Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Of Rockets and Screaming Children

Note: I wrote this as the violence began escalating between Israel and Gaza. While events in the Middle East are dominating the news cycle, I didn’t want to abandon my excitement for speaking about camp and science and Jewish life. Nevertheless, I am cognizant of the tragedy that is unfolding. Ultimately (I hope), these words reflect my feelings about what’s going on 6000 miles away as well. Billy

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This past December, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) held its biannual convention in San Diego. It offered the usual fare — incredible study sessions with great Jewish scholars, fantastic speeches by major national and international leaders, the best music the Reform movement has to offer, and terrific debates on issues of liberal Jewish import (including, at this convention, agitating for more research on the dangers of hydraulic fracking, support for paid sick leave, and advocacy for ending the 50-year-old US-Cuba embargo.

beakman.01But nothing could have surprised or thrilled me more when Beakman showed up on the Biennial stage. Beakman, you may recall from your 1990s television viewing, was (and still is!) an eccentric scientist who, Wikipedia tells us, “performs comical experiments and demonstrations to illustrate various scientific concepts from density to electricity and even flatulence.” What was he doing at the Biennial? He was unveiling the URJ’s brand-new Science and Technology Academy, a summer camp for Reform Jewish kids that would combine Jewish values with really cool science. I looked over at Ellen and said, “I have got to go there!”

I’d thought I was finished with summer camping. Five years as Machon and a counselor at GUCI (in Zionsville, Indiana), a summer as the Judaic Specialist at Camp Coleman (in Cleveland, Georgia) and, of course, 22 summers on rabbinic faculty at Kutz Camp (in Warwick, New York). Did I have one more week in me to go see what a Reform Jewish science camp would be like? You betcha!

6-points-logo.01So a few weeks ago, I packed my car and headed north, 45 minutes past Boston, to the site of the oldest boarding school in America, Governor’s Academy, established in 1763, before the United States declared its independence! 60 kids in grades 5-9 soon arrived, dividing themselves into four major areas of learning: robotics, video game design, digital media production, and environmental sciences. For three hours each day, they work with some really smart professionals who, assisted by some really smart counselors, equip the kids to get their hands dirty in real experiments and projects.

I was only interested in the Boker Big Bang, which takes place every morning before breakfast and, under the guise of inquiry and learning, blows things up. As far as I know, there’s no other URJ summer camp where that kind of stuff is going on! I had definitely picked the right place for my URJ camping swan song.

BokerBigBang.01But fun as it is to explode things and even to make weird, squishy chemical reactions, the big question on my mind is: Can math and science really serve as the premise and foundation for a Jewish summer camp, even a Reform Jewish summer camp? After all, how many 5th through 9th graders have told me, in gleeful defiance, that they no longer believe in God because they “believe in the Big Bang.” And although belief isn’t really supposed to be part of chemistry and biology, apparently they have sufficient faith in their science teachers to warrant thumbing their noses at their rabbi.

In my synagogue we don’t teach kids that the Six Days of Creation as described in Genesis is real. We’re pretty careful to let them know that Genesis is our story and not our history. We love this story, especially for the values it teaches us, but we don’t feel the need to accept it as fact in order to learn from it. The Torah was finished around 500 BCE, when science was really just getting started. So of course science and Torah are going to be at odds with each other. Science and science are at odds with each other. That’s how we learn. By testing ideas and sorting out which are true and which are not. So long as we’re open to discovering new truths from wherever they may arise, and we don’t beat people senseless for it, being “at odds” is a really helpful component of human relationship.

None other than Albert Einstein himself perceived the connections between Judaism and science. In the Winter 2010 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, William Berkson (“Einstein’s Religious Awakening”) quoted a 50-year-old Einstein as saying, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed….A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

hw.150.torah.tk.06922.jpgEinstein, I think, understood that Judaism and science were not incompatible. While yes, there have been, and will always be, those who insist that the Torah is 100% accurate and true, the value of Judaism does not rely on that to be so. After all, in 500 BCE how much could the rabbis have known about cosmology? As recently as the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza got himself into a heap of trouble when he suggested that the Torah might not be 100% true. What’s remarkable is that, even though we Reform Jews are essentially Spinoza-followers, our kids all think their rabbis are fundamentalists. No matter what we tell them, they seem to default to a belief that we believe every word in the Torah is true. So when the time arrives, somewhere around the 5th through 9th grades, that they are no longer able to accept a fundamentalist view of Torah, they blame us for lying to them!

And that’s why I think a URJ Science and Technology Academy for 5th through 9th graders is such a magnificent thing. At the very moment when science undoes Judaism for many of them, Judaism now places math and science front and center, as if to say, “Where are you running to? Math and science are not foreign to Jewish thought. In fact, math and science fits the Jewish spiritual outlook beautifully!”

But will a Jewish camp founded on principles of math and science succeed? That we cannot yet tell. It’s going to be a few summers before Sci-Tech figures out how to truly synthesize Judaism and science. But the opportunities for such synthesis are not only abundant, they’re critical. And I suspect that, as Sci-Tech figures out some of the best ways to teach these ideas to our kids, we will bring a bunch of those strategies back home to our synagogues. Yes, yes, yes … of course I want to blow things up! Probably not in the sanctuary, though. Maybe only on the front lawn? But to develop new ways to convey these ideas to our kids – ideas of mystery and spirit that are wrapped in science’s study of how our world works – that would be important and beneficial to us all.

evolution.01In my synagogue, most of our students stick around through Confirmation and even Graduation. But some of them are asking these great questions about the impact of math and science on spirituality. If they don’t receive satisfying responses, Judaism will lose its relevance and they will leave. And it could be a very long time, if ever, before these kids (adults?) truly come back.

At the Sci-Tech Academy, rockets are flying through the air. The sounds of excitement and curiosity can be heard across the entire camp. Sadly, rockets are also flying through the air in Israel right now. While people are curious, about them to be sure, I doubt they’re terribly excited. Thus far, neither science nor religion have figured out a foolproof way to turn enemies into friends. Thus far, all attempts between Israelis and Palestinians have failed.

RocketFromGaza.01But failure is what most of science is all about. Thomas Alva Edison viewed failure as merely being 10,000 ways that don’t work. And back to work he would go. We mustn’t banish either religion or science simply because we’ve experienced failure. What we must do is to embrace the humility of one and the determination-in-the-face-of-failure of the other, and forever accept the challenges our world sets before us. From questions as big and elusive as understanding the origins of existence, to questions as big and elusive as how to finally bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, we must fearlessly persevere. And we mustn’t let anything — in the interest of scientific inquiry, in the interest of religious conviction, in the interest of peace — we mustn’t let anything deter us from continuing to try.

One of my favorite moments during my stay at Sci-Tech was when the camp director, Greg Kellner, gathered groups of kids to stand with him between an open Torah scroll and the just completed Sci-Tech Torah (which includes events both from Genesis and from secular scientific history). He spoke with the kids about his dreams for the kind of summer each one would have, a summer filled with fun and with learning, a summer filled with new friendships and new ideas, a summer filled with danger-free adventure and great memories that would last long after camp was over.

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

SeedsOfPeace.02May the day soon arrive when the only rockets that fly overhead are the ones our children are squealing at with delight and laughter and a love for learning something new. Would that we could create such lives for all children everywhere, that their days and their nights would never be disturbed by the fear of explosions, or the destruction of their homes, or the disruption of their schooling. Utilizing all of the tools You have given us, God, may we soon fashion a world where kids feel like they’re living in one great big, wonderful Sci-Tech Academy all year long.

Billy

When Does Night Become Day?

in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday

Flag.05It was back in 2006 that Jay Leno observed what he called “positive news” from out of Israel. “Both sides are signing off on [President Bush’s] road map to peace,” Leno said. “The bad news is the Israelis think the road goes through the West Bank, Palestinians think it goes right through downtown Jerusalem.”

More recently, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced his support of the boycott against Israeli products. Hawking was apparently unaware that his speech computer was designed in Israel when he made the following statement to reporters, “I’m an antisemitic pig who loves rolling my wheelchair across my cat’s tail.”

What is it they say, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d be crying”? The news out of Israel these days isn’t so good. Not that it ever is. But I’m usually filled with much more hope. Silly me, I really thought that President Obama’s peace initiative via John Kerry would move genuine peace talks forward. But now, the only question people are asking seems to be whether the talks are dead or just dying.

And then, earlier just this week, we learned that the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected J Street’s bid for membership. 50 organizations are represented in this coalition, and only 17 of them thought that adding J Street to their roster would be a good idea. So, in essence, they shut down the only really alternative voice the American Jewish community would have had in the conversation about Israel.

Here at Woodlands, we’ve met the leadership of J Street. These are not hysterical, unhinged people. They’re thoughtful, caring people who happen to think there are other ideas for how Israel might manufacture its future. This week’s vote is just another in a long string of refusals to engage with J Street’s points of view.

It’s just so sad because, while I happen to subscribe to much of what J Street thinks is the path ahead, I’m more saddened that the conversation can’t even take place. For quite a while now, American Jews have offered little to no room for debate on Israel. Remember the bumper sticker, “America: Love It or Leave It”? That’s what it seems is the only voice allowed when it comes to Israel.

Those who dissent from the party line are branded as traitors to Israel’s cause. Those who suggest that we might find a way to live alongside the Palestinians are labeled as accessories to murder. Those who read Ari Shavit’s The Promised Land and encounter, perhaps for the first time, his telling of a version of the 1948 War of Independence where Jews also play a role in pushing Palestinians off their lands, find themselves spurned for bastardizing history.

If America, great as this country is, has never been a perfect democracy, with perfect leadership, or an unblemished record of behavior, why would anyone presume that Israel would achieve that. We wanted it to, I get that. But after a while, I’d assumed we would all wake up from that little daydream. Israel, like America, like every other country, has its dirty laundry. It remains a great country. A bastion of democratic values, of compassionate governance both inside and outside its borders, and a petri dish for innovative industries and technologies. As I am proud of the United States, even with all its warts, I am also proud of Israel, which falls short much of the time as well.

There are great achievements there. We write about them every month in Makom, in the column we call, “Just Israel.” So many justice-oriented activities are going on there, many sponsored by the government, many taking place in spite of the government: Israeli and Palestinians scientists researching HIV together, a multi-denominational social action training program that empowers disparate groups to solve serious social problems together, greater recognition of the homosexual-lesbian family as full members of Israel’s social fabric, the Israeli Supreme Court ordering the end of illegal, coercive, and involuntary segregation on public buses, also ordering the Security Fence to be moved when it violates Palestinian rights, an Arab and an Israeli entering the Eurovision song competition together, the most terror-free period in Israeli history, 120 new Palestinian schools, 3 new Palestinian hospitals, 50 new Palestinian health clinics, a 1000 new miles of Palestinian roads and 850 new miles of Palestinian water pipes.

Things are changing there, to be sure. Not quickly enough. Not enough insistence, from both sides, that neighbors stop seeing each other as enemies and become much more resolute in building their neighborhood, their peaceful neighborhood, together.

I want to show you a video. It’s not about the Middle East. But it could be. It illustrates how you and I can go about our daily lives and miss seeing our family. The people in this film really are family. Shouldn’t Israelis and Palestinians see each other this way too?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6jSKLtmYdM

The issues confronting Israel are not unique to that land. God knows, we have a long way to go before we can see (or perhaps stop seeing) people whose skin color isn’t white, whose sexual orientation isn’t straight, whose gender isn’t male, whose earning power isn’t affluent, and yes, who live in houses or apartments and not on the street. But Israel is a magnet for powerful emotion and opinion. And for you and me, it’s a place we wish would do as well, if not better, than our own country in resolving its social deficiencies.

The first step is learning how to talk to each other. John Kerry should never have to come home. The Israelis and Palestinians should build him a house right on the Green Line, and a day shouldn’t ever go by when they’re not meeting with him to work toward peace.

And you and I should learn how to speak to one another about Israel too. Just as J Street should have a seat at the table, we need to learn how to talk about these issues with each other without getting angry, without judging, without labeling one another as the enemy.

A good start has arrived to Woodlands. Part one of an exciting program that comes out of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “Engaging Israel,” has allowed a goodly number of us to talk about the values we believe should govern a Jewish state without getting lost in our highly-charged opinions about individual Israeli policies. Part two of “Engaging Israel” will begin next November. It’s the best conversation on Israel and her neighbors I’ve ever experienced. I hope you’ll join us.

The second step is to build real bridges, real partnerships, real peace. You and I probably can’t do that here, although we can bring Palestinian and Jewish singers to our bimah as a symbolic expression of our hope that such friendships can continue to be grown there as well.

It’s Israel’s 66th birthday. It’s still a miracle that a Jewish nation exists. And it always should. But it’s time for a new miracle. Jewish tradition asks, “How can one tell when night has ended and the new day has begun? Its answer: When you can look into the face of a stranger and see that he’s your friend.” May the Jewish people, wherever we reside, never cease reaching out and extending a hand of hope, of goodwill, and of peace.

Happy birthday, Israel. And many, many more.

Billy

This Shouldn’t Be Extraordinary

On Friday evening, February 28 (2014), something remarkable and beautiful happened on our bimah that I’ve never seen before. I hope I’ll see it many times again.

A Muslim, in particular a Palestinian Muslim, participated in our Shabbat Evening service. He didn’t just speak; he sang. But he didn’t just sing; he sang in Arabic. And he didn’t just sing in Arabic; he sang our ancient Hebrew prayers in Arabic.

peace dove hand symbol

Alaa Ali is a popular singer and songwriter who lives in Ramallah, outside of Jerusalem, across the Green Line in the West Bank. Alaa’s fans include countless Palestinians.

And me.

He came to us with his friend, Michael Ochs, who’s an American, Jewish singer and songwriter. Both are well-known: Alaa, in the West Bank and Gaza; Michael, here in the United States and Europe. Michael came to my synagogue last December, sharing his powerfully beautiful and moving liturgical compositions during our Shabbat Evening service. He spoke about his participation in a collaborative musical project with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American and Norwegian songwriters called My Favorite Enemy. The group’s objective is to lovingly nurture change in the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians by modeling respectful and welcoming contact.

Michael called me a few weeks ago to tell me that Alaa was arriving here in America and would I like to bring the two of them to Woodlands. Yes, of course I would. Michael assumed that he and Alaa would present a “sermon in song,” speaking and singing in the pause between our prayers about their shared journey. But I asked Michael if he would ask Alaa to be part of our prayers. To not only join in the ancient recitations, but to add his own translated lines in Arabic.

We opened the evening with Hinei Mah Tov, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together.” We sang a bit in Hebrew, and then Alaa taught us how to sing it in Arabic. It was spellbinding. We all knew the words in Hebrew, of course. And we all knew what the song is about. So when Alaa began singing it in Arabic, the prayer embedded in this simple tune began coming true. There we were, Jew and Arab, creating layers of harmony in languages which have been at war with each other seemingly forever.

With the Barekhu, our “call to worship,” Michael and Alaa sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their prayer this time did not include the actual words of the Barekhu, but its essence: We live in a world that never promises only success and well-being; it is in both the highs and the lows of experience that character and gratitude are formed, and that our challenge is to never despair of life’s goodness, no matter what it throws our way …

Thank You for the sorrow, the times I had to borrow
When my heart was hollow, all my tears and quarrels
Thank You for my madness, all my pain and sadness
Without it I would be less, without it I would not be as blessed*

And so the evening went on. 200 American Jews and one Palestinian Muslim. I am quite certain that, together, we learned what sacred community is really about.

Perhaps most powerful of all was the evening’s prayer for healing and wholeness. As always, we shared aloud the names of those about whom we are concerned. We even called it Mee Sheberakh, invoking “the One who blesses” to help us and our loved ones through these difficult times. But instead of singing the familiar melody, Alaa chanted a dozen lines in Arabic which Michael translated. In doing so, the two of them created a transcendent moment during which Alaa served as our spiritual guide and support, asking the One God to help us …

May you find peace from your pain
Before you feel the pain in your chest, my heart aches
If I could, I would carry your burden, I would carry your pain
How could I leave you to face this time alone
I will never leave you to suffer or face your pain alone
May you find peace from your pain

How many times have we sung the words of Mee Sheberakh? Always, it is among our most spiritual moments, among those points in our service when so many of us truly connect. We connect with something beyond us. We connect with each other. Through the prayer that Alaa and Michael offered to us, those connections seemed stronger than ever and, without uttering a single word about it, expanded our wishes for wholeness to every Israeli and Palestinian.

Michael and Alaa then led us in our prayer for peace, invoking the image of stones – these days, not a symbol of peace but of defiance, recalling so vividly the struggle and the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. In their heartfelt plea, Alaa and Michael asked that we put down our stones and take one another’s hands instead …

So lay me down
Build a path
Walk on me as brothers
Let me be
Your common ground
Lay me down
And hold on to each other

As you might imagine, the evening’s worship was unforgettable. If ever we felt the tug of our tradition, pleading with us to embrace our neighbor in love, to beat swords into ploughshares, to look into our brother’s eyes and see the face of God, this was that moment.

Alla, Billy and Michael

Alla, Billy and Michael

Imagine! The words of the Shema, declaring the One God of the universe, and doing so in Arabic! This, I thought, is what the world’s religions must have intended when the clouds disperse and hearts can see clearly, and each understands that God wants us to care for one another.

A story is told of a young boy who, walking in the sand, picked up a handful of stones and took them home. Later, as he played quietly with the stones, his father took notice of one of them.

“Hand me that stone, my child.” Happily obliging, the boy watched as his father skillfully polished the stone into smooth planes and angles. In not too much time, he returned it to his son. The stone now glittered with brilliance, and the boy wondered at its splendor. He asked in astonishment, “How did you accomplish this?”

Replied his father, “I knew the hidden virtue of the stone. I knew its value, and I freed it from its coating of dross. Now the diamond can sparkle with its natural radiance.”

In our minds, it can be difficult to picture Jew and Arab side by side. For too many years, such pairings have produced dreadful results. And so, while many wait for peace to come, more have set such dreams aside.

But Michael Ochs and Alaa Ali are like expert lapidaries, with great knowledge of unearthing the ordinary and revealing the diamond within. These two friends make music, but so much more. They are builders of hope. The hope that Israeli and Palestinian can live side-by-side. The hope that Jew and Muslim can live side-by-side. And ultimately, the hope that all of humankind will finally learn to do same.

This was an extraordinary evening. We mingled cultures and religions, something that should not have to be extraordinary at all. Alaa and Michael showed us that this thing can be done, and that it can be done sensitively, and beautifully. We heard music that evoked our different cultures. And we shared in the shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary loveliness of their fusion. And perhaps more “shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary,” we heard music and words that brought together two religious traditions: Islam and Judaism. It was startling. It was also uplifting. After all, Judaism and Islam share so many common values about the beauty of, and the responsibility for, human life. Throughout this service, we affirmed all that we share. And we reinvigorated our shared hope that, as God is One, the men and women of this planet can also be one.

I hope you will consider creating such a Shabbat service of your own. The differences between us have not magically disappeared. They all remain. There is always time to argue, to hammer away at our people’s disparate dreams. But when there is so much we hold in common, ought we not find time for that as well?

Billy

For more information, visit Michael Ochs’ website thepursuitofharmony.com (if it’s not live, check back in a day or two; it’s a brand-new website).

* lyrics used by permission

Who Is Perfect?

I can’t believe I missed it by one verse! I want to talk about Exodus 27:20, which turns out not to be from this week’s parashah, Terumah, but is the very 1st verse in next week’s parashah, Tetzaveh.

Verse 20 is part of God’s instructions to the Israelites for how to build the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle. “Bring clear oil of beaten olives,” Moses tells them on God’s behalf, “for kindling the Eternal Light.”

Beaten olives” the Torah tells us. Of course, how else can you get olive oil? You have to beat them. But our Sages couldn’t help seeing their own, often difficult, lives in this image. And it brought them comfort.

In the book of Jeremiah, olive trees are described as being y’feh p’ree to’ar … “beautiful with goodly fruit.” The Midrash teaches us that the olive is beaten, pressed, ground down, and only then does it produce its oil, which then gives rise to glowing, beautiful light.

And while people don’t have to be “ground down” in order to produce beauty, life kind of does that to us anyway.

At this time of year, we get colds. Some of us have to stay in bed for a while. And when we finally get better, we’re so happy to be out of bed, out of the house, and back living our lives. When I was laid up a few weeks back with my cold, I was not a very pretty thing. Just ask Ellen. I was coughing, and sneezing, and blowing my nose. And then there was, “Ellen, can you get me a cup of juice? Can you bring me some soup? Can you take my temperature?” I don’t think she thought I a very pretty thing either.

But here’s what’s worth noting. I am so happy to be back at temple. I am so happy to be able to help Ellen do things around the house again. I’m so happy to take Charlie for walks again. Life is better, because I’ve seen what it’s like the other way.

Beauty is something we feel we know, but it can change as our experiences change.

I want to share with you a beautiful video. It’s subject is beauty. The film makers use the word “perfect.”

They went looking for perfection, for beauty, and found it in what we, at first blush, might think an unexpected place. But what I love about this video is that, after about a minute, it dawns on us, “Of course. Why didn’t I notice that before?”

A pretty remarkable video, with a great lesson for us all: Beauty is everywhere, but sometimes we need a friend to help us see it.

In the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of God were they created.” So important was it that we know our roots are sacred ones, that we were fashioned after none other than the Creator of the Universe, the Torah tells it to us twice. Even we have to be reminded that we’re beautiful.

Of course, looking like God is probably not a physical thing. The rabbis seem to think it has something to do with the way we act, the way we treat one another, whether or not we can look at a person whom others dismiss as unattractive and see the Divine image right there.

Here’s a different kind of beauty. The beauty of ideas. The beauty of imagination. Last summer, Tyler Levan walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after his bedtime and told them, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Tyler’s dad did what his father had done for him. He took out his monster spray and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Tyler’s parents then hugged him goodnight but Tyler stopped them, saying, “But how will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

Just beautiful! Tyler somehow managed to make the unreal real and then unmake it again. That’s art! And except for the scary part, it’s beautiful.

So expect the unexpected, and watch life get really interesting. Try not to ever dismiss something when your inner voice says it’s not interested.

There’s so much beauty in this world, but because we seem to insist on wearing blinders, most of us are missing lots of it.

There’s some truth, I think, to the idea that the difficulties in life can make us more sensitive to the goodness and the loveliness that still remain. So next time you’re hurting, stay alert, something beautiful may be coming along next. And you may just be one of the very few who can see it.

Maybe that’s what it means when the Torah says we were created in the “Divine image.” Just as God stays pretty invisible, maybe there’s all this good stuff that’s invisible too because we shut ourselves off from it.

Perfection and beauty are everywhere. Let’s open our eyes and open our hearts, and celebrate it all!

Jewish and American … Couldn’t Be More Honored

WH/HO PortraitToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was six years old at the time of his death and while, unlike many Americans, I do not remember where I was when I learned about it (I imagine I was in school), I do remember sitting in my next door neighbor’s living room and playing on the floor while our families watched the funeral on TV. JFK’s death was a seminal moment in my life as it was for so many others across the world, affecting me (as a kid, at least) far more than any particular Jewish moment had, including the Six-Day War. Which is not to say that the Six-Day War, which took place when I was ten, did not have an impact on me. It did. But JFK’s death meant something more to me as a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the sixties.

This certainly has much to do with my upbringing. My parents were happy to be Jewish. We always belonged to a synagogue. But I would never have described them as “fiercely proud Jews.” Being Jewish was something we were, but not something we were always doing. It would be during my teen years that temple youth group and URJ summer camps would propel me into a more engaged, active involvement in Jewish life.

So with Thanksgivukkah rapidly approaching, something that hasn’t happened for about a hundred years and won’t happen for another (perhaps) 70,000 years, the intersection of American and Jewish life has been on my mind.

Rabbis across the nation have been sounding off on Thanksgivukkah. Some of them view it with suspicion and/or disdain, as if it represents a watering-down of commitment to Jewish life, a cheapening of Jewish tradition. Others welcome it. Probably the same rabbis who, like me, welcome Halloween. In Halloween’s case, some rabbis are put-off by Halloween’s Christian roots, its pagan roots, or its ties to the occult. Others however, including me, dismiss those connections, seeing the holiday as a fun, harmless night of community gathering and socializing. After all, how often do you see your neighbors out on the street? And whatever the holiday’s origins, none of those are why we go trick-or-treating today.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, which will transition us from the Jacob-story to the Joseph-story, the opening words of Genesis 37 highlight for me this challenge of being Jewish and living in America. “Vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz K’na’an … Jacob settled in the land of Canaan, where his father had sojourned.” The impression we receive here is that while Abraham and Isaac were immigrants, and considered themselves strangers in a new land, Jacob felt at home there. This certainly shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he was a third-generation resident. His grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, had been immigrants. His mother, Rebekkah, was an immigrant. And his father, Isaac, was the child of an immigrant. But Jacob had only known K’na’an as his home.

My grandparents, Philip and Anna Feldman and Harry and Mollie Dreskin, were all immigrants. They took various boat rides across the ocean from Russia to the United States. My parents were the children of immigrants. And I have only known the United States as my home. The children of this congregation, who will be eating turkey and pumpkin pie while lighting candles and opening their Hanukkah presents this year are, in many cases, the great-great-grandchildren of immigrants. They are American through and through.

The commentaries tell us that Jacob became complacent when he settled into life in K’na’an. And everything that befell his children, most especially the travails of his son Joseph and the eventual enslavement of our people in Egypt, were because Jacob had left behind his passion for spiritual living. He’d assimilated. And it led to crisis.

The recent Pew report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has raised concerns about the impending demise of Jewish life in America. I think the mere existence of a category they label as “Jews of no religion” has the pundits running for cover. Intermarriage, assuming the statistics are accurate, has risen to 58% of American Jews. Between 30 and 50% have little or no connection to the State of Israel. And only 30% think it’s important to be part of a Jewish community.

That’s a lot of people who are gonna miss out on Thanksgivukkah. No menurkey (turkey-shaped menorah) in their homes. No pumpkin latkes. No challah stuffing. And not even their great-great-grandchildren will get the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgivukkah.

Y’all know me. I’m an eternal optimist. Which certainly doesn’t mean I’m right all the time. I just don’t enjoy gloom-and-doom predictions. Yes, I think there are people who are drifting away from, and will ultimately leave, Jewish life. It’s the price of living in America. A free country. Free to go where we want to go, including our spiritual journeys. But that’s only part of the story. The other part I see right here at Woodlands. The 58% that’s intermarrying? A whole lot of them are living wonderful Jewish lives. Not only are they not disappearing from Judaism, but they’re bringing in others! Some are converting, while others are simply joining in. Around here, the results are pretty similar for both: kids growing up who love being Jewish, and don’t doubt for a second who they are even if mom or dad has a second religion.

The fact is, America has been good to the Jews. Its values are consonant with Judaism’s, often originating from the same place! The first Thanksgiving was very likely a reenactment of the biblical Sukkot. As Jews and as Americans, gratitude is an important value. We dine in the sukkah, away from all the creature comforts of the house, to renew our appreciation for the natural world. The first Thanksgiving brought European and Native American together to offer thanks for earth’s bounty. And Hanukkah? It’s also about gratitude. About a world where freedom may be fragile, but it’s worth protecting. And we light candles to celebrate and reaffirm a world where people can live side-by-side, applauding the differences that make life a brilliant tapestry of experience and love.

150 years ago this past Tuesday, President Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous oration of all time on a field in Pennsylvania where 8,000 soldiers had lost their lives and another 38,000 were wounded or missing. In his address at Gettysburg, the President enshrined the purpose for which these United States of America had been born: “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He sought to give meaning to the great violence that had occurred there by reaffirming “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s speech, like Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington, resonate deeply in the Jewish soul. The dream of America, not an easy dream mind you, is a great dream, a dream worthy of our prophets! Isaiah and Jeremiah would, I think, have approved. They’d be disappointed in our setbacks, our failures, our lack of follow-through, but they’d rail against anyone who suggested the dreams were not good ones.

And that’s why I celebrate Halloween. Imagine, living in a country where children can go door-to-door, begging for food they don’t need, and getting a piece of candy and a smile to send them on their way. I know, there are far too many ghettos and rural backroads where good food is in short supply and no one would allow a child on the streets at night. But Halloween encompasses the dream … that one day, all of our children will be able to dress up like monsters and won’t have to ever face real ones.

And that’s why I’ll be celebrating Thanksgivukkah. Because America is about as Jewish a country as you can find (without it being Israel). And Judaism is about as American a religion as you can find, until (of course) you meet your Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh neighbor who also values freedom, full bellies, and peaceful streets.

When JFK got shot in 1963, even as a six-year old I knew something terrible had happened in America. And even as the history books are revising their esteem for the country’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy symbolized every hope and ideal millions of this nation’s citizens held close. Our shared dream of a land that all men and women could call home was sharply muted by the crack of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. Our innocence stolen away, we have been forced ever since to see all of America, its glories and its horrors, and to work to build a future that is forever at risk, to struggle to continue to believe in a better day.

But then, that’s the Jewish dream, isn’t it? Bayom hahu yih’yeh Adonai ekhad ush’mo ekhad … on that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One. Which day? The day when we finally bring all people together, regardless of skin color, religious identity, even political beliefs, and join hands to finally, at long last, build a world of peace.

When Jacob settled in K’na’an, he may have given up his years of wandering, but he brought up at least one child who possessed an exalted vision of life as it could be. And in time, it would be Levi, one of Jacob’s wayward children, who would become the ancestor of perhaps our people’s greatest leader, Moses. Jacob may have settled down, and he may have settled for something less than his grandfather had hoped for, but he did not settle for a life devoid of meaning or vision.

And neither have we.

America need not be the dilution of anything. It stands for so much that is good in our world. It serves as the petri dish in which Jewish life can grow and thrive and prosper and, most importantly, do the good that was commanded of us by God at Mount Sinai … the same good by which this nation’s founders hoped the American people would live.

Happy Thanksgivukkah. As an American and as a Jew, I am so grateful for the life that is mine and for the possibilities of goodness for others that, although elusive, are very much worth all of us, together, striving for.

A Piano in Taksim Square

Opening Thought
A woman out for a walk comes around a street corner and finds herself in front of an accident victim lying on the sidewalk. Grateful for the first-aid course she’d recently completed at her local Y, she later tells her husband, “When I saw that poor man lying on the sidewalk in pretty bad shape, all my first-aid training came back to me. I bent down, surveyed the victim and his surroundings, put my head between my knees, and I actually kept myself from fainting!”

So maybe that wasn’t the outcome to the story you’d hoped for, or expected from a rabbi, but let’s face it, not everyone is equipped to save an injured person. You gotta know CPR, or how to stop a bleed or set a fracture. That may be more than a lot of us can handle. Still, there may be more we can do than just take care of only ourselves.

Tonight, we’re going to explore the idea of tikkun olam, of fixing the world, and of what repair jobs might be the right ones for you or for me. Tonight, we’ll be focusing on how each one of us can bring peace and gentleness and honor into our world, in a way that’s especially suited to us and to our individual abilities.

D’rash
Piano.01I love the piano. If you don’t know, I started lessons when I was in kindergarten. And I started practicing when I was in the tenth grade. That was when I discovered that I loved creating my own sounds. And while I had a brief period in my life when I was actually a full-time musician – complete with an off-Broadway musical – those days disappeared when I needed a real job with a real paycheck.

You know the story about Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great Russian-born pianist and conductor? Rachmaninoff himself told the story – it took place when he was very young and was giving a piano recital. He’d begun with a Beethoven sonata which had several long rests in it. During one of those measured pauses, a woman leaned forward, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “It’s okay, honey. Play us something you know.”

It’s a great story. And I suppose it’s better to believe in ourselves and not have others think we can do the job, than the other way around. Here’s another great piano story. This one comes from Istanbul.

You know what’s going on in Istanbul? Istanbul is a big city in the country of Turkey. And Turkey is a fairly democratic nation in the Middle East. It’s not so great on women’s rights, the ethnic rights of some of its citizens, or on freedom of the press. You might call Turkey a work in progress. But a lot of people are very hopeful that Turkey will become freer and freer in the years ahead.

Right now, however, there’s a huge protest going on in Istanbul that was sparked by plans to turn a city park called Taksim Square into a shopping center. It turns out, this is probably about more than trading in green space for money and profit. It turns out that, for many decades, Taksim Square has been ground zero for political and not-so-political demonstrations in Turkey (football games have gone bad there too). Violence has often broken out during gatherings in the Square and, until 2010, the Turkish government banned most protests there. Police were permanently stationed in the park around the clock to ensure no incidents took place.

Just last month, the protests against the shopping center started up. The world was pretty shocked to watch the police move in and use tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons against a gathering that looked a whole lot like Occupy Wall Street – in other words, a tent city, and a peaceful occupation of the land. An inconvenience perhaps, but not violent.

Watching the scenes from Taksim Square on CNN was pretty startling for me. You’d think the people had gone to war, like what’s going on in Syria, but they hadn’t. They were just upset and they wanted their government to know about it. You can imagine their disappointment when the government reacted with no dialogue, just force.

Piano Taksim Square.01Then, a little over a week ago, with tension still mounting between the protestors and the police, a German pianist, Davide Martello, appearing with a small truck and road crew, moved a grand piano inside of Taksim Square and began to play. For fourteen hours straight.

The protestors quieted down, gathering around the piano player. As photos and videos went out across Facebook and YouTube, the crowd grew. Eventually, they would stand at 1500 strong. And the police? It’d be lovely to say they came over and joined the concert. They did not. But they can be seen at ease, resting on their shields, themselves calmed for a few moments during which the only tension was in the strings inside that grand piano.

John Wesley, a Christian minister who lived in England about 200 years ago, taught, “Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.” I’ve always loved this text. It’s a lot like something Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote back in the 12th century, “If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need (Lev 19:16).”

These teachings mean a lot to me. Because even if we think, when there’s something wrong in our world, that we can’t do anything about it, we can always do something. What would it take to fix the problem in Taksim Square? What would it take to fix the larger problems of human rights in Turkey? I’m not sure if I can do something about that. But if I can play piano, I might be able to help a little. And if playing the piano can help a little, what about playing the flute, or making scrambled eggs, or jumping rope, or writing a check, or joining a protest in Times Square?

“Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.”

That piano player was great. For fourteen hours, he calmed things down in Taksim Square. It was amazing. But the government still wouldn’t talk to the people.

Then this past Monday, someone else showed up to do what he could. I don’t know whether or not he could play the piano. He didn’t bring one with him, I know that. In fact, he didn’t bring anything. He showed up at Taksim Square, he placed his backpack on the ground, put his hands in his pockets, and he stood there. For eight hours. People noticed, and they gathered around him. Four police officers searched him, and his backpack. They asked why he was there? He said nothing. And then, more than 300 people joined him, doing the same thing. Then people all over the city heard about the standing man, and they began standing in the same way, wherever they were.

“If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need.”

Whoever you are. Whatever your education, your abilities, your age, your size, your courage, or the loudness of your voice. If you see something going on that isn’t right, there is always something you can do about it. Something you can do. It’s the Jewish thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do.

I was reminded of it by a guy who played the piano in Taksim Square. He’s my new hero.

Closing Thought
CorduroyAre you familiar with the story of Corduroy? It’s about a little teddy bear who no one would buy because he was missing a button. A little girl who didn’t care about the button asked her mom to purchase Corduroy, but her mom said no.

The next day, the little girl showed up, purchased Corduroy with her own money, and took him home, herself sewing the button to hold up his shoulder strap. The teddy bear and the little girl live, of course, happily ever after.

Can you sew? Can you draw? Are you a mechanical engineer? Or a doctor? There’s lots that each of us can do. And there’s lots of what we can do … that we can also do for others. If each of us would share a couple of those things to benefit someone else in their moment of need, it could go a long way toward making at least one life and, who knows, maybe a whole lot more, better off than they’ve been in a long, long time.

Shabbat shalom.

Women of the Wall

GIFThere’s an uproar in the world today. If you’ve been watching “Mad Men,” you probably missed it. Oh, if you were doing anything with your life, you probably missed it. It took place at the Annual Webby Awards which honor excellence on the Internet. This year, one of the arguably coveted prizes (you know, by you and me) was given to Steve Wilhite, inventor of the G-I-F computer graphic file format (that oughta wake you up, eh!). For me, it’s actually a pretty cool and deserved award because I use the G-I-F format often during Visual Worship, when I want to put a picture up on the screens but make its background vanish, so that it appears as if a second image is floating on top of the first.

When Wilhite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

The uproar, of course, comes from the fact that most of the geek world pronounce Wilhite’s graphic format “GIF,” with a hard G, and not “JIF,” like the peanut butter, which Wilhite named it when he invented it.hite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

But just because you started something doesn’t mean you control it. That’s very true of language and even more true of human behavior.

When the State of Israel was reestablished back in 1948, leadership over religious matters was ceded to the Orthodox. The thinking was that internal, domestic matters would be solved once the new Israelis figured out how to survive the invading armies all around them. But since borders were never ever truly secured, matters pertaining to individual rights promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence got put off and put off and put off. And for a very long time, even the progressive Jews “behaved” (and I put “behaved” in quotations marks).

Women of the Wall

But the day arrived when, much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could no longer wait for “a convenient time” (again, in quotes) to make his move for equal rights, Anat Hoffman of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Uri Regev, formerly of Israel’s Reform movement and now the head of Hiddush, a progressive advocacy group in Israel, are no longer willing to wait for peace along the borders. Demonstrations and civil disobedience – including women who refuse to sit at the back of the bus and who insist upon wearing tallit and tefillin at the Wall – have now become commonplace.

The civil rights movement has begun in earnest in Eretz Yisrael.

Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky’s proposed compromise at the Wall, to extend the Kotel and create an additional equally-sized prayer areas open to women, has been rejected by many and, in my opinion, ought to be. “Separate but equal” is an idea that failed here a long time ago. It solves nothing; most importantly, it encourages no close-minded racist or sexist to change their mind.

The news from the Jerusalem District Court, upholding an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot in the Western Wall Plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested, is historic and groundbreaking. Finally, some sanity in Israeli politics. A recognition that it’s fine for individual women to choose not to wear ritual garb, but that no one else can force such a decision upon them and that they are welcome to wear tallit and/or tefillin without fear of reprisal … this is a welcome action indeed!

But of course, the response is not only one of celebration. The ultra-Orthodox reaction is familiar to us all. Grafitti on the homes of women involved in the protests. Spitting at them, throwing water bottles, chairs, garbage and rocks in the Kotel plaza — we’ve seen it all before, haven’t we?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotkha (chapters 8-12 in Numbers) – words, by the way, that women may not read at the Kotel – includes the commandment to kindle in the Tabernacle a seven-branched menorah whose lights are specifically to be directed forward. While one may certainly interpret Torah many different ways, the image of using illumination to light the way before us, this is a powerful one for me. And it speaks powerfully of the need for good people to bring communal goodness to all.

The Women of the Wall have been shining a beacon of light on the injustices at the Kotel since 1988. It’s taken twenty-five years (!) for this decision to finally come down. While it’s understandable that their efforts have been opposed by the ultra-Orthodox, it’s unconscionable that the Israel political leadership has ducked the issue all these years.

Don’t expect the decision to resolve anything. Not for a while, anyway. First we have to see if the government has the courage to implement the decision, to back it with police protection, and to prosecute those who break the new law. It took Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send in federal troops so that American law would be implemented down south. Let’s hope the Knesset can take a lesson from American history on this one.

In the meantime, seven-branched menorahs can become very heavy. Our support – via letters, petitions and donations – can keep those lights shining where they’re most needed.

At about 6:00 am one morning in 1983, during my year of rabbinical study in Jerusalem, Ellen and I wandered into the Kotel plaza and noticed something amazing. A man on a ladder was reaching into all the crevices in the Wall and pulling out the hundreds (thousands!) of tiny notes left there as prayers to God. It made sense, of course, that eventually there’d be no room for more notes and that the Wall would have to be cleaned. Our jaws dropped just the same and I, equipped with camera, took a full series of photographs to record this stunning moment. But it was in the era of kodachrome film and mine, though installed, was not advancing. Not a single picture developed.

An act of God? A Divine message that you don’t mess with the Kotel? Or with the Orthodox establishment’s maintenance of practice there?

I’m sure there are plenty who would agree.

But not me. And thank God, not Anat Hoffman or Rabbi Uri Regev, or any of the Women of the Wall who will continue their efforts for another twenty-five years if that’s what it takes to secure not only their civil rights, but civil rights in general for all the people of Israel (including, by the way, her Arab citizens).

This week, here in America, the struggle for civil rights continues. The Boy Scouts of America agreed to allow young gay men to join its programs. But not to lead them. Which means there is a ways to go.

There is always a ways to go, isn’t there?

Dear God, Teacher of Mitzvot, Divine Instructor of Honor and Integrity, stop being so patient with us. Sear our hearts with a passion for kindness and welcome. Jolt our minds with understanding of openness and inclusion. There is no convenient time for justice. That time is now. It has always been now.

May we find the courage and the strength to join our hands, and our destinies, with those who have taken up the banner of these struggles. And may we live to see a world where no one must endure the sting of prejudice and discrimination.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Benediction

A woozle, a goozle and a foozle were spending an evening together. In the middle of their conversation, the lights went out. Undeterred, the woozle said, “Let us consider the nature of light and of darkness.” The goozle began to sing a hymn in honor of our Little Sister Darkness. But the foozle went down into the basement and replaced the fuse.

There is a time to consider life’s vicissitudes. There is a time to look that word up in the dictionary. And there’s a time to get to work. Whether it’s natural disaster in Oklahoma, homophobia in the Boy Scouts, sexism in Jerusalem, or any of countless injustices to be found the world over, and in our own backyard, may we each do our part to replace the fuse, and get the light back where it needs to be.

A Grocer’s Tale

CityGate.KoreaWhat’s the story you want your life to tell?

Each year, on Shavuot, we retell our people’s narrative of enslavement, liberation, desert wandering, and revelation at Mount Sinai. Whether we believe it really happened or not, it’s an extraordinary story. One that deeply affects the manner in which we live our lives.

God picks us out from among the suffering masses, saves us, and elevates us to Covenant status. Thousands of years later, we’re still telling that story! And here’s what I think it tells about us. About what’s important to us. Important as Jews. Important as human beings.

It says that slavery is a terrible thing, and that no human being should be made to endure it. Not just something we should avoid, but something we should endeavor to end in other people’s lives. That’s why we showed up for civil rights rallies and to end the genocide in Darfur.

It says that corrupt, destructive people can and should be stopped. They’re not just people who we keep away from, but tyrants we seek to topple even if it (merely!) helps others and not necessarily ourselves. That’s why large numbers of Jewish lawyers work as public defenders and for non-profits. That’s why large numbers of Jewish teachers help kids grow up to be selfless and kind. That’s why large numbers of moms and dads in Jewish families raise sweet kids.

And this narrative says something else. It asserts that, more often than not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. In the quest for truth, our Jewish heritage is right up there with the best of the philosophical traditions – both secular and religious – that endeavor to figure out “the meaning of life” and help us discern what’s good and what’s not.

What story do you want your life to tell?

I have a friend who runs a small grocery store. It’s not an easy life. Long hours, low pay, always on the brink of going under. My friend wonders, “Why did I pick a grocer’s life? And how come I can’t seem to get out of it, even though I think I’d like to?”

This grocer then met someone who gives past-life readings. Now, like the story of Shavuot, which may or may not have happened but is still a story worth telling and learning from, so too with this one. I think there’s a great lesson here.

The “reader” said that in the lifetime just prior to this one, my grocer friend’s father had died young. The mother, unable to care for her two young children, sold one (the older sister) and abandoned the other (my friend) at the city gates, perishing there.

“What are city gates?” my friend asked.

Knowing a thing or two about ancient cities, like Jerusalem, I explained that where a city had a wall surrounding it, the city gates served not only as an entrance and exit point, but also where much local activity took place. Often including, I noted, a marketplace.

I theorized that my friend is a grocer today because, having been abandoned in the market place in a previous lifetime, is still in that marketplace today.

I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with this interpretation of the past-life reading. I was creative and realistic (I mean, to the extent that any wondering about past lives can be realistic).

But my grocer friend looked at me and said, “I don’t want that to be my story.”

I thought to myself, “You don’t necessarily get to make that choice.” Our lives are what they are. And most assuredly, our past is in the past. It’s over; there’s no going back and altering it.

But since no one knows what’s true and what isn’t here, just because my story has some poetic meaning to it doesn’t mean my friend wanted to own it. “Then why do you think you’re a grocer?” I asked.

My friend the grocer looked me in the eye and, with a powerful sense of conviction, told me the following. “Because my parents were not able to take care of me and abandoned me, I am a food seller today so that, no matter how difficult my work is, and no matter how precarious the world becomes around me, my children will always have food on the table.”

It didn’t take long at all for me to admit that my grocer friend was right. That’s a much better narrative. Rather than life being an ongoing act of mere survival, it becomes a commitment to bettering loved ones’ lives.

What is the story that you will write?

What will be the narrative for your life?

I hope it’s a question you’ll want to ask, and then ask again, and keep on asking. I hope you won’t allow others to be the only ones to respond, to decide what your life is all about. I hope you’ll share your ideas with people you love, with people you respect. And I hope you’ll hear some worthwhile possibilities in return.

But write your own story.

During Shavuot, we stand at Mt. Sinai. As fellow journeyers, we share the great tales of human experience. Some of those stories are ours; some belong to those we meet while on the road. None of our accounts are complete. No matter where we are in the adventure, as it says in our haggadah, it is a story “whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold.”

May yours be filled with beauty, with wonder, with purpose, and, most especially, with love.

Profound Wisdom from a Beautiful Lady and a Beautiful Song

Ellen and I were sitting at the piano, singing our way through an exquisite contemporary tune, entitled “Help Is on the Way.” We’d both fallen deeply for Nancy LaMott’s recording, and it was Ellen who contacted the composer, David Friedman, to see if we could get the music.

I’ve always been haunted by this song. It’s so optimistic about the future, even while acknowledging the difficulties we face. Nancy LaMott, for whom this was a signature piece, sang it with such conviction, even as her cancer-stricken life was ebbing away:

MightyMouse

“Don’t give up the ship even when you think it’s sinking and you don’t know what to do. Don’t give up your dream even though you may be thinking it never will come true. Life has its own ideas of how things come about; and if you just hang in there life is gonna work it out. Help is on the way from places you don’t know about today. From friends you may not have met yet. Believe me when I say I know. Help is on the way.”

In the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s taught, “There is hope if we let ourselves be helped.” I know what it’s like to feel alone, that there’s no one to turn to, to sense despair in the emptiness of it all. But I also know the strength that comes from a tender embrace, a compassionate ear, a helping hand, gradually replacing the night with a few resurrecting rays of hope-filled light.

In 1994, Nancy LaMott was rushed to the hospital where her loved ones learned she only had days to live. In those brief hours, she was embraced by her closest friends and family, phoned by her devoted fan, President Bill Clinton, and promised by the composer of “Help Is on the Way” that her voice would continue to be heard. Then, only an hour before her death, she married the love of her life. As her website tells it, “Nancy LaMott had it all, if only for 45 minutes.”

The secret to living (and I think Nancy LaMott understood this) … is to know long before the hour of our death just how rich we truly are. Neither money, fame nor power hold the tiniest candle to the sense of completeness that accompanies a life of giving and of receiving love.

Billy

P.S. You can listen to Nancy Lamott singing “Help Is On the Way” here …

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAxN_UzOUg4]

On “Human Rights Shabbat,” the Night Before Hanukkah

HumanRightsAs we look toward lighting our first Hanukkah candle tomorrow evening, I have a story to share with you. Oddly, it’s a Passover story. But the message is perfect for tonight. And as an added plus, it gets us going on our Pesakh preparation as well!

In the nineteenth century, prominent Lithuanian Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, hadn’t been feeling well. This was just prior to Passover, and it became necessary for his students to take upon themselves the rabbi’s usual supervision of the town’s matzo-baking. Matzo is subject to its own rules of kashrut, ensuring that no leavening be allowed to occur at any time during the preparation, baking and storage of matzot. Keenly aware of this immense responsibility that had been placed upon their young shoulders, the students pressed Rabbi Salanter for guidance. “Tell us, rabbi, what must we be sure not to overlook.” To which Rabbi Salanter, pulling himself with great difficulty to a sitting position, and with the most serious of voice and expression, responded, “See to it … that the women who bake the matzos … are paid promptly.”

Judaism has always cared deeply for human rights. Starting in the very first chapter of the book of Genesis we are taught that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Each of us has the spark of God within and, as such, every person in existence is to be treated with dignity, honor and compassion.

And so, it isn’t surprising to walk into a synagogue and find any number of projects that have been adopted in order to empower the temple community to elevate the dignity and economic security of others. Woodlands is certainly no different. One of my favorite complaints, and I’ve been receiving it for all 18 years that I’ve been here, is that the front lobby is too cluttered with donations for the needy. I ask you: Who’d want it any other way? It’s like the Israelites wandering in the desert. Invited to donate for the building of the Mishkan, they had to be told, “Enough! Stop giving. We’ve got more than we can use!” I love it when our Social Action Committee can’t keep up with the volume of donations you bring. These days, we’ve been tripping over cleaning supplies and batteries to try and help the folks who were assaulted by Super Storm Sandy. You won’t hear me shout, “Enough!” — not for quite a while to come — because too many lives have too many needs that will likely continue for too many months, if not years, to come.

This certainly is not merely a Jewish value. Judaism’s purpose, I believe, is to help every member of a Jewish family to learn and to implement the values that all human beings should be practicing. And so, in 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we Jews could applaud their efforts and sign on the dotted line. The Declaration of Human Rights is based on the idea that “there are a few common standards of decency that can and should be accepted by people of all nations and cultures” (Mary Ann Glendon, 2004). Among the human rights enumerated are: fundamental principles of freedom, dignity, and equality, and the right to life, liberty and security; prohibitions against torture and slavery; equal recognition before the law; prohibitions against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the presumption of innocence; the right to freedom of movement, to leave and return to one’s country, to seek asylum, to own property, to marry and found a family; freedom of religion and thought, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, freedom to take part in the government, and equal access to public service; the right to work and to receive equal pay for equal work; the right to join a trade union; the right to a reasonable amount of rest and leisure; the right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services; the right to education and to participate freely in the cultural life of the community.

What a profoundly moving and important document. What an intensely Jewish document!

How many times have you and I heard the words, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt”? Does this document not enshrine the very values and principles upon which our own religion was founded? Our ancestors knew the sting of the whip, the denial of freedom, the whimsical destruction of life. And when they were freed by the waters of the Red Sea, they sought not merely to enshrine their own protection, their own safety, the security of their own babies, but have from time immemorial demanded such rights for everyone. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sexual or gender orientation, our Jewish heritage has taught us and urged us to advocate for the well-being of one and all. That’s why our front lobby gets cluttered with donations.

Of course, stating ideals is one thing. Living by those ideals is something altogether different. And so we find ourselves living a paradox, even here in the United States. Despite such a lofty document, the actions by the nations of the world in the years since 1948 suggest that merely signing a piece of paper has guaranteed nothing. And so we find ourselves living in a world that regularly denies full (and sometimes even basic) human rights to women, to children, to people of color, to the LGBT community, to Muslims here in America, to African asylum-seekers in Israel, to the struggling middle-class, and so many, many more.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously approved in 1948. But even though no country voted against it, eight countries did abstain. More disappointingly, virtually every one of them has fallen depressingly short of fulfilling the Declaration’s terms. In every nation across this exquisite planet of ours, too many are permitted to languish in lives and circumstances that neither you or I would ever tolerate for our own loved ones. Having so much richness in our own lives, you and I must do more than express concern for those who don’t. We need to act. We need to drive to the Rockaways and help rebuild. We need to fly to the Gulf Coast and continue the rebuilding. We need to volunteer in shelters and in public schools to ensure that children have access to learning and to love. We must stand up – in town halls, in our nation’s capital, on our street corners if need be – and share our values and our hopes aloud. Our elected representatives need to hear from us when the human rights of one are trampled by another. And we need to encourage our children, and our grandchildren, and our temple children (through our religious school and our worship), to learn and to act on these values as well.

I don’t know if the Maccabees had to bake matzoh. I imagine they did. I wonder if in their heroic struggle to regain their political rights, did they make sure that the women who baked their matzo were paid promptly? It’s tough to be a Maccabee. Even for a Maccabee.

Tomorrow evening, we’ll light the first candle of Hanukkah. Unlike our Maccabean ancestors, our struggles will involve figuring out from which direction to insert and to light the candles, how to avoid being splattered by hot oil when making our latkes, and deciding what gifts to share with our loved ones. For me, being a terrible gift wrapper, my personal struggles will include scissors and scotch tape.

But we’ll have missed the point, won’t we?

Tomorrow evening, when we light the first candle of Hanukkah, let’s try and think about the real struggles that are going on in the world today. Let’s tell the story of the Maccabees, and let’s try and find the Maccabees of our own day. And maybe, if we act to help others in their hour of need, we’ll become Maccabees ourselves. In celebration of Hanukkah, donate to places and organizations that are fighting the good fight. In celebration of Hanukkah, let’s go somewhere, roll up our own sleeves, and fight the good fight ourselves. You might want to talk to Stu Berlowitz or Jay Werner about joining them in the Rockaways. This need is particularly urgent. But there are so many opportunities out there, and so many good people waiting for you to offer a hand.

My cousin Kenny sent me a cartoon today that’s been making the rounds on the Internet for quite a few years now. It shows a family gathered around a cell phone, the father proclaiming with religious fervor and theological awe, “The cell phone only had enough battery power for one day, but it lasted for eight.” This cartoon has always represented the shallowest, consumerist dimension of Hanukkah. But during Super Storm Sandy, there was in fact a true need for batteries that lasted beyond expectation. So for the first time, this cartoon is actually poignant.

Eloheynu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors, what an incredible heritage You have bequeathed to us. Not just You, of course, but those ancestors of ours who thought that Your teachings were truly helpful in the challenge to become compassionate human beings. On this almost-Hanukkah evening, we’re so grateful for the gifts that have come down to us through the ages. May we make good use of them. And through Your gifts, may we make this world a better home for all. And may our children’s children one day thank their ancestors – us! – for making sure that they too were able to bake the matzo and to see that the women were promptly paid.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

Billy