Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Lost Jewel ... Found in a Box ...

I opened a box tonight which had contents that hadn't been seen since I moved to Texas ... more than two years ago. 

Yes, I know there are organizational experts who would tell you that I should have just given the box away without opening it, because I clearly didn't "need" whatever had been packed away for more than two years, but I just can't do this.   And so tonight, after more than two years, I opened a random box (yes, there are more I haven't yet opened) and found a lost jewel. 

Wrapped in a non-descript plastic bag, I found an old book I collected on my journey ... one I had forgotten I had. 

This beautiful book made me cry because it had been packed away, despite its value.  The value, though, is probably lost on most people because it looks so sad.  The binding is loose, it has a couple of loose pages, and it needs to be rebound.  But what is on the inside is priceless to me.

The loose binding reads, "The Order of Prayers," but (as a rabbi) I have tons of prayer books.  What makes this book so special to me follows the initial page, which reads, "The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire."  The next page gives the title and the author/editor and reads as follows:

The Order of Prayers
Translated, compared, and revised
Rachel Mayer
Vienna 1921

In the upheaval of finding my life as a rabbi, packing, moving, and beginning a new job, I had forgotten that I had found this wonderful book and was looking forward to the adventure of learning about a clearly remarkable woman, this Rachel Mayer.

The internet can be a wonderful tool, but can sometimes let you down.  I had done my initial search on the web to try to learn about this early Jewish woman scholar, but literally found almost nothing ... other than a reference to a Passover Haggadah she wrote/edited the same year (1921), I found nothing. 

And so I have a new hobby because I found a lost jewel in my (too many) boxes.   : )

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5771: "We Run and Run and Run and Run ..."

     Good yuntif.
     My goodness ... things have been pretty busy around here lately… but I’m guessing things are pretty busy in most of your houses every day, too?
      Anyone else feel like you spend all your time running?
     Running from here to there and then back again … why, we don’t even stop running when we are on vacation … we make tons of plans of things to see, things to do, and things to visit … so much so that, when we return, we sometimes need a vacation from our vacation.
     Once, I flew to India for six days and spent every single day in a different city … I literally made a list of 6 things I wanted to see on that trip and got on a new plane every day, going from place to place to place to place to place to place ... and then “the vacation” was over. In hindsight, I got to see six amazing places, but does that really sound like a vacation?

     How about lists … anybody here got a "to do" list that is so long you feel like you’ll never, ever be “finished” with it?
     Or, more likely, how many of us are afraid to even write everything down on our to do list for fear that it would be so overwhelming we’d never actually do it?

     In these busy times, we just seem to run ... and run ... and run.

[The Violinist of L’Enfant Plaza ... Footnote 1]

      Imagine, if you will, a young man standing on the plaza level of the L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, DC. Wearing blue jeans, a longsleeved tshirt, and a Washington National baseball cap, he pulls out a violin from its case and throws a couple dollars and the change from his pocket as seed money to inspire the passersby to do the same thing. For the next 43 minutes, the young man plays six classical pieces of music.
     What do you do when you walk by, hearing him play?
     It’s rush hour, 7:51 am on a Friday morning and, for the next 43 minutes, the young man plays six pieces of classical music.
     What do you think happens?
     During this 43 minutes, 1,097 people passed by on their way to work … during that time:
     “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation … annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? ... [But,] what if he's really good?”
     I mean, really, who has time to stop and listen when you are rushing on your way to work?
     But, on that particular Friday in January:
     "Those private questions we answer so quickly as we are running from place to place would be answered in an unusually public way.
     No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made … [a $3.5 million Stradavarius].
     His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"
     You should know that he did not play popular music “whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. [You see,] that was not the test. [Instead,] these pieces were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls” and, surprisingly, the acoustics were quite good.
     The man playing the violin was literally one of the top three violinists in the world and his name was Joshua Bell. Bell has played for heads of state, the best symphonies in the world, and sells out to standing room only crowds everywhere he plays … he has even received a prize as the best classical musician in America. He makes $1,000 a MINUTE to play … on a $3.5 million dollar Stradavarius.
     When the Washington Post set up this experiment a few years ago that January morning, they were worried that they might cause a public scene, that Mr. Bell might get hurt from the commotion and the crowd ... and that they might need to call in the police for crowd control.
     So, what do you think happened?
     Well, it took three full minutes of playing before anything at all happened … 63 people had already walked by before anything at all really happened … what was the breakthrough?
     A middle-aged man sorta’ cocked his head and seemed to notice that there was a guy over that was playing some music, and then he kept walking.
     A half minute later, someone finally dropped something in his violin case – a woman threw in a dollar bill … and she kept right on walking.
     It was not until 6 minutes into his performance that someone actually stood against a wall and finally, really listened.
     He played for 43 minutes. Out of 1,097 people who passed by in those 43 minutes, only 7 people stopped what they were doing for one minute to listen … they were buying lottery tickets, walking to work, getting their shoes shined. 27 people gave money, most of them on the run … he made $32.17. Some of the 1,070 people who walked by were only 3 feet away, yet few even turned to look.
     What does this story say about us?
     Some might say that we as a people don’t pay much attention to what is going on around us.
     Some might say we have too much closing us off from the rest of society, since many of those 1,070 who passed by were on the phone or listening to iPods.
     Some might say we just need to give ourselves more time in the morning to slow down.
     I might suggest that we look even wider in answering the question. Perhaps we need to get outside ourselves a little more.
     And look.
     Our sages teach that the bush on the side of the road was always burning, Moses just happened to be the first one to pay attention to it.

     Today, it is Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of our year, the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe and, on Yom Kippur morning, we will read from the Torah a passage that includes these phrases, “choose life,” therefore, “that you and your descendants may live,” by “loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is your life and the length of your days.”  [FN 2]  Certainly, the passage is talking about choosing to live “the good life” and follow the mitzvot, but I believe that this presupposes that we choose to actually live.

     [Long pause]

     Recently, our community has lost so many people.
     Our individual families have lost too many loved ones, and our community has lost someone who gave to so many … we have lost too many people we have loved.
     But we can choose life, and really live.

[How Should We Choose to Live Our Lives?]

     You know, you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their presets on their car’s radio station … check out the stations they have programmed in and you can tell if they like hard rock, easy listening, jazz, classical, or the news … or maybe a combination of all of them.
     Even more so nowadays, I guess I should say check out the “Top 25 Most Played” on their iPod or iPhone, and you can learn a lot about someone … what kind of beat gets ’em moving, what kind of stories they connect with … yep, you can tell a lot about a person by the music they listen to.
     I’m pretty sure that I shared this secret with some of you, but the rest of you have to promise not to tell anyone … but … “I love country music.”
     Back when I lived in Vegas and LA, I had to whisper it, but here in Austin? Here, I can say it with my head held a little higher … and my voice a little stronger, because people here in Texas just understand better that good country music can tell a great story ... and great stories, especially when set to great music, are really what touch our hearts.
     Now people make jokes all the time about country music … about how you “cain’t” write a song unless it’s about your momma’ dying … or your dog dying … or a relative getting out of prison … or your brand, new pickup truck.
     Now, don’t get me wrong. All of those topics are perfectly fine themes for a country song … and I absolutely love the ones about pickup trucks because, maybe you can take the girl out of Georgia, but you can’t take the Georgia out of the girl.
     But what really gets me about country music is the “realness” – is that even a word? The lyrics just always seem to be about living life to its fullest.
     One day a few years back, I realized I had to pull my car over because I was crying. It was the first time I heard a Tim McGraw song with such an extraordinary story that it made me stop and think. [FN 3]
     Tim McGraw was singing about how a man felt, after it sunk in, that he only had a short time to live. The narrator of the song asks the man what he did after he learned his fate, and the man responds in the chorus of the song like this … he says:

     I went sky diving,
     I went Rocky Mountain climbing,
     I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Blue Manchu ...

     OK, now I am not going to tell you go bullriding … I’ve seen what that can do to people … why do I tell you about a song like this on Rosh HaShanah?
     The name of the song was “Live Like You Were Dying.”

     [Deep breath.]

     Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals visiting people who were sick and in need of healing.
     Once back when I was a student, I held a rather elderly woman’s hand who had asked for a Rabbi … and, well, she got me. Even though she wasn’t always lucid during my visit, her daughter told me that all she wanted to do was say the “Sh’ma.” Laying in her hospital bed, so fragile and so weak, when I told her I would sing the Sh’ma with her, she sat upright in the bed and sang in her loudest voice with gusto and pride.
     As I was walking back to my car, I thought about that stage in my life where I might need medical care in the future … and, when I got into the car, the song “Live Like You Were Dying” came on the radio.
     I don’t believe there is anything such as coincidence … I think that maybe God sometimes works anonymously.

     What’s the message? It is plain and simple:


     [Deep breath.]

     Yes, there are places we can go … and things we can do.  
     For example, on my birthday one year, I did one of the things I love most … I got in the car with two of my friends and we went for a drive … I think we were gone for a grand total of eight hours.
     We drove northeast from Las Vegas and went to the tiniest little towns called Beatty and Rhyolite … yep, of all the places I could have chosen for my birthday, and I wanted to go to Beatty and Rhyolite, Nevada. And while we were there, we did one of my favorite things in the whole world … we went to see the town cemeteries.
     You know, you can tell a lot about a person’s life by what is written on their tombstone, especially in the backwoods of Nevada.
     And you can learn a lot about a family by seeing who is buried next to whom, and by figuring out how they were related.
     And each time I visit a cemetery, it reminds me of my own mortality.
     You see, every day we are here, we are writing our own eulogy. By our actions and how we treat others, we decide what will be said about us when we are gone.

     [Deep breath.]

     The song lyrics continue:

     He said I was finally the husband that most the time I wasn’t,
     And I became a friend a friend would like to have,
     And all the sudden going fishin’ wasn’t such an imposition,
     And I went three times that year I lost my dad.

     I finally read the good book,
     And I took a good long hard look,
     At what I’d do if I could do it all again.

     The message is simple:
     Figure out what is important to you.
     Figure out who is important to you.
     And figure out a way to combine the two.

[How Do We Judge Each Year and Make it Meaningful?]

      Which leads me to another favorite song at this time of year … it is a song from the Broadway musical Rent, called “Seasons of Love” … but I’ve always thought it should be named the most powerful phrase within the song … I’ve always thought it should be called, “525,600 minutes.”
     You see, that’s how many minutes there are in a year … and so I ask:

     How did you spend your last 525,600 minutes?

     [Long pause]

     How do you plan to spend your next 525,600 minutes?

     [Long pause]

     Fourteen times in our sacred scriptures we hear the word, Hineini, here I am … once even in today’s Torah portion.
     So, what does it mean to be truly here? What does it mean to be truly present in one’s life?

     Well, it might look like different things to different people.
     Could it mean turning off the electronics in our lives, the TV, the iPod, the iPad, the Blackberry, yes, just for a few minutes and connecting with the real people in our lives?
     Could it mean reaching out to hold someone’s hand and really holding it when someone needs not for you to listen, but instead maybe just for them to be heard?
     Could it mean thinking about what our goals truly are? What do we want to be remembered for? What do we want people to say about us in our eulogy?
     It could mean a new commitment to more hugs, and less things in our lives.
     It could mean … [ long pause ] … what does it look like to you now?

     Here I am.

     What do you want this to look like for you?
     Rosh Hashanah … This is Hayom Harat Olam – this is the day creation began … and this is the day when we can begin to recreate ourselves.

     And so I leave you today with three new year’s wishes for all of us …
     I pray that we can stop running … and running … and running … and instead find
as many meaningful moments as we can in the next 525,600 minutes … so that we can mean it each and every time we want to say, and can truly choose to say, Hineini.
     I pray that each of us takes the opportunity to truly “live like we were dying” … for many, many years to come.
     And, lastly, when the beautiful music is playing, I pray that we stop and notice … and give ourselves a chance to really listen.
     Who knows, we might be hearing the “Flop of L’Enfant Plaza” … who became the winner of the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the best classical musician in America.
     Gut yuntif.
1. The first section of the sermon is based on Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post on April 7, 2007: “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nation’s Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a DC Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out.” All quotations in this section of the sermon are from this story.

2. Deuteronomy 30:16-19.

3. “Live Like You Were Dying is a country-western song made famous by Tim McGraw. Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman cowrote this Grammy Award-winning “Best Country Song” (47th Annual Grammy Awards).