Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

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 The flicking escalated and before I knew it, Jimmy had thrust his hand into his bowl and withdrawn a single, long noodle.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.

Serakh bat Asher: To Grasp Fame Without Doing Famous Things

At Woodlands, we’re following Israel’s schedule of Torah readings. So this week, it’s Pinkhas. The rest of you can get a jump on next week.

There’s a reason rabbis seem to only speak about the character of Pinkhas when this parashah comes along. The rest of the Torah text (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1) is mostly genealogies … a long list of descendants from the original twelve tribes. By and large, these lists aren’t terribly interesting, so much so that I recall many years ago Reader’s Digest publishing their own version of the Bible that left out these genealogies. So if you happen to have that version at home, you’ll miss out on the chance to meet Serakh bat Asher.

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher is actually mentioned three times in Tanakh. 1st, she gets a mention in Genesis 46:17 as the sister to Asher’s boys: Yimnah, Yishvah, Yishvi and B’riah. She’s mentioned again in parashat Pinkhas, in a census of all Israelites who are able to bear arms, once again as the sister to her brothers (‘tho curiously, one of the four boys, Yishvah, is missing from this list — somebody want to tell me why?). Then, in I Chronicles 7:30 (books toward the end of the Tanakh that review Israelite history), Serakh is mentioned once more as their sister.

Let me tell you about my sister, Joan. She’s the eldest of the six of us, one girl followed by five boys. She was (as far as I could tell, being 13 years her junior) super well-behaved, always doing her parents’ bidding, and living a very conventional life. As a result, while I was growing up in Cincinnati, I would hear many references to “the Dreskin boys” who were always making a name for themselves — either through their achievements or from getting into trouble.

As the youngest of six, I was in awe of them all. But my sister was pretty much known only as “and their sister Joan.” Such is what comes, perhaps, from being dwarfed by your little brothers. Don’t be mistaken, though — she could whup every one of us. And we lived in respectful fear of her. In our constellation, “and their sister Joan” was the star.

Serakh bat Asher is mentioned only in passing in the Torah. For all intents and purposes, she is a mere footnote in Israelite history: “their sister Serakh.” But in midrashic literature (stories composed by rabbis who lived much later down the line), her reputation looms huge. The reason for this is likely because she gets mentioned at all in Torah. Not a lot of women get that. Eve did. The matriarchs did. The daughters of Tzlophekhad did. But they also all had stories they were part of. Serakh bat Asher is known in name only. One can’t help but wonder why (unless you read the Reader’s Digest version, in which case you’re not doing any wondering at all).

The rabbis loved mysteries like this one. Why in the world would someone get mentioned three times without any story? And for generation after generation, they assumed it’s because this woman had a story! So Serakh bat Asher became a most beloved character in our rabbis’ imaginations. Here are just some of her tales:

• The rabbis imagined that, having been present both at the descent down into Egypt as well as the Exodus out of Egypt, Serakh must have lived an extremely long life … somewhere between 200 and 400 years!

• The rabbis imagined that, when Jacob was to be told his son Joseph was still alive, it was Serakh who was sent to play music for her grandfather, and to sing of Joseph’s fate in order that it be revealed to Jacob with utmost love and care.

• The rabbis imagined that this was the source of Serakh’s longevity. After delivering her message with such tender and gentle tones, Jacob gave her a most powerful blessing: a life whose length would surpass most, if not all, others.

• The rabbis imagined that, in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was having difficulty persuading Israel to let him lead them to freedom, it was Serakh who spoke to them and convinced the people to follow.

• The rabbis imagined that later, when Moses needed to find Joseph’s bones in order to carry them up from Egypt for burial in the Holy Land, it was Serakh who remembered their location.

• The rabbis imagined that, in II Samuel 20, which takes place long after the Exodus and during the reign of King David, she may still have been alive, for a certain isha khokhma … an unnamed “clever woman” advised the Israelite general Joab how to win a certain battle and save countless lives while doing so. The rabbis say that “clever woman” was Serakh.

• And then when Serakh’s life finally reached its conclusion, the rabbis imagined that God conferred upon her the honor of entering Gan Eden (Paradise) alive – a distinction that was reserved for the likes of Abraham’s servant Eliezer and the prophet Elijah. According to the Zohar, Serakh resides in heaven to this day where she has become a renowned Torah scholar.

So this supremely unvetted (to use election-time parlance) woman of the Bible, whose name we receive but nothing else, is provided a back-story like no other. And about the only reasonable fact, if we can even call it that, to take away from Serakh’s story is that she must have been a person of substantial importance. To achieve in the Tanakh even a single shout-out, and she gets three, that’s impressive. All we can really do is ponder the question, “How did she earn that?” God bless our tradition for making up so many imaginative and loving tales in response to this question.

Here’s a different story. It’s about Serakh bat Asher, but not the one I’ve been mentioning. This Serakh is one more unknown figure in history whose story – in this case, only slightly better known than her biblical counterpart – impresses and inspires. From 1950s Montgomery, Alabama — specifically during the 55-56 bus boycott which had been sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks and which really kicked the civil rights movement into high gear — Georgia Gilmore is a name you probably don’t know but really should.

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore lived in Montgomery where she worked as a midwife while caring for her own six children. She also worked as a cook until the boycott began and she was fired for speaking out against racial inequality. Georgia’s cooking had become so well-known that, now out of work, she was encouraged to open her own business. It didn’t take long for leaders of the boycott — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr — to begin using her home as a meeting place (which happened to serve some mighty fine vittles) and as ground zero for the nascent civil rights movement.

Georgia’s food was awfully good, but her talents and her destiny with the movement were not limited to her cooking. Dubbed “the Club from Nowhere,” to protect the anonymity of its participants, Georgia established a clandestine group that organized food sales – cooking up a storm of meals and desserts to be sold throughout Montgomery and whose proceeds went into coffers of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the guiding leadership behind the boycott.

The significance of Georgia’s efforts is two-fold: First, she was incredibly successful in her fund raising efforts, cited by some as the force which kept the boycott alive, both through the financial assistance it provided and, just as important, the visible community support for those on the front lines that it generated. Second, through Georgia Gilmore’s example, African-American women were inspired to support the boycott wherever and in whatever ways they could. Rival clubs sprang up, initiating friendly competition in providing greatest support for the boycott. Folks did what they could, which amounted to plenty. More than plenty. Gilmore herself is quoted as saying, “They were maids and cooks, and they were the ones that kept the boycott running.”

Georgia Gilmore is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Like Serakh bat Asher, Georgia’s name is not well-known. But her impact was true and strong, her story very much worth remembering.

Most of us will never become famous. At best, and this is no small thing, we will become famous in the hearts of a small number of people who have known us, and who celebrate us for our principles, our efforts and, yes, our achievements. We need not plaster our names on the fronts of buildings, or proclaim ourselves the savior of a people. We just need to try and do what is right. Some may say that’s not enough, that the powers of corruption and greed are just too great. But take a page from the life of Serakh bat Asher.

Or if you don’t believe that story, take one from the life of Georgia Gilmore. And know that our actions can make a difference, a very big difference. It’s possible that no one will ever hear about it. But perhaps that’s how life is best lived.

I don’t know where these next words came from. But every now and then, they show up at a funeral, recalling the memory of someone whose impact was huge, but known only to some. I love these words, and share them in the hopes that you’ll know someone to whom they apply.

Few of us ever achieve the acclaim of everyone,
But that is not to say that fame has escaped us.
In the hearts of a handful of people whose lives we have touched intimately,
Our torch will continue to burn without us.
And who is to say this is not a greater achievement,
To grasp fame without doing famous things,
To be loved for what we were instead of what we were able to become,
To be forgiven our faults,
And to be celebrated simply for our spirits,
Our character,
And our willingness to try.

Shabbat shalom,

Living in the Wake of Tragedy

Yesterday, two neighborhood kids came riding by on bicycles. A few minutes later, they came back the other way. A short time after that, they passed by a third time. It wasn’t until the fourth pass that I noticed one of the kids was holding her phone out in front of her as she pedaled. At first, I thought she was speaking to someone but then it dawned on me — she’s playing Pokemon Go.

Pokemon Go is the new rage across the nation. It’s a phone app where the objective is to find and capture Pokemon that are out and about in the real world. Using your phone’s camera and GPS, this clever app has found a way to hide these mythical creatures everywhere. And the only way to find them is to go, well, anywhere, hold up your camera and see what’s around.

03242016-169Pokemon Go is a delightful summer distraction. It appears at just the right time when our kids have time, time to immerse themselves in mindless delight. But as we seem to do with everything else these days, it’s already become neccessary to teach them how to play Pokemon Go safely – not while walking in traffic (or riding their bicycle in the street!), and to not to go looking for Pokemon in dark alleys or other unsafe locations. But other than that,  it seems harmless enough.

Pokemon Go also comes at a time of great sadness and exhausting grief. On the heels of the bombing that killed 280 in Baghdad, the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the five Dallas police officers, and now we add the 84 who died in Nice, France. Our hearts keep breaking as we struggle to keep up with bad news.

So no one should be surprised if distractions are valued this summer. I found us a few more.

An article appeared this week positing that we’re coming closer to realizing Einstein’s hypothesis that time travel ought to be possible. Researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, say they have simulated the behavior of a single photon traveling through a wormhole and reappearing at another point in time. Talk about distraction – time-travel would be even more fun than Pokemon!

noahs-arkAnd did you read about the opening of Noah’s Ark in Williamstown, KY? I’m not sure what it measures in cubits, but this new tourist attraction is over 500 feet long, more than 80 feet wide and over 50 feet high. And best of all, because the creationists who built it believe the world is only 6000 years old, there’ll be dinosaurs on the Ark!

But wait! There’s a second ark. This one was built in the Netherlands, measures over 400 feet long, more than 90 feet wide and over 75 feet high. It has 5 decks and purports to hold more than 5000 people. I’m not sure why they felt it important to tell us how many people it can hold unless … well, listen to this:

Apparently, a giant asteroid could hit earth next week. It measures approximately 1 km across and, if it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.

But that was all made up. The article was placed online to see how many people would repost it without even reading that it was bogus. Scientists theorize that 59% of all links shared on social media are never actually clicked, meaning that most people who share news on social media aren’t actually reading it first.

Someone, after reading the above-mentioned article, posted: “I was hoping for an asteroid that would cause a worldwide flood so the guy in Kentucky with the ark would be a hero!” Which is maybe why the Netherlands ark posted its human capacity.

None of this can make the tragedies of the past week go away. And there will be more, I’m fairly certain and sorry to say. ISIL won’t be going away anytime soon. Nor will we be able to make sure every police officer in America is safe or is able to respond sensitively and appropriately to every scenario unfolding before them.

And just to show you that crazy people won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, I read an article about the fear that Pokemon Go will be used by terrorists to hunt down people.  Rick Wiles, who hosts a Christian podcast, “Trunews,” has asked, “What if this technology is transferred to Islamic jihadists and Islamic jihadists have an app that shows them where Christians are located geographically?”

I don’t know if this should make you smile or cry.

Looking at the week’s events, it’s difficult to know what to say, how to offer comfort. This is a really scary time in America and around the world. But here are some ideas that keep me going.

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. Their “miraculous redemption” required incredible dedication and bravery to change the status quo. And that’s what Moses and company did.

Further, we are a people that believes the day will come when nation will not lift up sword against nation, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, and that when asked if the Messianic Age has arrived, our answer is never “No,” but is always, “Not yet.”

We’ve cornered the market on hope.

Let me tell you story of guy named Franky Carrillo who, at age 16, was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Twenty years later, his case was overturned and he was released. Amidst it all, Franky never lost faith, not in others and not in himself. He speaks of how his father would restore other people’s discarded toasters and such, and make them shiny and like new. Franky always reminded himself of that, and of his hope that it would be able to happen for him, that he’d become and shiny and new again. And one day, it did.

And finally, Reb Nakhman of Bratzlav would tell his community, “Do not despair. A Jew may never despair.” All the world is very narrow bridge. How we get across it is puzzling and frightening. But we persist. Shaking perhaps. But continuing ever onward. No matter what, we hope and we act on our hope.

There’s a popular meme that has plastered the online world this week. It reads, “Things are not getting worse. They’re getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Penned by African-American writer/activist Adrienne Maree Brown, these words, in my opinion, epitomize the determination to not despair, to see every moment as an opportunity, every step forward, no matter how small, as an important and potentially beneficial one.


Dallas protesters confront one another with hugs!

This past Monday, two simultaneous protests took place in Dallas after the shooting of the police officers. One group proclaimed that “Black Lives Matter,” holding placards that asked, “Will I be next?” The other group, stationed just across the street from the first, was protesting violence against police, arguing that we all matter. Police appeared in order to keep an eye on the protesters, and to be ready in the event of violence. But it never happened. The two groups crossed the street, and confronted one another with handshakes and hugs, proclaiming, “No more walls.” Praying together for Dallas, with even a police officer joining in, they called for unity and peace and, together, chose to start making it happen right then and there.

Ellen meets Charmander

Ellen meets Charmander

May this be where all our differences lead. To understanding that we can care about what’s important to us without not caring about others. We can tend to what moves our hearts, and still honor what moves others’ hearts as well. We can even disagree about what needs to be done, all the while loving our opponents and looking for places we can agree and can work together to move our communities forward.

While walking thru New York City this week, I opened up my phone and took a photograph of the first Pokemon I encountered. And guess what, contrary to what many are saying about how people are fixated on, and only see, these non-real storybook characters … the one I found, it turns out, was standing right next to the woman I love. And that made a beautiful picture!

When we look at the world — through whatever lens we care to bring to it — may we always see God’s creation and its infinite opportunities for us to bring new blessings to it.


Rewards and Blessings

Maybe two years ago, Tyler Levan, who’s now nine years old, walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after they’d tucked him and said, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Don, Tyler’s dad, then did what his father had done for him when he was little and afraid of monsters in the dark. He took out his “monster spray” and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Don and Judy then hugged Tyler goodnight, thinking that should do the trick, but he stopped them and asked, “How will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

TrophiesAnd with that deeply philosophical question which confronts our awareness that something may not be true and yet we cling to the possibility that perhaps it is, Tyler Levan touched upon a debate that has dogged humankind since our brains brought us out of the trees. Religion used to make excellent and effective use of fear to get people to live morally upright lives. The formula was a simple one: do God’s mitzvot and receive God’s reward; stray from God’s mitzvot and prepare to meet thy doom. Such “understanding” of how the world works used to go unquestioned, and many behaved better because of it. Today, we may have great difficulty believing in the doctrine of reward and punishment, but we sure wish it were real.

Judaism used to believe that reward and punishment are meted out in this lifetime. In this week’s parashah, Bekhukotai, which encompasses the final chapters of Leviticus, it’s still the first year following the Exodus with the forty years of wandering still ahead (although they won’t know that until chapter 13 in Numbers). In Leviticus 26, God tells the Israelites that if they follow the mitzvot, the rains will fall in their season, the land will yield its produce, the trees their fruit, wild beasts will not pursue them, and their enemies will flee before them. But God warns without so much as taking a breath, if you choose not to follow the mitzvot, “I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. I will bring a sword against you. And if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. Ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.”

This strategy worked for a while, I suppose. And in fact, there are still plenty of people today who fear God’s retribution for lying, stealing, and worse. But most of us have seen how this works. Lots of bad guys get away with everything – crooks, liars, murderers – so many going unpunished, enjoying their stolen riches that, when it comes to being the good guy, we might conclude, “Well, someone’s gotta be stolen from, lied to, and rubbed out.”

Where’s the justice in that? Judaism’s response came about twenty-five hundred years ago, sometime after our Torah narrative was born, in the book of Job. The story describes a protagonist who has it all but, one by one, he watches his business, his health, and his family be taken away from him. Comforters arrives and interrogate Job to determine what sins he had committed to earn such ill treatment from God. The book is a powerful critique of Torah, challenging the reward-punishment doctrine and echoing what must have been rampant doubt about God’s reliability in matters of just desserts. Twenty-five hundred years later, Rabbi Harold Kushner articulated similar ideas in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He seeks not to explain why bad things happen – that ship sailed when Job’s author upended our sense of God watching over the world and sending home report cards assessing our moral behavior. Kushner shrugs his shoulders when questioned about God’s intentions; instead, he tries only to be helpful to those who want responses and strategies – not answers – for surviving crisis and tragedy.

By the middle ages, Maimonides listed the doctrine of reward and punishment in his famed Yigdal – the 13 Attributes of Faith – but he moved it from bodily consequences to the fate of the soul, and so did Jewish tradition. Reward and punishment are no believed to necessarily be part of this lifetime but are meted out in the world-to-come. In other words, if we’re good, traditional Judaism teaches that eternal fun and sunshine await us; and if we’re bad, we’re consigned to something akin to the flames of eternal damnation.

Heaven & HellYou may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know Judaism believes in heaven and hell?” The short answer is yes, we do. What those two things look like, nobody pretends to know. Jewish thinkers and writers throughout the ages have toyed with these concepts, but the rabbis only settle upon this admonition, “Just observe the mitzvot. Be careful how you live your life in this world and the world-to-come will take care of itself.”

In spite of Judaism’s clarity of faith on the question of reward and punishment, it’s simply not good enough for me. I’m way too impatient to shout at the guy who just cut me off on 287, “You’ll get yours in the world-to-come!” I need something more instantaneous to satisfy the Angry God-complex inside me. Ellen is frequently horrified by the things I say behind the safety of our windshield to drivers who do stupid, rude and dangerous things. Driving while texting, tailgating, turning right from the left-hand lane, people who throw their garbage out the window, all of these drive me insane.

But my own feelings about the need for instant retribution aside, is there any real payback in the here-and-now for a person’s behavior?

To some extent, I believe – or at least I want to believe – that karma is real, that the universe reacts to how we behave. That “the Force” in Star Wars really can be with you. Back when I was into Transcendental Meditation, we used to refer to this as “the support of nature.” And sometimes I feel like there might be something to that. Dr. King taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, asserts that violence throughout the world – including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, treatment of children, of animals, and of minorities – such violence has declined. In other words, life has gotten better for all of us. Admittedly, that’s a very general statement, and life for any given individual may be horrid and cruel, but overall human existence has grown more secure across the generations. Which means, I would imagine, that more bad guys have been brought to justice and more good guys have felt the sun shining at their backs.

Besides looking for evidence in the daily news of increasing fairness and justice, I suggest that equally as important is what we see in our everyday lives around us – the people with whom we have regular contact, whom we watch day in and day out, how they treat others around them, and the effect this has on how others view – and subsequently regard – them.

I think that perhaps the greatest joy, and honor, of serving as a rabbi at Woodlands is observing how you live your lives. I see how you spend time with your families – with your partners, your children and grandchildren, your parents and grandparents – and I’m endlessly touched by the generous love you give to each other. I see how you spend time with other members of this congregation, how a simple greeting can lift another person’s day, how a shared opinion can be respectfully welcomed during a discussion, and how a visit to a congregant in need – and I’m thinking especially of your visits to Irene Gurdin at the Sarah Neumann Nursing Home and to Gloria Falk at Care One in New Jersey – and I’m simply bowled over by the love that you’re willing to bring to others. And then I see how you roll up your sleeves and distribute food and clothing on the Midnight Run, how you prepare meals and engage in conversation with the elderly folks from Project Ezra. I witnessed your incredible desire to help families whose homes had been damaged along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina and then right nearby during Superstorm Sandy. And I watched as you built a Jubilee Tablecloth and presented nearly $4000 in donations to my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, and the organization Mazon which seeks to reduce hunger worldwide.

And then I watch as the leaders of this congregation – from committees that prepare scavenger hunts, barbecues and college mailings right on up to our Board of Trustees and Executive Committee – how you treat one another, listening respectfully, disagreeing lovingly, and acting to create something of beauty here at Woodlands that goes way beyond any particular program or project, but blossoms in the relationships that reflect Judaism’s admittedly idealistic hope that when we look into each other’s eyes, we see God’s face, and we treat one another accordingly. It doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it feels awful, but so very much of the time, it does happen. And that makes my spirit soar.

These kindnesses that we bestow upon each other, they are very much their own rewards. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle. And so it goes. Souls going this way and that trying to assemble the myriad parts. But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle. Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.”

We carry one another’s puzzle pieces. Our tasks – perhaps assigned to us by God, maybe comprising one or more of the universal sparks which our mystical tradition describes as our role in tikkun olam, making the world whole – these tasks invite us to increase goodness wherever we can. And in so doing, welcome others to increase goodness for us.

KindnessIt may just be my greatest statement of faith, but I absolutely believe that goodness abounds, that while temptation and perhaps fear can drive us to act contrary to what we know is right, most of us try to do the right thing. And not just because it’s right, but because we like doing good. And I suppose my other great statement of faith is that I believe these things come back to us. They come back in the respect we engender within ourselves. They come back in the admiration and love we receive from others who observe our kindnesses. And maybe they even come back in a loving universe that appreciates the good we’ve done and tries to offer some good in return.

A number of years ago, I found myself sitting in the dentist chair, with the hygienist describing in great detail events that had brought her to the conclusion that she is definitely being watched over by a guardian angel. My mouth, at the time, was filled with dental instruments and so I was unable to react. I might have told her I don’t believe in guardian angels and that we run the course of our lives within the very logical (‘though not always kind) forces of nature. But perhaps it was better that my mouth was otherwise occupied and that I lived another decade or so before responding to her here tonight. A little older and, I don’t know, wiser? Humbler? Kinder? Now I think, who am I to tell anyone that their life is anything less than a blessing? And that the forces of the universe don’t love someone who values gentleness and caring.

The number of our years is far too few to spend them on anything other than being good to each other. Maybe that makes me her guardian angel. I can’t swoop down and make sure that she and her family are always safe, but I can put in a good word with her boss that I think she’s a great hygienist, and I can tell you how wonderful she is, how she models the kind of behavior and approach to life from which I think we’d all benefit. Which maybe makes me your guardian angel. And later, when you share your story of someone’s not-extraordinary kindness (because “extraordinary” is the last thing that kindness ought to be), perhaps you’ll be my guardian angel.

Tyler Levan quite likely wanted his parents and their “monster spray” to look out for him. But that big brain of his understood that reality might be otherwise. There may be no monsters in the night. But if that’s the case, how do we manage the fear that we feel nonetheless?

The answer may be in our mitzvot. Whether it’s the 613 that are denoted in Torah, or some other collection that we learned from our parents, from our teachers, in our books, or just by watching how life works … regardless, our actions may very well trigger re-actions that reflect back some of what we’ve put out into the universe. And while the reward or punishment may or may not be felt by us in our lifetimes, it’s out there somewhere.

I choose to believe it is. And try to live accordingly. It was good enough for my ancestors, and that’s plenty good that’s left for me.

Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! With these thoughts, we end this year’s cycle of learning from the book of Leviticus, and we wish one another strength of body, strength of spirit, and strength of faith that goodness is indeed, in some way known or not, a source of personal and universal reward.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

Jewish Learning Might Save Israel and the World!

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

London has a new mayor. He’s a husband and a father, the son of a bus driver, and a Muslim. His name is Sadiq Khan. I’m pretty sure that “Sadiq” is related to “tzedek,” the Hebrew word for “justice.” Before becoming the major of London, Sadiq was a human rights lawyer, a pretty good career choice for a guy whose name means “justice.”

What a welcome antidote to the intolerant, hateful rhetoric that’s running rampant in America these days. With all the talk about building walls and expelling foreigners, I doubt Sadiq Khan could get elected dog-catcher on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m hoping that will change.

Recently, our temple celebrated Shabbat HaMoreh, Teacher Recognition Shabbat. I shared a few thoughts about Jewish learning and the role it plays in building a world of peace.

As at most synagogues, here at Woodlands we teach Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and Jewish values. All three of these subject areas contribute to our efforts at mastering the art of khesed, of performing deeds of love and kindness. Sadiq Khan is a most comforting salve in this wounded world of ours, a world to whose future we commit ourselves each time our children arrive for religious school or we arrive for adult education.

Israel celebrated her 68th birthday on May 11-12. Israel’s a land that we love. Although, like a family member who disappoints us by revealing human flaws, that love can sometimes be difficult to maintain. But Israel is filled with people who share our commitment to living lives of value and compassion, lives of khesed. And that provides persistent hope for a peaceful future. In 1982-83, while living there during my first year of rabbinical studies, I encountered the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest modern poet. Now I’m the wrong guy to ask whether it’s good poetry or not, but I’ll exuberantly proclaim that this one’s one of my very favorites because of Amichai’s message:

Pa’am … once… yashavti al madreygot … I was sitting on some steps … l’yad sha’ar Vimtzudat David … near the gate at David’s Citadel. I’d set down my baskets and noticed a group of tourists surrounding their guide. Suddenly, he’s pointing to me. I had become their guide’s point of reference. “Do you see that man over there with the baskets? He’s not important. But a little to the right of him, just above his head, you can see an arch from the Roman period.”

“A little to the right?” asked a tourist. “But he’s moving. He’s moving!”

I said to myself, “We’ll have world peace only when their guide tells them: ‘Do you see that Roman arch over there? It’s not important. But a little to the left and down a bit, you can see a man who’s just bought fruits and vegetables for his family.”

It’s been said that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood, which is certainly true. There are people who are angry at Israel that are living in the countries all around her. And there are people who are angry at Israel that are living right inside Israel herself. This means a lot of time and money are spent trying to keep people in Israel safe. Along the way, some of those angry people get hurt — some deservedly so, but some not.

Israel is up against incredible challenges. One of those challenges is to hang onto her humanity amidst violent attacks on her existence. That’s gotta be hard to do. But it’s not impossible. We mustn’t ever decide it’s impossible to hang onto our humanity.

Adults and children in Israel study some of the very same materials as the adults and children in our synagogue: Torah, Talmud, Prayer, and more. Why? So we can learn what Judaism (you can read that as “God,” or as “our ancestors,” or even both) needs us to know: that the essence of living a Jewish life is to do a good job at making choices that, as much as possible, won’t be hurtful to others. Or as I once heard Elie Wiesel put it: “To create a human being incapable of shedding blood.”

It’s a hard goal to achieve. Maybe impossible. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. It’s important for every Jewish Israeli to learn Torah and Talmud and Prayer. And it’s important for each one of us, as well. Because if any of us think that practicing human goodness is a no-brainer, all we have to do is look around our world to see that isn’t so.

downloadThat’s why we have a night each year to thank our teachers. You — our religious school faculty and adult education faculty — bring us vibrant, passionate, often entertaining presentations that engage us in challenging exercises to help us determine the kind of people we want to be. And with your guidance, we’ll hopefully progress in our abilities to be good, decent, and caring.

Even Roman arches are worth studying. But someone has to make them exciting and a critical component in the growth of our humanity. Teachers do that. And we couldn’t be luckier. Or more grateful.

Here, in Israel, and everywhere else, we need teachers. Alongside our parents and grandparents, you’re the best-positioned champions for shaping us into the kind of people to make this world of ours a safe and peaceful for all.


An Akhashverosh for Our Time?

First-Amendment_detail“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That’s the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Thomas Jefferson called it “a wall of separation between church and state.” We Jews love this amendment because it’s a large part of what has made this country a safe haven for minorities. Majority rules, but minority rights are protected. No Federal religion imposes its dogma on us. We’re free to worship as we choose.

There’s a price though for protecting this freedom. As we watch what may very well qualify as the most insane presidential campaign in American history, I am not permitted to mention by name any of the candidates, no matter how infuriated I am by their behavior. Which leaves me with two courses of action. One, to express gratitude that there are non-congregational rabbis out there – like former URJ president Eric Yoffie – who are tearing up the internet with their rants about some of the awfulness that is taking place right now. The other is to talk about these people without talking about them. Which is what I’m going to do right now.

Purim arrives this Wednesday evening. “Star Wars” will be our theme. We’ll have a riotous time. We’ll spoof some of our favorite “Star Wars” characters but we won’t spoof any candidates for national office.

Purim tells the story of King Akhashverosh, who ruled over 127 provinces and was as much a fool as any of our current candidates for president. He banishes his wife for refusing to come to a party. He appoints a homicidal maniac as his royal adviser. And he claims that a king’s edict – in this case, the one to instigate a pogrom against the Jews of Shushan – cannot be reversed so he gives the Jews permission to instigate their own pogrom first.

I imagine that if King Akhashverosh had run for reelection, we might have seen him advocate that climate change is a hoax created by the Assyrians to supress the Persian economy, build a 2000-mile wall along the Babylonian border and ban all Greeks from entering the Persian empire, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants who had illegally entered from Arabia to the south, end the Common Core horsemanship and archery curriculum, put the inter-provincial road system and communication outpost network (known as the Persian internet) up for grabs and forget about homing pigeon net neutrality, repeal Persian health care, and leave it up to each province to decide pregnancy policy. I wonder, if Mordekhai organized a presence of opposition at Akhashverosh’s rallies, would he be denounced, beaten and expelled? King Akhasverosh was an embarassment in Shushan two millennia ago. He’d still be an embarrassment as a political leader today.

I think about that first amendment to the Constitution and what it has meant for virtually every American citizen. At one point or another, most of us – or our relatives who originally brought our families to American shores in the first place – have belonged to a minority or immigrant group. One of America’s greatest virtues has been its willingness to welcome those who are seeking refuge and a better opportunity for themselves and for those they love. To advocate transforming our nation into a xenophobic, racist, misogynist, heterosexist stronghold goes (I think) against the original vision of our founding fathers.

Esther approaches the kingEach year, we retell the Scroll of Esther for fun and entertainment. But it’s a really scary story. Lives are seriously imperiled and the Persian empire came precariously close to committing genocide. Akhashverosh’s government not only ignored the rights of those who depended on him for their safety, but he permitted, or at best declined to prevent, Haman’s rise to power. We’re afforded a happy ending, albeit an incredibly violent one, but we’re left wondering if our own government could one day betray those who rely upon it. And of course, the answer is yes. America still contends with long-embedded racism, sexism, and distrust of “foreigners.” In the current atmosphere of economic disappointment and struggle for so many, the temptation to elect a candidate who promises to dramatically alter the fabric of our lives is appealing to far too many. The rise to power in the House of Representatives of so many who would implement decidedly restrictive and unfair laws, and now presidential candidates who would do the same and more, is no fairy tale. It’s really happening.

The writers of the Purim story were issuing later generations a warning: Not all those who rule are necessarily looking out for everybody’s best interests. So if you happen to live in one of the lucky nations where those who are not in power are still permitted to express opposing points of view without fear of reprisal, do so. Because if we don’t, we may be risking the loss not only of rights for those who have no voice but, eventually, for ourselves as well.

Come Wednesday, we’re going to fire up the Millennium Falcon, don our Stormtrooper helmets, pick up our light sabers and while away the evening with laughter and delight. But let’s not forget how frightened Queen Esther was of King Akhashverosh. With the wave of his scepter, he could have banished her or had her executed. Instead, he took her out for dinner and gave her half his kingdom. Such results do not often come from speaking truth to power. But so long as free elections offer citizens the opportunity to change a nation’s path at the ballot box, each of us must think carefully and deeply about the greater implications of our choices.

IfYouCan'tSeeGodInAllJudaism has always taught that the Divine spark resides in each of us. Created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, our tradition teaches that we must ensure that one and all are cared for and are safe. America has historically been one of the greatest homes for the Jewish community because of similar values that have been enshrined in the Constitution. May our children, and their children, wake up each morning to an America of similar constitution. May it forever welcome men and women of all colors, all faiths, all national origins, and all sexual and gender orientations. May God bless America for the same reason that, tomorrow morning, I’ll ask God to bless our Bat Mitzvah, because of the choices we consistently make that are inclusive, life-affirming, and reflective of a passion for caring and for love.

May we live to witness an abundance of happy endings, not just in books and movies, but throughout these United States of America.

Shabbat shalom.