Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

An Irish Blessing for Tough Times

While preparing dinner, mom asked her child to go into the pantry and fetch a can of tomato soup. But the little boy wouldn’t go in alone, saying, “It’s dark in there. I’m scared.” To which his mom responded, “God will be in there with you. Now you go and get a can of tomato soup.” So Johnny stood up, went to the door of the pantry and, peeking inside, saw how dark it was but got an idea. “God,” he said, “if you’re in there, would You hand me that can of tomato soup?”

Ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we’ve been teaming up with God. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But even when the first couple got booted out of Paradise, God stayed with them. Adam and Eve may have been cut off from utopia, but they weren’t cut off from their Creator.

Judaism teaches that even when God exiled the Jewish people from Israel and allowed the Temple to be destroyed, God walked by our sides as we made the arduous trek northward to Babylonia. God went into exile with us.

For us as liberal Jews, God’s continuing love amidst diversity serves as a powerful, sympathetic metaphor, reassuring us that even at the most difficult moments in our lives, we need not feel alone nor powerless.

Of course, there’s a story for every purpose in Torah and, this week in Kee Teesa, a seemingly different message pokes through. The Israelites are only four months out of Egypt. Moses, the man who’d led them out of slavery, was now gone for more than a month’s time up some mountain he called Sinai. The people think he must have died and, desperate to renew their faith that something better still awaits them, build a Golden Calf, one of the deity-images they had learned about in Egypt.

The Israelites abandoned their system of religion – I’ll call it their system of ideals – to settle for something that seemed more readily at hand. Rashi notices that they rose early in the morning to do all of this, not knowing that Moses would return later that very day.

This got me thinking: If only they’d known that Moses was coming back to them that very same day, they might never have built the Golden Calf.

Ideals are a funny thing. They can help us get through difficult times, but there’s a “best if used by” date on them. You know, like on milk and bread. It’s really important to keep ideals in circulation, lest they spoil.

We’re living in difficult times right now. And our ideals may seem like they’re reaching an expiration date. Our country is still struggling to emerge from an economic recession, and careers may not be what they once were. Taking care of ourselves and our families is harder than many of us have ever known. And perhaps playing off of those difficulties, the Trump administration has placed undocumented immigrants, transgender teenagers, and people anywhere of Muslim descent in their crosshairs — a classic act of misdirection, when all the American people really want are good jobs with decent wages.

A short while after the Golden Calf is built, Moses does indeed come down Mount Sinai. He’s carrying with him a tremendous gift: the Tablets of the Covenant. The Torah. But when he sees how the Israelites have abandoned God and their ideals, he too loses faith and hurls. He hurls the Tablets to the ground, smashing them into useless shards.

Tempers flare. Arguments ensue. Disaster is narrowly averted as God and Moses talk one another down from taking destructive action against the Israelites. Little by little, trust is renewed. A second set of mitzvot is fashioned, the relationship is re-strengthened and, together, God and Moses and Israel journey into that future which you and I are part of to this day.

19th-century English poet William Blake wrote: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun and in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn.” Blake’s words warn us that ideals are no sweat to maintain when nothing happens to challenge them. But when days turn cold, jobs are scarcer, and our government seems to have embraced bitterness and contempt, it’s far more difficult to remain steadfast in our ideals. Our siddur, which quotes Blake, adds, “It is a difficult thing to remember the challenge from God: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. [You shall not] forget we were slaves.”

Our tradition begs of us, in the darkest of times do not cower in a corner, do not abandon all that you have been taught. Rather, remember the lessons that came down from Sinai. Stand up, light a candle, and do everything you can to bring light back into the world.

Do you know the 23rd Psalm? Adonai ro’i lo ekh-sar … God is my shepherd, I shall not want. “I shall not want” is a difficult passage for a child to make sense of, so it should come as no surprise that one young student restated this opening line as, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.”

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … it can get tough to believe in You. From time immemorial when our lives have taken hard hits, many of us have lost our faith. Our ideals too. When things get tough, some of us grow cynical, tighten ranks, and look out for number one. But together, we can be tougher than that. So please, hang with us while we stumble through hard times. Help us keep our ideals. Stick with us as we work to stay true to the values You taught us, values we’ve always loved and by which we’ve tried to live. And may we help our beloved nation remain steadfast in its commitment to the ideals on which it was founded. A little girl may have said it best, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.” May Your gifts from days-of-old continue to guide us in building lives that bring blessing to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to all the world.

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, let’s end with an Irish blessing. I love the one that reads, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.” But there’s another Irish blessing, and in these times, I also wish this one for you. “May God give you … for every storm, a rainbow … for every tear, a smile … for every care, a promise … and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life sends, a faithful friend to share … for every sigh, a sweet song … and an answer for each prayer.

Now that’s a blessing! May you have the luck of the Irish and bring these blessings each and every day!

Shabbat shalom!

Can You Hear Me Now?

For four weeks, the Torah is fairly consumed with the story of Joseph and his brothers. That’s a lot of Torah time. Abraham, who’s probably the Torah’s 2nd biggest superstar, only get three weeks of parashiyot. And Moses, the undisputed star (next to God, of course) gets forty-two weeks, which is off the charts but understandably so.

While Moses would probably be a better character for making this evening’s point about working more than is probably healthy, he doesn’t show up in our Torah cycle for another two weeks, so we’ll have to make do with Joseph. Even with such a 4-week limited run, it’s fairly apparent that Joseph has very little home life, at least that we hear about. In Vayeshev, two weeks ago, we met Joseph and his brothers and began to understand why this Torah-hero might have chosen to throw himself into his work. With ten of eleven brothers despising him, we can understand why he might have taken a job that required him to move to Egypt. But as our story progressed, Joseph only made time for family if they came see him at work. Even his beloved baby brother Benjamin had to make the long trek from Canaan to have dinner together.

But if Joseph had become a workaholic, he came by it somewhat honestly. After all, his father Jacob had been one as well. Granted, it all started out of love with his willingness to work fourteen straight years to be able to marry Rachel, the love of his life. Nevertheless, it set a pattern that not only ate into Jacob’s personal life but that of his famous globetrotting, famine-preventing son as well.

Now it’s not entirely Jacob’s fault either. After all, he had a Boss who frequently required him to work evenings. You may recall Jacob’s conference call with God that took place late one night while Jacob was dreaming of ladders and angels. And then there was the time God sent a sales rep to wrestle with Jacob by the river Jabbok over the details of a partnership they’d been working on. And then this week, in Vayigash, when Jacob hears his son is alive and in Egypt, he tries to get a good night’s sleep before making the 200 mile trip southward, but God wakes him up with something akin to a late-night phone call (Gen 46:2).

And that’s pretty much the way it was for our ancient biblical ancestors. And with ever-increasing options for keeping in touch, it only gets worse for us today. The line between work and home grows blurrier and blurrier. Did you hear that, as of January 1, companies in France are required to stop intruding on workers’ personal and family time with emails and phone calls? Some European companies, including Volkswagen, Daimler and the insurance company Axa, have already restricted out-of-hours contact with employees. But apparently the problem is significant enough that the French government felt the need to step in. (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts”)

The objection to this law, besides the loss of productivity and revenue, comes in the form of the following arguments: 1) working from home means fewer hours at the office (and isn’t that a good thing?); and, 2) working from the gym or from the afterschool carpool can make you available to do those things in the first place (and isn’t that also a good thing?).

But the advantages to the new law are pretty obvious. True downtime during which one can fully focus on non-work activity, either social time with family or friends, or simply resting to recharge, these can’t be bad for you. And these can’t be bad for your employer either, as a lack of downtime decreases productivity in the workforce.

So while I can’t give you much biblical evidence to support the value of unhooking from technology (oh, except maybe for that whole Shabbat rest thing), there do appear to be abundant examples of the drain that a never-ending pursuit of even Godly endeavors can cause.

Interestingly, Rashi notices that God calls Jacob’s name twice when coming to him dreamside in this week’s parasha. Yaakov, Yaakov. Vayomer hineni … Jacob, Jacob. And he replied, “Here I am.” (Gen. 46:2). Rashi believes the repetition of Jacob’s name to be a sign of God’s affection for him. That’s sweet. And I don’t buy it for a second. First of all, if you woke me up in the middle of the night, using technology that didn’t require me to first, say, pick up the phone and answer it, you might have to call out my name a few times before getting a response too. But more to the point, I’m remembering back in Genesis 22, when God informed Abraham that the slaying of Isaac would not be necessary in order for him to show his devotion to God. If you recall, the angel had to repeat Abraham’s name there as well. Commentators don’t think that was a sign of affection. Rather, it was pure panic. Abraham had been poised to thrust a knife into his son’s heart and the angel, fearing that Abraham hadn’t heard him the first time, shouted Abraham’s name at the top of his lungs. So my vote here is that it was the middle of the night, God was still at the office, and had no patience whatsoever for his sleeping employee’s lack of immediate compliance.

Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) thinks that Jacob hadn’t heard from God in a number of years and that the repetition was underscoring this particular “memo’s” importance. Apparently, God, like many employers, felt that whatever God happened to be doing at the moment was the most important thing in everybody’s life.

This issue of tech goes beyond shutting it off outside of work. There are other reasons to not become over-reliant upon it. Many TED talks have found presenters extolling the value of tuning out and turning off, and for a variety of reasons. (“The Surprising Big Idea at TED: Turn Off Technology”)

Science writer Joshua Foer spoke about the erosion of our ability to remember in an era of internet searches on the information superhighway. He spoke about building memory castles, a technique that can allow us to expand our ability to remember ever-increasing collections of names, faces, and data. And reflecting on the price we may be paying for no longer having to remember things, Foer asked, “How much are we willing to lose by not leading a memorable life? Be a person,” he challenged, “who remembers to remember.”

Chip Kidd, who is a graphic designer best known for his book covers, spoke about the disadvantages of reading books on screens. “A book cover is a distillation,” he said. “It is a haiku … of the story.” Even the smell of books can transport the reader. “I am all for the iPad,” he said, “but smelling it will get you nowhere.”

Ellen’s alarm clock died recently and she started looking around for a new one. She needed something that could be easily viewed in the middle of the night. I told her she could just use the time display on her phone. And whereas she used to leave her phone on the other side of the house at night, now it’s with her 24 hours a day. Judging from the number of texts that awaken her sometimes, I don’t think I did her a favor.

The 15th century Italian commentator Sforno noted that God’s memo began with the narrator’s telling us, Vayomer Elohim l’Yisrael … And God spoke to Israel (Gen. 46:2). Israel, of course, is Jacob’s work name, the one God assigned to him when their partnership began. Sforno thought that God was telling Jacob he needed to prepare his sons well if they were to preserve the Covenant while down in Egypt. In other words, it was time to get back to work.

There will most certainly be those moments when we will have to drop whatever we’re doing to attend to something important “that just came up.” Life rarely serenely remains within neat little compartments that hold the various realms of our existence at bay from each other. In other words, when the call comes, we usually have to pick up the phone.

And that’s why it’s really important not to cross the boundaries of those realms unless we’ve got a really good reason to do so. And before making that call or sending that text, it might serve us well to ask ourselves if the recipient is going to agree that we’ve got a good reason for intruding.

Sherry Turkle, who teaches at MIT, thinks that these new technologies are still in their youth and that we’ve still got time to tame them before they fully mature in their roles in society.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … what a magnificent world You created. Fourteen billion years later, You’re still surprising us with shiny, new stuff. But the challenges of our days aren’t dissimilar from those that arose when You first got things going. These gifts can accomplish so much. But whether it’s the discovery of fire, of the wheel, or of super-miniaturized computer chips, how we use the resources of Your world remains one of the greatest opportunities, but also one of the greatest challenges, of this, and every succeeding, generation. May we hear You when You call our name. And may we understand that, unlike most of our bosses’ interruptions, You call us to justice, to mercy and to peace. And that’s a call that’s always working taking.

Shabbat shalom.

What’s Up With Elul?

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827. During those fifty-seven years, he composed a ton of music. When he was 28, in a fit of rage he fell and stood up to discover he’d gone deaf. For twenty-nine more years, he wrote his music without being able to hear well or, for the last thirteen years of his life, at all.

One year before he died, Beethoven composed his string Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Upon listening to a performance of this remarkable composition, another celebrated composer, Franz Schubert, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” The piece is technically and physically demanding work, and must be played without pauses for more than forty minutes. This leaves the musicians with no time to retune their instruments. Done badly then, the piece can end up a mess.

In the film, A Late Quartet, Beethoven’s composition serves as a metaphor for life, and it isn’t a subtle one: “What are we supposed to do?” asks a quartet of musicians preparing to perform the piece. “Stop,” they are advised. “Or adjust to each other” as you’re playing the piece.

Tonight begins the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the twenty-nine days that lead up to Rosh Hashanah. During them, Jewish tradition challenges us to get ready for teshuvah, the process of turning – of recalibrating our lives for the better – in the year-to-come.

elulThe days of Elul seem to me not unlike Beethoven’s string quartet. School has begun, we’re back to work after summer vacation, we never stopped working at all, or taking care of our kids, or any number of jobs and responsibilities that prevent us from ever slowing down enough to take the time and review how we’ve been doing.

But that’s what Elul’s supposed to be for! During these four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, we’re to take stock of the kind of person we’ve been in the past year. We identify where we’ve fallen short. Have we been kind enough? Have we been generous enough? Have we been selfless enough? And even, have we taken enough care of ourselves?

All of these questions need answers before we enter the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because there’s important, serious and not very easy work to be done in there. We’ve all made some mistakes in the past twelve months. Maybe lots of them. By the time we enter that room, we really need to know what each of us is dealing with. In that way, we can spend time thinking of ways to be better, kinder, more compassionate and just human beings. We don’t want to simply acknowledge our shortcomings during the High Holy Days services; we need strategies for overcoming those shortcomings.

Yesterday morning, while reaching over a counter to open up a window, I pulled a muscle in my back. It really hurt. It got so bad as the day wore on that I had to lie still for most of the day. So I had a lot of time to think. Which is kind of interesting, owing to it being Elul and thinking is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Here are my two significant thoughts from yesterday. First, it took a temporary but debilitating condition to carve out time for me to do my Elul work. And second, that pulled muscle demanded of me my full attention. I couldn’t say I was too busy; the pain relieved me of that excuse. But the pulled muscles of our souls, the debilitating condition of our spirits, that’s much easier to ignore. I received a gift – a mixed bag, to be sure – of uninterrupted time to ponder the questions posed by Elul. But what am I gonna do tomorrow, when I’m not stuck in bed? What will any of us do with these twenty-nine days?

ramadanIn Islam, the month of Ramadan serves much the same purpose as our month of Elul. But Muslims have many rituals – including the pre-dawn meal and prayers of suhoor, and the sunset prayers and meal of iftar, and of course the day-long fast – all to focus them on the spiritual meaning of the Muslim relationship with God.

You and I have the same month, same opportunities, and an occasional blast of the shofar to remind us the High Holy Days are coming.

This fragile world of ours needs good people to take care of it and to make it a safe home for all. Goodness isn’t an impossible task. But it does take work. More than anything, it takes resolve, telling ourselves over and over again, for a lifetime in fact, “I want to be a good person. I will be a good person.”

May these reminders never hurt like a pinched muscle. And even though the challenge never ends … just like Beethoven’s string quartet, may we be ever able to retune our instrument – our bodies, our words, our actions. And may we use this gift of the month of Elul to get ourselves ready so that, when we enter into Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the Ten Awesome Days of Turing — only a few weeks from now, we make the best use of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, helping one another to become the gracious, understanding, loving people that God wants us to be.

L’shana tovah … may it be a year of goodness for each of us, because we made it so for all of us.

Shabbat shalom,

The Wilderness of Our Lives

This week’s parasha is Re’eh. It comprises chapters 11-16 in Deuteronomy, and takes place at the end of the forty years in the wilderness. Moses is preparing the Israelites for life in the Promised Land, reminding them of God’s most important instructions.

Efes kee lo yihyeh b’kha evyon is one of them. “There shall be no needy among you.” Now, does this mean Israel will never know hunger? Or does it mean we should make sure that no Israelite ever knows hunger? Food for thought.

As with the mitzvah about hunger, God reminds the Israelites that everything they need has been placed before them – all they need do is follow God’s instructions on how to live and all will go well for them. This is the central message of the parashah and of Deuteronomy.

River of No Return Wilderness Area

River of No Return Wilderness Area

I recently watched for a second time a remarkably beautiful movie entitled, River of No Return. It follows a biologist and his wife as they spend a year inside one of America’s largest protected tracts of land, the River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. The preserve includes 2.4 million acres in which, every summer, trail crews with hand saws and axes clear nearly eight hundred miles of trail. But the wilderness just takes it back again, and it can take hours to go a single mile.

One evening on their journey, the couple witnessed something amazing. One of the wolves they were watching turned and crossed a meadow toward them. It looked very young, and her approach was all curiosity. She came within thirty feet of them before circling and passing by. Not so much a brush with danger as a brush with antiquity, with our primitive past when wolves were once our constant neighbor.

The narrator says, “We’ve taken the wildness out of our lives and mostly out of our country too. But in the River of No Return, it’s like we can reach back to a place where we can still see, hear, and feel a little wild.” And goes on to say, “We’re pretty soft these days. Much tougher people lived in these mountains for thousands of years … the Tukudeka, a peaceful, mountain-dwelling tribe. They had no word for wilderness. They probably never imagined nature as something separate from themselves. But we do. And now, when the natural world is slipping away, we’ve had to create a place to call wilderness, a place managed to be wild.”

Our parashah is filled with teachings that seek to tame the wild in us. “Take care to observe the laws and statutes that I have set before you.” “You shall not behave like everyone else, every person as he pleases.” “When you consume meat, be sure you do not partake of the blood.”

These all seem beneficial. But there’s also some worrisome stuff in Re’eh, passages that sound quite foreign to you and me but, in other contexts of our day, sound far too familiar. God instructs the Israelites not to tolerate the other peoples living in the Land – to “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods.” “Destroy all the places where they worship other gods, whether on lofty mountains or under luxuriant trees.”

Not the kind of teachings we like to repeat around here. We’re the temple that shares a Ramadan meal with our Muslim neighbors, brings Christmas cheer to the homeless on our December 24th Midnight Run, and welcomes a Buddhist monk to teach us in our own sanctuary. We don’t smash our neighbors pillars; we revel in them, in the common humanity shared by the different religions.

Of course, that’s now how all members of the Jewish community see the world. And quite likely, not everyone in this community.

A few months ago, a Conservative rabbi in Austin, Texas, was planning community trip to Israel that would focus on Israeli-Palestinian relations and wanted to include a stop at the grave of PLO founder Yasir Arafat. An explosion of criticism denounced the rabbi for “paying homage” to Arafat, likening it to paying respects at Hitler’s tomb. He was accused of opening a new page in the history of treachery, of glorifying murder and terrorism, all of which rendered him lower than any kapo during the Holocaust.

These kinds of unrestrained attacks on “the other” are what Re’eh seems to endorse. We don’t.

So the question is, do these passages in Re’eh have anything for us? Is there a positive message, an open and generous one that we can proudly carry home with us?

Rabbi Yaacov Haber focuses on God’s providing us with blessing and curse. We’re to choose one – blessing or curse. And every Jew knows which. “Uvakharta bakhayyim … choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” Rabbi Haber’s online shiur shows a photograph of someone holding an apple and a doughnut, illustrating that choice. We all know which is the better option, but we also know that desire frequently wins out over sensibility.

Which may be what wilderness is all about. In the wild, animals live by instinct, acting to self-preserve. Domestication comes about when instinct gets set aside in order to live in community with others. Animals can learn this, and so can we.

It may take a while, and sometimes doesn’t take at all. I’m referring to the domestication of humans. There’s an awful lot of intolerance, hatred and violence in our world today. We see it in nations attacking other nations. We see it in communities within a nation committing genocide against a neighboring community. We see it in election-speak in our own nation today, words that appeal to the basest among us, that embrace xenophobia, racism and sexism.

3ec0c0d07220603c6856d792322940c9Sometimes, it seems our world, like River of No Return, is returning to wilderness. Re’eh – and Torah, in general – seems to be trying to tame us. To control the course of mighty rivers, to clear brush from needed pathways. To demand that we live our lives according to a set of higher principles that were designed to improve not only ourselves but the lives of everyone around us.

Torah didn’t get it right all the time, but it’s also three thousand years old. The American Constitution is only two hundred years old and it embraces slavery. But the Constitution is also working to tame us – and in the centuries since, when we’re at our best, subsequent lawmaking adds to our Constitution, sometimes even improving it.

I used to think the world was always getting better. I still believe it is, but only in part; as often as we move forward, others take steps backward. We are forever challenged to defend high principle, and to try and make sure it’s what people choose (as in the Torah, “choose life”). The key may be in cross-cultural dialogue, that no one and no group can make all of the right decisions but that we need to work our ideas out in the world arena so that, together, we figure out best paths for as many as possible.

By the way, not unlike the traditional experience of Torah Study. Jews don’t study Torah by ourselves. We sit around a table – both with our neighbors and teachers, as well as the great sages through time – and work through our ideas of what God expects of us. No one gets to to be the sole arbiter of the terms of Jewish living; we work that out together.

The River of No Return is a protected wilderness area in Idaho. Yep, we need to protect our wildernesses. Which seems like an interesting metaphor to me. Is there wilderness inside of us that ought not be tamed?

While you’re thinking about that, kudos to President Obama for his recent executive orders creating 87,500 additional acres of protected woods and waters in Maine.

But what of the wilderness in us? Is that to be protected as well? There’s something appealing about that idea, about keeping parts of us untamed and spontaneous and free. But there’s something appalling about it too. When it comes to respecting and preserving human life, the time has come (though it never will, not fully, I don’t think) to tame us all. As Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, once taught: We must strive together “to create human beings untterly incapable of shedding blood.”

His mother called him “Wild Thing!” and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” So he was sent to bed without eating anything. He winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts and, after successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as King of the Wild Things. He enjoys that for a while but starts to feel lonely and goes back home where he finds a hot supper waiting for him.

Elohenu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our wild ancestors … help us cherish the wildness that’s inside each of us. May we run and tumble and laugh often. But help us understand that everybody needs love and hot meals. May we listen and hear and respond to a world that desperately needs selflessness and generosity to heal what ails it. If we want “wild,” let’s go wild finding ways to make life better for those who just can’t figure it out on their own. And let no child ever go to bed hungry because of an empty pantry – let such a thing only happen because a wild imagination hasn’t yet been tamed.

Shabbat shalom,

Woodlands Community Temple (White Plains, NY)
Sep 2, 2016  • 30 Av 5776

Reflecting on the 1st Yahrzeit of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC


Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

Orlando. Dallas. Baton Rouge. So many acts of gun violence since, a little more than a year ago, on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spent an hour with the community there studying Bible, and then pulled out a .45-calibre pistol and murdered nine parishioners and clergy. A year later, stunned by the death and grief which have continued to tear through our country, we are sadly confident that nothing in America will change. We’ve watched it all unfold before and, wearily, expect to see this again and again.

Still, in spite of everything, we hope for an effective national response to gun violence in our nation, even while gauging our own personal response. Thinking back on that day in June 2015, I can’t help but feel linkage between me and the people of Emanuel AME Church. Dylann Roof entered their parish that evening even as I entered my synagogue at almost the same time. That same evening, our local interfaith organization was starting its monthly meeting. When Dylann Roof brandished his gun, temple leaders and I were reviewing our past year, and the interfaith gathering was wrapping up. The people of Emanuel AME Church were doing what people of faith do in every house of worship, and we were doing in ours: learning together, praying together, working together for the simple purpose of bringing God’s blessings into the world.

When our temple built a new sanctuary in 2002-03, we had to move out for the year of construction. Before doing so, there was a heated debate about an offer from nearby Greenville Community Reformed Church to come worship in their prayer space while we were building. Theirs was a simple, warm, unadorned sanctuary, with no more than a single cross on the front wall, and it was located a very reasonable distance away. Eventually, we would accept their gracious invitation. But before doing so, some of our folks resisted. How can we worship in a Christian space? Isn’t it offensive to pray where Jesus is worshiped?

The choice was a no-brainer for me. Our very kind neighbors had invited us in. What could be offensive about one people of faith embracing another in its hour of need? Nonetheless, I understood the visceral reaction that some of my congregants experienced. After all, Christian history has not been kind to the Jewish community these past 2000 years, and it’s really only a recent development that Jews and Christians have befriended each other and comfortably visited one another’s houses of worship.

I did some study about Judaism and the question of whether our ancestors felt it acceptable to worship in a church. Here’s what I found.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 127b), Rabbi Yehoshua is in Rome and, prior to entering the home of a Roman matron, removes his tefillin (which, at the time, were worn throughout the day). He later explained to his disciples that he did not wish to bring Jewish sacred objects into a place where there were idols. While Jewish law does indeed forbid us from engaging in prayer in a place of idolatry, the question is: Does Christianity or Islam constitute, in Jewish eyes, idolatry?

In the Shulkhan Arukh (a highly-respected 16th-century code of Jewish law), we read, “The peoples among whom we live (i.e., Christians) and the Mohammedans are not idolaters.” So even though Christians worship God in three different manifestations, Jewish tradition still considered them worshipers of One God. Muslims too. Which is why, in the Shulkhan Arukh, we also read, “One may pray in a house where there are (idolatrous) images but should not bow towards them, even if they are in the east (the traditional direction of Jewish prayer … toward Jerusalem). One should face another direction, while directing the heart toward Jerusalem.”

GCRCMezuzah (6a)

In May 2002, Pastor Jack Elliott (center) of Greenville Community Reformed Church, invited us to affix a mezuzah to his church’s door before our temple began using it for services.

Only occasionally does a more stringent authority prohibit the use of a church for Jewish prayer. The predominant tenor of rabbinic opinion, however, is that (in the words of Elijah Mizrachi, a 15th-century Turkish rabbinic giant), “Even a house that is regularly used for non-Jewish worship may also be used for Jewish worship.” Rabbinic authorities are also clear that it is acceptable to use a Torah in a church and, if needed, to store it there.

Nothing, therefore, short of our own inherited memories and personal attitudes, prevents us from worshiping in a space that has been designated for use by another religion. In fact, an opportunity to join ever-more closely with neighbors of a differing faith, this is very good for us. What an honor to spend time worshiping at Greenville Church! They even insisted we put up a mezuzah. And when the 1st anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, we cried through that shared memorial service together.

A year after nine men and women were murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I am remembering our synagogue community’s year in a church, and it’s been tugging at me. I think it serves as a bridge from Woodlands (my synagogue) through the Greenville Community Reformed Church, to Emanuel AME in Charleston. It’s simply one more way that my heart has been linked to theirs and to all victims of gun violence.

Part of the shared faith between Jews, Muslims and Christians is that there is a loving God in the universe Who cares for us – all of us. And when human beings share a common respect for one another, offering kindness and love from one person to the next simply because we are all God’s creations, we demonstrate the best and highest manifestations of God’s love. The folks at Emanuel AME were simply doing what we all do – learning about and practicing their religious faith, including the welcoming of Dylann Roof to join them that evening. For that – and the addition of their skin color – they were murdered.

And what did the Emanuel AME Church community do in response to their tragedy? They sounded a call for increased love and an end to hate and violence.

We must do no less. We must continue to reach out to one another – to our neighbors of a different faith, our neighbors of a different color, our neighbors of a different ethnicity, our neighbors of a different gender, sexual orientation, and even political affiliation – and extend our hands in fellowship and shared faith that America can and must be a home for all. We need to support those elected officials who propose worthwhile programs that promise to reduce the possibility of future acts of hatred like the one at Emanuel AME – through better care for mental illness, better regulation of gun ownership, and the reduction of racism and other acts of bigotry and discrimination. We must also do what we can to elect Members of Congress who not only care about these issues, but will stake their very careers on the need to act on them.

My heart still aches for the families of those nine who died in Charleston, but it aches for so many more who have died since then. In fact, my heart aches for an entire country that just can’t find the resolve to fix this.

So I’ll pray. But I’ll also act … with my voice, my wallet, and my vote. I hope that you will too.

50 years ago, on Friday evening, September 9, 1966, Woodlands Community Temple held its very first Shabbat celebration. This holiest of services – one that initiated the creation and establishment of our kehillat kedoshah, our sacred temple community – wasn’t celebrated inside a synagogue building. We didn’t have one. Instead, we gathered in a nearby church – the Calvin United Presbyterian Church in Hartsdale, NY – which opened its arms and its doors to us, one neighbor saying to another, “How can we help?”

IfYouCan'tSeeGodInAllI think of all three of these acts of kindness – two churches that invited us in, and a third church that invited Dylann Roof in – and I pray. May we never close our doors to another human being, especially in their moment of need. May we teach our children that there is no shame in expressing such need, but that it must only be shared through words and tears, never through a clenched fist. May we continue to affirm that God’s love comes into the world through human acts of goodness, so may our spirits be resolute in the faith that it is always right to welcome and to love. And may the day soon arrive when every man, woman and child not only understands, but lives, such faith.


P.S. On Saturday, September 25, 2016, 4:00-6:00 pm, we’ll be hosting “The Concert across America to End Gun Violence,” a series of live events from coast to coast to remember the victims of America’s gun violence epidemic. Turning up the music to turn down the hateful rhetoric. Please visit us on Facebook to learn more about our event, or Remember 25 to learn how you can host your own. Trying to do our part.

Rewards and Blessings

Maybe two years ago, Tyler Levan, who’s now nine years old, walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after they’d tucked him and said, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Don, Tyler’s dad, then did what his father had done for him when he was little and afraid of monsters in the dark. He took out his “monster spray” and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Don and Judy then hugged Tyler goodnight, thinking that should do the trick, but he stopped them and asked, “How will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

TrophiesAnd with that deeply philosophical question which confronts our awareness that something may not be true and yet we cling to the possibility that perhaps it is, Tyler Levan touched upon a debate that has dogged humankind since our brains brought us out of the trees. Religion used to make excellent and effective use of fear to get people to live morally upright lives. The formula was a simple one: do God’s mitzvot and receive God’s reward; stray from God’s mitzvot and prepare to meet thy doom. Such “understanding” of how the world works used to go unquestioned, and many behaved better because of it. Today, we may have great difficulty believing in the doctrine of reward and punishment, but we sure wish it were real.

Judaism used to believe that reward and punishment are meted out in this lifetime. In this week’s parashah, Bekhukotai, which encompasses the final chapters of Leviticus, it’s still the first year following the Exodus with the forty years of wandering still ahead (although they won’t know that until chapter 13 in Numbers). In Leviticus 26, God tells the Israelites that if they follow the mitzvot, the rains will fall in their season, the land will yield its produce, the trees their fruit, wild beasts will not pursue them, and their enemies will flee before them. But God warns without so much as taking a breath, if you choose not to follow the mitzvot, “I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. I will bring a sword against you. And if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. Ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.”

This strategy worked for a while, I suppose. And in fact, there are still plenty of people today who fear God’s retribution for lying, stealing, and worse. But most of us have seen how this works. Lots of bad guys get away with everything – crooks, liars, murderers – so many going unpunished, enjoying their stolen riches that, when it comes to being the good guy, we might conclude, “Well, someone’s gotta be stolen from, lied to, and rubbed out.”

Where’s the justice in that? Judaism’s response came about twenty-five hundred years ago, sometime after our Torah narrative was born, in the book of Job. The story describes a protagonist who has it all but, one by one, he watches his business, his health, and his family be taken away from him. Comforters arrives and interrogate Job to determine what sins he had committed to earn such ill treatment from God. The book is a powerful critique of Torah, challenging the reward-punishment doctrine and echoing what must have been rampant doubt about God’s reliability in matters of just desserts. Twenty-five hundred years later, Rabbi Harold Kushner articulated similar ideas in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He seeks not to explain why bad things happen – that ship sailed when Job’s author upended our sense of God watching over the world and sending home report cards assessing our moral behavior. Kushner shrugs his shoulders when questioned about God’s intentions; instead, he tries only to be helpful to those who want responses and strategies – not answers – for surviving crisis and tragedy.

By the middle ages, Maimonides listed the doctrine of reward and punishment in his famed Yigdal – the 13 Attributes of Faith – but he moved it from bodily consequences to the fate of the soul, and so did Jewish tradition. Reward and punishment are no believed to necessarily be part of this lifetime but are meted out in the world-to-come. In other words, if we’re good, traditional Judaism teaches that eternal fun and sunshine await us; and if we’re bad, we’re consigned to something akin to the flames of eternal damnation.

Heaven & HellYou may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know Judaism believes in heaven and hell?” The short answer is yes, we do. What those two things look like, nobody pretends to know. Jewish thinkers and writers throughout the ages have toyed with these concepts, but the rabbis only settle upon this admonition, “Just observe the mitzvot. Be careful how you live your life in this world and the world-to-come will take care of itself.”

In spite of Judaism’s clarity of faith on the question of reward and punishment, it’s simply not good enough for me. I’m way too impatient to shout at the guy who just cut me off on 287, “You’ll get yours in the world-to-come!” I need something more instantaneous to satisfy the Angry God-complex inside me. Ellen is frequently horrified by the things I say behind the safety of our windshield to drivers who do stupid, rude and dangerous things. Driving while texting, tailgating, turning right from the left-hand lane, people who throw their garbage out the window, all of these drive me insane.

But my own feelings about the need for instant retribution aside, is there any real payback in the here-and-now for a person’s behavior?

To some extent, I believe – or at least I want to believe – that karma is real, that the universe reacts to how we behave. That “the Force” in Star Wars really can be with you. Back when I was into Transcendental Meditation, we used to refer to this as “the support of nature.” And sometimes I feel like there might be something to that. Dr. King taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, asserts that violence throughout the world – including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, treatment of children, of animals, and of minorities – such violence has declined. In other words, life has gotten better for all of us. Admittedly, that’s a very general statement, and life for any given individual may be horrid and cruel, but overall human existence has grown more secure across the generations. Which means, I would imagine, that more bad guys have been brought to justice and more good guys have felt the sun shining at their backs.

Besides looking for evidence in the daily news of increasing fairness and justice, I suggest that equally as important is what we see in our everyday lives around us – the people with whom we have regular contact, whom we watch day in and day out, how they treat others around them, and the effect this has on how others view – and subsequently regard – them.

I think that perhaps the greatest joy, and honor, of serving as a rabbi at Woodlands is observing how you live your lives. I see how you spend time with your families – with your partners, your children and grandchildren, your parents and grandparents – and I’m endlessly touched by the generous love you give to each other. I see how you spend time with other members of this congregation, how a simple greeting can lift another person’s day, how a shared opinion can be respectfully welcomed during a discussion, and how a visit to a congregant in need – and I’m thinking especially of your visits to Irene Gurdin at the Sarah Neumann Nursing Home and to Gloria Falk at Care One in New Jersey – and I’m simply bowled over by the love that you’re willing to bring to others. And then I see how you roll up your sleeves and distribute food and clothing on the Midnight Run, how you prepare meals and engage in conversation with the elderly folks from Project Ezra. I witnessed your incredible desire to help families whose homes had been damaged along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina and then right nearby during Superstorm Sandy. And I watched as you built a Jubilee Tablecloth and presented nearly $4000 in donations to my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, and the organization Mazon which seeks to reduce hunger worldwide.

And then I watch as the leaders of this congregation – from committees that prepare scavenger hunts, barbecues and college mailings right on up to our Board of Trustees and Executive Committee – how you treat one another, listening respectfully, disagreeing lovingly, and acting to create something of beauty here at Woodlands that goes way beyond any particular program or project, but blossoms in the relationships that reflect Judaism’s admittedly idealistic hope that when we look into each other’s eyes, we see God’s face, and we treat one another accordingly. It doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it feels awful, but so very much of the time, it does happen. And that makes my spirit soar.

These kindnesses that we bestow upon each other, they are very much their own rewards. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle. And so it goes. Souls going this way and that trying to assemble the myriad parts. But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle. Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.”

We carry one another’s puzzle pieces. Our tasks – perhaps assigned to us by God, maybe comprising one or more of the universal sparks which our mystical tradition describes as our role in tikkun olam, making the world whole – these tasks invite us to increase goodness wherever we can. And in so doing, welcome others to increase goodness for us.

KindnessIt may just be my greatest statement of faith, but I absolutely believe that goodness abounds, that while temptation and perhaps fear can drive us to act contrary to what we know is right, most of us try to do the right thing. And not just because it’s right, but because we like doing good. And I suppose my other great statement of faith is that I believe these things come back to us. They come back in the respect we engender within ourselves. They come back in the admiration and love we receive from others who observe our kindnesses. And maybe they even come back in a loving universe that appreciates the good we’ve done and tries to offer some good in return.

A number of years ago, I found myself sitting in the dentist chair, with the hygienist describing in great detail events that had brought her to the conclusion that she is definitely being watched over by a guardian angel. My mouth, at the time, was filled with dental instruments and so I was unable to react. I might have told her I don’t believe in guardian angels and that we run the course of our lives within the very logical (‘though not always kind) forces of nature. But perhaps it was better that my mouth was otherwise occupied and that I lived another decade or so before responding to her here tonight. A little older and, I don’t know, wiser? Humbler? Kinder? Now I think, who am I to tell anyone that their life is anything less than a blessing? And that the forces of the universe don’t love someone who values gentleness and caring.

The number of our years is far too few to spend them on anything other than being good to each other. Maybe that makes me her guardian angel. I can’t swoop down and make sure that she and her family are always safe, but I can put in a good word with her boss that I think she’s a great hygienist, and I can tell you how wonderful she is, how she models the kind of behavior and approach to life from which I think we’d all benefit. Which maybe makes me your guardian angel. And later, when you share your story of someone’s not-extraordinary kindness (because “extraordinary” is the last thing that kindness ought to be), perhaps you’ll be my guardian angel.

Tyler Levan quite likely wanted his parents and their “monster spray” to look out for him. But that big brain of his understood that reality might be otherwise. There may be no monsters in the night. But if that’s the case, how do we manage the fear that we feel nonetheless?

The answer may be in our mitzvot. Whether it’s the 613 that are denoted in Torah, or some other collection that we learned from our parents, from our teachers, in our books, or just by watching how life works … regardless, our actions may very well trigger re-actions that reflect back some of what we’ve put out into the universe. And while the reward or punishment may or may not be felt by us in our lifetimes, it’s out there somewhere.

I choose to believe it is. And try to live accordingly. It was good enough for my ancestors, and that’s plenty good that’s left for me.

Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! With these thoughts, we end this year’s cycle of learning from the book of Leviticus, and we wish one another strength of body, strength of spirit, and strength of faith that goodness is indeed, in some way known or not, a source of personal and universal reward.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

An Akhashverosh for Our Time?

First-Amendment_detail“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That’s the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between church and state.” We Jews love this amendment because it’s a large part of what has made this country a safe haven for minorities. Majority rules, but minority rights are protected. No Federal religion imposes its dogma on us. We’re free to worship as we choose.

There’s a price though for protecting this freedom. As we watch what may very well qualify as the most insane presidential campaign in American history, I am not permitted to mention by name any of the candidates, no matter how infuriated I am by their behavior. Which leaves me with two courses of action. One, to express gratitude that there are non-congregational rabbis out there – like former URJ president Eric Yoffie – who are tearing up the internet with their rants about some of the awfulness that is taking place right now. The other is to talk about these people without talking about them. Which is what I’m going to do right now.

Purim arrives this Wednesday evening. “Star Wars” will be our theme. We’ll have a riotous time. We’ll spoof some of our favorite “Star Wars” characters but we won’t spoof any candidates for national office.

Purim tells the story of King Akhashverosh, who ruled over 127 provinces and was as much a fool as any of our current candidates for president. He banishes his wife for refusing to come to a party. He appoints a homicidal maniac as his royal adviser. And he claims that a king’s edict – in this case, the one to instigate a pogrom against the Jews of Shushan – cannot be reversed so he gives the Jews permission to instigate their own pogrom first.

I imagine that if King Akhashverosh had run for reelection, we might have seen him advocate that climate change is a hoax created by the Assyrians to supress the Persian economy, build a 2000-mile wall along the Babylonian border and ban all Greeks from entering the Persian empire, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants who had illegally entered from Arabia to the south, end the Common Core horsemanship and archery curriculum, put the inter-provincial road system and communication outpost network (known as the Persian internet) up for grabs and forget about homing pigeon net neutrality, repeal Persian health care, and leave it up to each province to decide pregnancy policy. I wonder, if Mordekhai organized a presence of opposition at Akhashverosh’s rallies, would he be denounced, beaten and expelled? King Akhasverosh was an embarassment in Shushan two millennia ago. He’d still be an embarrassment as a political leader today.

I think about that first amendment to the Constitution and what it has meant for virtually every American citizen. At one point or another, most of us – or our relatives who originally brought our families to American shores in the first place – have belonged to a minority or immigrant group. One of America’s greatest virtues has been its willingness to welcome those who are seeking refuge and a better opportunity for themselves and for those they love. To advocate transforming our nation into a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, heterosexist stronghold goes (I think) against the original vision of our founding fathers.

Esther approaches the kingEach year, we retell the Scroll of Esther for fun and entertainment. But it’s a really scary story. Lives are seriously imperiled and the Persian empire came precariously close to committing genocide. Akhashverosh’s government not only ignored the rights of those who depended on him for their safety, but he permitted, or at best declined to prevent, Haman’s rise to power. We’re afforded a happy ending, albeit an incredibly violent one, but we’re left wondering if our own government could one day betray those who rely upon it. And of course, the answer is yes. America still contends with long-embedded racism, sexism, and distrust of “foreigners.” In the current atmosphere of economic disappointment and struggle for so many, the temptation to elect a candidate who promises to dramatically alter the fabric of our lives is appealing to far too many. The rise to power in the House of Representatives of so many who would implement decidedly restrictive and unfair laws, and now presidential candidates who would do the same and more, is no fairy tale. It’s really happening.

The writers of the Purim story were issuing later generations a warning: Not all those who rule are necessarily looking out for everybody’s best interests. So if you happen to live in one of the lucky nations where those who are not in power are still permitted to express opposing points of view without fear of reprisal, do so. Because if we don’t, we may be risking the loss not only of rights for those who have no voice but, eventually, for ourselves as well.

Come Wednesday, we’re going to fire up the Millennium Falcon, don our Stormtrooper helmets, pick up our light sabers and while away the evening with laughter and delight. But let’s not forget how frightened Queen Esther was of King Akhashverosh. With the wave of his scepter, he could have banished her or had her executed. Instead, he took her out for dinner and gave her half his kingdom. Such results do not often come from speaking truth to power. But so long as free elections offer citizens the opportunity to change a nation’s path at the ballot box, each of us must think carefully and deeply about the greater implications of our choices.

IfYouCan'tSeeGodInAllJudaism has always taught that the Divine spark resides in each of us. Created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, our tradition teaches that we must ensure that one and all are cared for and are safe. America has historically been one of the greatest homes for the Jewish community because of similar values that have been enshrined in the Constitution. May our children, and their children, wake up each morning to an America of similar constitution. May it forever welcome men and women of all colors, all faiths, all national origins, and all sexual and gender orientations. May God bless America for the same reason that, tomorrow morning, I’ll ask God to bless our Bat Mitzvah, because of the choices we consistently make that are inclusive, life-affirming, and reflective of a passion for caring and for love.

May we live to witness an abundance of happy endings, not just in books and movies, but throughout these United States of America.

Shabbat shalom.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

russian-coupleZeke and May had been married for over seventy years. Zeke was 101 years old and his wife was 99. One hot afternoon, as they sat together on their front porch rocking away, the old man, who was nearly deaf, couldn’t quite hear when May looked over at him and with admiration in her eyes said, “Zeke, I’m proud of you.” “What’s that you said, May?” She raised her voice and shouted in his direction, “I’m proud of you!” To which Zeke nodded and replied, “I’m tired of you too, May.”

Twenty-nine years a rabbi now, it’s hard for me to say just how many hundreds of wedding ceremonies I’ve presided over. I’ve used this story at only a couple of them. But what I can tell you is that I’ve loved being part of each and every one of those ceremonies. Many have been for kids I’ve watched grow up here, which has been very sweet indeed, while others have been for couples I’ve loved meeting and sharing in the excitement of their passionate and profound commitment to each other. And trying not to spoil their fun too much as I counsel them about the imperiled existence awaiting them just up ahead.

Tonight, being two days before Valentine’s Day, we’ve already listened to some of our fellow congregants share iyyunim on the theme of love. And as we’ve heard, love can encompass far more than a life-partner. Children, pets, even summer camp, can be among the many recipients of our heart’s devotion.

The human heart may occupy just a few meager ounces of space, but its capacity for love is possibly infinite. I asked myself the question – “What do I love?” – just to try and gauge my own heart’s capacity a little bit. I came up with a starter list that includes: my wife, my family, my work, this temple, my music (most music!), food (tho definitely not all food), nature, spending time in nature, reading books, apparently real books since I don’t enjoy Kindles, learning (especially Jewish learning), hi-tech gadgetry, compassion and generosity, smart people who have important things to say, and smart people whose important things that they say are effective and (even better) caring.

Oh, and my dog.

I’m sure I could quadruple this list if I spent more time on it. Which reminds me, let me add “time” to my list. I adore time!

This expanding of the list of what we love interests me. Not just our capacity to love, but our ability to expand that capacity, and to change how we feel. To add new items to the list. And most interesting of all, our capacity for adding items that we may have previously rejected, or even spurned. This, I think, is where we get Jewish about it.

One of the most fundamental texts in Jewish tradition about love is found in the book of Leviticus. In chapter 19, which is also known as the Holiness Code, we read: V’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha … love your neighbor as yourself.

Leave it to Judaism, of course, to offer such a fundamental commandment but make it next to impossible to fully understand. I mean, it looks simple. Love others! But what’s it really telling us? Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself? And what if you don’t love yourself – are you allowed to treat others that way too?

The Hebrew kamokha, “as yourself,” can also be understood as “love the neighbor who is like yourself.” What does that mean? That people who are not like us, we don’t have to love them? Or is the Torah saying that it’s actually harder to love those who are similar to ourselves? You know, the guy at work who does pretty much what you do, so you kind of hope he fails. The woman who plays the same musical instrument as you – you’re so much better than she is. Or family, with whom we spend so much time that the opportunities for disappointment and resentment loom large. Moses Maimonides presumed this mitzvah was referring to how we treat other Jews. Which leaves us with a different question: Was the Rambam telling us that our responsibilities for love go no further than how we treat other Jews? Or is that just the place where love must begin?

And then to get weird, the Talmud understands “Love your neighbor as yourself” as meaning, “Choose for him a good death.” I mean, yes, I do want to have a good death … someday … but how did they figure this is the particular thing that God was talking about when we were commanded to love our neighbor as ourself? On the other hand, dying is among our most vulnerable experiences; we entirely rely on others to help us die. Perhaps that is indeed one of life’s most loving moments, when we make sure that a loved one can die in comfort and in peace.

One 15th century commentator, Isaac ben Moses Arama, suggested we look to the friendship between David and Jonathan. David was aspiring to become the king of Israel and Jonathan was the son of the current king, Saul, which either complicated Jonathan’s relationship with David or his relationship with his dad the king. A passage in the Mishna (Avot 5:16) reads, “Any love that is dependent on something, when that something goes away, so too does the love. While any love that is not dependent on something, it will never perish. That,” the Mishna concludes, “is the love of David and Jonathan.”

In our Book of Samuel class, we happened to have just read those passages. And while I can’t vouch for the depth of David’s love, Jonathan’s did indeed seem awesomely powerful. As the son of Saul, Jonathan was the crown prince, and he had every reason to be resentful of David’s aspiration to power, an upward trajectory that would prevent Jonathan from succeeding his father. And yet, not once does that factor into his words or deeds. Jonathan loves David, and nothing – even the loss of his kingship over Israel – would jeopardize those feelings.

I imagine that for 99.9% of the human population, love takes hard work and sturdy blinders. Which is why Jonathan is view with such awe by our tradition. I’ve been married to Ellen for 34 years. What that woman has had to put up with, it’s remarkable she didn’t kick me out decades ago.

It reminds me of a husband and wife who had been married for sixty years and had no secrets except for one. The woman had kept a shoebox in her closet that forbade her husband from ever opening it. When she grew very old and near to dying, she gave her husband her blessing to finally open the box. Inside, he found a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. His wife explained, “My mother told me that the secret to a happy marriage was never to argue. Instead, I should keep quiet and crochet a doll.” Her husband was deeply touched. After sixty years, whe corcheted only one doll? “But what’s all this money?” he asked. “Oh, that,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling dolls.”

I am continually amazed at relationships that stand the test of time. I know that there’s so much more to them than the good times that were enjoyed together in the beginning and felt like the basis for staying together forever. I know that when real life gets added into the mix, and love still manages to remain, something very special, and very inspiring, has taken place.

Which brings me to the question of expanding our capacity to love to include what we may have previously rejected, or even spurned.

Many years ago, where Pumpernickel is in Ardsley, there used to be a restaurant called Tokyo Seoul. Our family loved eating there and went often. At the beginning of the meal, the server would place a number of small dishes in front of us, each containing a taste of some Asian hors d’oeuvres. One of these dishes contained kimchi, a fermented Korean cabbage that packed quite a spicy wallop. I didn’t much care for kimchi, but each time we went I ate a small bit of it. Over time, and I’m talking years here, I was able to increase the amount of kimchi I could tolerate. And today, I love it. I can sit with a full jar and just snack away!

LoveThyNeighborAsThyselfV’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha … love your neighbor as yourself.

What if you just don’t like them? What is they’re like an off-putting kimchi? Well, unless you subscribe to the notion that we’re commanded only to “love your neighbor who is like yourself,” our tradition doesn’t offer much of a way out. Either we perform the mitzvah, or we don’t.

When I was in college, I remember a fellow student who just rubbed me the wrong way. Our paths crossed many times during our years there, but I never gave her the time of day. For more than three decades, I carried that with me – not one of my prouder chapters. But a few years ago, I found her. And even though she now lives in the part of the world that invented kimchi, and I didn’t ever have to have anything to do with her again, I remembered that I’m Jewish and I’m supposed to try and live by at least some of the mitzvot. So I reached out to her, started a very long-distance correspondence and then spent some time together in-during a visit to the States. And you know what? It’s remarkable how much nicer she is thirty-five years later. Or could that be me? Well, either way, I’ve got a new pen-pal. And on a whole bunch of levels, it feels really good.

Which brings me to one more example – it’s of a completely unexpected love that came from a place of pure malice and hostility. I’ll never forget this story of a neo-Nazi by the name of Larry Trapp. In the early-90s, he was a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who harassed a cantor by the name of Michael Weisser, threatening to blow up his temple in Lincoln, Nebraska. But Cantor Weisser responded in an extraordinary way. He reached out to Trapp with compassion and with a challenge: to talk with him, and to learn about the religion and the people he hated so deeply. In time, this neo-nazi befriended the cantor, and ended up converting to Judaism and joining the cantor’s synagogue.

I think that of all the love there is in the world, nothing could be sweeter than that of an enemy who becomes a friend. It is the most idealistic work for any of us to incorporate into our lives. It takes tremendous courage, and probably more than a little bit of stubbornness and chutzpah. I suspect that such attempts fail as often as they succeed, but all such efforts are noble ones. And when they do succeed, as with this one, their stories are unforgettable.

But I take it back – that may not be the greatest love. There is little doubt in my mind that the greatest love may very well be the one where – across huge tracts of time and even more moments of disappointment – individuals, or groups, manage to stick it out with one another. Despite letting each other down, neither walks away. I’m thinking of alliances between nations, or between disparate communities, among lifelong friends, relatives and, of course, between husbands and wives, between life-partners. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches about the honor of showing up each day to life. It’s hard enough when life settles into the ordinary and we wonder if that’s all there is. But then, when it gets rocky, to not walk away, to stick around and work things out if at all possible, that may be the highest fulfillment of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha.

So on this nearly-Valentine’s Day Shabbat, three cheers for love. Wherever it surfaces, however it steals our hearts, love is where it’s at. Zeke may have expressed an unfortunate truth in telling May he was tired of her too, but I’m guessing that he had no intention of going anywhere without her by his side. So in whatever form your Valentine appears this year, I hope that will be the same for you as well.

Don’t forget to bring home flowers!

The late-19th century writer Shalom Aleichem was a funny guy. He once wrote, “I never went to the fair without taking into consideration the feelings of my neighbors. If I was successful and peddled everything I took, and came home with my pockets stuffed with money, and my heart singing, I would tell my neighbors that I had lost all my money and was a failed man. The outcome of this was that I was happy and my neighbors were happy.”

Elohenu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors … help us to better understand our family and our neighbors. Teach us to care about them kamokha, somewhere in the vicinity of the way we care for ourselves. Give us a “stick-to-it-ness” that will help us to ride out the rockier moments of our relationships. And expand the capacity of our hearts so that we might expand the list of those included in the sharing of our love. It’s cost-effective, fits any budget, and goes a long way to fulfill that long list of mitzvot You gave us at Mount Sinai.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Shed a Lotta Light!

1dffecc51d04e06d37d1dd806c28542fThere’s a very old Jewish story about a woman who’d pretty much had it up to here with her life. It seemed she had nothing but tzuris and couldn’t find a way through the mess. So she went to see her rabbi. The woman spilled out every drop of her woeful tale: her marriage was shaky, her children ungrateful, her job unrewarding, and her health unsatisfactory. The rabbi offered the woman a solution. Walk the width and breadth of our town. Find someone whose life you admire, whose troubles you would exchange for your own, then come back to me and I’ll make the switch. Thanking the rabbi (and oddly, never once thinking this was weird), she headed straight for the home of the wealthiest person in town. His life was perfect. Productive career. Well-behaved children. Good-looking too! But when she looked closely, she saw a house filled with despair: alcoholism, domestic abuse, frightened but resentful children. No way would she trade her troubles for these. As the woman moved from house to house, she discovered that no home was without its challenge, no family free from some tribulation. She returned to the rabbi and thanked him for his offer but, no, she would be keeping her own life and her own difficulties. And with new perspective, she returned home. Did she never fret about the imperfections of her existence? No. But from that day on, she could remind herself that everyone’s life faces challenge. And with that, she lived mostly happily mostly ever after.

You know what I don’t like about this story? Even though the woman learned an important lesson about success and happiness, her experiences left her unmoved and unresponsive to the others whom she’d encountered. Frankly, this Jewish story doesn’t seem very Jewish to me. After all, are we not the people whom God instructed, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” rather than “You shall feel better than your neighbor about yourself”? And Hillel not the famed rabbi who insisted that while we must indeed care for ourselves (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”), did he not immediately follow that teaching with, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Ours is a tradition of empathy (of feeling the pain of others) and of action (of taking needed steps to help alleviate another’s pain). Which is why our biblical prophets are so dear to us. When Isaiah calls us to feed the hungry, Jeremiah to plead the case of the poor and needy, and Amos to let justice roll down like waters, these are the teachings that have shaped the generations of our people, the Jewish directives that have guided us down the paths which we walk.

MLK.9So on this weekend that honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,, it’s not hard to equate Dr. King with the great biblical prophets. Only moments ago, we heard his immortal words in Washington, “I have a dream that one day … the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. […] I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. King’s message always was that we should step forward to advocate for each other. Not just for ourselves. And not just for those who look like us. That’s why “Black Lives Matter.” It’s not that all lives don’t matter; they do. But African-Americans are being brutalized and killed by some who have been charged with protecting us. Now is the time for us to stand with them. We must all stand together. That’s what our Jewish tradition has taught us. That’s what good people do. That’s what a mensch does.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an antisemitic incident in our area. Six swastikas and the word “Jews” were spray-painted on a home that was also pelted with eggs. The Jewish community spoke out, as it should. I was talking with Rabbi Mara Young about this and we both expressed appreciation, and gratitude, that we live in a time where injustice is something we can all face head-on, together. We need no longer remain quiet, hoping that bigotry will just go away, knowing that it won’t. Today, we can speak out. We don’t always do so, but we can. Jews and non-Jews standing side-by-side, neighbor with neighbor, to condemn this hurtful behavior. This time, it’s “Jewish Lives Matter.”

Is this not the very lesson that Dr. King wanted us to learn? To embrace difference, to celebrate it, and to protect it. To build a world where all lives truly matter. And to get there by proclaiming as loudly as we can, from the highest mountains, that black lives matter, Jewish lives matter, Syrian lives matter, immigrant lives matter, Muslim lives matter.

I want to share with you a beautiful video that was released earlier this week. You’ve probably heard of The Maccabeats. They’ve been making all those great a cappella Hanukkah videos of the past few years. Natural 7 is a black a cappella group that joined with The Maccabeats to record a James Taylor tune entitled “Shed a Little Light.” It’s a Martin Luther King Day message. It’s a Jewish message. It’s a human message for us all.

Give it a listen, then come back and read the end of this piece …

“We are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong.” That’s Dr. King’s message. That’s the message our ancestors received when they stood at Mount Sinai. That’s the message our prophets tried to remind later generations when they faltered in their commitment to the well-being of all and spent too much time and energy looking only after themselves.

night_and_day_1920x1200_by_seph_the_zeth-d3idke2A learned rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and day had begun. “Could it be,” said one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell if it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a distant tree and tell if it is a fig tree or a peach tree? “No,” answered the rabbi. “The night has ended and day has begun … when you can look upon the face of any man or woman, and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, dear God, God of our ancestors, God of all humankind, we are forever grateful that You gave to us these precious and sacred gifts of empathy, kindness and compassion. Understanding that none are immune from life’s troubles, may we use these gifts to bring great good into our world. May we not stand by idly when another bleeds. May we rise and be counted when our community needs us. May we rise and be counted when someone else’s community needs us. May we appreciate not only what we have, but what others lack. And may we look upon the face of every man and woman and see that he is our brother, she our sister.

Let the ties between us shed a little light on everybody. Bound together by the task that stands before us, let us travel that road together, and welcome a new day for all.

Ken yehi ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

The Honor of Being Alive and Part of Creation

The-Night-Sky-by-Eric-HinesHolmes and Watson go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lie down for the night and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.”

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

Watson ponders this for a moment and then responds, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a minute, and then speaks. “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

How unlikely an honor it is that we have been created at all, that we are living life, and that we are living it as a next chapter in the continuing story of the Big Bang.

While, from time to time, it becomes necessary to focus on minute details of our individual stories in order to survive, it is our connection to the meta-story of life that I’ll be writing about – how big we are, even as an infinitesimally small piece of the universe.

Just the other day, someone asked me not to jinx them by saying so-and-so. I looked at them incredulously, which a rabbi really ought not do, but I was stunned to witness firsthand that superstition is alive and well in the 21st century.

A study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when college students were asked to say out loud that they would definitely not get into a car accident this winter, follow-up questioning ascertained that they definitely thought it more likely that they would. When subsequently asked to “knock on wood” on a table in front of them, the effects of the jinx were believed to have been reversed; these students were no more likely to think they would get into an accident than those who hadn’t jinxed themselves in the first place.

We humans, no matter how well-educated we are, are very reluctant to let go of our primordial fears. Not only do we hang onto to age-old superstitious beliefs – black cats crossing our path, walking beneath a ladder – we’re creating new ones all the time: sports players who pitch or bat well at a game, then try to maintain their success by wearing or doing some repeated act for each subsequent game; candy consumers who avoid certain M&M colors believing they might cause illness or the risk of terrorist attack. There is no end to our beliefs in supernatural forces acting on our natural world.

Perhaps the best-known act of superstition is prayer. The ancient Israelites believed that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were necessary preliminaries leading up to the most important prayer-day of their year: Sukkot, during which they prayed to God for rain. In a few weeks, we’ll gather in our tent and, while praying for no rain during the High Holy Days, many of us will ask God to forgive us for our sins from the previous year. Along the way, we may ask for a few boons as well: healing for a loved one, a raise at work, maybe even a curse or two for our annoying neighbors.

prayerNot infrequently I’m informed that someone no longer believes in prayer because God never seems to be listening; that is, God doesn’t grant the requested favor. But that’s not the main purpose of prayer – not in the Jewish tradition, not in any religious tradition.

Do you know the story about the man who is sitting at his wife’s bedside at an out-of-town hospital they have unfortunately had to come to while traveling? A local rabbi invites the man to attend his synagogue while he’s in town, to which the man responds, “Rabbi, if I have anything to ask of God, I can do that right here.”

Certainly when our loved ones are not well, we pray for their recovery. And we would welcome God’s altering the course of nature, if necessary, to grant our loved one a miracle. But traditional prayer is neither about our asks nor the granting of miracles. Prayer is about acknowledging the magnificence of life and expressing thanks that we’re part of it. Rather than bending God’s will to our own (a fairly presumptuous thing to do), prayer encourages us to align our desires with God’s. The end of the hospital story is the rabbi saying to the man, “Well, perhaps God has something to ask of you.” The universe is huge, infinite. Prayer expresses our gratitude and our awe at how lucky we are to be part of it. Especially in light of the improbability of life existing on earth in the first place.

photosynthesis-3In the earliest chapters of earth’s history, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. The sun’s rays did create a bit of oxygen by splitting it off from carbon dioxide and other molecules, but the oxygen molecules quickly disappeared when they formed bonds with others, transforming into compounds like rust and hydrogen peroxide. It wasn’t until some three billion years ago, when microbes evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis, that oxygen became abundant, and you and I became possible.

Prayer is the human response to that unlikely event and the subsequent evolution that has brought you, me and everything we love into existence.

This past Monday, I stood at the graveside of a congregant’s grandmother as we laid to rest the sacred vessel in which she had lived her life. Before we left the cemetery, we joined together in reciting Kaddish. As always, I shared with those gathered that their isn’t a single word in the Kaddish prayer about death. Kaddish is a grand poem in which we proclaim two truths: the first, that life is an extraordinary gift to each of us; and the second, that the appropriate response to that gift is thanks. With Kaddish, we thank God for a universe in which life is possible, and how grateful we are for having shared in the life of this person whom we have loved and whom we now return to the infinite ocean of life from which we all emerged.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, shortly after we’ve first opened the pages of our new High Holy Days makhzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we will read these words:

“My Lord is not a shepherd and I am not His sheep. No monarch greedy for my praise is worthy of my prayers. Oneness that exploded into cosmos, spun the double helix over eons of evolution, made all things beautiful in their time, gave me intellect and initiative to envision Oneness: a single chain of life, a single human family, and myself one part — responsible and responsive, member of a people who dreamed of Oneness, worked and suffered for its sake, and still lives in service to that Unity: This I honor. This I hold sacred.”

Now that’s prayer. In a world whose mechanics we increasingly understand, the awesomeness of the Force responsible for its existence only grows more impressive. While I am quite sure you and I will continue to knock on wood when someone we love is in peril, let us try and remember how great the universe is, and to never withhold our profound thankfulness for having the magnificent honor of becoming one tiny share of that infinite magnificence.

As we continue our Elul preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe, let us remember that while we are but dust and ashes, we are also but a little lower than angels.

lithium-setRadiolab is a nationally syndicated radio program produced by WNYC that focuses on topics of scientific and philosophical nature. In the episode, “Elements,” they focused on a young woman diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and whose successful treatment involved the administration of three tablets of a salt called lithium. Besides how effective lithium is in treating the young woman’s condition, the program explores the fundamental, essential character of the drug; lithium is an element, an atom, not a complex drug – it appears on the Periodic Table of Elements and has been around since the Big Bang.

Ben Lilly, who writes about psychiatric drugs, found this to be a “profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same as the forces that are shaping who we are.”

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

How did we manage to wind up on the invitation list to this cosmic gathering? Why have You included us as part of the continuing story of the Big Bang and Creation? We may never know. But thank You – for whatever it was You did to get us in the door.

May we live our lives in such a way as to be worthy of being part of it all.