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.
July 22, 2023
July 15, 2023
What do we do with something that is beautiful, broken, and ours? I want to tell you a story that captures beautiful, broken and ours. The story flows from this black and white photograph that was shared at Hartman two weeks ago by Rabbi Rani Yeager. Rabbi Yeager is the rabbi of a congregation in Tel Aviv called Beit Tefilah. He is also a senior faculty member of Hartman. The photograph is of his mother as a very young child, her siblings, and her parents, Rani Yeager’s grandparents. His mother was named Hertzelina by her Zionist parents. Two things about this photograph are striking. One, the date. This photograph was taken in 1944, in Bulgaria. In 1944 the Nazis were intensifying their efforts to murder Jews. In 1944 the cattle cars to Auschwitz were going full-time. In 1944, other countries like Hungary gave up their Jews to the Nazi death machine. And yet, the second remarkable thing about this photograph is that the members of his family are smiling. Why, in 1944, was this family of Bulgarian Jews smiling? Rani Yeager’s answer is that ordinary citizens of Bulgaria refused to be Nazi accomplices. Ordinary citizens of Bulgaria protected their fellow Bulgarian citizens who were Jewish. Leadership started at the top. The head of the Bulgarian church said, publicly and clearly, that if you cooperate with Nazis, and send Jews to their deaths, you will be officially excommunicated by the Bulgarian Church. Bulgarian citizens so resisted Nazi entreaties that Albert Eichmann penned a memo saying that the hunting of Jews was not having traction in Bulgaria because Bulgarian citizens were not cooperating. Rani Yeager’s grandparents, mother, uncle and aunt were protected during the Holocaust by the decency and humanity of ordinary Bulgarian citizens, and they came to Israel after the Shoah singing the Bulgarian national anthem in their hearts. Rani Yeager carries around this photograph which captures Israel for him.
July 1, 2023
Shabbat shalom. As we say in Brooklyn on Pride Shabbat, chag sameach. I’m so jazzed to be back home as Temple Emanuel’s gay-in-residence this Shabbat. Growing up at Emanuel, Schechter, and Ramah, I was frequently asked the same question: am I a Jewish American or an American Jew. Twenty years later, I can safely say…its a really odd question for a 5th grader. The real problem with the question is that it presumes my Jewish identity and my American identity are separate. But really, they build on each other and amplify each other. Core to my Jewish identity is a belief in egalitarianism, which is only really possible in America with its multiple mainstream movements of progressive Judaism. Core to my experience of being American is the balance of the privileges of being a cis white man with the marginalization of being a religious minority. My experience of being Jewish and my experience of being American are both inextricable from the unique experience of being Jewish in America. When I came out a decade ago, I realized that my Judaism is also really related to my queer identity. We often talk about Judaism and Queerness as opposites, and how Jewish communities are not inclusive of Queer Jews. There’s a lot of truth in this, especially in how our shul can be more inclusive of trans Jews and queer Jews of color. But stopping the conversation here is like asking a 5th grader if they are a Jewish American or an American Jew. It doesn’t allow us to embrace the beautiful ways these identities can create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.
I want to tell you a story that has a coda and a second coda. The context is college baseball. If college baseball is not your thing, if you have never followed college baseball, not to worry. The story, which I heard on ESPN Daily Podcast, is about life. There is a college in North Carolina called Wake Forest, which has a historically mediocre baseball team called the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. The team last won the College World Series 70 years ago. In 2010 a man named Tom Walter became the coach at Wake Forest. The lifeblood of college athletics is recruiting star high school athletes. In Columbus, Georgia there was a star outfielder named Kevin Jordan. In baseball parlance, Kevin Jordan was a 5-tool player. He could do everything that is required to shine on a baseball diamond: hit to get on base, hit for home runs, run, throw, and play superb defense. As a teenager Kevin Jordan was one of the most highly recruited high school baseball stars. He was drafted by the New York Yankees. He was courted by the most powerful and prestigious college baseball programs, which Wake Forest was not. And he was courted by Tom Walter, the new coach of Wake Forest. As Tom Walter would put it, calling Kevin Jordan was his first call. As college coaches in all sports do, Tom Walter paid a recruiting visit to the Jordan home, meeting this young star outfielder and his parents. Tom Walter promised the parents: if Kevin comes to Wake Forest, I will take care of your child. I will watch over him. Both Kevin Jordan, and his parents, believe Tom Walter. The family made the surprising, unexpected decision to say no to the New York Yankees; to say no to the college powerhouse programs; and to say yes to a mediocre college baseball program that had last won a College World Series in the 1950s. They did so based on their intuition that Tom Walter was a mensch. Roll the film forward. In Kevin Jordan’s senior year in high school, he started to lose weight. He could not eat. He could not hold anything down. He became slower, weaker. He went to lots of doctors, and they could not diagnose his problem. Meanwhile, his performance on the baseball diamond dropped precipitously. That fall he went to Wake Forest to begin his freshman year. He no longer looked or acted like the superstar athlete he once was. He was very sick. At last he was diagnosed with having a rare auto immune kidney disease. He was in kidney failure. He took 35 pills a day, and was on dialysis three times a week, just to be able to stay alive. The only way he would survive is if he were to get a kidney transplant. But there was a problem. There is far greater need for kidneys than availability of kidneys. If a person needs a kidney transplant, but does not have a kidney donor, they go on a list, which is very crowded with other people who also need kidneys. Kevin Jordan did not have time. If he did not get a kidney, he was not going to survive. All the members of his family were tested, but there was no match. Tom Walter stepped up and said: I’ll get tested. Long story short, Tom Walter was a match, and when he discovered that he was a match, he did not hesitate. He agreed immediately that he would donate one of his kidneys to Kevin Jordan.
What character in the Hebrew Bible says, “kill me now”? What character is so burnt out, so dark inside, so spent, so worn down, that he does not want to live any more and literally says “kill me now”? The answer is Moses in our reading this morning. Usually the Torah says nothing about its characters’ interior lives. When God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham says hineni, here I am, ready to do the deed. What was he thinking? What was he feeling? The Torah does not say. In stark contrast, in today’s reading, upon hearing the Israelites complain for the umpteenth time, upon hearing their revisionist history that they used to eat fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic for free in the land of Egypt, upon hearing their demand for meat when there was no meat to be had, Moses finally lets God have it: And Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them…I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me now, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness. Numbers 11:11-15. We need to pay attention to this passage. Moses had an interior life, and his interior life was not being tended to, and as a result, he was in a deeply dark place. What is true for Moses is true for all of us. We all have interior lives. Jewish language for that is neshamah, soul. We all have a soul. And we need to tend to our soul lest we become burnt out, anxious, depressed.
For our last Talmud class of the year we want to leave you with a question to ponder about asymmetry—an asymmetry between Israeli Jews and American Jews. For its 75th, Israel had a contest for what Israeli song best captures Israel? Israelis voted for the winner: a song that was composed in 1982 called ein li eretz acheret, I have no other land. Here are some questions: What is the essential message of this song? What is it about this song that inspires Israelis to vote for it as conveying the Israeli condition? What language, what adjective, would you use to describe the rendition of this song in the video, accompanied by photos of life in Israel? The song, the lyrics, the video, all suggest a deep purpose and blessing, and a deep cost and heaviness, to living in Israel, but the narrator has no other choice: I have no other country. With all its challenges, with all the blood, sweat and tears, with all the wars and terrorism, with all the Israelis who have died in battle or from acts of terrorism, it is the only country they’ve got. But we’ve got another country, imperfect though it may be. When the going in Israel gets tough, we have another home to come home to. Their 18-year olds do military service in places like Gaza and Jenin. Ours go off to college. How do we think about that asymmetry? Is that just a fact of nature, like gravity. Or do we have a decision to make about how to think about and act in the face of this asymmetry?
I promise that in the fullness of time I will, one day, give a sermon that is not about the Boston Celtics. But today is not that day. We have to process Game 7. What happened on the court Monday night was not just a sad basketball story, if you happen to be a Celtics fan. It was also a confusing, perplexing human story. How do we understand our team losing the first three games, including two at home, and then winning the next three games, including two on the road? How do we understand the Celtics’ stunning, last tenth of a second victory in Miami on Saturday night, and then their utter collapse at the Garden on Monday night? So hot, so cold. So dialed in, so not dialed in. So inspiring, so disappointing. Same team. Same players. Same coach. Same week. I had a friend who was at the game. OK, it’s Matt Hills, and he and Lisa were at the Garden instead of the Gann Chapel, which is why the team lost. But I digress. Matt observed that the teams’ body language told the story. The Miami Heat players were focused and intense. The Celtics were listless. The intense team of Saturday night became the listless team on Monday night. I always think of this as the sudden stranger syndrome. What happens when somebody you think you know, somebody you know and love, starts acting so strangely that they become a stranger to you. You think who are you? I don’t quite recognize you.
Why do we do what we do as Jews? What is a mitzvah? Is it a nice thing to do, a commandment, or a cultural folkway of the Jewish people? If we don't believe in a commanding God, can we believe in commandment? If not, how can Judaism make any demands upon us? And if we do not allow our faith to make demands upon us, is it too thin and weak to be of consequence? These were the questions that came up in last week's class about the essay by Elliot Cosgrove entitled "A Choosing People" published in Sources (Spring 2023). Rabbi Cosgrove diagnosed the problem: "The Jews I serve are not halakhic Jews living lives bound by Jewish law." p. 11. What to do about this reality remains elusive. Enter the very next article in Sources written by Rabbi Leon A. Morris, President of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem (and son in love to our own Joel Berkowitz), entitled "In Defense of Surrender in Liberal Jewish Life." This is a fascinating piece conveying an important distinction that was new to me--and potentially very useful to us. Citing the work of psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent, Rabbi Morris distinguishes between surrender and submission: Ghent defined surrender as "a quality of liberation and expansion of the self as a corollary to the letting down of defensive barriers." Rather than abandoning or rejecting the self, surrender's "ultimate direction is the discovery of one's identity, one's sense of self, one's sense of wholeness, even one's sense of unity with other living beings." Ghent defines submission in sharp contrast to the notion of surrender. Submission allows a person to be controlled by another's power while one's own distinct sense of identity is weakened... What we really desire is to be able to surrender our lives to a larger force, not to be controlled by someone else. p. 22 Rabbi Morris shows how we surrender to larger forces all the time in order to fulfill our deepest purposes. Parents surrender to the needs of their children. Children surrender to the needs of their elderly parents. Architects and artists surrender to the "boundaries, borders and limits" of their fields to produce their designs and their art. p. 28.cHow might this concept of surrender (familiar to us in these other contexts) intersect with our quest for a thick and rich Judaism that imposes boundaries, borders and limits on our lives, and in so doing, creates beauty, meaning, community, and deep relationship?
Rabbi Samuel Chiel, of blessed memory, used to say: the Jewish people are not superstitious…kenahorah. Recently I was an eyewitness to the birth, the thriving, and the death of a superstition…kenahora. It happened in our evening minyan in the Gann Chapel, and it concerned the seating arrangement of two of our evening minyan regulars, Grant Finkel and Lisa Hills. Every night Grant sits in the section to the left, facing the bimah, in the second row. Every night Lisa Hills sits in the section to the right, facing the bimah, in the first row. That is how it has been forever. But one night, for whatever reason, only God knows, Grant Finkel sat next to Lisa Hills in the first row of her section. He had never sat there before. And do you know what happened as a result? I’ll tell you what happened. The Celtics won that night. They were in the midst of a playoff series. Their play had been inconsistent. The previous game they had not played so well in the fourth quarter and lost. But the night that Grant sat next to Lisa, the Celtics won a tough game on the road. Obviously, they won because Grant sat where he sat. The next night, as folks walked into Gann at about 7:28, we said to Grant: sit next to Lisa again. He did. And the Celtics won again. The next night, at 7:28, as folks walked in, Lisa and Grant came in as usual. But on this particular night Lisa’s husband Matt Hills also came in. We said to him: scram! You can’t sit next to your wife. The Celtics are playing! Sit a few seats away from your wife so that Grant’s magical powers continue to lift up the Celtics. Matt himself is a big Celtics fan. As it happens, that very night he was wearing a Celtics t-shirt. He happily complied. Grant sat next to Lisa. The Celtics won. Then came the Miami series.
This Shabbat is the second day of Shavuot—a good time to think about our relationship to the Torah as a source of law (halakhah) that is supposed to shape how we live every day. Problem: For most of us, it doesn’t. The Torah says: keep kosher. Many of us don’t. The Torah says: observe Shabbat. For many of us, Saturday is not Shabbat but another weekend day, not particularly distinguishable from Sunday. The Torah (as the rabbis interpret it) says: we are obligated to pray daily. Many of us don’t. Perhaps we come to shul when we have a Yahrtzeit, or when we are invited to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an auf ruf. But few of us actually believe we are required to pray every day. Witness that in our congregation of almost 4,000 souls, we average 20 to 40 people at our daily minyanim. The Torah we received at Sinai posits a commanding God whose commands we are obligated to observe. Few, if any of us, believe in that commanding God. There is a disconnect between the commanding God we are supposed to believe in and the autonomous lives we lead, where we do what we want to do, when we want to do it. How do we understand this disconnect? Can we solve for it, or at least ameliorate it? To consider these questions, please read the attached article by Elliot Cosgrove, the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, “A Choosing People,” published in Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, Spring 2023. In addition, Rabbi Cosgrove was in dialogue with Yehuda Kurtzer in this recent podcast. Rabbi Cosgrove asserts: While the language of “obligation” may have run its course, “commandedness” has not. The performance of mitzvot as an expression of service to God remains a powerful driver for Jewish practice. Can we resuscitate commandedness as a relevant category in our religious lives? If not, do you have an elegant theory that explains why you do what you do as a Jew? What is your personal definition of the word mitzvah?
May 20, 2023
Shira and I spent the last two weeks of December at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem being with our father. While attending to a loved one in these circumstances is obviously painful, at the same time, we marveled at how day-to-day life at Hadassah Hospital felt not only like Israel at its best, but almost like the fulfillment of prophetic visions of peace, of the lion and lamb dwelling together in harmony. The patients, doctors, nurses, medical crews, cleaning and maintenance crews, cashiers in the restaurants and cafes, represent the enormous diversity of Israel: Haredi, religious Zionists, secular Israelis, Arab Israelis, Palestinian Israelis, Druse, side by side, in harmony. We were there during Hanukkah. Every night we would go to the community room on our floor and light candles with all the above. Outside of Hadassah, there would have been no connection. Inside of Hadassah, there was no distance. The only Haredi Israelis I have ever talked to were at Hadassah Hospital. We are so blessed this Shabbat to have with us Hadassah’s head nurse, Rely Alon. Michelle, Elias and Dan will be in dialogue with Rely to ask her: Why do complex human relationships work so well in spite of difference at Hadassah, and not outside Hadassah? What can the rest of Israel and the Jewish people learn from Hadassah?
Dan is a board member of Repair the World (Jewish engagement through service) and the Friends of the Arava Institute (bringing Arabs and Jews together in Israel to address environmental and climate issues). He is a long-time member of Temple Emanuel and has, over the years, volunteered with other Jewish organizations, including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, JCDS, the Newton Centre Minyan, and Our Generation Speaks. In his free time, Dan created a software package for calculating income tax, as well as software to help attorneys and individuals with the financial aspects of divorce.