Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spotify and Synagogues: A Meditation on the Synagogue

What follows is the written text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon exploring why we need the synagogue.

I would like to speak this morning about ancient history. On this Rosh Hashanah I wish to meditate on history and wonder aloud about our future. For this occasion I have unearthed a number of artifacts. Here is the first show and tell item. It is of course a record album, an exhibit of classic vinyl. I uncovered this in my basement buried in the boxes from our move eleven years ago to our current home. There remain my albums stacked neatly in the moving boxes, never again to be unpacked until this very moment. Some of my younger students might be marveling at this object. Yes, this is what I once used to play music. To put this in contemporary terms, this double album contains 26 songs, a mere fraction of the 1,000 songs presently on my iPhone.

This of course is no ordinary album. It is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I recall the discussions when this album came out. It was the most ancient of days. The year was 1979. There was the excitement and enthusiasm of that moment when in December of that year I finally got my hands on the album. I held the prize in my fingers. My friends and I marveled at the cover graphics. We even argued about the hidden meanings found in the track order. As those Saturday evenings would drag on into Sunday mornings, we would run back and forth to the turntable to replay track 6 of side 3. (“Hello, hello, hello…Is anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone at home.”)

That’s what it was like in ancient days. That was the experience of listening to music. Some might be looking at this relic, especially those on our Israel Committee, and saying, “Did he have to pick Pink Floyd? Did the rabbi have to choose Roger Waters given his hatred of Israel and his activism in the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)? I pledge we will examine these issues in more detail on Yom Kippur. This album remains a world to its own. I recall those days with fondness when I hold it in my hands.

But what of music today? It has been a mere thirteen years since the invention of the iPod. My current b’nai mitzvah students know of no other world. We shared music in ancient times not on Facebook but by making mix tapes. That is how we shared our love of Pink Floyd or the Eagles or if we want to march into the 80’s, Squeeze and the Talking Heads. (“You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack… And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”) And now even downloading music is a thing of the past. What was revolutionary a decade ago, our children by and large no longer do. There is Spotify and Grooveshark. For a mere $10 per month I can have access to 20 million songs. Gone is the sense of holding the music in my hands. Gone is the sense of owning music. For my young students music is only shared. It is about playlists and individual songs rather than albums and tracks. It is about Facebook discussions like “I can’t believe Steven Moskowitz is listening to Hotel California again.”

I hold now a second piece of history in my hands. This is a book. I would like to think that this is not yet ancient history, but I wonder what the future holds for the book in the fast paced digital age? The movement from scrolls, with which we of course still read, to those few, precious books made for wealthy individuals to the mass production of books by Gutenberg in 1440 helped to democratize learning. And yet the piles of books, the rows upon rows of filled to overflowing bookshelves are no longer the most common feature of a Jewish home. My Kindle, this small little device, can hold over 1,000 books. I can have access to a library of books on my iPhone.

Lest this sound like another advertisement, for another $10 per month I can have unlimited access to 700,000 books. Then again there is something about the feel of a book in the hand. The People of the eReader does not have the same ring to it. And this book that I clutch is again no ordinary book. It is my prized collection of Emily Dickinson poems. There is of course an Emily Dickinson app given that she is among this country’s greatest poets, but a book represents a journey, a book tells a story separate even from its words.

And I can tell you the story of my discovery of this book. I had boarded the subway to make my journey uptown from Penn Station when I looked up from my folded paper (remember how we used to fold the paper so as not poke the person next to us) to discover this sign called Poetry in Motion. Launched by the MTA and the Poetry Society of America in 1992 the subway cars were now decorated not only with advertisements but poems. And there I read “Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –.”’ I did not know then that poem #254 could so capture my heart. I exited the subway to find a bookstore and purchase this book: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. I recall that each and every time I hold this book in my hands and discover another of her lines. Among the dog-eared pages I find again “A smile so small as mine might be/Precisely their necessity –“ (#1391).

Leafing through the pages of these poems I continue the journey. For my children their journeys will be very different. Children’s journeys are of course supposed to be different than their parent’s. Books might no longer line their shelves but the written word, I hope and pray, will continue to stimulate their minds and penetrate the soul. Still I wonder what might be lost without a book under their arms, without books lining their shelves. How will they still leaf through pages and discover anew a poem to stir the soul?

The third show and tell item in this meditation on history I cannot even wrap my hands around. It is the synagogue. It is likewise undergoing radical transformations. Like music and poetry, it too is ancient yet changing. What will the synagogue be like in an age when so much is shared for such little expense? People might not be asking this question so directly but I see it forming on their lips. They ask, if I can have all access to music and books for $10 per month why can’t I have all access to Judaism for just as little? And so here is my response to why the synagogue must survive. Before we can even answer this question we must ask a more basic question: why be Jewish. So let me tell you straight out. Why be Jewish.?  Because Judaism offers a path of meaning. Because Judaism tackles questions with which we are still wrestling. Because Judaism offers a road to bring healing to the world.

These answers are uncovered in the book. The answer is unfurled in the edges of a scroll. And that takes some work to uncover. Let’s be honest if you want something akin to the convenience of eReaders and iPhones you can go elsewhere. You can find a tutor to come to your house. You can hire a “rabbi” who will officiate at a bar or bat mitzvah three months from now. If you just want the ceremony you can do that. But synagogue is first and foremost about community. Hebrew School is a misnomer. It is not about learning Hebrew as much as it is about teaching our children to attach themselves to their community and to fall in love with their faith. That is why it matters that they sit across the table from others. Learning is not a solitary activity for the Jew. It is done with others. Sure you can read by yourself. Sure you can even practice your alef-bet by yourself. But you can only truly learn with others.

This is why as well learning is supposed to be a life long pursuit. That in a nutshell is one of the reasons why I run away to Jerusalem every summer. So I can study surrounded by others, so that my head can be filled with the arguments and debates that have sustained our people. And why must we learn? Because we believe that Torah is meant to better the world. I don’t mean to suggest that we should convert the world to being Jewish, but I do mean to say that if Judaism is to matter it has to matter not just for ourselves and our own individual needs, but it has to matter for the world. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the unparalleled 20th century rabbi, remarked, “To be a Jew is either superfluous or essential…. Hence we learn the purpose of Jewish existence: we are obligated to live lives that will become Torah, lives that are Torah.” (Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul)

If Torah is only about lighting candles 18 minutes before sunset or about answering questions such as is this oven kosher or not and not about is it ethical to lay off employees so as to increase the stock price, is it moral to wage war against ISIS, then it is meaningless. Torah must be relevant for our lives today. It must have meaning for the here and now. If Torah is only about personal meaning and not even more importantly about the betterment of the world, then it loses its significance. If it remains here and does not venture to the streets, to our offices, to our homes then it lacks profound truth. We must live lives that become Torah.

Do you want to know why we should survive? Here is why. The world desperately needs these answers or at the very least a place where we can debate these questions. Do you want to know why the synagogue must survive? It is the address where these values are learned and re-engaged; it is where community is fostered and Torah is brought to the world.

That is why the synagogue was created. 2,000 years ago there was only one address to be Jewish. The only address was the Temple in Jerusalem. There we would bring our sacrifices to the priest to be offered on the Temple’s altar. There was no local address for Judaism in each and every town. It was centralized in the Temple. And then in 70 CE the Romans destroyed the Temple and nearly wiped us out completely when they leveled Jerusalem. All that remains of that grand structure is the Kotel, the Western Wall. Out of that tragedy the synagogue was born. The rabbis developed a portable faith that was independent of place that was separated from even the holiest of places. We could go anywhere. All we needed was a book, the Torah, and the songs of our prayers. Even more importantly all we needed was each other. Synagogue comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Beit Knesset, a house of assembly. What makes a synagogue a synagogue is not a building but the people. If you have the required ten, you have a synagogue, whether you are in Jerusalem, or Brookville or Jericho or Oyster Bay.

The Rabbis fashioned Judaism out of the Bible; they made wandering and journeying part of the enterprise. They recognized that even though we might, until realizing this dream in the present day, longed for Jerusalem, our lot would be to wander throughout the lands. In each city, in every town, in all the countries of our dispersion, the synagogue became the primary address for teaching Torah, for bringing Torah to successive generations and the world at large. We would forever be wanderers. We would forever journey. We would learn new things in every land, we would discover new truths in every city and we would relearn our ancient teachings in the synagogue, now on Temple Lane. In a way we carried the synagogue, as we carry a book, from place to place. We held it in our hands. We carried its meaning in our hearts. We marveled at its architecture. We looked at the album cover. We continue to wander.

The Torah is of course on its most literal level about a journey. First it tells the story about the discovery of God. Abraham looks up and realizes that there can only be one God who made the heavens and the earth. It is then about God responding to our suffering and freeing us from Egypt. But it is mostly about 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. That is the majority of the story. It is about the trials and misfortunes of the longest camping trip ever described. “Moses, I can’t believe you forgot to pack more food!” the people scream over and over again. But it is worth the journey, and the grumblings and the complaining, because there is a promise of a new home in the land of Israel. And then on the shores of the Jordan River, Moses gives one final speech followed by another final speech filled with advice, but mostly filled with warnings about what to do and of course mostly what not to do. And then he dies. God buries him on Mount Nebo.

And the Torah then does the most surprising of things. It ends. The Torah concludes on the wrong side of the river. It ends with the promise unfulfilled, with the dream unrealized. Our most important book ends with the journey incomplete. And what do we do? We roll the scroll back to the beginning and start reading the story all over again. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…” In the synagogue and the Torah reading cycle that is central to this institution we ritualize the journey over the destination. The journey always continues we remind ourselves year after year. On Simhat Torah we sing for joy not because we have arrived at some destination but because we can begin again. The wandering always continues.

People think that the synagogue is fixed, that is immovable and never changing. People think that a synagogue is a building. It is not. The building is a tool. It serves the congregation. It must never become the other way around. This is the most important lesson I learned, and I hope all of us learned, from our fifteen years of wandering and schleping the Torah scroll all over Long Island. I never felt it inauthentic to serve a congregation without its own building, I never felt that we were anything less than even the grandest and oldest of synagogues. Having our own building makes the teaching easier. You don’t have to wonder anymore where your rabbi is. The address is clear. It is simpler.

But with this simplicity comes some dangers. Will we become overly focused on the building? Will we lose sight of what has made us a holy congregation? Will we lose sight of the people who have made this a special and unique community? The great Hasidic rabbi, the Kotzker rebbe taught: To what is the one who looks out only for himself and his (or her) own perfection compared to? To a tzaddik in a fur coat. If the house is cold and a person wishes to warm himself, he has two choices: to light a fire or put on the fur coat. What is the difference between lighting a fire and putting on the fur? When the fire is lit, I am warm as well as others. We are warmed when I light a fire. When I put on the fur coat only I am warm. We must remain on guard never to become that tzaddik who wraps himself in a fur coat and fails to help light the fire that warms all.

The St Louis congregation in which I grew up recently celebrated its 140th anniversary. That may appear really old, but 140 years is a mere speck on the Jewish timeline. Each synagogue only gains its ancient voice because it does not stand alone. It is tied to all other synagogues, some of which are no more, others of which continue to thrive, some of which are brand new. The synagogue moves through history. Movement is part of its very nature. Think about prayer, another central feature of synagogue life. We stand up and sit down. We bow and bend our knees. We beat our chests on Yom Kippur. The Hasidic masters sway to and fro, moving their bodies to the rhythm of prayer. And I have heard that on the North Shore of Long Island some even dance to their prayers. We continue to move.

I worry that some might think that the journey is now complete. We have arrived at a building. We have survived the wandering. But the journey continues. The holy work of fashioning community forever marches on.

We need the synagogue. Why? Because we need each other. The point of community is to enlarge our circle of friends and solidify our friendships. You can only teach the value of community with others, with peers. That is the essence of minyan, the quorum required for prayer. While the synagogue was a response to a catastrophic change, an answer to the question of how are we going to keep being Jewish without a center, it was also a response to a need. The spirit will always require a poem to stir its being. The soul will always need music and song, no matter the cover.

The Jewish spirit is nurtured by the synagogue. It is this institution that gives it life, that nurtures our souls and brings the values of Torah to the world.

There is a legend about the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. It is about its windows. Ancient buildings like the castles and churches we visit throughout Europe constructed their windows so as to funnel the natural light from the outside in. In other words the windows cut into the building’s thick stonewalls were wider on the outside and thinner on the inside. The Temple’s windows were the opposite. They were larger on the inside. Their purpose was to funnel the light from the inside to the outside, to bring the meaning and content gained within to the world at large. That is the purpose of the synagogue: to bring light to the outside, to build a fire together to warm the community. The purpose is to bring Torah to the world.

As much as we are overjoyed about our new building, it is really not about the building. The building is not the dream. The building serves the dream.

Back to Pink Floyd. “All in all it was all just bricks in the wall. All in all you were all just bricks in the wall.”

It is not the building. It is something far grander and more eternal. It is the light that comes from within.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rosh Hashanah and Rekindling Our Story

A story. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was legendary in his ability to beseech God and thereby gain protection for his people. On one occasion, when the people of his town faced a grave danger the Baal Shem Tov left his modest home and walked deep into the forest. He found there a particular spot and kindled a fire. As he sat by the warmth of the fire, he recited a prayer asking for God’s protection and care. The great rebbe arrived back to town and discovered the threat had passed. Everyone believed that it was the Baal Shem Tov’s actions that had saved the community.

Some time later the Jews of the town again found themselves facing danger. Their rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, remembered what his teacher had done a generation earlier. He resolved to do the same. He walked deep into the forest, found the exact same spot, and likewise kindled a fire. Then he realized that he did not remember the words of the Baal Shem Tov’s prayer. And so he sat by the fire and meditated on God’s protective nature. Once again the danger passed and the town was spared.

A generation later the same situation arose. Again the Jewish community felt threatened by its neighbors. The leader of the community, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple’s disciple, went into the forest. He soon discovered that he did not know where in the forest to go and he also did not know the words of the master’s prayer. Still he found a spot and lit a fire. And again the danger passed and the community survived.

The Rhizener rebbe, four generations after the Baal Shem Tov, found himself facing a similar struggle. He did not know the prayer. He did not know the place in the forest. He did not even know in which forest the Baal Shem Tov prayed so many generations earlier. He did not know how to light the special fire. What did he do? He told the story of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. The community was once again spared.

Sometimes all we require is a story.

Rosh Hashanah is about retelling our stories. It is about reconnecting with our past. It is about rekindling the fire.

Whether we know the exact place or even the words of every prayer, we are united by our common story.

On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed…

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Nitzavim-Vayelech and Hidden Good

There is a legend about thirty-six righteous individuals who are so good and so noble that the world is sustained by their deeds. They are called the Lamed Vavniks (the Hebrew letters lamed and vav add up to thirty six). Crucial to this legend is the fact that their identities must always remain obscured. If but one of their names is revealed, another must take his place. Otherwise the world might teeter and even collapse.

It is interesting to note that according to this tradition, our well-being is not only placed in the hands of a few righteous individuals, but in their identities remaining concealed. Why is it so important that they remain hidden? It is because the world really does require hidden sparks of goodness.

Doing good should not be predicated on recognition or reward but instead on the needs of others, on the requirements of the world at large. That is the message of the Lamed Vavniks. They do good only because the world needs it. Their reward remains in God’s hands. The Torah teaches: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; and those things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may observe all the words of this Torah.” (Deuteronomy 29:28)

The Hasidic rebbe, Menahem Mendle of Kotzk opines: “The world thinks that a tzaddik nistar—a hidden righteous person—is a person who conceals his righteousness and his good deeds from others. The truth, though, is that a tzaddik nistar is one whose righteousness is hidden and concealed from himself, and who has no idea whatsoever that he (or she) is righteous.”

How different the world might be if good was so ordinary that even the doer remained unaware.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ki Tavo and Treasures

What is a treasure?

I can treasure something.  Some people treasure cars, others shoes.  More often people treasure not that which is the most costly but that which was given to them.  They then hold in their hands a keepsake.  The possession acquires value because of the giver rather than because of its monetary value.  My most valued kiddush cup is not that which is even the most beautiful but that which was given to Susie and me by her grandparents and which served the family for several generations.

I can treasure a book, the Torah.  I wonder.  Does it matter which scroll I read or is it the words that I spend my years examining and pondering that are the more important and therefore the most treasured?

I can treasure someone.  Most treasure family, a spouse, children, parents and grandparents.  I wonder.  Do their actions make me treasure them less?  If I become disappointed with them do I love them any less?  On the contrary, if they do something which makes me proud do I treasure them even more?  I think not.  They are treasured because of who they are.  They can do right or even wrong, but they are family and will always be treasured and loved. 

So too the Jewish people.  In the Torah we are called God’s treasure, an "am segulah," a treasured people.  Is God’s love dependent on what we do?  “And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people… (Deuteronomy 26:18)  We are treasured because God promised.  The giver grants sanctity.  The giver lends meaning to the treasure.

The cup with which we sanctify Shabbat reminds me of our grandfather.

And yet the verse continues: “…His treasured people who shall observe all His commandments.” Grand expectations are placed upon our shoulders.  We expect so much of those we love.

Are we loved any less if we fall short?     


Not by God.  But most certainly by ourselves.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ki Tetze, Birds and the Breath of Goodness

According to Moses Maimonides this week’s portion contains 72 mitzvot, far more than any other Torah portion.  Within this plethora of commandments we discover: “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.  Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.”  (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

This is an interesting command.  It is important to note that the Torah does not just deal with ritual life but with ethical obligations.  Moreover the Torah’s concern extends not just to human beings but to all of God’s creatures.  Still, one wonders how this act is a measure of compassion.  The tradition reasons that the mother must be sent away so that she does not see her young taken.  Human beings are allowed to make use of God’s creation, and even creatures, but with this permission comes certain responsibilities.  We must not cause undo suffering to animals.  The Torah therefore takes the mother’s pain into account.

This is why this mitzvah is connected to long life.  This reward mirrors that promise offered for the commandment to honor parents.  The vast majority of mitzvot do not have such a reward attached to them.  These are two of the few instances.  Of course this raises the question.  If I do not show honor to my parents, if I fail to let the mother bird go, will I not be rewarded with long life?

The Talmud offers a story.  Elisha ben Abuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, once saw a young boy climb a tree to fetch eggs from a nest.  In observance of the command, he shooed the mother bird away before taking the eggs.  When climbing down from the tree he fell and died.  Elisha saw this and rejected his Jewish faith.  How could there be a good and just God, he reasoned, and apparently said very loudly.       

Such is the question that has occupied Jewish thinkers for generations.  While Elisha’s is among the most radical that our tradition preserves (he is deemed a heretic by his colleagues but not written out of their book), I prefer the reasoning of Moses Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher. 

He writes in his Guide of the Perplexed:  “Consider the environment in which we have our being: the more urgently a thing is needed by living beings, the more abundantly (and cheaply) it is found.  The less dependent on anything, the rarer (and more expensive) it is.  Thus the things man needs most, for instance are air, water, and food…  This is a mark of God’s goodness and bounty.” (Guide, III:12) 

When we look at the world we tend to forget that even the air we breathe is a gift from God.  We make long lists of all the things we need (among them, a long, healthy life) and when we don’t receive but one of these we ask, where is God?  Maimonides counsels us that we need to look at the world differently, we need to look at God differently.  Look at how plentiful the air we breathe is.  Look at how quenching is the water I drink.

I admit his advice is sometimes difficult, and challenging, to follow.  Most people don’t know that Maimonides faced a similar struggle.  Fourteen years prior to penning these words, his brother drowned in a ship wreck in the Indian Ocean.  In addition to losing his only brother much of the family fortune was lost.  Maimonides was forced to devote more time to his medical profession in order to support his family, as well as his brother’s. 

For a full year following his brother’s death the person who most believe was the greatest Jewish thinker who ever lived spent a year in bed, depressed beyond all consolation.  He wrote to a friend: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness; [my brother] has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land.  Whenever I come across his handwriting in one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.”

With the litany of our tradition’s blessings it is curious that the no blessing is mandated for water and air, and yet they are as much a sign of God’s bounty as the hallah we will taste, and bless, tomorrow evening.

Take counsel from Maimonides’ words.  Take heart from his life.

Sometimes it really does take years to see again the beauty and wonder in God’s world.