Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Of Rockets and Screaming Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

This Shouldn’t Be Extraordinary

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

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

peace dove hand symbol

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

And me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alla, Billy and Michael

Alla, Billy and Michael

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

* lyrics used by permission

Who Is Perfect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings from a Bolt of Lightning

From January through June, I was privileged by my congregation to receive a sabbatical from my rabbinical duties. Among its many renewing experiences was a trip this past February to Israel. Ellen and Katie and Aiden and I, along with Ellen’s brother Cliff and his wife Sandy, joined together for this expedition which, in a number of ways, was quite different from any other trip I’d taken there. First, and most importantly, it’s the first time I’ve gone to Israel with my family. During rabbinical school, Ellen and I had spent a year there, but that was before we had kids. Katie did travel with us once, way back in 1988 when Beged Kefet had been invited to perform for the CAJE Conference in Jerusalem. But she was only 6 months old at the time, so I’m not sure that really counts.

This time, it was the four of us together, and everyone was old enough to really appreciate it. But what made the trip most different of all was that Aiden, assuming his rabbi-and-cantor parents would want to (I guess) pray at every synagogue there, had asked that we not make it a religious pilgrimage. Ellen and I agreed to tone down “the Jewish stuff.” So, for another first, we spent only a couple of days in Jerusalem, and allowed the trip to focus mainly on Israel’s incredible natural terrain.

In the center of the country, we visited the startling, sparkling springs and hiking trails of Ein Gedi, meeting up with more ibexes than you can shake your antlers at. Up north, we walked along the banks of a rushing, very full Dan River. And near Tiberias, we spent time with the alligators and in the hot springs of Hamat Gader (the ‘gators do not occupy the hot springs).

Truth, however, is that we didn’t avoid human spiritual activity entirely. The Kotel (and its underground excavations) in Jerusalem were as magnificent and stirring as ever. Even Aiden seemed moved by it. We also visited the mystical city of Tz’fat, where we spent some time inside one of the small, timeless synagogues that dot the city’s street. Again, Aiden did not complain (I think he’s more spiritual than he lets on).

Tz’fat is, of course, home to many artisans and we love visiting as many of their galleries as our legs will allow. Sometime during our wanderings, we stumbled across the Canaan Gallery where they hand-weave tallitot. I had just finished a 20-year run with my current tallit, which was now quite thread-bare, and very much wanted to return from my sabbatical with a new one.

I loved this place because I didn’t have to select something off the racks. Invited to choose a fabric, choose a weave, and choose a color scheme, I was thrilled. And then I was invited to choose a text to embroider on the atara. The salesperson said, “Now please don’t forget about your order. You’ve made all your selections and paid me your money. Send me the text so I can finish the tallit and mail it to you.”

I never forgot the tallit. I never forgot the text. I also never sent her the text. Because I could choose any text in all of Jewish tradition, and because it could be anything, I knew it couldn’t be any text I’d ever seen used before. That meant I’d have to read the entire Hebrew Bible to find my text! So when the call came from Israel, “Why have you forgotten your order?” I explained that I hadn’t. I just needed some more time.

Finally, around the beginning of May, I found it. It’s in the book of Job. Job was the guy who’d had it all, then lost it all (apparently at the whim of God) and then got it all again. In his deepest suffering, Job cries out to God, asking to know the reason for his suffering. The Creator correctly admonishes him, saying, “You know next to nothing about the workings of My creation. Your questions to Me will always go unanswered.” While this sounds unduly harsh in God’s treatment of Job (who was sitting right there with God, so should have been able to at least get an inkling as to what brought all this about), you and I don’t get any audiences with God. God’s silence when we question is par for the course.

The text I settled on comes from God’s response to Job (38:35). God asks him, “Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?”

This text is perfect for me. We are so small and the universe is so great. We understand much about how it works, but our knowledge is still infinitesimal. Humility is in order. The lightning belongs to God. It will not come when we call it.

So while we pray, and sometimes think it in our purview to call upon the Creator of the universe to do our bidding, this tallit will serve as an excellent reminder that I can neither ask nor demand anything of God. Humility is in order.

At the same time, we are most definitely part of the universe. It happens around us. It happens to us. And we happen to it. We need to beware of getting in its way. And also, as guests here, we have a responsibility to take care of it, and to take care of each other.

It is with this sense of humility and of responsibility that my family joined together during my sabbatical to create The Jonah Maccabee Foundation. Three years after Jonah’s death, we feel that we can do more with the pain and the challenge that accompanied the disappearance of our son and brother. With the success of the annual concert at Woodlands Community Temple in Jonah’s memory, which raises funds to get Woodlands kids to URJ summer camps, we realized we might be able to do more.

So with the help of some very kind folks, we incorporated, applied for nonprofit status, built a website (http://jonahmac.org), learned how to Twitter, to harness PayPal, to advertise on Facebook, and even pin photos with a message on Pinterest. As a result, we have built a larger avenue on which to affirm life and not complain of its cruelty. Rather than simply carry on, which no one would begrudge us doing after Jonah’s death, we choose to draw something good out of something horrible.

There’s a wonderful story in which two men are traveling through a forest. It’s dark, the path has become nearly impossible to see, and the two men fear that they are hopelessly lost. Worse yet, a thunderstorm is headed their way and already, the skies have begun to rumble, announcing the approaching rains. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning splits the sky. One of the travelers looks up, startled and frightened by the lightning. The other looks down, understanding the brief light as a gift to help in finding their way back to the path. A second bolt of lightning flashes. This time, it strikes a nearby tree, setting it aflame. The first traveler runs away, in fear of the raw and powerful energy that had narrowly missed striking them. But the other runs toward the tree, understanding that it is precisely in the vicinity of that burning tree that the two travelers will find light and warmth.

Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?” The world isn’t an easy place for anyone. But understanding that, it’s possible to construct new things of beauty, paint new vistas, write new melodies – even when tears are never far from the surface.

Billy

Religion as Metaphor (or, at the least, as a Broadway Musical)

A couple of nights ago, my family was delighted to attend a cabaret performance by Sheera Ben-David at Feinstein’s in New York City. Besides the power and beauty of Sheera’s performance, she was backed by a band which included her brother, Adam, who also happens to serve as Associate Conductor for the current Broadway production of “The Book of Mormon” … which reminded me that I’d had some pretty enthusiastic (and maybe important?) ideas about the show’s storyline. I wrote them up in a Rosh Hashanah sermon last September and share them here with you. 

Billy

A woman makes an appointment with her doctor and, after a bit of a wait, is led to an examination room where she is seen by a young, new member of the staff. After a brief consultation, the doctor tells the woman she’s pregnant. The door to the examination room bursts open, and the woman, now screaming, is running down the hall. An older doctor stops her and asks what’s the matter, and, after listening for a moment, has her take a seat in another room and breathe. The doctor then marches down the hallway back to where the first doctor is and says, “What’s the matter with you? Mrs. Terry is fifty-nine years old. She’s got four grown children and seven grandchildren. And you tell her she’s pregnant?” The young doctor continues writing on his clipboard and, without looking up, asks, “Does she still have the hiccups?”

The key to any good story is an ending that catches the listener by surprise. We start out with one image in our mind, that image grows in color and definition as the storyline develops, and then we’re asked to suddenly and radically change that picture. The results may prompt a smile, a laugh, or if the story’s intent is a more serious one, a sigh, a lump in our throats, or even tears.

Psychologists affirm the importance of storytelling in human experience. Stories are a timeless link to ancient traditions, myths, and symbols. They connect us to a larger self and to universal truths. Stories allow us to understand ourselves better and to find our commonality with others. They explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we justify our decisions, how we persuade others, how we understand our place in the world, create our identities, and define and teach social values. Stories take place in our imaginations, but they create genuine emotions and behavioral responses. And by engaging our imaginations, we become participants in the narrative, stepping out of our own shoes, seeing things differently, and tapping into creativity that is the foundation of innovation, self-discovery and change.

So when I’d heard that the South Park guys were writing a musical, I knew it was going to be one heckuva story. And when they announced it would be titled The Book of Mormon, I braced myself for an outrageous evening of irreverence, but also hoped that the South Park sense of compassionate humanity would shine through. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is a kooky one. Mormon missionaries are sent to Africa, going door-to-door selling their particularly American brand of Christianity in a land that is so different from the one they trained in, there aren’t even doorbells to ring. Mormonism itself helps the musical achieve is goofiness, through its traditional assertions that Jesus visited upstate New York in the early-1800s, that Jerusalem will be moved to Jackson County, Missouri, and that, as the musical tells us, “in 1978, God changed His mind about black people.”

As a rabbi, I of course was curious as to whether The Book of Mormon would wreak havoc on religion in general. Would it dismiss all institutional quests for spirituality as, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; at worst, self-serving and destructive? — critiques that are not unfamiliar to any of us, perhaps concerning other religions, perhaps concerning our own. But as it turns out, and it was easy to miss, The Book of Mormon has something quite wonderful to say about religion, something worth sharing here this morning, and worth taking home to ponder and perhaps synthesize into our own understanding of religion in general, and of Judaism in particular.

The musical’s young missionaries are sent to Uganda for two years of sharing door-to-door the Book of Mormon’s message of eternal life through adherence to the teachings of the Heavenly Father, and making converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What these eager, enthusiastic, but naive proponents of God’s love find is stark poverty, barbaric mutilation, political corruption, and a community where more than a million men, women and children are living with HIV, the AIDS virus. In fact, religion grows quite popular in hard times, as people reach out for hope beyond what they can expect from the immediate world around them. But the Mormons are unsuccessful at bringing people into the fold until they realize they must adjust their message to the circumstances in front of them. They must make their teachings relevant. And when that happens, the Ugandans grow interested.

One of the two lead characters in The Book of Mormon sings a song that delineates Mormon beliefs. Well, not all of them. Since this is brought to us by the South Park people, it’s only the beliefs that bring a smile to our faces.

♬ I believe that the Lord God created the universe. I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins. And I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes.

♬ I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe that plan involves me getting my own planet. And I believe that the current President of The Church, Thomas Monson, speaks directly to God. I am a Mormon, and a Mormon just believes!

♬ I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well. And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. [I am] a Mormon, and a Mor-mon-just-believes!

All religions have their silliness. The Mormons haven’t cornered the market on that. For example, the Church of Scientology believes that 75 million years ago there was an alien galactic ruler named Xenu who was in charge of all the planets in this part of the galaxy, including Earth except in those days it was called Teegeeack. Because all of the seventy-six planets he controlled were overpopulated, he called in, with the help of psychiatrists, billions of people for tax inspections where instead they were given injections to paralyze them and were then placed in rockets that flew to planet Earth and stacked the paralyzed people around the bases of volcanoes which were then destroyed by hydrogen bombs.

Christianity gets to join in the fun too, teaching that Jesus died for our sins, that he’s coming back to fix the world, and that you too can do the math to figure out what day that’ll be. If you’re a hardened criminal, you can still go to heaven as long as you accept Jesus as your Savior. And two-hundred-year Crusades are a great way to reclaim the Holy Land from the infidel, and kill millions while you’re doing it!

Judaism has its silliness too. I invite you to sing along.

♬ I believe that God created the universe. I believe that He wrote it down for us to read. And I believe He squeezed 15 billion years of evolution and quantum physics into six 24-hour periods. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that God told all men that we get to be in charge. I believe that Eve made Adam eat the apple even though apples don’t grow in the Middle East or Africa. And I believe that Noah built an Ark that could hold two and sometimes fourteen of every animal on the face of the planet. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

♬ I believe that in a dictatorship like ancient Egypt, Joseph could be thrown in jail and then rise to become prime minister (how come they didn’t just cut his head off?). I believe that our ancestors wandered in the desert for forty years without ever needing a change of clothing or a new pair of shoes. And I believe that if I perform the 613 mitzvot, most of which can’t be done outside the land of Israel and aren’t even done in Israel today, that I’ll get to go to heaven. I am a Jew, and a Jew just believes.

I’ve got one more.

♬ I believe that Joshua made the walls of Jericho fall. I believe God split the Red Sea too. And I believe that Abraham was fine with God telling him to take his son up a mountain and kill him there. I am a Jew, and a Jew-just-believes!

See what I mean?

Now maybe you’re thinking, “Well, that’s traditional Judaism, but we Reform Jews don’t believe any of that stuff.” Did I ever tell you about a friend of mine who was studying to be a rabbi and she got fired from her student pulpit because she taught that the Ten Plagues likely never occurred? That was a Reform congregation. And while I don’t have statistics (I’d really like to have statistics on this), I imagine that a whole lot of “liberal Jews,” despite college educations, advanced degrees, and knowledge of the sciences that so many of us have, there’s not a whole lot of questioning about the historicity of the events in the Bible. Our kids question it. In my tenth grade Confirmation class, students nail me all over the place about it. But maybe it’s just bravado because I suspect, fifteen years from now, many of them will no longer be challenging these stories.

I believe … that this is the scariest part of religion. Intelligent people willing to suspend disbelief, to set aside every critical faculty they use everywhere else in life, and allow not just the stories, but the laws, that were fashioned some three-to-four thousand years ago, to govern our lives today. We certainly see this in its exaggerated forms in Orthodox Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, and Radical Islam. As a result, many people conclude that religion is, at best, ridiculous and a waste of time; and at worst, it’s self-serving and destructive.

Author and dynamic lecturer Douglas Rushkoff wrote last year in The Forward that, “For most of us, the release from slavery described in the story of Pesach is metaphorical. We are not enslaved physically; we are rather imprisoned mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Mitzrayim, the ‘narrow place,’ is a narrow state of mind from which we are released the moment we are willing to smash our idols.”

Now, I love Doug’s take on Passover. I think that every Jewish moment, event, ritual, and even God, is a metaphor for something in our lives, something we want or need in order to live fully, to attain contentment, happiness. But I disagree with him in that I don’t think that “most of us” see religion as metaphor. And the reason we don’t see religion as a metaphor is that it requires time and thought to move from the literal to the symbolic. Not everybody wants to do that work. But I want to make it clear to you that not only does Judaism allow us to see it as metaphor, we must. Otherwise, we will often look as silly as characters in a musical comedy.

So let me extend to you an invitation. Come into your synagogue more often than you have to. Come to services, and listen to what the clergy and others on the bimah think Jewish ritual as metaphor offers us today. Come take a class or two, and dive more deeply into some topic, and move yourself beyond basic information toward more profound and metaphorical understandings of our religion. And lastly, come and perform community service … because ultimately, mitzvah (religious obligation) is about sensing our responsibility for one another. To demonstrate that we comprehend the metaphor of our stories and our laws, we need to carry these metaphors forward into compassionate and activist behaviors. Simply stated, the teachings of our ancient religion need to propel us to care, and to show that we care. The world really needs that from us.

The South Park boys demonstrated they understand this when, in The Book of Mormon, the no-longer-naive protagonist declares that religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” And with that one sentence, this musical made a profound contribution to our understanding why religions are with us, and why they should stay. Religion is “a bunch of made-up stuff but it point[s] to something bigger.” That “something bigger” can be something awful, to be sure, if people pervert religion’s potential and use it to divide people into “the saved” and “the damned.” When religion encourages cruel treatment of outcast infidels, it’s lost its way. But when that “something bigger” is our shared sense that we’re all in this together, that although the world is vast our destinies are shared, and the work we do to improve life for all is the most important work of all, that’s when religion is on-task and earns an honored place in our community. So if our religion – for most of us here, Judaism – encourages us to do this by telling stories from times gone by that are intended to help us figure out how to live in our own time, and the resulting activity is helpful to everyone, then I believe we’ve stumbled upon one of life’s greatest truths.

My wife Ellen is always teaching that the stuff we learn about in Judaism doesn’t have to have happened in order for it to be true. So I don’t ask you, “Is the Torah true?” I ask, “How is the Torah true?” And the responses we create do not have to confirm that any of this actually happened; it only has to confirm our understanding of what we ought to make happen.

So just what do “I Believe”? I believe that the purpose of religion is to assist us in becoming fully human.

♬ I believe that religion can be tender and wise. I believe that we have to use it for the common good. And I believe that when religion teaches us compassion, mercy, tolerance, and grace, that’s when we write our own Broadway musical, a musical called “The Book of ……………………… Life.”

♬ I am a human.

And as a human, it is my nature, and my gift … to seek out something loving and ennobling … to believe.

Billy

By the Numbers

Years back, I read in The Washington Post (“The Shortwave and the Calling,” David Segal, Aug 3, 2004) about something really weird on the radio. In 1992, a guy named Akin Fernandez, who’s always been into collecting off-beat stuff, began recording middle-of-the-night broadcasts of numbers. That’s right. Stations whose signal can’t be found until the moon’s shining, and whose program consists solely of people reciting long lists of numbers. Sometimes they add words.

Gosh.

The voices can be male or female, and even children. The languages include English, Russian, Spanish, Czech and others. “You’re listening,” says Fernandez, “and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal. It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”

Film director Cameron Crowe, who used some of Fernandez’s recordings in Vanilla Sky, talks about the numbers stations as being one of the few mysteries left around us. That’s a really powerful statement. Whether it’s due to the quantum leap of the information age (just about everything about anything seems to be accessible to anyone) or our jaded loss of wonder in an all-too-harsh world, true mysteries take us by surprise.

And we don’t necessarily like that. Recent Nobel Prize winners gathered their honors for work done in measuring background radiation levels that continue to assert the power of the Big Bang Theory of Creation. In the New York Times, however, a telling comment about the density and patterns of the radiation reads, “Cosmologists now believe that these lumps or ripples are a result of quantum fluctuations, tiny jitters in the force fields that filled the universe when it was a fraction of a millionth of a second old.”

A fraction of a millionth of a second old. Wow! That bowls me over. Physicists are among the smartest people on earth. They can take us back almost to the beginning of time, but not quite. And that “not quite” is one of the universe’s great, unrelenting mysteries. Some will say, “Well, it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Big Bang itself.” But physicists shake their heads on that point, because the moment of Creation (and certainly, the nothingness that “existed” before) transcends every law and theory of the physical universe that we know.

It may never be figured out. Not that they won’t keep trying (and they should). But like the numbers radio stations, some mysteries may never be solved. By the way, the most solid theory on the numbers is that these are encoded messages being broadcast to covert operatives across the globe. Problem is, no government will confirm that.

The mystery continues.

Mystery is good, though. Keeps us wondering. And wondering is good. Keeps life in perspective. Because if we think we know everything, we may think we’re in charge. But when we’re in the dark, we may remain a bit more circumspect about how free we are to do what we want with this planet.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches an idea about God that he calls “radical amazement.” In a universe that – whether we have scientific understanding or not (and it truly cuts both ways) – ought to fill us with awe (because of its beauty, its complexity, its vastness), our response ought not be a jaded one but a response of joy, of surprise, of gratefulness (for receiving the opportunity to be part of it). And whether we sense a conscious entity making an intelligent choice to put us here, or we sense something that existed before Creation and is somehow responsible for life flowing out of it (the Big Bang moment) … there has never been anything quite like that, and “radical amazement” is a most appropriate response.

In religious traditions, the name “God” is assigned to the force that is responsible for our existence, and “prayer” is our very natural expression of awe and gratefulness at witnessing it all.

Perhaps one day we’ll find out not only what happened at the precise moment of Creation, but what was going on before Creation — maybe we’ll learn it’s all been a covert government operation! Even so, with knowledge or without, the universe is a radically amazing place. The numbers stations are kind of their own prayer — words and sounds broadcast for us to hear, giving expression to our thoughts of how great, big, beautiful and inspiring is the mystery of it all!

Billy