Sunday, September 28, 2014

RH Morning 5775 - Ask What You Can Do For Your Congregation

This past December, Har Sinai Congregation sent a small delegation to the Union for Reform Judaism’s 72nd North American Biennial Conference. Biennial, for those of you not familiar is a gathering of approximately 5,000 Reform Jews from throughout North America though we also get some participants from as far away as South America, Israel, Europe, and even South Africa.
I had the honor of attending this past year’s Biennial with our Congregational President Joanne Goldsmith and our Women of Reform Judaism Sisterhood Representative Micki Sibel.
            The idea behind the Biennial is to gather together and to celebrate all things in Reform Judaism. To this end, there were a significant number of workshops for lay leaders and clergy alike covering everything from worship to budgeting, communications, and membership. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on Visual Tefillah, which I hope to one day employ in our congregation.
The highlight of every Biennial is the Shabbat Morning Service where those of us in attendance had the chance to worship with 5,000 of our closest friends. The service includes an incredible, all volunteer choir singing melodies that both inspire and uplift. It is truly a wonder to behold.
            Personally for me, one of my favorite highlights were the Shabbat Song Session with some of our movements most creative, talented and innovative song leaders. By the second song, just about everyone was up and dancing. It was a real treat to for me to see Loui Dobin, one of my guitar heroes as well as the Director of Greene Family Camp up on the stage strumming furiously along with the likes of Rabbi Joe Black, Rick Recht, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver and so many others. The Biennial was so moving that Neshama Carelbach, the daughter of Shlomo Carelbach, the modern Hasidic musician, publically embraced life as a Reform Jew!
            It was a powerful, moving, inspiring, and exciting conference, which is exactly what it is designed to be. Biennial is meant to reinvigorate especially the leaders and volunteers of congregations just like ours with a renewed sense of purpose and vision. This was further illustrated by our new URJ President Rick Jacobs who spoke on Erev Shabbat, without the use of notes or a teleprompter for 2 hours, and you thought my sermons were long! One of the themes he spoke passionately about was the Abrahamic idea of radical hospitality. It is a vision for the movement where we should be striving to embrace all who enter into our community. Many of us have felt this embrace from Lil and Nates Strauss, and they are certainly the embodiment of the radical hospitality we can all strive to fully represent.
For those of you who are interested, the next URJ Biennial will be in Orlando in the late fall of 2015, or more specifically from November 4th to November 8th. Feel free to mark your calendars we would love to have you join us.
Later that same Friday night, after Rick Jacob’s sermon, I gathered together with a multitude of CCAR Rabbis for a free wine and dessert reception. For nothing compels us rabbis to gather together more than the words: free, dessert and wine.
To set the stage, we had just seen a hilarious and audacious presentation encouraging us to sign up for our annual Rabbinic Conference to be taking place that spring in Chicago, when a text came through to my friend Liz. The look on her face said it all. She couldn’t even speak. All she could do was pass the phone around. Sammy Sommer, whom I know many of you have heard me speak about before, had just died as a result of complications from Acute Myeloid Leukemia.
            To say we were all devastated does not even begin to capture the depth of our grief. From that moment on, the Biennial took on a whole new meaning. Now, truth be told, it was no longer about the Biennial. It was about how we could get to Chicago for the funeral. I, for one, flew back to Baltimore on Sunday as planned, and then I left again first thing Monday morning for an all-day whirlwind trip to Chicago. I am so glad I went, and I am so grateful to my wife, to the ladies of Sisterhood and to all of you for understanding my need to be there with my dear friends and colleagues Mike and Phyllis Sommer, Sammy’s parents.
            A thousand of us gathered in Phyllis’ shul to come and perform that sacred mitzvah of comforting the bereaved as well as the sacred mitzvah of accompanying the dead for burial. The service, the eulogies, the music were perfect in the way that we celebrated Sammy’s life. But on such a day, we were really mourning the life he and so many other young victims of cancer will never get to lead.
            About fifteen minutes before the service began, the sanctuary was enveloped in silence. I don’t know if it was a collective moment of anticipation or perhaps a collective moment of dread, but the silence was overwhelming. The silence was eerie. The silence was palpable.
            Finally Sammy’s family entered. There were tears and there were hugs. And so the funeral began. I will never forget the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein’s eulogy, “Sam Sommer was born exactly nine months after his father Michael completed his rabbinic thesis.” You could just feel the tension let out of the room as we all laughed and cried together.
            Through Rabbi Lowenstein’s words we were reminded that though we called him Superman Sam, what Sam really loved was turtles, causing trouble, and googly eyes. He was especially close with his sister Yael, and he became, like so many young cancer victims, old and wise before his time.
However what really struck me about that day, is yes, many of the people in attendance were from Phyllis’ congregation, and others were friends and family and colleagues. However a great many more were people who had never personally met Michael, Phyllis, or their kids David, Yael, Solly or of course Sammy. They were instead a new community of friends established through the digital realm.
            See, over that past year and a half, Phyllis and Michael created a family through social media that stretched across the globe with their daily blogging of Sam’s journey. Sammy’s fight against AML was everyone’s fight against childhood cancer. Just as it continues to be our fight.
            This past March, I joined with over 70 of my closest colleagues to shave our heads to raise money to fight childhood cancer through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. It was originally supposed to be just 36 Rabbis, and the goal was to raise a modest $180,000. By the time we shaved, we had raised over $720,000. For me, it was an accidental shave, as I had no intention of shaving, I simply wanted to raise awareness. But when the time came, I just could not let my friends go bald alone. They were, they are my community. They were, and they are my extended family.
            And that is when the meaning of the concept of community really struck home for me. Community is all about us standing side by side with each other through our triumphs and our tragedies. It is about lifting up one another when we grieve and dancing together when we rejoice. This is why the rabbis tell us in Eilu Devarim, as part of our morning worship service, to provide for the wedding couple, and accompany the dead for burial. Our community helps to define who we are as Jews and who we are as people.
            And we are a community because of you. Each and every one of you helps define who and what we are and what we can be.
             To this end, our Jewish community, our little shtetl in the wilderness of Northwest Baltimore really is what YOU make of it. And more than that, it is a different kind of community. For example, the synagogue is a sanctuary from all of your other activities. This is a place where you don't have to do, it is a place where you can just be. In today’s helter-skelter world, isn’t nice to know that we have a home that accepts us for who we are, and is glad that we are here?!
            But that is only the beginning. One of the beauties of congregational life, is when we are doing things right, we can help provide that most elusive sense, a sense of context. To illustrate this, I was recently listening to a story on NPR about computer aided crossword puzzles. Apparently there are folks out there who have now created computer programs to solve these puzzles. They have programmed in years of previous puzzles as well as multiple dictionaries and, in one case, all of Wikipedia into their computers. This means these programs have access to most of our collective knowledge.
            Because of this these programs are really, really good at solving crosswords. Well in most cases. However when the answer requires a sense of cultural consciousness or is a play on words the computer has not seen before, it is at a total loss. That is because the computer, though really knowledgeable, is completely blind to the wisdom needed to solve a crossword. It is following algorithms, albeit, really good algorithms, but it still lacks the context to solve them correctly.
            We live in a world where there is a tremendous amount of easily accessible knowledge. Just click in a few words on a Google search and you can find just about any piece of trivia except perhaps the location of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine or your missing car keys.
            But when it comes to life’s larger dilemmas, life’s larger questions, being a part of a congregation, being part of a community, can be immensely helpful in understanding not just the how, but also the why. Why are we here? What is the meaning of existence? How do we deal with life’s ethical dilemmas? What role can religion play in today’s modern world? Why is there so much turmoil in the Middle East? Being part of a sacred community helps to shape and guide us as we wrestle with such questions like today’s questions, why did such a person like Sammy die so very very young?
            I was thinking about this very question with regards to today’s very troubling Torah reading, the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. For the longest time I have read the Akeida as both a test of Abraham’s faith as well as a polemic against child sacrifice.
            And yet, it was this year, through all that I had seen and been through that I began to find myself drawn to another reading of the text. One which looks at this notion of God “testing” Abraham. This is the same Abraham who argued with God over the justice of Sodom and Gemorrah! And yet, when God asked Abraham to offer up his only son, his beloved son, Isaac, Abraham was silent.
            Perhaps then, Abraham failed the test. As Rabbi Paul Kipnes wrote, “Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on (this). He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.”[1] Perhaps then what this text is saying is God does not want the offering of our children; instead God grieves at the loss of our children. Or as Eric Clapton sang, “there are tears in heaven.”
            In Jewish tradition we cherish our children. That is our context. I cannot explain the death of Sammy Sommer. All I know is that I am grateful to be able to be part of a community and a tradition that provided the framework to celebrate his life and mourn his passing. I am grateful to be part of a larger community that also provides the collective embrace to support his loving family through their continued journey, now without Sammy.
            One of the driving purposes of Judaism is to help provide the framework for grappling with these questions and so many like them. Judaism is not a theoretical expression of devotion to God; instead it is both a practical and pragmatic approach to living life in a sacred and fully engaged way. And what better way to discuss that than as part of a congregational family.
            Our congregation is also a place for family. It is a place where you can sit with your children and with your grandchildren. It is a place where you can sing, and clap and dance. And if you are looking to expand your family, at least metaphorically speaking, you can create a community of friends to rejoice and commiserate with.
            One of our members David Carp likes to tell the story of how when his first grandchild was born, he received notes and mentions of congratulations from friends. But what really struck him, was the outpouring of good will from his Har Sinai Congregational community. The cards, phone calls, and donations in his granddaughter’s honor were just simply overwhelming. He was and is still so moved by the radical hospitality and support of our community.
            That is what we strive to do and to be as a community. But again, our community is what you make of it. We cannot do, we cannot be, if you do not tell us what you need and what you are looking for. Nor can we do for you nor be there for you if you are not here. It is not that you have to come every week, though we would love that; but if you are not here, it can be hard for us to know who you are.
            Har Sinai Congregation is your community. What you make of it is up to you. I cannot tell you how to make the most of it, only that you should. However, what I can tell you is that Har Sinai Congregation is not going anywhere. We have been through some rough patches financially. That seems to be part of our sacred history as well. I know this to be true, because I had the pleasure of looking at our minutes written around 170 years ago in their original German, and guess what, even back then they were arguing over budget deficits.
            What I can also tell you is we have a plan. Our leadership has engaged in two major campaigns this year. The first is our ReJewVenate Campaign. You may have seen the diagram coming in. Without going into all of the specifics, what I can tell you is that we set an ambitious goal in May of 2013 to raise $2 million to help us secure our financial future. To date, with the help of 69 families, we now have pledges of over $815,000. You can find their names on your Rosh Hashana handout, both those who have pledged and also those who have given. Our goal by this Rosh Hashana was $750,000, so as you can see, we are above our goal and well on our way. Already we have 100% participation from the Executive Committee, 100% participation from the staff, and nearly 100% participation from the leadership of the congregation. We would love to get 100% participation from you as well. If you have questions, would like to set up a meeting, and/or would like to give, just let David Carp know. He would love to talk to you more about this vitally important campaign.
Also, as all congregations run an ongoing budget deficit, we have created a new program called Share the Load. This program enables you, our members, to sponsor various programs and worship experiences at the congregation. We are already blessed to have donors who support the music of our High Holy Day Services. We have donors for things like the flowers. However there are so many more opportunities. You can support a Shabbat Rocks! Service or an adult education class. And you can find the brochures on your seats, and we will gratefully acknowledge your support at the events and/or services that you choose to sponsor. Just, if you heart is so moved, fill it out and sponsor some of the amazing things going on here in our congregation. There are opportunities no matter your giving level.
            As we say in our tradition, Kol Yisrael Averim zeh la’zeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. What better way to demonstrate this central value in our tradition than by being part of a loving and supportive community that encourages our individual explorations of life’s central questions, while at the same time, enables us to be surrounded by our loving friends and our loving communal family through the good times and the bad.
            On this Rosh Hashana 5775, we encourage you to commit or recommit to your Har Sinai Congregational family. We have a lot of amazing things going on, and we have a lot of important work still to do together. Join us in our journey, and bring your friends. For it would not be the same without you.
            L’shana Tova


Erev RH 5775 - Can We See God at Camden Yards?

With the Orioles on the cusp of the playoffs, for the second time in three years, Baltimore has once again become a Baseball town. True some of you are diehard fans and have stuck with them through thick and thin, but for the most part, Baltimore, over the past decade or so, moved on and became a Ravens town.
Football, by all important measures, has passed baseball in this country in popularity. And yet, Baseball is still viewed by many as “America’s sport.”  But the question is: how did baseball come to be America’s sport?  According to a history of baseball, “there are many controversies and debate that go with the origin of baseball. Cricket, Baseball, softball running games and rounders are believed to have taken shape from primitive types of community games. Even though the name has no clear relation to many games that were popularly played that somewhat resemble modern day baseball. There were different ball games that were known by amusing names like stool ball, goal ball and even poison ball.
A few historical sources point out that in the year 1700, Thomas Wilson who was considered a conformist leader in England condemned the game of baseball and a few other sports that took place every Sunday.”[1]
This means, some type of game, called ‘baseball,’ was being played over 300 years ago.  However the game that we know really and love began to develop in the 1800s.  In 1845, Alexander Cartwright published a set of rules for the Knickerbocker Club of New York.  The first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1871.  And the first National League Game ever played was in 1876. 
However, baseball really began to capture the American imagination in the 1920s during the era of Babe Ruth.  Ruth, as many of you undoubtedly know, got his start under Jack Dunn, the then owner and manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles.  What I did not realize until I did some digging is that the Orioles, as we know them, were formally the St. Louis Browns until they relocated to Baltimore in 1953, though their first official season was 1954.  Previously the Orioles had two iterations as a minor league team, and one as a major league team from 1882 to 1903, before it moved to New York to become the New York Highlanders, which gained a new monicker to a team that shall not be named.
This of course, is well before our time.  Personally, I became a baseball fan in 1986.  That was the year my beloved Astros came within a game of going to the World Series.  I remember game 6 of the NCLS.  “In one of the most famous games in baseball history, the Mets defeated Houston at the Astrodome 7–6 in 16 innings as Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass on a curveball for the final out with runners at first and second and New York advanced to its third World Series in franchise history.”[2]
Mike Scott, who was the MVP of the series, and who was unhittable, was scheduled to start game 7.  If only Kevin had hit that curveball, things could have been a whole lot different.  Of course Red Sox fans might also have felt differently about things too if they had played the Astros instead of the Mets, but why focus on past losses?
From that season on, I was hooked.  I watched the rise of the Killer B’s with Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman.  I saw my Astros finally reach the World Series in 2005.  To do it, they finally managed to defeat their arch nemesis: the Atlanta Braves.
As an aside, I listened on and off to game 4 against the Braves.  “With the Astros in the lead two games to one, the teams played an eighteen-inning marathon in Game 4, which was the longest (in both time and innings played) postseason game in history.”[3]  During that game, I covered not one, not two, but three Kever Avot services, two in Tucson and one in Nogales, Arizona along with and Kever Avot shindig that followed near Rio Rico.  It was an exciting time, to say the least.
Then my Astros fell to the White Sox in four straight, and the club really hasn’t been the same ever since.  True they joined the American League last year, and I had the chance to see them play the Orioles last year as well.  It was strange because the only name I recognized on the Astros roster had been traded to the Orioles the day before, and was now pitching against them.  Baseball certainly is a curious sport.
But like most Houston fans, my focus shifted elsewhere.  It’s not so much that we’re fair weather fans.  It’s more that we do not like to spend much time or energy on a losing team.  True to the culture I grew up with, I have become more focused on football again.  That was until the Orioles made it exciting once again. I even had the chance to see in person my first ever extra-inning game and my first ever walk-off home run at Camden Yards this past July.
All that being said, I have noticed over these past twenty-five plus years as a fan, there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally and inherently different from all of the other sports.  There has to be a reason why movies like The Natural or The Field of Dreams or even Bull Durham appeals to us on a more emotional level than movies like Rudy or Hoosiers. 
Yet I couldn’t really put a handle on it, until I saw an interview on the Colbert Report of the President of NYU: John Sexton.  Dr. Sexton was on promoting his new book: Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game.  The more I listened to the interview, the more excited I became by the possibility of reading his book.
I wondered, could Dr. Sexton offer some explanations as to why baseball feels so profoundly different from my other favorite sport football? As Dr. Sexton explained, baseball has the potential to be a truly spiritual experience. 
To start with, In his chapter Sacred Space, Sacred time, Dr. Sexton makes the argument:  “For some of us, a visit to the ballpark is a move from one state of being – the more familiar one – to another.  It is a transformation, evoking a connection to something deep and meaningful.  This is more than the simple, surface observation that a stadium can be a church and the bleachers can be its pews; the stadium acts as what Eliade would call axis mundi – a channeling of the intersection between our world and the transcendent world, a place “sacred above all” that connects the ordinary and the spiritual dimensions.  It is not that this evocative experience occurs for everyone in every ballpark every time; but it can happen to anyone, in any ballpark, anytime.  In this place, magic can happen, and the fan can be transported to a space and time beyond, to an experience we know profoundly but cannot put into words”[4]
Growing up with the Astrodome, I cannot fathom a space less conducive to encountering the Ein Sof, the unknowable experience of God.  It was spacious and cold, filled with concrete pillars and obstructed views.  But thankfully there are many ballparks that are conducive to such spiritual encounters.  Minute Maid Park certainly is one, though I would gladly get rid of Tal’s Hill in a heartbeat.  And Camden Yards also, as the forerunner to so many modern ballparks is another.
But a place is just a place unless there are experiences to be shared within its surroundings.  As much as we may enjoy watching games on the television, it is not the same as being there.  Unless you happen to be in Cienfiegos, Cuba during the Superbowl, but that is another story for another day.
“Such sacramental moments have been part of humankind’s effort to touch the deepest plane of existence.  This is the power of myth.  Today, especially in the West, that word, myth, too often is used as a synonym for falsehood.  The Greek word mythos originally meant a truth that is experienced, an awareness that lies beyond words.  As theologian Karen Armstrong wrote, “A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”
“Mythos takes us to sacred places and sacred times – spaces and times beyond.  To places revered for their mystical power, evoking an ineffable feeling of connection to something greater … and to sacred times like Yom Kippur … or to a ball field on Opening Day.”[5]
So already, from the sacred space of the ballpark, we are reminded the potential power of our own sacred space here at Har Sinai Congregation.  We are gathered here at a sacred time and in a sacred space.  Like a fan on opening day, all we have to do is be ready for the multitude of possibilities that may come our way.  For on opening day, everyone is in the chase for the pennant.  And on this Rosh Hashana, we will have the chance to start anew, with a clean slate, a clean record.  But it is up to us to make the most of our new ‘season.’
Then there is the spiritual challenge of being a fan. As Sexton explains, “So it is for the vast majority of believers initially.  What someone does with that gift, of course, is one of the central challenges of any life.  A religious tradition, as well as a love for a baseball team, must, as time passes, be tested and thus doubted.”  Not to mock, but this statement could not be more true for Orioles fans.  Thankfully our faith has been restored with these most recent of accomplishments. While I personally find myself wandering in the wilderness that is the rebuilding process of my beloved Astros, something for which I know you Orioles fans can very much relate to.
But allegiance to a team should not be blind.  Any more than the precepts of a religious tradition should not be openly examined, challenged, and hopefully … ultimately re-embraced.  For “Whatever its particular manifestation, faith is an affirmation of something that cannot be expressed, for it is rooted in another domain of knowledge, one that is beyond what is knowable in scientific terms.  There is much that is known today, and even more that is unknown today but will be known (perhaps even hundreds of years from now).  Faith – true faith – deals with neither the known nor the unknown but knowable.  It deals with that which is unknowable in the scientific sense but which the believer knows with all of his or her being … Therein lies the most powerful connection to baseball, its rhythms and patterns, astonishing feats and mystical charm; it is not necessary to elevate baseball to the level of ultimate concern to notice that, for the true fan, there is something a touching of the ineffable that displays the qualities of a religious experience in the profound space of faith.”[6]
But here we are going to take a break from our conversation of Baseball as a Road to God.  You out there might be saying to yourself, but rabbi, I don’t like baseball.  Or, I’m not even a fan of sports, so how can this conversation even speak to me? 
Here we are using the experience of baseball as a metaphor for a larger conversation.  To be a fan is to believe.  To be a fan is to be emotional.  To be a fan means connection to history while at the same time waking each day with a renewed sense of hope and optimism and connection to something greater.
So I would encourage you, rather than focus on the literal words of the metaphor, to take an experience in your own life and substitute it for the word: baseball.  Change it with words like: gardening or the Opera, the symphony or watching children at play, or an incredible dining experience.  All of these moments, all of these experiences can give us a glimpse of the ineffable if we choose to see them in those moments.
As our past Scholar-in-Residence Danny Matt wrote in The Essential Kabbalah, “When you eat and drink, you experience enjoyment and pleasure from the food and drink.  Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, “What is this enjoyment and pleasure?  What is it that I am tasting?”
“Answer yourself, ‘This is nothing but the holy sparks from the sublime holy worlds that are within the food and drink.”[7]
Or as Professor Matt goes on to say, “When you desire to eat or drink, or to fulfill other worldly desires, and you focus your awareness on the love of God, then you elevate that physical desire to spiritual desire.  Thereby you draw out the holy spark that dwells within.  You bring forth holy sparks from the material world.  There is no path greater than this.  For wherever you go and whatever you do – even mundane activities – you serve God.”[8]
Out of the mundane also comes the rare but potential possibility for miracles as well.  Returning to baseball, Dr. Sexton continues with a conversation about miracles.  “There are, of course, the miracles described in religious legend and myth: Moses parting the Red Sea (to name one) …. And there are more personal miracles.  But in whatever context it occurs, a miracle is a moment of deep inspiration, emerging from unlikely outcomes at the most crucial times, evoking ecstasy and electricity and awe.  The Latin root miraculum means ‘object of wonder.’  A miracle is another form of hierophany, a manifestation of the divine and a revelation of a wholly different plane.
But ‘false miracles’ abound.  Sometimes what appears to be a miracle is, in truth, quite ordinary, the product of coincidence (the rain dance followed by a storm) or even probability….
Even in baseball, the seemingly ‘miraculous’ often can be explained.  But as with religious believers, baseball fans sometimes find statistical and factual explanations less inspiring than the miracle itself.”[9]
Every team has at least one of those moments.  Chris Burke hitting the game and series ending homerun in the bottom of the eighteenth inning off of Atlanta rookie Joey Devine.  As an aside, the fan who caught Chris Burke’s walk-off home run was also the same fan who caught Lance Berkman’s grand slam in the eighth inning.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
I’m sure you Orioles fans have those moments too.  Of course Cal’s 2,131st Consecutive Game is amazing. Perhaps it was game 5 of the World Series in 83, or even the miracle that is shaping up to be this season. 
Yes, each event can be explained, but it feels like there was more going on than just the statistics at work.
More than the potential for miracles, baseball is also a communal sport.  It is something we share together.  True these experiences are broken down typically by city, they are nonetheless part of civic pride.  With the Orioles returning to the playoffs, all of Baltimore feels a sense of pride.  Of course this pride exploded forth when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
In his book Our Religious Brains, Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger writes, “A community has been defined as a place where when you are absent you are missed and when you are present people know your name.  Archaeological remains of early synagogues reveal that most would have met that standard, certainly in smaller towns, but also in cities, where they were often organized by a few families or a professional group….
People who move to a new area are often advised to go to church or synagogue, and clergy confirm that newcomers to our cities go ‘shul-shopping’ and ‘church-shopping,’ seeking a place to ‘belong’ and make friends at least as much as a place to pray.”[10]
So just as we go to Camden Yards to have the true experience of the fan, and perhaps a spiritual experience, because we feel the game is not the same without us, so too we can feel the same way about entering into a synagogue for worship.
As Dr. Sexton concludes, “Okay, Baseball, for most of us anyway, is not the road to God – indeed, it is not even a road to God.  But, if given sensitive attention, it can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science.  We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply.  By embracing the ineffable joys of the ‘green fields of the mind,’ we can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally.  Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun.
And each winter, as we long for the possibilities of spring with its awakening, and we ponder the depths of mystical moments past in baseball and in life, we proclaim our creed: Wait’ll Next Year!”[11]
So this fall, as we get closer to the post season, but for us, really the beginning of our season as Jews, and as we too continue to ponder the depths of the mystical, spiritual, and religious moments in our own lives.  We proclaim, “l'shanah tovah techatemu ve’tikatevu” "may you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.”
Or as we say in the vernacular: Play Ball!

[4] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pg. 21.
[5] Ibid pg. 35
[6] Ibid., pg. 51
[7] Matt, Daniel G., The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1996, pg. 150
[8] Ibid., pg. 151
[9] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pgs. 99-100.
[10] Mecklenburger, Ralph D., Our Religious Brains, Woodstock, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012, Pgs. 139-141
[11] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pg. 220

Sunday, September 21, 2014

#BlogElul 26: Hope - Towards a Healthier Me

For those of you who follow this blog, you know I tend to focus on world events and how we should view them through a Jewish lens. I, for the most part, stay away from the personal and the private. However, every now and then, I feel compelled to share a little more about what is going on with me.

Not to go into a long narrative, I'll just summarize it with the statement that I have always struggled with my weight. When I graduated High School, I was 150 lbs. By the time I met my wife I was 210 lbs, which by any standard would be considered dangerously obese. I was heading down a dangerous road, and I decided to make drastic changes to my life and lifestyle. I began exercising regularly and dieting, without really having any clue as to what I was doing. By the time I was married, I was down to 166 and by the time I was ordained, I was down to 150.

And then it started creeping back. I began working with a trainer, and even though I was getting stronger, I was also getting heavier. Three summers ago I committed to running a half-marathon. Before I got injured, I was able to run up to 8 miles at about a 10 minute/mile clip. However, I will admit, depression set it at not being able to run, and the weight began to increase. Two summers ago, I recommitted to Weight Watchers. But as I discovered, Weight Watchers is not really meant for those who exercise seriously regularly, and I found myself bingeing. I thought it was an emotional-psychological problem, all of that compulsive eating.

Then this past summer, I realized, I had no idea what I was doing. Despite all the exercise, my weight was creeping up, and I was at a total loss. For me it is all about being healthy. And I had no idea how to get back to being healthy.

So finally I reached out to a nutritionist, desperate for advice and guidance. It was a total fiasco. This person was committed to the philosophy of healthy eating. I found I needed concrete numbers and guidance, not the theology of healthy eating. But, unlike my previous failed attempts, I did not give up. I took a shot in the dark and went to a place called Fitness Together. They are a place that specializes in personal training and personalized nutritional plans. I was not looking for a trainer, as I have been extremely happy with mine Harold Harris, but I desperately wanted, dare say, I needed all the nutritional guidance I could get.

To this end, I met with Dave at Fitness Together, and he measured me, listened to me, and help me set up a doable nutritional plan based on my exercise routine and goals. For the first time in my life, I am building muscle and losing body fat. I am much less obsessed with the scale, and much more obsessed with making sure I eat in a healthy fashion that works with my lifestyle.

What I realized by this experience is that nutrition is extremely complex, and that I needed help. I was over my head. What I am doing may not work for some, or may not work for most, but I feel for the first time, it is truly working for me. It is based on a formula of high protein, low carbs, and some fats. What I have found is I really do not miss the carbs all that much. I eat a lot of lean protein and my fair share of eggs. Greek Yogurt is also a big part of my diet as well as almonds, avocados, and Quest Protein Bars. All of this protein, while avoiding processed carbs, has helped me to regain my strength, my energy, and my stamina. At 40, I feel healthier and stronger than I have been in a long time, if ever.

And in case you are wondering I am now down 9.6 lbs. But more importantly, I am down in terms of body fat and my waist size is down. I like what I see in the mirror, and my clothes feel so much better. It is a life change that I am committed to, and I feel like for the first time, I am not fighting to be healthy. I feel like I am incorporating my approach into my life in ways that can be life long.

I will admit, I in the back of my mind, I am scared that I will slip back into old habits. But, with this new approach, so far, every time that I have stumbled, I have been able to get right back on the program the next day. I have never been able to do that before probably because it is no longer about self control and is instead about simply eating what I know my body needs.

So if I turn down your delicious looking kugel, pizza, beer, cookies, and the like, it is not because I do not appreciate the offer. I am just so happy to be on the right path.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Ki Tavo: Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the Possibility for Teshuvah

Below is the video for the sermon I delivered on Friday September 12, 2014 on Ki Tavo.  Below it is the sermon text which also includes the references and links mentioned in the sermon. A special thank you to Adam Nudelman and Event Video for recording the sermon:

Ki Tavo: Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the Possibility for Teshuvah

            Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation by Eric de Costa, the Assistant Manager for Ozzie Newsome and Senior Talent Scout for the Baltimore Ravens at our monthly Baltimore Board of Rabbis meeting. Part of the reason why Eric came to speak to us is because he regularly plays racquetball with the President of the Board of Rabbis, Chaim Landau.
         Even before Eric started speaking to us, during our lunch I asked him why, given all the turmoil of the week, he still chose to come speak to us. Eric stated that one of the things that drives him nuts is when a player has a particularly bad day on the field makes the choice not to speak to the media; but when they have a great day on the field, they are the first ones up there on the podium front and center. Eric told me when he makes a commitment, be it a good day or even after a really really bad week, he stands by his commitments.
         I was moved by his comments and I knew we were in for a special treat. Eric did not hold back, with regards to the Ray Rice situation, and he said as much, that if there is anyone to blame that he, Eric, was to blame because he was the one who decided to draft Ray. Of course the only person really to blame is Ray Rice who made a horrific choice.
         But the conversation did bring about larger questions. For example, according to sources, Ray was completely transparent both with the league and with the Ravens, so the only thing that changed between that fateful day in Atlantic City and this week was the release by TMZ of the rest of the video.
         Eric explained that there is something quite visceral and disturbing when it comes to seeing something versus hearing something. The example he gave was of those recent horrific beheadings of American Journalists by ISIS. Now ISIS has been engaging in such activities for the past two years, but the reason why we are now so upset is because we have seen them in action, versus hearing about it.
         I too fell into this trap. In response to the Ray Rice video, I made the following post on Facebook: “As football fans, we are quick to cast judgment on players of other teams, while we are just as quick to defend our own favorite players on our teams. Football is a violent sport that sadly sometimes spills out off the field. Having now seen the recently released footage from the incident with Ray Rice and the Hotel, it truly decimates all the good that he has tried to do in the community. There is no excuse for his actions. As a recent transplant to Baltimore and a newish Ravens fan, I am disappointed that the league has not taken further action with regards to suspending him. My hope and prayer is Ray and his wife find healing. Ray is able to find other outlets for his anger, and that the league take issues like this much more seriously. We Ravens fans do not condone any violence against women, children, and pretty much against anyone else. Our support of our team is not support of Ray's actions. And on behalf of the greater Baltimore area, if I may speak so boldly, we are both sickened and saddened.”
         I, for one, did not feel the same compulsion to write something similar when the news first broke this past spring. Needless to say, I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this. Why did I not react more strongly? Perhaps it was because the issue was for the most part, swept under the rug. As The National Organization for Women stated, "The NFL doesn't have a Ray Rice problem, it has a violence against women problem."
         And there will now be an investigation into how the NFL chose to handle this issue. However it is clear, domestic violence in our society is not deplored enough. It still tends to be taken into stride by too many.
         That being said, we are in the middle of Elul. The High Holy Days are coming around the corner, and I feel there is a golden opportunity here. I expressed as much a similar thought to Mr. de Costa as well.
         The Yamim Noraiim really have a two-fold nature to them. The first is to take stock of where we have gone wrong. That is why so much of our worship services are centered around the V’shamnu and the Al Cheit, the personal and group confessionals. However in many ways, confessing is the easier of the two acts. The second act, the center piece of both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is then to learn from those mistakes, those errors, those sins, and try do to better, especially if a similar situation arises.
         I believe the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, is not a literal book where our names are written for life or for death in the coming year, but instead are a reminder that, as Red said in the Shawshank Redemption, “You either get busy living or you get busy dying.” Dying in this case is about not living up to our truest natures, our truest potentials. To right the wrongs and make ourselves and our world better, is the only true way to live.
         With that in mind, I mentioned to Mr. de Costa, to date, the NFL continues to be in a reactionary position especially when it comes to violence against women by its employees. What I encouraged Mr. de Costa to do is to work with the Ravens and the NFL to take a more pro-active approach.
         Currently the NFL is mostly focused on punishing players who commit transgressions. Or not even drafting players who have already committed transgressions. But it is not really involved in the greater societal issue to trying to tackle domestic abuse head on.
         Just imagine if you will instead players, executives, and owners rallying around this cause. The Ravens and the NFL are currently the face of Domestic Violence, whether they like it or not. So why not own it? Why not make commercials, hold fundraisers, and speak out whenever possible against domestic violence? They now have the unique authority and the singular opportunity to do so!
         At least the Ray Rice incident is forcing us to talk about this dark secret. One of the areas of conversation I find fascinating and disturbing are peoples’ criticisms of Janay Rice, the victim and Ray’s now wife. Why doesn’t she just leave is a common refrain.
         One of the main reasons why victims don’t leave is, according to an article on, “If a victim is financially dependent on their abuser -- for income, for a roof over their head, even for health insurance -- walking away is made all the more difficult. They often must struggle to become financially self-sufficient, putting them at greater risk of falling into poverty and homelessness.”[1]
        As the article goes on to say, “Abusers often use money as a way to maintain power over their victims. They will withhold money, ruin the victim's credit, even forbid them to work so they don't have an independent source of income, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.”[2]
        I don’t think any of us are in a position to judge, especially Janay. My hope and prayer is that she is getting all the help and support she needs. And my other prayer is that we refrain from blaming her in any way. The relationship between the abused and the abuser is complex to say the least. And it is our role to support the abused, even if we do not always agree with their choices.
As a Washington Post article recently stated, “Her response is not surprising, said Brian Pinero, director for digital services of The National Domestic Violence Hotline and LoveIsRespect, a program for teens and young adults. “Remember, she is the victim …We hear from women all the time, ‘but I still love him.’”
“Any victim of physical abuse has suffered psychological and emotional abuse as well,” said Kristin Brumm, associate executive director of SAFEHOME, a shelter for domestic violence victims in Overland Park, Kan. “They may actually believe they’re to blame.”[3]
         And lest we forget, the Rices also have a child together. And to add something further to think about from the same article: “Three women a day, on average, are killed by a boyfriend or husband in the United States. Where’s the Ice Bucket Challenge raising awareness and money for this epidemic?
Leaving an abusive spouse, sadly, is often the most dangerous time for a woman. She’s 70 percent more likely to be killed when she’s trying to escape.”[4] The situation is never as clear cut as we wish it to be.
         Be that as it may, I believe it was Charles Barkley who famously said, “I am not a role model.” Well the truth is, athletes like all entertainers, are role models. It is the nature of the roll. We can argue whether or not this a good societal choice till the cows come home, but the fact is, our kids look up to our athletes.
         Our Torah portion this week is Ki Tavo. In it we find the following words, “The Eternal your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul … and God will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that God has made; and that you shall be, as promised, a holy people to the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 26:16-19).
         Israel was not chosen, was not made holy, and will not be regarded in fame, renown and glory because we are strong, we are good looking, or because we are talented. Fame, renown, and glory come because Israel is supposed to be righteous and Kadosh, holy.
         Holiness comes from doing what is right, even when it is hard. Holiness comes from changing ones past ways in order to become better people, better husbands, better fathers, better wives, better mothers, better siblings, better sons, better daughters, better friends, better grandparents and the like.
         We cannot change the past nor can we change past mistakes. The best we can do is own those past transgressions and work not to repeat them in order that they do not happen again. So even as we celebrate a Ravens victory over their rivals, even as we are still angry, hurt and disgusted by what has transpired with a beloved and admired figure in the Baltimore community, we too are reminded that we as well have a golden opportunity to make this next year a better one.
         My hope is that Ray Rice, the Ravens, and the NFL are able and willing to engage in some serious teshuvah this season, and work to make the world a little better and a little more safe, especially for women and children. But regardless, it is a good reminder that we all have the capacity to do teshuvah, especially in this season.
         For holiness is not a perpetual state. Only God is consistently and eternally holy. For the rest of us, it is an aspiration. It is something we can always strive for. All we have to do is be open to owning our mistakes and striving to make ourselves better. And if we do, the world will indeed become a little more holy.
         And if you are, or if you know someone who is currently a victim of domestic violence, I urge you to call the National Domestic Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-799-7233.
         May all be safe in this coming year to pursue their best selves and not have to worry about whether or not, they will in fact be safe at all.

[2] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.