Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

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

Israel and Gaza

Thanksgiving weekend. An embarrassing overabundance of food, of football and of shopping. What’s not to be thankful for? Well, perhaps for one more gift: that Thanksgiving seems to be the most uncontroversial moment in America. Everybody celebrates it. Nobody complains about it. And even though there are, undoubtedly, differences from house to house in how it’s observed, we make ample room for all 315 million of us to share it.

In the Dreskin home, we’ve grown accustomed to Ellen’s expectation that, before we eat, we each share something for which we’re grateful this year. I never quite give enough thought to my response, but I try to hit all the right ones: family, shelter, and good health. But left off my list last night, I add this one now: I’m grateful the bombs have ceased flying from Gaza to Israel and vice-versa.

While the response from Israel lasted one week, the 2256 rockets launched from Gaza began last New Year’s Day and continued for 47 weeks. When Aiden arrived home this weekend, he mentioned to me that he’d seen a political cartoon in which the first three panels showed rockets fired at Israel, but not until the fourth panel, when a rocket is fired at Gaza, does the news media file a report, “Israel attacks Gaza.”

In no way do I mean to minimize the rain of destruction in Gaza from this past week’s retaliation. 162 Gazans died there. Roughly half were civilians. This should be unacceptable to Israel. Except that after 47 weeks and 2256 rockets, Israel’s patience had worn thin. I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did.

As of Wednesday, a cease-fire has begun and, thus far, is holding. The question, of course, is, “What now?” More than likely, it will be business as usual. Unsuccessful overtures of peace. Resumption of life in both Gaza and Israel. No success at shaping any lasting treaty. A begrudging quiet until the next violent action from within Gaza. And one sort of response or another from Israel.

But there’s always a possibility, isn’t there? Remote and unrealistic as it is, there does exist the slightest chance that the United States and Egypt and other parties of interest will push Israel and the Palestinians to finally settle this thing. Imagine that … a secure and lasting peace for all. No more rockets. No more occupation.

For the past four years, a small column has appeared each month in our temple bulletin, called “Just Israel.” The idea behind it has been to demonstrate to our liberal, unwilling-to-simply-serve-as-a-cheering-section-for-Israel selves to see that there is, and has been for a long time, movement toward normalization and peaceful relations between individuals in Israel and individuals in Gaza and the West Bank. We’ve written in this column about shared ventures between the two lands in the development of software, of music, of agriculture, of medical research, renewable energy and much more. While the conflict fills the headlines in our news media, we want to share and to applaud the truly important work which happens at non-governmental levels and demonstrates the profound yearning for peace that pervades both peoples despite sensationalist news reporting and political hand-wringing.

I’m an eternal idealist. Frankly, I’ve no interest in being anything else. There’s too much wrong with the world, and too many decent people who would unhesitatingly change everything in the name of peace, for me to be anything else. I’m not unrealistic. I fear for the cease-fire and what will follow it. But my heart won’t ever cease firing its own rockets of hope. I know that people are always capable of creating peace. And I know there are people of wealth and power who stand to lose much if peace breaks out. But I don’t know of any oppressive time in history, any bleak period of violence, that didn’t end with liberation and reconciliation. Sometimes — often — these are a long time in coming.

Arabs and Jews have been at each other’s throats for thousands of years. Our epic stories record this. Cain slays Abel. Jacob pursues Esau. Israel defeats Amalek.

But I’m ready to write a new story. I’m eager to begin teach a new generation of students how the old Bible stories seem so unrealistic because such enmity ended so long ago.

At our Thanksgiving Shabbat in this room one year ago, we discussed a hasidic story solely within the context of this holiday. Tonight, I again share that story with you, but from within the context of the Gazan-Israeli conflict:

Rabbi Israel Salanter, who lived and taught in 19th century Lithuania and Prussia, once noticed that a fancy restaurant was charging a huge price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the cup of java was so expensive. After all, some hot water, a few beans and a spoonful of sugar could not amount to more than a few cents.

The owner replied, “You are correct that for a few cents you could have this same coffee in your own home. But here in the restaurant, we provide the extras — exquisite decor, soft background music, professional waiters, and the finest china from which to drink your beverage.”

Rabbi Salanter’s face lit up. “Thank you so very much! I now understand the blessing which we recite before drinking water, Shehakol Nih’yeh Bid’varo – ‘Blessed are You, O God, for creating everything by Your word.’ You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking God for creating water. Now I understand the blessing much better. Everything includes not merely the water, but also the air we breathe, the beautiful world around us, the music of birds that exalt our spirits, the charming flowers with their marvelous hues, and the fresh breeze that cools us in the heat of the day. For all this, when we consume our beverage, we must also give thanks.”

It was a fearful time in both Gaza and Israel this past week. Sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, usually a safe distance from hostilities, caught its residents with surprise and apprehension. The leaflets which Israel dropped over Gaza, warning its citizens that bombs were coming and that they should find shelter, could not have made the Gazans feel safe. But both sides celebrated the cease-fire. And while we here in America heard about the politicians’ satisfaction, you and I both know how comforting it must have been for mothers and fathers to be able to tuck their children into their own beds on Wednesday evening, and to have a quiet moment of rest and soft conversation outside of their homes, watching a sky that was lit up only by the moon and the gentle twinkling of stars. You can bet there were imaginings, and hopings, and prayers on both sides that evening, expressing how lovely it would be to have a lifetime of evenings like that one.

There is much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, with this cease-fire. For every life saved, acts that are implied by but not expressly indicated in the terms of the agreement, we offer our thanks. Just as there is more behind a cup of coffee than we immediately perceive, so too with a cease-fire. Tens of thousands of families (and all of their friends across the globe) breathe easier, both in Israel and in Gaza, because of it.

There is much hard work ahead. The people must push their representatives to become disciples of Aaron, and to pursue peace. This is a complicated, even dangerous, path for leadership to take. And so those who have the most to gain from peace – among the Gazans, among the Israelis, among Americans, and among us who yearn for such a seemingly impossible but cherished goal, we must not let up in our calls for peace, not until our leaders turn and follow us.

On Facebook, a statement, issued by a group in January 2011 called “Gaza Youth Breaks Out,” has gone viral, meaning it’s become wildly popular. Representatives of “Gaza Youth Breaks Out, write, “We are a group of young people living in Gaza facing different kinds of violence everyday. We are looking for change in our country and are trying to taste peace.”

Here is a brief excerpt from their statement.

We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference. We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; we are sick and tired of being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas, and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

We are youth with heavy hearts.

We do not want to hate, we do not want to be victims anymore. Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart-aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians. This is not the future we want!

We want three things. We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace.

This is the Gazan youth’s manifesto for change!

We will work day and night in order to change these miserable conditions we are living under. We will build dreams where we meet walls.

We want to be free, we want to live, we want peace.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … our prayer on this Shabbat is a simple one. May these words — of young men and women who have been locked inside a cheerless parcel of land plagued forever by violence and captivity from cowardly leaders both inside and outside of their land — may these words, demanding a child’s right to grow up in a home that is safe and that prospers from joy and from love, may these words be on all our lips. May their prayer be our prayer. And may the day soon arrive, when we can embrace one another in celebration of an impossible dream … that has come true.

Into the Fold

I have a video Jonah made in which he (dramatically, and with a driving soundtrack, to boot) thanks a friend for teaching him how to fold t-shirts. We’ll not get into how he missed his parents’ instruction in that regard. The video ends with Jonah pointing to the mess in his t-shirt drawer and proclaiming, “This will end … <he pauses to consider what he’s saying> … next week. I will be putting your advice into effect come … <he again pauses> … whenever I get around to it.”

I’m not sure the t-shirt folding ever happened, but I know for a certainty that other folding did. Jonah was a big fan of origami and he was able to create some pretty fancy designs, including birds and elephants. I will treasure these forever.

Lots of stuff folds, of course. Flowers create exquisite designs when their petals fold. Mountains and valleys appear when earth folds. Sound is made as air folds. And solar power can be boosted when light folds.

Origami begins, simply and humbly, with a single piece of paper. Without scissors, tape or glue, astoundingly complicated designs “unfold.” What makes this such a fascinating art form is that no materials are added or subtracted. You end with what you began, only prettier.

At a macro level, all existence functions this way. Lavoisier’s 18th century discovery that matter is neither created nor destroyed suggests the universe isn’t so different from origami. Which means that you and I, in our eight or nine decades of life, also follow Lavoisier’s principle.

We change, but we stay the same. Our journey through life gives us folds, too. Wrinkles on our faces. Wrinkles on our souls. Same person, changed appearance and changed spirit. We fold, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished.

The Talmud relates a story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya and the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who asked him why God would place so much wisdom in such an ugly vessel. He instructed her to move her father’s finest wines into gold and silver vessels which, of course, spoiled the wine. When her father demanded an explanation, she told him what took place between her and Rabbi Yehoshua. The emperor summoned the rabbi and asked him, “Why did you tell her to do that?” Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he was simply answering her question. Just as wine is best preserved in humble vessels, so too is wisdom.

We may think our wrinkles, or other “imperfect” aspects of our bodies, detract from our value. But we mustn’t mistake the vessel for its contents. A person’s true worth resides within.

But it can take decades to acquire such wisdom. The book of Micah teaches us, “What is asked of you? To do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with God.” Our vessels are superbly equipped to accomplish these tasks.

It takes various amounts of time to fold that into our lives. Even knowing it, we delay (like Jonah and his t-shirts), leaving the drawer a mess. While folding t-shirts has limited (though certainly not insignificant) value, the origami of our lives can have purpose and value without end, creating exquisite art to be admired by us all.

Billy

This piece expands upon one that appeared in Makom, the newsletter of Woodlands Community Temple (Nov 2012).

Partners Across Time: Woody Guthrie and Malala Yousufzai

When I was a little kid, growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I remember that at Bond Hill Elementary School, in music class with Mrs. Bachs, we used to sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I’m afraid that, behind her back, we referred to Mrs. Bachs as “Old Battleaxe.” We couldn’t have articulated it at the time but I think we instinctively felt that while there had probably been a time in Mrs. Bachs’ life when she loved teaching children about music, that era had long passed by the time the sixth Dreskin (me) had arrived to her class. So I never found out how important a song “This Land Is Your Land” really was. To me, it was just some old American folksong that we had been forced to sing.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” could have told us that his song is about the America not too many people write songs about. It’s about racism and hunger and greed, about apathy and selfishness and irresponsibility. Of course, several key verses are usually removed from the song, making it sound like a love-song for America. Which it is. But sometimes love includes heartbreak, and Woody Guthrie was heartbroken that the America he loved could be so unkind and so unfair to so many.

You and I know lots of the words from “This Land Is Your Land.”

As I went walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway.
I saw below me that golden valley.
This land was made for you and me.

But how many of us have heard this verse?

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

Or this one:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

It’s a good thing Mrs. Bachs didn’t show us these words. She’d have had to talk with us about the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. She’d have had to talk about America’s poor and how people who wanted to work, and were willing to work hard, still couldn’t get jobs because there weren’t any.

Woody would have turned one hundred this past July 14, which means he was born in the year 1912. Woody Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs that have become an important contribution to the collection of American music, not because he was a great composer, but because he sang the poetry he wrote about the America he saw. It was how he spoke out, how he said what needed to be said, how he tried to encourage others to create change.

Woody wrote “This Land Is Your Land” after growing tiring of hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” one too many times on the radio. Woody thought there were other words that needed to be sung, and that he was going to have to be the person to do it. Here’s Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land.” His delivery isn’t exactly the rousing patriotic version we usually hear. And the missing verses aren’t back. But now you know what Woody’s intentions were.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaI5IRuS2aE]

Woody Guthrie had so much to say to us. He cared so deeply about America, and about Americans. He sang of desperation and hope, of hunger and of aspiration. And America heard him; America still hears him.

But Woody Guthrie’s voice isn’t the only one out there. Lots and lots of good people speak out each day about the world they’re witnessing. They see injustice and inequality, and they work to do something about it.

For literally thousands of years, the Jewish heritage has been encouraging us too to speak out, with words like, “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” This vital passage from the book of Deuteronomy (16:20) has, for thousands of years, challenged us to do what we can to see that people are cared for.

Three days ago (on October 9, 2012), we heard about a young woman in Pakistan who was attacked and seriously hurt because she thinks girls should be able to go to school. This is a big, big deal because educating anyone, anywhere, is a threat to people who want to run things without anyone challenging them. Educating girls doubles the number of people who are willing to take a stand.

About a year ago, at the age of only 13 or 14, this extraordinary young woman, Malala Yousufzai, was interviewed by CNN. Her words are fantastic. Her passion is inspiring.

Malala Yousufzai Interviewed on CNN (Nov 2011)

Can we do anything to help? Well, for starters, if we’re in elementary school (or high school, or even college!) we can stop grumbling about having to get up every morning to go and get an education. School is a game-changer, and educated people can transform the world. So kids, go get your education, and then get out there and do great stuff. Fix things that we’ve broken. It’s more important than just about anything else.

Secondly, we can support young people in Pakistan and elsewhere, people like Malala Yousufzai, who want to go to school. One-tenth of America’s foreign aid to Pakistan supports education. $170 million, chump change for the U.S. budget, that can change the world. Don’t let people tell you that America’s foreign aid is a waste of money.

Thirdly, we can visit The March for Education and sign the petition there demanding that the Pakistani government make good on its promise to educate (and protect) every child.

Lastly, send a few dollars to efforts that support Pakistani education. Do it for Malala Yousufzai. While she lays in her hospital bed, you and I can continue her vital work. The American Jewish World Service is targeting donations to provide relief and building projects throughout Pakistan. And The Citizens Foundation, USA, is a Pakistani-based organization seeking to improve the educational opportunities there.

A hundred years ago, Woody Guthrie brought us the gift of starting the work for social change by singing a song. Each of us has that song within us. It may or may not have musical notes. We may sing it through art, or through writing, through dance, or through political advocacy. Woody’s greatest hope was that we’d sing, anyway we can.

He’d have been so proud of Malala Yousufzai. And he’d probably have written a song about her. He’d certainly suggest that you and I do what we can to help.

Billy

Expectant Mother

I read a beautiful article in the New York Times (“An Adopted Boy Considers His Origins,” Melanie Braverman, New York Times Magazine, September 3, 2010) about a five-year old coming to terms with the story of his birth and adoption. He learned he was adopted when his older sister angrily lashed out at him with, “You didn’t come out of Mommy’s belly!” She was factually correct, and even stumbled into a pretty good choice of words (except the tone of delivery conveying a momentary desire to ruin his life). A bit later, arms wrapped around her little boy, the mom would quietly explain to him, “Some babies come out of their mommies, and some come through other bodies to get to their mommies.”

I adore these words. And while I’m sure others will find just the right way to share this important piece of information with their own child, this was such a loving and accessible way to convey the needed message.

It got me thinking.

This world of ours isn’t easy for anyone. Whether we’re born into poverty or with a silver spoon in our mouth, there will be moments when life hurts. Perhaps nothing more than a bee sting; perhaps an existential crisis. Perhaps the rise of destructive anti-governmental (or governmental) forces; perhaps we just miss someone we love.

Minor or major, if the pain is ours, it can be a big deal. We honor our b’rit – our covenant – with one another when we take seriously feelings that may be ours or someone else’s.

In the book of Deuteronomy there is a passage (28:3) which describes all the blessings that will come from following God’s mitzvot. One verse promises blessing ba-eer, “in the city.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 107a) cautions that city blessings come when we are part of our community, when we share our lives with others and let others share their life with us.

Religion’s greatest value is in its bringing people together to labor beside one another toward improving our lives and the lives of others. In this way, love awaits us like a mother awaits the arrival of her child. It doesn’t matter from where we’ve come; what matters is who’s there when we arrive.

Billy

This piece originally appeared in Makom, the newsletter of Woodlands Community Temple (Oct 2012).

Turning into the Rising Wind

This past February, on a family trip to Israel, we drove through the Hula Valley, an agricultural region up north that is especially fertile because of abundant fresh water. Our guide shared with us that the Hula Valley is a major stopover for birds migrating along the Syrian-African Rift between Africa, Europe, and Asia. Every year, 500 million birds migrate along that route.

500 million birds!

Israel has always been a major crossroads between great civilizations. In ancient times, Egypt to the southwest and Mesopotamia to the northeast would vie for control of this important corridor. But history always speaks of the human traffic. Who knew that birds followed this route as well?

The trip is 3400 miles long. To preserve their strength, the birds catch the thermals — rising masses of warm air — which occur only over land, helping them to stay aloft with minimal effort, also ensuring a place to rest and feed. Israeli bird watchers love this.

Israeli farmers not so much. 500 million birds consume a lot of produce. With the region responsible for so much of Israel’s agriculture, this little winged jaunt could be an economic crisis in the making.

So what did Israel do? They created restaurants. Restaurants for birds. And the birds have learned the routine. They know what time of day and they know the sound of the trucks and tractors that cart out the food. For example, in one area, 30,000 cranes are fed over four tons of corn each day.

This keeps the birds fed, and the crops uneaten. Clear across the Hula Valley.

Our lives are filled with challenges in search of solutions. These challenges can be most unsettling to our lives. They can threaten our well-being, and sometimes our lives. But perhaps we can learn something from Israel’s fluttering visitors and the farmers who see to them. Sometimes there are elegant, practical solutions available to us, even when the situation seems dire and overwhelming.

The month of Elul brings a forty-day period of time that includes the holiday of Selihot and, close on its tail, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These forty days arrive no less momentously than the 500 million avian visitors to Israel’s Hula Valley. The gift these days provide is to offer us time and ideas that gently encourage us to find solutions to the tests we face. And just as the birds of the Hula Valley are beholden to the farmers and their tractors which line the flight path, there are men and women (and sometimes children, and even dogs) whose love and support serve as our own “thermals,” helping us to stay aloft during the long flights that carry us from times of challenge to places of contentment and well-being.

Teshuvah – turning – is our goal during these forty days. With earnest effort, we can turn the corner on something of ours that’s in need of change. Our reward can be sizable: aery flight into new vistas of living that bring goodness and blessing to ourselves, and to all whom we encounter along the way.

Billy

Based on a Selihot thought shared at Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY (Sep 2012).

Munich 1972: Remembering for a Blessing

A story is told of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker rebbe (early 1800’s). The Kotzker once invited the distinguished Rabbi Yehiel Meir of Gostinin to blow the shofar in his synagogue. Rabbi Yehiel Meir came up to the bimah, picked up the shofar, pursed his lips, and lifted the shofar to his mouth. The Kotzker rebbe cried out, “Tekiya,” and, horror of horrors, Rabbi Yehiel Meir was suddenly struck with a case of dry-mouth. We’ve all seen it happen. He blew into the shofar, his face turned red, his eyes bulged out, and to what end? A little tiny peep of a tekiya was all that was heard.

Rabbi Yehiel Meir was crestfallen. After the service was over, the Kotzker rebbe came over to Rabbi Yehiel Meir and said, “Yasher Koach on your shofar blowing!” Yehiel Meir replied, “Rebbe, I know my playing wasn’t very good, but how can you make fun of me for it?” To which the great Kotzker rebbe responded, “Yehiel Meir. My friend. When a great person blows the shofar, even the tiniest peep of a tekiya is considered to be like the voices of the heavenly choir.”

Is that not our wish for all of living?

The quality of a tekiya is to be found not in the strength and clarity of the note, but rather in the strength of character and clarity of purpose which the baal tekiya, the shofar blower, pours into his labors. So too, the spirit and passion that go into our life’s efforts are far more important than any individual results. We applaud one another for being brave enough to pick up the shofar of our lives, to step up and give all we’ve got to adding our sound to the harmony of voices endeavoring to bring beauty and purpose into our world. Our tekiya may only be a peep … but, at that moment, it will be enough.

Forty years ago this past Tuesday (September 4), eleven athletes representing the state of Israel were brutally murdered by terrorists infiltrating the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Olympic Village had been specifically created to encourage an open and friendly atmosphere for the express purpose of counterbalancing memories of the militaristic image of the 1936 Olympics held in wartime Germany. Athletes easily came and went, allowing the terrorists to do so as well. German authorities had actually received a tip from a Palestinian informant three weeks beforehand, but the tip wasn’t acted upon, with disastrous results.

Forty years later, we’re asked what to do with these memories. During the London Olympics, requests for a minute of silence to honor the Israelies who died in 1972 were denied. So thousands of minutes were observed across the globe instead.

Tonight, we also observe the yahrzeit for those who died in the events of Sept 11, 2001. Eleven years after that tragic day, we’re still asking ourselves how to remember. With the opening of the 9/11 Memorial down at the World Trade Center, part of that question has been answered. But the larger question remains: Painful memories exist for us all. What do we do with those memories? Is it possible to honor them without letting them define us? Can we sing our songs of joy even while shedding tears of loss?

In this weekend’s Torah reading, Kee Tavo, we encounter a passage that’s familiar to us all:

When you enter the land that God is giving you, take some of first fruits which you harvest, carry them to God’s temple, give them to the kohen in charge and say to him, “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there, and in time became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us, imposing heavy labor upon us. We cried out to the God of our fathers and mothers, who heard our plea and witnessed our misery. Then God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, bringing us to to a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut 26:1-9)

Contained in these words, I believe, is the answer to our question of what to do with painful memories. Surely, the years of Egyptian enslavement were as brutal as any experienced by a subjugated people. Three thousand years later, we could still harbor resentment and bitterness for the treatment accorded our ancestors. But our tradition chose differently. Instead of resentment, we chose to adopt a philosophy and lifestyle that took note of injustice anywhere – not merely within our own communities – and that tradition has challenged us to act for fairness and peace.

Three thousand years later, the descendants of those Israelite slaves stood on the front lines of the battle for racial equality in the 1950s and 60s, they stood on the front lines of the battle for gender equality in the 1970s, and they now stand on the front lines of the battle for LGBT equality today.

We don’t merely stand up for religious freedom for Jews, but religious freedom for Muslims and Sikhs and Christians.

And while we stand up for Israel’s right to live in peace, we yearn for her neighbors, the Palestinians, to know peace as well – not simply because that would be good for Israel, but because it would be good for Palestinian children, and Palestinian grandparents, and Palestinian moms and dads, too.

The 19th century author and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale wrote: “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and [just] because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

Forty years ago, eleven young men were murdered because of the heritage they share with you and me. Three thousand years ago, something a lot like that happened in ancient Egypt. And so it has gone throughout history. But like the tiny but mighty peep that emerged from Rabbi Yehiel Meir’s shofar, we will not relinquish our passion for life, our passion for justice, because of pervasive injustice. Instead, so long as we are able, we will do as much good as we can – for one another, for our neighbors, even for those who are not yet our friends.

Why? Because we know what it’s like to feel the sting of the whip, the butt of the rifle. And no matter what, our commitment to creating a world that is just and fair and kind will never flag.

This is what a synagogue is all about. If you happen to be looking for one, make sure it’s not too easy to belong, that it challenges you, along with building a strong life and family, to build a strong community and a strong world, as well.

What We Do With A Great Sorrow

It’s been a tough few weeks. A terrorist’s bomb took the lives of five Israelis vacationing in Bulgaria. A lone gunman took twelve more at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. We’ve responded with horror to the news, bereft for the families and friends whose lives have been dealt such a cruel blow by these murders. At the same time, we offer a quiet prayer of thanks that our own loved ones are out of harm’s way. It’s what we do when tragedy unfolds nearby.

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

At sundown, Jews across the world began the annual commemoration of Tisha b’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day on which both Jerusalem Temples fell and our people, those who survived the bloodbath which accompanied those invasions, were sent into exile, banished from their homes and their homeland, first for sixty years, then for two thousand.

Tisha b’Av arrives as we grieve for our dead in Bulgaria and Colorado. It is also the eve of the London Olympics where, amidst the anticipation and the excitement of the games, a request to observe a minute of silence for eleven Israeli athletes murdered in the Munich Olympics forty years ago was denied by the International Olympic Committee. The political motivations for turning down the request are not my focus here. What moves me is the families of those athletes who, forty years later, still mourn for their children, for their husbands, for their fathers and grandfathers. Grief is not something one checks off a to-do list then moves on to groceries or repairing the roof. Grief can be a lifelong process. Ant it’s not without its own risks. That’s what I want to focus on here.

When my son Jonah died in 2009, I felt as if my entire body had been wrapped in some kind of gauze — light, breathable, but nearly opaque. I could see and hear the world around me, but it had become muffled. I was present, but not fully. Throughout the days following his death, I stumbled through my waking hours, holding onto my family, aware that this community was taking care of us, but lost in the unreality of having to bury my child.

Three years later, most of the gauze has been lifted. My family has recently launched The Jonah Maccabee Foundation, whose aim is to empower young people to create good, whole lives for themselves. It’s an exciting project, with the possibility of doing some real good in the world. At the same time, it takes the grief we continue to feel for Jonah and turns it away from its previous focus on “what was,” and redirects it toward an emphasis on “what can be.” I have no doubt that, in the aftermath of Jonah’s death, I could have stepped away from my life and spent all of my energies on him no longer being here. With the creation of this foundation, it’s not that I’ve stopped grieving, only that I’ve begun channeling it in a new direction.

Sadly, tragedy touches most of our lives. If not a family member, then someone we know well, dies before their time. Illness and job loss can feel like tragedy as well. And when the worst that life can throw our way … does so … we’re faced with a changed game, and a hard choice as to how we’ll proceed. Some of us are able to carry on. Others, not so much.

Cleveland, OH, honoring the lives of David Berger and the ten other Israeli athletes murdered by terrorists in Munich 1972. The sculpture represents the Olympic rings, broken into pieces.

One of the Israeli athletes who competed as a weightlifter in Munich, David Berger, grew up in my former congregation in Cleveland. David’s parents were active members and I, a very young rabbi at the time, would catch myself staring at them, wondering how they managed, utterly unaware that one day their shoes would be mine. Today, forty years after the Munich massacre, David Berger is still remembered with love and affection in the Cleveland community and in parts of Israel. There are two BBYO chapters that bear his name, as well as the weight room in his old high school. And a street in Ashkelon, Israel, is named after him.

David’s parents endeavored to take the unthinkable and to use it as a power for good. Our family is trying to do the same. As are countless others, forced into a state of shock by an unexpected tragedy and, when strong enough to do so, determined not to allow that tragedy to become a defeat. Instead, again and again, loved ones take their tragedy, by the throat if necessary, and — whether to keep from losing the vitality in our own lives, or to try and wrest some meaning from the senseless death imposed on someone we love — create something good. It is as if to say, “This person’s life meant so much more than their death. This is the kind of thing they would have done if they were still here.”

The Dubner Maggid tells a parable of a king who owned a beautiful diamond. It was an extraordinary jewel, of rare quality and of which he was justly proud, for it had no equal anywhere. But one day, the diamond sustained a deep scratch. The king summoned the most skilled cutters, offering them a great reward if they could remove the blemish. But none was able to repair the jewel. After some time, a gifted craftsman came before the king, and promised to make the diamond even more beautiful than it had been before. The king entrusted his precious stone into the craftsman’s care. And the man kept his word. With superb artistry, he engraved upon that jewel, around and through the damage it sustained, the loveliest rosebud. He used the scratch … to make the stem.

Life can bruise us. Wound us. Scratch us deeply. It did so to the families of those who died on a vacation bus in Bulgaria. It did so to the families of those who died at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. It did so to the families of those who were murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972. It did so to my family. It has done so to many of yours.

But our great talent as human beings is in our resiliency and our determination. We cannot remove the lacerations endured when life has gone wrong. But we can, if strong enough, work with them to fashion a new design, one of beauty and of charm. Many an enchanting rose has drawn our attention. How many of those exquisite lives do you think bear as well a deep scratch which tells a sadder tale?

On this Tisha b’Av, this day of remembrance, so many losses come to mind. Some reside more permanently in our hearts, but all move us to sadness, to heartache. Time may lighten the heaviness of these memories, but there will always be moments when we immerse once again into our grief for those we’ve lost.

Tonight, the Olympic games in London have begun. They’ve done so without providing a minute to remember those who died there forty years ago. So let us do the remembering for a minute now. Life will go on. Joy will continue. But in balance with what once was, and now is gone. As it must be.

Billy