Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Kaddish II

After sharing the story (see “Kaddish“) of the first piece of music I ever wrote (at age 17), I’m delighted to share a new development. A very talented friend of mine, Amir Sinai Weisglas, emailed me with the following:

“When I listened to the old recording of your Kaddish, I was struck by its optimistic energy and beauty. I had to do a version of mine. The last two weeks were all around this piece. I recorded a grand first version, but it was not correct. So I started again and here is the second version. What I loved the most about your composition was that this text, which is for me (and us, Israelis) is usually connected to negative, dramatic, down-pulling energy, turned to be something optimistic, pray of bless.”

Amir’s original artwork for the song

Amir is a very dear friend of mine. We met in the summer of 2007 at Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership program in Warwick, NY. I was a volunteer rabbi on faculty teaching Jewish Ethics, Jewish Attitudes toward Tattoos and Navel Piercing, as well as Sonic Spirituality, a deeper dive into the emotional power of music. Amir, who is from Israel, served on staff for the Visual Arts program, an all-purpose role that included not only teaching but coordinating the wildest of requests from anywhere in camp for art support, including a working, life-sized Wheel of Fortune.

These days, Amir lives in Berlin where he now spends time pursuing the musical arts, a talent of his I hadn’t known about during our summer together. We reconnected a couple of years ago, just on Facebook, first to say hi and then to discuss our musical interests and ideas. Amir is such a kind, thoughtful and rather brilliant person that it was always a treat to spend some time with him. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to listen to more of his creations as he posted them on YouTube and Spotify.

When I posted here a piece about “Kaddish,” my first musical composition (written when I was 17 years old), Amir heard it and right away began thinking about how he would cover it.

“I knew I wanted to keep some of the original recording, which in my opinion is perfect (soooo many music producers are working very, very hard to get the tape/old/low-fi sound, and here it is in its full glory) and took it to my contemporary world, mixing electronica with orchestral work.”

This wasn’t long after the massacre of October 7, and Amir explained to me that these words of Kaddish were resonating quite strongly for him. Recording my melody became one more path for his grief journey.

“Every time I tried recording vocals, I ended up crying! I feel like this is my prayer at this moment, as so many are suffering, and so much disharmony is surrounding us.”

Back when I was 17, the only one close to me who had died was my dog, Frankie. So I really had no reference for the feeling of grief. The song was innocent and naive. I wrote it in a minor key because, well, wouldn’t you have to? But I’ve never quite been able to write sad music. To then learn that 50 years later it had moved my friend to tears, that came as a surprise and (can I say this?) an honor. Amir didn’t just like the tune; he was moved by it.

“About the upbeat recording, I find it full of power — your piano playing is great with strong fingers — and I love the upbeat feeling of the song. It has the youth(fulness) in it, without inhibition! I find it perfect.”

As I mentioned in the first article, I only composed this at the request of my teacher. Imagine how surprised (and pleased) I was to witness this emerge from inside me. I suspect all art is difficult at one level of another. The song hadn’t “emerged” but rather had been somewhat “torn” from my insides. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as musical composition. From the first project to this very day, the struggle is topped with immense satisfaction and pride. I was hooked and I still am!

“I also noticed your change of tempos in the recording, as it is clearly no metronome-based recording, and this brings it a special flavor. I also wonder where you recorded this, as the piano is tuned up about 60% above 440, a bit more than half a ton.”

This makes me laugh. I’m always having trouble maintaining a steady tempo. For Amir to tell me that “this brings it a special flavor,” is such a sweet way to respond to a person’s flaw. Would that we treated everyone like this!

So now, I’m very, VERY happy to share with you, Amir Sinai Weisglas’ “ElektroKaddish.” It’s quite different from my version, and I love every moment of it. Yes, he cultivates the lo-fi sound that’s in such vogue these days, but don’t let that fool you. Listen carefully to the quiet activity taking place in the background. As promoted above in my mini-bio of Amir, it’s brilliant.

You can listen to it on Spotify or on YouTube …

About his artwork for the song, Amir writes, “The image is part of a recent series of drawings I’ve been working on using ink, acrylic, and wall paint. I chose it intuitively after extensively searching for an image to accompany the song. The lyrics are profound and abstract, so an abstract approach to the image felt appropriate. Given that the text connects to the themes of life, death, and the entire circle of life, I immersed myself in the fluidity, flow and drip of paint. This allowed me to avoid committing to a single interpretation of the image of the music. Reflecting on it further, the tension between the electronic tools I used to create the music and bring it to you, and the manual, analogue work of the drawing and the music embodies the contemporary Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the ability to bridge the new and the old, merging electronics with analogue, and connecting the United States, Germany, and Israel today. The song and the image are my prayers for a better future.”

Thank you, Amir. I’m endlessly touched that you were moved to create this moving piece. While I doubt we’re going to make it onto the Top 40 this year, if nothing else your creation should be nominated for the Kaddish Music Hall of Fame. Yashir koach, chaver.

Billy

The sheet music and mp3 for my original “Kaddish” are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other significant moments in my life this summer have included:

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

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

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

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

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

There is still much reason to rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how I spent my summer vacation.

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

Billy

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!

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,
Billy

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

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.

Jewish Learning Might Save Israel and the World!

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

London has a new mayor. He’s a husband and a father, the son of a bus driver, and a Muslim. His name is Sadiq Khan. I’m pretty sure that “Sadiq” is related to “tzedek,” the Hebrew word for “justice.” Before becoming the major of London, Sadiq was a human rights lawyer, a pretty good career choice for a guy whose name means “justice.”

What a welcome antidote to the intolerant, hateful rhetoric that’s running rampant in America these days. With all the talk about building walls and expelling foreigners, I doubt Sadiq Khan could get elected dog-catcher on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m hoping that will change.

Recently, our temple celebrated Shabbat HaMoreh, Teacher Recognition Shabbat. I shared a few thoughts about Jewish learning and the role it plays in building a world of peace.

As at most synagogues, here at Woodlands we teach Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and Jewish values. All three of these subject areas contribute to our efforts at mastering the art of khesed, of performing deeds of love and kindness. Sadiq Khan is a most comforting salve in this wounded world of ours, a world to whose future we commit ourselves each time our children arrive for religious school or we arrive for adult education.

Israel celebrated her 68th birthday on May 11-12. Israel’s a land that we love. Although, like a family member who disappoints us by revealing human flaws, that love can sometimes be difficult to maintain. But Israel is filled with people who share our commitment to living lives of value and compassion, lives of khesed. And that provides persistent hope for a peaceful future. In 1982-83, while living there during my first year of rabbinical studies, I encountered the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest modern poet. Now I’m the wrong guy to ask whether it’s good poetry or not, but I’ll exuberantly proclaim that this one’s one of my very favorites because of Amichai’s message:

Pa’am … once… yashavti al madreygot … I was sitting on some steps … l’yad sha’ar Vimtzudat David … near the gate at David’s Citadel. I’d set down my baskets and noticed a group of tourists surrounding their guide. Suddenly, he’s pointing to me. I had become their guide’s point of reference. “Do you see that man over there with the baskets? He’s not important. But a little to the right of him, just above his head, you can see an arch from the Roman period.”

“A little to the right?” asked a tourist. “But he’s moving. He’s moving!”

I said to myself, “We’ll have world peace only when their guide tells them: ‘Do you see that Roman arch over there? It’s not important. But a little to the left and down a bit, you can see a man who’s just bought fruits and vegetables for his family.”

It’s been said that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, which is certainly true. There are people who are angry at Israel that are living in the countries all around her. And there are people who are angry at Israel that are living right inside Israel herself. This means a lot of time and money are spent trying to keep people in Israel safe. Along the way, some of those angry people get hurt — some deservedly so, but some not.

Israel is up against incredible challenges. One of those challenges is to hang onto her humanity amidst violent attacks on her existence. That’s gotta be hard to do. But it’s not impossible. We mustn’t ever decide it’s impossible to hang onto our humanity.

Adults and children in Israel study some of the very same materials as the adults and children in our synagogue: Torah, Talmud, Prayer, and more. Why? So we can learn what Judaism (you can read that as “God,” or as “our ancestors,” or even both) needs us to know: that the essence of living a Jewish life is to do a good job at making choices that, as much as possible, won’t be hurtful to others. Or as I once heard Elie Wiesel put it: “To create a human being incapable of shedding blood.”

It’s a hard goal to achieve. Maybe impossible. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. It’s important for every Jewish Israeli to learn Torah and Talmud and Prayer. And it’s important for each one of us, as well. Because if any of us think that practicing human goodness is a no-brainer, all we have to do is look around our world to see that isn’t so.

downloadThat’s why we have a night each year to thank our teachers. You — our religious school faculty and adult education faculty — bring us vibrant, passionate, often entertaining presentations that engage us in challenging exercises to help us determine the kind of people we want to be. And with your guidance, we’ll hopefully progress in our abilities to be good, decent, and caring.

Even Roman arches are worth studying. But someone has to make them exciting and a critical component in the growth of our humanity. Teachers do that. And we couldn’t be luckier. Or more grateful.

Here, in Israel, and everywhere else, we need teachers. Alongside our parents and grandparents, you’re the best-positioned champions for shaping us into the kind of people to make this world of ours a safe and peaceful for all.

Billy

Crawling to Peace (Memorial Day 2015)

MemorialDayOne of the last books Jonah read before his death in 2009 was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the author’s experiences as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. I have wanted, and I recently found time, to read it. The book speaks not only of the horrors of war, about death on both sides in the conflict, but also about friendship in the trenches, girlfriends waiting back home, the struggle for normalcy after the war, and O’Brien’s bringing his daughter with him back to Vietnam to revisit his memories and to see that war-torn land at peace. The stories, which O’Brien readily admits are some combination of fact and fiction, transported me alongside the author as he recalled his Vietnam War years. Today, Vietnam is at peace, with 90 million citizens, a communist government, and an economic growth rate among the highest in the world. It also demonstrates an abysmal record in healthcare and gender equality. A fair record for a country that lived in a state of war from 1946 until 1975.

On this Memorial Day weekend, it’s appropriate for us not only to honor those who have died in the defense of our nation, but also to reflect on the state of war in our world today. You’d think humanity would have had enough of violence and death but, of course, it’s as if there’s an insatiable thirst for destruction in the human genome.

The hotspots of military insurgency this year include Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Boko Haram in Africa, Sudan, Ukraine and, of course, the continuing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank. As for American involvement in war today, depending on how you look at it, says one writer, we’re either involved in no wars (after all, Congress hasn’t declared one since 1942), five wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen … where we either have boots on the ground or drones in the air), or 134 wars (I won’t list them all but these are places where U.S. military forces are either involved in combat, special missions, or the advising and training of foreign forces).

And it gets me wondering. When will humankind finally rise above this insane use of might to get what we want in life? When will we finally agree to work out our differences by using our words like mom and dad always taught us?

I know, I know. Probably not for a long, long time … if ever. I searched the internet for articles on violence in the world today. I love that I found these three titles: First, “Is Society Becoming More and More Violent?” Second, “Why the World Is Becoming More Violent.” And third, “World Is Becoming Less Violent.” I suppose, like the definition of American military involvement, it all depends how you view things.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, asserts the following based on peer-reviewed studies using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records:

1) The number of people killed in battle has dropped 1000-fold over the centuries. Before there were organized countries, more than 500 out of every 100,000 people died in battle. By the 19th century, that number had fallen to 70 of every 100,000. In the 20th century, even with two world wars and a few genocides, the number dropped to 60. And now, in the 21st century, battlefield deaths are down to 3/10 of a person per 100,000.

2) In 1942, the rate of genocide deaths across the world was 1400 times higher than it is today.

3) In 1946, there were fewer than 20 democracies in the world. Today, there are 115 nations with significant elements of democracy in them.

Pinker’s opinion is that one of the main reasons for the drop in violence is that we are smarter. Intelligence, he thinks, translates into a kinder, gentler world. I like his thinking. I don’t know if he’s right. But I’m all for more education.

So, that’s pretty encouraging. Sounds a lot better than what the news media shares with us, doesn’t it? If we listen to them, the world is at death’s door.

Question is, how do we – “we” being the human race – make it the rest of the way? How do we (can we) reach that age-old Jewish dream that we intone every time we sing Bayom Hahu … “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One”? How do we build a world at peace?

However we get there, I don’t imagine it’ll be an easy road. On many Shabbat mornings, when introducing Sim Shalom, Cantor Jonathan likes to talk about how we already know how to make peace. We just have to live with kindness, generosity and compassion as part of our daily routine.

It’s a simple recipe, really. What’s not so simple, I’m afraid, is obtaining the ingredients.

Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist who recently published an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.” He was trying to correct misinformation about some of the world’s great scientific advances, explaining that things are rarely as simple as our most popular stories claim they are. Darwin, he writes, did not simply develop the theory of evolution while studying finches in the Galapagos Islands. Such a world-altering revelation would not be made public for many, many more years, including eight years spent writing a 684-page treatise on barnacles. On the Origin of Species, his magnum opus on evolution, would not be published until 1859, twenty-eight years after he met those finches. Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton would not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. The truth is that while Newton theorized the existence of gravity when he was only 24 years old, he would not fully develop and publicly share his ideas until the printing of his book Principia when he was 71 years old.

Important stuff can take a very long time to complete. So while I can, and will, envision a world when all humanity finally commits to living together in peace, I suspect, like anything truly good and important, it’ll take a long while for us to get there.

This past Wednesday evening, in my words to those gathered for our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I said, “No matter what craziness life throws our way, let us together meet in the heights and in the depths, honoring our best selves, honoring one another, and honoring the Creator of all of it, whose most fervent prayer, I wholeheartedly believe, is that we just be good to each other.” I suspect that peace won’t come until the world’s religions all subscribe to this theological idea, and the atheists among us agree that the spirit of it is critical for the welfare of all.

There’s a Yiddish proverb: Ven ain zelner volt gevust vos der anderer tracht … if one soldier knew what the other was thinking … volt kain krig nisht geven … there would be no war. I don’t know how long it will take but, as my ancestors did before me, I believe with perfect faith that peace will happen. The day will come when there won’t be war no more. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to work hard and long for it. But on this Memorial Day weekend, I can think of no greater way to honor our nation’s military dead than to complete the work that they began.

We’ll start by teaching the little ones. Stella Marie Ivy, will you come up here please. I’ve got something to say to you. I know, you’re only about three months old, but there’s no time to waste if we want you to become a builder of peace.

[Stella Marie Ivy babynaming]

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

Postscript: Our rabbinic intern, Jason Fenster, made a beautiful contribution to this Memorial Day service as well. You can (and should!) read it here.

Israel and the Palestinians: Piecing Together Peace

PromisedLandIn this week’s Torah parasha, Mass’ei, the Israelites are finishing up their forty years of desert wandering and are preparing to enter the Promised Land. “The Promised Land.” Promised by God, our tradition tells us. And further, we were not to share it with anybody else. Listen: “On the steppes of Moav, at the Jordan near Jericho, God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people … When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land. […] You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.’”

That was Numbers 33:50-53. This week’s Torah reading. We’ve been teaching this idea to one another for 2500 years! We taught it while we lived in ancient Israel. We taught it while we were in Exile, wandering across Europe, living in ghettos and enduring pogroms. And we still teach it, as a second commonwealth of Israel is now being built on that ancient land. The Torah is quite clear. Israel belongs to the Jewish people.

Islam’s Qur’an seems to be a bit less precise. In some passages, the Qur’an explicitly acknowledges that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Forever. But in other sections, the Holy Land has been turned over by God to the Muslim people who have been deemed more worthy than the Jews.1

The end result appears to be the same: Two peoples vying for the same parcel of land. Each one citing its ancient scripture as the prooftext for its claim.

And yet, no one is going anywhere. The Arabs have not succeeded in pushing the Jews into the sea. Nor have the Israelis succeeded in making the Palestinians go away. In my opinion, the sooner these neighbors realize that neither one is disappearing, that they’re either going to have to learn to live together or destroy each other, the sooner peace can become a real possibility.

You and I, watching the latest outbreak of violence from afar, shake our heads in disbelief and despair at how long this has been going on. Why, we ask, don’t they finally insist upon peace? Why is it that each time fighting breaks out, they kill each other until a cease-fire is declared, and then return to their corners, preparing for the inevitable renewal of violence somewhere down the road.

CoexistBut hold on, there are Israelis and Palestinians who believe in a path other than one littered with violence. Some are literally agitating for peace (more on that later), while others are building it through cooperative ventures on behalf of both peoples.

First there’s The Villages Group, Israelis and Palestinians who live near one another and who maintain daily contact via economic activity, sharing resources, and basic human relationships. The premise is a simple one: we either learn to live together, or we’ll die.

One of my favorite cooperative ventures was shared this week with me by young Maya over here. It’s a Facebook page entitled “Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies.” The premise is also a simple one. Take a picture of yourself with someone who’s of that other enthnicity, and post it on the Facebook page. Some of the pairs are best friends, some are lovers, and some have been married for decades. All of them believe not just in the possibility, but in the reality, of celebrating difference and opting for love.

Breaking the Impasse is a group comprised of some three hundred Israeli and Palestinian businesses that work together toward achieving a peaceful, two-state resolution to the conflict. They are a direct challenge to the philosophy of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. Breaking the Impasse argues and advocates for deeper and broader investing in the occupied territories as one of the most important strategies for furthering peace in the region.

Then there are diseases and pests, which know no borders and threaten the well-being of all. Israel’s Ministry for Agriculture and Rural Development has partnered with the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs to share in providing veterinary training and flora protection that benefit both peoples. That’s relationship-building at actual governmental levels!

And then there’s the violence. While Ellen was in Jerusalem these past three weeks, she was invited to a demonstration by a group called Lokhamim l’Shalom, Combatants for Peace, which consists of Israelis who have served as soldiers in the IDF and Palestinians who have taken part in the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom. In their mission statement, Combatants for Peace writes, “After brandishing weapons for so many years, and having seen one another only through weapon-sights, we have decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace.”

There are so many more organizations, both small-scale and large, grassroots and governmental, that are working to improve relations between these two enemies. Of course, for those involved in The Villages Group, Breaking the Impasse, Combatants for Peace and, don’t forget, Jews and Arabs Refuse to Be Enemies, they are not enemies. They refuse to be enemies. For these folks (and there aren’t nearly enough of them yet) have acknowledged that neighbors mustn’t destroy one another. Neighbors must take care of each other, must be civil to each other, must build bridges of peace with each other — for their own sakes, for the sake of their children, and for the sake of their nations.

Me? I don’t care that the Torah tells us the land is ours. What I think is that we’d best get about the business of sharing that land before it’s too late for everyone. God may indeed have told us, “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants [there].” But elsewhere in the Torah, God explicitly instructed, “It is not in the heavens … it is not beyond the sea … it is in your mouth and in your heart.” We decide how to live Torah, how to live Jewish life. What God may have said back then may even have been right back then. But it doesn’t work today. And it’s high time we figured out another way.

And in so doing, believe with perfect faith, that God will be just as happy and just as pleased.

Susan Sparks (a Baptist minister), Uzzer Usman (a Muslim) and Bob Alper (a Reform rabbi), are all comedians. When they perform together, the first thing the rabbi does is frisk the muslim. It’s a joke, see? It relaxes the audience. Everybody onstage and off knows something out of the ordinary, but very special, is happening. And it is special. In their own unique way, these three men and women are building relationships. And not just relationships but they’re building a new world. One where Jew and Christian and Muslim live peacefully, even lovingly, side-by-side.

May we soon see such a world. May we help to build such a world. May our children and our grandchildren come to take such a world … very much for granted.

1 “The Qur’an: Israel Is Not for the Jews,” http://www.meforum.org/2462/the-quran-israel-not-for-jews

Of Rockets and Screaming Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

When Does Night Become Day?

in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Israel. And many, many more.

Billy