Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

It’s New Year’s — Who’s Up For Some Resolutioning?

You know this story? Back in Eastern Europe, sometime during the nineteenth century, there was a small village that had a Police Chief who found great pleasure in persecuting the Jews who lived there. One morning, the Police Chief encountered the village rabbi, who was carrying his tallit. It was, of course, obvious that the rabbi was on his way to the synagogue, but the Police Chief, to annoy him, asked, “Where are you going, rabbi?” “I don’t know,” came the reply. The Police Chief, angered by the rabbi’s insolence, shouted, “It is perfectly clear that you are going to your morning prayer service at the synagogue! So why don’t you admit it?” And he gave orders for the rabbi to be arrested. “You see,” said the rabbi to the Police Chief, “I did tell the truth. Was I quite certain where I was going? I had certainly intended to go to the synagogue, but now I find myself in prison. So I never really know where my journey is taking me.”

It being the week before New Year’s, and its attendant resolution-making, I’ve been wondering: What would you do if you were truly free to do whatever you want? If there were no constraints and the possibilities were unlimited, where would you go, who would you look up, what would you do, what mark would you leave?

I thought it might be fun (or depressing, I suppose) to think about our undone work, and to ponder what we might be able to actually get done in the year ahead. And to maybe articulate some of the things we likely won’t get done but wish we could just the same. Some may think this exercise a waste of time, but I believe it’s helpful to orient our souls and, at the very least, point them in the direction we wish we were going just in case the opportunity arises to move even a tiny bit in that direction.

A cursory look online reveals that a lot of people write lists of hoped-for accomplishments. Some do it for themselves; many do so to teach others (or to get you to buy whatever life-improvement product they’re peddling). I looked over some of these lists and pulled out some that I thought were worth mentioning here.

One guy listed his top one hundred life goals. They included everything from owning a yacht and a Tesla, to doing a lot of reading and exploring the ocean floor. Near the top of his list, I’m pleased to report, are finding love, building a family, and helping others.

On another list, it wasn’t until item 50 that there was even mention of another human being. It wasn’t until item 73 that this person wanted to do anything for a family member. And in the entire list of 130 goals, not once did the writer express interest in improving another person’s life without seeking something in return (ie, giving away a product in exchange for some good PR). I don’t know when this list got started, but it’s been updated annually since 2006. In 2019, there’s finally mention of helping others in ways that don’t bring more professional success. Excellent – finally growing up.

I remember making lists of my own in college, of where I wanted my life to take me. I wish I’d saved them because life has taken so many interesting turns before settling into a rabbinic career.

I did save a list I made back in 1989. I was two years a rabbi and had moved with Ellen and Katie to Cleveland. It was a huge congregation – some 2300 families – and I think I feared I’d be swallowed alive by them. So I was trying to articulate what life I wanted to live rather than simply get pulled into the vortex of the lives of the eight thousand souls who belonged there.

Top of the list? “Be a mentsch, to yourself and to others.” Nice start, eh? That wasn’t easy to achieve, by the way. I was so busy there, I felt like I didn’t have time to breathe. I remember marching into my senior rabbi’s office one morning and telling him, “I just walked the length of this building (it was a big place) and didn’t have time to say hello to anyone I saw along the way. I don’t ever want to be so busy to think that’s somehow acceptable behavior.” So I could articulate my goals; I’m just not sure I could live by them.

The next five items on my 1989 list were in a similar vein. “Be ethical. Maintain your integrity. Be honest. Be fair. Be a person of your word. Be free of hypocrisy. Work to change the world, to better it.” And then my favorite: “Remember: you are a child of the 60’s — act on your idealism, and take others with you.”

Item #7 finally got around to the most important people in my life: “Spend more than enough time with your family.” I was never really expert at that. Although, as far as clergy go, I might have done pretty well. But I was always leaving them, always going to be with someone else’s family. And while that fit items one through six, number seven has always seemed to come up short.

What’s on your list?

One article I found online, written by a psychologist rather than a business professional, suggested that life-goals are important because they provide focus and bolster self-esteem. I do, in fact, remember those college lists, not only how excited I was to pursue what was written there, but how enthused and empowered I felt in doing so. Yes, the list might change, but I had every confidence my life was going forward in positive, rewarding directions.

Which brings me to 2019. What dreams do you have for the coming year? Many if not most of us have recently experienced national and world turmoil we’ve not seen before. Any lists we make this year – in addition to goals for personal well-being and family wholeness – must inevitably include a powerful longing for political turns that will bring restful nights to so many groups currently under fire: immigrants, Muslims, women, the LGBTQ community, our own Jewish community, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Israel and so many, many more.

There’s a lot to wish for. A lot to work for.

In this week’s Torah parashah, Shemot, which begins the Book of Exodus, our ancestors who had gone down to Egypt fleeing famine found themselves in the grips of new political leadership “asher lo yada et Yosef … who did not know Joseph.” The 16th century Italian commentator Ovadiah ben Yaakov Sforno noted that all of the Israelites’ previous accomplishments benefiting Egypt could not save them from becoming enslaved. Today, we cannot help but wonder with concern what the future will bring for us here in America, for all who have relied upon enshrined American values that, for more than 200 years, have protected the rights of minorities and provided every opportunity for us and them to thrive.

My favorite list!

I do not despair. Not yet anyway. I believe the Constitution will hold. I believe goodness will yet win out. I believe that if we make our lists, if we resolve to engage and to fight to preserve the soul of this great nation, all will come out right in the end. This is not ancient Egypt. This is not Nazi Germany. You may think me naive but on my updated list will be continuing outreach to minorities, continuing efforts to secure their rights so that ours will be secure as well. And I urge each of you to do the same.

I don’t believe we need be fearful, but I do believe we need to get involved and stay involved. Choose your issue, put it at or near the top of your list, and make sure you’ve done something each week to help. Donate to support legislative advocacy, show up for marches, contact your elected representative, volunteer to help. And do what you can to assist those who are now struggling to find safety and security. Let them know, firsthand and in-person if at all possible, that you’re one of the good guys.

The story of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt jumps from them being free to them being oppressed. It probably didn’t happen that way. It takes time for rights to be destroyed. It takes public approval or, at the very least, public apathy for these things to happen. We mustn’t allow that to happen here. While we are free, we must work to remain free, to help others remain free. Thus far, America’s institutions still retain the possibility for achieving that. As proud Americans, we simply must do what we can to keep American institutions strong.

Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived and taught in 12th century Spain, identified one passage in the Torah as the number one ingredient to purposeful and worthwhile living. From Exodus 23:25, “Va’avad’tem et Adonai Elohekha … you shall serve Adonai your God.” For some, this works. Do God’s will and all will be well. For others, it works to view this figuratively: think, identify life’s highest goals, and pursue them with vigor, with passion, with a sense that everything depends on this. Because these days, it just might.

Once upon time, an anonymous rabbi was walking in the woods behind the dog park with his best pal, Charlie. He was soon joined by a man who lived nearby but who was born and raised in Ireland. The man was planning to go back and visit his brothers, two of a total of seven, who still live in Cork. But he couldn’t decide which brother to stay with. The very wise rabbi suggested he stay with whichever one will be less bothered by his choice. The man said that neither brother would be happy. The exceedingly wise rabbi suggested he invite both brothers to come stay with him. The man said that would never work. The increasingly impatient rabbi asked why. The man said, “Because my brothers haven’t spoken to each other in years.” The rabbi thought, “This is why I like dogs – they may never speak but they never stop loving either.”

We have so much to learn, don’t we? It’s a new year. May 2019 be one in which the lists we make include the value of letting go of petty disappointments, and of embracing the larger and more important connections in our lives life … between brothers, between neighbors, between everybody.

Happy new year. Shabbat shalom.

Billy

We’re All Just Trying To Get Home

Four weeks ago, 39 members of our temple registered to travel to Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma. Our objective was to retrace the steps of America’s Civil Rights Movement and ask ourselves, as Jews and as human beings, what those moments in American history teache us and what they challenge us to do with our own lives in the months and years ahead.

Of the 39, however, only 16 of us actually got there. We had traveled (or tried to, anyway) the day of a big snowstorm that shut down most of our roads and airports here in New York. And since I’d told everyone to travel on their own, that we’d meet up at 9:00 pm that evening at Baggage Claim in the Atlanta airport, some of us got there and, sigh, some of us didn’t.

It is truly a bizarre notion that any of us should think our experience stranded in the Westchester Airport could come anywhere close to having as much meaning and significance as our compadres who spent their weekend down south. But what can I say? We were moderately stunned and utterly delighted by what transpired in all those hours waiting for a plane that never appeared.

We were having such a good time not flying to Atlanta (which, you should understand, was not simply about being grounded but about enduring a dozen or so 45-minute delays in our flight, kind of like slowly boiling a frog). Anyway, we were having such a good time with each other – talking, snacking, musing at the odds of our actually getting where we were going – that some people nearby asked if we were having a family reunion. When they were informed we were a synagogue, they responded that their synagogue isn’t nearly as much fun. I made a bee-line over to them and for the next half-hour regaled them with my best recruitment strategies.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t just us. Everybody was calm and relaxed. We were all just waiting, perhaps grateful that during all of the truly miserable weather we were in the airport and not out in traffic trying to get to the airport. At any rate, something very special happened in that terminal, and it became a metaphor for a very similar “something” we wish we could see happen across our nation.

Twice this week, someone has said to me, “You see the way people are behaving? That doesn’t have to happen. Something’s definitely taken hold of our country. Suddenly, it’s more acceptable to behave like that.” In the one case, it was a comment on the rise of bigoted speech and hateful acts toward people of color. In the other, it was how men treat women. Because the leader of this country behaves in such an immature, selfish, and abusive manner, his actions are being seen as granting permission to do the same elsewhere.

Which is exactly the opposite of what we were supposed to have learned from the Civil Rights Movement. So much blood was shed, so many good lives ruined, because people thought it was acceptable to treat people this way. It took decades and decades but finally, laws were passed, and standards of human behavior were imposed upon even the basest of our citizens, and life got better everywhere.

It’s not that the problems ended, but we made a lot of good progress. More was needed. God knows, far too many white people find it acceptable to treat those of color disrespectfully. Far too many straight people object to providing equal treatment under American law to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transvestites, those who are questioning their gender or the sexual identity, and more. Far too many men find it acceptable to mistreat women.

At our borders, America’s persistent racism and xenophobia not only block the way for those who are seeking a better life for themselves and those they love, but we are actively mistreating them, taking children away from parents, turning people away without the due process that even non-citizens are promised in our Constitution, and generally expressing the unfounded, distasteful assertion that America is better off without immigrants.

Finally, or at least for the purposes of tonight, there is the issue of voting rights. This primary and most important expression of citizenship is being hindered by those who seek, under the guise of protecting the integrity of America’s election process, to suppress the ability of the working middle class and of minority communities to either qualify to vote or to be able to get to the polls during working hours.

The current administration, in the White House and in Congress, have amply demonstrated that the Civil Rights Movement is nowhere near conclusion. Like becoming B’nai Mitzvah, in which no 13-year old has actually reached adulthood but we celebrate that their journey toward adulthood has just begun, we should take pride in the advances our country made with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and other laws that help end discrimination, but we must understand that the journey has only just begun.

This morning, with a lively group of students over at the Shames JCC, I rehashed the Brett Kavanaugh Senate confirmation hearings. Someone asked what good it does, two months later, to look at any of these materials. My response was that I doubt any of us would have any impact on the aftermath of those hearings, except that (and this is important) we might go home and not only live lives of more determined commitment to fairness and truth, but we might teach a bit more of that to our children and grandchildren, and we might share these ideas, or simply model them, in our interactions with our community. In that respect, our learning is not only worthwhile, it’s vital to the increasing well-being of our nation.

Back on our (alleged!) Civil Rights Journey, at Friday around noon, when the airline finally committed to canceling our flight, we slowly made our way to the exit doors, weaving our way through the many individuals and groups still hoping that their wait would result in getting someplace else that wasn’t where they’d just been. I needed to break through a row of passengers who were hoping that the line in which they were standing would actually lead to a seat on an airplane, and I asked one woman to allow me through, explaining to her, “I’m trying to get home.” And for the first in nearly twenty-four hours, the response was impatient, nasty and devoid of sympathy as she hissed, “We’re all trying to get home!”

And with that, I remembered the real world, one that disappoints with all-too-customary regularity but that often pleasantly surprises us with the large number of good, fair, understanding men and women who won’t ever give up on efforts to create and maintain civilized communities for everyone.

This week, commenting on Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23), my beloved teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman wrote about a particularly favorable view of Jacob’s seemingly preferential treatment of his son Joseph. The preference, rather than the usual (!) gift of a technicolor dreamcoat, involved Jacob’s teaching his son the wisdom of our Jewish tradition. According to 13th century Spanish commentator Jacob ben Asher, Joseph was instructed by his father in five of the six sections of Mishna, our earliest Torah commentary. “But why only five,” Rabbi Hoffman asks. “Because purity (the topic of the sixth tractate) cannot be learned through classroom study; it comes from within and requires lifelong practice.” [“A Nuanced Approach To Conversion,” The Jewish Week, Nov 30, 2018]

Purity, he says, is “the effort to lead a stainless existence.” A wholesome existence, one devoted to goodness and to love. And for that, one must see such values in action.

America is a bold experiment in “purity,” in building a world based on mutual understanding and respect, and the right to live freely without fear of restrictive government. At its best, America has fostered community after community where people of differing backgrounds can live together in security and peace. At its worst, that definition of community has been reserved only for some and has excluded others.

Each time that members of our synagogue — whether teen or adult — participate in the Civil Rights Journey, we retrace the steps of America’s struggle to build such communities, and strengthen (we hope) our shared passion for, and commitment to, this great American experiment.

That lady who snapped at me at the airport, she was right. In the end, we really are all just trying to get home. May we choose the paths, the journeys, that lead homeward for the greatest number of us. It’ll take hard work; no one’s ever been naive about that. But in the end, it’s the greatest and most important journey of them all.

Shabbat shalom.

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Words to close out the service:

Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, wrote a commentary on Vayigash that centers around Judah’s efforts to save the life of his youngest brother, Benjamin.

Once, Rabbi Edelheit explains, we were called Hebrews, literally, “the other,” the people from over there, from the other side of the tracks. Then we became Israel, descendants of Jacob, the God wrestler. In time, however, we identified ourselves, and still do, as Jews, the descendants of Judah.

Why? Because in Vayigash, Judah, who had formerly joined his brothers in rage against Joseph, here he engages in an act of profoundly selfless initiative to save his family. “Judah is our namesake,” Rabbi Edelheit writes, “because he understood that he could not repeat the indifference that had defined him” — indifference horrifyingly expressed when the brothers threw Joseph into a pit and then sold him into slavery.

While we are the descendants of some who have behaved appallingly, committing crimes of jealousy and abandonment, we’re also the descendants of those who have performed great acts of contrition and humanitarian excellence. It is because of those deeds, noble conduct that conquered the worst that was in us and honored the best that is in us, we became Jews.

It is our sacred honor – as members of this Jewish people – to live lives dedicated to fighting indifference wherever we find it, and to never again stand by when others are thrown into a pit.

Everyone is just trying to get home. Life works best when we help each other do just that.

Billy

Thanksgiving Thoughts 2018

In these waning hours of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share some of what has made me feel grateful today.

Last Sunday afternoon, folks and their clergy of every denomination in my neighborhood joined together for a celebration of diversity, hope and faith. In a nation that has been jostled and bruised by words and acts of divisiveness and hate, I am poignantly reminded that our country is filled with hundreds of millions of good, kind souls, each one doing their part — large or small, every one of them important — to demonstrate what is truly magnificent and great about these United States.

This morning, I was honored to spend several hours with other families preparing Thanksgiving meals for those who had no family table around which to sit tonight. And while there are so many places where our country falls short, the goodness that these families displayed, goodness which lines the hearts of so many across this land, inspires me and gives me great hope for the future.

Lastly, Ellen and I spent our first Thanksgiving without our children present. Why? Because they have begun to fill their own homes with the love of friends and family who (we should all be so blessed) will fill their Thanksgiving tables every year from this time forward.

And one more thought:

In recent days, scores of people in our community have reached out to welcome a family that was granted a very rare visa to emigrate here from Afghanistan. What must it be like to leave everything behind, to move to a place where you know no one, cannot speak the language, don’t know how to put food on your family’s table let alone find a livelihood that will allow you to care for them in the years ahead?

I don’t know if that family can even set their worries aside long enough to be able to offer thanks on a holiday they’ve never known but that now belongs to them, but I do know that I’m exceedingly grateful that the community I am part of has been able to welcome them and to help them build a life for themselves here. I hope that next November, they will have reached a level of comfort and security that will allow them to gather around a table just as we have done this evening, and offer thanks for the many, many blessings that are theirs.

From our house to yours, may all your days be ones for giving thanks.

Billy

A Mixture That Must Happen: Tears of Sadness for the Tree of Life Family and, Eventually, Tears of Joy for Our Own

I presented this on Friday evening, November 2, 2018, one week after the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh.


Months ago, and I don’t really understand how, Jedd and a quite-pregnant Tiffany Chesterson scheduled a babynaming for tonight. Didn’t they know that first babies never show up on time? But I don’t argue with mama bears. Well, sure enough, Camila arrived on October 21 and found herself with a free evening so she’s come to be here with us tonight.

Who could have known what would transpire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh only six days ago, and that we would be gathering here this evening to remember the eleven men and women whose lives were ruthlessly taken by a vicious, hate-filled killer? And although our country has been here far too many times before – notably, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Kroger killings this past week in Jeffersontown, KY, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT – you probably don’t know this, but also won’t be surprised to learn that there have been 297 mass shootings in our country thus far in 2018.

It’s clear to so many of us that America simply cannot continue “business as usual” any longer. We simply must pass new legislation to more effectively regulate access to guns in this country so that those who cannot responsibly own them are not permitted to do so. Perhaps most important of all, everyone of us needs to get to the polls this Tuesday and vote. Vote to elect leaders whom you believe will help our state and our nation get to a place where gun violence is dramatically reduced and the citizens of this country take better care of one another.

Our hearts ache for the dead and the grieving of Tree of Life synagogue. They ache as well for those in Jeffersontown, and in every other city, town and village where terror has come to call. The candles we lit this evening are in remembrance of eleven, plus two, plus seventeen, plus forty-nine, plus fifty-eight, and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on …

Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov, who lived and taught in 18th century Eastern Europe, insisted that, despite the decades and the generations of antisemitism and of persecution, we may not despair. We may not give in to fear or terror. We may not give up. There is always a better world and it’s not the one after this one. Rather, it’s this world that can be made better – safer, kinder – if we will only join together and make it so.

There are many people of faith here this evening. Faith takes a lot of different forms. Some include religious belief, others humanistic belief. In either case, faith is required — faith in God, faith in humanity, faith in what some may deem impossible — if we are to transform our world into a place of justice and of mercy. Rabbi Issakhar Dov Baer of 18th century Radoshitz, Poland, was once asked, “How are we to interpret the Talmudic passage where Shimon bar Yokhai tells his son, ‘You and I are enough for the world’?” The rabbi replied, “In our prayers we say, ‘You are our God,’ and in our Torah we are told, ‘I am your God.’ It is this ‘you’ and this ‘I’ that are enough for the world.”

Everyone believes in something. What is crucial is that we believe in something good, something that will inspire us, even compel us, to bring increased goodness into our world. Whatever our religious choice, it will be the values that our parents teach us and by which we choose to live that will determine the outcome of this current state of disarray. Let us please choose life – for us, for our loved ones, for every inhabitant of this planet — for in that choice will we find the only path to shaping the world so many of us desire.

And if this week that path seems more difficult than ever to find, let us remember the words of Rabbi Nakhman and not despair. Let us never despair. Let us hold onto each other, cry together, comfort one another, and strengthen one another, so that we can return to the sacred work of building a world of goodness and peace.

Camila Chesterson is only thirteen days old. She was born into an already difficult world. And she was born with a very special purpose: to come here this evening and to renew our faith, our hope, that there is an abundance to good, of good people, in our world, and that it is worth it to pursue justice and peace, and it will happen. It will happen! We may be stunned to find our nation at this crossroads, but there are tens of millions of us, hundreds of millions of us in this magnificent, promising nation of 325 million souls. We not only can fix this, but we will. Camila Chesterson is a powerful symbol of that, and she is counting on us – she and every other baby, ever other young person – to get to work, at the voting booth, in our legislatures, and simply in how we treat each other, to build the world we’ve promised them.

This week’s Torah reading, Khayei Sarah, tells the story of a despondent Abraham who responds to recent sadness in his life by insuring the future of his family, sending his servant on a long journey to find a bride for his son, Isaac. Camila, we’re not quite ready to see you married (although I know some 4-month olds who might interest you) but, by your mere arrival, you have insured the future of your family.

Children may turn our lives upside down but they also add riches beyond measure! Your mom and dad already know this, their lives having been delightfully upended and made immeasurably richer for your having come to them. But don’t expect it to be all fun and games! There are plates to be eaten clean, potty-training, homework, and grandmothers’ hand-knit sweaters to be worn and thanked for.

Camila, I’ve known your parents for a while now. Your dad became a Bar Mitzvah here, your parents got married here, and your mom became Jewish here. And now they’ve brought you here! And at just the right time too. I’m glad you don’t understand what I’m saying right now, but everyone else does, and this is important. After something terrible happens in our world – as with last Saturday’s shootings in Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s shootings in Kentucky – it simply must be followed by something that affirms what is good and hopeful in our lives. Which is where you come in, little one. Your mom and dad are good folks. They care about you, and will always care about you. But they also care about others, and they’re going to teach you about that in the years ahead, and we’re going to help them.

Judaism teaches that each of us is an important puzzle piece in putting together a world of goodness and peace. We don’t know when, where or how, but your puzzle piece, Camila, will come into play someday. It is our shared hope, the hope of everyone in this sacred space, that when the time comes, you will stand and act proudly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

So enjoy babyhood, kiddo – we’ve got big plans for you!

Camila, we conclude this ceremony by reciting the three-fold blessing from the Torah. It is a blessing of family, once upon a time spoken by the kohanim, those who officiated in the Jerusalem Temple, and (through the generations) by one family member as an expression of love and of hope for another. Tonight, the three of us, representing three different religions, representing your human family, recite this blessing as a sign of our love for you, and our promise to work together to build for you a world of safety, or inclusion, and of peace.

Billy

You Never Know What a Guest Might Bring!

This d’rash was presented on Fri, Oct 26, 2018, at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT, when Woodlands Community Temple was invited to participate in a spiritual-cultural exchange, sharing with them the music of our service, “A Joyful Noise,” as well as being led by our clergy team. On Fri, Dec 21, 2018, Temple Sinai will come to Woodlands and lead a Shabbat service featuring their clergy team and the music of their “Ruach” ensemble. A great blessing for us all!

Billy


This exchange, besides being a wonderful experience for all of us, especially for the clergy (who almost never get to see the inside of another temple), is also symbolically very powerful. Houses of worship of any religion tend to operate in their own little universe. And yet, our message is frequently about how we’re part of a larger community but, all too often, we remain secluded in the day-to-day of our own lives.

But this evening, our two synagogues have actually bridged the twenty-five miles between our spiritual homes and have found ourselves meeting one another, enjoying Shabbat together, and exchanging ideas about the synagogues we love.

Judaism teaches us that hakhnasat orkhim, welcoming visitors, is a mitzvah. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” we learn in Leviticus 19. Whether those we welcome into our homes are simply weary travelers or strangers in need, we are encouraged to make room for others.

In this week’s parasha, Vayera, Abraham meets and welcomes into his home three travelers who turn out to be messengers from God. They bear important news: first, that Abraham and Sarah will soon be blessed with the birth of their son, Isaac; and second, that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is imminent, provoking Abraham to engage in the first act of Jewish social justice by lobbying God to spare the two cities.

Our lives are filled with routine. For most of us, we pretty much know what our days and our nights will look like even before our morning coffee. But hospitality – guests in our homes with whom we share what we have – can change up our routine. Granted, stories abound of house guests who are reminiscent of Michael Myers in Halloween but, hopefully, most such experiences become wonderful opportunities to meet interesting new people and hear about fascinating moments which we then either live vicariously or make plans to do ourselves.

I was thinking of times, growing up in Cincinnati, when my parents opened our home to guests. I remember when I was really little that they often hosted parties during which I was ordered to stay upstairs and out of sight. Later, in my early teens, I remember my older brothers welcoming traveling hippies who would regale me with stories of their having attended Woodstock in 1969. But besides that, our house was most frequently a shelter for myriad cats and dogs. I couldn’t find a photograph from frequent times when entire litters of cats filled our home, but here are some snapshots of me and my siblings and some of the guests who stayed and stayed and stayed, teaching me important lessons in hospitality, about offering food, a place to rest, opportunities to get outside and play, and, of course, lots of love.

Hospitality is on many of our minds these days. Our world has grown harsher, and crueler, in the past few years. Even now, we’re watching nervously as the United States Army is called to turn away thousands of Central Americans who have been labeled as terrorists and hardened criminals but who look far more like concerned moms and dads trying to bring their frightened, hungry, tired children to a place of safety. I understand that borders need to be protected, but it sure does sadden me that our nation’s leadership would portray these folks in such an unfavorable light.

Among my very favorite hasidic stories is one that is told about Rabbi Moshe Leib, the 18th century Tzaddik of Sassov (now in Ukraine). Rabbi Moshe Leib was best known for his love of humanity. One dark night, the story goes, with a heavy snow falling outside, he heard someone tap at his window. Moshe Leib looked out and saw a strange man dressed in tatters, with lacerations on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. The rebbe hesitated for only a moment whether to let such a person into his house, but then thought to himself, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.” And with that, he opened the door wide and invited the man in.

I’m hopelessly moved by the plight of abandoned animals. Charlie is a beagle, basset hound mix who came to us from a kill shelter in South Carolina, flew in a private plane to New York where, at Pets Alive in Elmsford, New York (now Paws Crossed), we fell for him and, eight years ago, brought him forever into our home and our lives. Even while I care for my little mutt, I also watch videos from Paws for Hope that catalog the adventures of Eldad Hagar who rescues cats and dogs barely surviving in the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, obtaining medical care for them, and finding homes where they can live in safety and be loved for the rest of their lives. I sit in front of my computer monitor, stunned by this man’s unbounded generosity of heart and time and, through my tear-soaked eyes, write check after check to thank him for providing hospitality that exceeds all reasonable expectations.

Then I think about Albania’s Muslims who, during World War II, not only succeeded in rescuing all of Albania’s 200 Jews, but another 1800 Jewish men, women and children, as Albania was one of the very few countries that kept its doors open to Jewish refugees. When the Nazis occupied Albania in 1943, the response was a uniform one: Besa. Besa means “faith,” or “to keep the promise,” and it reflects the Albanian Muslim idea that when one has welcomed a guest into your home, that guest is accorded all kindnesses and honors, including, if need be, the protection of their lives. When the Nazis came hunting for Jews, the Albanian Muslims embarked upon an ambitious national project: hide every one of them (including the additional 1800). Two thousand Jewish men, woman and children who, except for a single family, all survived.

Now that’s hospitality!

America isn’t perfect. God knows, there are chapters in our history for which we should hang our heads in shame: the near-genocide of this nation’s indigenous peoples, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans, the mistreatment of non-whites, of women, of the LGBTQ community and, yes, antisemitism. But enshrined within our Constitution are words that convey hope for our one day getting this right: “Congress shall have power to establish a uniform rule of naturalization” (Article 1, Section 8). Throughout the 242 years of its existence, America has opened its doors to immigrant populations who, again and again, would provide the energy and the will that would transform our nation into the great land it is today.

But also enshrined in our laws was an insistence on welcoming those who are fleeing danger in their own lands. Since World War II, we can be proud that more refugees have been granted asylum in the United States than in any other nation. But today, applications for asylum are under siege, children are being taken from their parents, and deportations of current residents are occurring everywhere including, only eighteen miles from here, the caretaker of Temple Bet Torah in Mount Kisco where Armando Rugerio has worked for twenty years, raised two children, and now languishes in an Albany jail as he awaits a final determination of his fate.

Ours is a tradition that has always valued opening doors (or, if we’re Abraham and Sarah, opening tent flaps). When guests arrive, they may bring immediate blessing or complex challenge. It is our privilege to swing the door as widely open as we can, and respond as Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov did, “If there is room for someone like this in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in my home.”

Once again, we are so grateful you have welcomed us into your home. Not only is it a cherished blessing to spend this Shabbat with you, but it reminds us all how vital it is for us to welcome others whenever the need, or simply the opportunity, arises.

I once visited a synagogue in Italy and was asked by the rabbi to say a few words. I shared a funny anecdote about life in New York and, really digging into it, I embellished the story with lots of twists and turns before arriving to the punchline. The rabbi then translated it into Italian, but used only a few words to do so. Everyone laughed, so that was pretty great. After the service, I asked the rabbi how he managed to translate my lengthy story into such a compact retelling. “Well,” he said, “I didn’t think they’d get your point, so I just told them, ‘Our guest is trying to be funny. Everyone please laugh.’”

May we always be grateful for the opportunities life presents to meet new people and make new friends. We may not always understand each other, but we can always appreciate good intentions and the generosity of extending and of accepting invitations to share. Thank You for giving us abundant spirits and open minds, that we might always create spaces, both in our personal and our communal lives, to welcome both stranger and friend.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors, God of New York and God of Connecticut, God of the Jews and God of the Muslims, God of the comfortable and God of the afflicted, what goodness You have implanted in Your magnificent world! May we open our homes, our towns, our nation, to ensure that all life is honored and protected. Regardless of differences between ourselves and our neighbors, may we understand that we’re not so different that we can’t look into the eyes of another and see the faces of our sisters and our brothers. May the people of our two synagogues always be among the Righteous of the Nations who stand up and proclaim, “Besa.” My word is my promise. My faith is my honor. Humanity is to be cherished. I will do so for each and every one of them.

Shabbat shalom.

Refugees Welcome!

This d’rash was presented as part of our synagogue’s observance of HIAS Refugee Shabbat. At the end, there is a letter that can help a refugee near where I live to remain in the United States with his family. Please sign it and mail it to the address indicated. Billy


Did you hear? Big Bird is retiring. Well, not Big Bird, but Caroll Spinney, the actor who plays Big Bird. After 50 years of entering our homes from his home on Sesame Street, the voice not only of Big Bird but also of Oscar the Grouch is retiring. He’s 84 years old, which is amazingly difficult to believe!

I mention this because Sesame Street is something that has accompanied so many of us through childhood and, as parents, through our second childhood. Coming home from school, plopping down in front of the TV with an apple and maybe some cheese, and jumping into that wonderful world where we got to learn our ABCs and our 123s, this is emblematic of life done right. While Sesame Street was originally created for underprivileged kids to help them get a good start on their education, we privileged kids loved it too. Sesame Street was part of the good life.

But around the world, there are 25.4 million children who are refugees, who have been forced to leave their home, leave their country, and cannot safely return. If they’re really lucky, they may live with family or friends, but more than likely they’re living in tents and other temporary structures inside of refugee camps, and also in towns and cities where jobs, affordable housing, decent meals and health care are very difficult to come by. If these kids get to watch Sesame Street, they just might be wishing they could live in a home as nice as Oscar’s trashcan.

It is estimated that there are 68 million refugees worldwide. Wanna guess how many of those are here in the United States? Well, since 1975 – that’s a little more than 40 years ago – more than three million refugees have been able to find refuge – a safe home – in America and have built new lives for themselves and for their families. Recently, however, our federal government has pretty much closed America’s gates and the ability for refugees to find refuge here has decreased to almost zero.

On top of that, our government has stepped up efforts to deport – which means to send away from our country – people who once came here from another nation, have lived here for decades, raised families here, but are now being arrested, separated from the people they love and, far too frequently, made to leave the United States and not come back.

Here’s just one family’s story.

Armando Rugerio

In Mount Kisco, maybe 25 minutes north of here, there is a synagogue much like ours called Bet Torah, the house of Torah, where families come to observe Shabbat and holidays, celebrate babynamings and B’nai Mitzvah, learn in their religious school and adult education programs, and practice tikkun olam through shared community service and help for others. At Bet Torah, there is a caretaker whose name is Armando Rugerio. He’s been the caretaker there for twenty years.

Armando has two children of his own, has never broken a law, and has been steadily employed by a community of hundreds of families who adore him. But in a single instant, he was taken away from all of that. He and his family had been dining in a nearby restaurant when a fight broke out. The police came and arrested a number of people, including Armando, who had just been eating a quiet meal with his family. While the court found Armando innocent, a government agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, received a list of who was in the jail. ICE began proceedings to deport Armando. Despite decades of employment, paying taxes, and letters from members of Bet Torah attesting to what a wonderful member he is of their community, Armando was sent to Mexico, his country of birth, now a foreign land which he’d left behind some thirty years ago. He was dropped off without bank cards, cash, cell phone or ID. He was given no time to gather any belongings or even to call his family to say goodbye.

Did Armando enter our country illegally thirty years ago? I suspect the answer is yes. But we have to ask ourselves: Is this the correct way to respond? By throwing him out, ignoring three decades of hard work, responsible citizenry, not to mention that our nation claims among its most cherished values a sense of goodness and of caring for people in need?

At the end of this page, you will find a letter. If you are so moved to reach out on behalf of Armando and his family, please consider signing that letter and sending it to the Immigration Court where Armando, who is back in the United States but has been in jail up in Albany for the past five months, is going to be tried, either to be welcomed home or returned to a home that stopped being his home a very long time ago.

In this week’s Torah parashah, Lekh Lekha, Abraham and Sarah embark upon a journey that brings them to a new land, Canaan. They were not citizens of that land but resided there as resident aliens. Still, no one forced them to leave and, in time, our people built homes, and an entire future, in that place which they had dubbed “the Promised Land.”

America too is a land of promise. Recently, however, we’ve told many, many people that promise does not include them. Our ancient Israelite ancestors have taught us differently. Our American ancestors, who settled here to find refuge from oppression and persecution in Europe, have also taught us differently.

If we want America to be restored to a place where the words at the base of our Statue of Liberty still ring true – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – you and I are going to have write a lot of letters, make a lot of phone calls, and perhaps most important of all, vote, so that these United States of America can once again be that place where nightmares can end, where men and women can bring their children to safety, and where, together, we can build homes as friendly and loving as Sesame Street.

We are so lucky to live in a world where we get Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Taylor Swift, and (soon) mountains of Halloween candy. Help us to grateful for all these things and so much more, and to show our gratitude by truly seeing those who are anything but lucky – 68 million refugees around the world, 25 million who are kids – and doing what we can to help.

Aleinu. It’s on us, God, to stand up for all of them. By signing a letter to help one father get back to his family. By standing with others – at demonstrations, here in services, outside courthouses – wherever our voice is needed. And by voting, to elect leaders who care not only about our future but about those whose future can and should be here as well.

Aleinu, God. It’s on us. May we be worthy of making these words come true.

Billy


Honorable Steven Connelly
Honorable Philip J. Montante, Jr.
Batavia Immigration Court
4250 Federal Drive, Room F108
Batavia, NY 14020

Re: Armando Rojas Rugerio A-072486981

Dear Honorable Sirs:

I am writing on behalf of our community member, Armando Rojas Rugerio, whose viable application for asylum was recently denied.

Mr. Rojas has lived in the area for the past two decades and his absence is keenly felt by this community as well as his devoted family. He has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, was deported without any notice to his family— in spite of a stay of deportation signed by a Judge.

Upon return to his sister’s village, Mr. Rojas was immediately identified as a target and was threatened on several occasions, causing credible fear as two family members had been murdered prior to his return.

Two months later, members of our community walked Mr. Rojas through the border entry point at Otay Mesa and he was sent to the Albany County Correctional Facility where he has been incarcerated for the past five months.

I am aware of Armando’s unfailing work ethic and his winning ways that have been an inspiration to all who know him. His absence has spurred the community on to action which has secured the financial support of his family during his detention. I am respectfully requesting that Armando’s application for asylum on the basis of credible fear, (his Asylum Officer found him to be credible and have a legitimate fear if he should be deported), be reconsidered thereby making him eligible for parole and ultimately returned to the family and community who cares for him deeply.

Thank you.

With Another Quarter

Bereshit, the first chapters of Torah, tells the Jewish people’s story of Creation, opening our eyes to the many avenues for interpreting and understanding how (and why) the world came to be. Then there are our own Bereshit moments — when the possibility appears (sometimes quite surprisingly) for new beginnings.

Why do we care so much about the Creation story, anyway? Why is it important for us to know what happened “in the beginning”? Beyond our quest for empirical understanding of the universe’s origins, is there some other motivation for our curiosity? Perhaps we’re drawn to it because Bereshit only begins—it doesn’t end.

Not so with our own lives. We are so fragile. We bend, and sometimes we break. Creation happened so long ago that it can give us hope for our own lives—that we too can last. And lasting, we can sense that our lives mean something.

In the 1990s, while spending part of each summer on faculty at the URJ Kutz Camp, I would steal away with a few friends to a nearby video arcade where we played one specific game that we all loved (yep, the “X-Men” game pictured below). Given enough quarters, we could sometimes finish that game. Along the way, there were many, many defeats. But as long as we had another quarter, there was hope of ultimate victory. As long as there was another quarter, “game over” never really meant the end.

Here are three examples in real life where perceived defeat led to important new beginnings:

1) In the wake of the global financial crisis (circa 2008), James Adams was fired from his lucrative Wall Street hedge fund job. To do some soul-searching, he applied for a job at McDonald’s. His application rejected (three times), Adams was hired by a local Waffle House willing to take a chance on a guy with an MBA but who couldn’t fry an egg. A year later, his life reset, Adams returned to the world of finance, this time to help and advise those who couldn’t afford financial consulting.

2) In 1998, a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Besides the needed medical work, she had to confront issues of fear, morale and mortality. With early detection, wonderful medical care, loving family and friends, and a good prognosis, she not only survived, but also saw her life settle into one of abiding gratitude and love.

3) And then there’s Jonah, my son who died nine years ago. The journey that has unfolded since has had its ups and downs. There are still days when I’m overwhelmed by his absence, but that’s not where I live my life. Jonah was kind, loyal, funny, and, as happens with most parents, made me glad to be alive. With his death, for a while I felt like dying. But in time, I chose not to focus on how sad I am that he is gone, but on how wonderful it had been to have him around.

Three stories of deep loss and struggle that gave birth to something new. It took time and travail, but for each of us things got better.

And there’s the lesson: Things get better. With another quarter, the game can resume.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in his own commentary on Bereshit, writes, “To live life in its fullness, to face death so mysterious, to live on nonetheless in the face of it all. […] For a life not so easy, for a purpose not so clear. […] Because when we do it right […] hinei tov me-od (and it [can be] very good).”

In those darkest nights, may our sacred stories remind us that new days are always beginning.

Billy

Now What?

Throughout my entire rabbinic career, whenever Sukkot has arrived, I have enjoyed explaining that sukkot – the three-sided booths we erect following Yom Kippur and in which we spend a week visiting with friends, dining with family, and watching squirrels carry away its vegetative decor – are fragile! Without a whole lot of trouble, they can fall down. But I never actually thought I’d see one tumble!

My synagogue’s sukkah, lovingly constructed each year out of sustainable materials harvested and built by our sukkah team, crumbled to the ground on the first day of Sukkot.

And I just love that! What a powerful lesson for all of us. We told you it could come down. And lookee there, it did! The world is a fragile place. Things can break. And sometimes they actually do.

I can remember when I was a kid, that from time-to-time I’d get to bring home a model airplane made of balsa wood. These were really flimsy objects, but if you wound up its rubber band enough times, the propeller as it twisted back around would make the airplane really fly. But it would only last maybe fifteen minutes before a wing or the tail would break right off. And I was always devastated by that. Those things were cool!

But sometimes things just break.

Sometimes, we break them ourselves.

Once when I was practicing meditation (you’re gonna love this), I was maybe seventeen years old and sitting still for twenty minutes was, under the best of circumstances, not easy to do. It was a summer day, and I’d brought a glass of ice water to keep me from melting, setting it on the dresser just behind my chair, which was also where I placed my watch so I wouldn’t keep looking at it. But from time-to-time, I obviously did need to look at it to see if I was finished. So I reached back and, while feeling around for the watch, my hand found the iced water, knocking over the glass so that its entire freezing contents spilled right down my back. Furious, I jumped up, spun around, picked up my watch and proceed to smash it to smithereens.

Sometimes things don’t just break. Sometimes we take care of that ourselves.

Once a couple of weeks ago, nature did some of the breaking.

Hurricane Florence dumped up to three feet of water on cities and towns throughout North and South Carolina. The damage was estimated at $48 billion. But the image I will always remember of these two broken states is of a cow struggling to swim through the flooded waters inside and outside her barn and just keeping her head above water until being rescued by a passing boat. Its skipper wrapped a piece of rope around the cow’s nose and mouth, holding its head above water as they towed it to safety.

Sometimes the world breaks all by itself. And all we can do is hang onto each other and ride out the storm.

Then there’s the United States Congress, rendered almost completely ineffective by their refusal to work with people of differing political positions and points of view. That wasn’t what I thought I was voting for. People used to say that nothing except compromise ever takes place in the Senate and House of Representatives. Oh, how I miss those days.

Sometimes we deliberately sabotage ourselves and break things on purpose! On purpose!

Which makes our little sukkah seem pretty insignificant, don’tcha think? Which is what it was always meant to be. Because it’s just a symbol. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of how fragile our world is, that sometimes we have to endure what naturally happens, but that so much of the brokenness is in our control to fix. And when we stand up and angrily smash our watch to pieces, we’re in need of … well, we’re in need of, quite frankly, something we just spent the last few weeks talking about: teshuvah … changing our behavior for the better.

Throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reading after reading and sermon after sermon urged us to fearlessly examine our lives and to inventory where we have fallen short of our obligations to the human family. Some of us spent more than a dozen hours in ten different services engaged in this sacred process of heshbon nefesh, of figuring out where we could seriously improve ourselves in the year ahead.

Now it is the year ahead and the question before each of us is, “So what are we gonna do about it?” Have we simply packed away the makhzorim from our High Holy Days and moved on? Or are we going to take that list of ways we can be kinder and more generous, and actually try to change?

That’s why I love our fallen sukkah. If we’ll let it, it’s reminding us that there’s so much brokenness in our world, and while we may or may not fix our symbol of life’s fragile nature, we can certainly get to work trying to fix some of the real brokenness that’s all around us.

A week ago, members of the Peace Islands Institute, a Muslim community organization, came to visit our high school Academy and served them a homemade dessert called Noah’s Pudding. Premised on the supposition that when the Flood ended and the Ark landed, the community joined together for one last meal, a meal made from the last supplies that still remained on the Ark – Noah’s Pudding – and broke bread together one more time before journeying into their new and individual futures, Noah’s Pudding is an offering from one person to another, symbolizing a wish that whatever lies ahead will be filled with sustenance, sweetness and human companionship. Their sharing of Noah’s Pudding with these Jewish high school students was a powerful and unforgettable demonstration of friendship, of building up, not falling down. I have no doubt that on Monday evening, through the simple sharing of a humble Muslim tradition, we fixed just a tiny bit of the brokenness in our world.

Things break. That’s going to keep on happening. Our great gift is that we can be there for each other when they do. Sometimes we can rebuild; sometimes all we can do is offer a hug.

During the High Holy Days, we shared in the dramatic and, quite frankly, frightening words of Un’taneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die?” When I encounter this reading, I no longer see it as God’s judgement of me or of others. Rather, I see it as a call to action. It reminds us that people do live and people do die. And sometimes, there’s nothing to be done, but sometimes, and perhaps far more frequently, there is something we can do; there’s much that we can do. Like helping a cow keep its head above the floodwaters, if we just keep our eyes and our hearts open, there are plenty of ways to fix things.

And then there’s Simkhat Torah. A simply wonderful celebratory holiday that wraps up this otherwise serious time period. A holiday that may be the most important of them all. It is a time when we dance with the Torah as a symbolic conclusion to these High Holy Days. The Torah is, of course, not only a symbol of our passion for learning right from wrong, it’s also a guidebook for doing so. We’re right to dance with our scrolls. In a world filled with brokenness, our communities must come together, with whatever ideas we can muster, and, like our friends from Peace Islands Institute, share in bringing hopeful change to everyone.

I imagine that I will never see a sukkah fall down again. But I will see children break some of their toys, adults break some of our communities, and nature break some of our homes. May we remember that each one of us is capable of doing something, maybe even a lot, to make things better. May these High Holy Days, and one broken sukkah, inspire us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Billy

Postscript: On Thursday (Sep 27), many of us listened in as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. While there is much to criticize about what took place, whichever side of the aisle and/or the issue we’re on, there was also something very right happening. We may not like what we see going on in Congress, but we have a Congress. It may be damaged and in need of repair, but it’s still there. So register to vote, run for office, or help someone else run. If you see a sukkah that’s fallen, figure out if it needs picking up. And if it does, let’s do what we can do to lend a hand.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other significant moments in my life this summer have included:

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

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

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

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

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

There is still much reason to rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how I spent my summer vacation.

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

Billy

Life’s Ninth of Av’s

I have a story to tell you. It’s about a tiny bird. I’ll come back to that.

Tisha b’Av has been set aside as a day for the Jewish community to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple two thousand years ago. Traditionally, this day is observed with fasting, prayers of lament and rituals of mourning. Two thousands years is a very  long time, however, and grief abates.

So if Tisha b’Av no longer compels, what’s to be done with it?

Earlier this week, while I was trying to figure this out, I took my dog for a walk. Not ten feet outside the front door, we encountered a baby bird on the ground. It was alive but I couldn’t tell by how much. I could only imagine it had fallen from its nest perhaps fifty feet above and that couldn’t have been good.

Charlie sniffed but respectfully backed away. Ellen came out and very gently carried the bird to the bottom of the tree from which it had fallen. It was out of direct sunlight and the possibility of getting stepped on. It laid its head on its wing to rest. Not thirty minutes later, we checked on it and it had died.

For a good while after, our home was subdued. Even Charlie seemed quiet. It was only a baby bird, but in the few minutes that it had entered our lives, it had evoked our sympathy and stolen our hearts. We grieved.

I wondered. Is this what we need in order to feel the pain of loss? If we are to act on human suffering, must we experience that suffering firsthand?

I have a handmade tallit that I purchased in Israel. Before completing the order, I was asked, “What text would you like embroidered on the atarah?” Well, that was going to take some thought and I returned home to America without completing the order. What text would I want to see every time I place that garment across my shoulders? Three weeks later, I sent them my response. It came from the Book of Job (38:35):

For me, this text, God’s response to Job’s asking what we all want to know, “Why?” Why has my health failed? Why has my loved one died? Why is my marriage over? Why did that earthquake have to cause so much destruction? How can that leader condone so much suffering?

God’s response to Job was that there is so much we can’t control. And there are questions for which we will never have answers.

We may not like that response, but it seems pretty accurate to me.

There is a passage, however, from Noah benShea’s Jacob the Baker that helps me live with this unsettling reality:

Watching a flotilla of small sticks and leaves dropped into a river race and tumble around one bend only to be caught in another, someone said, “Clearly we are not in control of where our lives are going.” But another responded, “We are nevertheless responsible for how we conduct ourselves as we are carried on.”

This is how I’ve tried to approach my life, which has been a pretty easy one compared to so many others, but I’ve had my share of sorrows. I don’t hide my grief, but I try not to be crushed by it either.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about Tisha b’Av. Each of us quite likely has horrible moments that are ours. Not all are the result of evil people, but they are painful memories no less. Loved ones die. Natural disasters claim the lives of hundreds. Political disasters (like tearing immigrant children away from their parents) exact a different but no less painful price.

Tisha b’Av comes along. We allow our pain to reemerge, even after two thousand years. Or we just remember — we don’t own, or we don’t directly feel, that pain. The message in both cases, I believe, is that these memories and their concomitant feelings are valid but, if possible, they ought not end there. Painful memory can and should be used for good purpose.

Perhaps by limiting this communal grief to a single day, Jewish tradition is trying to say, “It doesn’t have to ever go away. But like that flotilla of small sticks and leaves, we need to choose how to live in its aftermath. Always always, choose life.”

We needn’t relinquish our sadnesses forever. The hurt might never fully go away. But if in addition to missing what has been lost, we can turn that grief (and our hearts) toward making the world a bit more hospitable for someone else, then our pain and the grief that comes from someone’s life having ended far too soon (or whatever it is that lingers on), perhaps we can turn it toward something of deepening value and even personal redemption.

That little bird haunts me. I think I’ll be carrying the image of its dying for a while yet. I don’t think I’m going to become a bird doctor, but my sadness did prompt me to write this. And perhaps, as Tisha b’Av approaches, that’s of some worth and a fine way to channel this loss.

For me, that seems like a good lesson learned.

Billy