The Stranger

The Stranger

Nov 18, 2019

The following is a text version of Rabbi Steve Schwartz's Shabbat sermon from November 16th, 2019.

It was 42 years ago this fall that I asked my mom to drive me to the Oakdale Mall, in Binghamton, New York, where I walked into Tower Records and bought the first rock and roll album of my life. Knowing me as many of you do, you might be surprised to find out that that record was not a Grateful Dead album – it would be another year or so before I began to get into the Grateful Dead. Instead, the record was Billy Joel’s ‘The Stranger.’  

The record had been released in September, and by November of 1977 you couldn’t help but hear one of the songs from the album every single time you were in the car. The love song Just the Way You Are was the biggest hit, rising to #3 on the Billboard charts, but the album had three other songs in the top twenty five, including She’s Always a Woman and Only the Good Die Young. Rebel that I was, that was my favorite at the time.  

You may remember the cover of the record, a photograph of Billy Joel, dressed in a suit, reclining on a bed, and staring intently at an object that lay next to him. Anyone remember what it was? A mask, resting on a pillow, its vacant eyes looking up towards the singer. The image reflected both the title of the album – The Stranger – and also the lyric of the song of the same name, found on side one – it was the second track.

I’ve always understood the image, and the song, to be about the way we separate our public and private selves. We all have a public persona, generally our ‘best face’ that we use when we are in front of the world. We want not only to look our best, but to be our best – calm and organized, satisfied with life, funny and fun to be with, patient and kind, competent and wise. But for many of us there is also a private face – in the photo on the cover of the Billy Joel record it is represented by the mask resting on the pillow.  Here is how the song lyric describes it: "We all have a face that we hide away forever, but we take them out and show ourselves when everyone is gone…"

It might seem like a strange thing to say, but I often think about that song, and that lyric, when I read this week’s Torah portion, called Vayera. Abraham is the portion’s main character, and I’ve always been deeply puzzled by the contradictory Abrahams that the text portrays. On the one hand there is a heroic Abraham. This is the Abraham who argues with God about whether or not the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah should be destroyed. You’ll remember the passage – one of the Bible’s most famous. God tells Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, and Abraham, in a direct dialogue, challenges God. "Is this the just thing to do," Abraham questions? Then Abraham pushes God: "What if there are fifty righteous people? What about forty five? Forty? Thirty?" Working his way down to ten, Abraham demands of God, would you spare the cities to save the ten? Somewhat astonishingly, God agrees, saying if there are ten righteous people, He will spare the cities.

This is the Abraham we can all stand and cheer for! This is the Abraham who is fearless in his pursuit of justice, not even afraid to challenge God, if it means that innocents will be spared. To me this is the outer Abraham, the person Abraham wants the world to see.

But then there is another Abraham in this morning’s portion, what I call the "inner-Abraham." This is the Abraham we meet at the beginning of the binding of Isaac story. God comes to Abraham and demands that he offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. After Abraham’s eloquent argument with God about Sodom and Gomorrah – arguing so passionately for the lives of people he didn’t know – we expect him to stand up to God here also. To say: "God, he is my son. I am not going to sacrifice my son - even to you."

But what does he actually say? 

Not a single word. Not one. Instead, he quickly and efficiently follows God’s instructions, gets up early in the morning, saddles the donkey, takes the servants and Isaac, splits the wood, and sets out for the mountain, where, at least as far as we know, he intends to sacrifice his son. Not one word.

I’ve always understood the dichotomy in Abraham’s responses to be indicative of his public and his private sides. On the outside, Abraham is just, a great leader of men, brave, compassionate, wise, and strong. On the inside he has a stranger – an Abraham you rarely see, conflicted, filled with doubts, worried about disappointing others, and unable to stand up for what he truly believes in.  

I suspect many of us can identity with both Abrahams. What is it we see when we look at that mask on the cover of the Billy Joel record? What is the inner side that we rarely if ever expose to the world? Maybe there is anger there, or fear, or doubt. Maybe it is poor self image, or a deep sadness about something that happened to us long ago, or guilt. Whatever it might be, we keep that part of ourselves out of the public view. We might know it is there, but we certainly don’t want others to know about it. So we cover it up, close it off, compartmentalize it in some way, remove it and set it aside.  

You might guess this can be a difficult challenge for people in the clergy business. We are public figures, and we often have public faces, personas that we show to everyone, that reflect, at least we hope, our very best selves. So we smile and we laugh, we are attentive in our conversations, we are witty and engaging, we are thoughtful and patient and hopefully we are also compassionate and wise. We are like the Abraham in the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  

But the real challenge, the real test, what will really define our lives, is this: How are we when we get home after a long day of being our best? Is the compassion still there?  The wit and wisdom? The attentiveness and caring?

Those of you who were here last week heard Rabbi Saroken tell a classic Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya. At the end of the story the Rabbi tells his students he now knows when he dies, he will not be asked: "Why weren’t you Moses?" Instead, he says, I’ll be asked: "Why were you not Rabbi Zusya?"

I’d like to put a finer point on that story this morning, because my sense of it is this - when my time finally comes, and I am standing before the great Heavenly Court, I will not be asked: "Why weren’t you Rabbi Schwartz?" But I think I will be asked: "Why weren’t you Steve?"

If you’ll permit me, I’ll wrap it up this morning going from one great lyricist to the next, from Billy Joel to another Billy – William Shakespeare. You may remember the wonderful line from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, the advice Polonius gives to his son Laertes, who is about to leave for Paris:

This above all: to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day, 

thou canst not then be false to any man.”