Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Father’s Day: Contemplating American & Immigrant Dads

As I wrap up a perfectly lovely and loving Father’s Day, my children are nowhere nearby but I have had wonderful phone conversations and know that they are well.

Before I can put this day to bed, I feel compelled to comment on the terrible coincidence of Father’s Day and the horrors unfolding at our borders. As the Trump administration pursues its zero-tolerance policy toward illegal border crossings, 2000 terrified children have been torn away from the arms of their parents.

A bit of bible, since our Attorney General thinks that’s a good way to justify thuggery. It was only last week that we read (in parashat Sh’lakh L’kha, Num 14:18) how God will visit the sins of the parents upon their children. I suppose I can understand how some might (arrogantly and insolently) believe they are God’s representatives on earth and therefore empowered to go after someone’s kids. But I know of no religious tradition that wouldn’t do everything it can to AVOID having children suffer for a parent’s actions. Judaism interprets the verse above as meaning that “sin” serves as a metaphor for a parent’s values — these are what will be transmitted to the next generations, and if our values are “sinful” (ie, mean and hurtful), that’s how a parent’s sins are visited upon their children.

We Americans need to be very careful what we’re teaching our children right now.

The terrible policies this administration has unleashed on innocent children must end, and soon. Not one but two populations of children are at risk: immigrant children whose parents only want to reach the safety of American shores, and our own children who are watching these events and who, if we’re not careful, will think that this is how Americans are supposed to behave.

As the sun sets on this Father’s Day, let us act quickly to restore justice and compassion to our national policies, so that no more children are taken from their parents, and our own children’s children will not have to suffer the sinful actions of their parents and grandparents.

Billy

P.S. You can take action online through the Religious Action Center.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection​ Placement Center in Nogales AZ

The Curse of Blessings

What’s the best terrible thing that’s ever happened to you? Is it some food you thought you hated, but someone made you try it and you liked it? Or did you have to go somewhere to which you desperately wanted not to go, but someone made you go and you liked it? One of my best terrible things is a musical called Merrily We Roll Along. It’s a story that moves backwards in time, from the lives in tatters of its stars at the beginning of the show to their starry-eyed beginnings at the end of the show. Merrily We Roll Along appeared on Broadway sometime in 1981 and even though it was created and produced by some of Broadway’s biggest names – Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim – the critics hated it and it was gone in two weeks. I saw one its sixteen performances, and Merrily We Roll Along has been one of my very favorite musicals ever since.

Food, trips and Broadway musicals don’t really come close to being the worst things a person can experience. But suffering is suffering. And learning to handle life’s difficulties with grace, to even find ways to be grateful for goodnesses that still remain, these are among life’s greatest challenges.

Here’s a story called “The Curse of Blessings.” It was written by Mitchell Chefitz (from his book by the same name).

Once upon a time, there was an Officer of the Law. A newly-minted graduate of the academy, he was filled with pride, dressed in his crisp, blue uniform, adorned with brass buttons, gold epaulets, and a silver sword at his side. But the young officer, also filled with self-importance, was arrogant and cold-hearted.

One day, while walking his beat, he heard a commotion in an alleyway. Stepping into the darkness, he saw a man dressed in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. But the man did not come forward. “I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward!” The man still did not move. Instead, he spoke, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

“Do with me?” the Officer replied. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law and I order you to come forward.”

“Ahh,” said the man in rags, “now I know what to do with you,” and as he spoke, he drew his sword. “Now I know exactly what to do,” and without another word he moved to attack.

The Officer drew his sword in defense. “Stop that!” he ordered. “Put down your sword right now or someone is going to get hurt.” But the man in rags continued moving forward. “Stop!” he said again, but to no avail, and as the man in rags thrust his sword forward, the Officer of the Law responded in kind.

In that moment, just as the young officer moved to attack, all became silent and still. Suddenly frozen in place, he could not move. But he could hear. And what he heard was the man in rags saying this: “I am leaving you – but as I do, I place upon you the Curse of Blessings. The Curse of Blessings means that every day you must offer a new blessing, one you have never spoken before. On the day you do not offer a new blessing, on that day you will die.”

And then all returned to normal. Except the man in rags was gone. The Officer of the Law lowered his sword, wondering what he had just seen and what he had just heard. “I must have imagined the whole thing,” he thought.

It was late, and the sun was setting. The Officer felt his body growing cold. Did the man in rags exist? Did he really speak those words? Was the Officer’s life leaving him?

In a panic, he blurted out a blessing: “Thank You, O God, for creating such a beautiful sunset.” At once, he felt warmth and life flow back into him, and he realized, with both shock and relief, that the curse was real.

The next day, he did not delay. Upon waking, he offered a blessing: “Praised be the Source Who has allowed me to awaken this morning.” His life felt secure the entire day. The next morning, he blessed his ability to rise from his bed; the following day, that he could tie his shoes.

Day after day, he named features that he could bless: that he could take care of his body, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. His house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.

One day, running out of blessings for himself, he began to bless others. He blessed his family and friends, fellow workers, and those who worked for him. He blessed the mailman and the clerks, firefighters and school teachers. He was surprised to find they appreciated his blessings. His words had power. They drew people closer. He became known as an unusual Officer of the Law, one who brought goodness wherever he’d go.

Years passed, decades. The policeman had to go further and further afield to find new sources of blessing. He blessed city councils and university buildings, scientists and their discoveries. As he traveled throughout the world, he grew in awe of its balance and beauty and he blessed that. He realized that the more he learned, the more he had to bless. His life was long, and he had the opportunity to learn in every field.

He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone. His time was now devoted to searching for his life’s purpose and the one source from which all blessings flow. He had long since realized that he was not the origin but merely the conduit, the channel, and even that realization was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.

As he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, the Officer decided that his life was long enough. Even Moses had lived no longer than that. So on his 120th birthday, he decided he’d offer no new blessing and allow his life to come to its end.

All that day he recited old blessings and reviewed all the gifts he had received throughout his life. As the sun was setting, a chill settled into his body. This time, he did not resist it. In the twilight, as his breath grew shallow, a familiar figure appeared — a man in rags.

“You!” whispered the Officer of the Law. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”

“You still don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent one hundred years ago to harvest your soul. But when I looked at you, so arrogant and cold, so pompous and full of yourself, there was no soul there to harvest. An empty uniform, that’s all you were. So I placed upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become.”

In an instant, the Officer of the Law understood all that had happened. Overwhelmed, he said, “You, my friend, have been my greatest blessing.”

The man in rags replied, “Now look what you’ve done. A new blessing!” The Officer of the Law and the man in rags looked at each other, neither knowing what to do.

Sometimes we have a million blessings and can’t see any of them. And sometimes, when blessings are in short supply — that’s when we rise to our very best, seeing the most important blessings of all, and giving thanks for our great fortune.

I want to show you a video. It’s an excerpt from Britain’s Got Talent, filmed after the tragic bombing that occurred in 2017 at an Ariana Grande concert in England’s Manchester Arena.

Two stories. The same ending: that despite colossal difficulty, we humans possess such magnificent hearts and spirits that we can come back from most anything. And when we do, we are often in possession of a greater sensitivity to all the wondrous and truly gorgeous beauty that has always existed around us.

The trick, of course, is to acquire this sensitivity without having to endure tremendous hardship.

At Mount Sinai, the Torah tells us, God instructed that we should never make gods of silver or of gold (Ex 20:20). In a collection of midrashim on the book of Exodus called the Mekhilta, our rabbis interpret “gold and silver” to mean life’s best moments. “When happiness comes,” they teach, “give thanks. But when things get tough, give thanks then as well.”

The rabbis probably didn’t mean we should be happy when we’re sad, but that we should remember, even when we’re sad, that life has had its wonderful moments and, if we’ll open our hearts, we can have wonderful moments again.

Summer is almost here. Time for many of us to go play. For as long as I’ve been at Woodlands, I’ve been sending you into these lazy, frolicsome months with homework: to read a new book, think a new thought, and make a new friend. It’s just another way to remind us that life is filled with blessing, and we should keep our eyes and our hearts open every moment of every day so that we don’t miss any of them.

Where Was God Then? Where Is God Now?

A horrific story of the Holocaust to share with you. Many of you will know it. Young people might not. But it describes just one small, terrible moment during which only three people died, which was pretty benign for genocide. All you have to do is multiply this moment two million times, and that gets you six million Jewish lives murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

Here’s the story.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains— and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. A sign from the head of the camp. The deed was done. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!”

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. But the third, he was too light; the child was still alive. For more than half an hour, he died so slowly under our eyes. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”

The story appears in Night, a book written by Elie Wiesel describing his experiences as a sixteen-year old in Auschwitz. I first read Night when I was sixteen. Beyond the horror of that specific event, I often wondered deeply about Wiesel’s question, “Where is God?” What did it mean that God was hanging on those gallows? Was God then dead? I’ll come back to that.

First, come with me to a country that I imagine few of us have visited. It was once known as Burma. Today it’s also called Myanmar. It sits between China and India, with neighbors that include Laos, Thailand and Bangladesh. Late this past August, Muslim militants in Myanmar staged coordinated attacks on 30 police posts and an army base. 59 insurgents and 12 members of Myanmar security forces were killed. It represented an escalation of a conflict that had been simmering there since October 2016. For about a year, military sweeps against these insurgents were frequently followed by allegations of serious human rights abuses. Of Myanmar’s 51 million citizens, the treatment of approximately 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya had emerged as predominantly Buddhist Myanmar’s most contentious human rights issue. At that time, Reuters had reported their concern that the conflict might spark even more aggressive army responses and trigger communal clashes between Muslims and Buddhists.

Within days (perhaps hours) of those 30 coordinated attacks, on Aug 25, 2017, the Burmese army embarked upon a massive and deadly ethnic cleansing campaign targeting the Rohingya people. The Burmese army responded with what has been described as disproportionate violence, indiscriminate shooting, setting entire villages aflame, and violent assualts against women. Since last August, nearly 3/4 million Rohingya have fled their homes and made a perilous journey to crowded refugee camps in Bangladesh. Those who remained in Myanmar now live in danger of starvation and continued attacks.

The Burmese government denies that it’s carrying out human rights crimes against the Rohingya people. But it’s also prevented journalists, aid organizations, and U.N. officials from entering the Rakhine State, a long coastal region that borders the Indian Ocean, where the Rohingya reside, for any kind of follow-up investigation. The only available information has come from refugees who’ve fled to Bangladesh. Those reports have prompted U.N. Special Reporter Yanghee Lee to state that violent actions of Burmese military against the Rohingya present the “hallmarks of a genocide.” Other U.N. human rights experts have shared that the evidence “points at human rights violations of the most serious kind, in all likelihood amounting to crimes under international law.”

Who are these Rohingya people? They are a Muslim ethnic group that has lived in Burma for centuries. Before the violence and exodus of refugees this fall, there were an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya living in Burma. Most of them resided in the western Rakhine State, where historians trace their roots back as early as the 12th century. But throughout those centuries, the Rohingya people have long endured a history of persecution in Burma. Today, the Burmese government won’t even call them “Rohingya,” instead labeling them as illegal Bengali immigrants. They’ve been denied citizenship in Burma since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. Their rights to work, travel, marry, and access health services are severely restricted, resulting in the Rohingya community becoming one of poorest and most oppressed in Burma.

The refugee settlements in Bangladesh that shelter some 600,000 people currently earns it the unwanted honor of having become the largest refugee camp in the entire world. 60% of those being sheltered there are women and girls, a large number of whom are malnourished. This month’s approaching monsoon season promises to make life there even more unbearable, with the U.N. reporting that 100,000 refugees are at risk from landslides and floods, as well as waterborne diseases that will be carried into camps already overpopulated and lacking proper sanitation, with one hospital facility for every 130,000 people.

A dire situation indeed, and probably one about which you’ve heard very little.

Return to the years of the Shoah for a moment. From 1933 to 1939, nearly 400,000 Jews fled Nazi Germany and Austria due to mounting physical violence and targeted legal repression. During that time, before the atrocities of the Holocaust were in highest gear, international authorities, including our U.S. government, were slow to speak out. And of those who did flee, most were caught and murdered as the Nazi war machine overwhelmed Europe. By war’s end, fully 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population – six million men, women and one million children – was annihilated.

But here’s something worth mentioning. Between the years of 1939 and 1945, in the Republic of Albania, across the Adriatic Sea east of Italy, the Jewish population of only 200 grew ten-fold to 2000. Albania, you see, was one of very few countries that kept its doors open to Jewish refugees. And of those 2000, except for a single family, none died. Yes, the numbers are modest, but their success – rescuing more that 99% of those who had turned to them for help – is in no way modest.

And one more thing: Albania was, and to this day remains, predominantly Muslim.

Here’s what happened. The Nazis occupied Albania in September 1943. When Adolf Eichmann called for the Final Solution to be implemented there, the Albanian response was a uniform one: “Besa.” Besa is a word that means “faith,” or “to keep the promise,” “word of honor.” It reflects the Albanian Muslim idea that when you have welcomed a guest into your home, you provide that guest every kindness and honor, withholding nothing, including, if need be, the protection of their lives. This concept extended beyond the walls of their homes to include the very borders of their nation. So when the Nazis came hunting for Jews, Albanian Muslims embarked upon an ambitious national project: to hide every one of them (including the additional 1800 souls who had sought refugee status there). Two thousand Jewish men, woman and children were protected. And except for a single family, two thousand survived.

So during the Shoah, there were Muslims who rescued Jews. Perhaps now, we can do something for the Muslims of Myanmar?

This past February, the Jewish Rohingya Action Network was founded. Its aim is to create a united response to this crisis. Thus far, it has mobilized 72 American Jewish organizations, and 248 rabbis and communal leaders, who together have written and proposed that the United States Senate pass The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act which would increase humanitarian aid, establish U.S. sanctions against the Burmese military, and create mechanisms to help provide accountability for crimes committed against the Rohingya people and other minorities in Burma.

As a significant aside, on March 6, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington took back its prestigious Elie Wiesel Award from Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They did so based on her failing to halt, or even acknowledge, ethnic cleansing happening in her country. Too small a consequence for her heinous behavior, but at least it’s a consequence.

The Burma Human Rights and Freedom Act (S.2060) was introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD). This bipartisan bill would promote democracy and human rights in Burma, implement sanctions against ethnic cleansing practices taking place there, and hopefully begin to restore human rights for ethnic minorities still in Burma and those who would like to come back home. Here’s one place where you can play a role in stopping ethnic murder in Myanmar. We’ve placed a link at wct.org/burmahumanrights for you to urge our own senators Schumer and Gillibrand to support this bill.

You can also donate to the American Jewish World Service’s efforts to deliver humanitarian aid into those refugee camps in Bangladesh by visiting ajws.org/donate/rohingya.

You and I can’t stop genocide by ourselves. But as Rabbi Tarfon taught, “We are each obliged to do something.” And on this Shabbat Yom HaShoah, as we remember those of our own families who were forgotten or ignored in their cries for help, if we can do something to honor their memories, don’t you think this would be that something?

During and after the Holocaust, the question has been asked, “Where was God?” Many have abandoned their faith because their answer to this question was either “God chose not to help” or “There is no God.” May I humbly suggest another response to this question? Where was God during the Holocaust? God was indeed there. God was right there in Albania, when those Albanian Muslims opened their doors and their borders to save the lives of ten times their Jewish population. And where is God now, during the genocide in Burma? God is right here, with you and me, when we open our hearts, when we open our wallets, and when we open our consciences, refusing to stand idly by while the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar are terrorized by an uncaring, brutal and, thus far, unaccountable government of Burma.

On this Shabbat Yom HaShoah, on this Holocaust Remembrance Shabbat, let us remember. Let us remember loved ones forever lost because of the Nazi genocide. Let us honor their memories by doing what we can to prevent a new genocide in our own generation. The cry of “Never Again” is not just for the Jewish people to survive, but for us to ensure that survival is made available to all peoples, that never again will the world stand silently by, that God will never again be permitted to die on the gallows … anywhere.

This is how the memory of the Holocaust, of our six million dead, can be honored.

Ken y’hee ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

 


A version of this sermon has been published online by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism at https://rac.org/blog/2018/04/20/where-was-god-then-where-god-now.

Kids in Action

There’s a story about a kid named Sammy who was walking along feeling sorry for himself because his family had recently moved to a new town, he hadn’t made any friends, and his parents seemed to be busy all the time. So when he saw an adult kneeling on the ground searching for something, he tried to tip-toe around the other side. There’s nothing worse when feeling sorry for yourself than some adult asking you to be useful. But as he passed the man, he saw a white cane on the ground and realized the man was blind. So down Sammy went and, together, they searched for the man’s lost key. Finding it, the man said, “Thank you. When you walk in the dark, sometimes you forget how kind people are.”

“I think I was lost too,” said Sammy, realizing he’d been lost in a locked-up world inside his head and heart. But now, as they walked together, Sammy knew his loneliness was growing smaller and smaller.

When we’re young, we’re at the center of our universe. We look out for our self. This is where learning begins. We discover where our self ends and the rest of the world asks things of us. In time, we slowly learn to reach out beyond ourselves and care for others. Often this blossoms during adulthood but, from time to time, it starts earlier. And sometimes the results can be astounding … and inspiring.

In November 1991, thirteen-year-old Elana Erdstein was visiting her grandmother and noticed a basket overflowing with toothpaste, soap and shampoo samples, all collected from many hotel stays. Elana began thinking about other travelers who probably had similar baskets stowed away, and having been encouraged by her synagogue to engage in a socially responsible community project enroute to her becoming a Bat Mitzvah, Elana began collecting supplies from others in her community. Boxes were set up at the library, the JCC, and houses of worship all over town. Ultimately, Elana collected 25,000 items, all donated to organizations that could get them into the hands of the needy. Elana said, “I learned that one person, even one who can’t drive yet and only has allowance and babysitting money, can make a difference.” Today, Elana’s a Reform rabbi at my childhood synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio, continuing to make a difference in a whole lot of people’s lives.

In the 1990s in Homer, Georgia, when the doors to the new courthouse opened to the public, the old courthouse was scheduled for demolition. Sixteen-year-old John Clark Hill loved that old building and took action to save it. He wrote to local newspapers and gave speeches before any group that would listen, pleading for restoration. Today, that old courthouse, which John and his friends saved, houses art exhibits, a genealogy library, and serves as a civic center for plays and concerts. And Dr. J. Clark Hill lives in Commerce, Georgia, where he not only provides medical care but has served as mayor for the last seven years.

After the tragic events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students there and across the country have had enough. They’ve walked out of classes, stopped traffic, and made speeches calling on leaders local and national to finally do something about guns in this country. The conservative right-wing immediately set out to discredit them, even claiming they were actors hired to criticize second amendment rights. In words that could only have come from a teenager, 11th grader Cameron Kasky told CNN, “If you’d seen me in our school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, you’d know that nobody would pay me to act for anything.”

This week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that imposes a three-day waiting period for most purchases of long guns, and raises to twenty-one the minimum age for purchasing those weapons. It provides nearly $100 million to improve school security and $67 million to fund a new sheriff program allowing school districts to voluntarily train and arm employees who do not exclusively teach in the classroom.

The legislation is modest. But it represents one of the first times that the voices of the NRA haven’t stopped a piece of legislation in its tracks. It’s a start. And that’s a great thing.

I couldn’t be prouder of the young people who stood up to demand that something change. And I pray, really, I pray that they will have the staying power to become the thorn in the side of our leadership that this country desperately needs. On Saturday, March 24 – our holy Sabbath, mind you – I urge you to support these kids who are organizing to march here in New York and down in Washington. Find a way for your own kids to participate. And write checks. Lots of them. Allowance and babysitting money might not be enough for this particular extracurricular activity.

Do you know the story of Bil-ahm’s donkey? Bil-ahm was a fortune teller, perhaps a prophet, but it’s his donkey that saw an angel and delivered God’s message. The donkey, not the prophet. The donkey! Considered to be among the least intelligent members of the animal kingdom, it’s the donkey who teaches a lesson to the man.

Great feats being performed by unexpected individuals is always surprising. Are not teenagers the donkeys of human civilization? And yet, here they are, working to make a difference in our world. And succeeding. Youth are perhaps the greatest source of unexpected contributions to society. A young girl in Canada began a recycling program that spread across her entire province. A 16-year-old boy invented a sophisticated piece of biomedical technology that’s used in hospitals to monitor heart conditions.

In the 1960s, it was young people who led our country into a new era of civil rights. In the 1970s, it was young people who embarrassed our government into ending the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, it was young people in Tiananmen Square, China, who called for greater democracy, and helped pave the way for economic and political reforms.

I don’t know what will come of these young people working to pass gun laws that will make our schools and our neighborhoods safer. But I do know two things. First, they deserve to be supported. They deserve to hear from the people they love and respect that we think they’re doing a great thing. And second, watch where they go. Some of these kids will stay the course and remain involved. And like those kids whose stories from twenty-five years led them to civic leadership today, some of these stories will lead to a lifetime of community service as well. God, I hope they change the gun laws! But if all they do is learn that there’s a world bigger than themselves out there, and that they can play a role in making it a little better for others, that’ll be plenty.

In the meantime, let’s be good allies. And who knows? Maybe we will get safer schools for them. But if not for them, then maybe for their children. If the course is a long one, and they want to stay on it, let’s do all we can to support them, now and always.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who wrote modern Hebrew fiction, penned a story called “The Kerchief” in which a young man’s mother, on the day he becomes a Bar Mitzvah, gives him a beloved kerchief as a token of her love. Later, as the boy returns home from temple, he passes a homeless person with outstretched swollen hands hoping for a bit of money. Having none, the boy hesitantly binds the person’s wounds with his mother’s kerchief. Apprehensive that his mother will be upset at his giving away her gift, he returns home only to find love in her eyes as she reassures him that his compassionate act was his initiation into adulthood.

With Purim only a week behind us, our holiday of fantastical stories where unlikely heroes save the day, may each of our lives be filled with people who perform unexpected acts of goodness. We’ve seen donkeys granted audiences with angels, and beauty queens muster the courage to speak truth to power — why not children who change our nation’s laws? Stranger things have happened, but none more important or more urgent.

In 1983, an 11-year old kid from Philadelphia named Trevor Farrell saw a news report on television describing the lives of people living on the streets of his town. Trevor asked his parents if he could bring the people on the streets some coats and blankets, to which they agreed. A few days later, Trevor was still handing out coats and blankets, now collecting them from his neighbors. Soon after that, people from all over his town were stopping by Trevor Farrell’s home to drop off coats and blankets. Nine years later, Trevor had opened a shelter for the homeless in his town. And today, a non-profit organization called Trevor’s Campaign is celebrating 32 years of advocacy to improve lives the of families in Philadelphia.

Children are children. They’re sweet, adorable, honest, uninhibited, and sometimes quite outrageous. Sometimes, as they grow up, they become kids of action – looking at their world, seeing a problem, and trying to fix it. These children do their parents proud. They do us all proud. May our world be filled to overflowing with them.

Shabbat shalom.

Celebrating Purim in the #MeToo and Post-Parkland Era

It’s the season of Jonah in our home – his birthday is February 14, his yahrzeit is March 5, and his Concert is March 10. Since he’s on my mind, no reason he shouldn’t be on yours as well. So here’s a Jonah story.

When Ellen and I were young parents, we decided to rear children who were free of gender stereotypes, unhampered by society’s expectations that they fit into certain roles and not into others. And so, our children, who never signed onto this platform, ignored our convention-defying instruction and did whatever they wanted. Katie adored Barbie dolls and all things girlish, while Jonah turned any object he picked up, benign or not, into a gun and battled his way through early childhood.

Ellen and I quickly learned we’d have to find another way to teach our children to respect and embrace the full spectrum of the human family. In time (including Aiden’s entrance into the story), we watched three wonderful young people grow in spirit and goodness.

Judaism has always taught the importance of beating swords into ploughshares. Yehuda Amichai suggested we keep going and beat those ploughshares into musical instruments, so that anytime we think about harming one another, we’ll need to beat our musical instruments back into ploughshares before we can turn them into weapons.

The world’s such a challenging place, and aren’t we humans fascinatingly complex? I’m grateful to be part of a tradition that calls us to struggle for freedom and peace.

Purim is upon us. This year, “A Hairspray Purimspiel” has taken over our celebration. We open with these reworked lyrics to “Good Morning, Baltimore” …

Queen Vashti woke up one day, feeling dismay, her nerves all frayed.
Her husband, Akhashverosh, had gone overboard, inciting the hoard.
With wine flowing free, the king did decree, “Six months of sensual debauchery!”
Queen Vashti took all the women and hoped that the men would not see.

Good God, Shushan’s laid low. Her good name’s received quite a blow.
Common sense and humanity were replaced by insanity.
Good God, Shushan’s laid low. Any semblance of grace is for show.
We’re falling apart by degree. Save us all, Vashti!

Purim is our annual send-up of life in ancient Persia, but it’s really a commentary on our own lives, right here right now. As we wrote new lyrics to the melodies of “Hairspray,” we soon realized these words could not have been written at any other moment in history. And while we did not set out to critique President Trump’s America, it was unavoidable.

Later in that same song, “Good God, Shushan’s Laid Low,” we sing:

Akhashverosh was incensed,
Who would dare stand against such a handsome guy?
Akhash proclaimed for himself
That throughout the land Queen Vashti was banned.
The courts said, “No way!” The king shouted, “Foul play!
It must be fake news from CNN!”
Our base is stronger than yours
And we will make Shushan great again!”

Depending on the theory to which you subscribe, you may attribute the current #MeToo movement of women pointing accusing fingers at sexual harassers everywhere to a critical mass of frustration and outrage at our president’s serial abuse of women (of all of us, really). “Critical mass” may be the operative term here as we witness a sudden flood of allegations against men who will no longer be silently endured by the double-X chromosomal half of the human family. We have reached some sort of watershed moment, and American society will hopefully be better because of it.

Before the February 14 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, synagogues were wondering how to deal with the Esther story in light of the #MeToo movement. I’ll come back to the violence in Florida after we tackle this first challenge for a bit.

At this specific moment in American life, it’s important to take a closer look at Queen Vashti and Queen Esther.

First, Queen Esther. As a child, my friends and I all loved the celebration of King Ahashuerus’ “beauty contest” to find himself a lovely new queen. But the details of the biblical story don’t shine as kind a light on Esther, the surprising victor in that Olympic category. The women with whom she was competing for Vashti’s vacated queen-ship were judged not only on their looks (see chapter 2, “Each girl went to King Ahashuerus at the end of twelve months’ beauty treatment”), but on their sexual performance (see elsewhere in chapter 2, “She would go [to the king] in the evening and leave in the morning”). We don’t tell that to the kids, and you end up missing out on that detail as well.

Further, when Mordekhai begs Queen Esther to help rescue the Jews of their kingdom, she pleads powerlessness. After all, she’s only the queen. She sees the king only when he calls for her, which likely means for a sexual rendezvous. She can’t even imagine pursuing a relationship with him that goes any deeper; forget about actually leading her people.

Esther, at least as our Purim story gets going, is not much of a role-model for us today.

Then there’s Queen Vashti. When I was growing up, she was the story’s villain every bit as much as Haman. We couldn’t wait for justice to be served through her banishment. Disobeying her king — imagine! The Midrash, examining Vashti’s refusal to appear before the king and his pals, suggests that Vashti was in fact an immodest woman who would not have hesitated to appear before the boys buck naked (I’m sorry, “wearing her royal diadem”). The midrashic rabbis say she either had an embarrassing rash or had somehow sprouted a tail and, vain as she obviously was, wished to show neither in public. For those of you who find it difficult to swallow a tale about Vashti growing a tail, the Maharal of Prague (a 16th century commentator) agrees with you that’s ridiculous. He likens Vashti’s tail to my spare tire. She put on a lot of weight and, again in her vanity, refused to display her slothfulness.

Justice, I say! Good riddance, Queen Vashti!

And then I grew up. The first step was in noticing that hanging in my home on the dining room wall my entire childhood was a painting of Queen Vashti. Not Queen Esther, but Queen Vashti! Only later did it occur to me that I should ask my mom why she had a picture of this vile woman prominently displayed in our home. That was the beginning of my adult Jewish education. Vashti, she told me, was (in contrast to how Jewish tradition has treated her) a dignified woman. She’d stood up to a boorish king, and on behalf of women everywhere, told him she was no longer willing to merely be an object of his desire. As a result, Vashti may have disappeared from the Purim story, but beautifully, royally, and with great dignity, she lived in my home, and now in my soul. Thanks, Mom.

Vashti’s story was always one of resistance against sexual harassment. We can only wonder what she might have done for the oppressed elsewhere. Would she have stood up to Haman and his genocidal scheme? We don’t get to know that. We only get to wonder if we ourselves have the strength and the hutzpah to stand against bigotry in our own time.

Back to Esther. Her story, I think, is one of tremendous growth and maturing. Because she was anything but a hero when the story began, her evolution is remarkable, touching and inspiring. In the beginning, whether pushed by Mordekhai or eagerly signing up, she gave her body to King Ahashuerus. When it became clear that Esther was uniquely positioned to convey to the king the Jewish people’s plea for rescue, she wanted nothing to do with it. Esther had a sweet scam going and she had no interest in jeopardizing a good thing. Not until Mordekhai pointed out that Esther would likely also be caught in Haman’s net of destruction did she reluctantly offer to help.

Perhaps that’s how it is for many of us. We live out our years quietly enjoying life with family and friends. Then one day our life is upended. A loved one is struck by tragic illness or death, and we devote ourselves to seeing that others need not succumb to the same. Once we too have been caught in a net, we often turn our attention, energies and resources to making a difference. In this very way, Esther’s story is our story too.

Why our rabbis felt the need to castigate Vashti, I don’t know. It’s not like they had to protect the good reputation of King Ahashuerus. But castigate they did, and at every opportunity. In chapter one, we’re told the king had thrown a wild celebration for his administration and supporters (think Jared and Ivanka, and the NRA). Six months into that celebration, he held a week-long banquet, on the seventh day of which he ordered Vashti to do some pole-dancing for him and his buddies. The rabbis presumed this “seventh day” was Shabbat and that — because Vashti would frequently choose that day to summon Jewish women, strip them naked and make them work for her — it was therefore on Shabbat, they say, that Vashti was banished.

The world has changed. And not just in the Trump era. I’ve been a rabbi for thirty-one years. I wrote my first purimspiel twenty-eight years ago, in 1990. Riffing on the “Wizard of Oz,” I wrote:

Seven days into the celebrating, Ahashuerus called for his queen to come and display her beauty. Now Vashti was a good queen. What she wasn’t was someone who simply did what someone else told her to do, especially if she thought it was demeaning. And being asked by her husband to “display her beauty” for his pals … that was demeaning! So she said, “No.” She refused to appear.

Since I’m pretty sure I didn’t come up with that respectful perspective on Vashti by myself, I have to assume we Jews have matured a bit in the last thousand years. Treated poorly in their own time, both Vashti and Esther are now seen in noble light by our community. If all of us are part of the #MeToo movement, and we should be, our Purim story provides an annual reminder that people are people; we may not be born heroic but we can rise to life’s challenges and, doing so, we can bring honor to ourselves, to our families, and to our people.

Vashti was always about doing what is right. Her resistance against sexual harassment may have lost her a job, but it earned her an honored position in our people’s history (well, the made-up part of our history) as a model for consistently living a principled set of human values. Esther grew into her highly-regarded place in Jewish life. She didn’t start out that way, but grew stronger through adversity and, in the end, has become a model of strength and integrity for us all.

Let me come back to gun violence.

Purim has always been about social justice. Its message was never limited to gender issues alone, or to opposing the persecution of our people. The issue of guns being used to indiscriminately slaughter American citizens is a #MeToo movement no one should have to belong to and that all of us should belong to. The story of Purim is a violent one. A deranged individual has deadly force placed into his hands and he chooses to direct that force at the Jews of Shushan. And while they knew at what moment – the 13th of Adar – the violence would be unleashed, there was nowhere for them to run. The story resolves in a surrealistic bloodbath during which the Jews turn the tables on, and slaughter, their attackers. This was not, I believe, an endorsement for arming teachers. This was a perverse fantasy, for we know of far too many times in Jewish history when we were herded like sheep to the slaughter, unable to defend ourselves. There is hardly a Jew throughout history who wouldn’t have preferred the rule of law, not guns, to ensure the safety of their children.

When we gather on Purim – the 14th of Adar – we cheerfully recount the grotesque counter-offensive that killed 75,000 would-be attackers and saved the Jews of Shushan. But that’s not the resolution to conflict that we seek in real life. It’s not the message Judaism teaches us. Rather, we are, as much as humanly possible, encouraged to work through our differences, and to use acts of compassion that are undergirded by strong, effective laws to make our nation and our world safe and secure.

Will the Parkland shooting finally turn the debate on guns? I’m certainly not counting on Congress to offer solutions. But maybe those who say that young people can really make the difference this time are right, and I’m more than willing to cast my lot this Purim with them. So while yes, you and I need to remain involved in whatever efforts we find to curb gun violence, let us make certain that we are good allies and lend our support to any young person’s campaign seeking to effect these changes. One, they need to know we’re proud of their efforts. And two, we’re the ones to teach them how to open doors, how to speak truth to power and, frankly, to bankroll their efforts.

These young people are trying to write a new Purim story. They’ve identified their Haman and are reaching out to persuade the king to save their people. My prayer? That generations that from now, we’ll be retelling the glorious tale of how it was our kids who finally brought rational, compassionate action to this incredibly dark chapter in our nation’s history.

On Facebook, my daughter the art teacher posted the following: “Anyone who wants teachers to carry guns in the classroom should probably know that earlier this week I misplaced half a banana when I put it down to help a student, and forgot about it until three hours later when a very confused child found it on the clay cart.” Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … we don’t know all the answers, but we’ve got some pretty strong instincts, and a couple thousand years of experience to help guide us. Still, now would be a great time for You to pop up in one of those pillars of cloud or fire and guide us the rest of the way. Or maybe that’s what You’ve just done by sending us these kids. May this year’s Purim celebration inspire us to work diligently for the betterment of women’s lives and of our children’s lives, to topple Haman wherever he appears and, in so doing, better the lives of people everywhere.

Mentors

The big news for me this week was the resignation of Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It appears that not only did her personal investments present a conflict of interest – not cool for one of this nation’s top health officials to be picking health stocks that make it appear as if she’s got an inside track on where to make money – but she was also investing in tobacco companies! The head of our nation’s leading national public health advocate is fine building her nest egg on the backs of people suffering from lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, loss of vision, and stroke.

Now, in all fairness to Dr. Fitzgerald, she probably knew that I was going to speak about mentors this week and sacrificed herself to provide us with a stellar example of how not to be a role-model for others.

By the way, lest you should think Dr. Fitzgerald’s gaffe was a fluke, she also took a one million dollar kickback from the Coca-Cola company for following their sage advice in battling childhood obesity, adopting an idea from the soda giant’s playbook that exercise, not calorie control, is the key to weight loss. Thank you, Doctor, for taking the high road on that one.

A mentor of course, as we have been hearing from others this evening, is someone whose knowledge and experience provides invaluable wisdom and guidance to us as we do the work to excel in a particular area of life that’s important to us.

In this week’s Torah parasha, we meet Yitro (Jethro), who is a Kenite shepherd and a Midianite priest. His daughter Tzippora was one of seven sisters being harassed at a local well when the taskmaster-slaying Moses happened along as he was fleeing from Egyptian authorities and intervened on the sisters’ behalf. Moses was subsequently taken home to meet dad, Moses and Tzippora were wed, and the rest (as they say) is ancient history.

In Exodus 18, we learn why Jethro is well-known for his wise counsel to Moses. First, after Moses left behind his wife and children to take a new job freeing the Israelites from slavery, it was Jethro who brought Moses’ family to him. Wise counsel #1: Almost nothing is so important in life that leaving behind one’s family becomes the right thing to do.

Jethro then remained for a while with Moses and his wandering Israelites. He noticed that in addition to guiding more than a half million people into freedom, Moses would stop to adjudicate individual grievances among the people. Wise counsel #2: Jethro talked some sense into Moses, convincing him to do a little delegating and to appoint some very bright underlings to take on these important but distributable tasks, conserving his own energy to complete those responsibilities for which he had been hired.

It was these two acts that secured Jethro’s high regard in the annals of our people’s history. For two millennia, whenever we have looked for role-models in the Torah, Jethro has ranked high on the list.

My choice to become a rabbi was, I’m a bit chagrined to report, not the result of having a mentor in my childhood whom I respected and admired. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. I was never comfortable with my rabbi, never felt warmth from him, and rather disliked the man. In all fairness, I need to tell you that my older sister adored him, thought he was one of the smartest and wisest people on the planet, and loved learning with him and listening to his sermons. When I was growing up, all I could think was, “There must be a better way to be a rabbi.” And that was a big part of what motivated me to attend rabbinical school. He had been for me a negative mentor, ultimately guiding my choice of career, but only because he showed me what I didn’t want to be, and what I didn’t want to impose on others.

This happened, I’m sorry to report, in rabbinical school as well.

When I was studying to become a rabbi, I had many classes in the subjects that comprise rabbinic training: Hebrew, Aramaic, Bible, Talmud, Theology, Philosophy and Jewish History. Some of the greatest minds of our time held office hours in that building down at One West Fourth Street in Manhattan. But when I think about how some of these giants of Jewish thought treated me and my fellow students during those five years, I’m amazed the institution lacked a better understanding of what they were trying to produce in the rabbis, cantors and educators they would be providing to the Jewish community. I wasn’t one of the student body’s most promising intellects, but I was trying to be a good guy who would emerge from HUC with enough tools to be a good rabbi as well. So when professor after professor criticized me for not rising to the level of my more brilliant co-students, I thought, “Well, here’s a familiar kind of mentoring. Help me become the best I can be by showing me what I most definitely don’t want to be.”

Dr. Chernick and Dr. Kravitz

Now, HUC wasn’t completely bereft of positive role models. Here are two of them.

I struggled greatly to understand what my Talmud professor, Dr. Michael Chernick, was teaching us. Dr. Chernick was an Orthodox rabbi who had dedicated his career to training Reform rabbis, and it was his kindness – his patience with me – that rose high above his Talmudic genius. By the time I was ordained, I knew I wanted to teach Talmud simply because he did.

Then there was Dr. Leonard Kravitz. With him, I studied Maimonides, Medieval Jewish Philosophy, and how to write sermons. He too was one of these super-brilliant guys who often left me way behind as he waxed poetic about arcane Jewish ideas. But his worst critiques of my work were far more encouraging than others’ best appraisals. I remember when we wrote practice-sermons for Dr. Kravitz, and the most devastating criticism I received – and I received it often – was for him to write, “Mr. Dreskin, you have many good ideas here.” Instead of slamming me for artless rambling in my thinking, he suggested I use the sermon as the basis for ten others. I could handle that. And today, I’m pretty sure I’m a better writer because of him. But here’s what I know for sure: I’m a better human being because of him. Without fail, Dr. Kravitz displayed each and every day an unshakeable commitment to good will, gracious dialogue, affectionate support, and a sense of humor that disarmed everybody and let us know that he was on our side.

Now lest you think I’m nothing but a hyper-critical grump, I have had some positive role-models in my life.

Probably the most significant mentoring happened during my teen years. As a kid growing up the youngest of six brothers and sisters, my parents’ marriage had gone sour by the time I was born and they divorced on my 10th birthday. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I craved positive family role models and frequently sought invitations from my friends to spend time in their homes, especially with their parents. To this day, those marriages, all of which are still intact, loom large for me when I think of the people who have made the greatest difference in my life.

One of the couples that I adopted was our temple’s youth director and his wife. It’s true that they probably adopted me first, seeing a kid who was stumbling through his teenage years without a whole lot of direction or guidance, and hoped I would use them for some of that. That couple, Rabbi Jon and Susan Stein, were so utterly responsible for the inarguably most important parts of my education – how to work with others, how to lead others, how to become a valued subordinate, how to work with younger children, and how to be part of a successful marriage – that I have no doubt whatsoever my choice to become a rabbi was to try and pay the Steins back for the invaluable mentoring they provided me in my teenage years.

The single most important mentor in my life has been Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman. He’s also my best friend. I’ve known “Uncle Jeffrey” (as my children always called him) since the very first day of my first year at HUC. We met standing in line to register for classes and have been fast friends ever since. Uncle Jeffrey has shown me more about how to be a rabbi, how to be a husband and a father, and how to be a mentsch, than maybe anyone else on this planet. From the day I met him, I knew I wanted to be near this guy because, like those professors at HUC who stood high above the rest because of their humanity, Jeffrey oozes humanity from every pore. Besides being brilliant, endlessly creative and the best teacher I’ve ever known, he is kind and gentle and respectful and enthusiastic and optimistic. I never cease being awe-struck watching how he interacts with others. Plain and simple, I have tried to be for you what I have seen him be for his congregation.

As Joel and Andy and Ana and Andrew and Susan and Corey and I have all shared this evening, there are individuals whose paths through life intersect with our own, perhaps for many years, perhaps for only a brief time. But because of them, our own lives are forever changed for the better. For being the person they are, and for taking the time to share what they’ve learned with us, the gratitude we feel to these individuals is nearly boundless.

Did it have to be them? Not likely. But because it was them, their names remain forever etched in our hearts. Everything we do, we do a little better because of them.

And now, you and I are challenged to return the favor. As you know, Woodlands – you guys – have supported bringing a rabbinic intern to our congregation, something we had been doing since 1976. It has been important to me to continue this practice because, once upon a time, you permitted me to be your intern and to benefit from the time and guidance of Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and so many of you who simply took me in, gave me time to develop some skills, and didn’t skewer me too much when I fell flat on my face. So I’ve been returning that favor pretty much every year since, as well as trying to pay forward the many gifts I’ve received from so many of my teachers and mentors across the years. To you I say thank you, for allowing me to do this. Woodlands is a plum internship, always high on the list of those interviewing for this position. Not because we are leaders and innovators in the American Jewish community, and we are, but because we’re awfully nice people and Woodlands is a wonderful place to come learn about leading and innovating because of that.

Jethro never lorded it over his son-in-law. He never ridiculed Moses or made him feel unqualified to lead. Out of love (okay, and maybe because he wanted this guy to be good husband to his daughter), Jethro was a great mentor.

When Jethro arrived with his daughter and grandchildren to join Moses and the Israelites in the desert, Torah tells us, “He bowed low, kissed him, and asked how he has doing” (Ex 18:8). The Ktav Sofer, a 19th century Hungarian rabbinic commentator, pointed out that the verse is ambiguous. It’s not at all clear who’s bowing, kissing and asking here. That, my friend and mentor Rabbi Larry Hoffman has taught, is where the results of effective mentorship really shine. One no longer knows, or cares for that matter, who’s responsible for praiseworthy actions. Both teacher and student have mastered the skills and have both come to embody the best of what that teacher has had to offer. Moses learned from Jethro not just the professional skills Jethro had to share, but his essential goodness as well.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … Your world overflows with opportunity. But it’s a big place, and stumbling abounds. So You hid here for us treasures of immeasurable worth. Mentors. To show us how to get things done. To take us by the hand and lead us, that we might lead others. For the very best of them, You filled their hearts with a goodness that has become their greatest gift. Throughout our lives, may we grow rich in the wisdom and the goodness that these talented and generous people offer. And may we honor You, our Creator, by never turning away from an opportunity to serve in such a role ourselves.

Billy

After the Deluge

Of all the stories in the Torah, Noah’s is perhaps the most loved of them all. After all, who can resist the image of all those furry, adorable creatures ascending into the Ark, two by two, and living in harmonious tranquility for the duration of that epic boat ride all those thousands of years ago?

Noah and his family have also contributed to that great body of literature known as stand-up comedy. How fortunate we are to have classics such as these:

Noah’s wife, carefully monitoring the animals as they boarded the Ark turned to her husband and said, “I’d feel much safer if those two termites spent the boat ride inside of a metal box.”

And what if the Flood were to happen today? You may or may not recall that God gave Noah a year in which to build the Ark. After the twelve months had passed, God surveyed an empty yard in front of Noah’s house and asked, “Where’s the Ark?” To which Noah replied, “I did my best, but Your construction plans didn’t comply with local ordinances so I had to hire an engineering firm and redraw them. Then OSHA got involved demanding that we install fire sprinklers and flotation devices. My neighbor sued me for violating zoning ordinances by building the Ark in my front yard, and I had problems getting enough wood, let alone gopher wood, for the Ark. The U.S. Forest Service claimed I was endangering the Spotted Owl and I couldn’t convince them that I was saving the owls. Even when I finally got the wood, they wouldn’t let me bring two owls onto the Ark, so no owls. The labor union sued me for not using licensed carpenters. And when I started rounding up the animals, I was picketed by animal rights groups claiming animal cruelty by “imprisoning” (their words) animals on a boat. Then I was told I had to file a large-craft navigation plan and when I sent them a globe, they made me spend a few nights in jail. Now I can’t pay for all the food we’re going to need because the IRS has frozen my assets, claiming that I’m building the Ark to flee the country and avoid paying taxes. I really don’t think I can finish the Ark for another five or six years!”

At that very moment, the sky began to clear, the sun peeking out from behind the clouds for the first time in weeks, and a rainbow arching across the sky. Noah looked up, and with the first glimmer of hope that he’d felt in months, said to God, “Do You mean You’re no longer going to destroy the earth?” To which God replied, “I don’t have to. The government already has.”

That would be a funnier joke if so many of us weren’t as concerned as we are about the United States government. With issues like North Korea, Russia, global warming, the treatment of Muslims and the treatment of unauthorized immigrants so prominently and disappointingly in the news, it’s understandable when people express dismay to us about what awaits our nation just up ahead.

After forty day and nights of unceasing rain, and a full year of riding on the waters of a deluged planet, when Noah was finally able to disembark from the Ark, imagine what he saw all around him. Even though the future had been saved, even though his Ark contained everything that would be needed to rebuild the world, everywhere he looked was destruction and devastation. No creature save those on the Ark had survived. Plants and trees were only just beginning to grow anew. What do you suppose went through Noah’s mind?

It’s not so difficult to conjure up an image for ourselves. We need think only of hurricane-demolished Puerto Rico or fire-ravaged northern California, and we have some idea of how Noah may have felt as he returned home after the Flood.

It would fall to the next generation to renew their hope in the future. Noah’s children would carry the banner of life into a promising tomorrow. There would be bumps along the way – the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah – but there would also be Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, all giving birth to three great religions that would at times also stumble but would teach hope and human compassion to the peoples of the world.

Let me share with you a story, first shared with me by my friend, Rabbi Dan Geffen.

In Morocco, a country in northern Africa, there had been a significant Jewish population dating back to the Roman empire more than two thousand years ago. Despite periods of antisemitism, the Jews of Morocco mostly thrived. Even when the Nazis arrived in 1945, Sultan Mohammed V refused to comply with their demands, and protected his Moroccan Jewish community from the Final Solution. It was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 that would cause a mass emigration and, by 1967, very few remained.

Harim Hassad, Muslim Caretaker of Synagogue in Arazan

Not too many years ago, a Moroccan Jewish tour guide traveled to a small village called Arazan in order to learn something about the history of the Jewish community there. Upon entering the village, he asked where he could find the local synagogue, but no one was able to tell him. After much searching, he found an elderly Muslim who, upon being asked this same question, reached into his pocket, removed a long, old-fashioned wooden key, handed it to the man and said (in Hebrew!), “Barukh haba … welcome!” And then he said, “Where have you been?” The tour guide, puzzled, asked what the older man had meant. “I have been waiting for you,” he replied, “for more than forty years.” The tour guide responded, “But I’m not even forty myself.” At which point he was told, “When the rabbi left here forty years ago, he gave me this key with the request that if a Jew ever comes to our village and asks for the synagogue, I should give this to him.”

This Muslim had understood that while we are of different religions, we all worship the same one God, and that makes us one family, one world.

It turns out, Arazan was not the only place where such behavior was found. All across Morocco, synagogues and cemeteries have been cared for even though Jews have not been seen there for decades. And while these communities may never see a Jewish presence again, they continue to watch over their brothers’ and sisters’ holy sites.

So in a world where we have to constantly assert that black lives matter, that refugees should be allowed in, that immigrants shouldn’t be kicked out, that girls and women shouldn’t need to proclaim #metoo, let’s remember the monumental decency of good people everywhere who continue to carry that banner of human compassion. Yes, everywhere we look we can see destruction and devastation, but we mustn’t miss the new life that’s blossoming as well, not to mention all of those incredible promises of hope and better tomorrows that walked off the Ark when the Flood had ended.


The world we live in is a difficult one. If we teach our children love and a whole-hearted devotion to building something better for their children, there is every reason for us to believe a better day is coming. We mustn’t ever forget Dr. King’s most powerful words, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

One last story. Two little kids were discussing Noah and the Ark, wondering about the smell and the noise and the dirt, and who knows what else, that must have resulted from being cooped up there for a year. One of them said, “I just don’t think I could stand it.” The other thought for a minute, then replied, “Well, yes, it must have been awful. But it was still the best thing afloat.”

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … for thousands of years, You have taught the peoples of this planet about its extraordinary magnificence. And You have asked that we take care of it, the planet itself and everyone and everything that lives upon it. Be patient with us. We won’t ruin it. While voices of arrogance and brutality will have their moments, the arc of the moral universe is long. And your teacher, Reb Nakhman of Breslov taught us it is forbidden to stop hoping. Your world has taken quite a beating in recent times, but so long as there is an Ark in which we can protect and teach our young, we will not let You down. We will not let ourselves down. There are days of brightness up ahead. We will always steer our ship by the stars of goodness and love.

Shabbat shalom.


One more thought:

In August, when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and people’s homes, and maybe their lives, were ruined, stories emerged of people who helped others. As just one example, a man was found clinging to a street signpost, surrounded by flood waters that threatened to sweep him away. When others spotted him, a human chain was formed to help bring the man to safety, just one among thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of selfless acts during a statewide disaster.

Somehow, when people’s welfare is at stake, there are almost always others who take notice and, even at the risk of personal harm, extend a hand and offer assistance.

This is the world that you and I live in. Not a world of resignation or despair, but one of resilience, of partnership, and of love. Noah may have given up, but we never will. That rainbow in the sky was put there for all of us. Never again will life be given over to destruction and despair.

When you go home tonight, keep your eyes open. You never know who you’ll find clinging to a signpost. Stop to help. You won’t be alone. We’ve got an entire ark full of good people ready to save our world.

Billy

Hurricanes Are Bad for Our National Nastiness

I’ve been on the phone every day this week with my brother Jimmy. He was supposed to be here tonight, sitting with you and with his family at this service, and enjoying the Kabbalat ShaBBQ afterwards. But Jimmy lives in Fort Lauderdale and, together, we’ve been watching the weather and watching Hurricane Irma. I’ve been telling him to come up here and get out of the hurricane’s path, while he’s been stocking up on supplies and telling me he needs to be there to take care of the house.

What are you gonna do? I’m praying for him and I’m watching the TV very closely.

It was only a week or so ago that Hurricane Harvey unleashed 130 mph winds, dropped more than 50 inches of water, destroyed more than 1000 homes, damaged another 49,000 homes, and left 30,000 people homeless.

Amidst all of that, we heard remarkable stories of neighbors helping each other, of abandoned animals being rescued by strangers, of a world that on the surface appeared to be falling apart but at its core was stronger than ever.

All of this in the midst of a time in American history when politics have divided us in ways that none of us have ever seen before, ways that have made some of us feel like the atmosphere of the Civil War had returned.

Now I’m no advocate for natural disasters. God knows, I wish the weather would always be 75 and clear. But things happen. And they transcend everything. When people’s lives are endangered, social strata are transcended, economics are transcended and, yes, even politics are transcended. Look at the aid package just passed by Congress! The House passed it by a vote of 419 to 3. The Senate passed it, 80 to 17. Did you ever think you’d see Democrats and Republicans working together again?

I don’t mean to suggest that our country is past its recent strife. But look at what we can do when our eyes see the same facts and our hearts feel the same losses.

Charlottesville was only a month ago. Two weeks ago, transgender individuals were barred from enlisting. And only earlier this week, the Dreamers were told to go home.

As beautiful as the response to Hurricane Harvey has been, we have a long way to go. Hurricane Irma will no doubt release our better angels once again. But there’s so work to be done on America’s spiritual infrastructure.

That’s why Woodlands is hosting a Rivertowns Rally Against Hate, right here in our High Holy Days tent on Sunday, September 24, 4:00-5:00 pm. Because we believe in an America that always extends a hand in love and inclusion to all. Because we believe in an America whose citizenry isn’t closed to people who are different from us.

That banner hanging up in the parking lot, it reads, “All are welcome here!” It’s in four languages and could be in many more. We wanted to make a statement about Woodlands. But what we really want is to make that statement about America. We can do that on Sunday, September 24. Bring everyone, including your friends. It’s for everybody in the Rivertowns who wants to be part of an America that’s open, inclusive and welcoming.

In this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, our Israelite ancestors are instructed to give thanks for the land in which they have settled, and to express that thanks, in part, by remembering that they too were once disadvantaged, and how lucky they are to dwell amidst all of these blessings.

Three thousand years later, you and I are still being taught to count our blessings, and to do so, in part, by looking out for the downtrodden elsewhere.

Right now my brother and his family are hunkering down in their home, hiding out from an approaching hurricane. They’re not hiding because they’re Jewish. They’re not hiding because of the color of their skin. They’re not hiding because of their sexual or gender identity. And they’re not hiding because of their immigration status.

As bad as it might be down there for my brother and his family, a hurricane should be one of the very few reasons that an American needs to go into hiding in the year 2017. We certainly need to do the work to prevent natural disaster and devastation. It’s a little difficult to control nature, although we certainly can do our part to reduce climate change. But what I know we can do is protect one another from hate. It’s an unfortunately urgent assignment as the New Year begins, but it’s one that every one of needs to sign onto.

In this High Holy Days season of choosing life, may we do so … for ourselves, for those we love, and for those who would do it for themselves but now need us.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy

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Here’s a great story from Hurricane Harvey. As the waters rose, and homes were abandoned, furniture businessman Jim McIngvale – also known as “Mattress Mack” – opened doors to two of his massive showrooms in Houston and turned them into shelters, providing probably most comfortable sleeping arrangements of any refuge that week. “I’m part capitalist and part social worker,” he told reporters.

I don’t have any idea what Jim McIngvale’s political leanings are. All I know is that, in a crunch, he never asked what anybody else’s were either.

Committing to Memory

Last weekend, Ellen and I traveled northward to Buffalo where Ellen was officiating at the 2nd wedding ceremony of two very dear men who wanted to marry under the newly-legal auspices of New York State. We joined them on a small boat that travels the famous lock-system of the Erie Canal. Ellen presided over the re-union of the two gentlemen while the boat was being lifted in a lock from one level of the canal to another. It was a beautiful, touching, incredibly loving celebration that, for many of us, was enhanced by the excitement, if not the symbolism, of rising up with the waters beneath us.

Afterwards, as the boat ride continued, family members handed out words to a Bruce Springsteen song about the Erie Canal. As they taught it to us, I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing that I had learned this song when I was maybe ten years old and Bruce was just learning how to play guitar.

“I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen years on the Erie Canal. She’s a good old worker and a good old pal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. Low bridge, everybody down. Low bridge cause we’re coming to a town. You’ll always know your neighbor and you’ll always know your pal, if you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.”

It was written in 1905 and recalls a time when mules walked along the shoreline, pulling the barges along the canal. I happen to know this because, growing up in Cincinnati, it was perhaps the only part of the social studies curriculum that actually caught my attention. Why we studied a New York waterway in Ohio, that I never understood until I looked it up on Wikipedia this week and learned that my teacher had probably tried to get me to understand that Ohio also had a canal system that formed, along with New York and Pennsylvania, what must have been America’s “super-highway” system of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Riding that little boat through the old locks, albeit sans mule, was for me a nostalgic journey that filled my mind with wonder and my heart with a certain satisfaction that comes from climbing into one of those boats that had been described to me more than fifty years ago. I bet I’d ace that quiz if I could just take it once more.

Memories are an important part of what makes us who we are. Without memories, not only would we lose much of our personality, but we’d also be far less able to make good decisions about nearly anything. We wouldn’t know what tastes good to us. We wouldn’t know with whom we enjoy spending time, or how we enjoy spending time. And at a meta-level, without memory, our communities would be unable to learn from previous experience and prepare for what awaits us all down the road.

Part of the conversation taking place right now is how the city of Houston could have been so unprepared for the waters of Hurricane Harvey when, back in 2008, Hurricane Ike killed nearly a hundred people and caused $30 billion in damage. It was a dress rehearsal for Hurricane Harvey, and yet little was done in the years since. So while Houston has been experiencing incredible economic growth, it has also erased marshland after marshland, leaving few escape routes for the eventual floods that were coming. They were sitting ducks, they knew it, yet did nothing about it.

We’re all familiar with George Santayana’s prediction that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what about those who do remember the past and ignore it? Same thing, I guess. Except for the added characteristics foolishness and arrogance.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The past defers to the future, but it refuses to be discarded. Only he who is an heir is qualified to be a pioneer.”

We learn perhaps the same lesson from the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, in which the Israelites are told, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how, undeterred by the fear of God, he surprised you on your march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. When God grants you safety from all your enemies around you in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

I suspect that “blot out the memory of Amalek” means precisely the opposite of how it sounds. Do not forget Amalek. Ever. And if he should reappear, remember what he did to your ancestors and act to prevent it from happening to you.

Memory is supposed to be our teacher. But like I tuned out during social studies and only learned a portion of what was being offered to me and to my fellow students, history – whether it’s retelling the story of a fascist dictator, or recounting the devastation caused by weather patterns (that are patterns, folks, and they will return) – there’s great wisdom in the past. It can help us determine best avenues for the journey ahead. But only if we study it.

I’m reading Dandelion Wine, one of the great narratives by Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame. It took a while for me to start enjoying it. I turned that corner when I realized that, with each chapter, the author was drawing these remarkable pictures of small-town life in 1930s America. And while these are not my memories, I’m loving the neighborhoods which Bradbury has invited me to visit with him.

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental affection for the past. This visitation through Bradbury’s writing to Green Town, Illinois, may seem like it’s just for fun. But the author’s intentions go further. Bradbury wants to teach us about fears that we all must, at one time or another, face, and about the acceptance that is sometimes all we can offer in the face of our inability to change where things are headed. Memory may not provide the tools to win, but it can give us enough knowledge to equip us to live as gracefully and gratefully as possible. Technology, for Bradbury, is both the way forward and a door that sometimes shuts unceremoniously on ways of life that we have loved and must increasingly leave behind.

I have occasionally engaged in grieving for the ridiculous. A television series that’s come to an end. A food I can no longer find in the grocery store. Even this past summer, when a flood in my basement destroyed items long-stored, I was saddened to lose possessions that neither Ellen nor I were ever going to use again.

Still, those memories are pleasant ones. And life ought to include unsubstantial acts that bring us a bit of joy and contentment. We can’t always be saving the world. As Ray Bradbury would suggest, everyone should take the time to make some dandelion wine, that is, to capture one’s best summer memories in a bottle and, when winter has frozen the world around us, head down to the basement and take a sip every now and then to remember warmer times.

In this week’s parashah, Kee Taytzay, there is a passage in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy (v14) about what to do with the women you capture when you’ve been victorious in battle. Apparently, you can bring one home to mom and dad, and make her your bride. Then, and I now quote, “Should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money. Since you had your way with her, you must not enslave her.”

Setting aside the awful way that people in the past, our ancestors included, sometimes comported themselves, I found myself reading this passage as if it were about memory. “Should you no longer want them, you must release them outright.” Some memories need to be let go. Their pain debilitates us and we are continually diminished by them. I’m thinking of memories about terrible ways some have been treated, and how long the memories of such moments last. Their pain can continue for decades. To move forward in a life that has been bruised by such experiences, it might be better to let go of these memories. To leave the traumas behind. Since there’s nothing but anger to fuel the way forward from them, it is better perhaps to abandon both the narratives and the emotions that go with them. We ought neither enslave those memories to us, nor become a slave to them.

It is the month of Elul. In three weeks’ time, we’ll gather here for our annual Days of Repentance, of turning, of doing the work to make our and others’ lives better. For that period of reflection to be a successful one, we are called upon to look back at the year just ending. We think of our actions, our deeds, where we stood tall and where we demeaned ourselves in order to engage in the unimpressive deeds that should be beneath us. But first comes memory. For memory is a sacred act. It is a holy act. During this High Holy Days season, may we do our remembering with humble yet insightful recognition that where we’ve been is a precious asset. For out of our past, we can plan a better future. In the new year 5778, may we succeed in making that so.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy

Eclipsing!

This was a busy summer. A lovely summer but a busy one. Family reunions, weddings, and trips to Brooklyn filled many of my days while I was away. And the eclipse of course. By far, however, my very favorite was the couple of jaunts out to Brooklyn to see my son Aiden’s first post-college piece of theatre: directing a production of Macbeth.

Housed in a tiny 50-seat performance space, this was part of an ongoing Shakespearean festival that required his cast and set to move in and out without much set-up or breakdown. So Aiden devised a strategy that eliminated the need for any set at all: the entire production was performed in darkness, ostensibly in a post-apocalyptic, underground future with flashlights their only source of illumination. Not merely practical, Aiden’s lighting strategy offered a powerful underscoring to Shakespeare’s extensive use of light imagery in his dialogue. Here are a few examples:

• Macbeth, as he considers eliminating his king, says: “Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
• Lady Macbeth, as she ponders the advantages of the couple’s murderous plot, petitions: “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes.”
• And Banquo, formerly Macbeth’s friend and partner, soon to be his next victim, tells his son, “There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out.”

I’ll have to ask Aiden if he was thinking about this past Monday’s solar eclipse when he was putting the show together, but I certainly was. Passing across the entire country, the eclipse divided our nation in two as effectively as any current politics have done. And while one may have thought that this would be one science lesson on which everyone would agree, our president ignored about ten million warnings that we’d all heard not to stare directly at it and, in so doing, not only burned the memory of his ill-informed action into his retinas but into the whole internet as well as the press eagerly snapped photos of him leading the way into continued blindness of much of the American public.

I’ll come back to that.

Ellen and I were flying home from the west coast on Monday so I thought that we’d either miss viewing the eclipse altogether or we’d get a chance to view it from the airplane. I purchased five pairs of approved sunglasses just in case. At the LA airport, after we checked our bags, Ellen pulled me back out to the curb so that we could view the eclipse before heading down to our gate.

And that’s where the truly special part of the eclipse began. First of all, everything I read leading up to Monday seemed to indicate that if you weren’t standing along the path of the complete eclipse why even bother looking up at all? Which is probably why she and I were among the very, very few at the airport in possession of the proper sunglasses. As we stood on the curb looking up at this incredible phenomenon (and don’t ever let anyone tell you that a partial eclipse isn’t worth watching), a police officer sauntered over to us. Before he could say, “Move along,” I said to him, “You know you want to look through our glasses.” And for the next twenty minutes or so, the three of us took turns not only viewing the eclipse but stopping others – airport employees and folks getting out of taxis – and inviting them to borrow our glasses as well. The best was stopping suspicious parents whose children pretty much snatched our glasses, their parents then excited to get a turn as well. We ended up gifting our entire set to a family that was grateful for our allowing them to enjoy this historic moment.

The eclipse reminded us what a magnificent world it is that we live in, causing us to take a step back, to gawk a bit at the impressiveness of nature, and to open ourselves to sharing the natural beauty of the world around us. Tzimtzum our tradition calls it. “Making ourselves a bit smaller” to make room for something else. God performed tzimtzum in order to allow nature to come into existence. And everyone on that curb, and probably across a lot of America, performed tzimtzum as well in order to make room in our overly-busy lives for something very special, both up in the sky and in the sharing that was going on right next to us.

All this on the heels of Charlottesville, a day which demonstrated some of the very worst of what America has recently become. In petty and painful acts, white supremacists performed the exact opposite of tzimtzum, puffing themselves up and reducing the space available for others. A different kind of eclipse, the darkness in these folks’ hearts blotted out the daylight, something nobody wanted to witness. All we hoped for, and all we hope for, is the return of day.

“Their candles are all out,” said Banquo. Seduced by their basest of desires, the family Macbeth succumbed to the worst that was in them. America has always been populated by those who are incapable of performing tzimtzum. We have always shared this exquisite country with those who would have us leave it or, worse, would lynch and murder those they believe do not belong.

And while Banquo’s life was ultimately forfeit to Macbeth’s evil, others arose to take a powerful and principled stand against radical selfishness and hate. The sun may not have returned to Aiden’s Macbeth, but the light of freedom did.

Fortunately for us, the sun’s eclipse was only momentary. We have a few billion years before that light goes out. But the light of freedom? That will require much more of our attention. It’s quite possible we will differ in our approaches to dismantling the forces of hate that have been let loose across our nation. But it is clear as day to me that everyone bears responsibility for it. Sadly, there are abundant opportunities to make that stand. So choose one. Do not stand on the sidelines for this.

Here at Woodlands, we’ve begun a number of projects that you are welcome to join. Last night, we held our first gathering to learn how to accompany and support undocumented immigrants who have been detained by ICE. This is a non-violent, respectful, law-abiding path on which we can each stand in opposition to our nation’s brutal deportation surge. If this is the project that speaks to you, please come talk to me, or to Jonathan, or to Mara, or to our social action chairs, Roberta Roos and Joan Farber. We’d love to tell you more about it.

Also, we are continuing our outreach to Westchester’s Muslim community. It is so important that we meet Muslims and that they meet us. That we extend a hand in friendship, that we learn about each other, and that we offer support as they continue to brace themselves for the prejudice and bigoted mistreatment being directed their way. If this project speaks to you, please use it as your opportunity to speak to justice and freedom.

By the way, if you’re concerned for your own safety (and Charlottesville certainly presented the possibility of our being targeted by hate groups up here), one of the best strategies to protect ourselves is to build friendships with those who are currently under siege. This has always been the American Jewish community’s approach to keeping ourselves safe: protect the rights of other minorities, and we’ll be protecting our rights too.

In this week’s Torah parasha, Shoftim, the Israelites, freed from Egyptian slavery are learning what kind of nation they want to become. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches that God has instructed Israel to create an executive branch (the king), a legislative branch (the priesthood), and a judicial branch (the judges). Rabbi Hoffman points then out that the prophets came along to ensure that the nation’s system of checks and balances remained strong. Bringing the imagery home, he warns us that the prophets are gone so we must be the ones to preserve our nation’s democratic republic. “Even the best of governments fail,” he concludes, “if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot in our own backyard.”

We live in a remarkable world. It is filled with so much beauty, around us and within us. Let’s resolve to do everything we can to preserve that beauty, to protect a community of monarch butterflies whose habitat is being destroyed in Texas so that a wall of fear and resentment can begin there, and to protect too many communities whose habitats are also being destroyed by the building of walls around the heart. In this apocalyptic present where we now find ourselves, may we, under God’s guidance, kindle dazzling torches of love and inclusion, pushing away a night that has been long in coming, so that justice and our truly noble American way of life will never be eclipsed.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy


Postscript: In 1945, there was a light that destroyed everything it touched. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only wartime use ever of nuclear weapons, atomic light ended 129,000 lives. That light may also have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. So, as is true in so much of life, pronouncing moral judgement isn’t easy.

Among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can find the ginkgos. These trees, whose roots reach far beneath the earth, were able to survive the devastation above not unlike the protagonists in Aiden’s post-apocalyptic Macbeth. Sadly, modernization may finally uproot the ginkgos, to make way for the machinery of urban life.

It can sometimes be confusing to recognize value of light and dark in our ever-changing, ever-challenging world. Even our prayers give thanks for the rest that comes with the night. So let’s teach one another, reflecting on the questions of our era, forming responses together, responses that consider what must be opposed – what must be pushed aside – to make room for goodness, compassion and love. Light and dark should be our allies. May we labor together to fashion a world in which that dream endures and, one day, finally comes true.