life. He had been hospitalized for several weeks. He observes that we might as well make our peace with what is inevitable in life, including our own mortality. If it cannot be resisted, why resist it? Isn’t the better course to do a jujitsu move and to own it, to take the force of that energy and figure out how to make something positive out of what is?
How can we make the sobering fact that what we love is ours only temporarily, for now, not forever, into a blessing?
My oldest and dearest friend just lost his mother. This friend was my law school roommate, introduced me to Shira and sang at our wedding. His mother was named Stella. Stella Rabner.
She was born in a small town in Poland, near Auschwitz. Her sister and many of her closest relatives perished at Auschwitz. Because of mysteries no one can ever understand, she ended up not in Auschwitz, but at a labor camp in Siberia. It was beyond grueling and miserable, but it was better than Auschwitz and it ended up saving her life. As a teen age girl she had to do hard manual labor, like sawing down big trees in the forest, on virtually no food.
After the war, the KGB came after her to spy on the few Jews who survived the Shoah. Rather than do this she escaped Eastern Europe by being smuggled in a suitcase and eventually making her way to freedom in America. Roll the film forward to her zoom memorial service when she dies at the age of 95.
All of her grandchildren spoke. In hearing their words, and the deep emotion with which they shared them, I realized that there are basically two kinds of grandchildren’s reactions to the death of a grandparent. There is the polite, the appropriate, the decorous, the restrained expression of grief. And then there are those grandchildren who are deeply grief-stricken. I called my Grandma every day. She is the person I look up to in life. She embodied the resilience I need now. I will hold onto my Grandma every day for the rest of my life. That was what Stella inspired in all of her children and grandchildren. What was her secret sauce?
She knew only too well and only too personally that what we love is ours only temporarily, not permanently. Ours for now, not forever. And that leaves everyone of us with a choice.
We could become bitter and angry over what we have loved and lost.
Or in a world where everything is temporary, we could invest our energy and our love into making the world that we have into a better world.
When she came to America, she was determined not to be bitter, not to be angry, not to focus on what she had lost, not to complain. She never complained. If she had, who could blame her, but she did not. Instead, she was filled with gratitude and the desire to make this temporary world temporarily better. She knew Russian from her time in Siberia. In the 70s, when Soviet Jews came to New Jersey, she was a full-time volunteer. She led seders in Russian for recent Russian Jews who did not know English, they did not know Judaism, but they knew kindness when they found it, and they found it in her. Stories like that create undying love.
The pandemic has only reminded us of what has always been true: what is ours is ours for now, not forever. We could respond with anger. We could root against Buccaneer Brady. Or we could make our peace with what is inevitable and respond with grace and generosity. We root for Buccaneer Brady. We savor what we have while we have it. We try to make it better while we can. And then we let it go because we know it was never ours forever. Shabbat shalom.