Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Katie Graduates from Teachers College (May 2012)

Appointment with Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie Graduates from Teachers College (May 2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

Blessings from a Bolt of Lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

Where the Wild Things Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

It Matters

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

Billy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

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

Billy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve got one more.

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

See what I mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♬ I am a human.

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

Billy

By the Numbers

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

Gosh.

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

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

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

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

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

The mystery continues.

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

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

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

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

Billy