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.
I love Thanksgiving. It’s a little early, I know. But every year, November comes, and all I can think about is Thanksgiving. I’m going to see my family soon. We’re going to eat turkey and cranberry sauce green beans and sweet potatoes and pies…there was the year I almost got stopped by TSA for bringing too many pies back…I didn’t know they’re considered a liquid. I love all the sweet memories I have of Thanksgivings from my childhood, when we used to gather in my Aunt Vanessa and Uncle Allan’s restaurant, the River Sage, in Evergreen, Colorado or at my grandparents table with the giant mirror. Four years ago, I loved Thanksgiving even more when Solomon proposed to me, and we got to celebrate our engagement with my whole family in Colorado. I loved Thanksgiving three years ago because we were just married and reveling in the blessing of getting to celebrate with everyone we love. This year, every time I think of Thanksgiving I want to cry. After so many months of infertility purgatory, this year we get to go home to Colorado with our little PB—that’s what we’re calling our little one before they make their appearance this spring. Thanksgiving has never felt sweeter. And then, the other day, while scrolling through Hulu, I came across Padma Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Hulu suggested I watch an episode filmed right here in Martha’s Vineyard called “Truth and the Turkey Tale.” The show was incredibly powerful.
Some hypotheticals: After his lengthy prison term, Harvey Weinstein joins Temple Emanuel and wants to come to services. He says I now get it. I was wrong. Would you sit next to him? We receive a generous check from Jeffrey Epstein to be used by the Temple in any way we wish, and anonymously, no need to publish his gift. He writes I now get it. I was wrong. Would you accept his gift? After referring his 4.6 million followers to a vile Jew-hating movie that denies the Shoah, and after refusing to apologize for it, and after refusing to state that he has no anti-Semitic beliefs, Kyrie Irving goes on March of the Living. He goes to Auschwitz. He goes to Israel. He comes back and says I now get it. I was wrong. Would you support the Nets reinstating him? Would you now root for him? Is teshuvah always available to right our wrongs? Or do we ever reach a point of no return where teshuvah is not possible? It is a complicated question, and the evidence of the Torah is mixed. The concept of teshuvah is late, late, late, not until Deuteronomy chapter 30. Before then, the basic concept is that sinners pay the price. Adam and Eve are banished along with a host of other punishments. And in the reading tomorrow about Sodom, the categories are tzadik and rashah, translated by JPS as innocent and guilty, also translated as righteous and evil. That is a binary. What about people doing teshuvah and changing their ways? Teshuvah is not on the table in the Sodom story. Why not? There is a famous story in the Talmud where Rabbi Meir was attacked by brigands. He prayed that they would die. His wife Beruria took him to task. Wrong prayer, she said. Better instead to pray that they change their ways and sin no more. The issue comes to a point in the closing line of psalm 104: yitamu chataim min haaretz u’reshaim od einam, which is translated in very different ways by our siddur and our JPS Tanakh. Siddur: “Let sins disappear from the earth and the wicked will be no more.” Tanakh: “May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked be no more.” Are Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Kyrie Irving human beings who committed sins; or are they sinners? Do we ever reach a point of no return, and if so, when and what is that point of no return? Are we a healthier religion if we teach that there is a point of no return? Watch it. Live with an active awareness of it.
This past Monday morning I got both an email and a text from my wife Shira, who was out of town. I knew it was trouble when the first word of both the email and the text was honey. Honey means that she is about to ask me to do something she knows I won’t want to do. Honey, today is Halloween. And I know you just got home from an overnight flight from Israel. But we don’t want to be Scrooge. We don’t want to be the only dark house on our street. So please go to CVS and buy candy, and turn on the lights to let the kids in the neighborhood know that you are so happy to give out the candy on Halloween. XXOO Me. How can I say no to an email that begins with honey and ends with XXOO Me?
We live in an anxious age. If it is hard for you to watch the news, what lenses does our tradition offer to help us make sense of it all? Tomorrow we are going to look at the two models that we are in the middle of reading in shul: Noah, who seeks refuge in his ark, away from the pain of the world (Click here), and Abraham, singled out by God to do justice and righteousness (Click here). The Noah principle is so tempting, and that is where many of us live, in our zip code, worried about the world, but insulated from its harshest features. 02459 and the other zip codes of our congregation are an ark. We can read about the horrors of the world without, for the most part, experiencing them on the front lines. Noah is no child’s story. Noah captures the reality of withdrawal from a world that feels impossible to fix and too painful to face. We do Noah, pretty much every day. But is more expected of us, and if so, what? The Abraham principle is so daunting. The classic question is: why Abraham? What did he do to deserve the covenant? The classic answer, which we will study tomorrow, is that when he saw a world on fire, he felt summoned to do something about it. Put out the fire. Restore the building. Sounds good. Seems hard to argue with. But if we take that midrash seriously, what does it call upon us to do, particularly if the problems we see as most vexing do not admit of any solution that we can bring. We don’t have answers, but we do have helpful lenses.
October 29, 2022
Join Sisterhood and the TE community to hear Ed Shapiro speak on the current refugee resettlement crisis: “The Ukrainian Refugee Situation and what Americans Can Do”. Edward Shapiro is the Managing Trustee for The Shapiro Foundation, a Boston-based charitable foundation started in 2000 by Ed and his wife and now focusing on community-based refugee resettlement. Ed is also actively involved in many national and international nonprofits involved with refugee matters.
Why Moses’s Final Words Call Out to Us With Special Urgency Right Now This past week, in anticipation of Simchat Torah, I was drawn to a granular question that I had never thought about before: namely, what are Moses’s very last words before he dies? The portion we read on Simchat Torah contains Moses’s final farewell speech. He blesses all the tribes of Israel one by one, offering them final words suited to their story. When he is done blessing the last tribe, he has one last thing to say to the Jewish people. What is it? When I examined the text, I was surprised by what I found. Here are his final words: Your enemies shall come cringing before you, And you shall tread on their backs. Deuteronomy 33:29. Curious. Enemies come cringing before you. You shall tread on their backs. What enemies? What does treading on their backs even mean? Rashi, the classic commentator, explains that it means: “Put your feet upon the necks of these enemy kings.” Not what I would have expected.
One of the most evocative figures in the Torah does not get much attention because his brief appearance is embedded in a dry genealogy. His name is Methuselah. When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he begot Lamech. After the birth of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and begot sons and daughters. All the days of Methuselah came to 969 years; then he died. (Genesis 5:25-27). Methuselah is famous for two things. He lived the longest of any biblical figure. Moses lived until 120, Methuselah until 969. But Methuselah is known for nothing beyond his length of years. If he touched somebody’s life, if he made the world better, if he inspired love, the Torah contains no record of it. By contrast, the composer Jonathan Larson, most famous for writing the musical Rent and dying at the age of 35 the night of its first performance, inspired this gorgeous song from Rent, sung by Leslie Odom, Jr. called Without You. (Click here for the video) The thesis is: life goes on, as it must, without you, but I am not the same without you because of the deep impact you have had on me. (Click here for lyrics) We have just left the High Holiday season with its message that we do not get to control how much time we have, we can only control what we do with the time we’ve got. We are now entering a month without holidays, a season of ordinary days. The most important question for us all: what do we do with our ordinary days that turn them into days of impact? What are we doing that can inspire the love of the song Without You? Who will sing that song for us, and what have we done to earn that song? In his classic When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, Harold Kushner lays out three things we can do every day (Click here for text). Hopefully, that will not be our question until 120. But asking that question now can invest our years with their greatest joy, blessing, and impact.
I recently attended a wedding where the bride and groom shared beautiful vows under the chuppah. Both of their words were poignant, but the bride’s words landed especially powerfully for me. The bride offered that in general she is nervous. She is anxious. She is a worrier. She is nervous about money. Nervous about her career. Nervous about where they are going to live, what they are going to do. Nervous about health. But, she said, the one thing she has never been nervous about is marrying her beloved. She always knew that marrying him was just right, a rare oasis in an otherwise anxious world.
Should we be judged on the basis of our finest moments, our worst moments, or our final moments? Do our worst moments vitiate our finest? Or should we properly consider our worst moments part of a complex package of our flawed humanity—but without the power to diminish the good we have also done? Case in point: King Solomon, who starts out so bright, and ends up thoroughly corrupted.
Serendipity. When was the last time that you personally experienced serendipity? Serendipity is defined as something good happening to you accidentally. The classic case is finding a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of a coat you haven’t worn in a while. When you find that twenty-dollar bill, you weren’t looking for it, you just find it, it sparks joy, maybe even the feeling that there is some benign force that has our back. But is serendipity limited to something good happening to us accidentally? Is there any way to exercise some agency over serendipity? Is there any way for us to make serendipity happen?
Let’s draft off the energy of Yom Kippur. We are back in person on Shabbat morning. Please join us for coffee, conversation, and community as we discuss a Norman Rockwell Sukkot. One of Norman Rockwell’s classic paintings—it commands its own room in the Norman Rockwell Museum in the Berkshires—is a family Thanksgiving feast entitled Freedom From Want. Follow this link. A family gathered happily together. A turkey ready to be gobbled up. Fine china. Fine stemware. Big smiles. Warmth. Home. Safety. Security. Plenty. There is only one problem. The year of the painting is 1943. America is in the middle of World War II. After Pearl Harbor. Before Omaha Beach. By the way, the Holocaust is happening. How are we to think about this family’s feast in the middle of World War II and the Holocaust? Is their celebration of plenty the right move morally, or the wrong move? What impact should the war and the Shoah have had on their feast? Should they have feasted as if World War II and the Shoah were not occurring (which seems to be the case)? Look at the easy smiles on their faces. Should they have canceled their feast due to the sorrows of the world? Should they have had their feast, but done some readings to acknowledge the war and the Holocaust that were both happening that very day? This theme—how do you do daily life when the world is in tumult—is a recurrent theme for Norman Rockwell. A companion painting, also a classic, entitled Freedom From Fear, shows parents putting children to bed, domestic tranquility, parents grounding their children in the serenity of home and hearth, while the father holds a newspaper that has headlines about the war. Follow this link. Roll the film forward to 2022. Roll the film forward to Sukkot which begins Sunday night. If we sit in our Sukkah smiling and enjoying our festival meal, eating our fine food, drinking our fine wine, making pleasant conversation, is that a problem given the problems of the world? As just one small example, the New York Times Daily catalogues the infinite misery engulfing Pakistan as a result of biblical-like floods that are causing death, devastation, and hunger on a massive scale. How do we think about enjoying our holiday when there is so much pain in the world? What do Jewish sources teach us about navigating this tension between the world in grief and our world as sanctuary from the world in grief?
This summer I studied with my 94-year-old father-in-love a classic text that I had encountered before, but seeing it at the age of 61, I saw something I had never seen before, which now seems obvious. We were studying Robert Frost’s poem about being at the crossroads which famously concludes: I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. What I picked up this summer is the narrator’s lingering uncertainty, wistfulness, regret, about whether the decision at the crossroads was the right decision. The title jumped out at me this summer: The Road Not Taken. The sigh jumped out at me: I shall be telling this with a sigh. Maybe I messed up. Maybe I should have taken the road not taken.
Erin Alexander sat crying in her car in the Target parking lot. Her beloved sister-in-love had just passed away suddenly, and she was overwhelmed with grief. When the worst of it had passed, she wiped away her tears and decided to stop by Starbucks to get some green tea before attempting to complete her errand. As soon as she opened the Starbucks door, she could tell the barista was not having a good day. She kept explaining to customers that the espresso machine was broken and was trying her best to accommodate their caffeine requirements with workarounds, but was clearly stressed and struggling to keep up. When it was her turn in line, Erin smiled as brightly as she could and told the barista to “hang in there.” A few minutes later, when she picked up her iced green tea, she was surprised to see a message scrawled on the side of the cup. “Erin,” it read, “your soul is golden.” That barista didn’t know her sister-in-love had died, she didn’t know how rough it had been to get through every day or the strength it was taking just to face an errand to Target, but that message meant everything to Erin. As she shared recently with the New York Times, “that little thing made the rest of my day.”
In October 1973, singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen was hating his life. He struggled with depression. He struggled with drugs like acid and LSD. He had had a child with a woman to whom he was not married, and he struggled with monogamy. His creativity was stymied. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t find joy in performing. At 39 he felt he was past his prime, that he should retire. In his own words, that he should “shut up.” As Leonard Cohen was in the throes of his mid-life crisis, Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973. Israel was unprepared for this war. The initial weeks were brutal. Israel’s air force, so dominant six years earlier, was dramatically undermined by new Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Israeli ground troops suffered horrendous casualties. These two stories—Leonard Cohen’s personal crisis, and Israel’s national crisis—came together because somehow, in the midst of the war, Leonard Cohen decided to go to Israel. The day he arrived, he went to a Tel Aviv café to ponder his next steps. Just then, a group of Israeli singers walked by. One of the singers, named Ilana Rovina, recognized him. Are you Leonard Cohen? I am. What are you doing in Israel? I don’t know, I’m not sure, but I think I will go to a kibbutz. Why don’t you join us? We are going to the Sinai to sing to the fighters. We’d love you to join us. I don’t have a guitar.