Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Women of the Wall

GIFThere’s an uproar in the world today. If you’ve been watching “Mad Men,” you probably missed it. Oh, if you were doing anything with your life, you probably missed it. It took place at the Annual Webby Awards which honor excellence on the Internet. This year, one of the arguably coveted prizes (you know, by you and me) was given to Steve Wilhite, inventor of the G-I-F computer graphic file format (that oughta wake you up, eh!). For me, it’s actually a pretty cool and deserved award because I use the G-I-F format often during Visual Worship, when I want to put a picture up on the screens but make its background vanish, so that it appears as if a second image is floating on top of the first.

When Wilhite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

The uproar, of course, comes from the fact that most of the geek world pronounce Wilhite’s graphic format “GIF,” with a hard G, and not “JIF,” like the peanut butter, which Wilhite named it when he invented it.hite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

But just because you started something doesn’t mean you control it. That’s very true of language and even more true of human behavior.

When the State of Israel was reestablished back in 1948, leadership over religious matters was ceded to the Orthodox. The thinking was that internal, domestic matters would be solved once the new Israelis figured out how to survive the invading armies all around them. But since borders were never ever truly secured, matters pertaining to individual rights promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence got put off and put off and put off. And for a very long time, even the progressive Jews “behaved” (and I put “behaved” in quotations marks).

Women of the Wall

But the day arrived when, much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could no longer wait for “a convenient time” (again, in quotes) to make his move for equal rights, Anat Hoffman of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Uri Regev, formerly of Israel’s Reform movement and now the head of Hiddush, a progressive advocacy group in Israel, are no longer willing to wait for peace along the borders. Demonstrations and civil disobedience – including women who refuse to sit at the back of the bus and who insist upon wearing tallit and tefillin at the Wall – have now become commonplace.

The civil rights movement has begun in earnest in Eretz Yisrael.

Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky’s proposed compromise at the Wall, to extend the Kotel and create an additional equally-sized prayer areas open to women, has been rejected by many and, in my opinion, ought to be. “Separate but equal” is an idea that failed here a long time ago. It solves nothing; most importantly, it encourages no close-minded racist or sexist to change their mind.

The news from the Jerusalem District Court, upholding an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot in the Western Wall Plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested, is historic and groundbreaking. Finally, some sanity in Israeli politics. A recognition that it’s fine for individual women to choose not to wear ritual garb, but that no one else can force such a decision upon them and that they are welcome to wear tallit and/or tefillin without fear of reprisal … this is a welcome action indeed!

But of course, the response is not only one of celebration. The ultra-Orthodox reaction is familiar to us all. Grafitti on the homes of women involved in the protests. Spitting at them, throwing water bottles, chairs, garbage and rocks in the Kotel plaza — we’ve seen it all before, haven’t we?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotkha (chapters 8-12 in Numbers) – words, by the way, that women may not read at the Kotel – includes the commandment to kindle in the Tabernacle a seven-branched menorah whose lights are specifically to be directed forward. While one may certainly interpret Torah many different ways, the image of using illumination to light the way before us, this is a powerful one for me. And it speaks powerfully of the need for good people to bring communal goodness to all.

The Women of the Wall have been shining a beacon of light on the injustices at the Kotel since 1988. It’s taken twenty-five years (!) for this decision to finally come down. While it’s understandable that their efforts have been opposed by the ultra-Orthodox, it’s unconscionable that the Israel political leadership has ducked the issue all these years.

Don’t expect the decision to resolve anything. Not for a while, anyway. First we have to see if the government has the courage to implement the decision, to back it with police protection, and to prosecute those who break the new law. It took Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send in federal troops so that American law would be implemented down south. Let’s hope the Knesset can take a lesson from American history on this one.

In the meantime, seven-branched menorahs can become very heavy. Our support – via letters, petitions and donations – can keep those lights shining where they’re most needed.

At about 6:00 am one morning in 1983, during my year of rabbinical study in Jerusalem, Ellen and I wandered into the Kotel plaza and noticed something amazing. A man on a ladder was reaching into all the crevices in the Wall and pulling out the hundreds (thousands!) of tiny notes left there as prayers to God. It made sense, of course, that eventually there’d be no room for more notes and that the Wall would have to be cleaned. Our jaws dropped just the same and I, equipped with camera, took a full series of photographs to record this stunning moment. But it was in the era of kodachrome film and mine, though installed, was not advancing. Not a single picture developed.

An act of God? A Divine message that you don’t mess with the Kotel? Or with the Orthodox establishment’s maintenance of practice there?

I’m sure there are plenty who would agree.

But not me. And thank God, not Anat Hoffman or Rabbi Uri Regev, or any of the Women of the Wall who will continue their efforts for another twenty-five years if that’s what it takes to secure not only their civil rights, but civil rights in general for all the people of Israel (including, by the way, her Arab citizens).

This week, here in America, the struggle for civil rights continues. The Boy Scouts of America agreed to allow young gay men to join its programs. But not to lead them. Which means there is a ways to go.

There is always a ways to go, isn’t there?

Dear God, Teacher of Mitzvot, Divine Instructor of Honor and Integrity, stop being so patient with us. Sear our hearts with a passion for kindness and welcome. Jolt our minds with understanding of openness and inclusion. There is no convenient time for justice. That time is now. It has always been now.

May we find the courage and the strength to join our hands, and our destinies, with those who have taken up the banner of these struggles. And may we live to see a world where no one must endure the sting of prejudice and discrimination.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Benediction

A woozle, a goozle and a foozle were spending an evening together. In the middle of their conversation, the lights went out. Undeterred, the woozle said, “Let us consider the nature of light and of darkness.” The goozle began to sing a hymn in honor of our Little Sister Darkness. But the foozle went down into the basement and replaced the fuse.

There is a time to consider life’s vicissitudes. There is a time to look that word up in the dictionary. And there’s a time to get to work. Whether it’s natural disaster in Oklahoma, homophobia in the Boy Scouts, sexism in Jerusalem, or any of countless injustices to be found the world over, and in our own backyard, may we each do our part to replace the fuse, and get the light back where it needs to be.

Israel and Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a brief excerpt from their statement.

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

We are youth with heavy hearts.

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

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

This is the Gazan youth’s manifesto for change!

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

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

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

Munich 1972: Remembering for a Blessing

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

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

Is that not our wish for all of living?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Do With A Great Sorrow

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

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

Where the Wild Things Are

It was the third day of our congregational trip to Israel. This time, we didn’t head straight to Jerusalem but spent our first days in Tel Aviv. We soaked in the stories of exciting beginnings at Independence Hall, stood in quiet contemplation of the violent realities at Rabin Square, and sauntered unhurriedly through the ancient streets of Jaffa. A few of us even stopped for a bite, I kid you not, at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub! Then, on this particular morning, we woke up, grabbed something to eat, and boarded our bus which promptly deposited us bamidbar, “in the wilderness” – which happened to be a sizable parking lot somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a nowhere like so many “nowheres” we see here in the States – unlovely, too much concrete, and dirty fields just beyond the wheel stops at the lot’s edge. Unbeknownst to us all, however, we had just begun the adventure and the promise known as Leket Israel.

All our lives, we’re taught that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8), “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:8), the Promised Land “which [God] swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 6:8). That’s what the Torah says.

But there’s another side to Israel. A side where “the Promise” doesn’t quite ring true. Because while there aren’t too many people in Israel who are starving, there are plenty who live in poverty and cannot afford, as our guide told us, “to shop the edges of the grocery store.” They can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Leket Israel is the guarantor of the Promised Land’s legacy. It’s Israel’s national food bank. Where we had arrived was not a dirty field at all (well, not just a dirty field). It was a farm filled with sweet potatoes. BIG sweet potatoes. The farm’s owner had contacted Leket Israel and invited them to come get unneeded produce (either unsuitable for commercial sale, or simply set aside in fulfillment of Lev. 19:9’s instructions to “leave the gleanings of your harvest”). Volunteers, of which Leket Israel has some 40,000 annually, descend on sites such as this one and pick it clean. The food is then transported to organizations around the country that get it to needy families. 300 farms participate, donating 173,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables every week.

Leket Israel does even more. It supplies over 7000 sandwiches each day to needy school children in 24 cities. And it partners with catering halls, restaurants, bakeries and hotels collecting over 350,000 excess meals (from weddings, b/m celebrations, etc) each year.

In this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, God teaches Moses and Aaron how to bring their community bemidbar Sinai, through the wilderness of Sinai: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Num. 2:2).

Everyone knows, God included, that the wilderness is a tough place to build a home. But sometimes, we don’t get a choice about how our lives unfold. Wild things tend to intrude without them asking for permission. Life complicates.

But in these complications, there is also opportunity. When our days are formidable in their challenges, when we witness hardship in the lives of others, we are beckoned to engage with full heart and mind in the seeking of solutions and resolutions. As much as the wilderness can be harsh, it can also be breathtaking in its beauty. It is our sacred task, our holy honor, to bring out the magnificence that others cannot yet see.

Leket Israel assents to this sacred task. Through its gleanings of the fields, its sandwiches for kids, its redistribution of surplus meals, and its programs educating families about nutritional excellence, Leket Israel responds to God’s call that the Israelites “camp around the Tent of Meeting,” bringing them and us ever closer to God’s Presence among us.

Our group working bamidbar next to a parking lot that morning in the middle of nowhere probably did not comprise Leket Israel’s most productive crew of volunteers. Some of us were old, some overweight, others out of shape. Our yield may have been something akin to meager, but you can bet we picked as many of those sweet potatoes as we could, and we did so with voluble enthusiasm. The wilderness can be tamed wherever it appears. Everyday, there are opportunities to share the fruits of our lives’ harvests. But it’s not everyday that a city-dweller like me can actually stick his hands in the dirt and pull out a meal.

There’s an exceptionally heartwarming story about a Depression-era farmer in Idaho who habitually sends needy children home with bags of fresh produce, instructing them to return with payment in the form of a specific marble of this color or that design. The farmer never finds an acceptable exchange, and always dispatches the child to seek a different marble and, “Oh, take this bag of beans to your mom, as well.”

Prof. Michael Walzer (in Exodus and Revolution) teaches “that the winding way to [the] promise passes through the wilderness.” Whether we find ourselves bamidbar as tourist, as farmer, or as unwilling resident, there are always blessings to be found. We must stay alert, keeping open our eyes and our hearts to the wild things around us. We never know when a dirty field might hold within it the ancient promise to yield a better life for those who make camp in uncertain lands. Our assent to these sacred tasks will assure that every man, woman and child is never so distant from the Tent of Meeting that God’s bounty cannot be theirs as well.

Billy

This d’var Torah was written for the Israel Religious Action Center, an extraordinary organization that embodies the mitzvah to ensure all may camp around the Tent of Meeting. Learn more about Leket Israel by clicking here.