This past August, I received an article from the New York Times from several congregants while on two months of my three month sabbatical. The article, entitled, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” describes how, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at higher rates than most Americans,” and how, “many would change jobs if they could.” The author, Paul Vitello, goes on to write that for the sake of the health and well being of their clergy, more and more American churches and synagogues are insisting their religious leaders take extended vacations and sabbaticals. To that, I say, “hear, hear!”
Being a cantor has meant that for the duration of my 15 plus years in my profession, spare vacations now and then, I haven’t enjoyed with my family a series of uninterrupted weekends that were solely for ourselves. What most of us call a “weekend” is anything but for a member of the Jewish clergy! And although we enjoy a day off, it is a weekday nevertheless. Being a member of the clergy has also meant being on call 24/7. Imagine, if you will, that you had a medical emergency, or a legal emergency. Doctors and lawyers do get weekends and have on-call staff, and as much as you might really love that one doctor, if you had to get surgery, the best doctor on hand would do. Conversely, if the rabbi or cantor you grew up with couldn’t be with you to hold your hand at your darkest hour, you’d be hard pressed to find solace under the care of simply any clergy.
This has become the nature of this calling of the rabbinate or the cantorate.
So when I was granted the first sabbatical of my career, I was most grateful. To begin, I was looking forward to the rest that it could bring. As we read in Leviticus 25: “…In the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard [Lev. 25:4].” The land needs to rest in order to regain the nourishment to provide for the following year’s crops. After this fashion, academic and clerical sabbaticals usually come every seven years for those in said professions. But moreover, in order to truly be reinvigorated and refreshed, I would have to enrich myself by engaging in study and activities that directly related to my profession but that my daily work schedule did not allow. I committed myself to two areas of focus: Vocal performance and musical composition.
Since many of you have been curious as to how I spent my July and August, I wanted to share with you the fruits of my sabbatical thus far. I began with an exciting opportunity: I performed the Mozart Requiem in Israel. The two performances themselves over a ten day period were wonderful, being accompanied by full orchestra and choir, but to sing this work before the backdrop of Israel was somewhat surreal–looking out at audiences wearing kipot, singing and conducting along with “Dies Irae” and “Lacrymosa”–it seemed unnatural and at the same time, affirmed the power and beauty of Mozart across centuries, cultures, and religions.
Upon my return, I set out to compose. I had three compositions I intended to write but only compled two–one which I will be premiering at our Yom Kippur morning service, the other a work for a synagogue in Rhode Island. The third, which I’m working on presently and if all goes well, will be premiered this fall at the Vatican by a group of 16 cantorial colleagues from the American Conference of Cantors.
I also had the time and opportunity to attend the North American Jewish Choral Festival, created and directed by Matthew Lazar, up in the Catskills. It was started twenty years ago, and after going, I was kicking myself for not having attended before! It is a glorious week of choral singing with upwards of 500 participants learning and performing all sorts of Jewish choral music: Yiddish, Israeli, American, Ladino, Jazz, German, Italian… It was intense, it was enriching, and above all, it reminded me how great Jewish music can truly be. Once more, anyone from any level of ability can and should attend! Let me know if you would be interested in joining me next July 10-14th.
Being with family this summer was very important, and having as much time as I did to be with them was very fulfilling. Monica and I were able to enjoy meals together daily. We farmed our garden. We picked tomatoes. We picked more tomatoes. We pickled tomatoes. We froze tomatoes. We took a trip along with Jacob, my brother and sister-in-law to Bermuda, to gather ourselves, enjoy each others’ company, and to simply be. Each Shabbat this summer was one in which we could enjoy being a family unit unfettered by duty. It was something that I needed, but my family needed it just as much, if not more so.
The conclusion of my Sabbatical took me to Wilmington, Delaware, where I participated in the Atlantic Harmony Brigade. This was a weekend where 120 barbershop singers from all over the country gathered to sing, compete, and make friends through barbershop quartetting. It was intense, it was fun, and I think I have finally gotten my voice back! It was a real pleasure to be making music for the simple joy of it, and sometimes when one’s career is predicated on making music, it is sometimes difficult to reclaim inspiration. The Harmony Brigade did just that for me and my spirit.
And now, I have returned to my post here at the Temple. What have I gained from my time? Yes, these trips and experiences have all been very enriching, but there was something else that I gained which I didn’t expect going into July: Perspective. These past two months have also been filled with time to reflect on my family, my core values, my career… and it has made me think more deliberately and carefully than ever before about what I hold most dear. I realized that I have been neglecting my family over the years and have rested too heavily on my career as the excuse. I have learned and have been trying to adjust my schedule so that I can have a better work-life balance. I have considered what aspects of my career most speak to me, and intend to give those aspects greater focus. And one of the greatest lessons I have learned is to find more space to reflect so that I might make better decisions in my life, and try harder to respond, rather than to react.
It is to this point I feel most compelled to speak of on this Shabbat Shuvah, this Sabbath of Return, of Repentance, and hopefully of Renewal.
I’m sure most of us made a gallant attempt at enjoying the summer. It is a time to try to get away, lose ourselves in the sun. At the same time, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to escape the state of our present world.
It feels as if the news is filled with nothing but constant turmoil. The world’s economy remains unstable, there are wars being waged, natural disasters… and everyone seems to be on edge. There is an air of desperation which hovers over society like a thick, oppressive cloud, choking hope out of so many. It is during times such as this that people become impatient, accusatory, xenophobic, ever pointing outward in order to distract themselves from the anxiety and distress they feel inside.
Look at some of the news items of this summer: Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, Shirley Sherrod, was forced to resign from her position due to condemnation by the NAACP, U.S. Government officials, and even the White House. Why? Because a video of her from an NAACP gathering, in which she says that she did not give a white farmer asking for her help “the full force of what [she] could do,” was taken completely out of context by internet blogger, Andrew Breibart. It was then circulated and picked up by an eager media looking to fill a dull cycle, making her appear to be a racist. Instead of understanding that the full context of her video comments were actually about making a larger point about “getting beyond race,” reaction was swift and ill-informed, and although those who accused her of racism and asked for her resignation apologized, the damage had been done, and Sherrod’s reputation suffered for it. In an effort to try to fix a broken world, those who claim to be for swift justice would better serve their goals if they did so with metered justice instead.
Another example: On this eve of 9/11, controversy still reigns over the construction of the Cordoba House, a so-called, “Ground-Zero Mosque.” The planning for the building of Park51 began in December of 2009, during which Feisal Abdul Rauf explained that his intention was to “push back against the extremists” through his building this community center. At the time, two Jewish leaders, two city officials, the mayor’s office, as well as the mother of a man killed on 9/11 stood in support at the time of the announcement. Even Laura Ingraham of Fox News, who interviewed Feisal’s wife, Daisy Khan, liked the intentions of the Cordoba project.
Following that announcement, there was no news on the project for five and a half months. Then, in May of this year, the New York Post ran an inaccurate headline calling the Cordoba House a “World Trade Center Mosque.” The planned center actually is set blocks away from the where the World Trade Center once stood and alongside where all manner of of things presently stand, both religious and secular. The Post further went on to create a new narrative based on the views of right-wing blogger, Pamela Geller. This narrative is the one in which blatant racism and “Islamaphobia” is hidden behind claims of insensitivity of those killed on 9/11. This is a false logical syllogism: “The terrorists were Muslims, therefore all Muslims are terrorists,” and thus, anything remotely to do with Islam is an affront to what happened nine years ago tomorrow. One could also say that the terrorists were all male, so therefore men shouldn’t be permitted to be within a certain walking radius of Ground Zero. The present narrative, now grossly distorted and spun wildly out of control, has led a Pastor to threaten a Quoran burning, has led politicians to rally Americans into an anti-Islamic fervor, and has even led people to accept poor analogies against the building of Park51, such as the example of the building of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of Auschwitz, which was eventually relocated. As Robin Podolsky points out on the Jewsonfirst.org blog:
Auschwitz was a place where Jews were killed for being Jews (and Poles for being Poles, etc.) The nuns made it their mission to pray for the souls of all the departed—including, as one fundraising brochure suggested for “the conversion of strayed brothers.” Ground Zero was a place where people of many religions and ethnicities were all were killed for being Americans and doing business with Americans. The convent was perceived to be a place where people prayed that Jews cease to be Jews; the Park51 community center will be a place in which Americans will pray for America to be blessed and strengthened.
(Incidentally, it should be pointed out that there is still a Carmelite convent, a Catholic Church, a Protestant Church of Reconciliation and a Jewish Memorial, all in the area of the camp at Dachau today.)
Regardless of what has happened or continues to happen in the rest of the world, as Americans, we should uphold the values of freedom of religion as well as due process of law upon which this country was founded. The Cordoba Initiative is exercising both. In the words of President George Washington in a letter to the warden of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790:
“…the Government of the United States… gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Perhaps most troubling of all, a friend of mine this past week was in a New York City taxi. He was stuck for a very long time behind a trash truck. The cab driver then turned off the meter, drove him the remaining few blocks, and said, “Please don’t hate Muslims.”
What have we come to?
What we need, is a break. Perspective. Space. As a society, we have become too reactionary. We might not have created the climate in which we find ourselves, but we are doing too little to help our situation by accepting news bites as fact, by becoming overly emotional before gaining real understanding, or by fomenting hate instead of learning from the Torah: Love your neighbor as yourself.
I understand times are tense, and there are things to fear. The unemployment rate in this country has been as high as 10% this past summer; Today, President Obama reported that recovery from the recession has been “painfully slow”; We might have ceased our formal military action in Iraq, but we are still in Afghanistan. This is the daily unrest of the world at large.
But even when times are good, we can still fall to the dangers of allowing our anxieties and troubles get the best of us. All the more reason we need space. On Shabbat Shuva, we are to take stock of ourselves and create a “kheshbon hanefesh,” a “recounting of our souls.” We make a list of those things we have done over the past year, review our deeds, and strive to make ourselves better. How many times have we held hatred and bitterness in our heart? How many times have we allowed it to get the better of us? I would suggest that the reason this happens is because we need the time and space for self-reflection and evaluation but have not tried hard enough to make that space. It is expedient to hate, to hold a grudge, to rush to judgement. But for the sake of both justice and mercy, we owe it to society, our friends and neighbors, our families and ourselves, to slow down, to be measured, and to be reasonable. After being so, we will then have reached conclusions based on our core values, through introspection and patience, not with emotions flying. I believe this is the gift of the Sabbath Day and the gift of prayer: It is during these still, quiet moments that we can regain our composure, realize there is hope in the world, and that standing together, we can lean on one another as we face an uncertain tomorrow together.