Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Elul: Preparing to Forgive … Others, and Ourselves

The 19th century German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine once wrote, “All I ask is [for] a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window and a few trees beside my door. Then if God wanted to make me wholly happy, He would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them all wrongs they have done me – forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged!” (as quoted in Edge-Tools of Speech,1899, Maturin Ballou, p. 169)

Recalibrate‘Tis the season. In a little more than a week, we’ll enter our tent, open our makhzorim, and begin our annual period of reflection and contrition, with the goal of teshuvah, of recalibrating our hearts that we might become more compassionate – to others and to ourselves – in the New Year ahead.

I’m not at all clear how these High Holy Days actually affect us. I do, every now and then, encounter someone who, prior to the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, offers me an apology for anything he might have said or done that hurt or offended me. But I’m not impressed by that. I don’t think that’s teshuvah at all. There’s no turning, no recalibrating, going on because there’s no knowledge of having done anything wrong. “If I’ve done something, I’m sorry”? Better to find one person we know we’ve been unkind to and put our New Year’s energy into fixing that one relationship. It takes courage to confront someone we’ve wronged, to apologize when we know we’ve behaved poorly. To issue some blanket memo to try and cover our bases neither warms the heart of the person we have wronged, nor teaches us any lesson about ourselves … except maybe that we don’t care enough to really figure out where we’ve fallen short.

The upcoming Y’mei Aseret Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Turning from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, are not meant to be easy. But for most of us, that’s pretty much what they are. Our greatest challenge is to make it through the fast on Yom Kippur. I’m not sure that many of us really do the difficult soul-searching that’s demanded by the texts in our makhzor. I’m not sure we do the real forgiving that these High Holy Days challenge us to do.

Me and my big brother (well, 1 of 4 anyway)

Me and my big brother

A few weeks ago, I spoke about my brother Jimmy and how he’s my hero. I joked about the scar he’d given me when I was six and he was eight and he’d chased me through our house threatening to smash a wet noodle in my hair and I ended up crashing through the plate glass of our front door. When, some fifty years later, I learned that he still feels guilty about that, I shared with you how I take full advantage of his guilt which, most recently, resulted in his coming up from Florida and repairing just about every broken hinge, light and damaged wall in my home.

The reality … is that I forgave him a long time ago. But that was easy. He’s my big brother. And I worship him. And adore him. I could never hold a grudge against him.

Unfortunately, it gets easier where others are concerned.

Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav, the late-18th century founder of the Bratslav hasidic community in the Ukraine, noticed how people hold grudges, how our anger can cause us to push someone completely away and out of our lives without any interest in repairing the rift but, instead, concluding there is nothing redeeming in that person and there is no value in trying to make amends.

To try and counter such behavior, Reb Nakhman wrote: “[For] even someone who is completely wicked, one must search and find in him some little bit of goodness, because within that one little part of him, there is no wickedness.”

When I first read this, I was thinking of truly evil people like Caligula or Hitler. With the likes of such mad men, it’s easy to write them off as monsters. It hadn’t occurred to me that, when we’re angry at someone who’s not a Hitler, we can paint that person as if they are completely awful, possessing no redemptive features whatsoever. In our saner, more sanguine, moments, we understand we’re not talking about Caligula; it’s just that idiot Bob from work, or my dumb neighbor, or my sibling with whom I haven’t spoken in fifteen years.

Reb Nakhman urges that we: “find in him a little bit of good, judge him on the side of merit, and in this way, raise him up and enable him to turn in teshuvah.”

I may be reading this wrong. But the teshuvah here, the turning, I don’t think it’s Bob’s. It’s ours. Yours and mine. When we’re furious at someone, we need to find a tiny crack in the armor we’ve built around that other person – armor that shows (and defends) only what we hate about them. Reb Nakhman teaches that we need to see the whole person, not just the parts we resent. We need to come to understand that, despite our brilliantly deduced conclusions, people are salvageable.

31171364524726_I-never-use-a-turn-signal-Its-nobodys-freaking-business-where-Im-goingUnlike my attitude toward drivers who don’t use their turn signal, and I wish horrible things upon them because of the danger they create by not letting other drivers know their intentions and therefore reduce our ability to react safely to an unsafe moment on the road. At those moments, it could be Malala Yousafai and I wouldn’t be able to see a single redemptive quality in her.

Reb Nakhman says about the one we resent, that we should ask ourselves: “How is it possible that she never fulfilled a single mitzvah or good deed in all her days?” Reb Nakhman teaches that when we push ourselves to look for the goodness that resides somewhere inside each one of us – even my annoying neighbor who blows his leaves at 6:30 on a weekend morning – when we succeed in finding those redeeming qualities, then redemption can begin. Our redemption.

Despite my behavior behind the wheel, sometimes I’m amazed at my capacity to forgive. My brain continues to argue with me, “Are you kidding?” it shouts. “You’re going to let them off the hook for what they did to you!?”

And my answer is: Yes. I am. Because life is a whole lot bigger than stupid, annoying, hurtful moments. I’ve got better things to do with my time. Life is far too short to spend it pursuing resentment and rejection.

Shlomo Carlebach, who’d fled the Nazis as a young man, was once asked how he could go back to Austria and Germany to perform. “Don’t you hate them?” he was asked. Carlebach responded, “If I had two souls, I’d devote one to hating them. But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it on hating.”

Rabbi Rami Shapiro challenges us to view Rosh Hashanah as “head-changing day.” He derives this from “head” (rosh), and “changing” (shay-nah, a variation on HaShanah).

“You can’t have a new year with an old head,” he writes. “So if you want a new year, you are going to need to get a new head. A new head is a story-free head. Your stories define you. If your stories are positive and loving, then you are [positive] and loving. If your stories are negative and fearful, then you are [negative and fearful].”

Rabbi Shapiro encourages us to rewrite our stories. To focus on truth. And to focus on compassion. To cast away the stories that frustrate us, that anger us, that make us turn away from others.

It is the 21st day of Elul. Soon we will gather for our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur heshbon nefesh, our annual soul-searching. May the year 5776 be the one in which we truly master the art of teshuvah. May we turn our spirits toward You, God, by turning them away from bitterness, resentment and hatred. May these Ten Days of Turning bring real change. To our heads, to our hearts, to our spirits. And may we share together in a New Year that is filled to overflowing with kindness, tolerance, understanding, radical inclusion, and love.


Hanukkah Gelt … Ever-So-Sweetly Fomenting Dissent

Xmas @ the Dreskins (1965)

Xmas @ the Dreskins (1965). Check out the tree in the background and paper Santa on the fireplace!

Let me tell you about Hanukkah in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1960s. Cincinnati is where I grew up. And at this time of year, lots of families, lots of Jewish families, including mine, had Christmas trees. Hanukkah was a candle-lighting time. We celebrated it, but not by giving gifts – not even socks or underwear. That Johnny Seven seven-in-one pistol/machine gun/grenade launcher (that I would have laid down my life for) would have to wait for Christmas. As would the latest Beatles record album. Amazingly, this kid-who-would-one-day-become-a-rabbi woke up at 6:00 in the morning every December 25th to see what Santa had placed beneath the Dreskin family Christmas tree.

But Hanukkah gelt, that was something else! Those sweet, brown little coins wrapped in gold, always with a surprise inside – you never knew if it’d be fresh or years-old chocolate – that was Hanukkah for me. And being the youngest of six kids in my house, I was a pretty tranquil guy all other times of the year, but during Hanukkah all was fair in chocolate and war. Nobody’s stockpile was safe when I was in the gelt-jungle!

But here’s the funny thing about Hanukkah. Okay, funny to me. As with so many of our Jewish traditions, the reasons our religious school teacher gave us for why things were what they were, these turned out to maybe not be so true. Of course, “true” in a history where 2000 years of it was spent wandering and, far too often, running from people who wanted to kill you, “true” can be difficult to keep track of. So cut my 4th grade Sunday school teacher Mrs. Rosenfeld some slack, will you?

Gelt.02With gelt, plenty of explanations exist. And who knows which one is the right one. Maybe all of them.

As a kid, I was taught that when the Maccabees revolted against Syrian-Greek persecution, the rebellious Israelites minted their own coins as an act of defiance against their foreign rulers, as if to say, “You are not our government. We rule ourselves.” So the minting of coins served as a provocative and powerful statement for freedom and independence. The gelt we gobble reminds us of Hanukkah’s message about the importance of standing up to oppressive rulers who think it’s okay to bully others.

This week, bullying got a vote of acceptance when Sony Pictures acquiesced to computer hackers who broke into their digital corporate storage closets and threatened violence if the movie, “The Interview,” a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco that makes fun of North Korea, is released in movie theaters. The Department of Homeland Security has deemed the threat “non-credible,” but Sony pulled the film anyway. Film star and political activist George Clooney circulated a petition urging Sony not to acquiesce to the hackers’ demands but couldn’t get a single leader in the film industry to sign it. “We have allowed North Korea to dictate content,” Clooney says, “and that is just insane.”

At the time of year when our community remembers (and honors!) our ancestors specifically for them standing up to threats from bullying thugs, it gives us food for thought that you and I can’t choose whether or not to see “The Interview” when it won’t open on December 25. Good topic for car-talk on the way home tonight.

So back to Hanukkah gelt. There’s another theory circulating about the custom which I like a lot. First, it recognizes that Hanukkah was never Judaism’s big gift-giving holiday. That role has historically belonged to Purim. It’s written right inside the Scroll of Esther that, in celebration of Shushan’s victory over Haman, “[t]hey were to observe [the 14th and 15th of Adar] as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.”

It turns out that when Jews were living in Eastern Europe in the 19th century, Hanukkah became a time to present one’s vendors (the butcher, the teacher, the water carrier) with an end-of-the-year gratuity. A tip to say thanks, just like those envelopes we get from the newspaper delivery folks at Christmas time. Hanukkah gelt wasn’t for our kids, but for the service industry in our towns and villages.

I’m not sure there was much class distinction back then between these service providers and ourselves. Pretty much everybody was struggling to make ends meet in the shtetl. But for us today, the service industry is very often comprised of people we rarely see, or converse with, except when they’re doing their jobs. These folks, for you and me, are “the other.” So if Hanukkah was a time when our ancestors reached out to do something nice for those who fell into that social category of “the other,” maybe it’s a good time for you and me to do the same.

A Jewish holiday that recalls fighting back against those who made hurtful decisions regarding those under their power and control? Sounds to me like government policy gone wrong. I’m thinking of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and the continuing racism in America, of how we may no longer subscribe to racist ideas but that our nation has such a long way to go before it learns how to no longer see color when interacting with another human being. African-Americans are still “the other” in this nation. We would do well to dedicate part of our Hanukkah gift-giving to the struggle against continuing inequality. “Black lives matter” has become the call for a new freedom in America. Perhaps we can be Maccabees and help.

Hanukkah gelt is a wonderful tradition. It’s sweet and it’s clouded in mystery. For me, Jewish life doesn’t get much richer than that. Except for this: When my tradition shines a light on a social condition in my community and challenges me to do something to help, now I not only like the tradition, I’m honored to be its practitioner.


Hanukkah in my life now. Tzedakah Night 2004: shopping for Toys for Tots. Doing for others became a vital part of the holiday.

Tonight is the 4th night of Hanukkah. Four down, four to go. Perhaps there are some wonderful gifts hiding somewhere in your home, still to be given out on nights five through eight. May I humbly ask that you talk tonight when you go home about this gelt tradition and how you and yours can step up and advocate for “the other.” I’m sure you won’t have to look far for a worthy recipient. Once you see them in your heart, your pocket and your hand won’t be far away.

I don’t miss the Dreskin family Christmas tree. For us, it was just about taking, anyway. We never really understood the Christian idea of responding to the gifts of the Magi and giving to others where it really matters. But Hanukkah gelt, that message – to speak up for those whose voices aren’t yet able to effect needed change for themselves – that message still reverberates loudly in my life. And I hope in yours too. I am privileged to count myself among those of all religions whose spiritual journey points them in the direction of looking out for others.

To you and your loved ones, hag urim sameakh … may this Hanukkah bring to a world that so very much needs it … light and warmth and peace.

Ken yehi ratzon.


Committed to Memory

Well, I took quite the stroll down memory lane this week. Ellen and I watched the film “Old Yeller” for the first time since I was maybe four years old. Fess Parker as the dad and Chuck Connors as the young cowboy who lets the little boys keep his runaway dog, these triggered additional memories of Davy Crockett and The Rifleman. But the story of the fearless, loveable pooch who saves his adopted family but must ultimately be put down because of “hydrophobia” – rabies – tugs at the heart strings like no other tale.

Something else was at play, something that pulled me along and prompted me to view the film again some fifty years later: nostalgia.

145938Nostalgia is a feeling that appeals to many, and offends some. I’m not quite sure when it kicked in for me, but it’s a condition I’ve got now. Katie, by the way, seems to have been born with it. I’ve never met someone so young who loves to look at “old” photos and videos even though they were taken only a few years earlier. Still, I won’t complain – who doesn’t want their kid to sit with them for hours and look at family scrapbooks?

I got to wondering though. Is nostalgia simply a personal indulgence, a moment of instant gratification that serves no real purpose other than to create a feeling of euphoria for times gone by? Or is there some practical reason for its existence? Is it built into our DNA for survival purposes, something akin to our flight-or-fight response?

Dr. Alan Hirsch – neurologist, psychiatrist and director of Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation – in his article, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,” explains nostalgia as “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true re-creation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”

Makes it sound kind of pathological, doesn’t it? Some fifteen years ago, I did a bit of talk therapy to work through some life-issues and mentioned to my therapist how precious my summer camp memories are to me. He dismissed them, convinced that I’d altered those memories so that they seem a whole lot better than they actually were. Except that I can remember the negative moments from my five summers as a counselor. And to this day, therapist be damned, I use those summer memories as a touchstone for the kind of experiences I gravitate toward in my life today.

Am I correct about this or was he? Dr. Clay Routledge, social psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University, writes, “When you’re nostalgic about something, there’s a little bit of a sense of loss—[the moment has] happened, it’s gone—but usually the net result is happiness.” And so I imagine there’s a balance to be struck here between the appeal of looking back and the necessity to not dwell there for too long.

Which brings me to Sukkot. It’s so fascinating that, for one week each year, we dwell in our past. Literally. Jewish tradition has us move outside of our homes and live in rickety, primitive structures we know as sukkot. Funny enough, no one really knows where the sukkah comes from. Some teach that they were the booths in which our ancestors slept during the forty years of post-Exodus wandering. Others tell us that sukkot were the booths in which our farming ancestors who who had settled the nation of Ancient Israel would stay throughout the harvest period when there wasn’t time to return home each night lest the ripened crops spoil because they weren’t gathered in time.

Whether or not we actually dwell in a sukkah, the festival of Sukkot – like many of our holidays – involves a powerful look backwards. I doubt many of us yearn for a return to houses that welcome in the chill and the rain and which we often share with bees that are attracted to the produce we’ve attached to it. So why do we hearken back to a time we’re not even sure took place?

As always, there’s more than one answer – often many more – to a Jewish question. For me, Sukkot reminds me that my ancestors had once been slaves (whether they had been or not). Impoverished, harassed, oppressed and indiscriminately murdered, that is a world I neither want to ever again be part of nor will I stand idly by while the same happens to others. Thus, when 400,000 Muslims were murdered in Darfur, our synagogue took a stand. When a million Rwandans from the Tutsi tribe were murdered, our synagogue took a stand.

And our Jewish sensitivity to slavery doesn’t extend only to brutal killings. Other “slavery” in our world – systems in which people are set apart and their basic rights are trampled – include mistreatment of women, of people of color, of those with a different sexual orientation. Also, we take a stand to protect the rights of our brothers and sisters living in Israel, even as we try to figure out how to advocate for innocent Palestinians in Gaza while not turning our back on Israel.

All of this because of Sukkot, and a history that has shaped us as a people that won’t stand by while others suffer. We are a people who regularly dwell in our past. Even though there’s not a whole lot back there to miss, we nevertheless climb into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and take those journeys so that we never abandon our stories, nor the valuable lessons we learn from them.

Antisemitism, it seems, is on the rise. The ADL estimates that 26% of the world’s population harbors antisemitic attitudes. Well, what’s new? Or rather, what’s old?

Antisemitism is old news. There’s ever a certain nostalgia to it. It gets our blood running, makes us feel indignant and, more importantly, proud. Nothing raises a person’s sense of Jewish identity more than the knowledge that it’s under attack. Wanna raise money. Forget Jewish education or building up Jewish spiritual practice. Respond to hate. That’ll get the dough rolling in, for sure.

Yes, there’s a lot of antisemitism in the world today. But things are different this time, different from the 1930s and 40s to which folks seem to be comparing today’s events. The differences, in western countries anyway, is that the governing bodies are neither tolerating nor legislating antisemitism.

Last month, when a man in Britain spewed antisemitic language on a bus filled with Jewish schoolchildren, he was arrested, charged and found guilty of using threatening language to cause alarm and distress. In the Netherlands this past July, two men were arrested for shouting “Death to the Jews” and inciting racial violence during a protest at the Hague. And in August, French police arrested two young women who were plotting to attack a synagogue in Lyon with explosives.

I’m not saying that these acts are in any way defensible. They are as reprehensible and condemnable as any act of bias can be. But there’s a huge difference. The countries in which these hate-crimes are taking place have governments that are responding, that are not tolerating this behavior. I could be wrong. I often am. But I don’t think we’re headed toward a second Holocaust. It’s a mess, to be sure. But it’s a very different mess from that of seventy years ago. And while it’s important to look back, it’s also important to differentiate then from now.

Author Michael Crichton writes, “If you don’t know history […] you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” There are so many lessons to learn from the past. And even if it’s just to smile and sigh a bit at days of wonder gone by, the past connects us to one another and to the stories that impel us into our future. It also teaches us what a hot stove is, figuratively and literally, and to stay away from it.

But sometimes we can’t.

Country singer Glen Campbell released a powerful and unsettling video this week, entitled, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, and resigned to the disappearance of his ability to remember anything, he wrote and recorded this song with the understanding that it will likely be the last one he ever makes:

I’m still here but yet I’m gone
I don’t play guitar or sing my songs
They never defined who I am
The man that loved you ’til the end

You’re the last person I will love
You’re the last face I will recall
And best of all
I’m not gonna miss you
Not gonna miss you

I’m never gonna hold you like I did
Or say I love you to the kids
You’re never gonna see it in my eyes
It’s not gonna hurt me when you cry

I’m never gonna know what you go through
All the things I say or do
All the hurt and all the pain
One thing selfishly remains
I’m not gonna miss you
I’m not gonna miss you

For Glen Campbell, and everyone else who suffers from diseases that rob them of their memories, nostalgia becomes something in which only we can indulge, reluctantly embracing those bittersweet memories of better times spent with those we love, those for whom stories – the past – no longer exists.

During Sukkot, we pick up the lulav and the etrog, waving it in all directions to affirm that goodness exists everywhere. We even shake it behind, although we designate that only as one of the coordinates on a compass. Regardless of where we point those ritual objects, our tradition does embrace the past and acknowledges the goodness that is to be found there. Our stepping inside the sukkah is a step into eras gone by, ones that we happily visit alongside friends and family, always with the hope and the faith that we will together build a brighter, better future for all.

The time will come when our memories are no longer ours. Whether from disease or from death, our journeys will come to an end. Let us hope, that as we remember the significance of our ancestors’ stories, future generations will want to celebrate the benefits and goodnesses that were created by ours. Whether future generations sanitize their recollections of how we lived, or they remember us with all our scars and all our warts, may those memories – like our lulav and etrog – ferry sweet wisdom from our time to theirs, as a perpetual gift of goodness, of promise, and of love.


Jewish and American … Couldn’t Be More Honored

WH/HO PortraitToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was six years old at the time of his death and while, unlike many Americans, I do not remember where I was when I learned about it (I imagine I was in school), I do remember sitting in my next door neighbor’s living room and playing on the floor while our families watched the funeral on TV. JFK’s death was a seminal moment in my life as it was for so many others across the world, affecting me (as a kid, at least) far more than any particular Jewish moment had, including the Six-Day War. Which is not to say that the Six-Day War, which took place when I was ten, did not have an impact on me. It did. But JFK’s death meant something more to me as a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the sixties.

This certainly has much to do with my upbringing. My parents were happy to be Jewish. We always belonged to a synagogue. But I would never have described them as “fiercely proud Jews.” Being Jewish was something we were, but not something we were always doing. It would be during my teen years that temple youth group and URJ summer camps would propel me into a more engaged, active involvement in Jewish life.

So with Thanksgivukkah rapidly approaching, something that hasn’t happened for about a hundred years and won’t happen for another (perhaps) 70,000 years, the intersection of American and Jewish life has been on my mind.

Rabbis across the nation have been sounding off on Thanksgivukkah. Some of them view it with suspicion and/or disdain, as if it represents a watering-down of commitment to Jewish life, a cheapening of Jewish tradition. Others welcome it. Probably the same rabbis who, like me, welcome Halloween. In Halloween’s case, some rabbis are put-off by Halloween’s Christian roots, its pagan roots, or its ties to the occult. Others however, including me, dismiss those connections, seeing the holiday as a fun, harmless night of community gathering and socializing. After all, how often do you see your neighbors out on the street? And whatever the holiday’s origins, none of those are why we go trick-or-treating today.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, which will transition us from the Jacob-story to the Joseph-story, the opening words of Genesis 37 highlight for me this challenge of being Jewish and living in America. “Vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz K’na’an … Jacob settled in the land of Canaan, where his father had sojourned.” The impression we receive here is that while Abraham and Isaac were immigrants, and considered themselves strangers in a new land, Jacob felt at home there. This certainly shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he was a third-generation resident. His grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, had been immigrants. His mother, Rebekkah, was an immigrant. And his father, Isaac, was the child of an immigrant. But Jacob had only known K’na’an as his home.

My grandparents, Philip and Anna Feldman and Harry and Mollie Dreskin, were all immigrants. They took various boat rides across the ocean from Russia to the United States. My parents were the children of immigrants. And I have only known the United States as my home. The children of this congregation, who will be eating turkey and pumpkin pie while lighting candles and opening their Hanukkah presents this year are, in many cases, the great-great-grandchildren of immigrants. They are American through and through.

The commentaries tell us that Jacob became complacent when he settled into life in K’na’an. And everything that befell his children, most especially the travails of his son Joseph and the eventual enslavement of our people in Egypt, were because Jacob had left behind his passion for spiritual living. He’d assimilated. And it led to crisis.

The recent Pew report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has raised concerns about the impending demise of Jewish life in America. I think the mere existence of a category they label as “Jews of no religion” has the pundits running for cover. Intermarriage, assuming the statistics are accurate, has risen to 58% of American Jews. Between 30 and 50% have little or no connection to the State of Israel. And only 30% think it’s important to be part of a Jewish community.

That’s a lot of people who are gonna miss out on Thanksgivukkah. No menurkey (turkey-shaped menorah) in their homes. No pumpkin latkes. No challah stuffing. And not even their great-great-grandchildren will get the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgivukkah.

Y’all know me. I’m an eternal optimist. Which certainly doesn’t mean I’m right all the time. I just don’t enjoy gloom-and-doom predictions. Yes, I think there are people who are drifting away from, and will ultimately leave, Jewish life. It’s the price of living in America. A free country. Free to go where we want to go, including our spiritual journeys. But that’s only part of the story. The other part I see right here at Woodlands. The 58% that’s intermarrying? A whole lot of them are living wonderful Jewish lives. Not only are they not disappearing from Judaism, but they’re bringing in others! Some are converting, while others are simply joining in. Around here, the results are pretty similar for both: kids growing up who love being Jewish, and don’t doubt for a second who they are even if mom or dad has a second religion.

The fact is, America has been good to the Jews. Its values are consonant with Judaism’s, often originating from the same place! The first Thanksgiving was very likely a reenactment of the biblical Sukkot. As Jews and as Americans, gratitude is an important value. We dine in the sukkah, away from all the creature comforts of the house, to renew our appreciation for the natural world. The first Thanksgiving brought European and Native American together to offer thanks for earth’s bounty. And Hanukkah? It’s also about gratitude. About a world where freedom may be fragile, but it’s worth protecting. And we light candles to celebrate and reaffirm a world where people can live side-by-side, applauding the differences that make life a brilliant tapestry of experience and love.

150 years ago this past Tuesday, President Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous oration of all time on a field in Pennsylvania where 8,000 soldiers had lost their lives and another 38,000 were wounded or missing. In his address at Gettysburg, the President enshrined the purpose for which these United States of America had been born: “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He sought to give meaning to the great violence that had occurred there by reaffirming “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s speech, like Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington, resonate deeply in the Jewish soul. The dream of America, not an easy dream mind you, is a great dream, a dream worthy of our prophets! Isaiah and Jeremiah would, I think, have approved. They’d be disappointed in our setbacks, our failures, our lack of follow-through, but they’d rail against anyone who suggested the dreams were not good ones.

And that’s why I celebrate Halloween. Imagine, living in a country where children can go door-to-door, begging for food they don’t need, and getting a piece of candy and a smile to send them on their way. I know, there are far too many ghettos and rural backroads where good food is in short supply and no one would allow a child on the streets at night. But Halloween encompasses the dream … that one day, all of our children will be able to dress up like monsters and won’t have to ever face real ones.

And that’s why I’ll be celebrating Thanksgivukkah. Because America is about as Jewish a country as you can find (without it being Israel). And Judaism is about as American a religion as you can find, until (of course) you meet your Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh neighbor who also values freedom, full bellies, and peaceful streets.

When JFK got shot in 1963, even as a six-year old I knew something terrible had happened in America. And even as the history books are revising their esteem for the country’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy symbolized every hope and ideal millions of this nation’s citizens held close. Our shared dream of a land that all men and women could call home was sharply muted by the crack of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. Our innocence stolen away, we have been forced ever since to see all of America, its glories and its horrors, and to work to build a future that is forever at risk, to struggle to continue to believe in a better day.

But then, that’s the Jewish dream, isn’t it? Bayom hahu yih’yeh Adonai ekhad ush’mo ekhad … on that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One. Which day? The day when we finally bring all people together, regardless of skin color, religious identity, even political beliefs, and join hands to finally, at long last, build a world of peace.

When Jacob settled in K’na’an, he may have given up his years of wandering, but he brought up at least one child who possessed an exalted vision of life as it could be. And in time, it would be Levi, one of Jacob’s wayward children, who would become the ancestor of perhaps our people’s greatest leader, Moses. Jacob may have settled down, and he may have settled for something less than his grandfather had hoped for, but he did not settle for a life devoid of meaning or vision.

And neither have we.

America need not be the dilution of anything. It stands for so much that is good in our world. It serves as the petri dish in which Jewish life can grow and thrive and prosper and, most importantly, do the good that was commanded of us by God at Mount Sinai … the same good by which this nation’s founders hoped the American people would live.

Happy Thanksgivukkah. As an American and as a Jew, I am so grateful for the life that is mine and for the possibilities of goodness for others that, although elusive, are very much worth all of us, together, striving for.

A Grocer’s Tale

CityGate.KoreaWhat’s the story you want your life to tell?

Each year, on Shavuot, we retell our people’s narrative of enslavement, liberation, desert wandering, and revelation at Mount Sinai. Whether we believe it really happened or not, it’s an extraordinary story. One that deeply affects the manner in which we live our lives.

God picks us out from among the suffering masses, saves us, and elevates us to Covenant status. Thousands of years later, we’re still telling that story! And here’s what I think it tells about us. About what’s important to us. Important as Jews. Important as human beings.

It says that slavery is a terrible thing, and that no human being should be made to endure it. Not just something we should avoid, but something we should endeavor to end in other people’s lives. That’s why we showed up for civil rights rallies and to end the genocide in Darfur.

It says that corrupt, destructive people can and should be stopped. They’re not just people who we keep away from, but tyrants we seek to topple even if it (merely!) helps others and not necessarily ourselves. That’s why large numbers of Jewish lawyers work as public defenders and for non-profits. That’s why large numbers of Jewish teachers help kids grow up to be selfless and kind. That’s why large numbers of moms and dads in Jewish families raise sweet kids.

And this narrative says something else. It asserts that, more often than not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. In the quest for truth, our Jewish heritage is right up there with the best of the philosophical traditions – both secular and religious – that endeavor to figure out “the meaning of life” and help us discern what’s good and what’s not.

What story do you want your life to tell?

I have a friend who runs a small grocery store. It’s not an easy life. Long hours, low pay, always on the brink of going under. My friend wonders, “Why did I pick a grocer’s life? And how come I can’t seem to get out of it, even though I think I’d like to?”

This grocer then met someone who gives past-life readings. Now, like the story of Shavuot, which may or may not have happened but is still a story worth telling and learning from, so too with this one. I think there’s a great lesson here.

The “reader” said that in the lifetime just prior to this one, my grocer friend’s father had died young. The mother, unable to care for her two young children, sold one (the older sister) and abandoned the other (my friend) at the city gates, perishing there.

“What are city gates?” my friend asked.

Knowing a thing or two about ancient cities, like Jerusalem, I explained that where a city had a wall surrounding it, the city gates served not only as an entrance and exit point, but also where much local activity took place. Often including, I noted, a marketplace.

I theorized that my friend is a grocer today because, having been abandoned in the market place in a previous lifetime, is still in that marketplace today.

I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with this interpretation of the past-life reading. I was creative and realistic (I mean, to the extent that any wondering about past lives can be realistic).

But my grocer friend looked at me and said, “I don’t want that to be my story.”

I thought to myself, “You don’t necessarily get to make that choice.” Our lives are what they are. And most assuredly, our past is in the past. It’s over; there’s no going back and altering it.

But since no one knows what’s true and what isn’t here, just because my story has some poetic meaning to it doesn’t mean my friend wanted to own it. “Then why do you think you’re a grocer?” I asked.

My friend the grocer looked me in the eye and, with a powerful sense of conviction, told me the following. “Because my parents were not able to take care of me and abandoned me, I am a food seller today so that, no matter how difficult my work is, and no matter how precarious the world becomes around me, my children will always have food on the table.”

It didn’t take long at all for me to admit that my grocer friend was right. That’s a much better narrative. Rather than life being an ongoing act of mere survival, it becomes a commitment to bettering loved ones’ lives.

What is the story that you will write?

What will be the narrative for your life?

I hope it’s a question you’ll want to ask, and then ask again, and keep on asking. I hope you won’t allow others to be the only ones to respond, to decide what your life is all about. I hope you’ll share your ideas with people you love, with people you respect. And I hope you’ll hear some worthwhile possibilities in return.

But write your own story.

During Shavuot, we stand at Mt. Sinai. As fellow journeyers, we share the great tales of human experience. Some of those stories are ours; some belong to those we meet while on the road. None of our accounts are complete. No matter where we are in the adventure, as it says in our haggadah, it is a story “whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold.”

May yours be filled with beauty, with wonder, with purpose, and, most especially, with love.

On “Human Rights Shabbat,” the Night Before Hanukkah

HumanRightsAs we look toward lighting our first Hanukkah candle tomorrow evening, I have a story to share with you. Oddly, it’s a Passover story. But the message is perfect for tonight. And as an added plus, it gets us going on our Pesakh preparation as well!

In the nineteenth century, prominent Lithuanian Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, hadn’t been feeling well. This was just prior to Passover, and it became necessary for his students to take upon themselves the rabbi’s usual supervision of the town’s matzo-baking. Matzo is subject to its own rules of kashrut, ensuring that no leavening be allowed to occur at any time during the preparation, baking and storage of matzot. Keenly aware of this immense responsibility that had been placed upon their young shoulders, the students pressed Rabbi Salanter for guidance. “Tell us, rabbi, what must we be sure not to overlook.” To which Rabbi Salanter, pulling himself with great difficulty to a sitting position, and with the most serious of voice and expression, responded, “See to it … that the women who bake the matzos … are paid promptly.”

Judaism has always cared deeply for human rights. Starting in the very first chapter of the book of Genesis we are taught that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Each of us has the spark of God within and, as such, every person in existence is to be treated with dignity, honor and compassion.

And so, it isn’t surprising to walk into a synagogue and find any number of projects that have been adopted in order to empower the temple community to elevate the dignity and economic security of others. Woodlands is certainly no different. One of my favorite complaints, and I’ve been receiving it for all 18 years that I’ve been here, is that the front lobby is too cluttered with donations for the needy. I ask you: Who’d want it any other way? It’s like the Israelites wandering in the desert. Invited to donate for the building of the Mishkan, they had to be told, “Enough! Stop giving. We’ve got more than we can use!” I love it when our Social Action Committee can’t keep up with the volume of donations you bring. These days, we’ve been tripping over cleaning supplies and batteries to try and help the folks who were assaulted by Super Storm Sandy. You won’t hear me shout, “Enough!” — not for quite a while to come — because too many lives have too many needs that will likely continue for too many months, if not years, to come.

This certainly is not merely a Jewish value. Judaism’s purpose, I believe, is to help every member of a Jewish family to learn and to implement the values that all human beings should be practicing. And so, in 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we Jews could applaud their efforts and sign on the dotted line. The Declaration of Human Rights is based on the idea that “there are a few common standards of decency that can and should be accepted by people of all nations and cultures” (Mary Ann Glendon, 2004). Among the human rights enumerated are: fundamental principles of freedom, dignity, and equality, and the right to life, liberty and security; prohibitions against torture and slavery; equal recognition before the law; prohibitions against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the presumption of innocence; the right to freedom of movement, to leave and return to one’s country, to seek asylum, to own property, to marry and found a family; freedom of religion and thought, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, freedom to take part in the government, and equal access to public service; the right to work and to receive equal pay for equal work; the right to join a trade union; the right to a reasonable amount of rest and leisure; the right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services; the right to education and to participate freely in the cultural life of the community.

What a profoundly moving and important document. What an intensely Jewish document!

How many times have you and I heard the words, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt”? Does this document not enshrine the very values and principles upon which our own religion was founded? Our ancestors knew the sting of the whip, the denial of freedom, the whimsical destruction of life. And when they were freed by the waters of the Red Sea, they sought not merely to enshrine their own protection, their own safety, the security of their own babies, but have from time immemorial demanded such rights for everyone. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sexual or gender orientation, our Jewish heritage has taught us and urged us to advocate for the well-being of one and all. That’s why our front lobby gets cluttered with donations.

Of course, stating ideals is one thing. Living by those ideals is something altogether different. And so we find ourselves living a paradox, even here in the United States. Despite such a lofty document, the actions by the nations of the world in the years since 1948 suggest that merely signing a piece of paper has guaranteed nothing. And so we find ourselves living in a world that regularly denies full (and sometimes even basic) human rights to women, to children, to people of color, to the LGBT community, to Muslims here in America, to African asylum-seekers in Israel, to the struggling middle-class, and so many, many more.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously approved in 1948. But even though no country voted against it, eight countries did abstain. More disappointingly, virtually every one of them has fallen depressingly short of fulfilling the Declaration’s terms. In every nation across this exquisite planet of ours, too many are permitted to languish in lives and circumstances that neither you or I would ever tolerate for our own loved ones. Having so much richness in our own lives, you and I must do more than express concern for those who don’t. We need to act. We need to drive to the Rockaways and help rebuild. We need to fly to the Gulf Coast and continue the rebuilding. We need to volunteer in shelters and in public schools to ensure that children have access to learning and to love. We must stand up – in town halls, in our nation’s capital, on our street corners if need be – and share our values and our hopes aloud. Our elected representatives need to hear from us when the human rights of one are trampled by another. And we need to encourage our children, and our grandchildren, and our temple children (through our religious school and our worship), to learn and to act on these values as well.

I don’t know if the Maccabees had to bake matzoh. I imagine they did. I wonder if in their heroic struggle to regain their political rights, did they make sure that the women who baked their matzo were paid promptly? It’s tough to be a Maccabee. Even for a Maccabee.

Tomorrow evening, we’ll light the first candle of Hanukkah. Unlike our Maccabean ancestors, our struggles will involve figuring out from which direction to insert and to light the candles, how to avoid being splattered by hot oil when making our latkes, and deciding what gifts to share with our loved ones. For me, being a terrible gift wrapper, my personal struggles will include scissors and scotch tape.

But we’ll have missed the point, won’t we?

Tomorrow evening, when we light the first candle of Hanukkah, let’s try and think about the real struggles that are going on in the world today. Let’s tell the story of the Maccabees, and let’s try and find the Maccabees of our own day. And maybe, if we act to help others in their hour of need, we’ll become Maccabees ourselves. In celebration of Hanukkah, donate to places and organizations that are fighting the good fight. In celebration of Hanukkah, let’s go somewhere, roll up our own sleeves, and fight the good fight ourselves. You might want to talk to Stu Berlowitz or Jay Werner about joining them in the Rockaways. This need is particularly urgent. But there are so many opportunities out there, and so many good people waiting for you to offer a hand.

My cousin Kenny sent me a cartoon today that’s been making the rounds on the Internet for quite a few years now. It shows a family gathered around a cell phone, the father proclaiming with religious fervor and theological awe, “The cell phone only had enough battery power for one day, but it lasted for eight.” This cartoon has always represented the shallowest, consumerist dimension of Hanukkah. But during Super Storm Sandy, there was in fact a true need for batteries that lasted beyond expectation. So for the first time, this cartoon is actually poignant.

Eloheynu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors, what an incredible heritage You have bequeathed to us. Not just You, of course, but those ancestors of ours who thought that Your teachings were truly helpful in the challenge to become compassionate human beings. On this almost-Hanukkah evening, we’re so grateful for the gifts that have come down to us through the ages. May we make good use of them. And through Your gifts, may we make this world a better home for all. And may our children’s children one day thank their ancestors – us! – for making sure that they too were able to bake the matzo and to see that the women were promptly paid.

Ken y’hee ratzon.


Turning into the Rising Wind

This past February, on a family trip to Israel, we drove through the Hula Valley, an agricultural region up north that is especially fertile because of abundant fresh water. Our guide shared with us that the Hula Valley is a major stopover for birds migrating along the Syrian-African Rift between Africa, Europe, and Asia. Every year, 500 million birds migrate along that route.

500 million birds!

Israel has always been a major crossroads between great civilizations. In ancient times, Egypt to the southwest and Mesopotamia to the northeast would vie for control of this important corridor. But history always speaks of the human traffic. Who knew that birds followed this route as well?

The trip is 3400 miles long. To preserve their strength, the birds catch the thermals — rising masses of warm air — which occur only over land, helping them to stay aloft with minimal effort, also ensuring a place to rest and feed. Israeli bird watchers love this.

Israeli farmers not so much. 500 million birds consume a lot of produce. With the region responsible for so much of Israel’s agriculture, this little winged jaunt could be an economic crisis in the making.

So what did Israel do? They created restaurants. Restaurants for birds. And the birds have learned the routine. They know what time of day and they know the sound of the trucks and tractors that cart out the food. For example, in one area, 30,000 cranes are fed over four tons of corn each day.

This keeps the birds fed, and the crops uneaten. Clear across the Hula Valley.

Our lives are filled with challenges in search of solutions. These challenges can be most unsettling to our lives. They can threaten our well-being, and sometimes our lives. But perhaps we can learn something from Israel’s fluttering visitors and the farmers who see to them. Sometimes there are elegant, practical solutions available to us, even when the situation seems dire and overwhelming.

The month of Elul brings a forty-day period of time that includes the holiday of Selihot and, close on its tail, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These forty days arrive no less momentously than the 500 million avian visitors to Israel’s Hula Valley. The gift these days provide is to offer us time and ideas that gently encourage us to find solutions to the tests we face. And just as the birds of the Hula Valley are beholden to the farmers and their tractors which line the flight path, there are men and women (and sometimes children, and even dogs) whose love and support serve as our own “thermals,” helping us to stay aloft during the long flights that carry us from times of challenge to places of contentment and well-being.

Teshuvah – turning – is our goal during these forty days. With earnest effort, we can turn the corner on something of ours that’s in need of change. Our reward can be sizable: aery flight into new vistas of living that bring goodness and blessing to ourselves, and to all whom we encounter along the way.


Based on a Selihot thought shared at Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY (Sep 2012).

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.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve got one more.

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

See what I mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♬ I am a human.

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