From the Bimah: Jewish Lessons for Life
Summary: Bringing weekly Jewish insights into your life. Join Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, Rabbi Michelle Robinson and Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA as they share modern ancient wisdom.
How are we to think about this day, the 20-year anniversary of 9/11? This is a day of double memory, double mourning, double pathos. We remember the lives that were lost on that terrible day, and what that meant to the families who lost them, the spouses who lost spouses, the parents who lost children, the children who lost parents, the brothers and sisters who lost brothers and sisters. In his elegy You’re Missing, Bruce Springsteen gives voice to this pathos. Pictures on the nightstand, TV's on in the den Your house is waiting, your house is waiting For you to walk in, for you to walk in But you're missing, you're missing You're missing, when I shut out the lights You're missing, when I close my eyes You're missing, when I see the sun rise You're missing That trauma, that loss, never goes away.
The story is told of a man named Max Gelberg who was 70 years old when his beloved wife of more than 40 years, Goldie, passed away. After mourning her for a year, he decides he has to live in the present. He is only 70. Life must go on.
Does God act in history? If you look at the world, does it testify to the existence of a loving and powerful God who acts to make sure that God’s highest ideals are implemented? Of course, even asking the question in this hot mess of a summer suggests the implausibility of the premise that God acts in history. How could God act in history when floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, massive fires cause death and destruction on a massive scale to innocents too numerous to count? How could God act in history when the Delta variant continues to rage? How could God act in history when two suicide bombers exploded themselves at the Kabul airport killing 13 American service members and more than 100 Afghan citizens and seriously wounding so many innocent civilians? In short, any honest assessment of the question would have to come down on the side that God does not act in history. That assessment seems accurate. But there are two problems with it. It’s a problem for the world to be a hot mess and God-less. And it is a problem for our Jewish sources. The Bible’s signature voice is that God acts in history.
This week I found myself watching, and rewatching obsessively, 1 minute and 11 seconds of sheer human desperation, a video link on my iPad, of chaos and confusion at the Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. Throngs of Afghan citizens were so desperate to flee from the Taliban that they ran onto the tarmac and literally clung to the outside of an American military plane as it was moving. They continued to cling to the wings and to the fuselage as the plane began to take off, causing some of those desperate citizens to fall to their deaths. By all accounts, Afghan citizens who helped the American war effort, who translated for us, who believed in us, who trusted us, who served with us, who walked the minefields and took fire with us, were stranded, unable to board a plane to free them from slaughter at the hands of the Taliban. How are we to understand this heartbreak?
“You’re gonna drown like that.” I was standing on my tip toes, trying to hold a tarp above our tent while Solomon adjusted the rope tying it to the tree above. We were racing to get our camp set up before the rain.
Join our wonderful Rabbi Michelle Robinson on August 7, 2021.
Sermon from July 24, 2021
It was 8 PM in late August of 2000. The subway car screeched into the 14th Street Station in Chelsea; Danny stood near the door with impatience. He was running late for dinner with his partner, Pete. It had been a big year for them. After nearly three years of dating, they had decided to move in together. It seemed like he had finally found his happily ever after. He didn’t want to let Pete down by making him wait. He rushed off the subway and headed towards the stairs. Just as he began to dash up the stairs, though, dodging fellow travelers, he noticed something strange out of the corner of his eye. It looked like there was a doll swaddled and wrapped up under a bench. That was weird. His legs pumped automatically as he walked up the stairs thinking—what child would deliberately stash their baby doll under a bench like that? He looked back. The doll’s leg moved. He raced down the stairs and towards the bench. He crouched by the bench and peered at the little baby.
This year, everyone is talking about Naomi Osaka. At 23, Naomi Osaka is one of the best tennis players in the world. Literally. She is a four-time Grand Slam champion and the first Asian player to be ranked number one in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association. In May of this year, Naomi made the bold decision to skip a press conference for which she accepted a $15,000 fine, and then to skip the French Open and Wimbledon all to protect her mental health. At the time, Naomi explained that she has struggled with depression. She shared that questions at press conferences sometimes cause her to spiral into depressive states and harm her game. In response, the sports conglomerate explained how she was wrong. They fined, threatened her if she continued to refuse, told her they knew better than she what was best for her and claimed they are committed to supporting the mental health of their athletes. In other words, because these officials and organizers don’t experience crippling mental health challenges, they assumed Naomi’s experience was just like theirs. They thought about what it would be like for them to attend a press conference, they thought objectively about what happens at press conferences, and they arrived at the conclusion that Naomi’s needs were excessive and in violation of her contract. They did not consider that her reality might be different. They just punished her.
What do we do about what happened to Rabbi Shlomo Noginski on Thursday afternoon? What do we do when a man, a husband, a father of ten, an idealist, a rabbi, a teacher, who leaves his home in Israel and comes to our home, Greater Boston, where we live, where we try to have a rich and safe Jewish community, he comes here to be a sheliach, an emissary, at the Shaloh House, a teacher of Torah especially to our beloved Russian Jewish community? What do we do when such a man is stabbed multiple times, after being held up at gunpoint? What do we do when this happened two miles from here?
A few weeks ago I was in Los Angeles on a family reconnection tour seeing relatives I had not seen during the pandemic. I was speaking with my niece Megan and her husband Randy, and they shared an improbable story about a dog. Randy and Megan and their children had loved their dog, a miniature schnauzer, named Kelsie, that was a part of their family for 15 years. That is a long life in dog years. When Kelsie passed away, it was a big loss, and they mourned her. She died just as the pandemic was setting in. Pets became intensely popular during the pandemic. Cute little puppies were in great demand. Megan and her family would have wanted another dog to love, but given the great demand for puppies during the pandemic, they thought it would be a very long time until they had their new puppy. Then one night something unexpected happens. Megan is preparing dinner, getting ready to put chicken in the oven. The phone rings. It is her mother-in-law Helene who says to her: If you want a really cute puppy, a Cavapoo, come to my house right now. Off to her mother in law’s she goes.
This week, I was speaking with one of our graduating seniors and he shared a story with me that I just can’t stop thinking about. He was at a graduation party. During the festivities, he hears some kid opining about how Jews are the worst and Israel has no right to exist. His blood immediately boils, and he rushes to confront the offender. He asks the kid, “how can you say that? That’s so Anti-Semitic.” The room falls silent. Everyone is watching and listening. No one says anything. This other kid continues unperturbed. Our graduate argues with him and yells until he is so angry and so hurt that he leaves the party. Another story. In May, during the worst of the violence in Israel, a young adult who is converting to Judaism reached out to me to talk about what was happening in Gaza. She told me her friends were all hateful quotes and videos on social media and she felt caught. She unfriended a few people she wasn’t close with who were posting terrible things, but some of her closest friends were also posting problematic videos and memes. It was making her sick. She told me that she tried talking to some of her friends about it, but she didn’t know enough yet to make a compelling case and the whole situation left her feeling anxious and stressed. She wanted to know, if she was going to be a good Jew and a good Zionist, what should she do? I have these conversations all the time.
Some 45 years ago, in 1976, I saw an episode of a sitcom that I still remember today. It was an episode in the seventh and final season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show entitled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” Ted Baxter, the pompous news anchor played by Ted Knight, has a mild heart attack in the middle of delivering the evening news. After a brief stay in the hospital, he is restored to full health, a rephuah shelaimah, as we would say. But while he emerges from his cardiac incident healthy and whole, he is not the same person. The trauma changed him. He is filled with an acute sense of wonder and gratitude for blessings that he had never noticed before.
Enjoy our wonderful Rabbi Michelle Robinson's sermon from June 5, 2021
I want to tell you an odd story, not well known. I’ll call it the case of the missing mitzvah. The Hebrew Bible relates two cases when important mitzvot were lost to the Jewish people. Jews just stopped doing them, in one case for 40 years, in the other case for hundreds of years.