Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

What We Do With A Great Sorrow

It’s been a tough few weeks. A terrorist’s bomb took the lives of five Israelis vacationing in Bulgaria. A lone gunman took twelve more at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. We’ve responded with horror to the news, bereft for the families and friends whose lives have been dealt such a cruel blow by these murders. At the same time, we offer a quiet prayer of thanks that our own loved ones are out of harm’s way. It’s what we do when tragedy unfolds nearby.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

At sundown, Jews across the world began the annual commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which both Jerusalem Temples fell and our people, those who survived the bloodbath which accompanied those invasions, were sent into exile, banished from their homes and their homeland, first for sixty years, then for two thousand.

Tisha b’Av arrives as we grieve for our dead in Bulgaria and Colorado. It is also the eve of the London Olympics where, amidst the anticipation and the excitement of the games, a request to observe a minute of silence for eleven Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Olympics forty years ago was denied by the International Olympic Committee. The political motivations for turning down the request are not my focus here. What moves me is the families of those athletes who, forty years later, still mourn for their children, for their husbands, for their fathers and grandfathers. Grief is not something one checks off a to-do list then moves on to groceries or repairing the roof. Grief can be a lifelong process. Ant it’s not without its own risks. That’s what I want to focus on here.

When my son Jonah died in 2009, I felt as if my entire body had been wrapped in some kind of gauze — light, breathable, but nearly opaque. I could see and hear the world around me, but it had become muffled. I was present, but not fully. Throughout the days following his death, I stumbled through my waking hours, holding onto my family, aware that this community was taking care of us, but lost in the unreality of having to bury my child.

Three years later, most of the gauze has been lifted. My family has recently launched The Jonah Maccabee Foundation, whose aim is to empower young people to create good, whole lives for themselves. It’s an exciting project, with the possibility of doing some real good in the world. At the same time, it takes the grief we continue to feel for Jonah and turns it away from its previous focus on “what was,” and redirects it toward an emphasis on “what can be.” I have no doubt that, in the aftermath of Jonah’s death, I could have stepped away from my life and spent all of my energies on him no longer being here. With the creation of this foundation, it’s not that I’ve stopped grieving, only that I’ve begun channeling it in a new direction.

Sadly, tragedy touches most of our lives. If not a family member, then someone we know well, dies before their time. Illness and job loss can feel like tragedy as well. And when the worst that life can throw our way … does so … we’re faced with a changed game, and a hard choice as to how we’ll proceed. Some of us are able to carry on. Others, not so much.

Cleveland, OH, honoring the lives of David Berger and the ten other Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists in Munich 1972. The sculpture represents the Olympic rings, broken into pieces.

One of the Israeli athletes who competed as a weightlifter in Munich, David Berger, grew up in my former congregation in Cleveland. David’s parents were active members and I, a very young rabbi at the time, would catch myself staring at them, wondering how they managed, utterly unaware that one day their shoes would be mine. Today, forty years after the Munich massacre, David Berger is still remembered with love and affection in the Cleveland community and in parts of Israel. There are two BBYO chapters that bear his name, as well as the weight room in his old high school. And a street in Ashkelon, Israel, is named after him.

David’s parents endeavored to take the unthinkable and to use it as a power for good. Our family is trying to do the same. As are countless others, forced into a state of shock by an unexpected tragedy and, when strong enough to do so, determined not to allow that tragedy to become a defeat. Instead, again and again, loved ones take their tragedy, by the throat if necessary, and — whether to keep from losing the vitality in our own lives, or to try and wrest some meaning from the senseless death imposed on someone we love — create something good. It is as if to say, “This person’s life meant so much more than their death. This is the kind of thing they would have done if they were still here.”

The Dubner Maggid tells a parable of a king who owned a beautiful diamond. It was an extraordinary jewel, of rare quality and of which he was justly proud, for it had no equal anywhere. But one day, the diamond sustained a deep scratch. The king summoned the most skilled cutters, offering them a great reward if they could remove the blemish. But none was able to repair the jewel. After some time, a gifted craftsman came before the king, and promised to make the diamond even more beautiful than it had been before. The king entrusted his precious stone into the craftsman’s care. And the man kept his word. With superb artistry, he engraved upon that jewel, around and through the damage it sustained, the loveliest rosebud. He used the scratch … to make the stem.

Life can bruise us. Wound us. Scratch us deeply. It did so to the families of those who died on a vacation bus in Bulgaria. It did so to the families of those who died at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. It did so to the families of those who were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It did so to my family. It has done so to many of yours.

But our great talent as human beings is in our resiliency and our determination. We cannot remove the lacerations endured when life has gone wrong. But we can, if strong enough, work with them to fashion a new design, one of beauty and of charm. Many an enchanting rose has drawn our attention. How many of those exquisite lives do you think bear as well a deep scratch which tells a sadder tale?

On this Tisha b’Av, this day of remembrance, so many losses come to mind. Some reside more permanently in our hearts, but all move us to sadness, to heartache. Time may lighten the heaviness of these memories, but there will always be moments when we immerse once again into our grief for those we’ve lost.

Tonight, the Olympic games in London have begun. They’ve done so without providing a minute to remember those who died there forty years ago. So let us do the remembering for a minute now. Life will go on. Joy will continue. But in balance with what once was, and now is gone. As it must be.

Billy

Katie Graduates from Teachers College (May 2012)

Appointment with Destiny

When my daughter Katie was little, she and I had a very important conversation. She told me that when she was grown up, she would always live at home. Her plan was to move, with her husband and her children, into our basement. I told her I thought it was a fine idea. And if you think I said that if plans worked out otherwise, that’d be okay too, you’d be wrong.

I thought she’d make good on her promise. But two weeks ago, she packed up her car and moved to Columbus. Columbus! That’s in Ohio! Who lives in Ohio?!

Well, I did, until I was eighteen … but that’s beside the point.

Well, she did. And as reports have it, she’s pretty happy there.No, that is the point! After all I told her about growing up there – about how dangerous it is to have stores close before midnight, to not have security systems locking down homes, and to have fast food restaurants only every other block to nourish your family – how could she so flagrantly disregard my advice?!

But methinks there’s more going on than just an 11-hour drive and a new apartment. You see, I’ve known Katie Dreskin for a while now, and I see something in this young woman that encourages me to think the State of Ohio has just received an awfully nice gift. I’ll come back to that in a moment; I want to tell you about a second young person also embarking upon a life’s journey — his name was Joshua.

In this week’s Torah reading, Pinkhas, Moses is about to retire to the World-to-Come. God brings him up to the top of Avarim where he can view his greatest achievements: the Children of Israel, and the Land of Israel. Moses turns to God and says, “Nu? Who’s going to run things when I’m gone? You maybe remember the migraines I’ve gotten these forty years. You’d think maybe the desert air would have been good for them, but for some reason, I’m not complaining, maybe stress from my job, I kept getting them. I think You need to appoint a new shepherd for Your flock.”

That was my paraphrasing. No actual words of Torah were harmed in the quoting of that passage.

God chooses Joshua to be Moses’ successor. Impeccable resume. Came from a nice family. Looked good holding a staff.

Katie Graduates from Teachers College (May 2012)

As I watched Katie drive away, I found myself thinking about young Joshua. I thought I noticed a number of similarities between them. They’re both extremely well-liked and respected in their community. They’re both humble, not arrogant. And they’re both exceptionally good at what they do.

My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, once wrote (“Choosing Leaders,” The Jewish Week, July 1999) “According to [Torah commentator] Tzvi Yisrael […] ‘Godliness is incubated in the hearts of others not by the fire of zealotry, but by kindly words based in reason and goodness.’ Leaders need to be principled, yet understanding, soft-spoken, kind and wise.”

Well, this certainly sets up a contrast with Pinkhas, who was also being considered for Moses’ spot. Pinkhas was a right-wing, xenophobic, militant demagogue. He would rather drive a spear through those who think differently than talk things through. While there’s no doubt about Pinkhas’ passion, God seems to looking for a leader who is not only firm in the Divine rightness of his convictions, but whose Godliness comes from reason and goodness.

Katie is an art educator. She just finished her training and is out there in Ohio looking for a job. She had her first on-site interview yesterday and here’s what I think.

All teachers have training. All teachers have experience. But not all teachers can do the job. And not all teachers can convey that they can do the job. I think that position is going to be offered to Katie. Why? Because, like Joshua, Katie is isha asher ruakh bah … “an inspired woman.” There is a spirit inside of her. She sees her students as works in progress, with her task being to help shape not merely their talents, but their souls, to help shape the ways that they build their future, using brushes and canvas and scissors and colored paper as her tools.

Like Joshua, Katie will have a community to lead, and I believe she’ll do it beautifully. I love that girl. I always have. These days, there’s something new to go along with the love. I’ve also come to admire her and respect her tremendously.

There is no one among us who isn’t responsible for setting young people on a path to satisfying living and community contribution. A young person may be our own flesh and blood. They may not be related to us but benefit from their time spent with us. Or they may be someone who only sees us from afar but for whom their mere observation of us brings learning and encouragement in how they live their life. We’ve got to live our lives knowing we’re being watched … that we’re teaching lessons all the time, and it’d be much better if we choose good ones to convey.

I don’t know how good a dad I’ve been. But if looking at my daughter, and the kind of adult she’s become, is any indication, I feel great.

Torah emphasizes that Joshua had a dad. His name was Nun. I’m sorry the Torah doesn’t give much credit to women, so how about we consider “Nun” to be both a mom and a dad. They raised quite a boy. Pinkhas, of course, had parents too. He was slightly better connected. He was Moses’ grand-nephew. That could be why God made the selection and not Moses.

Every kid has a parent or two, or two hundred. It may or may not take a village to raise them, but the village is definitely there, exerting influence all the time, and affecting how each child grows into adulthood. You and I are part of that village. I’m trying my best not to be the village idiot. It’s probably something we should all be doing.

Two weeks ago, I wrote the third installment of my Ethical Will for Katie. This is a project we start in the 10th grade where each parent writes a letter to their child, articulating the values they hope to bequeath to the next generation. I wrote Katie a second Ethical Will when she graduated from high school, and now a third one upon her leaving home. Among the passages I wrote for her is this one:

“Your move to Ohio, setting off to start your adult life in earnest (well, in Columbus), is filled with emotion for me. I’m just so excited and filled with hope and optimism for you. I don’t think your life will be perfect; no life is. But I do believe it will be great. I think your career is going to a fabulous one. A generation of young spirits will benefit from your guidance, and encouragement, and love. Their lives will be better because of the time spent in your classroom. I hope you will always feel that way, and that you will find the very best you have to share with them.”

It’s a little sad to be sending your child off to points unknown and, unlike summer camp, they’re not coming back except maybe for a visit. But it’s a terrific feeling that the person you’re sending is one you are proud to share with the world. It’s something one wants to see with all our children, the ones we’ve reared in our homes, and the ones we’ve helped to raise out in the village.

Like Joshua ben Nun and Katie bat Billy and Ellen, may they all become ish oh isha asher ruakh bo u’vah … may each one of them be forever inspired to make our world a home of prosperity and peace for all.

Billy

Blessings from a Bolt of Lightning

From January through June, I was privileged by my congregation to receive a sabbatical from my rabbinical duties. Among its many renewing experiences was a trip this past February to Israel. Ellen and Katie and Aiden and I, along with Ellen’s brother Cliff and his wife Sandy, joined together for this expedition which, in a number of ways, was quite different from any other trip I’d taken there. First, and most importantly, it’s the first time I’ve gone to Israel with my family. During rabbinical school, Ellen and I had spent a year there, but that was before we had kids. Katie did travel with us once, way back in 1988 when Beged Kefet had been invited to perform for the CAJE Conference in Jerusalem. But she was only 6 months old at the time, so I’m not sure that really counts.

This time, it was the four of us together, and everyone was old enough to really appreciate it. But what made the trip most different of all was that Aiden, assuming his rabbi-and-cantor parents would want to (I guess) pray at every synagogue there, had asked that we not make it a religious pilgrimage. Ellen and I agreed to tone down “the Jewish stuff.” So, for another first, we spent only a couple of days in Jerusalem, and allowed the trip to focus mainly on Israel’s incredible natural terrain.

In the center of the country, we visited the startling, sparkling springs and hiking trails of Ein Gedi, meeting up with more ibexes than you can shake your antlers at. Up north, we walked along the banks of a rushing, very full Dan River. And near Tiberias, we spent time with the alligators and in the hot springs of Hamat Gader (the ‘gators do not occupy the hot springs).

Truth, however, is that we didn’t avoid human spiritual activity entirely. The Kotel (and its underground excavations) in Jerusalem were as magnificent and stirring as ever. Even Aiden seemed moved by it. We also visited the mystical city of Tz’fat, where we spent some time inside one of the small, timeless synagogues that dot the city’s street. Again, Aiden did not complain (I think he’s more spiritual than he lets on).

Tz’fat is, of course, home to many artisans and we love visiting as many of their galleries as our legs will allow. Sometime during our wanderings, we stumbled across the Canaan Gallery where they hand-weave tallitot. I had just finished a 20-year run with my current tallit, which was now quite thread-bare, and very much wanted to return from my sabbatical with a new one.

I loved this place because I didn’t have to select something off the racks. Invited to choose a fabric, choose a weave, and choose a color scheme, I was thrilled. And then I was invited to choose a text to embroider on the atara. The salesperson said, “Now please don’t forget about your order. You’ve made all your selections and paid me your money. Send me the text so I can finish the tallit and mail it to you.”

I never forgot the tallit. I never forgot the text. I also never sent her the text. Because I could choose any text in all of Jewish tradition, and because it could be anything, I knew it couldn’t be any text I’d ever seen used before. That meant I’d have to read the entire Hebrew Bible to find my text! So when the call came from Israel, “Why have you forgotten your order?” I explained that I hadn’t. I just needed some more time.

Finally, around the beginning of May, I found it. It’s in the book of Job. Job was the guy who’d had it all, then lost it all (apparently at the whim of God) and then got it all again. In his deepest suffering, Job cries out to God, asking to know the reason for his suffering. The Creator correctly admonishes him, saying, “You know next to nothing about the workings of My creation. Your questions to Me will always go unanswered.” While this sounds unduly harsh in God’s treatment of Job (who was sitting right there with God, so should have been able to at least get an inkling as to what brought all this about), you and I don’t get any audiences with God. God’s silence when we question is par for the course.

The text I settled on comes from God’s response to Job (38:35). God asks him, “Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?”

This text is perfect for me. We are so small and the universe is so great. We understand much about how it works, but our knowledge is still infinitesimal. Humility is in order. The lightning belongs to God. It will not come when we call it.

So while we pray, and sometimes think it in our purview to call upon the Creator of the universe to do our bidding, this tallit will serve as an excellent reminder that I can neither ask nor demand anything of God. Humility is in order.

At the same time, we are most definitely part of the universe. It happens around us. It happens to us. And we happen to it. We need to beware of getting in its way. And also, as guests here, we have a responsibility to take care of it, and to take care of each other.

It is with this sense of humility and of responsibility that my family joined together during my sabbatical to create The Jonah Maccabee Foundation. Three years after Jonah’s death, we feel that we can do more with the pain and the challenge that accompanied the disappearance of our son and brother. With the success of the annual concert at Woodlands Community Temple in Jonah’s memory, which raises funds to get Woodlands kids to URJ summer camps, we realized we might be able to do more.

So with the help of some very kind folks, we incorporated, applied for nonprofit status, built a website (http://jonahmac.org), learned how to Twitter, to harness PayPal, to advertise on Facebook, and even pin photos with a message on Pinterest. As a result, we have built a larger avenue on which to affirm life and not complain of its cruelty. Rather than simply carry on, which no one would begrudge us doing after Jonah’s death, we choose to draw something good out of something horrible.

There’s a wonderful story in which two men are traveling through a forest. It’s dark, the path has become nearly impossible to see, and the two men fear that they are hopelessly lost. Worse yet, a thunderstorm is headed their way and already, the skies have begun to rumble, announcing the approaching rains. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning splits the sky. One of the travelers looks up, startled and frightened by the lightning. The other looks down, understanding the brief light as a gift to help in finding their way back to the path. A second bolt of lightning flashes. This time, it strikes a nearby tree, setting it aflame. The first traveler runs away, in fear of the raw and powerful energy that had narrowly missed striking them. But the other runs toward the tree, understanding that it is precisely in the vicinity of that burning tree that the two travelers will find light and warmth.

Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?” The world isn’t an easy place for anyone. But understanding that, it’s possible to construct new things of beauty, paint new vistas, write new melodies – even when tears are never far from the surface.

Billy