A Memorable Past…A Dedicated Future!

I wrote this paper for Dr. Karla Goldman in 1996 or so. Our assignment was to explore a significant moment in the life of a congregation using only primary sources available in the AJA. Earlier this morning, I had the chance to walk around Eutaw Place and see the old Oheb Shalom with my own eyes for the first time. I got nostalgic, found the paper still on my drive(!), and decided it would make a fun blog post.

“A Memorable Past…A Dedicated Future!”
Temple Oheb Shalom of Baltimore’s Move to Park Heights Avenue

There is something about home, no matter in what way the term is applied, to which no other place can be compared. Away from home, one may be offered unusual opportunities and rare advantages; and yet one will always long for the scenes in which he decided to make his permanent abode.

–Rabbi William Rosenau, Sept. 5, 1931

For Rabbi Dr. William Rosenau, “home” was Baltimore, from which he had been away during the summer, vacationing in Europe. But more significantly, home was Oheb Shalom Congregation’s Eutaw Place Temple, which had undergone some repair work during the previous months. During that first service back in the thirty-nine year old building, Rosenau voiced a sentiment which can be seen as a theme running through Oheb Shalom’s next three decades. “Opportunities” and “advantages” awaited the congregation in the northwestern suburbs; yet it was difficult for the congregation to leave its beloved home behind. Continue reading

Water those Camels!

A d’var torah for Shabbat Chayyei Sarah…

Even if all the dates were removed from this week’s handout, an astute observer might well be able to guess the season. With so many opportunities to give of one’s time, talent, and resources – mitzvah day, prepping a communal meal, supporting the Kelly Memorial Food Pantry, supporting our own youth through a Sisterhood fundraiser — it’s pretty plainly that time of the year when generosity and altruism come to the fore.

And as if on cue, Torah provides us with a striking example of generosity, altruism, and kindness, in one of the most touching stories in the book of Genesis: Rebekah’s introduction to the family of Abraham.

Let’s review: Abraham is aging, and knows he won’t live forever. His son Isaac, through whom the promise is to be fulfilled, is unmarried. Abraham wants to change that, and sends his servant Eliezer on a mission: to bring a bride for Isaac, someone from the Old Country, across a sea of sand. Heavy-laden with gifts and provisions for the journey, Eliezer sets out with his caravan, ten camels strong. After many days, we must presume, he arrives in Nahor, hundreds of miles from his starting point. He brings the camels to their knees in a resting position, and watching the young women drawing water, he devises a test: The woman of whom he asks, “Please, lower your jar that I may drink,” and who responds, “Drink, and I will also water your camels” — she’ll be “The One.”

Imagine his delight as the test works out so perfectly. No sooner had he finished expressing it than it came true. A beautiful woman, single and from a good family, immediately responds to his request for a sip of water, allowing him to drink his fill. He quenched his thirst in silence, and then, the magic words: “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” She sets about doing just that. Ten camels who’ve traveled many days would drink something on the order of two hundred fifty gallons of water. It’s a Herculean task, and Eliezer can only watch in amazement as she completes it. In short order, he’s met the family, secured their and her willingness to make the match, and returned to the Land of Israel with a bride for Isaac, someone to comfort him after his mother’s death.

In this story, everything hinges on the camels. Camels make such a journey more bearable, and the camels’ prodigious thirst makes the beautiful Rebekah that much more impressive. The story is so reliant on the camels…which is interesting in light of our knowledge that camels weren’t domesticated until several centuries after the age of the Patriarchs! In telling the story of how Isaac and Rebekah came together, the biblical author has given us the equivalent of a tale set in Colonial times that turns on the bride-to-be’s ability to rebuild the servant’s engine and transmission while he waits. And, as biblical scholar Robert Alter points out, the anachronism is uncharacteristic of Genesis, which in nearly all other respects aims for a very accurate portrait of life in the age of the Patriarchs.

What’s going on here? Here’s my answer, which (not surprisingly, if you know me) hinges on a word-play. The Hebrew word for that newly-domesticated animal that was making the world a smaller place in the days when this story was first told around our ancestor’s fires is gamal. And no Hebrew-speaker can hear the word gamal without hearing an echo of the verb gomel chesed, which we usually translate as “perform acts of lovingkindness.” Rebekah, in watering those g’malim, becomes the very picture of g’milut chasadim. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, and teaches us a powerful message about what to look for in friends and teachers, to say nothing of the partners with whom we choose to share our very lives. Rebekah’s giving spirit, her energy for the task at hand, her willingness to go the extra mile…all these made her a fitting partner for Isaac, which is to say, a fitting Matriarch for us. No wonder the Torah tells us, a little further on, that Isaac loved her, and that she brought him comfort in the wake of Sara’s death.

Not totally convinced yet? I’ve got more. Remember how Eliezer made the camels kneel when they arrived at the well? In Hebrew, as in English, “kneel” is derive from “knee.” The Hebrew for that place where the femur and the tibia meet is berech, another word rich with spiritual meaning. B’rachah, blessing, shares those letters. Vayavrech hag’malim, “he caused the camels to kneel,” may just as well be vayavrech hag’malim, “a blessing to those who act out of lovingkindness.”

Our ancient forebears told stories about their ancient forebears, and they did it with purpose. From Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, they learned how to act (and sometimes, how not to act). Rebekah is the picture of decisive action, grounded in compassion and connection. She sees in Eliezer a fellow human in need. She sees in his ten thirsty camels fellow beings, worthy of her concern. Is the story deficient because it includes a historical impossibility, domesticated camels in the seventeenth century before the common era? On the contrary, it’s the anachronism that makes it charming, and carries the point. Baruch sheg’malanu kol tov. Blessed be the One who has lovingly taught us these stories, so filled with goodness!

“Eilu d’varim, these are things without measure, which cost us nothing and reward us without end… acts of lovingkindness, g’milut chasadim.” Like Rebekah, may we find our energy boundless when it comes to demonstrating our compassion and concern for the other. Your handout is your guide. Find a way to give, to bless, to generate kindness and compassion in this world. Not only in this season of giving, but every day of our lives, may we be mashkim hag’malim, the camel-waterers, the ones who give the parched places in our world their due…and more.

Amen.

Mortality is Good (Yom Kippur Yizkor, 5775/2014)

God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” We’ve now explored that verse, from the first chapter of Genesis, twice during these holidays. On Rosh Hashanah, we saw how Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas made an anagram of the word m’od, “very,” and heard in the words an optimistic, positive assessment of adam, humanity. Last night, the sixteenth-century biblical commentator Ovadiah Seforno showed us to another understanding, in which the word “very” indicates that the whole of Creation is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

And now it is Yizkor time, and our thoughts turn to family and friends who have died. Can we say, even now, that God sees the fullness of Creation as very good? What of the heaviness in our hearts as we remember a beloved, a parent, or God forbid, a child. Is this, too, “very good?” Continue reading

Reveling in our Multi-vocality (Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I brought a text from the very first chapter of the Bible: “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” I told you then that we’d see the verse three different ways before the holidays were through.

We’ve already looked at it through the eyes of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas, Talmudic Sages who saw in the word “very,” m’od in Hebrew, an anagram for the Hebrew word adam, “human being.” For Chaninah and Pinchas, God’s assessment of Creation is positive, and we human beings are the reason why. In last week’s sermon on optimism, I suggested that we could read the verse as a reminder that the essential goodness of humanity — hineh tov “adam” — shines.

Tomorrow afternoon, we will see how Rabbi Meir, a contemporary of Chanina and Pinchas, plays with the sound of the word m’od, offering us a lesson fit for our Yizkor Service: that the “urgency of time” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book) is a gift, and that immortality, if it existed, wouldn’t be much of a blessing.

Tonight, our lesson comes to us by way of sixteenth-century Italy, home to the brilliant biblical scholar Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno. Continue reading

Opening Day (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5775/2014)

Picture God. Bearded, longish hair, white robe, standing on a cloud. In other words, picture God exactly as I’ve always taught that we shouldn’t. In this picture, He (yes, for these purposes He’s a “He”) is looking off at earth in the distance. There is a thought bubble over His head: “What…was I thinking?” Below, in large capital letters, these words: “CREATOR’S REMORSE.”

Creator's RemorseYou’ll find that very image on page seventy-five of this week’s New Yorker magazine. It is a pretty perfect cartoon to usher in the New Year, and I would like to think that the timing is no accident. After all, the cartoon editor is a guy named Bob Mankoff who might well be in synagogue himself today. Here on this yom harat olam, this birthday of the world, a cleverly-drawn cartoon depicts God regretting Creation. It’s good to laugh. Because looking back on the year that was….if you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. Continue reading

Are We Trees? Yes, We’re Trees (Shofetim, 5774/2014)

 Delivered at Temple Mount Sinai, August 29, 2014

Preparing my thoughts for tonight I was reminded, again and again, of the deep connection between mind-states and physical sensations. You see, typing away on my laptop (or trying to), my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. It wasn’t emails or texts. It was the “Red Alert” app announcing rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel. One after another, the warnings reached my phone, each one representing a neighborhood seeking shelter. And with each alert, I experienced a wave of sadness felt in my heart, and a corresponding kick to my kishkes. Continue reading

Transitions

My letter to the congregation, announcing our departure at the end of June, 2015…

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, I began my seventeenth year as a Rabbi at Temple Mount Sinai. It is with mixed emotions that I let you know that it will be my last. I will leave the Temple on June 30, 2015. I am looking forward to beginning the next chapter in my career, even as I look forward to continuing to serve Temple with energy and pride over the coming year. Continue reading

Eulogy for Rabbi Ken Weiss

I had the privilege of working alongside Rabbi Weiss for four years. That they were the first four years of my congregational rabbinate, and the last four of his, has something to do with the outsized influence they’ve had on me, and will continue to have on me going forward. My rabbinate was very much shaped by those years. There are so many lessons I could point to, but I’m going to limit myself to the one which, I think, mattered most to him, and which he therefore communicated with particular passion.

A story: I remember a time early in my tenure when Ken and I were working on something together and a member of the congregation stuck his head in the door to Ken’s study. Ken jumped to greet him, invited him in, and suddenly we weren’t having a meeting anymore. We were visiting with a member of Temple. After a while, the congregant left. At which point, Ken turned to me and said, “Larry, never forget: the interruptions are the job.” Continue reading

It’s All One: Installation of Officers and Trustees

Love your neighbor as yourself, You said.
And light-blinded we saw
that inner and outer worlds are one
as You are One.

-Judi Neri-

I began my annual report a couple of weeks ago, at which our new trustees and officers were elected, by quoting those lines. I joked then that my annual report was sounding like a sermon. Tonight, I get to give that sermon, by way of welcoming our leaders, both new and returning, to service. For this week’s portion, called Kedoshim, is a virtual manual of service for trustees and officers of a synagogue. Continue reading

From Death, to Power and Love

How we live in light of suffering and pain matters. Given the inevitability of suffering, which eventually touches us all, how we live in its light may be all that matters.

Last week I had the privilege to witness a tremendous outpouring of love and power occasioned by deep suffering. I was part of an event called “Shave for The Brave,” in which people have their heads shaved to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer. This particular Shave for the Brave involved Reform Rabbis who were moved by the story of “Superman Sam” Sommer, his siblings, and his parents, Rabbis Michael and Phyllis. Continue reading