Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Where the Wild Things Are

It was the third day of our congregational trip to Israel. This time, we didn’t head straight to Jerusalem but spent our first days in Tel Aviv. We soaked in the stories of exciting beginnings at Independence Hall, stood in quiet contemplation of the violent realities at Rabin Square, and sauntered unhurriedly through the ancient streets of Jaffa. A few of us even stopped for a bite, I kid you not, at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub! Then, on this particular morning, we woke up, grabbed something to eat, and boarded our bus which promptly deposited us bamidbar, “in the wilderness” – which happened to be a sizable parking lot somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a nowhere like so many “nowheres” we see here in the States – unlovely, too much concrete, and dirty fields just beyond the wheel stops at the lot’s edge. Unbeknownst to us all, however, we had just begun the adventure and the promise known as Leket Israel.

All our lives, we’re taught that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8), “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:8), the Promised Land “which [God] swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 6:8). That’s what the Torah says.

But there’s another side to Israel. A side where “the Promise” doesn’t quite ring true. Because while there aren’t too many people in Israel who are starving, there are plenty who live in poverty and cannot afford, as our guide told us, “to shop the edges of the grocery store.” They can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Leket Israel is the guarantor of the Promised Land’s legacy. It’s Israel’s national food bank. Where we had arrived was not a dirty field at all (well, not just a dirty field). It was a farm filled with sweet potatoes. BIG sweet potatoes. The farm’s owner had contacted Leket Israel and invited them to come get unneeded produce (either unsuitable for commercial sale, or simply set aside in fulfillment of Lev. 19:9’s instructions to “leave the gleanings of your harvest”). Volunteers, of which Leket Israel has some 40,000 annually, descend on sites such as this one and pick it clean. The food is then transported to organizations around the country that get it to needy families. 300 farms participate, donating 173,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables every week.

Leket Israel does even more. It supplies over 7000 sandwiches each day to needy school children in 24 cities. And it partners with catering halls, restaurants, bakeries and hotels collecting over 350,000 excess meals (from weddings, b/m celebrations, etc) each year.

In this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, God teaches Moses and Aaron how to bring their community bemidbar Sinai, through the wilderness of Sinai: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Num. 2:2).

Everyone knows, God included, that the wilderness is a tough place to build a home. But sometimes, we don’t get a choice about how our lives unfold. Wild things tend to intrude without them asking for permission. Life complicates.

But in these complications, there is also opportunity. When our days are formidable in their challenges, when we witness hardship in the lives of others, we are beckoned to engage with full heart and mind in the seeking of solutions and resolutions. As much as the wilderness can be harsh, it can also be breathtaking in its beauty. It is our sacred task, our holy honor, to bring out the magnificence that others cannot yet see.

Leket Israel assents to this sacred task. Through its gleanings of the fields, its sandwiches for kids, its redistribution of surplus meals, and its programs educating families about nutritional excellence, Leket Israel responds to God’s call that the Israelites “camp around the Tent of Meeting,” bringing them and us ever closer to God’s Presence among us.

Our group working bamidbar next to a parking lot that morning in the middle of nowhere probably did not comprise Leket Israel’s most productive crew of volunteers. Some of us were old, some overweight, others out of shape. Our yield may have been something akin to meager, but you can bet we picked as many of those sweet potatoes as we could, and we did so with voluble enthusiasm. The wilderness can be tamed wherever it appears. Everyday, there are opportunities to share the fruits of our lives’ harvests. But it’s not everyday that a city-dweller like me can actually stick his hands in the dirt and pull out a meal.

There’s an exceptionally heartwarming story about a Depression-era farmer in Idaho who habitually sends needy children home with bags of fresh produce, instructing them to return with payment in the form of a specific marble of this color or that design. The farmer never finds an acceptable exchange, and always dispatches the child to seek a different marble and, “Oh, take this bag of beans to your mom, as well.”

Prof. Michael Walzer (in Exodus and Revolution) teaches “that the winding way to [the] promise passes through the wilderness.” Whether we find ourselves bamidbar as tourist, as farmer, or as unwilling resident, there are always blessings to be found. We must stay alert, keeping open our eyes and our hearts to the wild things around us. We never know when a dirty field might hold within it the ancient promise to yield a better life for those who make camp in uncertain lands. Our assent to these sacred tasks will assure that every man, woman and child is never so distant from the Tent of Meeting that God’s bounty cannot be theirs as well.

Billy

This d’var Torah was written for the Israel Religious Action Center, an extraordinary organization that embodies the mitzvah to ensure all may camp around the Tent of Meeting. Learn more about Leket Israel by clicking here.

It Matters

These are words I shared with the Graduation Class of 2012, Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY, on Friday evening, May 18, 2012.

Billy

This morning, I spent some time thinking about a five-year-old Aiden Dreskin waiting across the street for the school bus to bring him to the first day of Kindergarten. It didn’t take long for me to remember each of you as those tiny, little kids you were not so long ago, waiting for your own buses and such to whisk you off to your first day of school. I also remember you sitting in this Sanctuary — for t’fillah, stories, singing, Kidz Shabbat and so much more. I can see you running around the building, Mrs. Levine shooing you into your classrooms, where your teachers eagerly and lovingly instilled in you all they could of their fascination with, and respect for, Jewish life. I have so very much enjoyed having you grow up around here. And as with my own graduate, only reluctantly do I let you go.

But I will not do so without first conveying to you an important charge. Rabbi Mara very rightfully told you that your actions in this quirky world of ours matter. To this, I add, “It matters what good you bring, and it matters from what hurt you refrain.”

In the journeys ahead, it will be relatively easy to simply look out for yourself and for those you love. Sadly, it will also be easy to lash out against those you don’t love.

You may have heard of a proposed campaign to discredit President Obama by associating him with the words of his former pastor who, during one of the pastor’s sermons, shouted, “God damn America!” The ad would have connected the pastor’s words to Barack Obama’s work as President, suggesting that his economic stimulus plans and health care plans were part of an overall effort to destroy our country.

Now I get that Democrats and Republicans view governing differently. And while I often disagree with ideas of one of those parties, I have never assumed that folks from that party want to destroy America. I have always assumed that people who take public office, as well as those who become involved in political activities, only want to do good for their world.

And that’s my point for you. The values by which we live are so important. Yours are not finished being shaped, but a lot of that work has been completed. So go out there and advocate for what you believe in. Work for what you believe in. Even disagree (loudly, if you like) with those who differ.

But don’t malign people just because they view matters differently. Assume they care as much as you do. It’s probably true. Assume they want what’s good for people as much as you do. That’s probably true as well. And then try to do what we see precious little of today, and need so badly … try to work out a compromise with them.

No, it probably won’t be as good as what you’d thought of. But it’ll move things along. And that’s no mean feat these days. What you do get done will make things at least a little better. And when the task is complete, instead of an enemy across the aisle, you’ll have a friend.

This isn’t just a prescription for going into politics. It’s a prescription for going into life.

You’re not in Kindergarten anymore. You’re on your way. In fact, you’re waiting at a new bus stop. And once again, we’re there to see you off. Bring us back some good stories, will you? Let us know how you reached for the stars, and how you lasso’d the moon.

Don’t feel badly, though, if you‘ve settled for something less. If instead of winning it all — if in favor of building your dreams not alone, but alongside others — you compromise and build something you’re sure isn’t as good as what you’d imagined, understand this is NOT something less at all. If you can join hands with others, especially with those who do not see the world the way that you do, and you can create something good from those shared efforts, then I absolutely believe you will have reached those stars. You will have lasso’d that moon.

You will also have earned the rewards that the Torah says can be yours, because you will have performed the highest of religious acts, whose reward is within that very act. You will have fulfilled the teaching of Rabbi Hillel, who taught, “Be of the disciples of Aaron. Love peace and pursue it” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

Billy

Religion as Metaphor (or, at the least, as a Broadway Musical)

A couple of nights ago, my family was delighted to attend a cabaret performance by Sheera Ben-David at Feinstein’s in New York City. Besides the power and beauty of Sheera’s performance, she was backed by a band which included her brother, Adam, who also happens to serve as Associate Conductor for the current Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon” … which reminded me that I’d had some pretty enthusiastic (and maybe important?) ideas about the show’s storyline. I wrote them up in a Rosh Hashanah sermon last September and share them here with you. 

Billy

A woman makes an appointment with her doctor and, after a bit of a wait, is led to an examination room where she is seen by a young, new member of the staff. After a brief consultation, the doctor tells the woman she’s pregnant. The door to the examination room bursts open, and the woman, now screaming, is running down the hall. An older doctor stops her and asks what’s the matter, and, after listening for a moment, has her take a seat in another room and breathe. The doctor then marches down the hallway back to where the first doctor is and says, “What’s the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is fifty-nine years old. She’s got four grown children and seven grandchildren. And you tell her she’s pregnant?” The young doctor continues writing on his clipboard and, without looking up, asks, “Does she still have the hiccups?”

The key to any good story is an ending that catches the listener by surprise. We start out with one image in our mind, that image grows in color and definition as the storyline develops, and then we’re asked to suddenly and radically change that picture. The results may prompt a smile, a laugh, or if the story’s intent is a more serious one, a sigh, a lump in our throats, or even tears.

Psychologists affirm the importance of storytelling in human experience. Stories are a timeless link to ancient traditions, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and to universal truths. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others. They explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values. Stories take place in our imaginations, but they create genuine emotions and behavioral responses. And by engaging our imaginations, we become participants in the narrative, stepping out of our own shoes, seeing things differently, and tapping into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.

So when I’d heard that the South Park guys were writing a musical, I knew it was going to be one heckuva story. And when they announced it would be titled The Book of Mormon, I braced myself for an outrageous evening of irreverence, but also hoped that the South Park sense of compassionate humanity would shine through. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is a kooky one. Mormon missionaries are sent to Africa, going door-to-door selling their particularly American brand of Christianity in a land that is so different from the one they trained in, there aren’t even doorbells to ring. Mormonism itself helps the musical achieve is goofiness, through its traditional assertions that Jesus visited upstate New York in the early-1800s, that Jerusalem will be moved to Jackson County, Missouri, and that, as the musical tells us, “in 1978, God changed His mind about black people.”

As a rabbi, I of course was curious as to whether The Book of Mormon would wreak havoc on religion in general. Would it dismiss all institutional quests for spirituality as, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; at worst, self-serving and destructive? — critiques that are not unfamiliar to any of us, perhaps concerning other religions, perhaps concerning our own. But as it turns out, and it was easy to miss, The Book of Mormon has something quite wonderful to say about religion, something worth sharing here this morning, and worth taking home to ponder and perhaps synthesize into our own understanding of religion in general, and of Judaism in particular.

The musical’s young missionaries are sent to Uganda for two years of sharing door-to-door the Book of Mormon’s message of eternal life through adherence to the teachings of the Heavenly Father, and making converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What these eager, enthusiastic, but naive proponents of God’s love find is stark poverty, barbaric mutilation, political corruption, and a community where more than a million men, women and children are living with HIV, the AIDS virus. In fact, religion grows quite popular in hard times, as people reach out for hope beyond what they can expect from the immediate world around them. But the Mormons are unsuccessful at bringing people into the fold until they realize they must adjust their message to the circumstances in front of them. They must make their teachings relevant. And when that happens, the Ugandans grow interested.

One of the two lead characters in The Book of Mormon sings a song that delineates Mormon beliefs. Well, not all of them. Since this is brought to us by the South Park people, it’s only the beliefs that bring a smile to our faces.

♬ I believe that the Lord God created the universe. I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins. And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

♬ I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet. And I believe that the current President of The Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes!

♬ I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well. And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. [I am] a Mormon, and a Mor-mon-just-believes!

All religions have their silliness. The Mormons haven’t cornered the market on that. For example, the Church of Scientology believes that 75 million years ago there was an alien galactic ruler named Xenu who was in charge of all the planets in this part of the galaxy, including Earth except in those days it was called Teegeeack. Because all of the seventy-six planets he controlled were overpopulated, he called in, with the help of psychiatrists, billions of people for tax inspections where instead they were given injections to paralyze them and were then placed in rockets that flew to planet Earth and stacked the paralyzed people around the bases of volcanoes which were then destroyed by hydrogen bombs.

Christianity gets to join in the fun too, teaching that Jesus died for our sins, that he’s coming back to fix the world, and that you too can do the math to figure out what day that’ll be. If you’re a hardened criminal, you can still go to heaven as long as you accept Jesus as your Savior. And two-hundred-year Crusades are a great way to reclaim the Holy Land from the infidel, and kill millions while you’re doing it!

Judaism has its silliness too. I invite you to sing along.

♬ I believe that God created the universe. I believe that He wrote it down for us to read. And I believe He squeezed 15 billion years of evolution and quantum physics into six 24-hour periods. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that God told all men that we get to be in charge. I believe that Eve made Adam eat the apple even though apples don’t grow in the Middle East or Africa. And I believe that Noah built an Ark that could hold two and sometimes fourteen of every animal on the face of the planet. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that in a dictatorship like ancient Egypt, Joseph could be thrown in jail and then rise to become prime minister (how come they didn’t just cut his head off?). I believe that our ancestors wandered in the desert for forty years without ever needing a change of clothing or a new pair of shoes. And I believe that if I perform the 613 mitzvot, most of which can’t be done outside the land of Israel and aren’t even done in Israel today, that I’ll get to go to heaven. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

I’ve got one more.

♬ I believe that Joshua made the walls of Jericho fall. I believe God split the Red Sea too. And I believe that Abraham was fine with God telling him to take his son up a mountain and kill him there. I am a Jew, and a Jew-just-believes!

See what I mean?

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that’s traditional Judaism, but we Reform Jews don’t believe any of that stuff.” Did I ever tell you about a friend of mine who was studying to be a rabbi and she got fired from her student pulpit because she taught that the Ten Plagues likely never occurred? That was a Reform congregation. And while I don’t have statistics (I’d really like to have statistics on this), I imagine that a whole lot of “liberal Jews,” despite college educations, advanced degrees, and knowledge of the sciences that so many of us have, there’s not a whole lot of questioning about the historicity of the events in the Bible. Our kids question it. In my tenth grade Confirmation class, students nail me all over the place about it. But maybe it’s just bravado because I suspect, fifteen years from now, many of them will no longer be challenging these stories.

I believe … that this is the scariest part of religion. Intelligent people willing to suspend disbelief, to set aside every critical faculty they use everywhere else in life, and allow not just the stories, but the laws, that were fashioned some three-to-four thousand years ago, to govern our lives today. We certainly see this in its exaggerated forms in Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, and Radical Islam. As a result, many people conclude that religion is, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; and at worst, it’s self-serving and destructive.

Author and dynamic lecturer Douglas Rushkoff wrote last year in The Forward that, “For most of us, the release from slavery described in the story of Pesach is metaphorical. We are not enslaved physically; we are rather imprisoned mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Mitzrayim, the ‘narrow place,’ is a narrow state of mind from which we are released the moment we are willing to smash our idols.”

Now, I love Doug’s take on Passover. I think that every Jewish moment, event, ritual, and even God, is a metaphor for something in our lives, something we want or need in order to live fully, to attain contentment, happiness. But I disagree with him in that I don’t think that “most of us” see religion as metaphor. And the reason we don’t see religion as a metaphor is that it requires time and thought to move from the literal to the symbolic. Not everybody wants to do that work. But I want to make it clear to you that not only does Judaism allow us to see it as metaphor, we must. Otherwise, we will often look as silly as characters in a musical comedy.

So let me extend to you an invitation. Come into your synagogue more often than you have to. Come to services, and listen to what the clergy and others on the bimah think Jewish ritual as metaphor offers us today. Come take a class or two, and dive more deeply into some topic, and move yourself beyond basic information toward more profound and metaphorical understandings of our religion. And lastly, come and perform community service … because ultimately, mitzvah (religious obligation) is about sensing our responsibility for one another. To demonstrate that we comprehend the metaphor of our stories and our laws, we need to carry these metaphors forward into compassionate and activist behaviors. Simply stated, the teachings of our ancient religion need to propel us to care, and to show that we care. The world really needs that from us.

The South Park boys demonstrated they understand this when, in The Book of Mormon, the no-longer-naive protagonist declares that religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” And with that one sentence, this musical made a profound contribution to our understanding why religions are with us, and why they should stay. Religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” That “something bigger” can be something awful, to be sure, if people pervert religion’s potential and use it to divide people into “the saved” and “the damned.” When religion encourages cruel treatment of outcast infidels, it’s lost its way. But when that “something bigger” is our shared sense that we’re all in this together, that although the world is vast our destinies are shared, and the work we do to improve life for all is the most important work of all, that’s when religion is on-task and earns an honored place in our community. So if our religion – for most of us here, Judaism – encourages us to do this by telling stories from times gone by that are intended to help us figure out how to live in our own time, and the resulting activity is helpful to everyone, then I believe we’ve stumbled upon one of life’s greatest truths.

My wife Ellen is always teaching that the stuff we learn about in Judaism doesn’t have to have happened in order for it to be true. So I don’t ask you, “Is the Torah true?” I ask, “How is the Torah true?” And the responses we create do not have to confirm that any of this actually happened; it only has to confirm our understanding of what we ought to make happen.

So just what do “I Believe”? I believe that the purpose of religion is to assist us in becoming fully human.

♬ I believe that religion can be tender and wise. I believe that we have to use it for the common good. And I believe that when religion teaches us compassion, mercy, tolerance, and grace, that’s when we write our own Broadway musical, a musical called “The Book of ……………………… Life.”

♬ I am a human.

And as a human, it is my nature, and my gift … to seek out something loving and ennobling … to believe.

Billy

By the Numbers

Years back, I read in The Washington Post (“The Shortwave and the Calling,” David Segal, Aug 3, 2004) about something really weird on the radio. In 1992, a guy named Akin Fernandez, who’s always been into collecting off-beat stuff, began recording middle-of-the-night broadcasts of numbers. That’s right. Stations whose signal can’t be found until the moon’s shining, and whose program consists solely of people reciting long lists of numbers. Sometimes they add words.

Gosh.

The voices can be male or female, and even children. The languages include English, Russian, Spanish, Czech and others. “You’re listening,” says Fernandez, “and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal. It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”

Film director Cameron Crowe, who used some of Fernandez’s recordings in Vanilla Sky, talks about the numbers stations as being one of the few mysteries left around us. That’s a really powerful statement. Whether it’s due to the quantum leap of the information age (just about everything about anything seems to be accessible to anyone) or our jaded loss of wonder in an all-too-harsh world, true mysteries take us by surprise.

And we don’t necessarily like that. Recent Nobel Prize winners gathered their honors for work done in measuring background radiation levels that continue to assert the power of the Big Bang Theory of Creation. In the New York Times, however, a telling comment about the density and patterns of the radiation reads, “Cosmologists now believe that these lumps or ripples are a result of quantum fluctuations, tiny jitters in the force fields that filled the universe when it was a fraction of a millionth of a second old.”

A fraction of a millionth of a second old. Wow! That bowls me over. Physicists are among the smartest people on earth. They can take us back almost to the beginning of time, but not quite. And that “not quite” is one of the universe’s great, unrelenting mysteries. Some will say, “Well, it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Big Bang itself.” But physicists shake their heads on that point, because the moment of Creation (and certainly, the nothingness that “existed” before) transcends every law and theory of the physical universe that we know.

It may never be figured out. Not that they won’t keep trying (and they should). But like the numbers radio stations, some mysteries may never be solved. By the way, the most solid theory on the numbers is that these are encoded messages being broadcast to covert operatives across the globe. Problem is, no government will confirm that.

The mystery continues.

Mystery is good, though. Keeps us wondering. And wondering is good. Keeps life in perspective. Because if we think we know everything, we may think we’re in charge. But when we’re in the dark, we may remain a bit more circumspect about how free we are to do what we want with this planet.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches an idea about God that he calls “radical amazement.” In a universe that – whether we have scientific understanding or not (and it truly cuts both ways) – ought to fill us with awe (because of its beauty, its complexity, its vastness), our response ought not be a jaded one but a response of joy, of surprise, of gratefulness (for receiving the opportunity to be part of it). And whether we sense a conscious entity making an intelligent choice to put us here, or we sense something that existed before Creation and is somehow responsible for life flowing out of it (the Big Bang moment) … there has never been anything quite like that, and “radical amazement” is a most appropriate response.

In religious traditions, the name “God” is assigned to the force that is responsible for our existence, and “prayer” is our very natural expression of awe and gratefulness at witnessing it all.

Perhaps one day we’ll find out not only what happened at the precise moment of Creation, but what was going on before Creation — maybe we’ll learn it’s all been a covert government operation! Even so, with knowledge or without, the universe is a radically amazing place. The numbers stations are kind of their own prayer — words and sounds broadcast for us to hear, giving expression to our thoughts of how great, big, beautiful and inspiring is the mystery of it all!

Billy