The Juggler

(Sermon given at the Bar Mitzvah Ceremony of Max Garsten, son of Bryan and Anna Garsten)

Our custom here at Beth Sholom is for the rabbi to ask the Bar or Bat Mitzvah for a topic to talk about at their service. Max has been interested in juggling, so we decided on this subject.
I don’t know anything about juggling colored balls or bowling pins, but I did once see a movie, that no one else ever heard of, called, “The Juggler”. The Juggler is a 1953 drama film starring Kirk Douglas as a survivor of the Holocaust. After World War II, Hans Müller is one of a shipload of Jewish refugees who disembark at Haifa in 1949 and are placed in a refugee camp. Like many other concentration camp survivors, Hans has many emotional problems, including survivor guilt. At one point, he mistakes a woman and her children for his murdered family.

We learn that in Germany, Hans had been a famous professional juggler. He had ignored warnings from friends to flee Nazi Germany before it was too late, making the fatal mistake of counting on his fame and popularity as a juggler to protect his family.

The movie is not about juggling things; it’s about juggling dimensions of his life. He has to juggle his past and his present in order to move on into the future. And by the end of the movie, he has begun to pass on his knowledge. Hans begins to settle into a new land and a new life.
In a way, all of us are always juggling. If you have a full life, you have more than one dimension. If you live your life shuffling your priorities, if you live in conflict about how much time you spend say, working, with family and friends, staying in shape, if you are always criticizing yourself for not spending enough time on each, that’s great, this is how it should be. You are working on your juggling because you never forget how important each of those pins is.
Normally, a society must be a good juggler. A country must balance the past, the present, and the future.
But right now, I do not see anything as normal. Right now, to an unusual degree, the future will be determined by the present.
We cannot look too far ahead
If we do not save democracy right now ‘
If we do not protect the rights of all people right now
If we do not protect the climate right now
The pins may come crashing down and the future will be in jeopardy.

Over these years, when I’ve asked our students to tell me about their favorite books and movies, many of them have selected dystopian books like The Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, or Maze Runner. Next week, for example, I’ll be talking about The Giver.
I have never been able to understand their fascination with these terrible futures. Now I think that intuitively, they were way ahead of the rest of us. They see the dark possibilities ahead. I see certain states enacting provisions right out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Our young people have known, maybe inarticulately, but they have sensed, how bad things may get in their lives. They are afraid for the world that they are going to live in.
We must protect the present.
Just about every day, I study ancient texts and the history of the past.
From ancient Israel, I see how our own infighting can open us up to external threats.
From ancient Athens, I learn that democracy is always a juggling act, precariously balancing the ever-changing and conflicting wishes of the people with the principles that we at least say we believe in.
We are always juggling.
Do you think of religion as one of the pins you juggle? Obviously, as an observant Jewish person and a rabbi, I care about people’s observance. But a religion like Judaism is not one of the pins you juggle.
I’d prefer to think about it another way: Judaism teaches us what the pins are in the first place.
Judaism is not a set of theological beliefs. Jewishness is a way of living, and honesty is a big part of this.
We live in a world where leaders can get caught in a lie and get standing ovations.
Where the highest judges in the land can lie to attain office.
Where so-called news programs are weaponized
We must, in a time of lies, tell the truth, and not allow the lies to dilute our honesty.
This is not easy.
It is not easy to see how freedom of speech is abused
But we must not allow ourselves to be changed
And more optimistically, we hope that the powerful force of the truth will keep our values revolving in the air
Judaism believes in absolute truths, such as that each of us was created in the image of G-d, and that G-d created a world filled with diverse human beings who are all equal and have the same rights.
And so on a day like this, just as the juggler in the movie passed down his knowledge, we pass down our values and our knowledge to this fine example of the next generation, and we pray that we will all have the skill and the strength to keep all of our values revolving around us as we live our lives the best we can.