Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

“Come Then, Put A Curse Upon This People”

In this week’s parasha, Balak (Number 22-25), we read of the king of Moav who, seeing what Israel did to the Amorites (asking permission to pass through their land and, refused, wiped them out), resolves to avoid that happening to his Moabites. He hires Bil’ahm, a sorcerer-prophet, to curse Israel and thus protect his people and his land. Bil’ahm responds to King Balak, telling him that he can only do what God instructs. The first time Bil’ahm inquires, God forbids him to go to Moav. But the second time, God sends him to meet this king.

After a run-in with a talking donkey that protects Bil’ahm from a sword-swinging, ninja warrior with intent to kill, the warrior delivers to Bil’ahm a message from God that he is to continue on with his journey. Arriving in Moav, Bil’ahm meets Balak and reiterates that he can say only what God instructs. Three times, Balak orders him to curse Israel, but instead he offers only blessings. Balak fires him but, before he departs, Bil’ahm curses Balak and Moav meets the very end that they’d been hoping to avoid all along.

A bizarre story, yes. But a not so bizarre question arises from it. What are you and I willing to do to curse an enemy? Perhaps in terms more applicable to our lives: What are we willing to do to vent our anger? Do we say “only what God allows” us to say? In other words, do we behave? Or do we let it all hang out, and go for the jugular because that’s what we feel like doing?

I’m going to come at this from a surprising direction. In May, I saw the musical, “Waitress.” With songs by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, it’s a remake of the 2007 film starring Keri Russell about a small-town waitress trying to escape a loveless marriage.

Also in 2007, Bareilles got her big break: a recording contract with Epic Records. Her first giant hit was “Love Song,” which catapulted her onto the pop scene and set the stage for these past ten years of success, including three albums and her Broadway musical.

Last night, Aiden and I went up to Kutz Camp, where Ellen’s been serving on faculty and where we celebrated her birthday. During the drive home, we were listening to a mix of pop songs from the last five decades, and on comes “Love Song.” I listened to it, as I had countless times before, mostly to the music (because that’s how I hear songs) but also trying to absorb the story she was telling. Here’s how I heard the song:

“You made room for me but it’s too soon to see if I’m happy in your hands. I’m unusually hard to hold onto.” She’s writing about a new relationship, wondering where it will lead, knowing that such things are not easy for her.

“I’m not gonna write you a love song ’cause you asked for it. ‘Cause you need one, you see.”

As a composer, I imagine many of her feelings are expressed through her music. So if you had just begun a new relationship, and it was with a songwriter, wouldn’t you want your new boy/girlfriend to write a love song just for you? But, she demurs, it can’t come from what amounts to little more than a song request; a love song has to bubble up from some deeper place, from one human being’s profound need for, and devotion to, another person.

Okay, so the lyrics were a little vague, which left me guessing, but pop lyrics often are. “Ventura Highway in the sunshine, where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine. You’re gonna go, I know.” Or how about, ““Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower. Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe. I am the eggman. They are the eggmen. I am the walrus. Goo goo g’ joob.”

Oh sure.

So imagine my surprise when the song finished playing and I asked Aiden what he thought the piece is about. He replied, “It’s about her record company ordering her to write a love song and she basically tells them where to shove it.”

Billy’s jaw dropped. How’d I miss that?

I looked up some articles and, sure enough, Bareilles explained that it had been her first big recording contract and none of the songs she was writing were pleasing the company. They wanted something more commercial, something that would sell big.

“Love Song” was her response.

“If all you have is leaving …” which I now understand to be saying, “If you’re just going to threaten me with cancelling my contract” … “I’m gonna need a better reason to write you a love song today.”

This is Sara Bareilles’ most popular song ever, and it got written out of frustration and anger with her handlers. That’s the exact opposite of a love song! And until Aiden pointed that out, I’d completely missed it.

And I love that! She was totally ticked off, but all I heard was a love song. Which leads me to a couple of observations.

First, Bareilles herself admits she was being passive-aggressive, letting everyone else know how angry she was but not confronting the source of her anger (although I imagine that by the millionth copy sold, the producers understood what she was saying to them). But she’d say (and she has said) that this was more about her own growth, about learning how to work with others, how to collaborate in the creative process, something that took time and much adjustment for her. Isn’t this how we learn, and how we grow? Often through frustration and resentment that lead to illumination and understanding.

Second, there’s something here about how one shares anger … either about couching those feelings poetically so that they don’t shout like hatred (which we hear so much of these days, and it’s not poetic at all), or about setting one’s feelings to music (literally for her, metaphorically for most of us) so that angry words get softened. We can’t help but become angry at times; how we act when angry, that’s an art!

And third, in today’s atmosphere of divisiveness seemingly everywhere we turn, we may be able to take a lesson from “Love Song.” Could we approach life like a singer-songwriter, choosing our words more carefully, and considering how each one will affect its listener? Could we set a goal of sharing what’s on our minds, but doing so with such care and regard that the recipient will kind of feel like they’ve just been hit with a …. love song! Imagine yelling at each other like that?!

Bil’ahm could say only what God placed in his mouth. Sara Bareilles might have been asserting a very similar kind of message. Perhaps we, and an awful lot of America, could think a bit about which are the best ways to share our thoughts with one another. It’s not just about saying what’s on our mind, but also how our words affect those who hear us. Bil’ahm got a talking donkey and a sword-wielding warrior as an assist in his efforts to sort through the challenges of his day. We get each other and a few sacred texts to help us out.

Let me end with this. Words are a sacred duty. To mangle Sara Bareilles’ lyrics a bit: “I’m not gonna write you a love song” … I’m not going to tell you what’s on my mind … [just] “cause you’re asking for it” [and I feel like you deserve to get it with both barrels blasting]. Instead, I will only speak the words that need to be spoken, the words that say what’s on my mind but that wield no poison to weaken or to harm you. We can care for each other in ways that are honest and forthright. We can disagree and even argue as circumstances call for, but we can do so always mindful of our responsibility to treat one another as family, as a family of Americans, a family of humankind.

If we can sing our songs like that, I think God might just conclude that we’ve finally learned why the story of Bil’ahm was given to us in the first place.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … help us not only to understand that there are different ways to share opposing points of view, but to choose the way that is accompanied by respect and unyielding love. May we understand and acknowledge that those who advocate for that which we’d spend as much energy as we can to oppose, they love this country just as we do. We need not acquiesce but we certainly can listen and (like the rabbi who got the meaning of a song entirely wrong) realize that words spoken to us may feel misguided and hurtful, but these very words are expressing powerful feelings of the speaker’s fear and anxiety concerning what is felt to be an unpromising future for the world they love.

Let’s learn to join hands, especially with those whose opinions are drastically different from our own, find common paths, and insist upon journeying to places which will allay fear and anxiety — for all of us — by securing a promising future for one and all.

Read A New Book, Think A New Thought, Make A New Friend

Twenty eight years ago, I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where, for six years, I served as one of the rabbis at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. I was fortunate to be there while their emeritus rabbi, Arthur Lelyveld, was still alive. Besides having been a giant in the civil rights movement, Rabbi Lelyveld was a kind and brilliant soul. I loved that, each spring, he would wish the kids a good summer by assigning them homework. With a twinkle in his eye, he would challenge each of them to “Read a new book. Think a new thought. And make a new friend.”

I loved those words so much that I resolved to carry on the tradition. Now completing my 22nd year at Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, New York, the religious school kids may not remember that I always tell them I learned this from Rabbi Lelyveld, but they all know what their summer homework is before I tell them.

I thought I understood Rabbi Lelyveld’s lesson, but recently I got schooled all over again.

A few days ago, I happened to look outside the front window of my home and saw a man walking down my street. I didn’t recognize him which surprised me because, when you own a dog as I do and you’re walking him around your neighborhood multiple times each day, you kind of get to know everybody.

A while later, I saw the man again and I wasn’t proud of what I was thinking. He had a foreign look to him and as he appeared lost in intense thought. I became concerned about this stranger walking in my neighborhood, and either because of that or because I was horrified that I was judging him simply based on his physical appearance, I resolved right then and there to see what I could find out.

I walked outside and approached the man, saying hello and hoping I was neither unsafe nor too transparent in my suspicions.

For the better part of the next hour, he and I stood in the street having a wonderful conversation during which he told me about all the cities he was visiting during this first and possibly only visit to America, and inviting me to come stay with him and his family when I someday travel to India. As it turns out, he was visiting my next door neighbors. I was amused and horrified.

So … should I feel terrible that I suspected someone I had never seen before in my life … or should I feel good that I had acted to check things out?

As I think about this, I’m not sure how critical I should be of my feelings. After all, they come and go as they please. What was important here is that I didn’t allow my feelings to have the last word. Instead of reaching any sort of conclusion based upon zero actual data, I chose to acquire more information and, frankly, to act in a better manner than I had thought.

We’re living in a world where division, suspicion and rancor are having their day. From ethnic tensions to political ones, we’re finding more and more reasons to push ourselves away from each other. And it’s not serving us or our communities very well.

Every now and then, however, if we keep our eyes (and our hearts) open, we can learn something that helps us all move forward a little bit.

This past week, an article appeared in Teen Vogue, a rather remarkable publication that has been doing some excellent journalism for young people (and apparently, old rabbis too). The article was entitled Because of Trump, I’ve Had a Conversation With Almost Every Single Person in My School.

The writer, Ziah Ahmed, is an American-Muslim teen activist from Princeton, New Jersey. Realizing he speaks with the same two or three dozen people each day, and that they essentially share the same ideas and outlook on the world as him, Ahmed resolved to burst his own bubble, to expand his perspective and to meet, as it were, the enemy.

For two months, he held 15-minute conversations with 237 members of his high school community, including his fellow students and teachers as well as the custodial and kitchen staff. He asked questions like: If you could change one thing about our school, what would it be? What is your greatest hope, for you personally and for the world at large?

While points-of-view differed widely, including those who told this immigrant from another country that the greatest problem facing America today is immigrants from other countries, what became clear to him were the similarities across the spectrum. People want to be happy, free, and safe.

Ahmed’s conclusion was that we need to communicate more with each other. We need to know what makes people happy, sad, frightened, content. And we need to empower one another to want to communicate.

I couldn’t agree more.

There’s a terrific hasidic story in which Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov overhears two people in a conversation. One says to the other, “I love you.” But the other objects, saying, “If you really love me, tell me what’s hurting me.” Rabbi Moshe Leib would teach, “This is a profound lesson. No one really loves a neighbor until we know what causes them pain.”

So go do your summer homework. Only this summer, make sure to “make a new friend” from someone who’s not at all like you, someone you wouldn’t otherwise talk to. If you do, you will likely be quite surprised at how not dissimilar they turn out to be. And on top of that, you may be doing a mitzvah by making room in your world for someone who’s consistently being pushed out of others’. In this way, I think we’ll begin to find the solution to the divisions, the suspicions and the rancor that are currently having their day.

I am consistently amazed by how much I still have to learn about becoming fully human. This past week, meeting my neighbor’s visitor, I took another important step in my education. I’m pretty sure I’m a better person for it.

There’s another story that’s told about Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. One night, with a heavy snow falling outside, Moshe Leib heard someone tap at his window. Looking up, he saw a strange man dressed in tatters, with cuts and bruises on his hands and face, and a gleam of madness in his eyes. Hesitating only for a moment as to whether or not to allow such a man into his home, Moshe Leib thought, “If there is room for a person like that in God’s universe, surely there is room for him in mine.”

And with that, he opened the door and invited him in.

I hope we can learn to open ourselves to experiencing the beauty that resides in our fellow human beings, to quiet the discomfort that is churned up by our smaller selves, and to find the kindness (and the courage, if we need it) to stop for a moment, to approach the person who doesn’t seem like they’d be a candidate for friendship, and to start the conversation by simply saying, “Hi. How are you today?”


P.S. The Jonah Maccabee Foundation is finishing up its Summer Campaign ’17. We sure would appreciate your donation. Stop by anytime. Thanks!

An Irish Blessing for Tough Times

While preparing dinner, mom asked her child to go into the pantry and fetch a can of tomato soup. But the little boy wouldn’t go in alone, saying, “It’s dark in there. I’m scared.” To which his mom responded, “God will be in there with you. Now you go and get a can of tomato soup.” So Johnny stood up, went to the door of the pantry and, peeking inside, saw how dark it was but got an idea. “God,” he said, “if you’re in there, would You hand me that can of tomato soup?”

Ever since the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we’ve been teaming up with God. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But even when the first couple got booted out of Paradise, God stayed with them. Adam and Eve may have been cut off from utopia, but they weren’t cut off from their Creator.

Judaism teaches that even when God exiled the Jewish people from Israel and allowed the Temple to be destroyed, God walked by our sides as we made the arduous trek northward to Babylonia. God went into exile with us.

For us as liberal Jews, God’s continuing love amidst diversity serves as a powerful, sympathetic metaphor, reassuring us that even at the most difficult moments in our lives, we need not feel alone nor powerless.

Of course, there’s a story for every purpose in Torah and, this week in Kee Teesa, a seemingly different message pokes through. The Israelites are only four months out of Egypt. Moses, the man who’d led them out of slavery, was now gone for more than a month’s time up some mountain he called Sinai. The people think he must have died and, desperate to renew their faith that something better still awaits them, build a Golden Calf, one of the deity-images they had learned about in Egypt.

The Israelites abandoned their system of religion – I’ll call it their system of ideals – to settle for something that seemed more readily at hand. Rashi notices that they rose early in the morning to do all of this, not knowing that Moses would return later that very day.

This got me thinking: If only they’d known that Moses was coming back to them that very same day, they might never have built the Golden Calf.

Ideals are a funny thing. They can help us get through difficult times, but there’s a “best if used by” date on them. You know, like on milk and bread. It’s really important to keep ideals in circulation, lest they spoil.

We’re living in difficult times right now. And our ideals may seem like they’re reaching an expiration date. Our country is still struggling to emerge from an economic recession, and careers may not be what they once were. Taking care of ourselves and our families is harder than many of us have ever known. And perhaps playing off of those difficulties, the Trump administration has placed undocumented immigrants, transgender teenagers, and people anywhere of Muslim descent in their crosshairs — a classic act of misdirection, when all the American people really want are good jobs with decent wages.

A short while after the Golden Calf is built, Moses does indeed come down Mount Sinai. He’s carrying with him a tremendous gift: the Tablets of the Covenant. The Torah. But when he sees how the Israelites have abandoned God and their ideals, he too loses faith and hurls. He hurls the Tablets to the ground, smashing them into useless shards.

Tempers flare. Arguments ensue. Disaster is narrowly averted as God and Moses talk one another down from taking destructive action against the Israelites. Little by little, trust is renewed. A second set of mitzvot is fashioned, the relationship is re-strengthened and, together, God and Moses and Israel journey into that future which you and I are part of to this day.

19th-century English poet William Blake wrote: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun and in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn.” Blake’s words warn us that ideals are no sweat to maintain when nothing happens to challenge them. But when days turn cold, jobs are scarcer, and our government seems to have embraced bitterness and contempt, it’s far more difficult to remain steadfast in our ideals. Our siddur, which quotes Blake, adds, “It is a difficult thing to remember the challenge from God: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. [You shall not] forget we were slaves.”

Our tradition begs of us, in the darkest of times do not cower in a corner, do not abandon all that you have been taught. Rather, remember the lessons that came down from Sinai. Stand up, light a candle, and do everything you can to bring light back into the world.

Do you know the 23rd Psalm? Adonai ro’i lo ekh-sar … God is my shepherd, I shall not want. “I shall not want” is a difficult passage for a child to make sense of, so it should come as no surprise that one young student restated this opening line as, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.”

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … it can get tough to believe in You. From time immemorial when our lives have taken hard hits, many of us have lost our faith. Our ideals too. When things get tough, some of us grow cynical, tighten ranks, and look out for number one. But together, we can be tougher than that. So please, hang with us while we stumble through hard times. Help us keep our ideals. Stick with us as we work to stay true to the values You taught us, values we’ve always loved and by which we’ve tried to live. And may we help our beloved nation remain steadfast in its commitment to the ideals on which it was founded. A little girl may have said it best, “God is my shepherd, that’s all I want.” May Your gifts from days-of-old continue to guide us in building lives that bring blessing to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to all the world.

Since it’s St. Patrick’s Day, let’s end with an Irish blessing. I love the one that reads, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields.” But there’s another Irish blessing, and in these times, I also wish this one for you. “May God give you … for every storm, a rainbow … for every tear, a smile … for every care, a promise … and a blessing in each trial. For every problem life sends, a faithful friend to share … for every sigh, a sweet song … and an answer for each prayer.

Now that’s a blessing! May you have the luck of the Irish and bring these blessings each and every day!

Shabbat shalom!

As The Trump Presidency Begins

For our Shabbat Evening Service at Woodlands Community Temple (Jan 20, 2017), Inauguration Day, we invited congregants to write iyyunim (directed thoughts about a number of prayers) on the theme of “America: As the Trump Presidency Begins.” The assignment was to find a message of hope. They surpassed all expectations.

Pre-Barekhu Iyyun: Mike Winkleman
In 2000, when Gore ran against Bush, Hillside Elementary School ran a mock election. Gore won, 428 to 4. As goes Hastings, I said, so goes America. I was wrong. This past November, sitting in front of the television watching the election returns, I was certain, as was most of the community in which I live, that Hillary would emerge victorious. I soon realized that wouldn’t be the case. So, I went to sleep so I could wake up early the next morning to go to work.

I’ve been working since July as editor-in-chief for a magazine targeted to chief executives, a population that, when I arrived at work the morning after the election, was cheering the results. While I’ve tried to bring more balance to this magazine, what’s been tremendously interesting and truly humbling about working there is that I’ve been forced out of my bubble. I have to understand conflicting views, reconcile them with my own—and find a way to achieve a level of discussion and even compromise that might help heal the extreme divisiveness that has torn this country apart.

The Barekhu combines the notion of new beginnings with the importance of humility. If nothing else, the forces that led to the outcome some of us witnessed in Washington earlier today point to the importance of our being humbled, as we seek a way to begin a dialogue that will include all Americans in a search for a common definition of social, economic, and political justice.

Pre-Mee Khamokha Iyyun: Jeanne Bodin
“Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. … Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. … And more often than not, your faith in America — and in Americans — will be confirmed.” So said President Obama during his farewell speech. Important words for all of us to hear. We could turn over and go back to sleep, but our citizenship and our Judaism demand that we rededicate ourselves to caring for the widow and the orphan, taking in the strangers, feeding the poor, including the other and making sure that everyone has equal rights — doing everything we can to ensure that our democratic values prevail.

In my lifetime, some really bad things have happened in the United States — assassinations, wars, riots, scandals, terrorism. We have come through stronger than ever. Today, we face a new threat to our way of life; our basic institutions are in danger.

Perhaps Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and creator of logotherapy said it best: “Our answer (to life’s challenges)must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.” We are at the Red Sea once again fueled by faith and hope in the future, plunging into the unknown waters, believing that God will lead us to the promised land. I will take that step tomorrow when I join millions of others in a March that proclaims freedom, democracy, and justice for all. Tonight, we all will sing our song of freedom, Mee Khamokha.

Pre-V’shamru Iyyun: Joan Farber
It has been challenging for me to find a sense of calm and hope. The current rhetoric is contrary to everything Judaism values and teaches. So while I want to crawl under a blanket and wait for words of cooperation and understanding, I know that isn’t realistic nor is it helpful to our society.

Shabbat is here to help. V’shamru tells us to keep Shabbat and to make it part of our lives. We need to take advantage of Shabbat as an opportunity to slow down and connect — panim el panim — face to face with those we love, to share our experiences, our frustrations and our dreams. Judaism values respect, understanding and compassion and expects us to demonstrate these values when we interact with others, especially on the holiest day of the week.

Tradition tells us that Shabbat is a taste of olam haba-the world to come. It is a reminder that we need to work to bring about the sense of calm and hope which will permeate the world in olam haba. We take these values and the sense of Shabbat back into the week with us. When we reach out to others with respect, understanding and compassion, we take the first steps to give America a taste of olam haba.

Shabbat is a weekly gift of quiet and renewal, of joy and prayer but only if we accept the gift and make it a part of our lives. V’shamru is the guide to Shabbat observance and by extension, our entry into a sense of calm and hope.

Pre-Amidah Iyyun: Dan Emery
In the Amidah, we remember our ancient fathers and mothers, who shared a story of being God’s chosen people–a story so compelling that thousands of years later, the Torah is our story. We were in slavery in Egypt. By the power of God, we were freed. And, as Reform Jews, our story includes the idea that we are called to repair the brokenness of the world through righteous actions.

As Americans, we have another scroll, the Constitution…and we have other storytelling ancestors, like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and many more…they taught us that our nation is based in ideals of equality and freedom, that our strength comes when we are united, and that we are imperfectly but relentlessly striving for justice across the generations. We learned that people should judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin–and we came to celebrate and value the marvelous diversity of our nation.

As we begin a new chapter in our American history, there is another story in our land. This story says that we are not one united people–this story says that those who look different from us can never understand us, that people who worship differently from us are cannot be trusted, and that people with different complexions must compete with each other for limited resources.

We are in a war of ideas, and the story of America is at stake. Is it a story of hope and generosity–or one of fear and resentment? In every conversation, every social media post, we must refuse to be divided against each other and insist upon recognizing the humanity of others. And, we recite the Amidah, remember that like Abraham and Sarah, we too are guardians of tradition.

Pre-Shalom Rav Iyyun: Andy Farber
Shalom Rav. God, grant us peace.

But nothing is just granted to us, nothing in this world is free. What appears as free is more often than not included with the cost of something else. Tonight, we remember that peace is included with freedom, freedom whose price is eternal vigilance.

The world has seen, and we have survived, tyrants and despots, dictators and autocrats, pharaohs, fools and Hamans. Over the centuries, we have learned to live with them, as in Pirke Avot, “Pray for the welfare of the government.” Or, we have learned to survive in spite of them.

Today, America renewed an experiment in democracy begun over 200 years ago. While many of us are frustrated that Donald Trump claims a mandate, ignoring that 3 million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump, so we must acknowledge that nearly 63 million Americans did vote for him.

Tonight, we hope and pray for
–Every minority group in America, for we too were strangers in the land of Egypt,
–Every majority group in America, for America is becoming a majority of minorities,
–The rights of every individual, in every city, state, and land,
–The hope that everyone’s freedom is not everyone else’s tyranny.
–And for our country, that it may truly become an advocate of peace among the nations.

Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of Americans will step out of their homes and into the streets, in our nation’s capital and in cities all across the nation, to remind those watching, and those not watching, of our eternal vigiliance, of Shalom Rav, that justice and peace for all is what we truly desire.


These are my words to the congregation.

When I was in elementary school in Cincinnati, whenever we’d have a school assembly each class would file in behind one student who was carrying their class’ American flag. I was privileged to serve as the flag boy for mine. I remember I had to wear a harness into which the pole would be seated so that I could carry it properly. And after we processed in, I would roll the flag up, extend it inward through the line of my classmates and we’d all sit with the flag and pole resting on our laps.

We were extremely patriotic in Cincinnati in the 1960s. And while I’m fairly certain our teachers taught us what the American flag stood for, I doubt any of us remembered. But we did think it was cool to hold onto it. And I was uber-cool for being the one to carry it.

This evening, just hours after Donald Trump’s swearing in as our 45th president, I find myself thinking about our nation’s flag, about its symbolism, its power, and the message it conveys about American life.

There are certain iconic images of the American flag that remain forever embedded in my consciousness. Four soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima. Three firefighters raising it at Ground Zero. Buzz Aldrin planting it on the moon. The tattered-but-“still there” flag above Fort McHenry in the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And the flag I watched, as a six-year old, that draped President Kennedy’s casket as it made its way along Pennsylvania Avenue.

For me, each of these images embodies something about the meaning of being American. It’s non-specific, something about pride, about strength, and about perseverance. These values have all served us well in times of crisis. But I’m interested, especially as a new, very conservative government steps into office, what other values define the essence of being an American. Is it just about surviving and “the pursuit of happiness”? I wonder if there’s a deeper set of American values, values of a more spiritual nature, values that all of us can share, and on which Democrats and Republicans should all be able to agree.

Perhaps we can find common ground in our nation’s core documents.

We the People

In the Preamble to the United States Constitution, we find an expressed desire “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our property.”

I’m no constitutional scholar, but it sounds to me like the United States were founded on principles of forming a union that would be free from the kind of abusive power and authority that our founders had fled from back in England, a nation that would “establish justice” (something they felt had been in short supply back home) and respect for each citizen’s personal religious choice. And to top it off, we would elect and appoint government leaders who would lock into place safeguards to prevent abuse and to preserve these freedoms.

All of this sounds fine, but it doesn’t feel like it goes much beyond protection from outside forces while we build our fortunes.

I looked at the Bill of Rights and, frankly, saw more of the same. Freedom from government meddling, the creation of an army to protect ourselves, protection from our army, and due process of law so that we’re protected even when we violate the norms of our society.

Again, all good stuff, but still not an America that, well, frankly, that God would be proud of, and not the America we’ve spent a lot of time fretting about since Election Day.

I’ve always believed that being an American had something to do with tolerance, acceptance and embracing difference. I thought that these were among our core values. We are a melting pot of different cultures, an immigrant nation that fulfills its primary dictates of independence and security based upon the regular growing of our population with an influx of new citizens, new peoples, new cultures, new ideas, and new energies.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “What is done for one must be done for everyone in equal degree.”

That’s more like it. A nation in which every citizen has an equal stake in its responsibilities and equal access to its rights and privileges. Of course, that hasn’t been easy for our leaders to fulfill. Slavery certainly placed an obstacle between African-Americans and full citizenship with many arguing that blacks weren’t even whole people. With the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln brought us a good distance closer to a color-blind America, but Dr. King, a hundred years later, would still be dreaming of a time when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” All the same, I think our country has, as my third grade teacher Miss Seaver would suggest on my report card about my overall attitude in class, “shown great improvement.”

Here’s the thing, of course, nowhere in any of our founding documents does it say that Americans have to be nice, or even care about each other. I know I learned that stuff in elementary school civics lessons but it’s not in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. We have to respect one another’s freedoms and the government has to respect ours, but we don’t have to do anything for anyone that’s not specifically stipulated in the law books. I actually thought that civics was what we did that goes beyond the letter of the law. Still, imagine if everybody simply followed the law; that’d do plenty to improve life throughout America.

With President Trump’s ascendancy, alongside a newly-dominant Republican Congress, our concerns go way beyond being nice to each other. While we don’t yet know how the next four years will unfold, many of us are fearful. We fear a curtailment of women’s rights regarding health, reproduction, pay equity, and more. We fear a slowing down, if not a downright regression, in rights secured for people of color: educational opportunities, economic fairness, just treatment by law enforcement agencies, and more. We fear similarly for the LGBTQ community, that the advances in equality only recently secured will be undone by an unsympathetic political leadership. We fear increased hostility toward America’s Muslim community, a curtailment of legal rights and possible violence against innocent people. At the very least, our hopes to open our shores and offer refuge for Syrians fleeing war may very well be dashed by isolationist policy changes. We fear a backlash against all of our nation’s immigrant population, unfair treatment in jobs and housing, denial of due process, and possible deportation. There’s even a fear of growing antisemitism and what that might bring upon our own community.

I hope I’m wrong about all of this. I hope that Congress and our new president unite us in powerful efforts to bring all of the people together, to care for the poor as well as the rich, to care for people of all skin colors, for women as well as for men, for LGBTQ as well as straights, for Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, for immigrants as well as … immigrants. The only thing that I’m certain I’m not wrong about is how fearful people are. President Trump’s campaign promises, along with many of his cabinet appointments, have given us good reason to be fearful.

And so, tomorrow morning, many of us will head into New York City, others down to Washington DC and locations in more than thirty countries, to participate in rallies that seek to preempt the realization of these fears. Grassroots organizations, including this synagogue, are gearing up to make sure that no rights are curtailed without a deafening cry of protest and concerted efforts to preserve those rights.

Which brings me back to the Constitution. The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. And the Fifth Amendment: No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

These are why, on this day of great concern and fear, I remain hopeful. We are Americans. We are in possession of a Constitution that allows us to fight on behalf of the downtrodden, to stand up for those who’ve been pushed down. Our nation’s founders wanted peaceful agitation to be part of the process of deciding the path our country would follow. And while individual leaders and groups of leaders may prefer that such dissent be stifled, speaking one’s truth to power is a core value of the United States.

I viewed a recent episode of the show Black-ish in which the characters grappled with the meaning of Donald Trump’s electoral win. The show’s writers affirmed their own message of hope when they had their main character, an African-American, share the following words:

“I love this country even though, at times, it doesn’t love me back. For my whole life my parents, my grandparents, me, for most black people, this system has never worked for us. But we still play ball, try to do our best to live by the rules even though we knew they would never work out in our favor, had to live in neighborhoods that you wouldn’t drive through, send our kids to schools with books so beat up you couldn’t read them, work jobs that you wouldn’t consider in your nightmares. Black people wake up everyday believing our lives are gonna change even though everything around us says they’re not. Truth be told, you ask most black people and they tell you that no matter who won the election, they didn’t expect the hood to get better. But they still voted because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You think I’m not sad that Hillary didn’t win? That I’m not terrified about what Trump’s about to do? I’m used to things not going my way. I’m sorry that you’re not and it’s blowing your mind, so excuse me if I get a little offended because I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains. I love this country as much — if not more — than you do. Don’t ever forget that.”

That’s patriotism! When life claws at you and rips you apart every which way, but you still cling to the hope that your country can make things better, that’s patriotism! A belief that together we can, and we will, build something great for all of us. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. And until that day arrives, we’ll persevere … not just to survive, but to continue the vital work of helping to move all of us forward.

And that, I think, are our marching orders for the years ahead. As Republicans and Democrats, let’s disagree about how best to grow the economy, about who to tax more and who to tax less. But as Americans, there should be no disagreement about wanting to create the best nation for everyone who lives here. There are partisan issues and there are non-partisan issues. The Talmud teaches, Eilu devarim she’ein lahem shiur … these are the matters about which there is no discussion. Okay, there’ll be lots of discussion. But being American means we don’t ignore the welfare of anyone who lives here. We don’t ignore their health care. We don’t ignore their job security. We don’t ignore their schools. We don’t ignore their fundamental freedoms.

Remember Frank Zappa? He seemed like a mighty strange guy. But he once observed the following: “Civics was a class that used to be required before you could graduate from high school. You were taught what was in the U.S. Constitution. [But] after all the student rebellions in the Sixties, civics was banished from the student curriculum and was replaced by something called social studies. Here we live in a country that has a fabulous constitution and all these guarantees, a contract between the citizens and the government – nobody knows what’s in it. […] So, if you don’t know what your rights are, how can you stand up for them?”

No matter who takes office, America remains one of the world’s greatest nations because of our Constitution, because of the protections it guarantees for us all. All! And if our leaders falter in protecting those Constitutionally-guaranteed rights – and God knows, they’ve faltered … just ask America’s blacks, America’s women, America’s LGBTQ community, America’s immigrants – we have the right (and the obligation) to stand up and speak out.

When my kids were little, we got them a book called King of the Playground, in which a bully tells Sammy he can’t come into the playground, and that if he tries he’ll tie him up. Frightened and disappointed, Sammy returns home. When he tells his dad what happened, his dad asks, “And what would you be doing while Sammy is tying you up?” Sammy remembers trying to put a sweater on his cat. And so began Sammy’s activist protest against the playground bully.

Yes, it’s quite possible that none of the fears I’ve shared will come true. And it’s quite possible that all of the fears I shared will come true. But just as Sammy’s dad asked him what he’d be doing while the bully tried to push him around, I ask us the very same question.

There are so many amazing and effective grassroots organizations in America. And because of our Constitution, every one of them has the right to stand up to the playground bully. Planned Parenthood, the NAACP, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the American Civil Liberties Union, and our very own Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. We may not like what we see happening in our nation’s capital, but if there’s one thing that capital stands for, it’s our right to take a stand.

So tomorrow morning, we head off to New York City and to Washington. And if that’s the work we need to do right now, all I can say is thank God we live in a country that lets us do it.

Our nation’s flag was first adopted in 1777. Based upon the Great Seal of the United States, the colors in its design, as reported by the Secretary of the Continental Congress, convey our nation’s ideals of “purity and innocence … hardiness and valour … vigilance, perseverance and justice.”

What do I see when I look at the flag? I see our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, and the body of law that has evolved through the generations. I see 240 years of men and women who, when we’ve been at our best, have worked to build a nation that is open and fair to all of its citizens. When I look at the flag, I know that we are a nation that has turned on itself more times than it’s turned on others. But when I look at the flag, I see endless possibility for turning our society into one that is fully welcoming, fully inclusive, and fully committed to protecting us all.

And lastly, when I look at the flag, I hear the challenge of generations past and generations to come, beckoning us to do better than we’ve done before, to work harder to build the kind of nation that France must have been thinking about when she sent us as a gift to stand in the New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty, its shining beacon pointing the way to a land of liberty and freedom.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, who served the American Orthodox Jewish community in the latter half of the 20th century wrote, “We pray, not by the rocket’s red glare or bombs bursting in air, that we might have proof our flag is still there, but by the tranquility of people’s souls, the decency of their actions, and the unspoiled quiet of nature’s dawn.”

It is a new era. And everything seems poised to change. But it is still the United States of America. And in that regard, nothing has changed. So let’s get to work.



And this is Jason Fenster’s closing:

This week, we start the book of Exodus. The story opens with a big change. A new king arose who did not know Joseph. This king saw the growing minority population as a threat, and he sought to destroy them. Then two Egyptian women, two women who recognized their positions of relative privilege, two nasty women, Shifra and Puah, engaged in a stunning act of civil disobedience. They saved the lives of people whose lives were threatened. And their act of defiance started the process that led to the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom.

Trump is not Pharaoh. We are not in Egypt. But a lot has changed. I don’t know what kind of a leader he will be, but I know that I live in a democracy. And in democracies, we experience change. Sometimes big and sometimes small. But there is always change.

Jews have lived in many places with many types of governments and many leaders. We have seen the world around us change. But, as Jews, there things we know that don’t change.

Genesis still tells about the universal parentage of humanity and the shared spark of divinity in every person. Exodus still calls us to empathy and action as it tells the story about moving from oppression to freedom. The core of Leviticus still enjoins: ואהבת לרעך כמוך (v’ahavta larei-ekha kamokha), and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Numbers still tells us: מה טובו אוהלך יעקב (mah tovu ohalekha ya’akov). How goodly are your tents O Jacob! Delivering a legacy of humility and love for our homes and houses of worship. And Deuteronomy still demands, “Just justice shall you pursue so that you may live and enter the land which is your inheritance.”

Today, those things did not change.

יהי רצון מלפניך ה’ אליהנו ואלהי אמותינו ואבותינו
(yehi ratzon milfanekha Adonai eloheinu v’elohai imoteinu v’avoteinu)
May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our foremothers and forefathers, that our country be a beacon of love, harmony, and righteousness. May you bless its leaders with compassion, wisdom, and humility. And may You give us strength and courage to heed the words of Your prophets who call us to make our house a house of prayer for all peoples. Who compel us to beat our swords into plowshares. Who plead with us to do justice and love mercy. And may You, O God, bless us to be one nation with liberty and justice for all.

כן יהי רצון (kein yehi ratzon). May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom.

Can You Hear Me Now?

For four weeks, the Torah is fairly consumed with the story of Joseph and his brothers. That’s a lot of Torah time. Abraham, who’s probably the Torah’s 2nd biggest superstar, only get three weeks of parashiyot. And Moses, the undisputed star (next to God, of course) gets forty-two weeks, which is off the charts but understandably so.

While Moses would probably be a better character for making this evening’s point about working more than is probably healthy, he doesn’t show up in our Torah cycle for another two weeks, so we’ll have to make do with Joseph. Even with such a 4-week limited run, it’s fairly apparent that Joseph has very little home life, at least that we hear about. In Vayeshev, two weeks ago, we met Joseph and his brothers and began to understand why this Torah-hero might have chosen to throw himself into his work. With ten of eleven brothers despising him, we can understand why he might have taken a job that required him to move to Egypt. But as our story progressed, Joseph only made time for family if they came see him at work. Even his beloved baby brother Benjamin had to make the long trek from Canaan to have dinner together.

But if Joseph had become a workaholic, he came by it somewhat honestly. After all, his father Jacob had been one as well. Granted, it all started out of love with his willingness to work fourteen straight years to be able to marry Rachel, the love of his life. Nevertheless, it set a pattern that not only ate into Jacob’s personal life but that of his famous globetrotting, famine-preventing son as well.

Now it’s not entirely Jacob’s fault either. After all, he had a Boss who frequently required him to work evenings. You may recall Jacob’s conference call with God that took place late one night while Jacob was dreaming of ladders and angels. And then there was the time God sent a sales rep to wrestle with Jacob by the river Jabbok over the details of a partnership they’d been working on. And then this week, in Vayigash, when Jacob hears his son is alive and in Egypt, he tries to get a good night’s sleep before making the 200 mile trip southward, but God wakes him up with something akin to a late-night phone call (Gen 46:2).

And that’s pretty much the way it was for our ancient biblical ancestors. And with ever-increasing options for keeping in touch, it only gets worse for us today. The line between work and home grows blurrier and blurrier. Did you hear that, as of January 1, companies in France are required to stop intruding on workers’ personal and family time with emails and phone calls? Some European companies, including Volkswagen, Daimler and the insurance company Axa, have already restricted out-of-hours contact with employees. But apparently the problem is significant enough that the French government felt the need to step in. (“For French Law On Right To ‘Disconnect,’ Much Support — And A Few Doubts”)

The objection to this law, besides the loss of productivity and revenue, comes in the form of the following arguments: 1) working from home means fewer hours at the office (and isn’t that a good thing?); and, 2) working from the gym or from the afterschool carpool can make you available to do those things in the first place (and isn’t that also a good thing?).

But the advantages to the new law are pretty obvious. True downtime during which one can fully focus on non-work activity, either social time with family or friends, or simply resting to recharge, these can’t be bad for you. And these can’t be bad for your employer either, as a lack of downtime decreases productivity in the workforce.

So while I can’t give you much biblical evidence to support the value of unhooking from technology (oh, except maybe for that whole Shabbat rest thing), there do appear to be abundant examples of the drain that a never-ending pursuit of even Godly endeavors can cause.

Interestingly, Rashi notices that God calls Jacob’s name twice when coming to him dreamside in this week’s parasha. Yaakov, Yaakov. Vayomer hineni … Jacob, Jacob. And he replied, “Here I am.” (Gen. 46:2). Rashi believes the repetition of Jacob’s name to be a sign of God’s affection for him. That’s sweet. And I don’t buy it for a second. First of all, if you woke me up in the middle of the night, using technology that didn’t require me to first, say, pick up the phone and answer it, you might have to call out my name a few times before getting a response too. But more to the point, I’m remembering back in Genesis 22, when God informed Abraham that the slaying of Isaac would not be necessary in order for him to show his devotion to God. If you recall, the angel had to repeat Abraham’s name there as well. Commentators don’t think that was a sign of affection. Rather, it was pure panic. Abraham had been poised to thrust a knife into his son’s heart and the angel, fearing that Abraham hadn’t heard him the first time, shouted Abraham’s name at the top of his lungs. So my vote here is that it was the middle of the night, God was still at the office, and had no patience whatsoever for his sleeping employee’s lack of immediate compliance.

Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) thinks that Jacob hadn’t heard from God in a number of years and that the repetition was underscoring this particular “memo’s” importance. Apparently, God, like many employers, felt that whatever God happened to be doing at the moment was the most important thing in everybody’s life.

This issue of tech goes beyond shutting it off outside of work. There are other reasons to not become over-reliant upon it. Many TED talks have found presenters extolling the value of tuning out and turning off, and for a variety of reasons. (“The Surprising Big Idea at TED: Turn Off Technology”)

Science writer Joshua Foer spoke about the erosion of our ability to remember in an era of internet searches on the information superhighway. He spoke about building memory castles, a technique that can allow us to expand our ability to remember ever-increasing collections of names, faces, and data. And reflecting on the price we may be paying for no longer having to remember things, Foer asked, “How much are we willing to lose by not leading a memorable life? Be a person,” he challenged, “who remembers to remember.”

Chip Kidd, who is a graphic designer best known for his book covers, spoke about the disadvantages of reading books on screens. “A book cover is a distillation,” he said. “It is a haiku … of the story.” Even the smell of books can transport the reader. “I am all for the iPad,” he said, “but smelling it will get you nowhere.”

Ellen’s alarm clock died recently and she started looking around for a new one. She needed something that could be easily viewed in the middle of the night. I told her she could just use the time display on her phone. And whereas she used to leave her phone on the other side of the house at night, now it’s with her 24 hours a day. Judging from the number of texts that awaken her sometimes, I don’t think I did her a favor.

The 15th century Italian commentator Sforno noted that God’s memo began with the narrator’s telling us, Vayomer Elohim l’Yisrael … And God spoke to Israel (Gen. 46:2). Israel, of course, is Jacob’s work name, the one God assigned to him when their partnership began. Sforno thought that God was telling Jacob he needed to prepare his sons well if they were to preserve the Covenant while down in Egypt. In other words, it was time to get back to work.

There will most certainly be those moments when we will have to drop whatever we’re doing to attend to something important “that just came up.” Life rarely serenely remains within neat little compartments that hold the various realms of our existence at bay from each other. In other words, when the call comes, we usually have to pick up the phone.

And that’s why it’s really important not to cross the boundaries of those realms unless we’ve got a really good reason to do so. And before making that call or sending that text, it might serve us well to ask ourselves if the recipient is going to agree that we’ve got a good reason for intruding.

Sherry Turkle, who teaches at MIT, thinks that these new technologies are still in their youth and that we’ve still got time to tame them before they fully mature in their roles in society.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … what a magnificent world You created. Fourteen billion years later, You’re still surprising us with shiny, new stuff. But the challenges of our days aren’t dissimilar from those that arose when You first got things going. These gifts can accomplish so much. But whether it’s the discovery of fire, of the wheel, or of super-miniaturized computer chips, how we use the resources of Your world remains one of the greatest opportunities, but also one of the greatest challenges, of this, and every succeeding, generation. May we hear You when You call our name. And may we understand that, unlike most of our bosses’ interruptions, You call us to justice, to mercy and to peace. And that’s a call that’s always working taking.

Shabbat shalom.

Holding On or Letting Go

Dreskins siblings @ 1221 Avon Dr, Cincinnati, OH (1964)

Dreskins siblings @ 1221 Avon Dr, Cincinnati, OH (1964)

In 1963, the front door – meaning, the screen door – of my home rarely closed completely. We never had to use the handle because a push anywhere would cause the door to open. In colder months, the screen was replaced by glass to keep the warm air inside our house.

One wintry afternoon, my brother Jimmy and I were eating lunch together which consisted of a tasty bowl of chicken noodle soup. He was eight and I was six. As brothers are sometimes wont to do, Jimmy and I had become experts at annoying each other. And so, it was only natural that we began flicking soup at one another with our spoons from across the table. The flicking escalated and before I knew it, Jimmy had thrust his hand into his bowl and withdrawn a single, long noodle. His intention, or so he said, was to smash that noodle into my hair.

Not wanting to see what that would look like, I excused myself from the table and ran. But Jimmy ran after me – down the long hallway from our kitchen toward the front door. Past experience had taught me that the front door led outside, and that outside might lead to freedom where my oppressor — Jimmy and his noodle — would no longer be able to torment me. Yes, I was naive. But it was the only plan I had. Past experience had also taught me that I could push on the door anywhere and the frame would open wide. What I’d forgotten was that mom had arranged, just a few days earlier, for the door to be fixed. But operating according to the old information, and not noticing that it was fully closed, I pushed on the door and proceeded to exit my home … straight through the now broken glass.

Well, Jimmy never did squash that noodle into my hair, but that was mostly because I spent the afternoon at the hospital getting fixed up.

Fifty-three years later, and Jimmy still feels guilty about that afternoon. And fifty-three years later, I still take full advantage of his guilt which, most recently, resulted in his flying up from Florida and repairing just about every broken hinge, light and damaged wall in my home. Jimmy’s really good at fixing things. I’m really good at playing the guilt card.

Note that in those same years, my brother Jimmy had greatly enjoyed pinning me to the ground and playing Typewriter (for you young ‘uns out there, that’s an antique computer keyboard … minus the computer) … playing Typewriter on my chest and teasing my hair with my mom’s rat tail comb. So I’ve had good reason to hold a grudge against the guy …

… just like the two brothers in this week’s parasha, Toledot. Jacob and Esau, you probably remember, were born fighting with each other. Later on, Jacob – who probably endured the same kinds of humiliation from his strapping, macho, hairy sibling as I did – also came up with a few plans to get back at his brother. Esau was forced to give up both his inheritance and his place at the helm of the Jewish people. Gee, and all I did was make Jimmy fix my toilet.

I was listening to a podcast this week entitled “Heavyweight,” in which host Jonathan Goldstein meets up with various people in his life and processes their past experiences with them. In this particular episode, his friend Julia remembers with painful accuracy the bullying she endured from other girls during her eighth grade year. It had gotten so bad that her parents honored her plea to transfer to another school. Goldstein persuades her to look up some of her past tormentors – all now in their 30s – and confront them about what they’d done. She succeeds in contacting them but, person after person, doesn’t remember ever bullying her. In fact, all they recall is how brutal eighth grade had been for them!


Click on image to listen to “Julia”

This was profound. Julia imagined that everyone had hated her. And she may have been correct. But it would take another twenty years for her to learn that these girls had thought everyone had hated them too.

Although I love my brother and long ago forgave him for nearly killing me, he still in some ways carries the guilt of that day back in 1963. Julia has been carrying for a very long time her anxiety and misery as well. What do you carry from long ago? Surely, there are wonderful memories of the very best times. But I think we all carry the hard stuff too. And it influences the people we are today. In some cases, so much so that our actions now may reflect what we did back then.

At another point in Toledot, we meet up with Jacob and Esau’s dad, Isaac, as he “re-digs his father’s wells.” He had settled in Abraham’s old stomping grounds down in Beersheva, and dusted off the family business – Ye Old Watering Hole – leaving us wondering if that was a good thing or a not-so-good thing. How often do you and I “re-dig,” how often do we repeat old patterns, relive old experiences, and allow them to affect how we are today? Sometimes for good, and sometimes not.

I don’t know what happened to Julia after she had looked up her old classmates. But I suspect that knowing she wasn’t alone in her miserableness during eighth grade, she might finally have been able to make forward progress away from those unhappy memories. I hope so.

For you and me, it’s not about pushing old agonies and sorrows deeper down so that we can ignore them, but more about acknowledging that they happened and that we don’t have to be controlled by them. We can dig new wells – we can forgive tormenting older brothers – and little by little, replace those memories with love.

bendlikeareedIn the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar teaches that “a person should bend like reed, not be hard like cedar.” Life is hard enough. We needn’t be hard also. Toward each other, let us choose kindness, tolerance, friendliness and love. Toward ourselves, let us choose the very same. There are old wells and sometimes it’s just fine to open them back up. But sometimes we need to let them go and set off in search of new wells, new experiences, new relationships, or renewed relationships. This is darkhei noam, the paths of pleasantness, that our tradition beckons us to follow. Sounds like a good idea to me.

On the other hand, how else am I going to get my brother to fix my front door?

Shabbat shalom.


Dedicated to the memory of Jimmy’s and my mom, Ida F. Dreskin, whose long, full life reached its conclusion two weeks ago. She taught us a love for learning and a love for each other. ‘Tho it would have been nice if she’d kept my brother off of me more often.

Thoughts for a New Year

steps-artinstitutechicagoIn 1893, a a 17-day “Parliament of the World’s Religions” was held in Chicago, Illinois. At the convocation’s opening day events on September 11, a young man named Swami Vivekananda, representing the nation of India as well as the Hindu religion worldwide, addressed the gathering with the following words:

Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen.

108 years later, on that very same day, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and maybe the White House too, reminding us that “the death-knell of all fanaticism” is a long ways away.

With each New Year, our community gathers to rearticulate a vision handed down to us by our ancestors. On Rosh Hashanah morning, we will read from Mishkan HaNefesh of Judaism’s challenge to us:

You have made everything wondrous after its kind. The x molecule hooks the y molecule. Mountains rise with utmost gravity, snow upon their shoulders. A congress of crows circulates through the maize whose sheen brightens through a breezeless morning. […] You have done enough, Engineer. How dare we ask You for justice. (Mishkan HaNefesh – Rosh Hashanah, page 171)

shanatova-4That task is ours. To build a fair and compassionate society, we will need to work side-by-side with people of all colors, all religions, all nationalities, all genders and sexual orientations … all of us, together, impassioned if not impatient for peace.

May this be the year when Vivekananda’s words don’t merely grace the steps of the Art Institute in Chicago (see below), but adorn our hearts, our breath, and our every step through life.

L’shana tova … may it be a sweet year, a year of peace for all,
Billy, Ellen, Katie, Mark and Aiden

What’s Up With Elul?

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827. During those fifty-seven years, he composed a ton of music. When he was 28, in a fit of rage he fell and stood up to discover he’d gone deaf. For twenty-nine more years, he wrote his music without being able to hear well or, for the last thirteen years of his life, at all.

One year before he died, Beethoven composed his string Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Upon listening to a performance of this remarkable composition, another celebrated composer, Franz Schubert, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” The piece is technically and physically demanding work, and must be played without pauses for more than forty minutes. This leaves the musicians with no time to retune their instruments. Done badly then, the piece can end up a mess.

In the film, A Late Quartet, Beethoven’s composition serves as a metaphor for life, and it isn’t a subtle one: “What are we supposed to do?” asks a quartet of musicians preparing to perform the piece. “Stop,” they are advised. “Or adjust to each other” as you’re playing the piece.

Tonight begins the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the twenty-nine days that lead up to Rosh Hashanah. During them, Jewish tradition challenges us to get ready for teshuvah, the process of turning – of recalibrating our lives for the better – in the year-to-come.

elulThe days of Elul seem to me not unlike Beethoven’s string quartet. School has begun, we’re back to work after summer vacation, we never stopped working at all, or taking care of our kids, or any number of jobs and responsibilities that prevent us from ever slowing down enough to take the time and review how we’ve been doing.

But that’s what Elul’s supposed to be for! During these four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, we’re to take stock of the kind of person we’ve been in the past year. We identify where we’ve fallen short. Have we been kind enough? Have we been generous enough? Have we been selfless enough? And even, have we taken enough care of ourselves?

All of these questions need answers before we enter the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because there’s important, serious and not very easy work to be done in there. We’ve all made some mistakes in the past twelve months. Maybe lots of them. By the time we enter that room, we really need to know what each of us is dealing with. In that way, we can spend time thinking of ways to be better, kinder, more compassionate and just human beings. We don’t want to simply acknowledge our shortcomings during the High Holy Days services; we need strategies for overcoming those shortcomings.

Yesterday morning, while reaching over a counter to open up a window, I pulled a muscle in my back. It really hurt. It got so bad as the day wore on that I had to lie still for most of the day. So I had a lot of time to think. Which is kind of interesting, owing to it being Elul and thinking is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Here are my two significant thoughts from yesterday. First, it took a temporary but debilitating condition to carve out time for me to do my Elul work. And second, that pulled muscle demanded of me my full attention. I couldn’t say I was too busy; the pain relieved me of that excuse. But the pulled muscles of our souls, the debilitating condition of our spirits, that’s much easier to ignore. I received a gift – a mixed bag, to be sure – of uninterrupted time to ponder the questions posed by Elul. But what am I gonna do tomorrow, when I’m not stuck in bed? What will any of us do with these twenty-nine days?

ramadanIn Islam, the month of Ramadan serves much the same purpose as our month of Elul. But Muslims have many rituals – including the pre-dawn meal and prayers of suhoor, and the sunset prayers and meal of iftar, and of course the day-long fast – all to focus them on the spiritual meaning of the Muslim relationship with God.

You and I have the same month, same opportunities, and an occasional blast of the shofar to remind us the High Holy Days are coming.

This fragile world of ours needs good people to take care of it and to make it a safe home for all. Goodness isn’t an impossible task. But it does take work. More than anything, it takes resolve, telling ourselves over and over again, for a lifetime in fact, “I want to be a good person. I will be a good person.”

May these reminders never hurt like a pinched muscle. And even though the challenge never ends … just like Beethoven’s string quartet, may we be ever able to retune our instrument – our bodies, our words, our actions. And may we use this gift of the month of Elul to get ourselves ready so that, when we enter into Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the Ten Awesome Days of Turing — only a few weeks from now, we make the best use of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, helping one another to become the gracious, understanding, loving people that God wants us to be.

L’shana tovah … may it be a year of goodness for each of us, because we made it so for all of us.

Shabbat shalom,

The Wilderness of Our Lives

This week’s parasha is Re’eh. It comprises chapters 11-16 in Deuteronomy, and takes place at the end of the forty years in the wilderness. Moses is preparing the Israelites for life in the Promised Land, reminding them of God’s most important instructions.

Efes kee lo yihyeh b’kha evyon is one of them. “There shall be no needy among you.” Now, does this mean Israel will never know hunger? Or does it mean we should make sure that no Israelite ever knows hunger? Food for thought.

As with the mitzvah about hunger, God reminds the Israelites that everything they need has been placed before them – all they need do is follow God’s instructions on how to live and all will go well for them. This is the central message of the parashah and of Deuteronomy.

River of No Return Wilderness Area

River of No Return Wilderness Area

I recently watched for a second time a remarkably beautiful movie entitled, River of No Return. It follows a biologist and his wife as they spend a year inside one of America’s largest protected tracts of land, the River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. The preserve includes 2.4 million acres in which, every summer, trail crews with hand saws and axes clear nearly eight hundred miles of trail. But the wilderness just takes it back again, and it can take hours to go a single mile.

One evening on their journey, the couple witnessed something amazing. One of the wolves they were watching turned and crossed a meadow toward them. It looked very young, and her approach was all curiosity. She came within thirty feet of them before circling and passing by. Not so much a brush with danger as a brush with antiquity, with our primitive past when wolves were once our constant neighbor.

The narrator says, “We’ve taken the wildness out of our lives and mostly out of our country too. But in the River of No Return, it’s like we can reach back to a place where we can still see, hear, and feel a little wild.” And goes on to say, “We’re pretty soft these days. Much tougher people lived in these mountains for thousands of years … the Tukudeka, a peaceful, mountain-dwelling tribe. They had no word for wilderness. They probably never imagined nature as something separate from themselves. But we do. And now, when the natural world is slipping away, we’ve had to create a place to call wilderness, a place managed to be wild.”

Our parashah is filled with teachings that seek to tame the wild in us. “Take care to observe the laws and statutes that I have set before you.” “You shall not behave like everyone else, every person as he pleases.” “When you consume meat, be sure you do not partake of the blood.”

These all seem beneficial. But there’s also some worrisome stuff in Re’eh, passages that sound quite foreign to you and me but, in other contexts of our day, sound far too familiar. God instructs the Israelites not to tolerate the other peoples living in the Land – to “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods.” “Destroy all the places where they worship other gods, whether on lofty mountains or under luxuriant trees.”

Not the kind of teachings we like to repeat around here. We’re the temple that shares a Ramadan meal with our Muslim neighbors, brings Christmas cheer to the homeless on our December 24th Midnight Run, and welcomes a Buddhist monk to teach us in our own sanctuary. We don’t smash our neighbors pillars; we revel in them, in the common humanity shared by the different religions.

Of course, that’s now how all members of the Jewish community see the world. And quite likely, not everyone in this community.

A few months ago, a Conservative rabbi in Austin, Texas, was planning community trip to Israel that would focus on Israeli-Palestinian relations and wanted to include a stop at the grave of PLO founder Yasir Arafat. An explosion of criticism denounced the rabbi for “paying homage” to Arafat, likening it to paying respects at Hitler’s tomb. He was accused of opening a new page in the history of treachery, of glorifying murder and terrorism, all of which rendered him lower than any kapo during the Holocaust.

These kinds of unrestrained attacks on “the other” are what Re’eh seems to endorse. We don’t.

So the question is, do these passages in Re’eh have anything for us? Is there a positive message, an open and generous one that we can proudly carry home with us?

Rabbi Yaacov Haber focuses on God’s providing us with blessing and curse. We’re to choose one – blessing or curse. And every Jew knows which. “Uvakharta bakhayyim … choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” Rabbi Haber’s online shiur shows a photograph of someone holding an apple and a doughnut, illustrating that choice. We all know which is the better option, but we also know that desire frequently wins out over sensibility.

Which may be what wilderness is all about. In the wild, animals live by instinct, acting to self-preserve. Domestication comes about when instinct gets set aside in order to live in community with others. Animals can learn this, and so can we.

It may take a while, and sometimes doesn’t take at all. I’m referring to the domestication of humans. There’s an awful lot of intolerance, hatred and violence in our world today. We see it in nations attacking other nations. We see it in communities within a nation committing genocide against a neighboring community. We see it in election-speak in our own nation today, words that appeal to the basest among us, that embrace xenophobia, racism and sexism.

3ec0c0d07220603c6856d792322940c9Sometimes, it seems our world, like River of No Return, is returning to wilderness. Re’eh – and Torah, in general – seems to be trying to tame us. To control the course of mighty rivers, to clear brush from needed pathways. To demand that we live our lives according to a set of higher principles that were designed to improve not only ourselves but the lives of everyone around us.

Torah didn’t get it right all the time, but it’s also three thousand years old. The American Constitution is only two hundred years old and it embraces slavery. But the Constitution is also working to tame us – and in the centuries since, when we’re at our best, subsequent lawmaking adds to our Constitution, sometimes even improving it.

I used to think the world was always getting better. I still believe it is, but only in part; as often as we move forward, others take steps backward. We are forever challenged to defend high principle, and to try and make sure it’s what people choose (as in the Torah, “choose life”). The key may be in cross-cultural dialogue, that no one and no group can make all of the right decisions but that we need to work our ideas out in the world arena so that, together, we figure out best paths for as many as possible.

By the way, not unlike the traditional experience of Torah Study. Jews don’t study Torah by ourselves. We sit around a table – both with our neighbors and teachers, as well as the great sages through time – and work through our ideas of what God expects of us. No one gets to to be the sole arbiter of the terms of Jewish living; we work that out together.

The River of No Return is a protected wilderness area in Idaho. Yep, we need to protect our wildernesses. Which seems like an interesting metaphor to me. Is there wilderness inside of us that ought not be tamed?

While you’re thinking about that, kudos to President Obama for his recent executive orders creating 87,500 additional acres of protected woods and waters in Maine.

But what of the wilderness in us? Is that to be protected as well? There’s something appealing about that idea, about keeping parts of us untamed and spontaneous and free. But there’s something appalling about it too. When it comes to respecting and preserving human life, the time has come (though it never will, not fully, I don’t think) to tame us all. As Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, once taught: We must strive together “to create human beings untterly incapable of shedding blood.”

His mother called him “Wild Thing!” and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” So he was sent to bed without eating anything. He winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts and, after successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as King of the Wild Things. He enjoys that for a while but starts to feel lonely and goes back home where he finds a hot supper waiting for him.

Elohenu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our wild ancestors … help us cherish the wildness that’s inside each of us. May we run and tumble and laugh often. But help us understand that everybody needs love and hot meals. May we listen and hear and respond to a world that desperately needs selflessness and generosity to heal what ails it. If we want “wild,” let’s go wild finding ways to make life better for those who just can’t figure it out on their own. And let no child ever go to bed hungry because of an empty pantry – let such a thing only happen because a wild imagination hasn’t yet been tamed.

Shabbat shalom,

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

Reflecting on the 1st Yahrzeit of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC


Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

Orlando. Dallas. Baton Rouge. So many acts of gun violence since, a little more than a year ago, on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, spent an hour with the community there studying Bible, and then pulled out a .45-calibre pistol and murdered nine parishioners and clergy. A year later, stunned by the death and grief which have continued to tear through our country, we are sadly confident that nothing in America will change. We’ve watched it all unfold before and, wearily, expect to see this again and again.

Still, in spite of everything, we hope for an effective national response to gun violence in our nation, even while gauging our own personal response. Thinking back on that day in June 2015, I can’t help but feel linkage between me and the people of Emanuel AME Church. Dylann Roof entered their parish that evening even as I entered my synagogue at almost the same time. That same evening, our local interfaith organization was starting its monthly meeting. When Dylann Roof brandished his gun, temple leaders and I were reviewing our past year, and the interfaith gathering was wrapping up. The people of Emanuel AME Church were doing what people of faith do in every house of worship, and we were doing in ours: learning together, praying together, working together for the simple purpose of bringing God’s blessings into the world.

When our temple built a new sanctuary in 2002-03, we had to move out for the year of construction. Before doing so, there was a heated debate about an offer from nearby Greenville Community Reformed Church to come worship in their prayer space while we were building. Theirs was a simple, warm, unadorned sanctuary, with no more than a single cross on the front wall, and it was located a very reasonable distance away. Eventually, we would accept their gracious invitation. But before doing so, some of our folks resisted. How can we worship in a Christian space? Isn’t it offensive to pray where Jesus is worshiped?

The choice was a no-brainer for me. Our very kind neighbors had invited us in. What could be offensive about one people of faith embracing another in its hour of need? Nonetheless, I understood the visceral reaction that some of my congregants experienced. After all, Christian history has not been kind to the Jewish community these past 2000 years, and it’s really only a recent development that Jews and Christians have befriended each other and comfortably visited one another’s houses of worship.

I did some study about Judaism and the question of whether our ancestors felt it acceptable to worship in a church. Here’s what I found.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 127b), Rabbi Yehoshua is in Rome and, prior to entering the home of a Roman matron, removes his tefillin (which, at the time, were worn throughout the day). He later explained to his disciples that he did not wish to bring Jewish sacred objects into a place where there were idols. While Jewish law does indeed forbid us from engaging in prayer in a place of idolatry, the question is: Does Christianity or Islam constitute, in Jewish eyes, idolatry?

In the Shulkhan Arukh (a highly-respected 16th-century code of Jewish law), we read, “The peoples among whom we live (i.e., Christians) and the Mohammedans are not idolaters.” So even though Christians worship God in three different manifestations, Jewish tradition still considered them worshipers of One God. Muslims too. Which is why, in the Shulkhan Arukh, we also read, “One may pray in a house where there are (idolatrous) images but should not bow towards them, even if they are in the east (the traditional direction of Jewish prayer … toward Jerusalem). One should face another direction, while directing the heart toward Jerusalem.”

GCRCMezuzah (6a)

In May 2002, Pastor Jack Elliott (center) of Greenville Community Reformed Church, invited us to affix a mezuzah to his church’s door before our temple began using it for services.

Only occasionally does a more stringent authority prohibit the use of a church for Jewish prayer. The predominant tenor of rabbinic opinion, however, is that (in the words of Elijah Mizrachi, a 15th-century Turkish rabbinic giant), “Even a house that is regularly used for non-Jewish worship may also be used for Jewish worship.” Rabbinic authorities are also clear that it is acceptable to use a Torah in a church and, if needed, to store it there.

Nothing, therefore, short of our own inherited memories and personal attitudes, prevents us from worshiping in a space that has been designated for use by another religion. In fact, an opportunity to join ever-more closely with neighbors of a differing faith, this is very good for us. What an honor to spend time worshiping at Greenville Church! They even insisted we put up a mezuzah. And when the 1st anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, we cried through that shared memorial service together.

A year after nine men and women were murdered at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I am remembering our synagogue community’s year in a church, and it’s been tugging at me. I think it serves as a bridge from Woodlands (my synagogue) through the Greenville Community Reformed Church, to Emanuel AME in Charleston. It’s simply one more way that my heart has been linked to theirs and to all victims of gun violence.

Part of the shared faith between Jews, Muslims and Christians is that there is a loving God in the universe Who cares for us – all of us. And when human beings share a common respect for one another, offering kindness and love from one person to the next simply because we are all God’s creations, we demonstrate the best and highest manifestations of God’s love. The folks at Emanuel AME were simply doing what we all do – learning about and practicing their religious faith, including the welcoming of Dylann Roof to join them that evening. For that – and the addition of their skin color – they were murdered.

And what did the Emanuel AME Church community do in response to their tragedy? They sounded a call for increased love and an end to hate and violence.

We must do no less. We must continue to reach out to one another – to our neighbors of a different faith, our neighbors of a different color, our neighbors of a different ethnicity, our neighbors of a different gender, sexual orientation, and even political affiliation – and extend our hands in fellowship and shared faith that America can and must be a home for all. We need to support those elected officials who propose worthwhile programs that promise to reduce the possibility of future acts of hatred like the one at Emanuel AME – through better care for mental illness, better regulation of gun ownership, and the reduction of racism and other acts of bigotry and discrimination. We must also do what we can to elect Members of Congress who not only care about these issues, but will stake their very careers on the need to act on them.

My heart still aches for the families of those nine who died in Charleston, but it aches for so many more who have died since then. In fact, my heart aches for an entire country that just can’t find the resolve to fix this.

So I’ll pray. But I’ll also act … with my voice, my wallet, and my vote. I hope that you will too.

50 years ago, on Friday evening, September 9, 1966, Woodlands Community Temple held its very first Shabbat celebration. This holiest of services – one that initiated the creation and establishment of our kehillat kedoshah, our sacred temple community – wasn’t celebrated inside a synagogue building. We didn’t have one. Instead, we gathered in a nearby church – the Calvin United Presbyterian Church in Hartsdale, NY – which opened its arms and its doors to us, one neighbor saying to another, “How can we help?”

IfYouCan'tSeeGodInAllI think of all three of these acts of kindness – two churches that invited us in, and a third church that invited Dylann Roof in – and I pray. May we never close our doors to another human being, especially in their moment of need. May we teach our children that there is no shame in expressing such need, but that it must only be shared through words and tears, never through a clenched fist. May we continue to affirm that God’s love comes into the world through human acts of goodness, so may our spirits be resolute in the faith that it is always right to welcome and to love. And may the day soon arrive when every man, woman and child not only understands, but lives, such faith.


P.S. On Saturday, September 25, 2016, 4:00-6:00 pm, we’ll be hosting “The Concert across America to End Gun Violence,” a series of live events from coast to coast to remember the victims of America’s gun violence epidemic. Turning up the music to turn down the hateful rhetoric. Please visit us on Facebook to learn more about our event, or Remember 25 to learn how you can host your own. Trying to do our part.