Sermon for Shabbat HaGadol
Finally, finally, after a long and trying winter, spring has arrived. Today was a lovely day. It seems that we can put our snow shovels away and get our winter coats cleaned. We deserve a nice long spell of good weather.
Nothing announces that spring has arrived like the onset of Pesach. This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat, and it is the Shabbat just prior to our first Seder. The Haftarah reading for tomorrow morning connects us to Pesach as it is from the Book of Malachi, the last book in Prophets, which announces, prior to the coming of God’s day, that God will send us Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to the parents. Eliyahu HaNavi will be the precursor to the Messiah. He will come before, as our text says, “The great and terrible day of Adonai.” Those of us who are parents know that it will take the appearance of the Messiah to bring parents and children together, to reconcile our differences, and to bridge the gap between the generations. This reference in tomorrow’s Haftarah to the Mashiach, the Messiah for whom we are waiting, is a foreshadowing of the great theme of the Seder- that we move from genut to shevach, from the degradation of slavery to the exaltation of physical freedom. With the eating of the Afikoman, the middle matzah which we break in half and then hide, and the opening of the door for Elijah, the Seder moves from the elation of our physical freedom to the realm of the Messianic Age, from the freedom of the Jewish people to the ultimate liberation of all humanity when the Messiah comes. Allow me to explain.
The Seder as we know it is a late first and early second century phenomenon. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis needed to invent another way to celebrate the spring festival since we were no longer able to offer the paschal sacrifice. The rabbis modeled their celebratory meal after the well known Greco-Roman banquet which had four courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert, and then philosophical discussion. The rabbis simply inverted the order, placing the philosophical discussion prior to the serving of the entrée. They were concerned that if they left the discussion, the story of our liberation from Egypt until the end, too many people would just eat and then get up and leave. The rabbis mandated that eating the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah be held after the meal, towards the end of the Seder. The best, like dessert, would be saved for last.
The rabbis of the Talmud translated the Greek word Afikoman as “entertainment” or “dessert.” What it really means, according to the biblical scholar, Robert Eisler, is “he who comes,” referring to the Messiah. The eating of the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah herald the transition of the Seder from the celebration of our physical liberation to the redemption of all humanity. We go from the particularistic to the universal, from the Jewish people to all peoples. If this is true, and I believe it is, why did the rabbis mis-translate the meaning of Afikoman? Why is there not a more explicit reference to the coming of the messiah in the Seder?
The reason has to do with history. Simultaneous to the origin of the Seder the growth of Christianity occurred. Jewish Christians, those Jews who believed that Jesus was the mashiach, interpreted the symbols on the Seder plate in Christological terms. It is fascinating that only in the Seder are we commanded to explain the meaning of symbols. We are told to explicate the meaning of the Pesach, the lamb bone, the Matzah, the unleavened bread, and the Maror, the bitter herb. We do so to ensure that we are attending the right Seder! Christians would interpret these symbols in very different ways than would we. A similar phenomenon is taking place with the Afikoman. As Rabbi Michael Oblath wrote, “What is interesting to me is the possible connection of the Afikoman to the ritual of the Eucharist…at least, perhaps an original expression of it. For what do we do with the Afikoman? We get the matzah back, match it up with the original piece of matzah (symbolizing Israel, the Jewish people), divide it up and then eat it. Yum! I can easily imagine the Last Supper (if it had been a Seder), Jesus eating with his friends and students, someone giving him the Afikoman (I wonder if he gave out prizes?), and then breaking it up, and saying to his group, something like, ‘Oh, by the way, this represents me.’ Seems a simple evolution of the game of ‘telephone’ to turn that into ‘this is my body…’ No wonder the rabbis, for all intents and purposes, dumped the real meaning of Afikoman.” Jesus and his disciples took the hidden middle matzah and imbued it with Christological purpose. They, in a sense, hijacked its meaning, making it difficult, if not impossible, for our ancestors to continue considering it as a messianic symbol.
So, my dear friends, it is time for us to remove the layers of obfuscation and return to the real meaning of the Afikoman and the Seder- it is a Messianic meal, one designed to transport us from the historical to the meta-historical, from real time to the end of time. When that happens, we will know that Elijah has truly walked through the open door.
Amen. Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Sameach!
Sermon for Shabbat HaGadol
It is a joy to once again welcome the members of Troop 97 and their families. This annual Scout Shabbat solidifies the ties that bind Troop 97 to Oheb Shalom. Our congregation has sponsored a scout troop for almost a hundred years, starting with the predecessor to Troop 97 and continuing, since the 1940s, with Troop 97 itself. The scouts perform many valuable services to our congregation and community, including working at the recent Purim carnival and setting up chairs in the Blaustein Auditorium for the High Holydays. Troop 97 also has an enviable record of creating Eagle Scouts. There is rarely a year that goes by without one of the scouts ascending to the rarified level of Eagle Scout. To say that we are proud of our scouts is an understatement.
Our Torah portion for this week is Tazria, from the Book of Leviticus. This portion, and its twin, Metsora, are usually read as a double portion. This being a leap year, however, we separate the two. Woe to the bar mitzvah who has to chant from these portions which deal with skin diseases, bodily fluxes, house mold, and all manners of ritual impurities. These portions actually tell us a great deal about our ancestor’s sense of their world, of how they distinguished between sacred and profane, life and death. We believed that God created boundaries that could be crossed only at our peril. If we did transgress one of them, we became ritually impure and had to go through purification ceremonies to re-enter the boundary and hence, the community. Since this thought world was disassembled when the Temple was destroyed almost two thousand years ago, these laws became anachronistic. The only remnant of them is the use of the mikvah and handwashing when we enter a home immediately following a funeral.
The rabbis who lived after this period had to re-interpret these rules in order to make them relevant to their time. The rabbis associated these most grave skin diseases with the character damage that ensues from motsi shem ra, the mis-use of language, a deliberate word play on Metsora. The rabbis believed that one who engaged in verbal abuse placed himself outside the boundary of the community, just as did the one who contracted a terrible skin disease and was ritually impure.
I spoke to a woman last night who moved to Baltimore five years ago. She is happy here and well adjusted to our community. She said the biggest shock of moving here was how much people talked about one another. She could not get over the amount of gossip in which we engage. Jewish law is obsessive on the subject of the improper usage of language. “It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). We may not even speak negatively about people regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara). Even idle gossip is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.” The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.” The great moralist, the Chofetz Chaim, cautioned that we should not even engage in lashon hara about ourselves. We are not allowed to run ourselves down, for when we are overly critical we are slighting God, our Creator, who made us in His image and placed a divine spark within our souls. To disparage ourselves is to disparage the Godliness that is within us.
In this day of instant communication, the mis-use of language is even more serious than it was in earlier times, when malicious talk was spread person to person. Now, with Twitter, Instagram, and Face Book, one can ruin a person’s reputation literally in an instant. The consequences of this have become horrific, as young people misuse on line communication to bully and embarrass others. This has led to numerous suicides of adolescents who cannot deal with the public shame of motsi shem ra. So tonight, my young friends, I caution you to think before you speak, to fashion a narrow filter between your brain and your mouth, and to reflect very carefully before you write anything that will be seen by other people. Not only do your words come back to haunt you, but you may, even unwittingly, embarrass someone so profoundly that the consequences will be irreversible.
As we begin to chant the Tefila, we say “Adonai s’fatai tiftach u’fi yagid tehelatecha,”
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Jewish Week.
I hope you have heard that Oheb Shalom has engaged in two new initiatives. In November, our Board of Trustees voted to join BUILD, a 35 year old, multi-congregational advocacy organization that works to improve life for all of us in Baltimore. We are the first synagogue in Baltimore to join BUILD and the first in Maryland to join such an organization. Over 160 Reform congregations belong to similar organizations around the country. BUILD is responsible for hundreds of new homes in Baltimore City, after school programming for thousands of students, and most recently, the $1 billion school bond issue that will build and renovate over thirty schools in the City. BUILD listens to the concerns of its members and strives to make changes in our community based on what it hears at the grassroots. We are now in a listening campaign at Oheb Shalom that will last until the end of this month. We have over thirty volunteers reaching out to 150 of our members, learning about the issues that personally concern them. We will collate our information and see if we can act on any of these issues, along with those of other BUILD congregations. Since this is an election year and none of the gubernatorial candidates are from Baltimore, it is crucial that we express our concerns in a consistent and organized manner.
We also recently created Isaiah 61, a joint task force of Oheb Shalom and Bethel AME which will do “hands on” projects while helping to create relationships with one another. Co-chaired by Shelle Schnell and Rev. Lorraine Castain, we will work on restoring Bethel’s outreach center on McCullough Street. We have planned two clean up days in the spring. Read your emails and Pathways for more information.
I have personally conducted seven listenings of our members over the last few weeks. Our members have spoken about what issues keep them up at night- public education, crime, local water quality, and student loans. One member spoke to me about a heart-felt issue, one that particularly resonated with me. Let me explain what I mean.
Our member spoke about the epidemic of drug deaths, especially among young men in their twenties and thirties. I understand this, since a year does not go by when I have not officiated at the funeral of a young person who died of a drug overdose or complications of addiction. I have done funerals for children at whose bar mitzvahs I have officiated. Every single funeral of a young adult is a tragedy which might have been prevented had these kids gotten the help they needed. Even so, many did receive help and were in rehab at least several times. They were not able to shake the habit, reverting to drugs or not taking prescription medication that was necessary for their mental stability. Addiction is a terrible disease. Today’s heroin is so potent that one can literally become addicted to it after one or two injections. While it sounds idiotically simplistic to just say “no” to drugs, it is the best policy. Once one starts using, it is so hard to stop.
Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tisa, in which Moses, descending the mountain with the Ten Commandments, was astounded by what he saw. The people’s revelry around the Golden Calf infuriated Moses, who threw down the two tablets in a fit of anger. After punishing the people and castigating his brother, Aaron, who made the Golden Calf for them, God told Moses to once again ascend the mountain where he would receive a second set of commandments. “Our Tradition tells us that God alone fashioned the first set of tablets. Moses passively received them. The second set of tablets was a divine-human effort. The second set was written with a greater knowledge of human weakness, by the hand of Moses, an imperfect human being, rather than by the perfect God. The Talmud tells us (Ber.8b) that the fragments of the first set of tablets were carried in the Ark along with the replacement set. That which was once holy retains it holiness even when it is broken.” [i] So it is with our addicted young people. Even though they are broken and sometimes unfixable, they are still holy and deserving of our love and concern. They have the spark of God still within them, deep inside, waiting to be released when the drugs which deaden them are gone. Our young men and women are like the broken tablets, fragments needing to be made whole once more.
Over the last few years, we have seen the demise of Jewish Addiction Services, our Jewish half way houses, and Eternity, a support group for parents whose addicted children have died. Last week, I wrote a letter to Marc Terrill, the President of the Associated, imploring him to use all the resources of our Jewish community, to help those in need. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we had an agency in our Jewish community which could rehabilitate drug addicts while treating their mental health issues, preparing them for a job, and giving them the life skills needed, a few less Jewish parents in Baltimore would be saying Kaddish for their children. Like the second set of tablets, it takes a Divine-human partnership to help our children in desperate need. Our young adults are broken tablets. We must cherish them and hold them near to us. With the proper help, some of our children can once again find the Divine spark within and lead a life of holiness.
[i] Etz Chayim, page 540.
Sermon for Bethel AME Service – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Commemoration on January 19, 2014
Good morning! Sally and I are so happy to be back with you, our Bethel AME congregants, once again. It is hard to believe but this is the thirteenth time our two congregations have worshiped together to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. We have changed much and grown together- mostly older. When I first preached here I weighed twenty pounds less, had lots more hair and no grey. I was also, however, less mature and less humble than I am now. Cleaning up regularly after two very big dogs is a fine way to keep me humble. There is, though, a certain amount of wisdom that accumulates over a lifetime of service. Let me share a bit with you.
For many of us, the number thirteen is highly unlucky. There is even a name for those who superstitious about the number thirteen- Triskaidekaphobia. Try to say that three times! There are several reasons why thirteen is unlucky. There were thirteen people at the Last Supper, with Judas Iscariot being the last to take his seat. According to Norse mythology, twelve gods sat down at a banquet when the evil god, Loki, showed up and took the thirteenth place. Traditionally, there were thirteen steps leading to the gallows. I can go on and on, but you get the point. In Judaism, however, thirteen is a lucky number. Yes, a lucky number. According to the Torah, God has thirteen attributes of divine mercy. We recite these attributes thirteen times on Yom Kippur. The great medieval sage, Maimonides, articulated the Thirteen Principles of Faith. There are thirteen laws of textual analysis that explain the Mishnah, our first digest of Jewish law. Thirteen is also the age of bar mitzvah, of majority. I must digress for a moment and thank Rev. Reid and the Bethel Nation for attending my bar mitzvah celebration this past April. I was delighted to see you. You honored me with your presence. On behalf of Oheb Shalom, I congratulate Dr. Reid and Bethel AME for Dr. Reid’s twenty five years of inspired leadership. As you will see in a moment, the twenty sixth year is even better than this one.
There is a very important Hebrew word whose letters, in Gematria, add up to thirteen. In Hebrew, every letter of the alphabet has a numerical equivalent, so the first letter, alef, is one, bet is two, and so on. The art of finding meaning in letter/number combinations is called Gematria. We can sometimes discover profound meaning through Gematria. The Hebrew word for “love” is ahava, spelled alef=one, hay=five, bet=two, and hay=five, which adds up to thirteen. Thirteen is the number of “love” in Hebrew. No wonder thirteen is a lucky number for us. When we combine the love between two people, we add 13 to 13=26. The number 26 also is the Gematria for the name of God, Adonai, yud, hay, vav, hay. We believe that when two people are in love, God is the third party in their relationship. God is present in the relationship between Dr. Reid and his beloved congregation. When a congregation loves its pastor as this one loves Dr. Reid, we know that God smiles.
God is part of every true meeting and every genuine relationship, whether that of individuals or communities. Over the last thirteen years, God’s presence has become stronger in the relationship between our two congregations. When we learn about each other and begin to care, then God is present. God is present in the relationship between Bethel AME and Oheb Shalom but God is not present in much of American society today. This country has not been more divided since the 1920s. We are politically at odds and economically stratified. The major issue dividing us today is not race but class. Our twenty and thirty something children are, for the most part, color blind. Young people of all races and ethnicities work together and socialize together as long as they are at the same educational and professional level. College educated young people see the world through rainbow colored lenses. In particular, Jews and African-Americans are getting along very well. The relationship between young Jews and Blacks in the entertainment industry is legendary, going back to the twenties and thirties and expressing itself today, for example, in hip hop. Inspired by black artists, Jewish artists such as Drake, Mac Miller, and Action Bronson recorded some of the most talked about releases in hip hop this year. In August, a YouTube video compilation went viral, showing rappers Kanye West, Cam’ron, Killer Mike, Gucci Mane and Jan-Z thanking their Jewish lawyers in songs. Star of David bling adorned the cover of Rick Ross’s latest “The Black Bar Mitzvah.” I know nothing about hip hop but I know that good relations between blacks and Jews mean God is still present in this world. Believe me- I am not naïve. Racism and anti-Semitism continue to plague us but in this country, and I emphasize this country, it is not nearly as pernicious as it was. Class is what divides us. We are separated into the very rich and the very poor with a shrinking middle class in between. Most of us here today are part of that shrinking middle class.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty, a campaign which largely failed. The poverty rate has fallen from 19% to 15% in two generations, leaving 46 million Americans living in households where the government considers their income to be scarcely adequate for survival. To be fair, we are much better off today than we were fifty years ago. Yet economic stratification is more pronounced than ever before. If we are in the top five per cent of earners, we are doing very well. If we are not, we are having a hard time making a go of it. Even those of us who have good incomes see our children struggling to get jobs, pay off student loans, and find a place for themselves in a less mobile world. The American Dream is dying. The ability of those born into poverty to make a better life for themselves is drying up. People are born poor and die poor, even after a lifetime of hard work. The rich are not necessarily responsible for this. The major contributors are teen pregnancies, dropping out of high school, lack of low skilled jobs, drugs, and unstable families. These factors prevent young people from gaining the educational skills they need to advance in a highly competitive economy. There is a growing hopelessness and malaise that is gripping all parts of America. The lack of social mobility combined with the lack of hope for a better life leads to anger and ultimately to social instability. We know all too well where that leads. It took us forty years to recover from the Baltimore’s last riots.
So what are we to do? The challenges seem insurmountable. How can we make a difference? How can we change American society? The answer is may not be able to better the entire country but we can make a difference in Baltimore. We can make life better and bring more opportunity for hundreds and thousands of people. Is the task daunting? Is it overwhelming? You bet it is. The rabbis taught us in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers (2:16), “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to desist from it.” We need to recreate the American dream by giving our children every opportunity to succeed in this more complex world. How do we do it? The answer is simple, we do it together.
The rabbis tell us that Moses was in front of the Jewish people at the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was in the rear. Moses appealed to God for a miracle. “Save us,” Moses implored. God said to Moses, “We must work together. One of you must have the courage to jump into the sea. Only then will I part the waters. Finally, with the Egyptians coming even closer and those at the back of the column screaming with fear, one man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the house of Judah, jumped into the freezing water. He walked and walked. The water got deeper and deeper. Finally, when it came just under his nose, the waters parted. The sea split in two and the Israelites walked through the sea on the dry land to the other side. Hence, we are taught to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on us.
We need more Nachshons, leaders who are not afraid to jump into the raging waters and make changes for the better in Baltimore. We need many of you to emulate Nachshon, to become part of the Oheb Shalom-Bethel AME Taskforce called “Isaiah 61,” co-chaired by Rev. Dr. Lorraine Castain and Shelle Schnell, a task force that will not only bring our two congregations closer together but will help make life better for the people of this neighborhood, many of whom do not have a chance to make it in stratified America. Why is this task force named Isaiah 61? The prophet Isaiah, who lived about 2,600 hundred years ago in Babylonia, modern day Iraq, called upon the Jewish people to “bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, and to comfort all who mourn.” We proclaim our love of God by offering our help to God’s children.
One of our major goals is to rebuild the Bethel Outreach Center, a 20,000 square foot structure that can house much needed services for this community. Our own Mark Levin has offered his architectural acumen for the reconstruction effort. We will at first be called upon to offer our labor to clean out the center so re-construction can begin. The center will eventually be a magnet for this community, providing health, legal, and educational services, housing a community grocery and a much needed café. We can help level the playing field and give many more young people the skills needed to advance in today’s economy if we work together. We just need many more Nachshons, those who are willing to take a risk and jump into the water. So, my dear friends, repeat after me, “Be Nachshon.” Once again, “Be Nachshon.” A third time, “Be Nachshon.” When we join together to work on behalf of this community, we help rebuild our nation. When we work together God is present. When we express our love for other human beings, God will bless us.
So, I ask that we express our love for God and one another by exerting our leadership and acting for God. When we do so, countless young people will have a chance to achieve the American dream. Be Nachshon- and help make America great.
May God bless us all.
Throughout the entire Metropolitan Baltimore region, clergy are speaking this weekend about the issue of domestic violence. The same message will be spread in every synagogue, church, and mosque. Domestic violence is never acceptable. It is never appropriate for spouses or partners to physically hurt one another. This message is especially important within our Jewish community because for decades, we denied that Jews engage in this kind of behavior. Let me share an ugly truth with you. Domestic violence occurs in all kinds of families- Jewish and non-Jewish, white and black, rich and poor. There are no class or socio-economic barriers to domestic abuse.
It used to be said that Jewish men are better husbands because we do not drink and beat our wives. Sadly, that is simply not true. We have become aware over the last twenty years that Jews and non-Jews engage in similar behaviors at similar rates. With each generation we live in America, the behavioral differences between Jews and other Americans evaporate. We are blessed as a Jewish community to have an agency of the Associated, CHANA, specifically dedicated to helping victims of domestic abuse. No one needs to suffer alone. Anyone who has been hurt can come to any of our clergy, our social worker, or go directly to CHANA to receive the assistance she needs. It is not a shanda to admit that one’s spouse has beaten her. There is no good reason to endure it. If it happens once, it will happen again. The best thing to do is to get help immediately. CHANA will get you into therapy, help you live independently, and get you the life skills necessary to begin a new chapter in your life. Let me emphasize this point again- it is never appropriate for a spouse or partner to inflict violence on the other. We must never tolerate or accept this. If it ever happens to you, help is here. Take advantage of it.
Is it coincidental that this Domestic Violence Shabbat takes place as we read Parashat Chayei Sara from the Book of Genesis? I sincerely doubt that the Mayor’s office looked at the calendar of Jewish Torah readings when they selected this weekend. Much of Chayei Sara deals with Avraham’s mourning of his beloved wife, Sara, and his selecting and purchasing a burial plot for her. While Avraham may not have been the best husband and did not always consult with his wife over important decisions (that was simply not the way men and women inter-acted over three thousand years ago), he treated her with love and tenderness, in life and in death. It would be unthinkable for him ever to be violent with her. We can learn from their relationship. We should always be kind and considerate towards our spouses, consult with them regarding every important decision, and concern ourselves with their welfare even before our own. That is how Jewish married people, in fact how all married people, should treat one another.
May this week’s observance get out the message that domestic violence is never acceptable. It will not be tolerated. Help is always available. We pray that someday it will not be necessary for this message to be proclaimed throughout our community.
Kein y’hi ratson- May it be God’s will.
We are finally back to normal! After a month of both solemn and joyous celebrations, we are observing our first ordinary Shabbat since last June. In fact, however, no Shabbat is ordinary. Every Shabbat is a special day of rest and peace, of learning and prayer. Every Shabbat is a break from daily toil and the struggle for our daily bread. Shabbat is an opportunity for spiritual and physical refreshment, for a break in the mundane, for a few hours of intellectual and emotional empowerment, as we spend time learning about our sacred Tradition as well as ourselves.
This week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, is the parashah in our holy text. Since we re-rolled to Torah yesterday during our celebration of Simchat Torah, we start again at the beginning. That does not mean, however, that our insights into the text are mundane, for each time we read Torah we learn something new. Allow me to share with you something new I have learned from the study of commentaries, something that seems obvious but is quite profound.
One of the ways we learn about the uniqueness of the Torah is to compare it to Mesopotamian religion of the time. According to their ancient myths, the Mesopotamian gods founded civilization and gave humans the skills of agriculture, animal husbandry and the ability to build cities. Humans were simply the recipients of these gifts. Every aspect of human society was decreed by the gods. In contrast, we learn in the Torah that Cain, Adam and Eve’s son was the first to build a city. Several generations later, three brothers, descendants of Cain, Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval Cain, invented the herding of animals, music, and metallurgy. Another descendant, Enoch, invented the worship of God while Noah planted the first vineyard and Nimrod built the first empire. In the Torah, in contrast to Mesopotamian myths, humans are the creators of their own culture.
Yet is the Torah telling us something in addition? Cain, the builder of cities, is also the first person to commit murder when, in a jealous rage, he murdered his brother Abel. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that “the culture humans develop is profoundly intertwined with violence.” 
The father of the inventors, Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval Cain, Lamech, is best known for his boasting (Genesis 4:23-24) of killing a boy. Bible scholar Derek Kidner explains, “Cain’s family is a microcosm: its pattern of technical prowess and moral failure is that of humanity…Lamech’s taunt song reveals the swift progress of sin. Where Cain had succumbed to it (4:7), Lamech exults in it; where Cain has sought protection (4:14-15), Lamech looks round for provocation; the savage disproportion of killing a mere lad for a mere wound is the whole point of his boast.”
What is the Torah trying to teach us? “Seven generations of achievement have passed since Cain’s killing of his brother, and yet, Lamech teaches us, people are more bloodthirsty, not less. Progress in civilization and progress in cruelty are manifestly not mutually exclusive. People can adore Mozart even as they murder innocent children…the Jewish view is neither that human beings are inherently good nor inherently bad. The Jewish view is that human beings are inherently complicated, pulled in many directions at once, capable of breathtaking kindness as well as horrific and staggering indifference.”
If we lived a hundred years ago, before the start of World War One, and we attended a service at the Eutaw Street Temple, we would read from the progressive and optimistic Union Prayer Book and may have heard a sermon about the moral and technological progress of humanity leading towards the Messianic Age. Just two years later, any progress towards a better world was shattered in the trenches of Verdun and the fields of Ypres as the technological marvels of artillery, machine guns, and poison gas killed young men by the hundreds of thousands. Any idea that technological advancement equals moral progress never survived Auschwitz. The same civilization that extolled Bach and Beethoven built the extermination camps.
We live in a complex society in which we debate how many rounds a clip in an assault rifle can contain as well as how to prevent the Syrian government from killing its own citizens with poison gas. It seems that we are technological giants and moral midgets. Yet there is more to the story than this sad commentary. Today, in contrast to other eras, we recognize that all of humanity is linked together, that what happens in Darfur and Syria is a commentary upon us, that we have a responsibility not just for our families and the Jewish community, but for all people, whether those who live in Baltimore’s inner city and those who live thousands of miles away. In today’s global society, in which communication is instantaneous, we understand another very important lesson that we learn from Cain-that we are, indeed, our brother’s keepers. We have an obligation to care for the Jewish people and for all humanity.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
Sally, our children, and I are so happy to be with you, even on this most solemn Day of Days. Oheb Shalom is our extended family and we are literally all related to one another. On this Day of Awe, all Jews are brothers and sisters. We stand together before God, just as we did at Sinai in ancient times. God speaks to us today just as God did then. Instead of experiencing God through fire and smoke, thunder and lightning, we hear God through a still, small, voice within. One of our most important tasks today is to listen to what God is telling us.
I will get back to this message later in this sermon. For the next few minutes, I want to talk about princesses, real and imagined. Believe it or not, this closely relates to the above theme. Do not fall asleep or you might miss the connection! Our real princess is Princess Kate Middleton, married to Prince William and mother of baby Prince George. Earlier this summer, before Kate gave birth to her baby, there was a long note circulating around Jewish e-mail networks, telling us that Kate’s maternal grandparents were both English Jews who changed their names to hide their identity. The point of this genealogy is that since Kate’s grandmother is Jewish, her mother is Jewish, she is Jewish and the future King of England is Jewish! Thinking that this was too good to be true, I asked my assistant, Marcy Silver, to check this out through her sources. She quickly came back with an article from the London Jewish Chronicle saying there was absolutely no truth whatsoever to this rumor. In typical British understatement, the article begins, “The Duchess of Cambridge: not in the least bit kosher.” While one does not have to be Jewish to eat Levi’s Jewish rye, one must be a member of the Church of England to be King of England.
This leads me to my next encounter this summer with princesses. Do you remember the night in June when tornadoes blew through Baltimore? Sally, Lucy (our boxer), and I were stuck in a small windowless storage room for a couple of hours with nothing to do except wait for the tornado warning to be lifted. I brought my tablet in with us and just started browsing through the free television shows when I immediately noticed “Princesses of Long Island: You had me at Shalom.” Finally, I thought, a positive reality show depicting young Jewish women. My, was I surprised when we watched it. The show is on BRAVO, the network that brings us such memorable performances as “Real Housewives.” It follows a group of six Jewish women in their late twenties- Joey, Amanda, Casey, Ashlee, Chanel, and Erica “as they fret, pout, strut about in exceedingly high heels and very short dresses, drink like sailors and talk like them, too. Fixated on their bodies, especially one part in particular, they spend an inordinate amount of time getting dressed and undressed, shopping, texting and worrying about their dwindling marital prospects.”[i] These girls, and they are girls, are about as Jewish as this chair. They would not know the difference between a machzor and a shofar. They use some Yiddish expressions and drink Manichewitz at their family Shabbat dinners. With the exception of middle class, South Shore denizen Joey, none of them have a job. They live with their parents, idolize their fathers, and use their parent’s credit cards freely. Ultimately, these self-centered, selfish, and somewhat pathetic young women just want to be loved and find a man to take care of them.
What these women have yet to learn is that real princes and princesses take care of other people. Real royals give love rather than seek love. True princesses are more concerned about other people than they are about themselves. Instead of spending their time shopping and kvetching, real princesses of Long Island would be devoting their lives to helping those in need.
Now this is a reality show. It is not reality. While women like this may live here, the only “Pikesville Princess” I know is my dog, Lucy. The thousands of Jewish women with whom I am acquainted are smart, productive, giving, and caring human beings. While everyone wants to look their best, they put clothes and their appearance into proper perspective. These Long Island princesses are a stereotype that today has little basis in reality.
There is one column in the Baltimore Sun I read every day. It is “Ask Amy,” written by Amy Dickinson, who gives practical and wise life advice. About six months ago, a woman wrote Amy and told her that she was married three years ago. She is happily married, both she and her husband have good jobs, and they own a nice house. The inquirer asks, “What do I have to look forward to?” Amy makes a couple of relevant suggestions. The writer should make her commute more bearable by reading or listening to interesting and spiritually edifying literature. She and her husband should find some fun things to do together. Amy, however, did not proffer the most important advice of all- that one receives the most personal meaning and satisfaction by giving to others.
Just before God gave us the Ten Commandments at Sinai, God made a brit, a covenant, with the Jewish people. Adonai told us that we should become a mamlechet kohanim and goi kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Our task is to be “a light unto the nations,” to live righteously and to give onto others. Each one of us is Jewish royalty, princes and princesses who are obligated by God to engage in Tikkun Olam, the repair of our broken world. Many of us do an admirable job in giving back. We volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, we work in food banks, and we join together with others to do community service. We help individuals and families in Baltimore survive in a very difficult time. But is this enough? Are we changing the context in which these people live? Are we making their schools, neighborhoods, and communities better or are we just engaging in palliative care, putting band aids on the wounded so they will survive for another day? While our efforts are admirable, we engage in the latter rather than the former. Our task should be to transform Baltimore into a safer, more livable, and economically thriving city so that everyone can benefit, not just the few whom we can personally reach. The reality is that we cannot do this alone. We cannot change Baltimore as individuals or as a congregation. We cannot truly fulfill our mandate to engage in Tikkun Olam unless we join with other like minded people who have organized to make Baltimore a healthier place to live. That is why it is so important for Oheb Shalom to become part of BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. BUILD is a thirty five year old local organization made up of almost sixty Christian congregations and many schools. Its faith based membership recognizes our community’s many needs and organizes people to address the most pressing issues. BUILD has won many victories over its three and a half decades that have made Baltimore a vastly better city. It has improved education, increased fairness in wages and housing, and expanded youth opportunities throughout the metropolitan area. BUILD member organizations meet in congress several times during the year and choose the issues upon which it will concentrate. It is the most democratic of organizations, run by the people for the people. How do the congregational representatives learn about their member’s concerns? Our representatives to BUILD will bring you together in small groups to listen to your concerns about our community. “As these intimate meetings, new relationships are forged, new leaders emerge, and individual expertise is indentified.”[ii] As we discuss our common concerns for Baltimore and the future of our children and grandchildren, we will get to know one another on a more human level. Our Jewish values will be reinforced and wisdom passed down from generation to generation. We will foster relationships within Oheb Shalom and energize ourselves to engage in Tikkun Olam. On our issues of common concern, we will join with other BUILD member organizations to multiply power and effect significant change.
There are currently over 160 Reform synagogues around the country that are part of these local community action organizations. The Union of Reform Judaism has an entire department called “Just Congregations” to encourage its member congregations to affiliate with local empowerment groups. We would be the first Jewish congregation in Baltimore and Maryland to join BUILD or an organization like it. Our involvement would distinguish us from every other synagogue and chart a path for more Jewish involvement in our community. Oheb Shalom has been in the forefront of leadership in advocating for justice and social change. It is time for us to become a leader once again in the pursuit of righteousness. In a recent message to Reform Jewish leaders, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism and our recent guest, speaks of our Reform Jewish leaders who fifty years ago were in the front lines of the fight for civil rights and economic justice. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights were drafted in the conference room of our movements Religious Action Center in D.C. As he stated, “Reform Judaism has maintained a steadfast commitment to our tradition’s pursuit of civil, economic, and social justice for all…We cannot remain silent when our inner city youth are out of school, out of jobs and out of hope. We cannot be silent when access to healthcare for 35 million people, who have never had health insurance, is challenged and thwarted. We must reaffirm our commitment to repair the torn social fabric of our society.”
My dear fellow royals, princes and princesses of God, we are a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, commanded to do good, to repair our world, and to give of our selves. We cannot, however, change the world by ourselves. We need to be part of something greater, such as BUILD. Let us, at Oheb Shalom, be among those who pursue justice and righteousness not only for us, but for our children, our community, and all humanity.
Kein y’hi ratson- May this be God’s will as together we say: Amen