Turn, Turn, Turn

For all can see that wise men die, that the foolish and senseless all perish and leave their wealth to others. They think their houses will remain forever; their dwellings for all generations; they give their names to their estates. But man, despite his splendor, does not endure.  [Psalm 49]

Derek Penwell wrote an article for the Huffington Post called “What if the Kids Don’t Want our Church”  and it cuts to a question that every generations asks each other; “Will our children really care about the things we value most?” it is a hard question. I look at the things my wife, Michelle and I have collected over the years and to almost all of it we have meaning and memories attached to it. We must only remember that these meanings and memories are our own, and our stuff may not have the same meaning or memory to our children who are now finding meaning and memory in their own lives. I admit to a certain curiosity of what things my children may want from the stuff we have collected and when, someday, I have grandchildren, I know that they will have their own memories of stuff they played with and saw at their grandparent’s house and perhaps our grandchildren may keep some of our stuff for their own reasons.

But there are things that I am sure my children will keep for as long as they are alive. They will keep our insistence on honesty. They will treasure our lessons on kindness. They will remember for a long time the lessons we tried to teach them about life and they will bring their own interpretations of our practical wisdom to meet whatever new situations in which they may someday find themselves.

We fool ourselves when we believe that the stuff we accumulate will live on after we are gone. The symbolic meaning we attach to it is very personal and perishable. The late Rabbi Jacob Chiel in one of his books tells a story of a mother who valued her stuff over her children, banishing them from the living room lest they break her valuable treasures. Now her daughter is sitting in the house while her mother is dying at the hospital and she looks around at all the stuff that her mother worked so hard to preserve and it has no meaning for the daughter at all. In fact, she has learned to despise all the things her mother scolded her to not touch all the years she was growing up and again when the grandchildren came over. Now, at the end, the stuff her mother had ‘saved’ was all “for nothing.”

This applies to our homes, and it applies to our churches and synagogues. What good are all the things we leave behind if we don’t leave behind memories, ideas and lessons for living? The next generations will not care about stained glass windows or who donated them if they never did anything worthwhile in their shadow. Why should they care about a building if nothing of substance was ever done inside?

I have said many times in my own sermons and on this blog, it is not about the stuff, it is about the relationships. We treasure the people we love and the meaningful activities that make a difference in the world. Rabbi Akiva once said to the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon that he had a good investment if Tarfon was willing to put some money in. Tarfon agreed and Akiva then gave all the money for scholarships for students. Later Rabbi Tarfon asked about the investments and when he might see the return on the investment. Rabbi Akiva took Rabbi Tarfon to the academy and showed him the students who were learning there. “Here is the return on your investment”, Akiva said. Rabbi Tarfon had to admit that his investment in Torah learning would pay important dividends even if it did not put more money in his pocket.

Our children don’t need our buildings, our architecture or our pews. They need to know about our faith, our acts of Hesed (kindness) and the important lessons of our religion. These they will carry no matter where they may go and no matter what they may do, and they will treasure in their own hearts  and in their own way these moral values no matter if the buildings we build will survive or not. The most important part of the building is what the people are doing inside.

It is interesting to see what happens to a building over the generations, the transitions it goes through and the transformation of its neighborhood. Israeli archeologists have uncovered some extraordinary ancient synagogues and a great many dedication inscriptions that are an important part of Jewish history. These synagogues were all lost and forgotten. The faith practiced in those buildings, however, has remained eternal though the buildings have not. Our ancient faith is still being taught, not in the old ruins but in new places. It would be a real tragedy if our children don’t find their own love of the values and lessons of faith they learned in our synagogues and churches. Our stuff comes and goes but the lessons of life are eternal. Our buildings and our “stuff” are only as important as the relationships to God that are forged inside.

Living in a Material Word

As Fashion week came to and end in New York, and the New York Times put out its spring edition of T magazine with all the latest fashions for the next season, I began to reflect on what it means to be in style.

On the one hand, nobody wants to be out of date. Ties may grow wide or thin, lapels may be large or small, hemlines may rise and fall and we had to decide if we are going to join this new trend or not. It is not just clothing. We are constantly checking to see if we have gone out of style in one way or another. We look to see how others (or models in magazines) are wearing their hair. If we are shopping for a car we look to see what our friends are driving. We visit new restaurants based on where others are eating. We watch television shows that are creating “buzz”. We want to see whatever movie that “everyone else is seeing”.  And if our technology fashion is based on  Apple standards, we just have to have the latest release from the company that Steve Jobs built.

To be sure there are those who do not want to be trend setters. We are the last to see the movie, buy a fashionable outfit or own the latest gadget. Still we do care that we do not fall too far behind. There are many pragmatic reasons to not always be first in line. Still there is a measure of ignobility if we fall too far behind that others may laugh at what we own.

And yet there are some things that just never go out of style. Like a tuxedo or your basic black party dress, somehow the basics always stay in style. Young people may always go for what is new and different, but somehow as we mature (and I am not talking senior citizen here, just your basic adult)we find ourselves attracted to what is enduring.  We get this sense that there has to be something that is the foundation upon which we can rely. The world can’t always be a rocking ocean, sometimes we need to find a quiet harbor where we can weather a storm.

And that is exactly why faith never goes out of style.

Religion is the foundation upon which we can build our lives. It is the important base that makes all the impermanent things in life, useable.

There seems to always be people who declare that religion is hopelessly out of date.  Those people in the Bible, they may be quaint but They will never be as sophisticated as we are. What the Bible calls “miracles” are just signs as to how ignorant those ancient people were. Don’t forget, why in the world would we need laws that just outright forbid lying, adultery and theft? Our world today is more “grey” than that.

There are also people who say that religion is actually immoral. All that indiscriminate killing, the death penalty, and the idea of a “jealous” God who forces Pharaoh to sin so God can punish him and his entire country, what kind of a faith is this? Look at all the hatred and war that religion has brought upon the world. Who needs this? What kind of a Bible preaches love but then encourages discrimination against blacks, women and homosexuals? “No thanks”, they say, “give me a good secular culture any day.”

Judaism is my faith and certainly there are things that are on record of which I am not proud. There are moments in every age in history where there are ideas and incidents that I think I could easily live without.  Certainly there is, in Judaism, enough to criticize and bow our heads in shame.

But religion is not meant to be perfect. It is the record of how humanity and God have tried to understand each other. It  is a choppy history, one that is full of mistakes, blunders and wrong turns. The record of Judaism is filled with conflict and power grabs. That is, of course, the human way.  But Judaism keeps on going  because underneath all the problems, is a core that we Jews understand is God trying to show us how to live better lives. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we fail to understand, sometimes we go on a wrong turn that lasts for centuries. But in the end, no matter how many circles we go around, there is still some progress toward a better world and better human beings. It does take time to get some moral growth out of our selfish and deluded brains.

But God has all the time in the world. God is not bound by our restrictions of time and space.

God has high expectations that have had to come down sometimes to our level. We have a long way to go to raise ourselves up to where God wants us to be. So we struggle, we try, we aspire and we experiment with what we think God wants from us.  What looks good on paper often does not work in real life. Real life sometimes demands that we update what we have put down as moral certainty on paper. The moral fads eventually give way to what will become classics, the understanding of life that includes morality, fairness, understanding, justice and love.

God’s light shines brightly on our world, and as we draw closer to the source of that light, our lives can shine brighter too. The point of faith is not to be perfect, but to try harder every day to bring more light into our lives and into the lives of those who lives touch our own.