Matt Glickman Sermon | Congregation Beth Am

Matt Glickman Sermon

August 10, 2018

My name is Matt Glickman. I have been a member of this congregation for over 15 years. While we are regular participants in services, education, and community programs here, I may be stretching the definition of being a regular attendee. It made me wonder why I was asked to be up here today, and frankly even made me a bit squeamish. But I suppose I can take guidance from my grandfather, who starred in an annual city-wide review in my hometown’s main civic institution – the Cleveland City Club. He played the ultimate ordinary man – kind of like Richard Nixon’s silent majority, without all the political baggage. He was Ben Sapp, citizen ordinare, taxpayer extraordinare. So I suppose I am here as congregant ordinare, dues payer extraordinare. And I will tell you my story of how I connect to Beth Am and to my Jewish heritage.

Though my visits here can be episodic, they have an enduring potency. I look back on my Midwest-based parents who visited my children for what amounted to only a small number of hours and days over the years. But I see how that small quantity of engagement has touched my children deeply and shaped them for the rest of their lives. So I believe Beth Am has done for me, like an ornamental pattern that turns an ordinary cloth into a warm, vibrant fabric.

For me, Beth Am connects the religious to the real world and to social causes that extend beyond a narrow, historic definition of religion. Sometimes this is with comical touches- like when my then elementary school age child returned from Sunday school brimming with stories from her class on Jewish leaders. She was particularly excited to tell me about Israel’s founding President, Harvey Milk. 

Oftentimes the connections are more profound - like serving meals and providing shelter to needy families or new immigrants. We are nominally offering help, but are in turn finding greater personal gain by interacting with those in our community whom we may not meet in our daily lives – and also by working alongside our children- serving food or cleaning up the kitchen – activities that bond us even more than our usual parent-child activities at home

Beth Am intersects with my work life as well. Coincidentally, at the same time that Beth Am declared early childhood as its main community initiative, I founded a nonprofit organization to support entrepreneurs working on improving early childhood outcomes. While my work is primarily about helping effective programs to scale their impact nationally to serve all children and families in need, it was nice – and important - to connect to efforts in my local community. It also connected me with people of different ages at Beth Am. Harvey Schloss, may he rest in peace, gave me several names at a breakfast meeting shortly before he passed away. It was meaningful to establish a relationship with him personally, and the introductions he made were to people who are important leaders for my national work now.

And, last, this interlacing of religion and the wider world extends to this setting. I have always loved these outdoor services and have a much better attendance record in the summer sessions than during the year. It may seem superficial, but the connection of a Jewish service and a beautiful natural setting speaks to me – and is so different than the Midwest synagogue of my youth in the 1970s and 80s. And, I often bring my children, deepening our inter-generational bond.

But Beth Am seems never judgmental about my wavering attendance. To the contrary, the rabbinate, as one example, have patiently woven my family into this community. Rabbi Weissman guided us through our oldest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Rabbi Jon shepherded my youngest daughter through hers.  My middle daughter, who rebelled against Shabbaton and became a Bat Mitzvah at a private ceremony in our home, was drawn back in by Rabbi Jon and Rabbi Heath’s confirmation program and has voluntarily and proactively asked me about the 11th and 12th grade weekend sessions. I am jealous because she is at that age where she never proactively asks to do anything with me.

But my strongest connection to Beth Am revolves around the history and the traditions of Judaism. My middle daughter, the one who chose another location for a Bat Mitzvah, stated it better than I. She returned to the path of having a Bat Mitzvah at age 11, when attending her cousin’s Bat Mitzvah in Israel. She told me that she envisioned a many thousand year old rope that continued from ancient times through to today, and that if she did not learn to study Torah, it would be like she was just slicing this rope for good and for generations to come.

It is this connection to the learning of Torah – and to the thousands of years of Jewish – and really human – struggle that draws me in most. Beth Am bridges this connection into the modern day world but without losing the tie to the ancient roots of our religious tradition. Yes, social service is important and even necessary, but what speaks to me most is when these activities are linked to the long enduring tradition of Torah and study. The parts of Shabbaton that worked for me best were precisely when the activities focused on stories and lessons from the Bible – even if made more relevant and engaging for kids today. And I remember fondly Rabbi Marder’s lectures during Shabbaton – we adults sipping a glass of wine, while the children were off in their own classroom.

So, I was happy to read the current Torah portion and take away some lessons from it. In it, God offers the Israelites a blessing if they obey His commandments, and a curse if they do not. The blessing is to be pronounced at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. He also extends a particular warning about being tempted by the local pagan Gods. But He goes further about the locals – “you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

There is a long list of extremist, harsh measures about how the Jewish people should push their way into a new land. My first reaction is probably one that many 21st century liberal Reform Jews have – these ideas are irrelevant, wrong, embarrassing. But as Beth Am and Judaism have taught me, I must slow down, read carefully, think and feel deeply. Human nature doesn’t change so quickly. These Israelites of 4000 years ago push for extreme measures. We don’t dare to do that here and now. Are those instincts pushed out of our nature for good? Is it easy to feel good about ourselves by looking morally askance at ancient Israelites -- and their compatriots in todays world who undertake these extremist measures).  But perhaps we are just in a more privileged position where we feel comfortable and safe enough that we do not have to fight so tenaciously for our survival? Deep inside us still are the strains of that tribal and animal instinct for survival. We must always fight to keep those strains in check.

This Torah portion also contains a long list of the specific and arcane commandments that we must follow, a subset of the 613 Mitvot or restrictions enumerated in the Torah. We have certainly discarded many of them. But is our 21st century life really that unconstrained? While we may feel more free, my hunch is that an outsider could come to the Peninsula and identify 613 different restrictions that are so woven into our social code that we do not even notice them. So, again humanity mostly stays the same.

And, last, this passage is also a lesson to me about the difficulty of defending abstract, powerful ideas. For these Israelites, it was the idea of a monotheistic, invisible G-d. It would take extreme measures for this kind of powerful yet ethereal idea to survive in their era. Can’t the same be said for democracy in our era? It is another powerful and ethereal idea, susceptible to being pushed away by the baser instincts of human nature.

Are we then doomed to repeat the past? My Reform Judaism helps me reconcile these tensions – yes, human nature is stubborn, but human civilization can also evolve. Slowly, like Robert Frost says:

Take human nature altogether since time began

And it must be a little in favor of man

Say a fraction of one percent at the very least

Or our hold on the planet wouldn’t have so increased

And our progress is always  susceptible to backsliding if we aren’t careful. My Judiasm is what leads me to yearn for a better world and do my small part at Tikun Olam, while remaining humble about my character and ever aware about my temptations and shortcomings. And ever vigilant about the downsides from tribal thinking and actions. And to pass this struggle for meaning and for good on to the next generations. So my personal goal is to remain connected to my Judaism as a guidepost – a time tested way to live your life and manage the struggles and temptations that confront us.  I can hope for more visits to Mount Gerizim – blessings –while also remaining cognization of that that ever jewish recognition – that Mount Ebal and its curses will always be lurking in our lives-  no matter how much we wish that were not the case.    Thank you.

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