Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

The Honor of Being Alive and Part of Creation

The-Night-Sky-by-Eric-HinesHolmes and Watson go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lie down for the night and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.”

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

Watson ponders this for a moment and then responds, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a minute, and then speaks. “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

How unlikely an honor it is that we have been created at all, that we are living life, and that we are living it as a next chapter in the continuing story of the Big Bang.

While, from time to time, it becomes necessary to focus on minute details of our individual stories in order to survive, it is our connection to the meta-story of life that I’ll be writing about – how big we are, even as an infinitesimally small piece of the universe.

Just the other day, someone asked me not to jinx them by saying so-and-so. I looked at them incredulously, which a rabbi really ought not do, but I was stunned to witness firsthand that superstition is alive and well in the 21st century.

A study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when college students were asked to say out loud that they would definitely not get into a car accident this winter, follow-up questioning ascertained that they definitely thought it more likely that they would. When subsequently asked to “knock on wood” on a table in front of them, the effects of the jinx were believed to have been reversed; these students were no more likely to think they would get into an accident than those who hadn’t jinxed themselves in the first place.

We humans, no matter how well-educated we are, are very reluctant to let go of our primordial fears. Not only do we hang onto to age-old superstitious beliefs – black cats crossing our path, walking beneath a ladder – we’re creating new ones all the time: sports players who pitch or bat well at a game, then try to maintain their success by wearing or doing some repeated act for each subsequent game; candy consumers who avoid certain M&M colors believing they might cause illness or the risk of terrorist attack. There is no end to our beliefs in supernatural forces acting on our natural world.

Perhaps the best-known act of superstition is prayer. The ancient Israelites believed that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were necessary preliminaries leading up to the most important prayer-day of their year: Sukkot, during which they prayed to God for rain. In a few weeks, we’ll gather in our tent and, while praying for no rain during the High Holy Days, many of us will ask God to forgive us for our sins from the previous year. Along the way, we may ask for a few boons as well: healing for a loved one, a raise at work, maybe even a curse or two for our annoying neighbors.

prayerNot infrequently I’m informed that someone no longer believes in prayer because God never seems to be listening; that is, God doesn’t grant the requested favor. But that’s not the main purpose of prayer – not in the Jewish tradition, not in any religious tradition.

Do you know the story about the man who is sitting at his wife’s bedside at an out-of-town hospital they have unfortunately had to come to while traveling? A local rabbi invites the man to attend his synagogue while he’s in town, to which the man responds, “Rabbi, if I have anything to ask of God, I can do that right here.”

Certainly when our loved ones are not well, we pray for their recovery. And we would welcome God’s altering the course of nature, if necessary, to grant our loved one a miracle. But traditional prayer is neither about our asks nor the granting of miracles. Prayer is about acknowledging the magnificence of life and expressing thanks that we’re part of it. Rather than bending God’s will to our own (a fairly presumptuous thing to do), prayer encourages us to align our desires with God’s. The end of the hospital story is the rabbi saying to the man, “Well, perhaps God has something to ask of you.” The universe is huge, infinite. Prayer expresses our gratitude and our awe at how lucky we are to be part of it. Especially in light of the improbability of life existing on earth in the first place.

photosynthesis-3In the earliest chapters of earth’s history, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. The sun’s rays did create a bit of oxygen by splitting it off from carbon dioxide and other molecules, but the oxygen molecules quickly disappeared when they formed bonds with others, transforming into compounds like rust and hydrogen peroxide. It wasn’t until some three billion years ago, when microbes evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis, that oxygen became abundant, and you and I became possible.

Prayer is the human response to that unlikely event and the subsequent evolution that has brought you, me and everything we love into existence.

This past Monday, I stood at the graveside of a congregant’s grandmother as we laid to rest the sacred vessel in which she had lived her life. Before we left the cemetery, we joined together in reciting Kaddish. As always, I shared with those gathered that their isn’t a single word in the Kaddish prayer about death. Kaddish is a grand poem in which we proclaim two truths: the first, that life is an extraordinary gift to each of us; and the second, that the appropriate response to that gift is thanks. With Kaddish, we thank God for a universe in which life is possible, and how grateful we are for having shared in the life of this person whom we have loved and whom we now return to the infinite ocean of life from which we all emerged.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, shortly after we’ve first opened the pages of our new High Holy Days makhzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we will read these words:

“My Lord is not a shepherd and I am not His sheep. No monarch greedy for my praise is worthy of my prayers. Oneness that exploded into cosmos, spun the double helix over eons of evolution, made all things beautiful in their time, gave me intellect and initiative to envision Oneness: a single chain of life, a single human family, and myself one part — responsible and responsive, member of a people who dreamed of Oneness, worked and suffered for its sake, and still lives in service to that Unity: This I honor. This I hold sacred.”

Now that’s prayer. In a world whose mechanics we increasingly understand, the awesomeness of the Force responsible for its existence only grows more impressive. While I am quite sure you and I will continue to knock on wood when someone we love is in peril, let us try and remember how great the universe is, and to never withhold our profound thankfulness for having the magnificent honor of becoming one tiny share of that infinite magnificence.

As we continue our Elul preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe, let us remember that while we are but dust and ashes, we are also but a little lower than angels.

lithium-setRadiolab is a nationally syndicated radio program produced by WNYC that focuses on topics of scientific and philosophical nature. In the episode, “Elements,” they focused on a young woman diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and whose successful treatment involved the administration of three tablets of a salt called lithium. Besides how effective lithium is in treating the young woman’s condition, the program explores the fundamental, essential character of the drug; lithium is an element, an atom, not a complex drug – it appears on the Periodic Table of Elements and has been around since the Big Bang.

Ben Lilly, who writes about psychiatric drugs, found this to be a “profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same as the forces that are shaping who we are.”

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors …

How did we manage to wind up on the invitation list to this cosmic gathering? Why have You included us as part of the continuing story of the Big Bang and Creation? We may never know. But thank You – for whatever it was You did to get us in the door.

May we live our lives in such a way as to be worthy of being part of it all.


Zero to Hero

Me and my big brother (well, 1 of 4 anyway)

Me and my big brother (well, 1 of 4 anyway)

My brother Jimmy came up from Florida last week to spend time with me and my family. Jimmy is number five of the six Dreskin children. I’m number six. We’re two years apart. Much of my childhood was spent fending off attacks – both physical and psychological – from Jimmy. When I was six, he sent me flying through our all-glass front door bestowing upon me a wrist-to-elbow scar that has been ever-so-useful, to this day, in prompting his guilt-ridden conscience to do pretty much anything I ask of him.

So, for seven days this past week, Jimmy fixed things around my house. And since he used to build houses for a living, he can pretty much fix anything.

But here’s the problem. He fixed things a little too well. Our bathroom door, which used to require powerful effort to move it along the carpet in order to open or close, is now damaging my dresser when I push it too hard and it flies above the carpet only to be stopped by what used to be the beautiful finish of our bedroom furniture. Same with the bathroom mirror. It used to not even close but now, held firmly in place by a strong magnet, my pull to open it sends it careening into the adjacent wall. And then there’s the secret annex, a collection of shelves that is home to many family photographs but whose existence hides a storage space behind which we keep our Shabbat paraphernalia, cookbooks and more. The shelves used to require a rather Herculean effort to lift and simultaneously pull the unit open. Now, thanks to my brother, a simple, gentle tug will access its interior. But since my brain’s neuron-firings haven’t yet learned that, I continue to lift and pull which sends the photographs flying across the room.

I say this all not to complain about my brother. Although that’s always fun. To the contrary, I am in awe of his abilities. And after helplessly standing by as, year after year, more parts of our home whither and atrophy, Jimmy’s prowess at restoring hinges and catches and the like makes him nothing less … than my hero. Ellen’s delight at walking into our kitchen and having a flood of light replace the dim shadows she’s cooked in for two decades is all the reward this husband ever needs.

Which got me thinking about heroes.

hero_03We all grow up, I think, with pretty clear ideas of what makes a hero. Heroes save lives. Heroes sometimes sacrifice their own to do that. They certainly put their own welfare last when it comes to helping others. War heroes like Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War, Maj. Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, and Lt. John F. Kennedy in World War II, conjure up magnificent images of brave men risking it all to save others. When 9/11 occurred, firefighters and police officers became our heroes as we watched them run into falling buildings to rescue those trying to get out.

Recently, we have seen heroes work their magic in ending the Ebola outbreak in Africa, aiding victims of the earthquake in Nepal, and fighting the flames of major fires out west. These folks do the work that needs to be done if lives are to be protected, but is work that neither you nor I can nor (probably) would want to do.

Jewish tradition has its heroes too. Noah saved the remnants of global destruction. Abraham risked the wrath of God to challenge the Divine’s decree against Sodom and Gomorrah. Esther knew her place but stepped away from it in order to reverse a king’s edict for genocide. Young David felled the mighty Goliath. And the prophetess Deborah led successful military campaigns against Israel’s enemies, freeing Israel from oppression beneath the yoke of Yavin, king of Canaan.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the Torah teaches us. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Paving the way for myriad heroes to arise from our own ranks effecting social change for the better in all corridors of human life.

And so we’ve seen Jews step up and be counted in so many different heroic ways. In 1964, Andrew Goodman gave his life in the struggle for civil rights. In 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. In 1776, Polish-born American-Jewish businessman Haym Solomon was possibly the prime financier of America’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. In the early 1900s, Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears and Roebuck Company, established a fund that helped build nearly 5000 public schools for America’s black children. Film director, producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg not only brought us “Schindler’s List,” but, in 1994, created the USC Shoah Foundation Institute which has recorded and preserve testimony from nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.

The list goes on and on. And on. And on. And on. Our measly 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population has effected immeasurable change for the better throughout the world.

Had to wander back through time a bit to get all the Dreskin men in one photo (my wedding, 1982!)

Had to wander back through time a bit to get all the Dreskin men (and then some) in one photo (my wedding, 1982!)

And then there’s you and me. During his week with us, Jimmy was telling me how he’d done nothing of importance with his life. It’s a Dreskin trait, especially among the Dreskin men. My father, a much-loved physician in Cincinnati, always lamented that he’d not won a Nobel Prize in medicine. As a kid, Jimmy had dreamed of becoming a nuclear physicist. While he had the brains for it, he lacked the ability to sit still and do the hard studying to get there. And me? I look at rabbis like Gordon Tucker in White Plains, David Wolpe in Los Angeles, and Rick Jacobs at the URJ, and, like my father, I too lament what I have not become.

Do you suppose I was listening when I said to my brother, “Are you kidding me? Look at your life. Look at the beautiful, loving, giving children you’ve brought into this world. Look at the home you’ve built for them, a space in which they grow, safe and loved. And look at the good you’ve done for so many by making their electricity work, their roofs not leak, their doors and windows open and close, and a thousand other ways that you improve other people’s lives. Believe you me, when you get the lights working or fix the heat in one of the homes you’ve visited, you’re that family’s hero.”

Maybe I’m stretching the definition a bit. I don’t know if we have to risk limb and life in order for others to place us in that superlative category. Sometimes a quiet conversation when someone is troubled can leave that person feeling like their life has just been saved. Even a student who’s got a paper on ancient Greece due in three days and, not knowing how to get the work done, is calmly ushered through by a teacher or a mentor who simply takes the time to help – that’s a hero.

My wife Ellen’s mom is 93 years old. She’s blind and suffers from dementia. Other than that, she’s been nearly as healthy as a horse. But this summer, her body put her through the wringer and it didn’t look like she’d be around much longer. Ellen and her sister Claudia tended to their mom around the clock, sometimes trying to save her life, sometimes just trying to make what appeared to be the end a bit more comfortable. It was exhausting work for them. To me, it was heroic. What a gift, whatever the outcome, that they gave to their mom. A gift of profound love during this late chapter of her life.

Even when the photographs of Pluto began streaming back to earth from three billion miles away this summer, I very proudly made one of them the feature image on my phone, so grateful was I that some team of rocket scientists and computer geeks had figured out how to show us a piece of creation that resides so far away.

I’m pretty enamored of heroes. And I try to stay open to every possibility for meeting new ones.

Hanging in my home is a framed piece by artist Brian Andreas who draws somewhat goofy but delightful cartoons accompanied by pithy words. This one reads: “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.” Ellen, one of the wisest people I know, put the Andreas piece on our wall. It reminds us both that the world is an amazing place and that there are equally amazing people living in it. We ought never get so busy nor so preoccupied with ourselves that we can’t find time to be amazed. Hence, the Pluto pictures on my phone.

Kohelet wrote, Ein kol hadash takhat hashamesh … there’s nothing new under the sun. While many read this verse as an excuse to be blase about everything because, after all, we’ve seen it before, Kohelet’s point was quite likely the opposite. Stay awake. Stay alert. The world never stops being amazing. And if you think it has, you’re missing out on the best life has to offer.

To see as heroic the sandwiches a young parent makes for a kindergartner’s first day of school … makes the world a bright, interesting, affirming and wonderful place. To see as heroic the young idealist who licks envelopes so that others can receive and learn about the candidate this kid thinks will be great for our community … warms our hearts and fills us with hope that a new generation is going to do what they can. And yes, to see as heroic the efforts of a big brother who once scarred his bratty kid brother for life and now fixes his doors and cabinets so that they move freely for the first time in years … why not?

courage-capeTo love and appreciate because someone can – you fill in the blank – administer a life-saving drug, cook a nourishing meal, teach a curious child, give a warm, loving embrace, are these not among life’s most spectacular moments? And are these people – you, me, the members of our families, our friends, our neighbors – not performing heroic deeds by simply showing up to life each and every day, doing the same, un-famous things year in and year out, and being loved for it as if we were world-acclaimed celebrities?

My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, writes about wrinkles and how they are the marks of a life that’s been lived. It’s up to you and me to decide whether it’s been well-lived. But we get credit – lots of credit – for just showing up. True Dreskin that I am, I lament the accomplishments that I haven’t achieved. But then I look at you, at this beautiful, sweet, holy community, and I thank my lucky stars that you believe I have enough to offer that you invited me and my family to move in with you twenty years ago.

Ein kol hadash takhat hashamesh … there’s nothing new under the sun. But we can, and ought to, renew how we look at everything under the sun. It may not be new. But our appreciation of it might be.

I really am in awe of my brother’s abilities to improve the space that a person lives in, to make it lovelier and more functional. Can a million other people do the very same thing? Absolutely. But for the folks who creak front doors he is invited to walk through, Jimmy is the most important of them all.

Someone else will treat the illnesses. Someone else will put out the fires. But for those who are lucky enough to have you and me step into their lives and make a sandwich, explain something confusing, give a hug, even fix a broken light switch – we too can be their heroes.

Let’s just be sure we don’t get too comfortable, fall asleep, and miss out on the excitement.

In 2012, astrophysicist Summer Ash underwent heart surgery to replace a defective aorta. Upon her recovery, Summer discovered that her heart had developed certain acoustic anomalies that resulted in her heartbeat becoming audible to the naked ear. She, and others sitting close to her, could hear the steady beating from inside her chest, not through a stethoscope but from the heart itself.

Through this odd experience, Summer Ash achieved a level of recognition of her heart’s purpose. With her engineer’s brain, she understood the heart as a pump. But as a human being with this unique experience of living with her own audible heartbeat, always, she came to appreciate the work our hearts do to keep us alive, every minute, every day.

A different kind of hero, to be sure. But with the same message, I think … to not miss out on our lives, and to give thanks for the great gifts that are bestowed upon us … every minute, every day.