Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

October 27, 2018 … A Year Later, Now What?

A year ago, both tragedy and profound beauty struck at the heart of the United States of America. On a Shabbat morning in October, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, fear and sadness blanketed their lives, rapidly sending tremors of concern and shared sympathy across our nation and across the world. One week later, hundreds of synagogues hosted crowded services that were attended by Americans of every stripe who simply wanted to stand and be counted among the kind and inclusive of our nation.

Here at Woodlands, we named a baby. Camila Chesterson, daughter of Tiffany and Jedd, had been born on October 21, just thirteen days earlier, and was only expecting one of her rabbis to bless her. Instead, while she did get a rabbi, she found the hands of a Christian and a Muslim were blessing her as well. It was a beautiful, powerful moment and the first of many responses that we and so many others have made, and will continue to make, whenever hate tries to ruin people’s lives.

On a related note, our sukkah fell down. Again. A year ago, one good storm sent it toppling. This year, we were certain no rains would bring it down. But we didn’t expect as hard a rain and as unyielding a wind to ravage our harvest home, and down it came a second time. But don’t you fret. Next year, we’ll be back, and better than ever!

Our fallen sukkah is as good a metaphor as any for the difficulties and challenges this nation finds itself confronting in recent times. As wonderful as America has been for us, for our immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents, and for new Americans everywhere, it takes a special kind of vigilance to ensure that the rights enshrined in our Constitution remain strong and protected. Not only must legal and political vigilance be maintained, but how we treat one another, including people who may not like us, may very well be the keystone that locks America’s humanity into place.

Consider this.

In 2017, when the current administration first enacted a travel ban preventing entry into the United States by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, mass protests appeared at airports throughout the nation, with pro bono lawyers climbing over each other to provide representation to individuals and families who had arrived from those countries by plane only to find themselves unable to enter. The response was swift, merciful, just and unforgettable.

When America’s sukkah of welcoming shelter was toppled by the hard-hearted winds of xenophobia, crews appeared almost out of nowhere to set that sukkah upright again. At the very moment when so many of us thought America’s soul had been overrun, we learned just how amazing the citizens of this nation can be.

Perhaps the most compelling story that I’ve heard of acting against hate comes from a man name Daryl Davis, a blues musician who, after a set one evening, found himself talking to a man who’d never heard a person of color play the blues. “This is the first time I’ve ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis,” he said. To which Davis replied, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” The man objected, “Jerry Lee invented it. I’ve never heard a black man except for you play like that.” And as Daryl Davis spoke about the music of Fats Domino and Little Richard, the other man interrupted, saying, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.” “How is that possible,” asked Davis. Came the reply, “I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

So began Daryl Davis’ travels across the United States, welcoming the opportunity to speak with members of the Klan, starting as enemies, in time always finding commonalities that then became the basis for a relationship, and then a friendship. In time, because of Daryl Davis’ willingness to meet his enemy, more than two hundred of these men gave up their robes. Davis would ask, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” He’s been a good salesman, that’s for sure. But Daryl Davis wasn’t selling Toyotas; he was selling love.

Here’s a photo of Daryl Davis standing with Richard Preston, who participated in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. Here you can see the two of them visiting the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. First Davis invited Preston to his home. In time, Preston invited Davis to his wedding. “That’s a seed planted,” Davis said, as he continues his truly sacred work of bridging the divides between people.

This past Sunday evening, we celebrated Simkhat Torah. What a blast! Music, dancing, juggling(!) and unrolling an entire Torah around this sanctuary. All to celebrate the completion of our year-long reading of the Torah and then, without so much as a single breath, because we love the Torah and what we learn from it, starting all over again. Which means that this week we’ve been reading and studying Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, which tells the story of the beginning of everything! And while we don’t look to the Torah to teach us the science of how things began, we do look to it to try and understand what life is all about.

In Genesis chapter one, throughout the story of Creation, God is continually noting that the things being created are good. Light is good. Land and seas are good. Plants and animals are good. Sun and moon are good. You know the one thing God doesn’t say is good? Us. Human beings. Why not? Are we bad? Of course not. We’ve been created b’tzelem Elohim, with the spark of God inside of us. But even that doesn’t make us good. Not yet, anyway.

What we are, the Torah teaches, is “in process.” We’re neither good nor bad until we establish that for ourselves. Each one of us determines our own status. Each one us must decide what we stand for. That’s why it’s so important to learn from our parents and from our teachers and, yes, to come to temple and learn from our rabbis. And it’s also so very important to be a good role model for others, because we never know who’s watching.

In the early 1960’s, a first grader went off to her first day of school. It was a newly integrated school down south, at the height of the desegregation storm. That afternoon, a very anxious mother met her daughter at the door as the little girl returned home. Once inside and sitting for a snack, her mom asked, “How did everything go, Honey?” “Oh, Mother, did you know that a little black girl sat next to me?” This had been a new experience both for the child and her mother, who didn’t know how to respond. Finally, she asked, “Well, what happened?” The little girl said, “Oh, Mommy, we were both so scared, we held hands all day.”

America is a great country. It’s built on a mighty foundation of fairness and understanding. It doesn’t always work but, given enough time and sufficient attention, things get better. It’s each of our jobs to do what we can to see it stays that way.

During the story of Creation, God never says that human beings are good. Because God’s waiting, waiting to see what we do, and waiting to decide whether we become worthy of the words, “kee tov … and they were good.”

October 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will not determine God’s final declaration. We mustn’t allow days like that one to become the face of our humanity. It’s in the days following October 27 that showed the real beauty of our species. Plus all the pro bono lawyers, and all the Daryl Davises, and little kids who hold hands to take care of each other. Let these be what show the beauty, the compassion, and the real future of humankind.

Jackie Pilossoph, a freelance columnist in Chicago, writes, “Hate is exhausting. Hate makes a person lose sight of life’s beauty and goodness. Hate destroys others. Hate destroys the hater. Love, on the other hand, rejuvenates. Loving and being loved makes a person want to help others, sustain compassion, and make the world a better place. Love makes people grow and prosper. Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”

Shabbat shalom!

The Owner of the Garden

In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Israel has completed its forty years of post-Egypt wandering and is looking into the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Moses is about to die and is offering his farewell address, reminding his people of the b’rit, their Covenant with God, that was forged at Mount Sinai, and was repeatedly violated throughout their forty-year journey. “Tzur y’lad-kha te-shee,” Moses tells them. “You have neglected the Rock that begot you … va-tish-kakh Eyl m’khol-l’le-kha … and you have forgotten the God who brought you forth” (Deut 32:18). And yet, God remains a willing partner if Israel will just do its part and observe the terms.

It’s a problem, to be sure. No one among the Children of Israel, save Moses and Joshua, is still alive to remember the parting of the Red Sea, their miraculous rescue from slavery by God’s outstretched hand. Telling them that God has never stopped watching over them is like my telling you, “The setting of the sun, the movement of the oceans, the cry of a newborn baby, are all evidence of God’s presence in the universe.” For me, that’s exactly what these are. For you, maybe not so much.

And yet, here we are. Summer has turned to autumn. The changing of the seasons always seems to present nature’s best side. We take long drives to view the turning of the leaves. We take long walks on autumn afternoons when the sun shines brilliantly but the air is cool and comfortable.

That’s not why Sukkot happens now, but it’s lovely that it does. Sukkot occurs at this time because in Israel the rainy season is about to begin. And if you recall your geography, Israel and the Middle East are desert, or become desert if the rains don’t come. Sukkot was placed just before the coming of the rainy season because the ancient Israelites wanted to make their case before God that they needed God’s blessing of rain. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were actually preparatory holidays before HeKhag, Sukkot’s other name, which means “The Festival.” Sukkot was the High Holy Day of ancient Israel. Without rain, their crops wouldn’t grow, and that would spell disaster.

Dreskin Sukkah 2003 (l-r: Aiden Dreskin, Josh Rosenthal, Jonah Dreskin, Julia Rosenthal, Russell Steinberg and Matt Steinberg)

That was then and this is now. For us, Sukkot comes at a time when we feel wonderful about being alive. We’ve completed our High Holy Days, ostensibly having been inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, the autumn months bringing not just moderate weather but new beginnings as we return to work and to school after summer’s respite.

Judaism challenges us to see God at work in the universe. We may be tempted to take credit for the works of our own hands, but those hands – our tradition teaches us – are gifts from a loving Creator. Our High Holy Days asked whether we live our lives in a world of God’s making, or do we not care where the world came from, only what we can take from it?

Seeing God isn’t hard. But neither is it easy. It takes perspective. And perspective takes practice, and a special eye.

Rabbi Simkha Bunim lived and taught in early-19th century Poland. He told of a king who owned an exceptionally beautiful garden. So magnificent was this garden that the king felt it worthy of having a portrait painted of it. He hired the finest artist in the land, who captured the garden in remarkable detail, every tree, every flower, even the bees pollinating those flowers. Even the king himself was depicted in the portrait, enjoying the transcendent beauty of his own garden. The painting was of such superior quality that one might even mistake it for the real thing.

The king was so pleased that he invited the artist to come to a special reception of honor where all could view the painting on one of the palace walls. With hundreds looking on, surprised and happy cries went up as some birds that had gotten into the palace tried to peck at the apples painted onto a few of the trees. “How marvelous,” proclaimed the king. “Even the birds think your painting is real!” But the artist was disappointed. Asked why, he said, “If the picture had succeeded in truly looking real, the birds would not have pecked at the apples for they would have seen that is God watching over the garden.”

Judaism presents the idea of God as the world’s owner. The plants, the animals, the very ground itself, all belong to God. Judaism teaches that we should respect that. And respecting that should affect the way we relate to the world.

Have you ever screamed, “It’s mine!” Two men were arguing over a piece of land. One said, “This land belongs to me!” while the second shouted, “No. It belongs to me!” Their dispute went through numerous courts and arbitrations. A hatred sprang up between them, drawing others into the fight. Threats began to be heard from both sides. Eventually, they were persuaded to travel to the Rebbe and put their case before him. Each presented at great length not only his claims but contemptuous and insulting remarks aimed at the other side (sounds like Congress). The Rebbe listened quietly, noting how passionately they were arguing. Then, at last, he spoke. “From what you have said, I understand that both of you make the claim, ‘This ground belongs to me.’ That is the reason you have argued so violently, dragging those around you into your dispute. Why don’t you take my advice and listen for a moment to the voice of the ground itself. If you did so, you would hear the voice of God whispering, ‘Both of you belong to Me!’”

God is an idea, one that has helped shape how we view the world. Without God, there is no owner. We can do anything we want. Pollute, deforest, overpopulate, use up all the water, render species extinct, overheat the planet. And then there’s how we treat each other. Bigotry, prejudice, persecution, slavery, hunger, homelessness, murder and war. Nothing is off-limits when there’s no accountability.

For us in the 21st century, the juxtaposition of our High Holy Days with Sukkot is instructive. Theoretically, we’ve identified and apologized for the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Sukkot now presents an opportunity to do real teshuvah, to do more than say we’re sorry, taking the next, crucial step of demonstrating that we have stopped doing what we’ve done before. When we’re inside the sukkah and we look up at the s’khakh, and see holes, spaces up there so that we can see more than the roof; we can see the earth’s owner.

Sukkot stares us in the face and says, “Nu?” Did you mean any of that stuff you promised only a week ago? Have you donated to an organization that’s trying to help? Have you volunteered any time? Have you lent a hand? Do you know who your elected leaders are, and whether or not they’re helping or hindering? Do you vote in “off-year” elections, doing your part to get good people elected at the local level? Or are you only waiting for November 2020?

Can you see the Owner of the garden? Or do you only have eyes for the apples?

Rabbi Bunim teaches, “Most of us are like those birds. Because God is not real to us, we never see the Owner of the garden. We see all the beautiful things that have been placed in our world, but we’re unaware of God who created them. We think these things belong to us. In fact, we are nothing more than unappreciative guests.”

The purpose of Judaism is not to prove God. It can’t do that. Its purpose is to provide a way for us to live as if there is a God. And the trick is to see God in the garden, whether God’s actually there or not, and allow that perspective to affect how we live our lives. When we do that, if we’re true to the intention of our sages’ teachings, if we’re true to the promises we made on Yom Kippur, we might just make this world a little cleaner, a little kinder, a litter better than the way we found it.

As we all know, our garden is in big trouble. Every one of us needs to start working on fixing it, before it’s too late.

When I was a kid, my temple’s religious school put on a play for the whole congregation. It was a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I got to play Benjamin. Okay, I wasn’t really Benjamin; I was one of Benjamin’s sheep. Well, I wasn’t really one of his sheep either; I was one of six fleas on the sixth sheep. We had a lot of kids and I guess we all needed parts.

Afterwards, there was a big reception which, true to religious schools everywhere, served lots and lots of dessert so that nobody would have an appetite when they went home. Some long tables were filled with lots of goodies – candy, fruit, and veggies. Naturally, everyone swarmed. Having been a flea, you might think I’d be too small to get in there until the end. Actually, having been a flea (and yes, small), I got there first!

At one end, there was a large pile of apples. Next to the apples was a note: “Take only one. God is watching.” Dutifully complying, I took one (the upside of which was that left plenty of room for other stuff). Someone’s parents brought a tray of carrots and broccoli. No note needed there. Fortunately, most parents understood the assignment and, at the far end of the tables, lay the “treasures of Adonai”: chocolate chip cookies! I loaded up maybe fifteen cookies next to my apple. That was when I remembered the note at the other end of the table. I took the apple, bit into it, and let it hang there in my mouth. I scooped up the cookies and put them in my pockets. I took my paper plate, turned it over, wrote a note on it and placed it next to the remaining cookies. As I was walking away, I heard another kid reading the plate with glee. It said, “Take all you want. God’s watching the apples!”

As you can see, I began thinking about God at a very early age. Fortunately, my thinking matured a bit over time. I see God everywhere, reminding me how lucky I am to be part of Creation, how lucky I am to have consciousness and the ability to care and to love, how lucky I am to do my part to take care of Creation, and how lucky I am to have good people in my life and throughout the world with whom to share it all.

Danusha Lameris is a poet and author who lives in Santa Cruz, California. Her second book, Bonfire Opera, is due out early next year. As we contemplate the meaning of these Holy Days just past, reconciling them with the challenge of Sukkot and the open rooftop, I’m going to give her the last word. I think she can point the way forward for many of us:

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Shabbat shalom.

It’s New Year’s — Who’s Up For Some Resolutioning?

You know this story? Back in Eastern Europe, sometime during the nineteenth century, there was a small village that had a Police Chief who found great pleasure in persecuting the Jews who lived there. One morning, the Police Chief encountered the village rabbi, who was carrying his tallit. It was, of course, obvious that the rabbi was on his way to the synagogue, but the Police Chief, to annoy him, asked, “Where are you going, rabbi?” “I don’t know,” came the reply. The Police Chief, angered by the rabbi’s insolence, shouted, “It is perfectly clear that you are going to your morning prayer service at the synagogue! So why don’t you admit it?” And he gave orders for the rabbi to be arrested. “You see,” said the rabbi to the Police Chief, “I did tell the truth. Was I quite certain where I was going? I had certainly intended to go to the synagogue, but now I find myself in prison. So I never really know where my journey is taking me.”

It being the week before New Year’s, and its attendant resolution-making, I’ve been wondering: What would you do if you were truly free to do whatever you want? If there were no constraints and the possibilities were unlimited, where would you go, who would you look up, what would you do, what mark would you leave?

I thought it might be fun (or depressing, I suppose) to think about our undone work, and to ponder what we might be able to actually get done in the year ahead. And to maybe articulate some of the things we likely won’t get done but wish we could just the same. Some may think this exercise a waste of time, but I believe it’s helpful to orient our souls and, at the very least, point them in the direction we wish we were going just in case the opportunity arises to move even a tiny bit in that direction.

A cursory look online reveals that a lot of people write lists of hoped-for accomplishments. Some do it for themselves; many do so to teach others (or to get you to buy whatever life-improvement product they’re peddling). I looked over some of these lists and pulled out some that I thought were worth mentioning here.

One guy listed his top one hundred life goals. They included everything from owning a yacht and a Tesla, to doing a lot of reading and exploring the ocean floor. Near the top of his list, I’m pleased to report, are finding love, building a family, and helping others.

On another list, it wasn’t until item 50 that there was even mention of another human being. It wasn’t until item 73 that this person wanted to do anything for a family member. And in the entire list of 130 goals, not once did the writer express interest in improving another person’s life without seeking something in return (ie, giving away a product in exchange for some good PR). I don’t know when this list got started, but it’s been updated annually since 2006. In 2019, there’s finally mention of helping others in ways that don’t bring more professional success. Excellent – finally growing up.

I remember making lists of my own in college, of where I wanted my life to take me. I wish I’d saved them because life has taken so many interesting turns before settling into a rabbinic career.

I did save a list I made back in 1989. I was two years a rabbi and had moved with Ellen and Katie to Cleveland. It was a huge congregation – some 2300 families – and I think I feared I’d be swallowed alive by them. So I was trying to articulate what life I wanted to live rather than simply get pulled into the vortex of the lives of the eight thousand souls who belonged there.

Top of the list? “Be a mentsch, to yourself and to others.” Nice start, eh? That wasn’t easy to achieve, by the way. I was so busy there, I felt like I didn’t have time to breathe. I remember marching into my senior rabbi’s office one morning and telling him, “I just walked the length of this building (it was a big place) and didn’t have time to say hello to anyone I saw along the way. I don’t ever want to be so busy to think that’s somehow acceptable behavior.” So I could articulate my goals; I’m just not sure I could live by them.

The next five items on my 1989 list were in a similar vein. “Be ethical. Maintain your integrity. Be honest. Be fair. Be a person of your word. Be free of hypocrisy. Work to change the world, to better it.” And then my favorite: “Remember: you are a child of the 60’s — act on your idealism, and take others with you.”

Item #7 finally got around to the most important people in my life: “Spend more than enough time with your family.” I was never really expert at that. Although, as far as clergy go, I might have done pretty well. But I was always leaving them, always going to be with someone else’s family. And while that fit items one through six, number seven has always seemed to come up short.

What’s on your list?

One article I found online, written by a psychologist rather than a business professional, suggested that life-goals are important because they provide focus and bolster self-esteem. I do, in fact, remember those college lists, not only how excited I was to pursue what was written there, but how enthused and empowered I felt in doing so. Yes, the list might change, but I had every confidence my life was going forward in positive, rewarding directions.

Which brings me to 2019. What dreams do you have for the coming year? Many if not most of us have recently experienced national and world turmoil we’ve not seen before. Any lists we make this year – in addition to goals for personal well-being and family wholeness – must inevitably include a powerful longing for political turns that will bring restful nights to so many groups currently under fire: immigrants, Muslims, women, the LGBTQ community, our own Jewish community, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Israel and so many, many more.

There’s a lot to wish for. A lot to work for.

In this week’s Torah parashah, Shemot, which begins the Book of Exodus, our ancestors who had gone down to Egypt fleeing famine found themselves in the grips of new political leadership “asher lo yada et Yosef … who did not know Joseph.” The 16th century Italian commentator Ovadiah ben Yaakov Sforno noted that all of the Israelites’ previous accomplishments benefiting Egypt could not save them from becoming enslaved. Today, we cannot help but wonder with concern what the future will bring for us here in America, for all who have relied upon enshrined American values that, for more than 200 years, have protected the rights of minorities and provided every opportunity for us and them to thrive.

My favorite list!

I do not despair. Not yet anyway. I believe the Constitution will hold. I believe goodness will yet win out. I believe that if we make our lists, if we resolve to engage and to fight to preserve the soul of this great nation, all will come out right in the end. This is not ancient Egypt. This is not Nazi Germany. You may think me naive but on my updated list will be continuing outreach to minorities, continuing efforts to secure their rights so that ours will be secure as well. And I urge each of you to do the same.

I don’t believe we need be fearful, but I do believe we need to get involved and stay involved. Choose your issue, put it at or near the top of your list, and make sure you’ve done something each week to help. Donate to support legislative advocacy, show up for marches, contact your elected representative, volunteer to help. And do what you can to assist those who are now struggling to find safety and security. Let them know, firsthand and in-person if at all possible, that you’re one of the good guys.

The story of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt jumps from them being free to them being oppressed. It probably didn’t happen that way. It takes time for rights to be destroyed. It takes public approval or, at the very least, public apathy for these things to happen. We mustn’t allow that to happen here. While we are free, we must work to remain free, to help others remain free. Thus far, America’s institutions still retain the possibility for achieving that. As proud Americans, we simply must do what we can to keep American institutions strong.

Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived and taught in 12th century Spain, identified one passage in the Torah as the number one ingredient to purposeful and worthwhile living. From Exodus 23:25, “Va’avad’tem et Adonai Elohekha … you shall serve Adonai your God.” For some, this works. Do God’s will and all will be well. For others, it works to view this figuratively: think, identify life’s highest goals, and pursue them with vigor, with passion, with a sense that everything depends on this. Because these days, it just might.

Once upon time, an anonymous rabbi was walking in the woods behind the dog park with his best pal, Charlie. He was soon joined by a man who lived nearby but who was born and raised in Ireland. The man was planning to go back and visit his brothers, two of a total of seven, who still live in Cork. But he couldn’t decide which brother to stay with. The very wise rabbi suggested he stay with whichever one will be less bothered by his choice. The man said that neither brother would be happy. The exceedingly wise rabbi suggested he invite both brothers to come stay with him. The man said that would never work. The increasingly impatient rabbi asked why. The man said, “Because my brothers haven’t spoken to each other in years.” The rabbi thought, “This is why I like dogs – they may never speak but they never stop loving either.”

We have so much to learn, don’t we? It’s a new year. May 2019 be one in which the lists we make include the value of letting go of petty disappointments, and of embracing the larger and more important connections in our lives life … between brothers, between neighbors, between everybody.

Happy new year. Shabbat shalom.

Billy

We’re All Just Trying To Get Home

Four weeks ago, 39 members of our temple registered to travel to Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Our objective was to retrace the steps of America’s Civil Rights Movement and ask ourselves, as Jews and as human beings, what those moments in American history teache us and what they challenge us to do with our own lives in the months and years ahead.

Of the 39, however, only 16 of us actually got there. We had traveled (or tried to, anyway) the day of a big snowstorm that shut down most of our roads and airports here in New York. And since I’d told everyone to travel on their own, that we’d meet up at 9:00 pm that evening at Baggage Claim in the Atlanta airport, some of us got there and, sigh, some of us didn’t.

It is truly a bizarre notion that any of us should think our experience stranded in the Westchester Airport could come anywhere close to having as much meaning and significance as our compadres who spent their weekend down south. But what can I say? We were moderately stunned and utterly delighted by what transpired in all those hours waiting for a plane that never appeared.

We were having such a good time not flying to Atlanta (which, you should understand, was not simply about being grounded but about enduring a dozen or so 45-minute delays in our flight, kind of like slowly boiling a frog). Anyway, we were having such a good time with each other – talking, snacking, musing at the odds of our actually getting where we were going – that some people nearby asked if we were having a family reunion. When they were informed we were a synagogue, they responded that their synagogue isn’t nearly as much fun. I made a bee-line over to them and for the next half-hour regaled them with my best recruitment strategies.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t just us. Everybody was calm and relaxed. We were all just waiting, perhaps grateful that during all of the truly miserable weather we were in the airport and not out in traffic trying to get to the airport. At any rate, something very special happened in that terminal, and it became a metaphor for a very similar “something” we wish we could see happen across our nation.

Twice this week, someone has said to me, “You see the way people are behaving? That doesn’t have to happen. Something’s definitely taken hold of our country. Suddenly, it’s more acceptable to behave like that.” In the one case, it was a comment on the rise of bigoted speech and hateful acts toward people of color. In the other, it was how men treat women. Because the leader of this country behaves in such an immature, selfish, and abusive manner, his actions are being seen as granting permission to do the same elsewhere.

Which is exactly the opposite of what we were supposed to have learned from the Civil Rights Movement. So much blood was shed, so many good lives ruined, because people thought it was acceptable to treat people this way. It took decades and decades but finally, laws were passed, and standards of human behavior were imposed upon even the basest of our citizens, and life got better everywhere.

It’s not that the problems ended, but we made a lot of good progress. More was needed. God knows, far too many white people find it acceptable to treat those of color disrespectfully. Far too many straight people object to providing equal treatment under American law to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transvestites, those who are questioning their gender or the sexual identity, and more. Far too many men find it acceptable to mistreat women.

At our borders, America’s persistent racism and xenophobia not only block the way for those who are seeking a better life for themselves and those they love, but we are actively mistreating them, taking children away from parents, turning people away without the due process that even non-citizens are promised in our Constitution, and generally expressing the unfounded, distasteful assertion that America is better off without immigrants.

Finally, or at least for the purposes of tonight, there is the issue of voting rights. This primary and most important expression of citizenship is being hindered by those who seek, under the guise of protecting the integrity of America’s election process, to suppress the ability of the working middle class and of minority communities to either qualify to vote or to be able to get to the polls during working hours.

The current administration, in the White House and in Congress, have amply demonstrated that the Civil Rights Movement is nowhere near conclusion. Like becoming B’nai Mitzvah, in which no 13-year old has actually reached adulthood but we celebrate that their journey toward adulthood has just begun, we should take pride in the advances our country made with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and other laws that help end discrimination, but we must understand that the journey has only just begun.

This morning, with a lively group of students over at the Shames JCC, I rehashed the Brett Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings. Someone asked what good it does, two months later, to look at any of these materials. My response was that I doubt any of us would have any impact on the aftermath of those hearings, except that (and this is important) we might go home and not only live lives of more determined commitment to fairness and truth, but we might teach a bit more of that to our children and grandchildren, and we might share these ideas, or simply model them, in our interactions with our community. In that respect, our learning is not only worthwhile, it’s vital to the increasing well-being of our nation.

Back on our (alleged!) Civil Rights Journey, at Friday around noon, when the airline finally committed to canceling our flight, we slowly made our way to the exit doors, weaving our way through the many individuals and groups still hoping that their wait would result in getting someplace else that wasn’t where they’d just been. I needed to break through a row of passengers who were hoping that the line in which they were standing would actually lead to a seat on an airplane, and I asked one woman to allow me through, explaining to her, “I’m trying to get home.” And for the first in nearly twenty-four hours, the response was impatient, nasty and devoid of sympathy as she hissed, “We’re all trying to get home!”

And with that, I remembered the real world, one that disappoints with all-too-customary regularity but that often pleasantly surprises us with the large number of good, fair, understanding men and women who won’t ever give up on efforts to create and maintain civilized communities for everyone.

This week, commenting on Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23), my beloved teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman wrote about a particularly favorable view of Jacob’s seemingly preferential treatment of his son Joseph. The preference, rather than the usual (!) gift of a technicolor dreamcoat, involved Jacob’s teaching his son the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. According to 13th century Spanish commentator Jacob ben Asher, Joseph was instructed by his father in five of the six sections of Mishna, our earliest Torah commentary. “But why only five,” Rabbi Hoffman asks. “Because purity (the topic of the sixth tractate) cannot be learned through classroom study; it comes from within and requires lifelong practice.” [“A Nuanced Approach To Conversion,” The Jewish Week, Nov 30, 2018]

Purity, he says, is “the effort to lead a stainless existence.” A wholesome existence, one devoted to goodness and to love. And for that, one must see such values in action.

America is a bold experiment in “purity,” in building a world based on mutual understanding and respect, and the right to live freely without fear of restrictive government. At its best, America has fostered community after community where people of differing backgrounds can live together in security and peace. At its worst, that definition of community has been reserved only for some and has excluded others.

Each time that members of our synagogue — whether teen or adult — participate in the Civil Rights Journey, we retrace the steps of America’s struggle to build such communities, and strengthen (we hope) our shared passion for, and commitment to, this great American experiment.

That lady who snapped at me at the airport, she was right. In the end, we really are all just trying to get home. May we choose the paths, the journeys, that lead homeward for the greatest number of us. It’ll take hard work; no one’s ever been naive about that. But in the end, it’s the greatest and most important journey of them all.

Shabbat shalom.

======================

Words to close out the service:

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, wrote a commentary on Vayigash that centers around Judah’s efforts to save the life of his youngest brother, Benjamin.

Once, Rabbi Edelheit explains, we were called Hebrews, literally, “the other,” the people from over there, from the other side of the tracks. Then we became Israel, descendants of Jacob, the God wrestler. In time, however, we identified ourselves, and still do, as Jews, the descendants of Judah.

Why? Because in Vayigash, Judah, who had formerly joined his brothers in rage against Joseph, here he engages in an act of profoundly selfless initiative to save his family. “Judah is our namesake,” Rabbi Edelheit writes, “because he understood that he could not repeat the indifference that had defined him” — indifference horrifyingly expressed when the brothers threw Joseph into a pit and then sold him into slavery.

While we are the descendants of some who have behaved appallingly, committing crimes of jealousy and abandonment, we’re also the descendants of those who have performed great acts of contrition and humanitarian excellence. It is because of those deeds, noble conduct that conquered the worst that was in us and honored the best that is in us, we became Jews.

It is our sacred honor – as members of this Jewish people – to live lives dedicated to fighting indifference wherever we find it, and to never again stand by when others are thrown into a pit.

Everyone is just trying to get home. Life works best when we help each other do just that.

Billy

Thanksgiving Thoughts 2018

In these waning hours of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share some of what has made me feel grateful today.

Last Sunday afternoon, folks and their clergy of every denomination in my neighborhood joined together for a celebration of diversity, hope and faith. In a nation that has been jostled and bruised by words and acts of divisiveness and hate, I am poignantly reminded that our country is filled with hundreds of millions of good, kind souls, each one doing their part — large or small, every one of them important — to demonstrate what is truly magnificent and great about these United States.

This morning, I was honored to spend several hours with other families preparing Thanksgiving meals for those who had no family table around which to sit tonight. And while there are so many places where our country falls short, the goodness that these families displayed, goodness which lines the hearts of so many across this land, inspires me and gives me great hope for the future.

Lastly, Ellen and I spent our first Thanksgiving without our children present. Why? Because they have begun to fill their own homes with the love of friends and family who (we should all be so blessed) will fill their Thanksgiving tables every year from this time forward.

And one more thought:

In recent days, scores of people in our community have reached out to welcome a family that was granted a very rare visa to emigrate here from Afghanistan. What must it be like to leave everything behind, to move to a place where you know no one, cannot speak the language, don’t know how to put food on your family’s table let alone find a livelihood that will allow you to care for them in the years ahead?

I don’t know if that family can even set their worries aside long enough to be able to offer thanks on a holiday they’ve never known but that now belongs to them, but I do know that I’m exceedingly grateful that the community I am part of has been able to welcome them and to help them build a life for themselves here. I hope that next November, they will have reached a level of comfort and security that will allow them to gather around a table just as we have done this evening, and offer thanks for the many, many blessings that are theirs.

From our house to yours, may all your days be ones for giving thanks.

Billy

A Mixture That Must Happen: Tears of Sadness for the Tree of Life Family and, Eventually, Tears of Joy for Our Own

I presented this on Friday evening, November 2, 2018, one week after the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh.


Months ago, and I don’t really understand how, Jedd and a quite-pregnant Tiffany Chesterson scheduled a babynaming for tonight. Didn’t they know that first babies never show up on time? But I don’t argue with mama bears. Well, sure enough, Camila arrived on October 21 and found herself with a free evening so she’s come to be here with us tonight.

Who could have known what would transpire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh only six days ago, and that we would be gathering here this evening to remember the eleven men and women whose lives were ruthlessly taken by a vicious, hate-filled killer? And although our country has been here far too many times before – notably, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Kroger killings this past week in Jeffersontown, KY, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT – you probably don’t know this, but also won’t be surprised to learn that there have been 297 mass shootings in our country thus far in 2018.

It’s clear to so many of us that America simply cannot continue “business as usual” any longer. We simply must pass new legislation to more effectively regulate access to guns in this country so that those who cannot responsibly own them are not permitted to do so. Perhaps most important of all, everyone of us needs to get to the polls this Tuesday and vote. Vote to elect leaders whom you believe will help our state and our nation get to a place where gun violence is dramatically reduced and the citizens of this country take better care of one another.

Our hearts ache for the dead and the grieving of Tree of Life synagogue. They ache as well for those in Jeffersontown, and in every other city, town and village where terror has come to call. The candles we lit this evening are in remembrance of eleven, plus two, plus seventeen, plus forty-nine, plus fifty-eight, and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on …

Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov, who lived and taught in 18th century Eastern Europe, insisted that, despite the decades and the generations of antisemitism and of persecution, we may not despair. We may not give in to fear or terror. We may not give up. There is always a better world and it’s not the one after this one. Rather, it’s this world that can be made better – safer, kinder – if we will only join together and make it so.

There are many people of faith here this evening. Faith takes a lot of different forms. Some include religious belief, others humanistic belief. In either case, faith is required — faith in God, faith in humanity, faith in what some may deem impossible — if we are to transform our world into a place of justice and of mercy. Rabbi Issakhar Dov Baer of 18th century Radoshitz, Poland, was once asked, “How are we to interpret the Talmudic passage where Shimon bar Yokhai tells his son, ‘You and I are enough for the world’?” The rabbi replied, “In our prayers we say, ‘You are our God,’ and in our Torah we are told, ‘I am your God.’ It is this ‘you’ and this ‘I’ that are enough for the world.”

Everyone believes in something. What is crucial is that we believe in something good, something that will inspire us, even compel us, to bring increased goodness into our world. Whatever our religious choice, it will be the values that our parents teach us and by which we choose to live that will determine the outcome of this current state of disarray. Let us please choose life – for us, for our loved ones, for every inhabitant of this planet — for in that choice will we find the only path to shaping the world so many of us desire.

And if this week that path seems more difficult than ever to find, let us remember the words of Rabbi Nakhman and not despair. Let us never despair. Let us hold onto each other, cry together, comfort one another, and strengthen one another, so that we can return to the sacred work of building a world of goodness and peace.

Camila Chesterson is only thirteen days old. She was born into an already difficult world. And she was born with a very special purpose: to come here this evening and to renew our faith, our hope, that there is an abundance to good, of good people, in our world, and that it is worth it to pursue justice and peace, and it will happen. It will happen! We may be stunned to find our nation at this crossroads, but there are tens of millions of us, hundreds of millions of us in this magnificent, promising nation of 325 million souls. We not only can fix this, but we will. Camila Chesterson is a powerful symbol of that, and she is counting on us – she and every other baby, ever other young person – to get to work, at the voting booth, in our legislatures, and simply in how we treat each other, to build the world we’ve promised them.

This week’s Torah reading, Khayei Sarah, tells the story of a despondent Abraham who responds to recent sadness in his life by insuring the future of his family, sending his servant on a long journey to find a bride for his son, Isaac. Camila, we’re not quite ready to see you married (although I know some 4-month olds who might interest you) but, by your mere arrival, you have insured the future of your family.

Children may turn our lives upside down but they also add riches beyond measure! Your mom and dad already know this, their lives having been delightfully upended and made immeasurably richer for your having come to them. But don’t expect it to be all fun and games! There are plates to be eaten clean, potty-training, homework, and grandmothers’ hand-knit sweaters to be worn and thanked for.

Camila, I’ve known your parents for a while now. Your dad became a Bar Mitzvah here, your parents got married here, and your mom became Jewish here. And now they’ve brought you here! And at just the right time too. I’m glad you don’t understand what I’m saying right now, but everyone else does, and this is important. After something terrible happens in our world – as with last Saturday’s shootings in Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s shootings in Kentucky – it simply must be followed by something that affirms what is good and hopeful in our lives. Which is where you come in, little one. Your mom and dad are good folks. They care about you, and will always care about you. But they also care about others, and they’re going to teach you about that in the years ahead, and we’re going to help them.

Judaism teaches that each of us is an important puzzle piece in putting together a world of goodness and peace. We don’t know when, where or how, but your puzzle piece, Camila, will come into play someday. It is our shared hope, the hope of everyone in this sacred space, that when the time comes, you will stand and act proudly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

So enjoy babyhood, kiddo – we’ve got big plans for you!

Camila, we conclude this ceremony by reciting the three-fold blessing from the Torah. It is a blessing of family, once upon a time spoken by the kohanim, those who officiated in the Jerusalem Temple, and (through the generations) by one family member as an expression of love and of hope for another. Tonight, the three of us, representing three different religions, representing your human family, recite this blessing as a sign of our love for you, and our promise to work together to build for you a world of safety, or inclusion, and of peace.

Billy

You Never Know What a Guest Might Bring!

This d’rash was presented on Fri, Oct 26, 2018, at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT, when Woodlands Community Temple was invited to participate in a spiritual-cultural exchange, sharing with them the music of our service, “A Joyful Noise,” as well as being led by our clergy team. On Fri, Dec 21, 2018, Temple Sinai will come to Woodlands and lead a Shabbat service featuring their clergy team and the music of their “Ruach” ensemble. A great blessing for us all!

Billy


This exchange, besides being a wonderful experience for all of us, especially for the clergy (who almost never get to see the inside of another temple), is also symbolically very powerful. Houses of worship of any religion tend to operate in their own little universe. And yet, our message is frequently about how we’re part of a larger community but, all too often, we remain secluded in the day-to-day of our own lives.

But this evening, our two synagogues have actually bridged the twenty-five miles between our spiritual homes and have found ourselves meeting one another, enjoying Shabbat together, and exchanging ideas about the synagogues we love.

Judaism teaches us that hakhnasat orkhim, welcoming visitors, is a mitzvah. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we learn in Leviticus 19. Whether those we welcome into our homes are simply weary travelers or strangers in need, we are encouraged to make room for others.

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, Abraham meets and welcomes into his home three travelers who turn out to be messengers from God. They bear important news: first, that Abraham and Sarah will soon be blessed with the birth of their son, Isaac; and second, that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is imminent, provoking Abraham to engage in the first act of Jewish social justice by lobbying God to spare the two cities.

Our lives are filled with routine. For most of us, we pretty much know what our days and our nights will look like even before our morning coffee. But hospitality – guests in our homes with whom we share what we have – can change up our routine. Granted, stories abound of house guests who are reminiscent of Michael Myers in Halloween but, hopefully, most such experiences become wonderful opportunities to meet interesting new people and hear about fascinating moments which we then either live vicariously or make plans to do ourselves.

I was thinking of times, growing up in Cincinnati, when my parents opened our home to guests. I remember when I was really little that they often hosted parties during which I was ordered to stay upstairs and out of sight. Later, in my early teens, I remember my older brothers welcoming traveling hippies who would regale me with stories of their having attended Woodstock in 1969. But besides that, our house was most frequently a shelter for myriad cats and dogs. I couldn’t find a photograph from frequent times when entire litters of cats filled our home, but here are some snapshots of me and my siblings and some of the guests who stayed and stayed and stayed, teaching me important lessons in hospitality, about offering food, a place to rest, opportunities to get outside and play, and, of course, lots of love.

Hospitality is on many of our minds these days. Our world has grown harsher, and crueler, in the past few years. Even now, we’re watching nervously as the United States Army is called to turn away thousands of Central Americans who have been labeled as terrorists and hardened criminals but who look far more like concerned moms and dads trying to bring their frightened, hungry, tired children to a place of safety. I understand that borders need to be protected, but it sure does sadden me that our nation’s leadership would portray these folks in such an unfavorable light.

Among my very favorite hasidic stories is one that is told about Rabbi Moshe Leib, the 18th century Tzaddik of Sassov (now in Ukraine). Rabbi Moshe Leib was best known for his love of humanity. One dark night, the story goes, with a heavy snow falling outside, he heard someone tap at his window. Moshe Leib looked out and saw a strange man dressed in tatters, with lacerations on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. The rebbe hesitated for only a moment whether to let such a person into his house, but then thought to himself, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.” And with that, he opened the door wide and invited the man in.

I’m hopelessly moved by the plight of abandoned animals. Charlie is a beagle, basset hound mix who came to us from a kill shelter in South Carolina, flew in a private plane to New York where, at Pets Alive in Elmsford, New York (now Paws Crossed), we fell for him and, eight years ago, brought him forever into our home and our lives. Even while I care for my little mutt, I also watch videos from Paws for Hope that catalog the adventures of Eldad Hagar who rescues cats and dogs barely surviving in the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, obtaining medical care for them, and finding homes where they can live in safety and be loved for the rest of their lives. I sit in front of my computer monitor, stunned by this man’s unbounded generosity of heart and time and, through my tear-soaked eyes, write check after check to thank him for providing hospitality that exceeds all reasonable expectations.

Then I think about Albania’s Muslims who, during World War II, not only succeeded in rescuing all of Albania’s 200 Jews, but another 1800 Jewish men, women and children, as Albania was one of the very few countries that kept its doors open to Jewish refugees. When the Nazis occupied Albania in 1943, the response was a uniform one: Besa. Besa means “faith,” or “to keep the promise,” and it reflects the Albanian Muslim idea that when one has welcomed a guest into your home, that guest is accorded all kindnesses and honors, including, if need be, the protection of their lives. When the Nazis came hunting for Jews, the Albanian Muslims embarked upon an ambitious national project: hide every one of them (including the additional 1800). Two thousand Jewish men, woman and children who, except for a single family, all survived.

Now that’s hospitality!

America isn’t perfect. God knows, there are chapters in our history for which we should hang our heads in shame: the near-genocide of this nation’s indigenous peoples, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, the mistreatment of non-whites, of women, of the LGBTQ community and, yes, antisemitism. But enshrined within our Constitution are words that convey hope for our one day getting this right: “Congress shall have power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization” (Article 1, Section 8). Throughout the 242 years of its existence, America has opened its doors to immigrant populations who, again and again, would provide the energy and the will that would transform our nation into the great land it is today.

But also enshrined in our laws was an insistence on welcoming those who are fleeing danger in their own lands. Since World War II, we can be proud that more refugees have been granted asylum in the United States than in any other nation. But today, applications for asylum are under siege, children are being taken from their parents, and deportations of current residents are occurring everywhere including, only eighteen miles from here, the caretaker of Temple Bet Torah in Mount Kisco where Armando Rugerio has worked for twenty years, raised two children, and now languishes in an Albany jail as he awaits a final determination of his fate.

Ours is a tradition that has always valued opening doors (or, if we’re Abraham and Sarah, opening tent flaps). When guests arrive, they may bring immediate blessing or complex challenge. It is our privilege to swing the door as widely open as we can, and respond as Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov did, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.”

Once again, we are so grateful you have welcomed us into your home. Not only is it a cherished blessing to spend this Shabbat with you, but it reminds us all how vital it is for us to welcome others whenever the need, or simply the opportunity, arises.

I once visited a synagogue in Italy and was asked by the rabbi to say a few words. I shared a funny anecdote about life in New York and, really digging into it, I embellished the story with lots of twists and turns before arriving to the punchline. The rabbi then translated it into Italian, but used only a few words to do so. Everyone laughed, so that was pretty great. After the service, I asked the rabbi how he managed to translate my lengthy story into such a compact retelling. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t think they’d get your point, so I just told them, ‘Our guest is trying to be funny. Everyone please laugh.’”

May we always be grateful for the opportunities life presents to meet new people and make new friends. We may not always understand each other, but we can always appreciate good intentions and the generosity of extending and of accepting invitations to share. Thank You for giving us abundant spirits and open minds, that we might always create spaces, both in our personal and our communal lives, to welcome both stranger and friend.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors, God of New York and God of Connecticut, God of the Jews and God of the Muslims, God of the comfortable and God of the afflicted, what goodness You have implanted in Your magnificent world! May we open our homes, our towns, our nation, to ensure that all life is honored and protected. Regardless of differences between ourselves and our neighbors, may we understand that we’re not so different that we can’t look into the eyes of another and see the faces of our sisters and our brothers. May the people of our two synagogues always be among the Righteous of the Nations who stand up and proclaim, “Besa.” My word is my promise. My faith is my honor. Humanity is to be cherished. I will do so for each and every one of them.

Shabbat shalom.

Refugees Welcome!

This d’rash was presented as part of our synagogue’s observance of HIAS Refugee Shabbat. At the end, there is a letter that can help a refugee near where I live to remain in the United States with his family. Please sign it and mail it to the address indicated. Billy


Did you hear? Big Bird is retiring. Well, not Big Bird, but Caroll Spinney, the actor who plays Big Bird. After 50 years of entering our homes from his home on Sesame Street, the voice not only of Big Bird but also of Oscar the Grouch is retiring. He’s 84 years old, which is amazingly difficult to believe!

I mention this because Sesame Street is something that has accompanied so many of us through childhood and, as parents, through our second childhood. Coming home from school, plopping down in front of the TV with an apple and maybe some cheese, and jumping into that wonderful world where we got to learn our ABCs and our 123s, this is emblematic of life done right. While Sesame Street was originally created for underprivileged kids to help them get a good start on their education, we privileged kids loved it too. Sesame Street was part of the good life.

But around the world, there are 25.4 million children who are refugees, who have been forced to leave their home, leave their country, and cannot safely return. If they’re really lucky, they may live with family or friends, but more than likely they’re living in tents and other temporary structures inside of refugee camps, and also in towns and cities where jobs, affordable housing, decent meals and health care are very difficult to come by. If these kids get to watch Sesame Street, they just might be wishing they could live in a home as nice as Oscar’s trashcan.

It is estimated that there are 68 million refugees worldwide. Wanna guess how many of those are here in the United States? Well, since 1975 – that’s a little more than 40 years ago – more than three million refugees have been able to find refuge – a safe home – in America and have built new lives for themselves and for their families. Recently, however, our federal government has pretty much closed America’s gates and the ability for refugees to find refuge here has decreased to almost zero.

On top of that, our government has stepped up efforts to deport – which means to send away from our country – people who once came here from another nation, have lived here for decades, raised families here, but are now being arrested, separated from the people they love and, far too frequently, made to leave the United States and not come back.

Here’s just one family’s story.

Armando Rugerio

In Mount Kisco, maybe 25 minutes north of here, there is a synagogue much like ours called Bet Torah, the house of Torah, where families come to observe Shabbat and holidays, celebrate babynamings and B’nai Mitzvah, learn in their religious school and adult education programs, and practice tikkun olam through shared community service and help for others. At Bet Torah, there is a caretaker whose name is Armando Rugerio. He’s been the caretaker there for twenty years.

Armando has two children of his own, has never broken a law, and has been steadily employed by a community of hundreds of families who adore him. But in a single instant, he was taken away from all of that. He and his family had been dining in a nearby restaurant when a fight broke out. The police came and arrested a number of people, including Armando, who had just been eating a quiet meal with his family. While the court found Armando innocent, a government agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, received a list of who was in the jail. ICE began proceedings to deport Armando. Despite decades of employment, paying taxes, and letters from members of Bet Torah attesting to what a wonderful member he is of their community, Armando was sent to Mexico, his country of birth, now a foreign land which he’d left behind some thirty years ago. He was dropped off without bank cards, cash, cell phone or ID. He was given no time to gather any belongings or even to call his family to say goodbye.

Did Armando enter our country illegally thirty years ago? I suspect the answer is yes. But we have to ask ourselves: Is this the correct way to respond? By throwing him out, ignoring three decades of hard work, responsible citizenry, not to mention that our nation claims among its most cherished values a sense of goodness and of caring for people in need?

At the end of this page, you will find a letter. If you are so moved to reach out on behalf of Armando and his family, please consider signing that letter and sending it to the Immigration Court where Armando, who is back in the United States but has been in jail up in Albany for the past five months, is going to be tried, either to be welcomed home or returned to a home that stopped being his home a very long time ago.

In this week’s Torah parashah, Lekh Lekha, Abraham and Sarah embark upon a journey that brings them to a new land, Canaan. They were not citizens of that land but resided there as resident aliens. Still, no one forced them to leave and, in time, our people built homes, and an entire future, in that place which they had dubbed “the Promised Land.”

America too is a land of promise. Recently, however, we’ve told many, many people that promise does not include them. Our ancient Israelite ancestors have taught us differently. Our American ancestors, who settled here to find refuge from oppression and persecution in Europe, have also taught us differently.

If we want America to be restored to a place where the words at the base of our Statue of Liberty still ring true – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – you and I are going to have write a lot of letters, make a lot of phone calls, and perhaps most important of all, vote, so that these United States of America can once again be that place where nightmares can end, where men and women can bring their children to safety, and where, together, we can build homes as friendly and loving as Sesame Street.

We are so lucky to live in a world where we get Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Taylor Swift, and (soon) mountains of Halloween candy. Help us to grateful for all these things and so much more, and to show our gratitude by truly seeing those who are anything but lucky – 68 million refugees around the world, 25 million who are kids – and doing what we can to help.

Aleinu. It’s on us, God, to stand up for all of them. By signing a letter to help one father get back to his family. By standing with others – at demonstrations, here in services, outside courthouses – wherever our voice is needed. And by voting, to elect leaders who care not only about our future but about those whose future can and should be here as well.

Aleinu, God. It’s on us. May we be worthy of making these words come true.

Billy


Honorable Steven Connelly
Honorable Philip J. Montante, Jr.
Batavia Immigration Court
4250 Federal Drive, Room F108
Batavia, NY 14020

Re: Armando Rojas Rugerio A-072486981

Dear Honorable Sirs:

I am writing on behalf of our community member, Armando Rojas Rugerio, whose viable application for asylum was recently denied.

Mr. Rojas has lived in the area for the past two decades and his absence is keenly felt by this community as well as his devoted family. He has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, was deported without any notice to his family— in spite of a stay of deportation signed by a Judge.

Upon return to his sister’s village, Mr. Rojas was immediately identified as a target and was threatened on several occasions, causing credible fear as two family members had been murdered prior to his return.

Two months later, members of our community walked Mr. Rojas through the border entry point at Otay Mesa and he was sent to the Albany County Correctional Facility where he has been incarcerated for the past five months.

I am aware of Armando’s unfailing work ethic and his winning ways that have been an inspiration to all who know him. His absence has spurred the community on to action which has secured the financial support of his family during his detention. I am respectfully requesting that Armando’s application for asylum on the basis of credible fear, (his Asylum Officer found him to be credible and have a legitimate fear if he should be deported), be reconsidered thereby making him eligible for parole and ultimately returned to the family and community who cares for him deeply.

Thank you.

With Another Quarter

Bereshit, the first chapters of Torah, tells the Jewish people’s story of Creation, opening our eyes to the many avenues for interpreting and understanding how (and why) the world came to be. Then there are our own Bereshit moments — when the possibility appears (sometimes quite surprisingly) for new beginnings.

Why do we care so much about the Creation story, anyway? Why is it important for us to know what happened “in the beginning”? Beyond our quest for empirical understanding of the universe’s origins, is there some other motivation for our curiosity? Perhaps we’re drawn to it because Bereshit only begins—it doesn’t end.

Not so with our own lives. We are so fragile. We bend, and sometimes we break. Creation happened so long ago that it can give us hope for our own lives—that we too can last. And lasting, we can sense that our lives mean something.

In the 1990s, while spending part of each summer on faculty at the URJ Kutz Camp, I would steal away with a few friends to a nearby video arcade where we played one specific game that we all loved (yep, the “X-Men” game pictured below). Given enough quarters, we could sometimes finish that game. Along the way, there were many, many defeats. But as long as we had another quarter, there was hope of ultimate victory. As long as there was another quarter, “game over” never really meant the end.

Here are three examples in real life where perceived defeat led to important new beginnings:

1) In the wake of the global financial crisis (circa 2008), James Adams was fired from his lucrative Wall Street hedge fund job. To do some soul-searching, he applied for a job at McDonald’s. His application rejected (three times), Adams was hired by a local Waffle House willing to take a chance on a guy with an MBA but who couldn’t fry an egg. A year later, his life reset, Adams returned to the world of finance, this time to help and advise those who couldn’t afford financial consulting.

2) In 1998, a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Besides the needed medical work, she had to confront issues of fear, morale and mortality. With early detection, wonderful medical care, loving family and friends, and a good prognosis, she not only survived, but also saw her life settle into one of abiding gratitude and love.

3) And then there’s Jonah, my son who died nine years ago. The journey that has unfolded since has had its ups and downs. There are still days when I’m overwhelmed by his absence, but that’s not where I live my life. Jonah was kind, loyal, funny, and, as happens with most parents, made me glad to be alive. With his death, for a while I felt like dying. But in time, I chose not to focus on how sad I am that he is gone, but on how wonderful it had been to have him around.

Three stories of deep loss and struggle that gave birth to something new. It took time and travail, but for each of us things got better.

And there’s the lesson: Things get better. With another quarter, the game can resume.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in his own commentary on Bereshit, writes, “To live life in its fullness, to face death so mysterious, to live on nonetheless in the face of it all. […] For a life not so easy, for a purpose not so clear. […] Because when we do it right […] hinei tov me-od (and it [can be] very good).”

In those darkest nights, may our sacred stories remind us that new days are always beginning.

Billy

Now What?

Throughout my entire rabbinic career, whenever Sukkot has arrived, I have enjoyed explaining that sukkot – the three-sided booths we erect following Yom Kippur and in which we spend a week visiting with friends, dining with family, and watching squirrels carry away its vegetative decor – are fragile! Without a whole lot of trouble, they can fall down. But I never actually thought I’d see one tumble!

My synagogue’s sukkah, lovingly constructed each year out of sustainable materials harvested and built by our sukkah team, crumbled to the ground on the first day of Sukkot.

And I just love that! What a powerful lesson for all of us. We told you it could come down. And lookee there, it did! The world is a fragile place. Things can break. And sometimes they actually do.

I can remember when I was a kid, that from time-to-time I’d get to bring home a model airplane made of balsa wood. These were really flimsy objects, but if you wound up its rubber band enough times, the propeller as it twisted back around would make the airplane really fly. But it would only last maybe fifteen minutes before a wing or the tail would break right off. And I was always devastated by that. Those things were cool!

But sometimes things just break.

Sometimes, we break them ourselves.

Once when I was practicing meditation (you’re gonna love this), I was maybe seventeen years old and sitting still for twenty minutes was, under the best of circumstances, not easy to do. It was a summer day, and I’d brought a glass of ice water to keep me from melting, setting it on the dresser just behind my chair, which was also where I placed my watch so I wouldn’t keep looking at it. But from time-to-time, I obviously did need to look at it to see if I was finished. So I reached back and, while feeling around for the watch, my hand found the iced water, knocking over the glass so that its entire freezing contents spilled right down my back. Furious, I jumped up, spun around, picked up my watch and proceed to smash it to smithereens.

Sometimes things don’t just break. Sometimes we take care of that ourselves.

Once a couple of weeks ago, nature did some of the breaking.

Hurricane Florence dumped up to three feet of water on cities and towns throughout North and South Carolina. The damage was estimated at $48 billion. But the image I will always remember of these two broken states is of a cow struggling to swim through the flooded waters inside and outside her barn and just keeping her head above water until being rescued by a passing boat. Its skipper wrapped a piece of rope around the cow’s nose and mouth, holding its head above water as they towed it to safety.

Sometimes the world breaks all by itself. And all we can do is hang onto each other and ride out the storm.

Then there’s the United States Congress, rendered almost completely ineffective by their refusal to work with people of differing political positions and points of view. That wasn’t what I thought I was voting for. People used to say that nothing except compromise ever takes place in the Senate and House of Representatives. Oh, how I miss those days.

Sometimes we deliberately sabotage ourselves and break things on purpose! On purpose!

Which makes our little sukkah seem pretty insignificant, don’tcha think? Which is what it was always meant to be. Because it’s just a symbol. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of how fragile our world is, that sometimes we have to endure what naturally happens, but that so much of the brokenness is in our control to fix. And when we stand up and angrily smash our watch to pieces, we’re in need of … well, we’re in need of, quite frankly, something we just spent the last few weeks talking about: teshuvah … changing our behavior for the better.

Throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reading after reading and sermon after sermon urged us to fearlessly examine our lives and to inventory where we have fallen short of our obligations to the human family. Some of us spent more than a dozen hours in ten different services engaged in this sacred process of heshbon nefesh, of figuring out where we could seriously improve ourselves in the year ahead.

Now it is the year ahead and the question before each of us is, “So what are we gonna do about it?” Have we simply packed away the makhzorim from our High Holy Days and moved on? Or are we going to take that list of ways we can be kinder and more generous, and actually try to change?

That’s why I love our fallen sukkah. If we’ll let it, it’s reminding us that there’s so much brokenness in our world, and while we may or may not fix our symbol of life’s fragile nature, we can certainly get to work trying to fix some of the real brokenness that’s all around us.

A week ago, members of the Peace Islands Institute, a Muslim community organization, came to visit our high school Academy and served them a homemade dessert called Noah’s Pudding. Premised on the supposition that when the Flood ended and the Ark landed, the community joined together for one last meal, a meal made from the last supplies that still remained on the Ark – Noah’s Pudding – and broke bread together one more time before journeying into their new and individual futures, Noah’s Pudding is an offering from one person to another, symbolizing a wish that whatever lies ahead will be filled with sustenance, sweetness and human companionship. Their sharing of Noah’s Pudding with these Jewish high school students was a powerful and unforgettable demonstration of friendship, of building up, not falling down. I have no doubt that on Monday evening, through the simple sharing of a humble Muslim tradition, we fixed just a tiny bit of the brokenness in our world.

Things break. That’s going to keep on happening. Our great gift is that we can be there for each other when they do. Sometimes we can rebuild; sometimes all we can do is offer a hug.

During the High Holy Days, we shared in the dramatic and, quite frankly, frightening words of Un’taneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die?” When I encounter this reading, I no longer see it as God’s judgement of me or of others. Rather, I see it as a call to action. It reminds us that people do live and people do die. And sometimes, there’s nothing to be done, but sometimes, and perhaps far more frequently, there is something we can do; there’s much that we can do. Like helping a cow keep its head above the floodwaters, if we just keep our eyes and our hearts open, there are plenty of ways to fix things.

And then there’s Simkhat Torah. A simply wonderful celebratory holiday that wraps up this otherwise serious time period. A holiday that may be the most important of them all. It is a time when we dance with the Torah as a symbolic conclusion to these High Holy Days. The Torah is, of course, not only a symbol of our passion for learning right from wrong, it’s also a guidebook for doing so. We’re right to dance with our scrolls. In a world filled with brokenness, our communities must come together, with whatever ideas we can muster, and, like our friends from Peace Islands Institute, share in bringing hopeful change to everyone.

I imagine that I will never see a sukkah fall down again. But I will see children break some of their toys, adults break some of our communities, and nature break some of our homes. May we remember that each one of us is capable of doing something, maybe even a lot, to make things better. May these High Holy Days, and one broken sukkah, inspire us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Billy

Postscript: On Thursday (Sep 27), many of us listened in as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. While there is much to criticize about what took place, whichever side of the aisle and/or the issue we’re on, there was also something very right happening. We may not like what we see going on in Congress, but we have a Congress. It may be damaged and in need of repair, but it’s still there. So register to vote, run for office, or help someone else run. If you see a sukkah that’s fallen, figure out if it needs picking up. And if it does, let’s do what we can do to lend a hand.