Gratitude Must Be Learned – September 12, 2014

What a lovely day we had today! In the coolness of the early morning, we had the first intimations of Autumn. After the hot and humid days of the last week, it felt delightful. The Ravens played well against the Steelers last night, beating them convincingly in front of a national audience, and Baltimore was showcased to the country. We have rarely looked better, with the tall ships in the harbor and the Blue Angels in the sky. To make life even better, the Orioles magic number is now eight! The Susel family is with us tonight, basking in the joy of a family simcha, rejoicing that everyone is healthy enough to share in Abbey’s bat mitzvah celebration. We are grateful for so much. Yet gratitude is a quality that does not come naturally to us. It is a character trait that must be learned, inculcated into children when they are very young. We are naturally self-centered and need to be trained to appreciate what we are given.
Sally and I had taught our children that they could not cash a bar or bat mitzvah check or use a gift until they wrote the thank you note for it. It is amazing that they wrote all their thank you notes within two weeks. Expressing thanks is something they had to learn. It is a lesson that has stayed with them.
Our Torah portion for this week, Ki Tavo, from the Book of Deuteronomy, “portrays God as the gracious giver of gifts. It describes God as giving Israel blessing, rain and crops, cattle and sheep, towns and settlements, sons and daughters, and the power to get wealth. God’s primary gift to the people is the land of Israel itself. Yet the author of Deuteronomy worries that these gifts could easily become snares, that the people will feel entitled to God’s bounty instead of being grateful for it. They will forget that it was God who gave them so much. Earlier in the Torah (Deuteronomy 8:12-18), we read ‘Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember, it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth (Shai Held, Torah Commentary, September 10, 2014).”
“Deuteronomy admonishes us against possessing a sense of entitlement. People who have had everything provided for them, who have never had to work to enjoy life’s pleasures, can easily come to believe that they deserve everything they have. Entitlement is a spiritual poison that undermines the very possibility of gratitude. If I have everything coming to me, why should I be grateful? Our text also tells us that those who achieved great success, economic or otherwise, and arrogantly assume that they did it all themselves, have forgotten God’s role in their lives. Their gratitude disappears in the midst of their pride and arrogance (Held, Torah Commentary). “
Is it wrong to think that we are responsible for our own success? No, it is not. We just have to remember what Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, who lived in fourteenth century Girona, near Barcelona told us. The great physician, astronomer and sage wrote there is nothing religiously problematic about acknowledging the hand we ourselves play in achieving success and prosperity. Some people, he writes, have been endowed with special talents in business, medicine, or intellectual matters. To some extent, these people can claim they have accumulated wealth through their own talents. Yet Rabbi Nissim reminds us that our raw abilities are an endowment from God rather than an achievement. We have to always remember who gave us our gifts and where they came from. As Moses said, “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you wealth.” We should not forget that even if it is our abilities that have given us wealth, it is God who has given us our abilities (Held, Torah Commentary).”
On a glorious weekend such as this, as we celebrate a young woman’s becoming a bat mitzvah and the two hundredth anniversary of Baltimore’s victory against the British in 1814, we cannot forget that it is God who has blessed us with our talents and endowed us with our gifts. Genuine gratitude to God leads us to share our blessings with others. Deuteronomy reminds us that no matter how much we have, we always must remember to be grateful.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment

The Sins of the Fathers – Sermon for August 29, 2014

It is so good to be back home, worshiping in our holy place, together once again after eight weeks. While we so value our relationship with our sister congregation, Har Sinai, and are grateful for their cooperation in conducting joint summer services, it is still lovely to bask in the companionship of those committed to this sacred congregation. I just regret that Temple Emanuel and Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, in particular, are no longer participating in this century old Baltimore tradition. Before I go on to more serious matters, just a piece of new information about our local Jewish community. I learned this past week that Temple Emanuel put its building up for sale for $3,087,500. I do not have any further information but if you do, please share it with me following this service.

Since I last spoke to you six weeks ago, the world seems to be going up in flames. ISIS is still carving out more territory for itself in what used to be Syria and Iraq. Word came to us just today that this terrorist organization, trying to create a new caliphate in the Middle East, recently beheaded 250 Syrian soldiers. This is in addition to beheading American journalist James Foley and murdering thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Shiites, Yezidis, Christians, and Kurds.  It is forcing the conversion of Shiite and Yezidi young women to Sunni Islam and forcing these women, some as young as eight years old, to marry terrorist fighters. They are also enforcing the dhimmi, enforced taxation of nonSunni Muslims, on everyone else in its territory. The United States is in the process of reengaging in Iraq with the hope of stopping and then reversing ISIS’ gains. Russian forces are advancing into the Ukraine, hoping to carve out the Eastern Ukraine and add it to Russia. Putin knows that NATO will not go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and will lie and deceive until he gets what he wants. Libya is in chaos, Ebola is spreading through West Africa, and our country seems to be impotent in its ability to stabilize the world.

Of course, our attention has been riveted to events in Israel all summer. As almost 5,000 Hamas rockets rained down upon Israel, our hearts were united with those of Jews everywhere in support of our people. We trembled each time we learned that a rocket hit a house or a car. While the Iron Dome anti-rocket system preserved thousands of lives, it is not perfect and occasionally missed a rocket that landed in a populated area. Just two days ago, I heard our representative in Ashkelon, Sigal Arieli, report on the effect of the rockets on our sister city just eight kilometers north of Gaza. Over ten percent of Hamas’ rockets were launched at Ashkelon. Iron Dome shot down 137 of them, while most landed in fields or other unpopulated areas.  Several hit houses, causing horrific devastation. I am going to Ashkelon in two weeks with a fifteen person mission from the Associated. I will better report to you what I see when I return.

The Europeans have turned against Israel. In the guise of anti-Zionism, seventy years after the Shoah, Jew hatred has once again reared its ugly head. AntiSemitism is no longer forbidden in polite society. It is open and vitriolic. The difference is that governments are now protecting Jews instead of rounding us up and putting us on trains to the East. Jews have been murdered in Belgium and attacked in France. Only police intervention prevented a mob, predominantly composed of Arabs, from overrunning a synagogue on Shabbat morning in Paris. The MP representing Bradford in England declared his district an “Israel Free Zone,” saying Israelis and Israeli products were not welcome there. Why anyone, Jew or non-Jew, would want to visit Bradford is another story.  Jewish students returning to college will be confronted with a great deal of anti-Israel propaganda. We will see an increased effort by the BDS crowd, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions people, to punish Israel for using “disproportionate force” in its war against Hamas. What they and the Europeans really want is for Israel to just disappear.  In this latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, 68 Israelis were killed, 64 of them soldiers. Over two thousand Palestinians were killed, many of them women and children. Israel did everything possible to reduce civilian deaths, even warning residents of neighborhoods to evacuate thirty minutes before a strike. The problem was that Hamas used women and children as human shields, setting up its rocket launchers in civilian neighborhoods and storing rockets in homes, schools, hospitals, and mosques. Hamas wanted the world to see Israel as causing the deaths of countless innocents. Of course, the Western media played right into the hands of Hamas, broadcasting images of dead and maimed children. Israel had no choice but to try to destroy every rocket launcher and to kill every Hamas terrorist. It is deeply troubling that Hamas has such little regard for its own people that it deliberately places them in harms’ way.

I have entitled this sermon “The Sins of the Fathers” because hundreds of Palestinian children literally died due to the sins of the Hamas political and military leadership, the “fathers” of Gaza society. The Torah tells us in Exodus, chapter 20, verse 5, that God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, punishing them until the third and fourth generation. This is explicitly stated again in chapter five of the Book of Deuteronomy, in which God punishes children for the idolatry of their parents. When parents put their own political agenda before the lives of their children, that is an idolatrous act. When parents place their children in danger, that is an idolatrous act. The greatest gift God has given us is the lives of our children. To deliberately sacrifice one’s own children for the sake of political expediency is an affront to God and an act of idolatry. Israel is not guilty for the deaths of these poor children. The blame falls squarely on the heads of the Hamas leadership which cavalierly sent rockets into Israel, hoping to inflict massive civilian casualties, the same leadership that squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money building subterranean tunnels, hoping to infiltrate Israeli towns and settlements and wreck destruction upon women and children. What Hamas did is to sin against God and their own people. Shame on them, not just for what they have done to Israel, but what they have done, and are continuing to do, to their own people.

We pray that this situation will soon come to an end and that Palestinian children will no longer be victimized by their fathers.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sermon for July 11, 2014

Once again, I am so happy to be officiating on this historic pulpit with
Cantor Gerber. Har Sinai has an illustrious patrimony. It is a privilege to
participate in even a small part of it as I am tonight.
Our thoughts are dominated by events occurring all around us. There are
rockets from Gaza raining down on Israel. The Israeli Air Force and Navy are
striking hundreds of terrorist targets in Gaza. The Ukraine is trying to retake its
territory from Russian rebels. Iraq is in the midst of dismemberment, coming
apart at the seams as we speak. All of the events that concern us have their origin
in the world shattering assassination of Archduke Franz Ferndinand and his wife
Sophia by a Serbian anarchist on June 26th, 1914 in Sarajevo, the spark that led
to the beginning of World War One. Within two months, Germany and
Austria-Hungary were at war with Britain, France, and Russia. Tonight I will
speak about how World War One, the first World War in a hundred years,
impacted the Jewish community in Europe, the Middle East and the United
States. Allow me to begin with the current situation in Iraq.
We should not be at all surprised that Iraq is unraveling, for it is an
artificial state which the British created after WWI from three separate Turkish
provinces, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. In 1916, while T.E. Lawrence, the
famous “Lawrence of Arabia,” was encouraging the Arabs to revolt against their
Turkish overlords and was promising the Hashemites, the rulers of Arabia, that
they would rule over their own independent kingdoms in what is now Syria,
Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, the British Foreign Office signed an agreement
with the French called the Sykes-Picot Treaty, which divided the entire Middle
East into French and British spheres of influence. The French pushed Faisal
Hussein out of Damascus, forcing the British to carve a new nation, called Iraq,
for him to rule out of Ottomon Turkish territory. His older brother, Abdullah,
invaded Amman and threatened Syria but was placated by the British when
placed upon the throne of a new country called TransJordan, carved out of their
mandatory territory of Palestine. The Kurds, who resided in Northern Iraq since
ancient times, were promised their own country by the Allies, but were double crossed at Versailles. They were forced to become part of this new state,
populated primarily by Shiite Muslims and ruled by a Sunni Muslim king. It was,
from the beginning, a recipe for disaster. The only ones who seemed to profit
were the Jews of Iraq, a highly sophisticated population of about 125,000 who
made up a large part of the merchant, professional, and managerial class under
the British. Of course, this lead to pogroms against the Iraqi Jews in 1941 during
a pro-Nazi revolt against the British, which the British put down at great cost.
Iraq today is dividing along tribal and religious lines, with the Kurds running
their own de facto state in the north, the Shiites running their own country in
Baghdad and the south, and the Sunnis dominating what may be their own
country in the west. While none of us know how this will play out, I doubt very
much that Iraq as a nation has much of a future. The only bright spot is that the
Kurds and Israel have are aligned against the all those who want to extinguish
their independence.
In 1914, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Eastern Europe in the
Pale of Settlement, ruled over by the Jew hating Russian Czar Nicholas II. Four
million Jews lived in a large ghetto, from Eastern Poland through Eastern
Ukraine. This area was the highly contested Eastern front, fought over by the
German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian armies. The constant fighting and
fleeing created a humanitarian disaster for the Jewish community. It is estimated
that 100,000 Jews were killed by the Russians. Thousands more died from
disease and malnutrition. The irony is that while Jewish soldiers were serving the
Czar by fighting against his enemies, other Russian soldiers were raping their
wives and daughters behind the lines and leaving a trail of blood. The Russian
and Polish Jews looked upon the German and Austrian armies as liberators.
Germany was revered as the home of enlightenment and civilization. German
soldiers were welcomed in every city and shtetl. For the more than 90,000 Jews
serving in the German Army and almost three hundred thousand serving in the
Austrian Army, exposure to their Eastern European religionists was an
awakening. On one hand, they were deeply moved by these Jews devotion to
their ancestral heritage. On the other hand, they were appalled by their primitive
and backward living conditions. The German conquerors found that these Eastern Jews fit all their stereotypical anti-Semitic caricatures, feeding the
nascent antisemitism that would soon dominate German life.
While many Germans accused the Jews of not doing their patriotic duty,
Jews flocked to the Kaiser’s colors far out of proportion to their part of the
German population. Jews served with great courage and patriotism, embracing
the Fatherland that had given them a sense of home. Jews of England, France,
Italy, and later, the United States, also flocked to their respective flags. This was
the last time in modern history that Jews wore contrasting uniforms and fought
against one another. There is a well known apocryphal tale that supposedly
occurred on the Russian front, but also could have taken place on the Western
Front. A Russian soldier wounded an Austrian soldier and approached him to
finish the job with his bayonet when he heard the wounded soldier recite his
dying words, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” Overcome by the
realization he had grievously wounded a fellow Jew, he threw down his rifle.
Grieving for his Jewish comrade in arms, he embraced the mortally wounded
soldier and held him until he died.
It is estimated that between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews served in the
American Army during WWI. The vast majority of them were recent immigrants
to the United States. While they experienced antisemitism in American military
service, their time in the Army quickly Americanized this immigrant generation
and cemented their allegiance to the United States. The War caused several
important developments to take place within the American Jewish community.
First, divisions between German and Russian Jews became meaningless as all
Jews wanted to support their co-religionists in Eastern Europe. No matter their
country of origin, American Jews, for the most part, were sympathetic towards
the German cause, wanting the Kaiser to defeat the nefarious Czar. Events in
Eastern Europe also led to the founding the American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee, the first all encompassing philanthropic arm of the American Jewish
community. The Joint, as it has become known, raised the equivalent of $265
million for the relief of Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine. Their life saving
efforts are still incredibly important in the former Soviet Union, literally saving
thousands of lives. Third, the devastation of Eastern European Jewry and the
exhaustion of German, French, and British Jewries made the American Jewish
community the leading Jewish community in the world. From this time forth, the
future of Jewish life depended upon us. In a fascinating twist, the British
government, thinking that American Jews had inordinate influence on the
decisions of the American government, and urgently wanting the Americans to
intervene on their side in the War, issued the Balflour Declaration in 1917,
promising to create a Jewish homeland in the land of Palestine. This declaration
immediately brought most of the world’s Jews to the side of the Allies and was
the seminal event leading to the creation of the State of Israel thirty years later.
So dear friends, as you can see, World War I led directly to the events that
are uppermost on our minds today. It was the catastrophic event of the early
Twentieth Century, the waves of which are still impacting our shores today.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment

Sermon for Erev Shabbat – July 4, 2014

It is good to be back on this bimah once again as we continue an approximately one hundred year tradition of holding Union Summer Services. While I am saddened that our sister congregations are not with us, I am delighted that Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom are maintaining this venerable custom that began when both our congregations were downtown, within walking distance of each other. It is truly an honor to be invited once again to officiate from this historic pulpit.
Given this is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, the 238th celebration of our declaration of freedom from Great Britain, I had fully expected to give a sermon about an incident in American Jewish history, extolling and exploring the symbiosis between the United States and the Jewish people, one of the most successful in all of Jewish history. Yet the events of this last week call for a response. I cannot speak of an incident that occurred over 200 years ago when yesterday’s events call out for explication.
We are still reeling from the shocking and brutal murder of our three boys, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach. These three teenagers possessed the boundless optimism and unlimited enthusiasm of youth. We were taken by their sweet and innocent smiles, expressive personalities, devotion to Torah, and love of their families. With their deaths, three worlds were destroyed. We will never know what they might have done with their lives, what they might have achieved and what mountains they may have climbed. Their loss is incalculable. For a few weeks, their kidnapping by Hamas terrorists brought the entire Jewish world together. We thought that they were hidden by the terrorists, who would trade them for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails just as they did with Gilad Shalit. We never expected that they would be murdered al Kiddush HaShem, simply because they were Jews. Three mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and an entire nation and people now mourn for them. They are lost forever, but they will not be forgotten.
Israeli police have identified two prime suspects in their killings, Amer Abu Aysha, 33 years old, and Marwan Zawasmeh, 29 years old, both part of the Hamas infrastructure on the West Bank. While we presume them to be innocent until proven guilty, most troubling is the remark of Abu Aysha’s mother who told Israel’s Channel 10 news, “If he did the kidnapping, I’ll be proud of him.” What kind of mother exults that her son is a murderer of innocent children? She, unfortunately, is not alone. There have been countless Arab mothers who have rejoiced when their sons and daughters have blown themselves up to murder harmless civilians. What kind of society produces mothers like this? “I have yet to meet the Israeli mother who wants to raise her boys to become kidnappers and murderers.”
After the boys’ murder, we were distressed and disgusted to see images of smiling children in Gaza holding up three fingers and then a thumb to indicate their approval of the murder. I ask again, “What kind of society teaches its children to rejoice in the death of other children?”
Israel will retaliate against legitimate Hamas military targets and political infrastructure. That is just and appropriate. The State of Israel will not take revenge against children. What the government of Israel does and what some of its people do, however, are not one and the same.
While attending the community memorial service Wednesday night at Beth El, I was reading psalms. I particularly noted verse six in Psalm 27 which says, “Now is my head high even though my enemies surround me.” What I think the psalmist meant by this is that even though I live in the midst of a culture that celebrates death, I will not make this my value. Even though I am part of the Middle East, an area where life is cheap, I will value life and celebrate it. I will not make my enemy’s values my own. Sadly, some Israelis today are not heeding the words of the psalmist. They are making their enemy’s values their own. Just a few days ago, an Arab teenager, Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, 16, was kidnapped while sitting in front of his house in East Jerusalem. He was waiting in the early morning for friends so they could walk to the mosque together for Ramadan prayers. His burned body was found later that night in a Jerusalem forest. Presumably, he was abducted and murdered by Jewish extremists seeking revenge for the killing of the three boys. Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately condemned the murder. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said “if Muhammed was the victim of a reprisal killing it amounted to an act of terrorism.” An investigation was immediately launched to find the perpetrators of this heinous and despicable crime. Less than twenty four hours after burying their son, Naftali Frenkel’s family released this statement, “We do not know exactly what happened overnight in East Jerusalem. The police are investigating the matter. But if it turns out that an Arab youngster was killed for nationalistic reasons, then that is terrifying and shocking. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder, no matter what the age or nationality is. There is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for such a murder.” If only Arab mothers would say something similar about the death of Jewish children!
What is equally as disturbing is the Facebook campaign instigated by a group of Israeli soldiers from Nahal Haredi, a combat battalion established in the late 1990s for ultra-Orthodox Jews. These young men submitted images of themselves with their weapons, brandishing signs reading, “The people of Israel demand revenge.” The Facebook page gathered 35,000 “likes” before it was taken down two days later. These soldiers are now facing court martial. Another Israeli blogger, this one a civilian, posted a photo of two smiling girls holding up a sign that read, “Hating Arabs isn’t racism, its values!” Videos posted on You Tube and Twitter showed small crowds of Israelis in Jerusalem shouting “Death to the Arabs!” While only a small number of Israelis support these extremists, their perversion of Jewish values is most upsetting. These Jews are a mirror image of the Palestinians who live to hate.
Anyone who has read Ari Shalit’s My Promised Land understands that Jews, too, have blood on our hands. Israel could not have been created without the expulsion of Arabs from land they inhabited for generations. Jewish soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities towards Arab civilians. While Arabs certainly committed many more such attacks against Jews, and while the expulsion of Arabs was a necessity in order to create the State of Israel, no Israelis at the time rejoiced in their actions. They kept silent and kept their guilt within. It is only now that they are beginning to speak about their wartime actions.
We were heartened to see that late Wednesday night, hundreds of Jews rallied against racism in Jerusalem. They stood against the extremists who demanded an “eye for and eye.” They understood if we all demand an eye for an eye, eventually the entire world will become blind. Reprisal and retribution must end. Justice must take its course. Terrorism by Arabs should not be met with terrorism by Jews. As the psalmist wrote, “Now is my head held high even though my enemies surround me.” Their values are not our values. We extol life and do not seek death. We say “Am Yisrael Chai,” the People of Israel lives, not the People of Israel dies. Our prayers on this Shabbat are for life and peace for all the people of Israel.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014.
NY Times, July 3, 2014

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment

What is the Difference between a Schlemiel and a Schlimazal? June 13, 2014

Summer has finally begun! Most school terms end today. Camps begin in the next week or so. Families are starting to take vacations. We observe Father’s Day this Sunday, meaning there will be a lot of dads behind hot grills on Sunday. Beginning on July 4, our Erev Shabbat service will be held at Har Sinai and the Shabbat morning service will be held right here in the Gordon Chapel. Service officiation will be split between Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai clergy, including Rabbis Berlin and Herman, our rabbis emeriti. The schedule is published on our website and in the upcoming edition of Pathways.
So, because it is summer, I thought I would keep it light tonight. So I begin my remarks with a comment on the primary election coming up just ten days from now. Honestly, I have not made up my mind for whom I am voting for governor. One race, in particular, has garnered my attention- that of attorney general. It is the only statewide race which features a Baltimore candidate- Delegate Jon Cardin of District 11, the district where many of us live. Jon Cardin is quite well known in our district and throughout the Baltimore area. He is known because he comes from a politically active family, from his grandfather, Judge Meyer Cardin, to his uncle, Senator Benjamin Cardin, as well as other relatives, including his father, Howard, having served in elective offices. Unfortunately for Jon, he has become better known for a number of gaffes he has committed over the last few years. I will just mention three of the most well known mistakes that have come to public attention:
He proposed to his fiancée, now wife, in the Inner Harbor, using police helicopters and on duty police officers as actors in his proposal. This became a front page story in the Baltimore Sun which brought Delegate Cardin much embarrassment. After an investigation, he paid Baltimore City a paltry $300 for use of the helicopter.
The Baltimore Sun recently revealed he had a less than stellar attendance record in this past session in Annapolis, missing 75% of all floor votes. He attributed his absences to the need to spend time with his wife and young child, especially since his wife was in the midst of a difficult pregnancy. Since most of us have been through this and not missed work, his excuse seems hollow at best and self-serving at worst.
Just last week, he posed for a photo with a local rapper who Tweeted the photo and his endorsement of Jon Cardin for attorney general to thousands of followers. It just so happened that this rapper is awaiting trial for human trafficking and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to 191 years in jail. Realizing his mistake, Delegate Cardin disavowed the endorsement but it was too late. The damage was done. Poor Jon Cardin!
When I read about his last mishap, I realized that this was a comedic situation. Who could make up this stuff? It seems to come directly from the writers of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two shows that continually deal with the schlemiel verses schlimazel theme. I could not help but ask the question, “Is Jon Cardin a schlemiel or a schlimazel?” What is the difference between the two?
I will answer with the classic example from Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish. “A schlemiel is one who always spills his soup, a schlimazel is the one on whom it always lands. A schlimazel’s toast always falls butter-side down. A schlemiel always butters his toast on both sides.”
A few more examples translated from the Yiddish: If a schlimazal dealt in shrouds, no one would die. If a schlimazal sold umbrellas it would never rain. If a schlimazel dealt in candles, the sun would never go down. A schlimazal falls on his back and breaks his nose. A schlemiel falls over a piece of straw. A schlemiel has a continuing argument with God. A schlemiel cannot even tie a ribbon on a cat’s tail.
There is quite a bit of scholarly literature on the differences between the two. The noted professor, Ruth Wisse believes that the schlemiel is derived from “the category of the luckless or inept, like the schlimazel. She differentiates the schlemiel and the schlimazel in this way:
The schlemiel is the active disseminator of bad luck, and the schlimazel its passive victim . . . The schlimazel happens upon mischance, he has a penchant for lucklessness . . . . The schlemiel’s misfortune is his character. It is not accidental, but essential.
Whereas comedy involving the schlimazel tends to be situational, the schlemiel’s comedy is existential, deriving from his very nature in its confrontation with reality.
As my professor at F&M, Sandy Pinsker wrote, “the word schlimazel derives from the German schlim (bad) coupled with the Hebrew mazel (star); in other words, “one born under a bad star.” The word “schlimazel” was common in German usage before the nineteenth century, appearing in Grimm’s dictionary as the “Hebrew word schlimazel, meaning luckless” and “traced to Jewish underworld slang.” In June 2004, Yiddish schlimazel was one of the ten non-English words that were voted hardest to translate by a British translation company.
Seinfeld was replete with story lines dealing with the schlemiel and schlimazal. George Constanza, played by Jason Alexander, was the classic schlimazal and Jerry Seinfeld was the classic schlemiel. There are countless examples of their fitting into these classic Jewish molds. You can even read scholarly literature which explains this, show by show.
I will leave it to you, dear friends, to ponder the differences between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. So I leave you with several questions. “Is Jon Cardin a schlemiel or a schlimazal?” Is he an active or passive disseminator of bad luck? Does he bring these things upon himself, as if he lives under an unlucky star, or is he a passive recipient of mischance? Is he perhaps a little bit of both? I will be interested in your responses. No talk about that over Shabbat dinner.
Amen and Shabbat shalom

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment

Sermon for Memorial Day – May 23, 2014

Far removed from its post Civil War roots, Memorial Day is now the official beginning of the summer season and an occasion for large scale sales at the local malls. We take a few minutes this evening to remember those who served in the armed forces of the United States, who gave their lives so that we can live in freedom. This tribute to the military is no longer widely observed in this country because so few of us today have personal ties to those in the armed forces. Since we have had an all volunteer military, fewer and fewer of our young people are serving. The Army, which during the Civil War and World War II, acted as a melting pot and binder of national ties, is now the province of a few. Without a draft, the military does not form a cohesive force for national unity. This lack of connection to the American military is especially true within the Jewish community. While there are still Jewish servicemen and women in uniform, the vast majority of young Jews attend college and even graduate school. They do not need the military as a vehicle for career advancement as do so many of the current volunteers. The military is not an attractive option for our children. Without a military draft or compulsory national service, we give nothing back to our country accept for taxes that are due. I have long advocated a return to national service, in which high school graduates, both men and women, would give two years of their lives to national service, whether in the military or another beneficial venue. This would make us better appreciate our country, end some of our parochialism, and strengthen the ties that bind us to other Americans, not to mention the positive value on the young people themselves.
It is the fraying of the ties that bind us together that so concern me. Not since the Civil War was fought one hundred fifty years ago, has our country appeared to be so disunited. For thirty years prior to the Civil War, centrifugal forces operated on many levels to pull our country apart, finally culminating in the Civil War, the most deadly war this country has ever known. On this day, 150 years ago, the Civil War was raging. Sherman’s army would soon take Atlanta and go on to split Georgia in two. Skirmishes were still taking place in the Western theater of the War, in Missouri, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee but, since the Union’s capture of Vicksburg and control of the Mississippi, they would have no effect on the outcome of the War. Grant’s Army of the Potomac was slogging its way through Virginia, just having fought the costly battle at Spotsylvania and making its way to even more ferocious fighting in the future. Lincoln’s hold on the presidency was in jeopardy as McClellan declared his candidacy and seemed to have a chance to defeat the president in the November election. Lincoln persevered and defeated McClellan. Six months later, the Civil War ended and the Union was preserved.
There are three brief points I will make to illustrate my concern for our future. I am afraid that centrifugal forces are again working to tear us apart. The first is our ideological split into red states and blue states. Politics is supposed to be the art of compromise, where opponents reach across the aisle to strike deals so that both sides win without getting all they want. Today, both red and blue states elect legislators who define the word “compromise” as obscene. They act simply on behalf of the narrow constituency that elected them rather than for the good of the United States. The result is a deadlocked Congress and an impotent Executive branch. There are no signs on the horizon that give any cause for optimism.
The second is the Supreme Court’s destruction of our campaign financing system. Big money is now openly controlling our government. Study after study illustrates the power of the moneyed interests over those of ordinary people. Congress pursues big money like bees go to honey. Our legislators are addicted to it, and therefore are hearkening more and more to the behest of special interests. I commend to you Congressman Sarbanes’ bill, endorsed by 154 representatives, which will bring sanity back to the political system by publicly funding congressional campaigns. Congressman Sarbanes’ bill restricts campaign contributions to no more than $150 per person, to be matched up to six times by Federal contributions. Even the most venal of legislators will not sell his soul for $150!
Just last month, a militia of 1,000 armed civilians faced down Federal agents in Nevada. The Department of Interior claims that a rancher owes the Federal government $6 million for grazing rights on Federal land. The rancher claims that the Federal government has no right to compel him to pay for the right to graze his cattle on empty land. The rancher’s argument was compelling to many right wingers who descended on the ranch with heavy armament, literally forcing Federal agents off of land belonging to the national government. We have heard little of this case, for the Department of the Interior must be loathe to force an armed confrontation. The emergence of private militias that take the law into their own hands does not bode well for our country. There are a host of separatist movements in the United States, including one in Western Maryland, which resent the authority of the Federal and State governments. Many of these right wing groups are affiliated with groups such as Aryan Nations and Posse Comitatus, groups that have challenged Federal authority in the past and explicitly express their hatred for minorities, Jews and the ZOG, Zionist Occupied Government, they claim has no authority over them. These right wing groups constitute a serious threat to our national unity and act as a centrifugal force in loosening the bonds that hold us together.
Dear friends, while the subject of a second American Civil War is still the subject of science fiction writers, I for one am concerned that the seeds have already been planted. These are weeds that must be pulled from our nation’s soil, so that forces we cannot control will once again someday tear us apart. Then the sacrifices of those who fought for this nation will be in vain.
Amen and Shabbat shalom

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment

In Dedication to Cantor Alois Kaiser – April 18, 2014

Jerry Lurie, the fortieth president of Temple Oheb Shalom, is passionate about history. Early in his term, he pronounced that we would correct an egregious omission in the history of this 160 year old congregation. We would rectify an age old mistake by commissioning a portrait of our first cantor, Alois Kaiser, and dedicate it before he left office. Jerry does not miss an opportunity to connect us to our history. He refers to his beloved synagogue by its correct title, “Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City,” thereby linking us with the city in which we were born and nurtured and to which we owe a great debt. Our recent commitment to BUILD rededicates us to Baltimore City. It confirms that even though many of us live in Baltimore and even Howard Counties, our fate, and that of Oheb Shalom, is dependent upon the health of the city in which we reside. Jerry was also quite aware that even though Cantor Kaiser died on January 5, 1908, the only member of our clergy to die while still actively serving the congregation, his legacy has not been properly memorialized by the congregation he loved and who loved him in return. So, with the proper motivation, Jerry authorized our Executive Director, Ken Davidson, to have a portrait painted from a photograph of Cantor Kaiser. You will see the result of this process in a few minutes.
Alois Kaiser was born on November 10, 1840, in Szobotist, Hungary. We know nothing about his parents, except that they obtained the coveted privilege of being able to move to Vienna, meaning they must have been fairly well to do. He received his first instruction in the congregation school of Dr. Henry Zirndorf, one of the most respected teachers of the day. He later attended the Realschule and the Teacher’s Seminary. Showing an early aptitude for music, he was placed in the Vienna Conservatory of Music and, at the age of ten, began singing in the choir of the celebrated Viennese Cantor, Solomon Sulzer, the well-known composer of 19th century synagogue music. At the tender age of 19, in 1859, he became assistant cantor in the synagogue of Funfhaus, a suburb of Vienna. He excelled in his apprenticeship and three years later, was called to serve as cantor at the Neuesynagoge in Prague, a quite prestigious position.
Throughout his life, Cantor Kaiser was a disciple of the great Sulzer. He made it his life’s task to continue Sulzer’s vision of synthesizing the Jewish cantorial tradition with Western artistic musical standards. As he studied with Sulzer, he imbibed the rich heritage of miSinai (from Sinai) tunes, all of which actually dated to medieval Rhineland Jewry, and other melodies of Ashkenazi Jewry, which Sulzer had been careful to preserve, revitalize and incorporate into his artistic settings and into the new Viennese rite.
Like so many other German Jewish young men, Kaiser yearned for the political freedom which was denied to him in Central Europe. In 1866, he immigrated to New York and was soon employed as Cantor of Oheb Shalom Congregation of Baltimore City, the largest synagogue in Baltimore and the home of the renowned Rabbi Benjamin Szold. The two of them made a great team, as they were engaged in a new and uncharted enterprise, creating a modern synagogue compatible with American sensibilities. Throughout his career, he was convinced, as he wrote, “that the ancient melodies, chants, and tunes of the synagogue have lost none of their original charm, and while in order to adapt them to modern tastes, we may have to clothe them in a new garb,” by which he meant restylization, reharmonization, and adaptations to Reform liturgical and ritual adjustments, even including English versions. Cantor Kaiser was a prolific composer as well as a scholar of Jewish music. He collaborated with two fellow immigrant cantors, Moritz Goldstein and Samuel Welsch, to compile, edit, and publish a four volume anthology of Jewish music, Zimrath Yah, between 1873 and 1886. The publication of this anthology caused him to become known throughout the country as America’s greatest cantor. Cantor Kaiser dreamed of creating a hymnal that could be used by all American synagogues. His dream came true when a group of prominent Jewish women from Chicago invited him and Cantor William Sparger of Temple Emanuel of the City of New York to compile a book of Jewish music for the Jewish Women’s Congress of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The first part of the book contained fifty seven well established melodies adapted as hymns for the new Western style synagogue. The second part contained original musical compositions for the synagogue by the stars of synagogue music, Lewandowski, Sulzer, Naumberg, and even Kaiser himself.
As a token of its esteem for this prestigious work, the Central Conference of American Rabbis made Cantor Kaiser an honorary member. This organization of Reform rabbis just released its new Union Prayerbook in 1894 and invited Cantor Kaiser to create and edit a new hymnal as a companion piece to the prayerbook. Thus was born the first edition of the Union Hymnal, first published in 1897, edited by our own Cantor Alois Kaiser. I hold up a copy of the second edition of the Union Hymnal from 1932 which contains four of Cantor Kaiser’s original compositions. While many of his pieces contain a flowery and grandiose English libretto that is foreign to our contemporary ears, the melodies are adapted from authentic Ashkenazic musical tradition. As Cantor Kaiser wrote, “These songs of Zion, they are our heritage, entrusted to our care and cultivation. Let us zealously preserve them, for we are their watchmen and guardians. We have brought them with us from across the seas; let us imbed them firmly in the hearts of our American brethren that they may abide there forever.”
Cantor Kaiser died prematurely at the age of sixty-eight, still serving his congregation and known as the greatest cantor in America. Tonight we pay our proper respects to Cantor Alois Kaiser, the first senior cantor of Temple Oheb Shalom, one whose portrait most deservedly will take its place on our hallowed walls.
I invite our President, Jerry Lurie, to formally dedicate Cantor Kaiser’s portrait.
Milkin Archive of Jewish Music

Posted in Rabbi Fink 5774, Rabbi Fink's Sermons | Leave a comment