Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Unclean After Charleston, SC

In this week’s parasha, Hukkat, it is still the second year after the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. They’re still at Mount Sinai receiving instruction from God through Moses. Eventually, the topic of instruction turns to death. As is true with all communities, Israel too must learn how to bury its dead and how to live with loss.

Biblical regulations in the Book of Numbers (chapter 19) stipulate that an Israelite who comes into contact with someone who has died assumes the status of “unclean,” not a physical or moral state-of-being but a ritual one. An “unclean” individual is ritually suspended from participating in Israelite cultic practice for a period of seven days. At week’s end, a specified ritual prepares the individual for reentry to the community. Listen to Numbers 19:17-19 …

Ashes from the fire of cleansing shall be added to fresh water in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle the mixture upon anyone who been touched by a person who has died. They shall do so on the third day and on the seventh day. And by the seventh day, the unclean person shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and by nightfall he shall be clean.

Our ancestors understood that death affects people deeply. “Business as usual” was not their response. “Bucking up” and “moving on” were not how they coped with loss. Instead, it was time, along with defined acts to move through that time, that was prescribed to assist those in mourning along their path to healing.

Shiva CandleToday, you and I can see the continuation of those age-old practices in our own rituals surrounding death. For the week of shiva, we remove ourselves from daily life. We stay at home and, during that time, we tear a ribbon, light a candle, recite Kaddish, and receive support from others. We may not be healed by week’s end. We may only have begun the process of reentry. But at least we’ve started it. And it’s a healthy process. Shiva brings us face-to-face with our loss, and helps us – through prescribed ritual practice – to reenter life and carry on despite the pain of our grief.

And so I’ve been wondering.

Ten days ago, Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spent an hour studying bible with clergy and congregants, and then pulled out a gun and murdered nine men and women between the ages of 26 and 87. On Thursday, their funerals commenced and will continue through next Tuesday, until all nine are buried.

Nine families are mourning their beloved dead. It is likely that these families will, in time, quiet their grief and learn to live life with their loved ones’ memories held close as a perpetual treasure.

But America too is in mourning. We have also lost nine precious lives. We too must travel and, albeit in a different manner from the victims’ families, we must nonetheless navigate the desolate valley of the shadow of death.

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

We’ve been here before. Columbine High School. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood, Texas. Aurora, Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Since 1982, there have been at least 70 mass shootings across the country. And their frequency is on the rise.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering about. How do we process this? How do we grieve our fellow Americans’ deaths? How do we carry on?

Past experience tells us that the way we Americans mourn our dead is by spending a period of time sympathizing with the grieving families, expressing outrage that such killings are even possible, turning to our elected officials to do something that will prevent the next shooting from taking place, and then returning to our regular lives when, once again, nothing improves.

It’s not a terrible process, I suppose. As ritual goes. We repeat a number of helpful practices that link us with others who share in our sadness. We take some time to remove ourselves from everyday, unconcerned living. And after a while, we go back to the things we were doing before.

It’s “not a terrible process” because, in actuality, that’s what the period of mourning is all about. When a loved one dies, little changes except that someone we care about is now missing from our lives. We don’t necessarily change anything about the world, but the process helps us, in time, to resume reasonably contented living.

Apparently, that’s been enough for the American people, as well. America remains unchanged after each mass shooting, except for the loss of life and the ensuing grief.

Wouldn’t it be great though if the model of individual grief didn’t satisfy our national family? Wouldn’t it be great if our elected leaders decided that these killings can’t go on, and that something really needs to be done to prevent the next ones from happening? Wouldn’t it be great if Congress said, “We will convene this evening to find a solution to this epidemic, and we will not recess until a solution has been found, voted on and put into action”?

400x250xflyer.jpg.pagespeed.ic.S5DACJFKj4I understand that America is fairly split down the middle in terms of issues of governance. I “get it” that Democrats and Republicans see the world differently. But I happily reference today’s 6-3 Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s health care law. Sometimes we don’t have to be split down the middle. And assuming that nobody in America wants to see mass killers on the rampage, shouldn’t our leaders be able to work together, agreeing that a solution needs to be found, and then working on one until all sides can come to an agreement?

I don’t know. That was always the America I wanted to be part of. One where dissent of opinion is not only welcomed, but is valued because of the creative process it sparks on the path to solving dilemmas.

As the Charleston nine are laid to rest between now and next Tuesday, my grief will continue. Grief for them, for their bereft loved ones. And grief for a country that lacks the resolve to fix something which everyone agrees needs fixing.

You know, God never wanted a political structure to manage ancient Israel. God didn’t think that having a king was a very good idea. God felt that if we’d just follow the Torah, if we’d just practice the mitzvot, if we’d just be good to each other, everything would be fine. Rituals prescribed for individuals who had died would never have to be applied on a wholesale basis. Economies of scale would never be needed because hinei mah tov u’ma naim … we’d all behold how pleasant it is … shevet akhim gahm yakhad … that men and women are dwelling together … in peace!

Tonight, you and I are Emanuel AME Church. Tonight, their loss is our loss. We cry for them. We cry with them.

How about if, next week, we become America? And as America, we share the loss which took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and add this to our national ritual: remembering to do something about it. I beg of you, do more than what America usually does during its moments of national grief. Act. Do something to help things change. Do it with your voice. Do it with your wallet. Do it with your vote.

And then maybe, just maybe, we won’t have to participate in the insane national ritual of grieving like this … again … and again … and yet again.

Ken y’hee rah-tzone.

Billy

 

Closing Words
Last week, college student Melissa Wishner spoke about helping victims of the earthquake in Nepal. I opened that evening by quoting late-19th century American author, historian and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.”

Eloheynu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors,

Won’t you lend us some of that grace now? We’ll need it, if we hope to rise above that concern-unbolstered-by-action that accompanies so many of our national tragedies. We are grateful and encouraged by today’s landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalizes same-sex marriage nationwide, but we are stymied by the fact that we can’t seem to figure out how to finally learn the way to live side-by-side without consideration of the color of one’s skin.

Show us the answers at the back of book, won’t You? Help us to discover the path to finding constructive responses and solutions. Remind us that none of us are exempt from doing, nor ought we feel helpless to do, something to help find those solutions.

Shabbat shalom.

On LGBT Pride Month

I was invited to write this piece of ReformJudaism.org where it was published on June 19, 2015. I hope you find it worthwhile reading.

Billy


gay_pride__by_d3adki113r-d5art8lI did not know that June is LGBT Pride Month. I’m not gay, which may or may not be a valid excuse. That being said, I specifically requested to write this installment of 10 Minutes of Torah. Gay rights is one of the critical issues in these beginning years of the 21st century. I may not be marching down Fifth Avenue on Sunday, June 28, in the Gay Pride Parade, but I’m very well aware that June 28 is also the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which, in 1969, pretty much ignited the gay liberation movement and the battle for LGBT rights across our nation. It is a battle in which we all, gay and straight, are conscripts.

As a rabbi, it’s been important to stand with my community on issues of vital social concern. I’ve marched in Washington, been arrested in New York City, lobbied my elected representatives, and written endlessly on the challenges facing all who care about justice and compassion in our society.

Sometimes, however, it is normalcy (and the non-events that frequently comprise its blessed existence) that has defined my strongest stands. I learned this from my son Aiden. Now a rising college senior, when Aiden was in high school he joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. He did so simply to stand by his gay friends. It was never a big deal for him, but it was still something he felt was important to do. He did so quietly, without any fanfare and, in doing so (and probably as a complete surprise to himself), made a powerful impact on his dad. To this day, I hold Aiden’s model of action close to my heart: do what’s right, and don’t make a fuss about it.

In the world of LGBT understanding, I have since made these small, but meaningful, adjustments in my life:

1) One night, after a Shabbat Evening Service, Corey Friedlander, a gay member of our temple, approached me and said, “I notice you no longer say ‘husband and wife’ when speaking about marriage. Instead, you’ve begun using the word ‘partners.’ I’m curious as to what brought about the change?” I thought about it a bit and then said to Corey, “The young people who are sitting in the congregation, some of them are engaged in a struggle to figure out their sexuality. If any of them turn out to be gay, and some very likely will, I don’t want them to ever think that their synagogue wasn’t a place where they could feel at home.” It’s not a world-altering effort, but for some teenaged kid? It could be their entire world. If I can help in these small but important ways, that’s what I want to do.

Ad.RivertownsEnterprise.Nov2010.edited2) In 2010, when some particularly nasty anti-gay activity was taking place in multiple locations across America, the houses of faith in our area came together and published the following simple but powerful ad in our local paper: “We deplore the rage and violence directed at lesbian and gay persons and we welcome these sisters and brothers to live and worship among us.” Five years later, even as life continues to improve and ,yes, normalize for the LGBT community, our temple continues to display that ad at our entrance. It’s a simple but moving gesture that I hope one day will no longer be needed. In the meantime, it quietly affirms that our doors are open wide for all.

3) Corey and I have shared many conversations about the openness and inclusiveness of our synagogue. Ours is not a large temple, so we can’t offer every flavor of programming for every affinity group. On the other hand, we try very hard to be a “community temple” where, as much as possible, we all come together – young and old, married and single, gay and straight – to share our lives and our hopes with each other. We worship together, learn together, perform acts of tikkun olam (compassionate justice) together. The “normalcy” we strive to achieve is one where a person can walk into our temple and, not finding the affinity group that might tell them that their particular need is cared for, finds a spiritual home where Jewish men, women and children of differing stripes (including such political differences as democrat and republican, gun control advocates and gun owners) all coexist in an authentic and holistic manner.

These are three examples of the kind of work I labor at every day. I know that there are crucial legal and political challenges that need to be met. I support them and encourage others to do so. But so much of life happens in the normal, everyday. If each of us were to carefully govern “the little things” – the words we speak to friends and acquaintances, the modest actions that can mean the world to someone else – the cumulative consequences would be world-changing.

I watched a beautifully tragic film recently entitled, “Any Day Now.” It takes place in the 1970s and involves a gay couple trying to adopt an abused and abandoned child. In that world – a world not far removed from the one in which you and I now live our lives – such an effort was not often, if ever, rewarded with success. During LGBT Pride Month, I am so grateful to know that the world is changing. Little by little, if we each do our part, whether quietly or in loud protest, we just might build a world whose doors are open wide for all of us.

Billy

The Phone Lines of Human Connection

Woody Allen once said, “In California, they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into TV shows.”

While much of television really is mindless drivel, we certainly love it. It’d be good to limit how much we watch, lest our brains melt into Velveeta Cheese, but even I love to occasionally relax and enjoy the view.

There are those who say that watching television cuts us off from human contact which, while that can be true, doesn’t have to be. I can tell you that the television set is where my son Aiden and I find common interest and time together. And, of course, documentaries can teach us about our world and inspire us to join with others and work to better life for ourselves and for others.

1990. Dave calls his mom, but reaches Sid Tuchman instead.

1990. Dave calls his mom, but reaches Sid Tuchman instead.

Tonight, however, I have in mind Late Night with David Letterman which, after 33 years on the air, played for the last time on May 20. That was a good episode but not the one I want to talk about.

On July 31, 1990, almost twenty-five years ago, Dave picked up the phone to call his mom during the show, which he did from time to time. But on this particular occasion, Dave dialed the wrong number. Who he got became one of the funniest Letterman bits ever. And to this day, many believe the whole thing was staged. I have information to the contrary. But first, here’s Dave, trying to call his mom, and getting Sid Tuchman instead:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZ2cAuSj-2Q

So Dave’s mom knew Sid Tuchman. Why? Because Sid Tuchman owns a network of dry cleaners all over Indianapolis. Lots of people knew Sid Tuchman, including Dave’s mom.

But guess what? I knew him too! After all, I grew up in Cincinnati. Indianapolis wasn’t far from where I lived. And guess what else? In high school, I dated Sid Tuchman’s daughter. Well, I’m not sure you’d call it dating. It was a summer camp romance. For one summer, back in the mid-70s, at the URJ Goldman Camp outside of Indianapolis, Sid’s daughter, Kathy, swept me off my besandaled feet and my heart was hers. Truth is, and I hope Ellen won’t poison my food for this, part of my heart still is hers. First big romance ever – that one kind of never fully goes away. She and I have remained friends across the decades and, even though she lives in California, I’m actually going to see her in just a few weeks when she’s in town for business. We’re going to share a good laugh over my recent awareness of the Letterman-Tuchman video and that I gave a sermon about it!

Well, I haven’t given the sermon yet, but here it comes now!

Paper dolls

David Letterman’s connection with Sid Tuchman was quite the surprise to him, since he was expecting to reach his mom. I think that the sermon – the lesson for us – is that unexpected encounter offers new relationships and meanings. I believe that, like that phone call, there are points of contact between us and others that come as a complete surprise and go on to become significant in our lives. This video, a case-in-point. Such momentary intersections between ourselves and others can have myriad affects on us. They can make us laugh, make us cry, and make us wonder in amazement at the magic and the mystery of its even happening in the first place. If you’ve ever bumped into someone who you’ve not seen for the longest time, perhaps you’ve felt that surge of wonder and wizardry that accompanies such surprising encounters. And if it hearkens to something good (and mind you, I’ve also bumped into people who I wouldn’t have minded never seeing again), these moments can deepen the beauty and value of being alive and of simply going along for life’s ride.

But there are some points of contact that don’t often appear in our field of vision and experience. We only encounter them if we make the effort to do so. We have to want these points of contact and we must coax them from out of the fabric of life.

I’m speaking of what the Torah frequently makes reference to as “the orphan, the stranger and the widow,” categories which indicate people who don’t usually circulate within our sphere of living but whose welfare depends on our interest in making that happen. Exodus, chapter 23: “V’ger lo tilkhatz … you shall not oppress a stranger … v’atem y’da-tem et nefesh ha-ger … for you know the feelings of the stranger … kee gerim he-yee-tem b’eretz Mitzrayim … having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Extending a helping hand to others who are in need is a well-known and deeply-held value of Jewish life. But it only happens if we allow it to happen.

A Nepali man carries recovered belongings through the street in the ancient city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley on April. 28, 2015. Nepal had a severe earthquake on April 25th. Photo by Adam Ferguson for Time

A Nepali man carries recovered belongings through the street in the ancient city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley on April. 28, 2015. Nepal had a severe earthquake on April 25th. Photo by Adam Ferguson for Time

Let me give you an example. I’ve never been to Nepal. I once learned a bit about it when our former intern, Rabbi Darren Levine, told me of a trip he’d taken there. But recently, and only briefly, Nepal entered all of our lives when a devastating earthquake struck there in April. When was the last time you heard something about Nepal’s recovery from that earthquake? In point of fact, another tremor struck there just last night, but in all likelihood, even though Nepal continues to try and rebuild and bring relief to those whose lives were upended, you and I have little connection to the people there, no point of contact, and so, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

However, temple member and recent high school graduate Melissa Wishner was in Nepal on a gap-year experience when the earthquake struck. Melissa was deeply impacted by that experience and continues to feel powerfully connected to the Nepalese people during their efforts to recover. In the hope that her experience will strengthen our connection to those people, I have invited Melissa to speak here during next Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbarbecue service.

Like the renewed connection with my friends in Indianapolis spurred on by my recent viewing of David Letterman’s misdialed phone call with Sid Tuchman, it is my hope that Melissa’s presentation will renew our connection to those who are struggling to survive in Nepal.

Right now, the people of Nepal are “the orphan, the widow and the stranger.” Perhaps they will be able to recover all by themselves, but Jewish teaching dictates that we ought not miss out on offering our assistance.

In your daf t’filah (service handout), you will find a link to a written message from Melissa. I hope you will take the time to read her note and, hopefully, reach out and help.

By the way, also in your daf t’filah is a request from our friends across the street at the First Community Church of the Nazarene. The young man who died just this week as the victim of a hit-and-run driver leaves a mom who has not been able to pay her rent without her son’s assistance. You and I are now connected to her via the beautiful Shabbat we shared with First Community Church back in May, as well as the 11:00 am church service we will share with them this very Sunday morning. I hope you will join us there for the service. I hope you will feel a line of connection and help that grieving mom.

Note to blog readers: Here’s information on how to help. Pastor Leroy Richards, at First Community Church of the Nazarene (across the street from our temple) is requesting donations to help support the family of his 23 year-old parishioner Darryl Chung, who was killed this past week in a hit-and-run incident. Darryl was helping his mother with her monthly rent who now also needs help with funeral expenses. Contributions may be sent to: “First Community Church,” 2101 Saw Mill River Road, White Plains, NY 10607. Please add “Darryl Chung Fund” in the memo area. Thanks!

The world is truly a remarkable place. While coincidence happen often, our brains seem to be hard-wired to make sense of those seemingly random points of contact and to understand them as if they had needed to happen all along, as if they are messages and lessons for you and for me. Even if they really were just coincidence, it is to humankind’s great credit that we want those connections to be real and meaningful, that we want to have purpose-filled relationships with others, both with people we know well and with those whose very existence is only made known to us through those coincidental points of contact.

Sid Tuchman’s accidental appearance on Late Night with David Letterman was pure fun and was never meant to nurture anything of consequence. Yet, here we are. Because of Sid, we have the opportunity to help out “the orphan, the widow and the stranger” — clear across the globe, and just across the street.

Ken y’hee ratzon … may God be privileged to witness the points of contact that you and I nurture and, through them, bring increased goodness and love into the world.

*     *     *

Closing Prayer
A poor man appeared at the door to Rabbi Shmelke’s home. Rabbi Shmuel Shmelke HaLevi Horowitz of Nikolsburg lived in 18th century Morvia, known to us today as the Czech Republic. The man asked for assistance but Rabbi Shmelke could find no money in his house. So instead, the rabbi took a ring off his finger and gave it to the man, who thanked Rabbi Shmelke and went away.

Telling his wife what he had done, she bemoaned her husband’s having given away so valuable a piece of jewelry. Rabbi Shmelke then had the poor man brought back to him. Upon the man’s return, he said, “I have learned that the ring I gave you is of great value. Be careful not to sell it for too little money.”

Elohenu v’elohei avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors … we never know who’s going to appear at the doorway of our life. Whenever a new point of contact is established with another human soul, may we ever be ready to respond with openness, interest and, if needed, generosity of spirit and being. Thank You, God, for the magnificent privilege of living in a universe where such surprises can happen … at any time.

Shabbat shalom!