Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

When “That Moment” Arrives

bravery1Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous. Hero: a person who is admired for courageous action.

The fire in a small warehouse had been burning for hours. The little community had no means of fighting it and other buildings were being threatened. Suddenly, down the hill roared an old truck. Right through the flames the truck sped, bringing to the epicenter of the blaze a crew of farm workers who had been riding in the truck’s rear. Jumping from the vehicle, the workers beat at the flames with their coats until the fire was completely extinguished. The grateful citizens thanked them profusely and immediately scheduled an evening to honor them. The town raised a thousand dollars and presented it to the driver of the truck. They asked him what he was going to do with the money and, without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Fix the brakes on my truck!”

Bravery is much admired across the world. Individuals who are willing to step up in a moment of crisis, to do what is important but what others fear, is an attribute I imagine we all aspire to possess. But for many, if not most of us, we’re probably more like that truck driver whose vehicle was simply out of control and had no choice but to plunge into the fire (or perhaps moreso, we’re like the unsuspecting passengers in the back of that truck, who could only go where the driver took them).

But there are some amazing people who have stepped up and done fantastically courageous deeds. Malala Yousafzai, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her relentless devotion to educating young women in Pakistan, and doing so in the face of thugs who would see her dead. Andre Trocme, and the citizens of Les Chambons, France, about whom we read earlier this evening, an entire town that rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust when so many others did nothing. Those who headed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, while others were running out, and gave their lives to try and save the endangered. Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 bravely faced down narrow-minded bigots as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

What is it that makes an ordinary person into a hero?

At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, which comes right after the end of Deuteronomy and the Torah, Moses has died and Joshua has been appointed his successor. Way back in Exodus, Joshua had already proved himself a tremendous warrior and leader, guiding the Israelite troops to victory against Amalek, perhaps their most reviled enemy. And when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, only Joshua accompanied him up that mountain, only Joshua was trusted by both Moses and God to stand on that holy ground. And yet, when he was appointed Moses’ successor, one could not help but wonder what went through his own mind: “Will I meet God’s expectations? Will I prove able to continue Moses’ work? Will I be able to lead this people? Will the people obey me? Will I succeed in bringing them to the Promised Land?” God may have sensed the new leader’s hesitation when, only six verses into Joshua’s story, says to him, “Hazak ve’ematz … be strong and courageous.”

Even people who seem to define courage and bravery may themselves wonder why we would think of them as such a person.

In this week’s parasha, Bereshit, we return to the Garden of Eden and once again witness Adam and Eve’s banishment from paradise. After they have eaten of the forbidden fruit, God comes looking for them. Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide among the Garden’s trees. Here, the Torah teaches its very first lesson in bravery: own up to your actions, take responsibility for your mistakes. Once God gets them talking, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. God decides they have some growing up to do and orders them to leave the Garden and to make their way through the world.

The word “hero” may begin not with saving lives but with living life with integrity, with caring enough to just be honest.

Truth is, while there are amazing people who have done some extraordinarily brave things, one could argue that just showing up to life – to work, to school, to the dinner table – is courageous enough. Because we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, life is quite complicated, and courage is often required of us in ordinary moments of our day – to make a presentation to our boss, answer a teacher’s question in front of the class, enter a room where there’s no one we know, stand in line as captains choose their teams, and on and on. Ordinary stuff … that can scare us stiff.

About a year ago, a woman walking with her child in Central Park saw another child fall into a pond and struggle to keep afloat. Reaching out to him, her arms weren’t long enough and so she went in to get him. Having helped the boy out of the water, she discovered she couldn’t save herself and would have to be rescued by others. She’d never intended to be a hero and then, having volunteered to do so, just as quickly needed a hero herself.

I wonder. What is required for any of us to step into the fray and to do what we can when it’s more than we’ve done before? I think of the reading we’ve heard so many times during services in this room …

The question engaged me: Would I have been on Noah’s Ark, to see the rains cover the earth? Would I have been righteous in my generation, and lived to witness the golden tones of the rainbow? Would Abraham have taken me with him to survey the destruction of Sodom? Would I have been among the fifty righteous? Would I have been the pillar of salt? Would I have been righteous in my generation?

I know we humans can surprise ourselves. I know that some of the most unadmired, untrustworthy people in the world have stepped up when true crisis called for brave and selfless response. But, for the most part, I think that courage begins with a simple upbringing of goodness and honesty. Building up a couple of decades of consistent human decency probably sets the stage for one to be able, in a pinch, to do the extraordinary.

silhouette-family-with-eclipse-1On a sunny afternoon in Oklahoma City, a father had taken his two kids to play miniature golf. Walking up to the ticket counter, he asked, “How much for a game?” The young man sitting behind the counter answered, “Eight dollars for you and eight dollars for any kid over six. Six and under get in free.” The man said, “Well, the lawyer’s seven and the doctor is nine, so I guess I owe you twenty-four bucks.”

“Hey, mister,” the young man replied, “did you just win the lottery or something? You could have saved yourself eight bucks if you’d told me the younger one was six. I wouldn’t have known the difference.” The dad looked at his son and daughter and then said, “That may be true, but my kids would have known.”

Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous. Hero: a person who is admired for courageous action. Where do such people come from? If I had to try and anticipate who might one day become a hero, I’d look to that dad and his two kids. It probably has to start somewhere, don’t you think?

Committed to Memory

Well, I took quite the stroll down memory lane this week. Ellen and I watched the film “Old Yeller” for the first time since I was maybe four years old. Fess Parker as the dad and Chuck Connors as the young cowboy who lets the little boys keep his runaway dog, these triggered additional memories of Davy Crockett and The Rifleman. But the story of the fearless, loveable pooch who saves his adopted family but must ultimately be put down because of “hydrophobia” – rabies – tugs at the heart strings like no other tale.

Something else was at play, something that pulled me along and prompted me to view the film again some fifty years later: nostalgia.

145938Nostalgia is a feeling that appeals to many, and offends some. I’m not quite sure when it kicked in for me, but it’s a condition I’ve got now. Katie, by the way, seems to have been born with it. I’ve never met someone so young who loves to look at “old” photos and videos even though they were taken only a few years earlier. Still, I won’t complain – who doesn’t want their kid to sit with them for hours and look at family scrapbooks?

I got to wondering though. Is nostalgia simply a personal indulgence, a moment of instant gratification that serves no real purpose other than to create a feeling of euphoria for times gone by? Or is there some practical reason for its existence? Is it built into our DNA for survival purposes, something akin to our flight-or-fight response?

Dr. Alan Hirsch – neurologist, psychiatrist and director of Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation – in his article, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” explains nostalgia as “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true re-creation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

Makes it sound kind of pathological, doesn’t it? Some fifteen years ago, I did a bit of talk therapy to work through some life-issues and mentioned to my therapist how precious my summer camp memories are to me. He dismissed them, convinced that I’d altered those memories so that they seem a whole lot better than they actually were. Except that I can remember the negative moments from my five summers as a counselor. And to this day, therapist be damned, I use those summer memories as a touchstone for the kind of experiences I gravitate toward in my life today.

Am I correct about this or was he? Dr. Clay Routledge, social psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, writes, “When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness.” And so I imagine there’s a balance to be struck here between the appeal of looking back and the necessity to not dwell there for too long.

Which brings me to Sukkot. It’s so fascinating that, for one week each year, we dwell in our past. Literally. Jewish tradition has us move outside of our homes and live in rickety, primitive structures we know as sukkot. Funny enough, no one really knows where the sukkah comes from. Some teach that they were the booths in which our ancestors slept during the forty years of post-Exodus wandering. Others tell us that sukkot were the booths in which our farming ancestors who who had settled the nation of Ancient Israel would stay throughout the harvest period when there wasn’t time to return home each night lest the ripened crops spoil because they weren’t gathered in time.

Whether or not we actually dwell in a sukkah, the festival of Sukkot – like many of our holidays – involves a powerful look backwards. I doubt many of us yearn for a return to houses that welcome in the chill and the rain and which we often share with bees that are attracted to the produce we’ve attached to it. So why do we hearken back to a time we’re not even sure took place?

As always, there’s more than one answer – often many more – to a Jewish question. For me, Sukkot reminds me that my ancestors had once been slaves (whether they had been or not). Impoverished, harassed, oppressed and indiscriminately murdered, that is a world I neither want to ever again be part of nor will I stand idly by while the same happens to others. Thus, when 400,000 Muslims were murdered in Darfur, our synagogue took a stand. When a million Rwandans from the Tutsi tribe were murdered, our synagogue took a stand.

And our Jewish sensitivity to slavery doesn’t extend only to brutal killings. Other “slavery” in our world – systems in which people are set apart and their basic rights are trampled – include mistreatment of women, of people of color, of those with a different sexual orientation. Also, we take a stand to protect the rights of our brothers and sisters living in Israel, even as we try to figure out how to advocate for innocent Palestinians in Gaza while not turning our back on Israel.

All of this because of Sukkot, and a history that has shaped us as a people that won’t stand by while others suffer. We are a people who regularly dwell in our past. Even though there’s not a whole lot back there to miss, we nevertheless climb into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and take those journeys so that we never abandon our stories, nor the valuable lessons we learn from them.

Antisemitism, it seems, is on the rise. The ADL estimates that 26% of the world’s population harbors antisemitic attitudes. Well, what’s new? Or rather, what’s old?

Antisemitism is old news. There’s ever a certain nostalgia to it. It gets our blood running, makes us feel indignant and, more importantly, proud. Nothing raises a person’s sense of Jewish identity more than the knowledge that it’s under attack. Wanna raise money. Forget Jewish education or building up Jewish spiritual practice. Respond to hate. That’ll get the dough rolling in, for sure.

Yes, there’s a lot of antisemitism in the world today. But things are different this time, different from the 1930s and 40s to which folks seem to be comparing today’s events. The differences, in western countries anyway, is that the governing bodies are neither tolerating nor legislating antisemitism.

Last month, when a man in Britain spewed antisemitic language on a bus filled with Jewish schoolchildren, he was arrested, charged and found guilty of using threatening language to cause alarm and distress. In the Netherlands this past July, two men were arrested for shouting “Death to the Jews” and inciting racial violence during a protest at the Hague. And in August, French police arrested two young women who were plotting to attack a synagogue in Lyon with explosives.

I’m not saying that these acts are in any way defensible. They are as reprehensible and condemnable as any act of bias can be. But there’s a huge difference. The countries in which these hate-crimes are taking place have governments that are responding, that are not tolerating this behavior. I could be wrong. I often am. But I don’t think we’re headed toward a second Holocaust. It’s a mess, to be sure. But it’s a very different mess from that of seventy years ago. And while it’s important to look back, it’s also important to differentiate then from now.

Author Michael Crichton writes, “If you don’t know history […] you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” There are so many lessons to learn from the past. And even if it’s just to smile and sigh a bit at days of wonder gone by, the past connects us to one another and to the stories that impel us into our future. It also teaches us what a hot stove is, figuratively and literally, and to stay away from it.

But sometimes we can’t.

Country singer Glen Campbell released a powerful and unsettling video this week, entitled, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, and resigned to the disappearance of his ability to remember anything, he wrote and recorded this song with the understanding that it will likely be the last one he ever makes:

I’m still here but yet I’m gone
I don’t play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loved you ’til the end

You’re the last person I will love
You’re the last face I will recall
And best of all
I’m not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you

I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry

I’m never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains
I’m not gonna miss you
I’m not gonna miss you

For Glen Campbell, and everyone else who suffers from diseases that rob them of their memories, nostalgia becomes something in which only we can indulge, reluctantly embracing those bittersweet memories of better times spent with those we love, those for whom stories – the past – no longer exists.

During Sukkot, we pick up the lulav and the etrog, waving it in all directions to affirm that goodness exists everywhere. We even shake it behind, although we designate that only as one of the coordinates on a compass. Regardless of where we point those ritual objects, our tradition does embrace the past and acknowledges the goodness that is to be found there. Our stepping inside the sukkah is a step into eras gone by, ones that we happily visit alongside friends and family, always with the hope and the faith that we will together build a brighter, better future for all.

The time will come when our memories are no longer ours. Whether from disease or from death, our journeys will come to an end. Let us hope, that as we remember the significance of our ancestors’ stories, future generations will want to celebrate the benefits and goodnesses that were created by ours. Whether future generations sanitize their recollections of how we lived, or they remember us with all our scars and all our warts, may those memories – like our lulav and etrog – ferry sweet wisdom from our time to theirs, as a perpetual gift of goodness, of promise, and of love.


Noah: Pathway to a Second Chance

I offered this sermon during Kol Nidre evening 5775 (Oct 3, 2014).


Fiddler on the Roof is coming back to Broadway this year. That’s good news because everybody should see it at least once. So get tickets for the little ones. There’s a classic scene in which Tevya is explaining how Jewish communities work. He says, “Of course, there was the time when he sold him a horse, but delivered a mule, but that’s all settled now. Now we live in simple peace and harmony and …”

“It was a horse,” interrupts one man. “It was a mule!” proclaims another. Horse! Mule! Horse! Mule!

“Tradition, tradition …”

Fiddler gets more credit for explaining Jewish culture than it probably deserves, but in this case, it gets it right. Judaism has never been monolithic. There’s hardly anything we all agree upon. And we know it!

Argumentation is embedded in Jewish culture. How else could we have a story where two individuals are discussing their synagogue’s minhag, their customary practices – in this case whether to stand up or sit down for the Shema – and one argues that we sit, while the other insists that we stand? So they sought out the oldest member of the synagogue, who explained that the arguing about whether we stand or sit, that is the tradition.

Which makes it surprising and somewhat perplexing that so many of us believe there is only one acceptable way to view the Torah … as God’s revealed word whose literal meaning we must obey … or not. In fact, even among those who believe that the Torah came directly from God, they’ve been arguing about what God meant for thousands of years.

There is, in Judaism, a body of literature called Midrash, a broad genre of Jewish intellectual creativity that began around the 2nd century BCE, perhaps 300 years after the Torah had been written down. Across the centuries, Jews have been questioning the Torah and engaging in some remarkably inventive thinking of their own that doesn’t rewrite the Torah but fills in blanks where parts of the stories seem to have been left out. American Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner teaches that our Jewish sages “did not write about scripture, they wrote with Scripture.” It didn’t bother them one iota that they were playing with sacred text. For them, it was a mitzvah to participate in the continuing creation of Torah. So long as they didn’t contradict what was already there, Torah text was fair game.

Midrash peers in between the words of Torah, and asks what elements of the story are hiding inside. Which brings me to a film that I imagine very few of you have seen: Noah, starring Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Russell Crowe. When Noah came out this past March, you may have thought it belonged to the same category of Bible films as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. It didn’t, and it doesn’t. Noah disappointed a lot of people who resented how far its film makers had strayed from the original story line. But they hadn’t, because their intention was never to just retell the biblical version. They were creating midrash. The writers, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, are two good Jewish boys. They’re not our “Mel Gibsons,” they weren’t interested in creating a “biblical epic.” They’d studied the Midrash on Noah, and they knew that Jews had a lot of lingering questions about the Flood story, answers which the ancient Midrash has played with, and a few of which they came up with on their own.

NoahI want to share with you some of the midrashim that Aronofsky and Handel used in their film. I want to do this, on Kol Nidre of all times, for two reasons. First, to demonstrate how Jewish thought only begins with the Torah, and that we limit our understanding of Judaism and, quite frankly, of life when we encounter nothing more of Jewish thought than Torah alone. Second, I want to show you the breadth and depth of Jewish learning, to encourage you to do some Jewish learning of your own, to not limit your Jewish knowledge to the stories you were told in childhood. Judaism is more fun than that, and it has so much more to say about life than is apparent in the Torah.

The story of Noah could be thought of as a simple one, like the one we share with our children, the one we represent by a big boat that has lots of smiling pairs of animals on it, a simple tale in which the wicked are removed from the earth and Creation is given a chance to start anew. But if we look closely at the language of Torah, at the words chosen to tell this story, and give ourselves permission to wonder why those words, why say it that way, we open up new possibilities for how we can understand Noah.

For example, in the very first verse of the Genesis Flood story, Noah is described as a man who was pure and righteous. And that would certainly help to explain how he got chosen to save the world. But the Torah adds an additional word, b’dorotav, which means “in his generation.” Why add that? If he was pure and righteous, isn’t that all that would matter? So we might wonder how b’dorotav changes the verse’s meaning. “Noah was pure and righteous in his generation.” Is that any different? A few questions come to mind? Like would Noah have been considered pure and righteous had he lived in another generation? Perhaps he was a thief, a murderer even, but compared to everybody else in his time – a time when God has decided human beings deserve to die – maybe Noah was still better than the rest. The best of a lot of bad choices. On the other hand, in such a corrupt world, perhaps it was even more difficult to be good than at another time. In a different era, Noah might have been a saint!

In the film, the writers play with this idea. There is no doubt that this Noah cares about the earth, cares about life, cares about his family, would care about others if there were any good people remaining. But this Noah you don’t push around. He’s not the jolly, bearded, Santa Claus-looking fella depicted in the dolls we give to our little ones. This Noah is a warrior. He knows how to wield a sword. And more than a little blood is shed by him in defense of his family and of the Ark. 20th century Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz writes that while Abraham had been singled out for a mission, “Noah was singled out for survival.” This is not your mother’s idea of “pure and righteous”!

God then instructs Noah to build an Ark. In simple readings of the text, we merely assume he gets the job done, even though, by the Torah’s measurements, it would have been longer than a football field. He had his three sons helping him, but one wonders what technology would have allowed the four of them to complete a project that big, how long would that have taken, and what were Noah’s neighbors doing while this boat was being built next door?

Enter the movie’s construction crew: Semyaza and Ramiel. Giant, transformer-like stone creatures, Aronofsky and Handel did not make them up. The Midrash tells us that Semyaza and Ramiel were celestial beings that had been charged by God with looking after the newly-created human race. According to the Book of Enoch, a collection of stories attributed to Noah’s great-grandfather Enoch and written down maybe 250 years after the Torah, these creatures – known as the Watchers, angels who consorted with humans and fathered the Nephilim who appear in Genesis just prior to the Flood story – the Watchers fell from grace and, as punishment for their behavior, God had them bound for seventy generations. In Noah, the Watchers appear as celestial light encrusted in prisons of stone. They ally with Noah against the evil hordes and assist him in building the Ark.

Now, if you were building an Ark, do you suppose you could keep it a secret for very long? Midrash tells us the Ark’s construction took 120 years, time to grow the lumber, harvest it, and then build the boat. In that time, we are told in a number of Jewish sources across the ages, that people would ask Team Noah what they were doing. When Noah would answer that they were making an Ark to save Creation from the immanent Flood, people would mock him, use vile language, and cause Noah to suffer violently at their hands. So when the movie assigns these giant Watchers to protect Noah, the writers weren’t the first to worry for Noah’s safety.

Then the rain begins. Gentle at first, but probably a wake-up call to the locals who might realize they could have spent the last 120 years building their own boats. They soon organize and attack Noah’s. The Midrash imagines that the lions and other wild animals emerged from the Ark to defend it. In the film, the Watchers protect the Ark. They are all killed while doing so and their celestial lights, formerly trapped in stone prisons, are redeemed by their service to God and to Creation, and rise to heaven where they are welcomed home.

This night of Kol Nidre returns each year to remind us that ours is a heritage in which no one is beyond redemption. Each of us retains the possibility of teshuvah, of returning to goodness and to our essential humanity. The Watchers’ release from their prisons of stone is very much in line with what our heritage has taught throughout the ages. Sci-fi? Definitely! Jewish? That too.

Back to the movie. It’s dark inside the Ark – windows aren’t such a good idea when flood waters are rising. The Genesis text tells us that God instructed Noah to build a tzohar in the Ark. Some translators assume that’s a skylight so that there’s some illumination. But a skylight during a deluge doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me. How ‘bout you? And besides, really bad storms make it pretty dark out anyway. The word tzohar is a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only one time in the entire Tanakh. So not only are we completely unsure as to what the word means, it’s a moment that’s ripe for midrash. Rashi, the most famous and highly-respected commentator of them all (he lived in 11th century France), wrote that some believe the tzohar was a window while others believe it was a wondrous, luminescent stone. Part of the reason for their fanciful thinking here is their agreement that a window would have been a pretty stupid idea. And part of it is that tzohar is similar to tzohorayim, the Hebrew word for afternoon, which may mean the word is less about an object and more about a form of light. In a bunch of midrashic collections, the rabbis imagine tzohar to be a magical stone that contains the very light of Creation, and that’s what the film makers gave to their Noah to brighten his dreary surroundings.

One of the reasons people are unhappy with this film is when Noah decides that God had him build the Ark in order to save the animals but not the humans. Noah believes that he and his family are to tend the Ark’s passengers and will live out their own lives after the Flood but are not themselves to reproduce. The story of human beings is to end with them.

But the message of the Flood story in Genesis seems to be one of second chances. And humankind is included. However, you and I have the benefit of knowing the story. Noah would not have had that advantage. The question is, did the writers violate the simple meaning of the biblical story by building their Noah as an end-of-times fatalist? Let’s take a look.

In the Torah, Noah is told that God is going “to put an end to all flesh.” Hineni mash-khee-tahm et ha’aretz … I will destroy them with the earth. God instructs Noah to take his family into the Ark, but never explicitly says they are to repopulate the earth. This close reading opens up the possibility that Noah thought his job was to build and to captain the Ark, but that he and his family would not survive the trip. The film’s writers asked a great question about Noah’s state of mind. And remember, as long as it doesn’t contradict what’s already written in the Torah, midrash frees us to imagine most anything we want in between the words. By the end of the story, Noah understands that humanity is also to be saved. But at this early point? Well, what would you have thought?

Once the Ark set sail, the animals had to be tended to. The film departs from Midrash here, but both respond to the question, “How could one family have possibly taken care of so many animals for all that time?” Time, by the way, was not forty days and forty nights, but a full year. And that’s actually clear in the biblical text. The rain fell for forty days and nights, but the floodwaters would take many more months to recede and it would be a full year before the Ark’s door would reopen and life on earth could begin again.

While on the Ark, the Midrash tells us that Noah and his family got no sleep because of all the time it took to care for the ship’s passengers. The film depicts Noah’s family, prior to departure, walking the decks waving some sort of herbal smoke machine, and putting the animals to sleep for the duration of the journey. Ancient midrash meets modern midrash. Considering what we know about bears hibernating in the wintertime, the film’s choice may be more believable than what the rabbis imagined. In either case, the question, “How did all those animals get fed?” gets asked by Torah readers because the Torah itself doesn’t say.

One more bit of Midrash for you. The Noah story doesn’t just end with a rainbow and a promise. It has a difficult ending to it, I think because life, even when we get happy endings, can change irrevocably and our happiness is sometimes tempered by the pain, loss, or defeat that someone must experience in order for us to succeed. Why do you suppose that even after the Ark had survived its journey, the animals had emerged and gone out to repopulate nature, and Noah’s family had also begun life anew, why does Noah plant grapes and drink himself into a stupor? Mind you, this wasn’t a one-day boozing; we’re talking a season of planting, harvesting, crushing and fermenting, followed by a formidable period of getting lacquered and hosed. Why?

Two possibilities. First, the movie suggests that Noah believes he failed in his mission. He thought he was to end the human race but was unable to do so. The second possibility appears in the Zohar, Judaism’s preeminent mystical text, which suggests that, upon emerging from the Ark, Noah looked around, saw the devastation which the Flood had caused, and confronted God, demanding to know why mercy could not have ruled the day and saved Creation. God responds with an anthropomorphic slap across the jaw, countering with, “Now you ask me such a question! Perhaps before the Flood, had you confronted Me then, it might have effected a rescue. But you took care only of your family. Too little, too late!” Noah was devastated. That could be why his own ship was three sheets to the wind.

Let me add a personal note. Five years ago, I journeyed on an ark of my own. When I disembarked, my eldest son was gone. Each day since 2009, I have struggled to live my life without my son Jonah in it – my world minus one. As difficult as that has been, I try to imagine what it must have been like for Noah. What of his brothers and sisters? His parents and grandparents? His friends? The millions who would receive no second chance? No wonder he tied one on. How do you live in the aftermath of that kind of indiscriminate, universal destruction?

Our ancestors’ questions for God were never just about the characters in the Torah. They were always trying to better understand what it means for us to be human and how we could best live our lives despite our own shortcomings and the difficulties each of us faces in merely striving to feed and shelter ourselves and those we love. Their questions from a thousand years ago, two thousand years, even three thousand years ago, are our questions too. They may not have known about electricity, plumbing or, but they knew about fear and illness and love and peace. Their stories may not have actually happened, but they are as true today as any story you or I will live.

All of these midrashim on Noah’s story demonstrate that Jewish knowledge has never been limited to the text of the Torah. Those Five Books, sacred as they are, merely comprise the starting point for the wealth of experience and wisdom our heritage has waiting for us. Each time we open one of those ancient books, within its pages we will find a mirror reflecting our own concerns, our own questions, our own dreams and hopes, right back at us.

That’s why Jews study. That’s why I believe you will love joining our community of learners here at Woodlands. Whether you study Talmud or Israel with me, a Taste of Judaism or Prayer with Rabbi Mara, the Midrash of Creation with Rav Julius Rabinowitz, or any other adult learning opportunity here at temple, the goal is not to acquire facts but to grow in spirit, not to become encyclopedic but empathetic. My teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman used to say that we study Jewish texts not just to meet our ancestors but to meet ourselves. It is such a valuable and worthwhile use of time.

Oh, and see the film. It’s a great lesson in Midrash, in the complexity of the human experience which our ancestors have reflected and written about in every year since the Torah got written down.

Avinu Malkeynu … it is Kol Nidre. The time to release ourselves from vows with You that we have not kept. But why shouldn’t we make a few new ones? It’s a New Year, after all. An excellent time to think about how we can strengthen and straighten our highest, noblest values. Learning a bit with You, God, even arguing with You, could be a great new direction in the year ahead. Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

Closing words at the end of the service
The Torah tells us that Noah entered the Ark “with his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives.” As is typical for ancient texts, we know little of these women, which means that Midrash is waiting to happen. In this case, midrash from Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. Noah’s stepdaughter, Ila, played by Emma Watson, speaks with a Noah who is drunk and in despair at what has become of the planet. The film makers have Ila teaching Noah that God has given us a world in which we are supposed to make choices. There will always be ambiguity and doubt. Nevertheless, we are in possession of mercy and love to assist us in making our choices. With the Ark, God gave humanity a second chance, a chance to live a good life on God’s earth. It is when Noah embraces this second chance and returns to life and to building goodness … that the sun comes out and the rainbow appears.

Avinu Malkeynu … Yours is a world that frequently offers us second chances. On this night of Kol Nidre, of release from vows, may we make a new vow. May we accept Your great gift of teshuvah, of turning, of redemption, of a second chance. And may we ask ourselves, “What will we do with that second chance? What are we doing with that second chance? Are we making certain that we use it for inscribing all of life into the Book of Life?

Science versus Religion?

I offered this sermon during Rosh Hashanah morning 5775 (Sep 25, 2014).


During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, three men were to be executed by guillotine: a rabbi, a priest, and a rationalist skeptic.

The rabbi was the first to be marched up onto the platform. There, facing Madame Guillotine, he was asked if he had any last words. The rabbi recited the Shema and pleaded with God to save him. The executioner positioned the rabbi beneath the blade, placed the block above his neck, and pulled the lever that set the terrible instrument in motion. The heavy cleaver plunged downward, searing the air. But with a crack, just a few inches above the rabbi’s neck, the blade suddenly stopped. “It’s a miracle!” gasped the crowd, and the executioner had to agree. The rabbi was released.

Next in line was the priest. Asked if he had any last words, the priest cried out, “Our Father, who art in heaven, rescue me in my hour of need.” The executioner positioned the priest beneath the blade and pulled the lever. Again the blade flew downward, stopping one inch, and no more, short of its mark. “Another miracle.” the crowd called out, this time with discernible disappointment. And for a second time, the executioner released his victim.

Now it was the skeptic’s turn. “Any last words?” he was asked. But the skeptic wasn’t paying attention. He was staring intently at Madame G, and not until the executioner poked him in the ribs and the question was asked again did he reply, “Oh, I see your problem. You’ve got a blockage in the gear assembly right … there!”

Which may explain why there are fewer rationalist skeptics than true believers in the world today.

This is the beginning of my twentieth year at Woodlands. First, thanks for the job. I love this temple. Second, in all these years, I still feel like people who question, or who outright don’t believe in, God still shrink from letting me know. Folks, this is a Reform synagogue. You’ve had rabbis who don’t believe in God. I happen to be an agnostic. I try to be humble enough to never assert that I am somehow in possession of any real knowledge of the universe’s Creator.

Let me share with you a passage from “The Pittsburgh Platform,” a statement of guiding principles for Jewish life that was put together by America’s Reform rabbis back in 1885: “We recognize in every religion an attempt to grasp the Infinite, and in every mode, source or book of revelation held sacred in any religious system the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man. We hold that Judaism presents the highest conception of the God-idea as taught in our Holy Scriptures and developed and spiritualized by the Jewish teachers, in accordance with the moral and philosophical progress of their respective ages. We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended amidst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

“God-idea.” I like these guys. They were well-educated and honest spiritual leaders who understood how little they understood about God. The term “God-idea” allowed them to articulate their desire and hope that there is a God, but also their refusal to assert that they indisputably knew anything about God.

Science&ReligionThere may or may not be a God in the universe. This cannot, and quite likely will not, ever be proved. That’s what faith is. You and I get to choose: believe in God, don’t believe in God. I say don’t even bother trying to substantiate your position. It’s a leap of faith. You may employ logic, even science, to stake out your position, including that of the atheist. But in the end, we’re just choosing the one we want.

That’s the simplest explanation I can offer you as to why science and religion are completely compatible. Neither can prove or disprove God. Theology can’t prove it, even if we use a lot of clever logic. And science can’t disprove it because God, by definition, is beyond the natural world. God would have been the Creator of the laws of physics; not bound by them. When creation started off with a Big Bang some fifteen billion years ago, that beginning was preceded by, astoundingly enough, nothing. No light, no space, no mass. And science doesn’t know what to do with that. Except to wonder and to be amazed. And that’s what religion is all about: wonder and amazement.

Did God create the universe? Who can say? Science starts its explanation of Creation after Creation’s already happened! There’s a number, Planck’s Constant it’s called, that identifies a moment which occurred one teeny-tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. That, according to the scientific community, is when the laws of quantum physics kicked in and anything intelligent can be said about creation. Everything before that is poetry and faith.

Tomorrow morning’s Torah reading will be the story of Creation. Now, that story was written down some 2500 years ago. Among the more recent conversations that are typically kept from me and Rabbi Mara is the one that goes like this: “The story of Creation as told in the book of Genesis is not true. It can’t be true. Science tells us the real story. Science teaches us the way Creation really went down.”

I’m okay with most of that reasoning. Again, I don’t know why you won’t talk to your clergy about this. We’re as steeped in science as you are. But there are some people here who will speak with me. Come join me in the Meeting Room some Wednesday evening or Sunday morning when I’m studying Torah with the seventh grade. Seventh graders are fearless. They say what’s on their mind. Somehow they haven’t yet learned to filter their honest thinking when in the presence of a rabbi.

These seventh graders, studying the Genesis account of Creation, are quick to notice a couple of things about the ancient storytellers. First, Creation doesn’t begin “in the beginning.” That’s a mistranslation you and I have been living with for far too long. Bereshit bara Elohim does not mean “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The correct translation is, “When God began creating the heavens and the earth.” And what does that say to my fearless seventh graders? It says that the authors of the Torah didn’t presume to know what there was “in the beginning.” Could have been something, could have been nothing. So they started in the middle, or perhaps a teeny-tiny fraction of a second after the beginning, just like every scientist does.

My seventh graders also noticed that the progression of created flora and fauna, which, in a Torah that was written down a very long time before Darwin did his work on the origin of the species, is remarkably similar to what Darwin would assert in the mid-1800s. These people were not scientists, but they weren’t dummies either. They intuited, without the evidence that would come later, that life on earth started simply and became more and more complex. Day one: a swirling mass of primordial matter. Day two: land and water aggregate. Day three: vegetation. Day four: sun, moon and stars (okay, I’ve got no idea why they placed these on the fourth day … ask my seventh graders). Day five: amphibious creatures and birds. Day six: land animals, large animals and, lastly, humankind. Remarkably similar to evolution, don’t you think?

What’s this mean for you and me? First, it may allow us to be more accepting of the Genesis account. As my seventh graders love to offer, “Maybe each of the six days of Creation was a lot longer than twenty-four hours.” Thirteenth-century commentator Nachmanides, the Ramban, might agree. He seems to have thought that since the sun, moon and stars weren’t created until the fourth day, there was no way that the first three could be described as happening in only twenty-four hours. The Ramban, it would appear, intuited the complexity of creating an entire universe, even if you’re God. Second, our ancestors were thoughtful about the origins of life. And Darwin, I think, would have been proud to have them as his students.

Even in the Talmud, written nearly two thousand years ago, our sages and rabbis readily admit they are not scientists, and that when new knowledge is discovered, they most willingly incorporated it not only into their world-view, but into their religious-view. For the Jewish sages, science and religion needed to be able to coexist.

This summer, the Union for Reform Judaism opened a new camp: 6 Points Science and Technology Academy. When I first learned about Sci-Tech at the 2013 URJ Biennial, I flipped. Not just because Paul Zaloom was onstage working his magic – or his science, rather – as he had done from 1992-1997 as the crazed but brilliant scientist Beakman in Beakman’s World. But also because the Sci-Tech Academy, he told us, would be a place where “scientific inquiry meets fun!” Campers would “explore what Judaism means to them—and how this complements their interests in science and technology.”

I knew I had to be there for this camp’s inaugural summer. Sci-Tech director Greg Kellner graciously accommodated my request, and this past June I found myself moving in for a week to The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, Sci-Tech’s summer home. Through robotics, video game design, environmental science, and digital media, boys and girls in grades 5-10, including Woodlands’ science maniacs Jonathan Montague and Matthew Kaminskas, would not only explore these emergent technologies but they would be asked to consider how 21st century living – with its smartphones, the internet, GPS, wikipedia, text messaging, Netflix, cameras in our phones, and – all impact on how we live, on the soul and the spirit of how we live. In other words, where does religious life – for us, Jewish life – intersect with science and technology? And how might one inform the other?

Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that seeks to bridge the scientific and religious worlds (and who I remember as a baseball-loving little boy who grew up here at Woodlands), writes of the ways in which people perceive how science and religion coexist (or not) in our world. His preference is that science and religion each inform the other so that both will not only thrive, but will do so with clarity, honesty and with integrity. If you’re thinking that only religion is in need of “clarity, honesty and integrity,” just remember who funds most of the scientific inquiry in our world: governments and the military. So spending some time reflecting on the ethics of science, the spirituality of science, could be very much worth the world’s while.

I’ll give you a few examples. DNA analysis. We not only possess the technology to identify the DNA profile of any human being, it’s rapidly becoming cheap enough and available enough that anybody can acquire such information. But what happens when you find out you carry a gene that might lead to breast cancer? Do you proactively remove a breast? What happens if you find out you carry a gene that might lead to abnormal pregnancy? Do you not get pregnant? And what about privacy issues? Insurance companies that obtain your DNA profile and deem you a poor risk? How about a potential employer doing the same?

Another example why pondering the soul of science may be worthwhile is driverless cars. To what standard do we hold a driverless car? The same as a new, teen-aged driver? Or something more rigorous? If driverless cars are programmed to obey the law, what about a situation where breaking the law would save someone’s life? And what if a situation calls not for saving a life but for ending one? What if five people are in danger of being hit by a driverless car, the car is able to sense the danger but determines that the only solution, the only way to save those five lives, is to veer off in a direction that would cause it to hit someone else, to deliberately end one life in order to save five? Is that ethical? Do we program the car to opt for intentional death in order to avoid unintentional death? And we’d best figure this out soon, because Zipcar is planning on using them as soon as they’re legal.

Religion is about ethics. Call it “obeying God,” if you will, but whether you live within a fundamentalist religious community where God’s commands are never questioned, or a liberal-progressive one where God’s role is always under discussion, religions seek to understand how you and I ought to behave in our day-to-day lives. In Judaism, the mitzvot regulate our daily behavior. Call it “doing God’s will,” but what it really is, is answering the question, “Why am I alive, and how ought I behave while I’m here?” Ethics are guidelines or rules for human behavior. Religion may gussy it up a bit, but it’s pretty much the same thing. While I would never give religion a veto, I do think it can sit at the table of scientific inquiry, serving as a voice of conscience, goading us toward moral clarity.

20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, “We shall accomplish nothing at all if we divide our world and our life into two domains: one in which God’s command is paramount, the other governed by the laws of economics, politics, and the ‘simple self-assertion’ of the group. […] Stopping one’s ears so as not to hear the voice from above is breaking the connection between existence and the meaning of existence.”

What Buber’s words are saying to me is that our world needs an integration of the rational and the spiritual. One ought not censor the other, but the two should be in conversation, even in argument. Judaism is better for science having taught it something about the origins of life. And science is better for all the world’s religions applying pressure to be considering not just the material benefits, but the moral consequences, of knowledge gained and applied.

My time at the Sci-Tech Academy did not change the way I see the universe. It underscored and implemented what I’ve always felt to be valuable and really important to our lives: that ideas of the spirit and of the physical world talk to each other. The world is such a complicated place. We need all the help we can get to make some reasonable, value-laden sense of it all.

Avinu Malkeynu … when the founders of our nation decreed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that You should be cordoned off from the laboratories and research institutes. My great tenet of faith is that science and religion should spend lots of time talking to each other. So long as we don’t lose our heads about it (to bring back the imagery of Madame Guillotine), I believe our lives and Your universe will be better for our having imbued the act of human creativity with the same sense of tov, of the goodness, with which our Torah imagines that You imbued the entire universe.

Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

Closing words at the end of the service
At the URJ Science and Technology Academy this summer, each morning began before breakfast with the Boker Big Bang. The camp gathered at an outdoor location, seated themselves close but not too close, because a daily experiment involving something that would either smoke, make dazzling arrays of color, or blow up, was about to take place.

Everyone from youngest to … rabbis … was excited about this moment. But we quickly learned that science is filled with many more failures than successes. And it soon became evident that the camp would need to embrace its duds as well as its kapows.

Rabbi Nathaniel Share, who led the New Orleans Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer from 1934-1974, taught the following: “Jewish tradition encourages us to strive to be failures. It does this by urging us to set standards of conduct for ourselves far higher than we can possibly attain. We will fall short. But what a glorious way to fail. For in failing to be as good as we might, we become better than we were.”

This is the spirit of our High Holy Days – set the bar as high as we possibly can, keep it in view for the entire year ahead. And when we fall short, applaud our efforts, the heights that we’ve achieved, and then return here, to this tent, next fall, and begin the whole, honorable process all over again.