Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Panim El Panim

Do you know what he said when they asked Uncle Jeffrey (as we know him in our house, but most everyone else knows him as Rabbi Jeff Sirkman) who he’d like them to commission to write a piece of music honoring him for his 36 years as spiritual leader of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY?

“Uncle Billy.”

Yep, he’s one of my closest friends. My kids call him Uncle Jeffrey and his kids call me Uncle Billy. Just the same, his temple leadership wondered if maybe he wanted them to hire someone with a more proven track record.

“Nope. I want Billy Dreskin to write a song for me. And I want Beged Kefet to sing it.”

“But Uncle Jeffrey,” I fruitlessly explained, “Beged Kefet stopped performing more than a decade ago!” Jeffrey was adamant so I agreed to ask. And surprise surprise, everyone said yes.

But now I was in big trouble. Receiving a music commission is a big deal. I had to come through.

I asked Ellen if she would work on the lyrics with me and, thank God, she said yes. In a few days I came up with a starter idea for the music but before we set our minds to finding the words, I needed to do some research. I asked Jeffrey to send me his favorite sermons and bulletin articles which I combed through searching for common themes and motives, settling on an idea that he came back to again and again:

“Punim to punim.”

That’s Boshkenazic (Ashkenazic Hebrew with a Boston accent) for “face to face.” Throughout Jeffrey’s rabbinate, he’s always been about “meeting,” about people coming together. Whether family, friend, neighbor or stranger, Jeffrey believes that we actualize our best selves when we connect compassionately and whole-heartedly with others. Including with ourselves!

And that was plenty to get us going. Ellen and I started crafting verses, which inspired more music, which led the way to more words. It took a few weeks of shuttle diplomacy (Ellen in her study downstairs and me in mine upstairs). In time, we created a piece that we felt was perfect for honoring our friend.

I arranged the music for Beged Kefet to sing, joined by Larchmont Temple’s Cantor Katie Oringel along with her volunteer choir and temple band. Parts were distributed and rehearsals were arranged.

Beged Kefet met a month before, not only singing Panim El Panim together for the first time but ANYTHING for the first time since February 2009. What a treat to gather with these longtime friends and prepare this incredibly special gift, a gift for Uncle Jeffrey and a gift for ourselves.

On Friday, November 17, 2023, we joined Jeffrey and Katie on their bimah at Larchmont Temple and, along with 700 or so other guests, sang our little hearts out. This was the first time he had heard the song but when Jeff then got up to speak, he began his words with “punim to punim.” Guess Ellen and I chose right (even if he does pronounce it wrong).

The only thing left to do was to get into the studio and mix the raw tracks from that night and make sure it was sync’d properly with the video stream (which has a bunch of glitches in it but we were able to get the music to work just fine).

And here you have it. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Beged Kefet — live!

Hope you like it,
Billy

P.S. The mp3 recording and sheet music (lead sheet and instrumental parts) are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/panim-el-panim). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

P.P.S. If you want to learn more about Beged Kefet, visit https://www.billydreskin.net/or-zarua where I tell the whole story. You’ll also find links there to hear Beged Kefet’s three albums.

Or Zarua

Talk about taking your time! I first worked on this piece in 1981, but I didn’t finish it until 2022.

When I first wrote Or Zarua, it was performed by Beged Kefet in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school (1982-83). Beged Kefet was a singing group. We started out as a community-service project, fulfilling Hebrew Union College’s mandate that each student, during our year in Israel, give something back to the country that was hosting us. I joined some friends who chose to give back through music. Thus, Beged Kefet began. The group included (Rabbi-to-be) me, (Cantor-to-be) Ellen, (Rabbi-to-be) Les Bronstein, (Cantor-to-be) Benjie Ellen Schiller, (Educator-to-be) Kyla Epstein and (Rabbi-to-be) David Wolfman. We performed at sites all over Israel like block parties and new immigrant absorption centers, and occasionally at our alma-mater-to-be, Hebrew Union College.

Beged Kefet in our heyday (1999)

Where did we get the name Beged Kefet? Well, first you need to know that it’s a very common Hebrew mnemonic taught to Israeli children in their elementary school grammar classes. “Beged Kefet” indicates the six Hebrew letters that, when they appear at the beginning of a word, receive an added dot (a dagesh) to modify its sound. We chose the name to give our mainly Hebrew-speaking audiences a heads-up that they’d need to be somewhat patient with us as we attempted to speak and perform in our second, their first, language.

When we returned to America, we kept the group, kept the name, added more music, and performed together for another 26 years. Our personnel adjusted slightly because Kyla and David finished their studies in another city, so our ranks were replenished by the addition of (Cantor-to-be) Leon Sher and (Cantor-to-be) Riki Lippitz, and our consiglieri Beth Sher (every band needs an attorney who can sing).

Or Zarua was performed many times during our year in Israel and, before we returned stateside in the Spring of 1983, we made an informal recording of it. Here you can listen to me, Ellen, Les, Benjie, Kyla and David singing it in its original form.

Beged Kefet would record three albums during the years that followed: The First Album, Go Out in Joy, and One Little Dot. But Or Zarua appeared on none of them. Why? Because I never finished writing it. In fact, we never again performed it … until the new recording below.

The text of Or Zarua is lovely. It comes from the 97th Psalm. “Or zarua la’tzadik ul’yishrei lev simcha … light is sown for the righteous and the upright of heart.”

I knew there needed to be another section of music for the song to be complete and I’m not sure why but it would be 40 years before I noticed that the very next verse of Psalm 97 would fit perfectly: “Simchu tzadikim b’Adonai v’hodu l’zecher kodsho … the deeds of the righteous celebrate God; every kindness radiates holiness!” That’s not an exact translation but one, I believe, that conveys the beauty of the text.

A bit more about the text.

If you’ve met me in my work as a rabbi, you likely know that while God is very much at the center of my faith, it’s not a literal belief. I don’t know that God actually exists, but I choose to believe in God because it helps me organize the principles by which I try to live my life. I like thinking that the universe wants us to be good to each other. I also like thinking that the universe feels the goodness that radiates from our acts of love and generosity. Less necessary to me is the notion that the universe will reward us for being good to each other. Frankly, if that’s why we’re doing good things, we’ve already missed the point.

In this video I made with Or Zarua as the score, I’ve provided lots of visual examples of people who are being kind and generous and selfless. They’re being the kind of people that I, in my better moments, would like to be. These are the people who bring light into our world. Light is not only “sown” for them, but they have “sown” light for all of us.

And you know what I say to that? God bless them all!

Ellen and I recorded Or Zarua with our dear friends, The Levins (Ira Levin and Julia Bordenaro), in June 2022. I added a fifth voice — a cello — to join the four of us as a quintet.

Hope you like it.

Billy

The sheet music (lead sheet and/or instrumental parts) is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/or-zarua). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Fix the World – Try Not to Get Swallowed

“Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram” by Gustav Dore (1832–1883)

“The ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions.” (Numbers 16:31-32)

Rebellion sure does get a bad rap in the Torah.

Perhaps the condemnation was well-deserved. After all, Korach gathered two hundred and fifty well-positioned leaders of the Israelite community to challenge Moses and Aaron’s leadership. “Why do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” they railed. (Num. 16:3)

Midrash Tanchuma (Korach 4) blames it on nepotism. “If you have taken royal rank for yourself, you should at least not have chosen the priesthood for your brother — it is not you alone who have heard at Sinai, ‘I am Adonai your God.’ All the congregation heard it!”

Sforno thinks Korach’s 250 followers infiltrated the crowds that awaited meetings with Moses, seeking to incite them. Then, when Korach besieged Moses and Aaron, he would have a sympathetic, if not outright zealous, entourage.

Ibn Ezra perceived Korach, in a lie worthy of Donald Trump, as accusing the brothers of political corruption and greed. Granted, we only know what we read in the Torah, but it sure seems to me that the Israelites would have been hard-pressed to find two more selfless servants of God.

But none of that is actually in the Torah. All we know is that Korach rebelled. So why don’t we sympathize with, rather than spurn, Korach? After all, we ourselves live in a nation that embraces the right, even the responsibility, of public protest. Is that not an important demonstration of the freedom of expression and dissent upon which this nation was founded? “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (1st Amendment, U.S. Constitution) If we value having the right to say what’s on our mind, why not accord this same right to Korach?

We are certainly living through (please, God, let it be “through” and not just “in”) an era of rampant rebellion. Here in the United States, we continue watching in embarrassment and disbelief and profound concern as Donald Trump twists the truth to his own ends, while his opportunist supporters of a stolen election continue to dismiss the hateful violence of January 6, 2021, in order to ride the populist wave to their own election victories. As distasteful a person as Trump is, what roils me even moreso is that he lies about it, and he lies so boisterously that people don’t think twice about believing him.

Now add to this equation Anti-Vaxxers, Pizzagate, the 9/11 Conspiracy, the Sandy Hook Elementary School Conspiracy, and The Great Replacement theory.

There is a widespread proliferation these days of made-up tales regarding myriad issues. And while such balderdash has been around throughout American history (think Salem witch trials, the Illuminati, and McCarthyism), it is perhaps cable television and social media that have made the ridiculous into truly frightening threats. As we all witnessed on January 6, 2021, the wide reach of conspiracy theorists enabled a gathering of like-minded, ill-informed people to break down the doors of the U.S. Capitol and place the integrity of our entire democracy at risk in their attempt to disrupt the election process.

The lesson is clear: People who are in a position that commands the respect and allegiance of a multitude, they have a particular responsibility to refrain from abusing that position.

While it’s difficult to get a complete and accurate read from the Torah of what exactly transpired when Korach stood against Moses and Aaron, it seems (in my opinion) as if Korach’s sin was not that he rebelled but that he used his position of considerable influence to manipulate and exploit those who looked up to him. Great Torah Study discussions often leave much unresolved but, in the end, we should walk away with a strengthened understanding of how we can help make the world a safer, kinder home for everybody.

So here’s what Korach’s story is saying to me: If you’re going to rebel, make sure you do so for the right reasons.

Andrée Geulen holding two of the children she saved

Which brings me to Andrée Geulen, who was a schoolteacher in Brussels, Belgium, during World War II.

Upon invading and occupying the country in 1940, the Nazis deported and murdered 25,000 of Belgium’s 65,000 Jews. Among the many laws imposed during the occupation, Jews were required to wear yellow stars on their clothing. Geulen, who was teaching primary-grade children in a boarding school at the time, distributed aprons to all of her students in order to cover the stars that had been forced upon her fearful Jewish students.

This was only the beginning for Andrée Geulen. Soon, she was enlisted and became one of very few non-Jewish members of the Committee for the Defense of Jews. From 1943 to 1944, she sought out Jewish families and pleaded with them to let her take their children and place them in hiding for the duration of the war. Amazingly, she was able to save the lives of three hundred Jewish children.

After the Holocaust, Geulen became involved with the relief organization Aid for Israelite Victims of the War, seeking to reunite with their families as many of these “hidden children” as possible.

In 2007, Andrée Geulen was awarded honorary Israeli citizenship. During the ceremony at Yad Vashem, Geulen said, “What I did was merely my duty. Disobeying the laws of the time was just the normal thing to do.” (“Woman Honored for Saving Kids from Nazis,” Associated Press, April 18, 2007)

This was the rebellion of Andrée Geulen.

People in positions of prominence and power usually don’t like rebels. They’re often a nuisance and, whether they’re correct in their grievances or not, they’re a threat to the status quo. In my own career as a rabbi, I was from time to time on the receiving end of a few rebellions having to do with our B’nai Mitzvah program, the temple budget, and even what was served at the Friday night Oneg. And if these don’t sound very significant to you, try to imagine what it might feel like to have someone publicly and forcefully excoriate you and your team. I actually preferred it when they were right and we could apologize and implement the proper corrections. That was far preferable to having to mount a campaign that would publicly and forcefully demonstrate our innocence.

In the end, public dissent is a vital ingredient to the preservation of freedom. And when freedom has been squashed, it’s a vital ingredient to the sacred work of restoring freedom. Amanda Gorman writes, “The point of protest isn’t winning — it’s holding fast to the promise of freedom, even when fast victory is not promised.” (“Fury and Faith,” Amanda Gorman, Call Us What We Carry, Viking Books, December 2021)

But there’s a fragile line between righteous protest and self-serving manipulation.

Donald Trump represents one of these. Andrée Geulen represents the other. She died just last month at the age of one hundred. Her memory and the legacy of her rebellion will always be for a blessing.

This piece was originally published online by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The Owner of the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s on your list?

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

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

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

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

My favorite list!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy new year. Shabbat shalom.

Billy

With Another Quarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

In case you didn’t know, it’s the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, a time when most Jewish families are thinking about, well, probably nothing having to do with the High Holy Days. Including this Labor Day weekend, it seems to be a time to squeeze out the very last minutes of summer fun and relaxation.

Rabbis and cantors, on the other hand, are pretty much thinking about nothing BUT the High Holy Days. There is music to prepare, sermons to be written, and a thousand other preparatory activities that must get done before any of you set foot in the tent next Sunday evening.

Let me give you one small example of how this season affects clergy. On Facebook (you know, where all serious work gets done), we Reform rabbis have a page all our own. It’s a place to discuss Torah, Talmud, and contemporary issues of import. This week, amidst the intense laboring to prepare our sermons, this most crucial posting was placed by a rabbi I know. He asked: What’s a “fun fact” that’s actually fun?

And that’s all it took. Dozens of rabbis, all with way more important things to do, began chiming in. Responses included:

• Ducks are the fastest flying birds.
• Your ears never stop growing.
• In Switzerland, it is illegal to own just one guinea pig.
• During our lifetime, each of us will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
• Escalators never actually break, they just become stairs.

I know you’re impressed by the width and breadth of knowledge that rabbis possess. You simply have no idea! By the way, I can’t verify that any of these are accurate, except maybe that broken escalators are stairs. I did learn that ducks are not the fastest flying birds. While the swiftest duck may clock in as high as 100 mph, the peregrine falcon flies double that!

All of this is to say: One never knows how someone is going to spend their summer vacation. Sure, there may be trips to exotic locales and sunbathing at the local pool, but those aren’t necessarily summer’s most indelible moments.

My summers, by the way, like yours, aren’t all vacation (tho I do remember those sublime years of youth when nothing needed to be accomplished between the last day of school in the spring and the first day back in the fall). My summer, slowed down as it was, included a half dozen funerals during which I was honored to share in the sacred act of saying goodbye to someone who was well-loved and will be much-missed. It’s always a privilege to be invited into these private, intimate, holy moments in people’s lives.

Other significant moments in my life this summer have included:

• Presiding over the demise of my kitchen stove and oven, during which Ellen and I had much fun picking out new appliances, but not quite so much fun having to spend lots of money hiring a carpenter to modify drawers and cupboards that no longer opened because the new units obstructed things deep inside our cabinetry. The lesson: Home ownership is really satisfying except when, like an aging body, it requires surprise visits and expenditures to keep things running.

• Speaking of which, earlier this summer I thought I was going deaf in one ear but, upon visiting the ENT doctor, I learned just how much wax can build up inside there. The lesson: Try to stop being so dramatic about physical demise. While we’re all definitely disintegrating, it’s probably happening at a much slower rate that we think.

• I got to visit my two now-pretty-well-grown children. Katie is married and an art educator living in Montpelier, Vermont. This summer, she returned to Eisner Camp after a 10-year hiatus, where she taught yoga, meditation and, of course, art. Aiden has gone what they call “adulting,” moving to Denver this summer, getting himself five part-time jobs, an apartment, and even a new dentist! The lesson: All that love we gave our kids when they were young? It really does serve as the foundation for them building lives that are vibrant, healthy and satisfying. And I have to say, I’m happier for my kids now than any report card or school concert ever made me feel!

• Lastly, bringing it all together, there’s Mars. Throughout June, July and August, the red planet came nearer to our earth than usual. Mostly residing about 140 million miles from Times Square, this summer Mars almost made it all the way up to Westchester, coming 100 million miles closer than ever! But what was most profound for me was that no matter where I was this summer: Massachusetts, Colorado or New York, there was Mars, shining brilliantly in the night sky. The lesson: Everything is connected, no one is alone, and we are all part of the same magnificent, unfolding story.

So while, yes, the White House continues to give us reasons to wonder if civilization is rapidly coming to an end, there remains so much that is good in our world. And even while we fret – concerned for immigrant children still living apart from their parents, Russian meddling in our democratic elections, genocide in Myanmar, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and rampant gun violence – we can also rejoice – 12 boys and their coach successfully rescued after 17 days stuck in a cave in Thailand, the World Cup bringing us all together in global competition marked by shared friendship and excitement that transcended all ethnic and nationalist demarcations and, since the year 2000, 1.2 billion additional human beings on the planet have gained access to electricity, one of the first steps out of poverty.

There is still much reason to rejoice.

In this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, we read (in Deut 26:11) Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to conclude their 40 years of desert wandering and enter the Promised Land: “V’samakhta v’khol ha’tov asher natan lakh … you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.” This foundational value, shared as they readied themselves to go to war, serves as a profound reminder to us that human existence isn’t for the purpose of suffering; it’s to build lives that mean something, that provide sustenance and safety for all people, and ultimately to love and to laugh and to luxuriate in the simple joys of being able to have a place to live, enjoy one’s family, and even to chuckle at fun facts shared while avoiding matters of responsibility.

So I’ll leave you with two more fun facts and a wish.

1st fun fact: Banging your head against a wall for one hour burns 150 calories.

My wish: There are an infinite number of ways that we can spend the time allotted to us on this earth. Some of it should be spent helping make things better for everyone. And some of it should probably be spent fretting about how bad things are. But not only is it vital that we spend time with people we love and in activities we love, we ought also avoid, as much as possible, uselessly banging our heads against a wall, even if someone tries to convince us there’s a benefit in it.

The Israelites understood that joy was a fundamental component to life, and that all are commanded to enjoy, and to ensure others can do the same. From the dawn of Creation, a bounty has been bestowed upon us. It would be mean-spirited to squander that.

2nd fun fact: 7% of all Americans actually believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d bet it wouldn’t surprise many of you to learn it is (the 7% believing, I mean). This big, beautiful world of ours is filled with the full spectrum of humanity, including a few (what’s 7% of 325 million?) who think some pretty strange stuff. As the month of Elul nears its finishing line and we prepare to meet in the tent next Sunday to greet the New Year, may we embrace all of our human family, chuckling at those who subscribe to fun facts that are much more fun than fact, all the while extending our love and our compassion even to those from whom we differ immensely. Let’s resolve to make this New Year 5779 one of goodness, kindness, understanding, and the simple delight that comes from sharing the most magnificent fun fact of all: life.

That’s how I spent my summer vacation.

Ketivah v’khatimah tovah … may all soon be inscribed for blessing and peace. Shabbat shalom.

Billy

Father’s Day: Contemplating American & Immigrant Dads

As I wrap up a perfectly lovely and loving Father’s Day, my children are nowhere nearby but I have had wonderful phone conversations and know that they are well.

Before I can put this day to bed, I feel compelled to comment on the terrible coincidence of Father’s Day and the horrors unfolding at our borders. As the Trump administration pursues its zero-tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings, 2000 terrified children have been torn away from the arms of their parents.

A bit of bible, since our Attorney General thinks that’s a good way to justify thuggery. It was only last week that we read (in parashat Sh’lakh L’kha, Num 14:18) how God will visit the sins of the parents upon their children. I suppose I can understand how some might (arrogantly and insolently) believe they are God’s representatives on earth and therefore empowered to go after someone’s kids. But I know of no religious tradition that wouldn’t do everything it can to AVOID having children suffer for a parent’s actions. Judaism interprets the verse above as meaning that “sin” serves as a metaphor for a parent’s values — these are what will be transmitted to the next generations, and if our values are “sinful” (ie, mean and hurtful), that’s how a parent’s sins are visited upon their children.

We Americans need to be very careful what we’re teaching our children right now.

The terrible policies this administration has unleashed on innocent children must end, and soon. Not one but two populations of children are at risk: immigrant children whose parents only want to reach the safety of American shores, and our own children who are watching these events and who, if we’re not careful, will think that this is how Americans are supposed to behave.

As the sun sets on this Father’s Day, let us act quickly to restore justice and compassion to our national policies, so that no more children are taken from their parents, and our own children’s children will not have to suffer the sinful actions of their parents and grandparents.

Billy

P.S. You can take action online through the Religious Action Center.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection​ Placement Center in Nogales AZ

Where Was God Then? Where Is God Now?

A horrific story of the Holocaust to share with you. Many of you will know it. Young people might not. But it describes just one small, terrible moment during which only three people died, which was pretty benign for genocide. All you have to do is multiply this moment two million times, and that gets you six million Jewish lives murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

Here’s the story.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains— and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. A sign from the head of the camp. The deed was done. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third, he was too light; the child was still alive. For more than half an hour, he died so slowly under our eyes. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”

The story appears in Night, a book written by Elie Wiesel describing his experiences as a sixteen-year old in Auschwitz. I first read Night when I was sixteen. Beyond the horror of that specific event, I often wondered deeply about Wiesel’s question, “Where is God?” What did it mean that God was hanging on those gallows? Was God then dead? I’ll come back to that.

First, come with me to a country that I imagine few of us have visited. It was once known as Burma. Today it’s also called Myanmar. It sits between China and India, with neighbors that include Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh. Late this past August, Muslim militants in Myanmar staged coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base. 59 insurgents and 12 members of Myanmar security forces were killed. It represented an escalation of a conflict that had been simmering there since October 2016. For about a year, military sweeps against these insurgents were frequently followed by allegations of serious human rights abuses. Of Myanmar’s 51 million citizens, the treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya had emerged as predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s most contentious human rights issue. At that time, Reuters had reported their concern that the conflict might spark even more aggressive army responses and trigger communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

Within days (perhaps hours) of those 30 coordinated attacks, on Aug 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked upon a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people. The Burmese army responded with what has been described as disproportionate violence, indiscriminate shooting, setting entire villages aflame, and violent assualts against women. Since last August, nearly 3/4 million Rohingya have fled their homes and made a perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. Those who remained in Myanmar now live in danger of starvation and continued attacks.

The Burmese government denies that it’s carrying out human rights crimes against the Rohingya people. But it’s also prevented journalists, aid organizations, and U.N. officials from entering the Rakhine State, a long coastal region that borders the Indian Ocean, where the Rohingya reside, for any kind of follow-up investigation. The only available information has come from refugees who’ve fled to Bangladesh. Those reports have prompted U.N. Special Reporter Yanghee Lee to state that violent actions of Burmese military against the Rohingya present the “hallmarks of a genocide.” Other U.N. human rights experts have shared that the evidence “points at human rights violations of the most serious kind, in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law.”

Who are these Rohingya people? They are a Muslim ethnic group that has lived in Burma for centuries. Before the violence and exodus of refugees this fall, there were an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya living in Burma. Most of them resided in the western Rakhine State, where historians trace their roots back as early as the 12th century. But throughout those centuries, the Rohingya people have long endured a history of persecution in Burma. Today, the Burmese government won’t even call them “Rohingya,” instead labeling them as illegal Bengali immigrants. They’ve been denied citizenship in Burma since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. Their rights to work, travel, marry, and access health services are severely restricted, resulting in the Rohingya community becoming one of poorest and most oppressed in Burma.

The refugee settlements in Bangladesh that shelter some 600,000 people currently earns it the unwanted honor of having become the largest refugee camp in the entire world. 60% of those being sheltered there are women and girls, a large number of whom are malnourished. This month’s approaching monsoon season promises to make life there even more unbearable, with the U.N. reporting that 100,000 refugees are at risk from landslides and floods, as well as waterborne diseases that will be carried into camps already overpopulated and lacking proper sanitation, with one hospital facility for every 130,000 people.

A dire situation indeed, and probably one about which you’ve heard very little.

Return to the years of the Shoah for a moment. From 1933 to 1939, nearly 400,000 Jews fled Nazi Germany and Austria due to mounting physical violence and targeted legal repression. During that time, before the atrocities of the Holocaust were in highest gear, international authorities, including our U.S. government, were slow to speak out. And of those who did flee, most were caught and murdered as the Nazi war machine overwhelmed Europe. By war’s end, fully 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population – six million men, women and one million children – was annihilated.

But here’s something worth mentioning. Between the years of 1939 and 1945, in the Republic of Albania, across the Adriatic Sea east of Italy, the Jewish population of only 200 grew ten-fold to 2000. Albania, you see, was one of very few countries that kept its doors open to Jewish refugees. And of those 2000, except for a single family, none died. Yes, the numbers are modest, but their success – rescuing more that 99% of those who had turned to them for help – is in no way modest.

And one more thing: Albania was, and to this day remains, predominantly Muslim.

Here’s what happened. The Nazis occupied Albania in September 1943. When Adolf Eichmann called for the Final Solution to be implemented there, the Albanian response was a uniform one: “Besa.” Besa is a word that means “faith,” or “to keep the promise,” “word of honor.” It reflects the Albanian Muslim idea that when you have welcomed a guest into your home, you provide that guest every kindness and honor, withholding nothing, including, if need be, the protection of their lives. This concept extended beyond the walls of their homes to include the very borders of their nation. So when the Nazis came hunting for Jews, Albanian Muslims embarked upon an ambitious national project: to hide every one of them (including the additional 1800 souls who had sought refugee status there). Two thousand Jewish men, woman and children were protected. And except for a single family, two thousand survived.

So during the Shoah, there were Muslims who rescued Jews. Perhaps now, we can do something for the Muslims of Myanmar?

This past February, the Jewish Rohingya Action Network was founded. Its aim is to create a united response to this crisis. Thus far, it has mobilized 72 American Jewish organizations, and 248 rabbis and communal leaders, who together have written and proposed that the United States Senate pass The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act which would increase humanitarian aid, establish U.S. sanctions against the Burmese military, and create mechanisms to help provide accountability for crimes committed against the Rohingya people and other minorities in Burma.

As a significant aside, on March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington took back its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They did so based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, ethnic cleansing happening in her country. Too small a consequence for her heinous behavior, but at least it’s a consequence.

The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act (S.2060) was introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). This bipartisan bill would promote democracy and human rights in Burma, implement sanctions against ethnic cleansing practices taking place there, and hopefully begin to restore human rights for ethnic minorities still in Burma and those who would like to come back home. Here’s one place where you can play a role in stopping ethnic murder in Myanmar. We’ve placed a link at wct.org/burmahumanrights for you to urge our own senators Schumer and Gillibrand to support this bill.

You can also donate to the American Jewish World Service’s efforts to deliver humanitarian aid into those refugee camps in Bangladesh by visiting ajws.org/donate/rohingya.

You and I can’t stop genocide by ourselves. But as Rabbi Tarfon taught, “We are each obliged to do something.” And on this Shabbat Yom HaShoah, as we remember those of our own families who were forgotten or ignored in their cries for help, if we can do something to honor their memories, don’t you think this would be that something?

During and after the Holocaust, the question has been asked, “Where was God?” Many have abandoned their faith because their answer to this question was either “God chose not to help” or “There is no God.” May I humbly suggest another response to this question? Where was God during the Holocaust? God was indeed there. God was right there in Albania, when those Albanian Muslims opened their doors and their borders to save the lives of ten times their Jewish population. And where is God now, during the genocide in Burma? God is right here, with you and me, when we open our hearts, when we open our wallets, and when we open our consciences, refusing to stand idly by while the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar are terrorized by an uncaring, brutal and, thus far, unaccountable government of Burma.

On this Shabbat Yom HaShoah, on this Holocaust Remembrance Shabbat, let us remember. Let us remember loved ones forever lost because of the Nazi genocide. Let us honor their memories by doing what we can to prevent a new genocide in our own generation. The cry of “Never Again” is not just for the Jewish people to survive, but for us to ensure that survival is made available to all peoples, that never again will the world stand silently by, that God will never again be permitted to die on the gallows … anywhere.

This is how the memory of the Holocaust, of our six million dead, can be honored.

Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

 


A version of this sermon has been published online by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism at https://rac.org/blog/2018/04/20/where-was-god-then-where-god-now.

Mentors

The big news for me this week was the resignation of Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It appears that not only did her personal investments present a conflict of interest – not cool for one of this nation’s top health officials to be picking health stocks that make it appear as if she’s got an inside track on where to make money – but she was also investing in tobacco companies! The head of our nation’s leading national public health advocate is fine building her nest egg on the backs of people suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, loss of vision, and stroke.

Now, in all fairness to Dr. Fitzgerald, she probably knew that I was going to speak about mentors this week and sacrificed herself to provide us with a stellar example of how not to be a role-model for others.

By the way, lest you should think Dr. Fitzgerald’s gaffe was a fluke, she also took a one million dollar kickback from the Coca-Cola company for following their sage advice in battling childhood obesity, adopting an idea from the soda giant’s playbook that exercise, not calorie control, is the key to weight loss. Thank you, Doctor, for taking the high road on that one.

A mentor of course, as we have been hearing from others this evening, is someone whose knowledge and experience provides invaluable wisdom and guidance to us as we do the work to excel in a particular area of life that’s important to us.

In this week’s Torah parasha, we meet Yitro (Jethro), who is a Kenite shepherd and a Midianite priest. His daughter Tzippora was one of seven sisters being harassed at a local well when the taskmaster-slaying Moses happened along as he was fleeing from Egyptian authorities and intervened on the sisters’ behalf. Moses was subsequently taken home to meet dad, Moses and Tzippora were wed, and the rest (as they say) is ancient history.

In Exodus 18, we learn why Jethro is well-known for his wise counsel to Moses. First, after Moses left behind his wife and children to take a new job freeing the Israelites from slavery, it was Jethro who brought Moses’ family to him. Wise counsel #1: Almost nothing is so important in life that leaving behind one’s family becomes the right thing to do.

Jethro then remained for a while with Moses and his wandering Israelites. He noticed that in addition to guiding more than a half million people into freedom, Moses would stop to adjudicate individual grievances among the people. Wise counsel #2: Jethro talked some sense into Moses, convincing him to do a little delegating and to appoint some very bright underlings to take on these important but distributable tasks, conserving his own energy to complete those responsibilities for which he had been hired.

It was these two acts that secured Jethro’s high regard in the annals of our people’s history. For two millennia, whenever we have looked for role-models in the Torah, Jethro has ranked high on the list.

My choice to become a rabbi was, I’m a bit chagrined to report, not the result of having a mentor in my childhood whom I respected and admired. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. I was never comfortable with my rabbi, never felt warmth from him, and rather disliked the man. In all fairness, I need to tell you that my older sister adored him, thought he was one of the smartest and wisest people on the planet, and loved learning with him and listening to his sermons. When I was growing up, all I could think was, “There must be a better way to be a rabbi.” And that was a big part of what motivated me to attend rabbinical school. He had been for me a negative mentor, ultimately guiding my choice of career, but only because he showed me what I didn’t want to be, and what I didn’t want to impose on others.

This happened, I’m sorry to report, in rabbinical school as well.

When I was studying to become a rabbi, I had many classes in the subjects that comprise rabbinic training: Hebrew, Aramaic, Bible, Talmud, Theology, Philosophy and Jewish History. Some of the greatest minds of our time held office hours in that building down at One West Fourth Street in Manhattan. But when I think about how some of these giants of Jewish thought treated me and my fellow students during those five years, I’m amazed the institution lacked a better understanding of what they were trying to produce in the rabbis, cantors and educators they would be providing to the Jewish community. I wasn’t one of the student body’s most promising intellects, but I was trying to be a good guy who would emerge from HUC with enough tools to be a good rabbi as well. So when professor after professor criticized me for not rising to the level of my more brilliant co-students, I thought, “Well, here’s a familiar kind of mentoring. Help me become the best I can be by showing me what I most definitely don’t want to be.”

Dr. Chernick and Dr. Kravitz

Now, HUC wasn’t completely bereft of positive role models. Here are two of them.

I struggled greatly to understand what my Talmud professor, Dr. Michael Chernick, was teaching us. Dr. Chernick was an Orthodox rabbi who had dedicated his career to training Reform rabbis, and it was his kindness – his patience with me – that rose high above his Talmudic genius. By the time I was ordained, I knew I wanted to teach Talmud simply because he did.

Then there was Dr. Leonard Kravitz. With him, I studied Maimonides, Medieval Jewish Philosophy, and how to write sermons. He too was one of these super-brilliant guys who often left me way behind as he waxed poetic about arcane Jewish ideas. But his worst critiques of my work were far more encouraging than others’ best appraisals. I remember when we wrote practice-sermons for Dr. Kravitz, and the most devastating criticism I received – and I received it often – was for him to write, “Mr. Dreskin, you have many good ideas here.” Instead of slamming me for artless rambling in my thinking, he suggested I use the sermon as the basis for ten others. I could handle that. And today, I’m pretty sure I’m a better writer because of him. But here’s what I know for sure: I’m a better human being because of him. Without fail, Dr. Kravitz displayed each and every day an unshakeable commitment to good will, gracious dialogue, affectionate support, and a sense of humor that disarmed everybody and let us know that he was on our side.

Now lest you think I’m nothing but a hyper-critical grump, I have had some positive role-models in my life.

Probably the most significant mentoring happened during my teen years. As a kid growing up the youngest of six brothers and sisters, my parents’ marriage had gone sour by the time I was born and they divorced on my 10th birthday. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I craved positive family role models and frequently sought invitations from my friends to spend time in their homes, especially with their parents. To this day, those marriages, all of which are still intact, loom large for me when I think of the people who have made the greatest difference in my life.

One of the couples that I adopted was our temple’s youth director and his wife. It’s true that they probably adopted me first, seeing a kid who was stumbling through his teenage years without a whole lot of direction or guidance, and hoped I would use them for some of that. That couple, Rabbi Jon and Susan Stein, were so utterly responsible for the inarguably most important parts of my education – how to work with others, how to lead others, how to become a valued subordinate, how to work with younger children, and how to be part of a successful marriage – that I have no doubt whatsoever my choice to become a rabbi was to try and pay the Steins back for the invaluable mentoring they provided me in my teenage years.

The single most important mentor in my life has been Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman. He’s also my best friend. I’ve known “Uncle Jeffrey” (as my children always called him) since the very first day of my first year at HUC. We met standing in line to register for classes and have been fast friends ever since. Uncle Jeffrey has shown me more about how to be a rabbi, how to be a husband and a father, and how to be a mentsch, than maybe anyone else on this planet. From the day I met him, I knew I wanted to be near this guy because, like those professors at HUC who stood high above the rest because of their humanity, Jeffrey oozes humanity from every pore. Besides being brilliant, endlessly creative and the best teacher I’ve ever known, he is kind and gentle and respectful and enthusiastic and optimistic. I never cease being awe-struck watching how he interacts with others. Plain and simple, I have tried to be for you what I have seen him be for his congregation.

As Joel and Andy and Ana and Andrew and Susan and Corey and I have all shared this evening, there are individuals whose paths through life intersect with our own, perhaps for many years, perhaps for only a brief time. But because of them, our own lives are forever changed for the better. For being the person they are, and for taking the time to share what they’ve learned with us, the gratitude we feel to these individuals is nearly boundless.

Did it have to be them? Not likely. But because it was them, their names remain forever etched in our hearts. Everything we do, we do a little better because of them.

And now, you and I are challenged to return the favor. As you know, Woodlands – you guys – have supported bringing a rabbinic intern to our congregation, something we had been doing since 1976. It has been important to me to continue this practice because, once upon a time, you permitted me to be your intern and to benefit from the time and guidance of Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and so many of you who simply took me in, gave me time to develop some skills, and didn’t skewer me too much when I fell flat on my face. So I’ve been returning that favor pretty much every year since, as well as trying to pay forward the many gifts I’ve received from so many of my teachers and mentors across the years. To you I say thank you, for allowing me to do this. Woodlands is a plum internship, always high on the list of those interviewing for this position. Not because we are leaders and innovators in the American Jewish community, and we are, but because we’re awfully nice people and Woodlands is a wonderful place to come learn about leading and innovating because of that.

Jethro never lorded it over his son-in-law. He never ridiculed Moses or made him feel unqualified to lead. Out of love (okay, and maybe because he wanted this guy to be good husband to his daughter), Jethro was a great mentor.

When Jethro arrived with his daughter and grandchildren to join Moses and the Israelites in the desert, Torah tells us, “He bowed low, kissed him, and asked how he has doing” (Ex 18:8). The Ktav Sofer, a 19th century Hungarian rabbinic commentator, pointed out that the verse is ambiguous. It’s not at all clear who’s bowing, kissing and asking here. That, my friend and mentor Rabbi Larry Hoffman has taught, is where the results of effective mentorship really shine. One no longer knows, or cares for that matter, who’s responsible for praiseworthy actions. Both teacher and student have mastered the skills and have both come to embody the best of what that teacher has had to offer. Moses learned from Jethro not just the professional skills Jethro had to share, but his essential goodness as well.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … Your world overflows with opportunity. But it’s a big place, and stumbling abounds. So You hid here for us treasures of immeasurable worth. Mentors. To show us how to get things done. To take us by the hand and lead us, that we might lead others. For the very best of them, You filled their hearts with a goodness that has become their greatest gift. Throughout our lives, may we grow rich in the wisdom and the goodness that these talented and generous people offer. And may we honor You, our Creator, by never turning away from an opportunity to serve in such a role ourselves.

Billy