Bringing weekly Jewish insights into your life. Join Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz, Rabbi Michelle Robinson and Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger of Temple Emanuel in Newton, MA as they share modern ancient wisdom.
Sukkot Day 1 Sermon: Would You Rather Be a Supreme Court Justice or a RICO Defendant? Choosing Ice Cream vs. Choosing Life with Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
18:05I have two classmates from the Harvard Law School class of 1986 who are extraordinarily famous. World famous, but for different reasons. One of them, Elana Kagan, is a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. She just made news recently because she has argued that the nine justices of the Supreme Court should be held accountable for their ethical practices, and that power without accountability is not a healthy combination in a democracy. The other of them, Kenneth Chesebro, made news recently for being indicted as one of the 19 defendants in the Georgia RICO case for allegedly attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Mr. Chesebro is presumed innocent. The prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But if convicted, he faces jail time. I have been thinking so much recently about their different trajectories: Supreme Court Justice. RICO defendant. And I have been wondering how did their paths diverge so dramatically?
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Talmud Class: "I Don't Do Pessimism" Our Posture? Should it Be?
55:48In his final podcast of 'For Heaven’s Sake' for the year 5783, entitled “Farewell 5783,” Donniel Hartman said something that really stuck with me. He said: “I don’t do pessimism.” Despite all the drama and tension in Israel, the many articles and voices talking about how the country is deeply divided, how this is the greatest domestic crisis in Israel’s 75 years, a cold civil war, Donniel does not do pessimism. He goes to demonstrations every week; learns; teaches; advocates; gives public speeches; does podcasts. But he will not surrender to pessimism. Donniel here channels the spirit of the late Shimon Peres who famously observed: “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death, but they live very different lives!” Do Jewish texts have a position about pessimism? Are there circumstances when pessimism is not only okay, but even called for? On the one hand, there is no shortage of texts in the Donniel/Shimon Peres tradition of eschewing pessimism. Hagar crying at the well when she and Ishmael were banished and thirsty; Jeremiah buying real estate in Anathoth even though he is in jail and the Babylonians are coming; Nehemiah telling the returnees to Jerusalem after the exile “You must not mourn or weep…Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.” On the other hand, there is a whole other tradition called prophecy, which is not infrequently saturated by deep pessimism of sin, national failure, exile, and destruction. The same Jeremiah who bought the house from prison also is the source of our Tisha B’av morning Haftarah: I will make an end of them, declares the Lord: No grapes left on the vine, No figs on the fig tree, The leaves all withered; Whatever I have given them is gone. Why are we sitting by? Let us gather into the fortified cities And meet our doom there. For the Lord our God has doomed us, He has made us drink a bitter draft, Because we sinned against the Lord. How do we put all this together? Is there ever a time for us to be pessimistic, or not?
Yom Kippur Sermon: Next, Next! Now, Now! with Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
18:56A writer named Robert Hubbell is not Jewish. He and his wife are both observant Catholics. But earlier this year he wrote an essay entitled “My Kippah” about the fact that one of his most cherished possessions is a kippah. He did not know any Jews growing up. One of the first Jewish people he ever got to know was a law school classmate, a woman who became a fast platonic friend and study partner. After they graduated from law school, their friendship continued, and Robert Hubbell and his wife were invited by this friend to join what she called their synagogue havurah, a group of friends that met regularly for conversation, learning and friendship. This observant Catholic couple finds themselves going to Shabbat dinners, Passover seders, Neila services at the Temple and the break-fast after Yom Kippur was over. At all these moments, Robert Hubbell would borrow a kippah and return it when the event was over. When his friend had her first son, Robert Hubbell and his wife attended the brit milah. Before the ceremony began, his friend presented him with a beautiful hand-knit kippah and said: “Here. It’s about time you had your own.” Since then, Robert Hubbell would wear the kippah to all the events as the young families in this havurah lived their lives. He wore his kippah to their Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, weddings, and joyful religious gatherings. As the years went by, however, he started wearing his kippah to the funerals of the families in his havurah. One day, alas, he had to wear his kippah to bury his friend. He writes: On Tuesday, I helped to bury my dear friend. She was 65…As I approached the grave, I wondered, “What profound thought is one supposed to hold in mind while helping to bury a lifelong, dear friend?” My mind was blank. No profound thoughts. All that came to mind was, “I am wearing the kippah I wore to her firstborn’s bris.” That kippah symbolizes the wellspring of our relationship, our mutual respect for one another’s faith traditions. The taut stitches of the kippah mirror the strong bonds of family and friends she wove into the beautiful tapestry of her life. She is gone, but I will hold tight to the kippah as a physical manifestation of her life, just as I will hold fast to the community of family and friends that is her enduring legacy and testament to the world. There is so much pathos, poignancy, beauty, sadness to this story.
Shabbat Sermon: Distance Travelled with Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
13:40Every August there is a show called Hard Knocks about the training camp of an NFL football team. This year the show focused on the New York Jets because of their new quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If you are not a football fan, Aaron Rodgers was a legendary quarterback of the Green Bay Packers where he won both a Super Bowl and the Most Valuable Player of the league four times—two times in the last three years. Rodgers was thought to be the missing piece that would help the New York Jets compete for a Super Bowl this year. The Jets had a lot of stars on their team, but they were missing a great quarterback. Aaron Rodgers was that great quarterback, their missing piece. His presence created tremendous excitement and expectations. Hard Knocks devoted five full episodes to the building, mounting, surging, soaring excitement that the Jets, so mediocre for so long, were now about to have their moment. I watched all five episodes. I did it for our congregation since I was searching for High Holiday content. The basic plot line of all five episodes is: yay!! Aaron Rodgers is coming to New York. The excitement mounts. Then came the first game. It did not follow the plan.
Talmud Class: Is the Peretz Story an Adequate Response to the Pain in Our World?
31:09For our Talmud class this week, we read the classic short story If Not Higher, written by the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz (1852-1915). Dr. Stephen Greenblatt, a proud alum of the Temple Emanuel Hebrew School, and a University Professor at Harvard, where he is the world’s preeminent Shakespeare scholar, teaches us If Not Higher before Neilah on Monday night. As you read this story, consider these questions: What is the theory of goodness, decency, menschlikeit that the rabbi in the story embodies? Do you consider the rabbi’s posture an adequate response to the pain in our world? When we read Unetaneh Tokef this year, there is so much pain: who by fire (Maui), who by water (Libya), who an untimely end (the victims of Russia’s evil war against Ukraine). The list goes on. If that is our world, and it is, sadly, does Peretz offer us a response that is commensurate to the problem? What is the role of ritual, halakhah, Jewish law, in the rabbi’s life, and how does it relate to how he acts? What is the relationship between his piety and his decency? What is not included, not covered, not addressed, by this rabbi’s example? How does the rabbi’s move affect systemic problems like poverty (the problem he addresses in the story). Consider this text from Deuteronomy 15 that aspires to a world without poverty but concludes that poverty will always exist. This story is iconic. Does it speak to you?
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon: What’s Your Cathedral? with Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
20:38There is an old joke about a mother who wakes up her son and says: Honey, you have to get up. It’s time to go to shul. The son resists. I don’t want to go to shul. I want to sleep. Honey, you have to go to shul. I don’t want to go to shul. I want to sleep. You can’t sleep. You have to go to shul. Give me one good reason. Give you one good reason? What about: you’re the rabbi! What do we do about the things we don’t want to do? It’s easy to respond to the things we want to do. Want to go to the Taylor Swift concert? Yes. Want to go watch the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics or Bruins? Yes. Want to go away to the Berkshires or Cape or Martha’s Vineyard with your loved ones? Yes. But what about the stuff we don’t want to do? Two things are both true, and they cut in opposite directions. One, people like doing what they want to do when they want to do it, not what they feel they have to do. Like the rabbi in the joke who does not want to have to go to shul, we resist what we have to do and gravitate towards what we want to do. But two: if all we do is what we want to do when we want to do it, that is an inconsequential life. If you think about the people you really admire, if you think about the funerals you have been to that leave you inspired, it is never because somebody focused on their own needs. Rather we admire people who sacrifice their energy, time and peace of mind to pursue some greater good. Thus our dilemma. We like doing what we want to do. But a worthy life means doing what we don’t always want to do. How do we thread this needle?
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon: When I Was Younger with Rabbi Michelle Robinson
18:56One of my closest friends tells of an impish childhood. Facing his parents’ discipline, whether after a homework assignment not turned in, a skirmish with his sister, or a fly-ball through the living room window, they would ask him, “How did this happen? Did you do this?” To which he would reply, “Yes – but that was when I was younger.” We sometimes tease about that mantra, adorably employed to excuse any error, no matter how recent. We test its range: “You’re right,” I might say, “I was texting while we were talking on the phone just now, but that was when I was younger.” It never fails to turn frustration into laughter – perhaps because of how ridiculous it is. Taken literally, it would be a spectacularly bad way to approach our wrongs. After all, even the worst things we ever did share one indelible truth: We did them when we were younger. But back in April, I had an interaction that made me look again at my friend’s childhood plea and convinced me that “I did that when I was younger” is a phrase we all could use more of in this new year.
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon: Unstuck with Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
16:21On March 18, 1980, a young historian named Marty Sherwin, then age 43, signed a contract with Knopf publishing to write a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. When Marty Sherwin signed the deal, both he and the publishing house expected that it would be a five-year project. He was to get paid $70,000, $35,000 up front, and the remainder five years later when the book was to have been completed. But, famously, five years later, he had not completed the book. In fact, five years later, he had not even started writing it. Marty Sherwin was a meticulous researcher, and he found himself in a rabbit hole. He would spend twenty years doing research on Oppenheimer. His research came to 50,000 pages of original sources, including 8,000 pages of FBI records. There were more than 100 records of interviews. So for twenty years, Marty Sherwin accumulated box after box of material. Boxes in his attic. Boxes in his basement. Boxes in his office. There was just one thing he did not do. He did not start writing. The book that was to have been completed in five years was still not started twenty years later. At first it became a running joke in his family. Marty Sherwin’s son Alex recalled that when he was growing up, his father would say to him: “Alex, do your homework.” To which Alex would say: “Dad, write your book.” But as the years went on, it got less funny. Sherwin told his wife I am going to die without ever writing this book. Put the epitaph on my tombstone: researched but did not write the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In a word, Marty Sherwin was stuck. S-T-U-C-K. Stuck. Most of us are not stuck in the way Marty Sherwin was stuck. But who among us has not been stuck in our own way? We are stuck in a job we don’t love, but we can’t figure out how to get out of it and what to do next. We are stuck with our children. Little kids, little problems. Bigger kids, bigger problems, and often it is hard to talk about what really matters, so we let stuff go. We are stuck in our marriage, okay, not great. We are stuck financially, still worrying about inflow and outflow. We are stuck emotionally, walking around with entirely too much worry and too many dark clouds. We are stuck spiritually, another Rosh Hashanah, and the nagging question, have we grown Jewishly? Our neshamah, our soul, our morale, our inner life, are all too often stuck in neutral. If a goal of our life is to thrive, to live our best life now, in too many areas of our life, we are not doing that. In too many areas, we are stuck. How do we get unstuck? We can learn from Marty Sherwin’s story how we can get unstuck. The first move is to get help