Tuesday, December 13, 2016

“Will You Still Love Me When I’m 64?”

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
December 10, 2016

Today I get to ask the question posed by Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, and which I first heard when I was the tender age of 14.  Today I ask, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four?”

That’s because today I turn 64. 

When columnist John Start celebrated his 64th birthday he wrote, “As every boomer knows, this is a milestone birthday — as important as turning 21, 40 or 65… Who of our generation doesn’t know the words by heart? ... It’s in our DNA.”

The song was written by Paul McCartney when he was 15 or 16 years old, and polished up many years later when Paul’s father turned 64.  The vaudevillian style song opens with the somewhat frivolous and irreverent,

“When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?

If I'd been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?

Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?”

It may be hard to believe, but when McCartney wrote it the average life expectancy was 63.  As Start wrote, “In 1967 people who were 64 seemed ancient and very square, like Bing Crosby, Arthur Godfrey and Lawrence Welk.”

On the surface it portrays an idyllic vision of old age: of someone who still wants to party and stay out late, while at the same time being a faithful home-bound couple where one mends a fuse, as his loved one sits by the fireside knitting a sweater.  Working together in the garden, renting a summer cottage, with grandchildren named Chuck, Vera and Dave, they go out for Sunday morning rides in the country.   

“Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me
Will you still feed me
When I'm sixty-four?”

The perspective of the teenager from Liverpool who wrote the song is of a young man anxiously and hopefully looking towards old age.  It reflects our mixed feelings and anxiety about growing old.  Like many of us, he wants to have it all.  He wants to party hard and also be a home body. 
Released in the summer of 1967 on the revolutionary and ground-breaking Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, at a time when 64 seemed distant to our self-absorbed generation and we were told not to trust anyone over 30, the lyricist looks wistfully into the distant future.  But beneath the up-beat, happy go-lucky tune and frivolous lyrics lie profound questions which we all confront.  We, like the person in the song want to know if love can be everlasting, if it will endure the test of time.  When he asks, “will you still feed me”, he is asking will I still be cared for when I can no longer care for myself.  The other question of the chorus, “will you still need me when I’m 64” asks if in a youth obsessed society will we still matter as we age? 

We boomers thought we would never get old. And in truth, not everyone who grows old does so gracefully.  The teenager who wrote it asks questions we all think about.  He is really asking if it is possible to find fulfillment, meaning, dignity, respect, love and purpose when one is no longer young?    

Incidentally, I assumed there was no connection to the topic of my sermon and this week’s parasha Vayeitzei until I came across a comment by Rabbi Yaakov Kamentsky that says that Yaakov spent the first 63 years of his life studying Torah with his father before setting out for Haran.  In other words, according to this commentator, Yaakov was 64 when he left Israel for Haran as described in our reading this morning! 

Consciously or not, McCartney may have been channeling the poet King David.  3,000 years ago the king who composed poetry and songs wrote in the Book of Psalms the famous words, al tashleecheni b’et zikna:   “Do not cast me off in old age.  When my strength fails, do not forsake me.”  (Ps. 71:9)  And the verse in Psalms 71:18, really sounds like something McCartney could have written, “even when I am old and gray, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to the next generation, Your power to all who are to come.”

Those words, “until I declare Your strength to the next generation” may be the key to understanding what our tradition tells us about what keeps us going.  We all want to live a long life, but we do not want to be old.  The psalmist recognizes that we want to remain active and independent, to continue to contribute to society and to pass on our wisdom, knowledge and the benefit of our experience to our loved ones and the next generation.

There may be something innate about the fear of growing old.  I read that in ancient times tribes used to either put the elderly on a raft or throw them off a mountain.  (I think I would take the raft.)  Judaism’s attitude stands in stark contrast to this approach, for it has always valued our elders and seen growing older as a blessing, as something to celebrate and embrace.   

DaVinci, Bellini, Michelangelo, as well as Moses and so many others produced their greatest works and made their most important contributions to society when they were advanced in years.

Rabbi Saul Teplitz wrote, “A person cannot help being old, but can resist being aged.  Age is determined by a person’s perspective.  When a person feels that he has climbed his last hill, reached his last goal, or dreamed his last dream (is when) old age sets in.”  Speaking personally, I feel that I still have hills to climb and dreams to dream, for as the prophet Joel said in words that have always inspired and motivated me, “Your young shall see visions, and your elders shall dream dreams.” 
Others have echoed Rabbi Teplitz’ sentiment.  General Douglas MacArthur captured the essence of how important attitude is when he said, “You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hopes, as old as your despair.”  This is what Benjamin Disraeli meant when he declared that age is a state of mind more than anything else.  Or as someone once said, “It’s not how old you are that is important, but how you are old.” 

The Book of Psalms tells us, “They will still yield fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and very green”, (ibid, 92:14) which I take to mean that there is still much living left, even for those who are blessed to reach the age of 64 and beyond.   

After all, at a time when there is so much that divides us, and when our nation and our people seem to be so torn and divided, one thing we all have in common is that we are older today than we were yesterday.  With the passing of each year the setting of the sun is more familiar, and therefore that much less frightening and uncertain.   

Like Jacob about whom we read today, life involves ascending and transcending the ladder of life, with achievements and disappointments along the way.  The poet Alvin Fine writes about the stages of life that, “Life is a journey, going and growing from stage to stage.  From childhood to maturity and youth to age, from innocence to awareness and knowing; from foolishness to discretion and then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to strength,…
From health to sickness, and back, we pray, to health again.

From offence to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding-
From fear to faith.

From defeat to defeat to defeat-
Until, looking backward or ahead
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, … a sacred pilgrimage…” 

So today when I ask, if you will still need me, and will you still feed me when I’m 64, I hope the answer is yes, and that we all may continue to grow older together on the sacred pilgrimage known as the journey of life. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Speech at First Baptist Church of GlenArden

I still recall the time many years ago when I told my children, now grown and with children of their own, about the story of one of the Jewish holidays.  It might have been Passover, or it could have been Chanukah or Purim, or some other holiday.  I explained to them that there were bad people who tried to kill the Jewish people, but that fortunately they did not succeed.

One of them asked me a simple question.  My child, sitting in my lap, looked up at me and asked with those big innocent eyes all children seem to have, and said just one word, “why?” meaning, “Why did they want to kill us?”

I was at a loss for words.  I didn’t know what to say.  My voice choked and I had tears in my eyes, because I did not have an answer to her question. 

I thought about the history of the Jewish people, about what we had done to make the world a better place, of all the Jews who had made so many important contributions in so many fields and helped improve society in whatever country they lived – and of how the world had treated us in return.  We never asked for anything other than to be able to live in peace, to be able to practice our religion and preserve and pass on our traditions.

I thought about what it was that I was passing on to my children, what they were inheriting, about the glory of our accomplishments, but also about how the history of those who had tried to hurt and destroy our people, how much cruelty we had endured, how much suffering we have known, and how senseless this hatred is. 

Just as there is no justification for racism, bigotry or prejudice, there is no way to explain why anti-Semitism exists. 

While I was not able to explain why this was our fate and destiny, I want you to know – It is precisely because of that experience, an experience that has followed us and persisted throughout history that I stand here today. 

It is because of that experience, of knowing what it is like to be an outsider that I am here today.

It is because of that experience, of persecution that I identify with the persecuted, with those who are singled out and discriminated against. 

It is why Jews have always been in the vanguard of the effort to ensure that all people deserve to be treated equally and why we have historically been allies marching together for civil rights. 

Our Bible and our sages teach us that every single person is created “B’tzelem Elohim: in the image of God.”  The rabbis of the Talmud tell us that whoever saves a single life saves an entire world – or to put it in terms we can understand today – It teaches us that lives matter, that all lives matter, and yes, that black lives, especially black lives matter.

I come here today on a Jewish holiday, Tisha B’Av.  Last night we sat on the floor in our synagogue in a darkened chapel illuminated just by candlelight and read from Scriptures about the tragedies that have befallen us on this day.  It is the saddest day of the year because we mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and the loss of our independence in the land of Israel.  From that time in the year 70 until 1948, 2,000 years later, we were in exile and the land of Israel was ruled by outsiders who invaded and conquered the country until we returned and regained our independence.     

And still every day, the tiny state of Israel, a country of only 8 million people, the size of the state of New Jersey must fight for its existence. 

Like many of you I have watched the Olympics and shared in the pride of the victories of our athletes.  One of the most inspiring aspects of the Olympics is to see the intense rigor of competition coupled with respect for one’s opponents.

But when the Israeli Judo player Ori Sasson defeated Islam el Shababy from Egypt, in violation of the rules of conduct and of the sport, the Egyptian refused to shake the extended hand of the Israeli.  And that is a country that is supposed to have relations with Israel, because the two countries signed a peace treaty!

Or Joud Fahmy of Saudi Arabia preferred to forfeit her judo match and give up her dream of competing in the Olympics so she wouldn’t have to face an Israeli athlete in the following round. 

This is typical of the treatment Israelis must deal with each and every day.

Worst of all was the Lebanese team who refused to ride together with the Israeli team on the bus to the opening ceremony.  The Lebanese actually blocked the Israeli team from getting on the bus and said they wouldn’t ride with them.    

So I am here to tell you, that we Jews know what it is like and what it means to be denied a seat on the bus!

And just as we have ridden together on the freedom rides throughout the south, just as we have fought together against forces of discrimination, let us ride together and stand up together against bigotry, against prejudice, against racism, against anti-Semitism and against those who single out and discriminate against you and me, against the people of Israel and against people of color.
We will stand together today and forever, for we are all God’s children, created in the image of God. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Reflection for These Troubled Times

This past week was a difficult one for our nation.  

Within days of the celebration of our nation’s birth and independence last week, a time when we reflect upon and express gratitude for the promise offered by America, we have witnessed images of senseless deaths across our country.  Our world seems inverted, as the loss of life has come at the hands of police and the lives of police have been taken.  Families have been shattered and communities torn apart as loved ones are mourned and buried. 

In the aftermath of the turmoil and tragic events many question what is happening to our nation.  The voices of hate, of division, of violence and of racism seem to be so pervasive that we cannot help but feel a sense of overwhelming despair and anguish.

Yet at precisely a time such as this, we must raise our voice, a voice of reason, of hope, and of tolerance to counter the darkness that threatens to envelop us, for the Bible introduced the notion that we should hope, work for and strive to make our world a better place.  And so we turn to our tradition for inspiration to persevere and for the encouragement to carry on and to cast light on dark places. 
The prophets eloquently proclaim that, “we have not come into being to hate or to destroy.”  Rather, our tradition affirms that our purpose is to create, to make the word a better place, and to love God.  We do this by performing acts of lovingkindness, by the sacred task of working for tikun olam, and by recognizing that all of humanity is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image. 

Our sages taught that the story of creation in the Torah focuses on the creation of the first human being so that we would know that we all have the same origins, that we share a common lineage and that every single life is precious.  

Let us pause in the face of such horrific acts. Let us reflect on what unites us. Let us be encouraged by the acts of goodness and see in them rays of hope. Let us look beyond stereotypes and work for unity, understanding and tolerance so we will be counted among those who work to bring peace and healing to our fractured nation.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
July 11, 2016

Sources and Texts:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Leviticus 19:18
Rabbi Akiba proclaimed that this is the greatest principle of the Torah.

“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”  Deuteronomy 16:20

“Great is peace, for even the angels in heaven need peace, since as we say, ‘God makes peace in the heavens above.’  If peace is necessary in the heavens, how much more so is it necessary on earth, where there are so many conflicts.”   Numbers Rabbah 11:7

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

In Memory of Elie Wiesel

I first heard Elie Wiesel speak when I was a college student at the University of Maryland in the 1970’s. Sitting behind a desk on an empty stage before several hundred students he spoke quietly and forcefully about the importance of remembering. Long before I thought about becoming a rabbi he had a profound impact on my thinking and the direction my life was to take.
At that lecture he said that to forget the victims of the Holocaust and what happened would be to cause them to “die a second death.” He spoke of the importance of asking questions, even if we do not have answers, for the questions and the act of questioning is what is most important. He spoke of faith, of the world that was lost, of the cruelty of humanity, and the inexplicable silence and indifference of the world, as well as of the importance of honoring the victims by keeping Judaism alive.
As a result of his experiences, he lived the words of Hillel, cited in the Talmud, “If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” He taught that when we speak and act as Jews, out of our unique experience is when we are most effective and our values are most universalistic. He advocated passionately on behalf of oppressed and persecuted Jews around the world, and spoke out for other victims of genocide as well. In a collection of essays entitled “A Jew Today” he wrote that we are a people with a mission, but that we have forgotten that mission, for the role of the Jew was never to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human. Recognizing that we are such a fragile people and such a small minority, with so many enemies, he refused to engage in public criticism of Israel, preferring instead to encourage love and support of the Jewish state.
His most famous book, “Night” is an important account of the Holocaust. If you have never read any of his other books, I encourage you to read them. I am sure you will also be profoundly moved, as I was, to seek to live a life of meaning, and to appreciate and work to perpetuate the beautiful heritage he describes, a world the forces of evil sought to destroy.