Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

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.

Billy

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.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

russian-coupleZeke and May had been married for over seventy years. Zeke was 101 years old and his wife was 99. One hot afternoon, as they sat together on their front porch rocking away, the old man, who was nearly deaf, couldn’t quite hear when May looked over at him and with admiration in her eyes said, “Zeke, I’m proud of you.” “What’s that you said, May?” She raised her voice and shouted in his direction, “I’m proud of you!” To which Zeke nodded and replied, “I’m tired of you too, May.”

Twenty-nine years a rabbi now, it’s hard for me to say just how many hundreds of wedding ceremonies I’ve presided over. I’ve used this story at only a couple of them. But what I can tell you is that I’ve loved being part of each and every one of those ceremonies. Many have been for kids I’ve watched grow up here, which has been very sweet indeed, while others have been for couples I’ve loved meeting and sharing in the excitement of their passionate and profound commitment to each other. And trying not to spoil their fun too much as I counsel them about the imperiled existence awaiting them just up ahead.

Tonight, being two days before Valentine’s Day, we’ve already listened to some of our fellow congregants share iyyunim on the theme of love. And as we’ve heard, love can encompass far more than a life-partner. Children, pets, even summer camp, can be among the many recipients of our heart’s devotion.

The human heart may occupy just a few meager ounces of space, but its capacity for love is possibly infinite. I asked myself the question – “What do I love?” – just to try and gauge my own heart’s capacity a little bit. I came up with a starter list that includes: my wife, my family, my work, this temple, my music (most music!), food (tho definitely not all food), nature, spending time in nature, reading books, apparently real books since I don’t enjoy Kindles, learning (especially Jewish learning), hi-tech gadgetry, compassion and generosity, smart people who have important things to say, and smart people whose important things that they say are effective and (even better) caring.

Oh, and my dog.

I’m sure I could quadruple this list if I spent more time on it. Which reminds me, let me add “time” to my list. I adore time!

This expanding of the list of what we love interests me. Not just our capacity to love, but our ability to expand that capacity, and to change how we feel. To add new items to the list. And most interesting of all, our capacity for adding items that we may have previously rejected, or even spurned. This, I think, is where we get Jewish about it.

One of the most fundamental texts in Jewish tradition about love is found in the book of Leviticus. In chapter 19, which is also known as the Holiness Code, we read: V’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha … love your neighbor as yourself.

Leave it to Judaism, of course, to offer such a fundamental commandment but make it next to impossible to fully understand. I mean, it looks simple. Love others! But what’s it really telling us? Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself? Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself? And what if you don’t love yourself – are you allowed to treat others that way too?

The Hebrew kamokha, “as yourself,” can also be understood as “love the neighbor who is like yourself.” What does that mean? That people who are not like us, we don’t have to love them? Or is the Torah saying that it’s actually harder to love those who are similar to ourselves? You know, the guy at work who does pretty much what you do, so you kind of hope he fails. The woman who plays the same musical instrument as you – you’re so much better than she is. Or family, with whom we spend so much time that the opportunities for disappointment and resentment loom large. Moses Maimonides presumed this mitzvah was referring to how we treat other Jews. Which leaves us with a different question: Was the Rambam telling us that our responsibilities for love go no further than how we treat other Jews? Or is that just the place where love must begin?

And then to get weird, the Talmud understands “Love your neighbor as yourself” as meaning, “Choose for him a good death.” I mean, yes, I do want to have a good death … someday … but how did they figure this is the particular thing that God was talking about when we were commanded to love our neighbor as ourself? On the other hand, dying is among our most vulnerable experiences; we entirely rely on others to help us die. Perhaps that is indeed one of life’s most loving moments, when we make sure that a loved one can die in comfort and in peace.

One 15th century commentator, Isaac ben Moses Arama, suggested we look to the friendship between David and Jonathan. David was aspiring to become the king of Israel and Jonathan was the son of the current king, Saul, which either complicated Jonathan’s relationship with David or his relationship with his dad the king. A passage in the Mishna (Avot 5:16) reads, “Any love that is dependent on something, when that something goes away, so too does the love. While any love that is not dependent on something, it will never perish. That,” the Mishna concludes, “is the love of David and Jonathan.”

In our Book of Samuel class, we happened to have just read those passages. And while I can’t vouch for the depth of David’s love, Jonathan’s did indeed seem awesomely powerful. As the son of Saul, Jonathan was the crown prince, and he had every reason to be resentful of David’s aspiration to power, an upward trajectory that would prevent Jonathan from succeeding his father. And yet, not once does that factor into his words or deeds. Jonathan loves David, and nothing – even the loss of his kingship over Israel – would jeopardize those feelings.

I imagine that for 99.9% of the human population, love takes hard work and sturdy blinders. Which is why Jonathan is view with such awe by our tradition. I’ve been married to Ellen for 34 years. What that woman has had to put up with, it’s remarkable she didn’t kick me out decades ago.

It reminds me of a husband and wife who had been married for sixty years and had no secrets except for one. The woman had kept a shoebox in her closet that forbade her husband from ever opening it. When she grew very old and near to dying, she gave her husband her blessing to finally open the box. Inside, he found a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. His wife explained, “My mother told me that the secret to a happy marriage was never to argue. Instead, I should keep quiet and crochet a doll.” Her husband was deeply touched. After sixty years, whe corcheted only one doll? “But what’s all this money?” he asked. “Oh, that,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling dolls.”

I am continually amazed at relationships that stand the test of time. I know that there’s so much more to them than the good times that were enjoyed together in the beginning and felt like the basis for staying together forever. I know that when real life gets added into the mix, and love still manages to remain, something very special, and very inspiring, has taken place.

Which brings me to the question of expanding our capacity to love to include what we may have previously rejected, or even spurned.

Many years ago, where Pumpernickel is in Ardsley, there used to be a restaurant called Tokyo Seoul. Our family loved eating there and went often. At the beginning of the meal, the server would place a number of small dishes in front of us, each containing a taste of some Asian hors d’oeuvres. One of these dishes contained kimchi, a fermented Korean cabbage that packed quite a spicy wallop. I didn’t much care for kimchi, but each time we went I ate a small bit of it. Over time, and I’m talking years here, I was able to increase the amount of kimchi I could tolerate. And today, I love it. I can sit with a full jar and just snack away!

LoveThyNeighborAsThyselfV’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha … love your neighbor as yourself.

What if you just don’t like them? What is they’re like an off-putting kimchi? Well, unless you subscribe to the notion that we’re commanded only to “love your neighbor who is like yourself,” our tradition doesn’t offer much of a way out. Either we perform the mitzvah, or we don’t.

When I was in college, I remember a fellow student who just rubbed me the wrong way. Our paths crossed many times during our years there, but I never gave her the time of day. For more than three decades, I carried that with me – not one of my prouder chapters. But a few years ago, I found her. And even though she now lives in the part of the world that invented kimchi, and I didn’t ever have to have anything to do with her again, I remembered that I’m Jewish and I’m supposed to try and live by at least some of the mitzvot. So I reached out to her, started a very long-distance correspondence and then spent some time together in-during a visit to the States. And you know what? It’s remarkable how much nicer she is thirty-five years later. Or could that be me? Well, either way, I’ve got a new pen-pal. And on a whole bunch of levels, it feels really good.

Which brings me to one more example – it’s of a completely unexpected love that came from a place of pure malice and hostility. I’ll never forget this story of a neo-Nazi by the name of Larry Trapp. In the early-90s, he was a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who harassed a cantor by the name of Michael Weisser, threatening to blow up his temple in Lincoln, Nebraska. But Cantor Weisser responded in an extraordinary way. He reached out to Trapp with compassion and with a challenge: to talk with him, and to learn about the religion and the people he hated so deeply. In time, this neo-nazi befriended the cantor, and ended up converting to Judaism and joining the cantor’s synagogue.

I think that of all the love there is in the world, nothing could be sweeter than that of an enemy who becomes a friend. It is the most idealistic work for any of us to incorporate into our lives. It takes tremendous courage, and probably more than a little bit of stubbornness and chutzpah. I suspect that such attempts fail as often as they succeed, but all such efforts are noble ones. And when they do succeed, as with this one, their stories are unforgettable.

But I take it back – that may not be the greatest love. There is little doubt in my mind that the greatest love may very well be the one where – across huge tracts of time and even more moments of disappointment – individuals, or groups, manage to stick it out with one another. Despite letting each other down, neither walks away. I’m thinking of alliances between nations, or between disparate communities, among lifelong friends, relatives and, of course, between husbands and wives, between life-partners. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches about the honor of showing up each day to life. It’s hard enough when life settles into the ordinary and we wonder if that’s all there is. But then, when it gets rocky, to not walk away, to stick around and work things out if at all possible, that may be the highest fulfillment of v’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha.

So on this nearly-Valentine’s Day Shabbat, three cheers for love. Wherever it surfaces, however it steals our hearts, love is where it’s at. Zeke may have expressed an unfortunate truth in telling May he was tired of her too, but I’m guessing that he had no intention of going anywhere without her by his side. So in whatever form your Valentine appears this year, I hope that will be the same for you as well.

Don’t forget to bring home flowers!

The late-19th century writer Shalom Aleichem was a funny guy. He once wrote, “I never went to the fair without taking into consideration the feelings of my neighbors. If I was successful and peddled everything I took, and came home with my pockets stuffed with money, and my heart singing, I would tell my neighbors that I had lost all my money and was a failed man. The outcome of this was that I was happy and my neighbors were happy.”

Elohenu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors … help us to better understand our family and our neighbors. Teach us to care about them kamokha, somewhere in the vicinity of the way we care for ourselves. Give us a “stick-to-it-ness” that will help us to ride out the rockier moments of our relationships. And expand the capacity of our hearts so that we might expand the list of those included in the sharing of our love. It’s cost-effective, fits any budget, and goes a long way to fulfill that long list of mitzvot You gave us at Mount Sinai.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Shed a Lotta Light!

1dffecc51d04e06d37d1dd806c28542fThere’s a very old Jewish story about a woman who’d pretty much had it up to here with her life. It seemed she had nothing but tzuris and couldn’t find a way through the mess. So she went to see her rabbi. The woman spilled out every drop of her woeful tale: her marriage was shaky, her children ungrateful, her job unrewarding, and her health unsatisfactory. The rabbi offered the woman a solution. Walk the width and breadth of our town. Find someone whose life you admire, whose troubles you would exchange for your own, then come back to me and I’ll make the switch. Thanking the rabbi (and oddly, never once thinking this was weird), she headed straight for the home of the wealthiest person in town. His life was perfect. Productive career. Well-behaved children. Good-looking too! But when she looked closely, she saw a house filled with despair: alcoholism, domestic abuse, frightened but resentful children. No way would she trade her troubles for these. As the woman moved from house to house, she discovered that no home was without its challenge, no family free from some tribulation. She returned to the rabbi and thanked him for his offer but, no, she would be keeping her own life and her own difficulties. And with new perspective, she returned home. Did she never fret about the imperfections of her existence? No. But from that day on, she could remind herself that everyone’s life faces challenge. And with that, she lived mostly happily mostly ever after.

You know what I don’t like about this story? Even though the woman learned an important lesson about success and happiness, her experiences left her unmoved and unresponsive to the others whom she’d encountered. Frankly, this Jewish story doesn’t seem very Jewish to me. After all, are we not the people whom God instructed, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” rather than “You shall feel better than your neighbor about yourself”? And Hillel not the famed rabbi who insisted that while we must indeed care for ourselves (“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”), did he not immediately follow that teaching with, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Ours is a tradition of empathy (of feeling the pain of others) and of action (of taking needed steps to help alleviate another’s pain). Which is why our biblical prophets are so dear to us. When Isaiah calls us to feed the hungry, Jeremiah to plead the case of the poor and needy, and Amos to let justice roll down like waters, these are the teachings that have shaped the generations of our people, the Jewish directives that have guided us down the paths which we walk.

MLK.9So on this weekend that honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,, it’s not hard to equate Dr. King with the great biblical prophets. Only moments ago, we heard his immortal words in Washington, “I have a dream that one day … the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. […] I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Dr. King’s message always was that we should step forward to advocate for each other. Not just for ourselves. And not just for those who look like us. That’s why “Black Lives Matter.” It’s not that all lives don’t matter; they do. But African-Americans are being brutalized and killed by some who have been charged with protecting us. Now is the time for us to stand with them. We must all stand together. That’s what our Jewish tradition has taught us. That’s what good people do. That’s what a mensch does.

A couple of weeks ago, there was an antisemitic incident in our area. Six swastikas and the word “Jews” were spray-painted on a home that was also pelted with eggs. The Jewish community spoke out, as it should. I was talking with Rabbi Mara Young about this and we both expressed appreciation, and gratitude, that we live in a time where injustice is something we can all face head-on, together. We need no longer remain quiet, hoping that bigotry will just go away, knowing that it won’t. Today, we can speak out. We don’t always do so, but we can. Jews and non-Jews standing side-by-side, neighbor with neighbor, to condemn this hurtful behavior. This time, it’s “Jewish Lives Matter.”

Is this not the very lesson that Dr. King wanted us to learn? To embrace difference, to celebrate it, and to protect it. To build a world where all lives truly matter. And to get there by proclaiming as loudly as we can, from the highest mountains, that black lives matter, Jewish lives matter, Syrian lives matter, immigrant lives matter, Muslim lives matter.

I want to share with you a beautiful video that was released earlier this week. You’ve probably heard of The Maccabeats. They’ve been making all those great a cappella Hanukkah videos of the past few years. Natural 7 is a black a cappella group that joined with The Maccabeats to record a James Taylor tune entitled “Shed a Little Light.” It’s a Martin Luther King Day message. It’s a Jewish message. It’s a human message for us all.

Give it a listen, then come back and read the end of this piece …

“We are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong.” That’s Dr. King’s message. That’s the message our ancestors received when they stood at Mount Sinai. That’s the message our prophets tried to remind later generations when they faltered in their commitment to the well-being of all and spent too much time and energy looking only after themselves.

night_and_day_1920x1200_by_seph_the_zeth-d3idke2A learned rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when the night had ended and day had begun. “Could it be,” said one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell if it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a distant tree and tell if it is a fig tree or a peach tree? “No,” answered the rabbi. “The night has ended and day has begun … when you can look upon the face of any man or woman, and see that it is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, dear God, God of our ancestors, God of all humankind, we are forever grateful that You gave to us these precious and sacred gifts of empathy, kindness and compassion. Understanding that none are immune from life’s troubles, may we use these gifts to bring great good into our world. May we not stand by idly when another bleeds. May we rise and be counted when our community needs us. May we rise and be counted when someone else’s community needs us. May we appreciate not only what we have, but what others lack. And may we look upon the face of every man and woman and see that he is our brother, she our sister.

Let the ties between us shed a little light on everybody. Bound together by the task that stands before us, let us travel that road together, and welcome a new day for all.

Ken yehi ratzon … may these words be worthy of coming true.

Our Huynh Family

These words were presented on Shabbat Vayera (Fri, Oct 30, 2015) as part of “Throwback Shabbat: The 60s and 70s,” a 50th anniversary celebration of Woodlands Community Temple.


Beginning in December of 2010, the world watched with extravagant hope as the Arab Spring protests brought with them the possibility for democracy taking root across the Middle East. While Tunisia has succeeded in adopting a new constitution and electing a parliament, by the spring of 2011 Syria had plummeted into civil war. In the north, the Free Syrian Army receives support from the U.S., to the east ISIS continues its fanatical drive, elsewhere other armies have sprung up, while the Syrian army itself, backed by Russia, Iran and Iraq, attempts to battle them all.

 Syrian children march in the refugee camp in Jordan. The number of Children in this camp exceeds 60% of the total number of refugees hence the name "Children's camp". Some of them lost their relatives, but others lost their parents.

Syrian children at a refugee camp in Jordan.

As of September, the civil war has created more than four million refugees seeking safety and asylum elsewhere. Most are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq while thousands have fled to more-distant countries. Turkey has the greatest number of refugees – 2.1 million. The European Union has approved a plan to take in 120,000 refugees. Israel, always in a tenuous and even precarious relationship with Syria, has chosen to send humanitarian aid by way of Jordan. And the United States has pledged billions in humanitarian aid and 100,000 entrance visas.

I’ll come back to this, but first I want to take a look backward with you, to the year 1979. Still a young congregation, in 1979 Woodlands had some 300 families, 30 families on the waiting list, 400 kids in the religious school, a six-year-old sanctuary (the one we knocked down thirteen years ago), and a plan to renovate the old building by bringing all offices downstairs from the second floor, creating seven classrooms upstairs, expanding the Sanctuary to provide an office for the Cantor and, underneath the Sanctuary, a Youth Lounge. Things don’t always work out as planned.

Notable events from around the world in 1979 include: the U.S. resumed full diplomatic relations with China, Ohio agreed to compensate the families of those who were injured and died in the Kent State shootings, the Shah fled and the Ayatollah rose to power in Iran, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands and signed a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be taken aboard the amphibious command ship USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19). They are being rescued from a 35 foot fishing boat 350 miles northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea.

35 Vietnamese refugees being rescued 350 miles NE of Vietnam after 8 days at sea.

A few years earlier, in 1975, President Gerald Ford had declared the end of the Vietnam War as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and Communist rule. From then until 1995, nearly 800,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled by boat, seeking political asylum throughout Southeast Asia. By 1978 and 1979, their numbers had grown so large that nearby borders were closed and an international humanitarian crisis began. Western nations cracked open their doors and over time 200,000 of these “boat people” came to the United States.

In 1979, one of those families – Kim Ly Huynh and three of her children – came to us. Here’s how it happened.

Then rabbi of Woodlands, Peter Rubinstein, had reached out to HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). HIAS had originally assisted Jewish families fleeing 19th century persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe, working out of Ellis Island and the Lower East Side to resettle newly-arrived Jewish immigrants. Toward the end of the 20th century, HIAS was expanding their efforts to include assistance for non-Jewish refugees in the aftermath of conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Czechoslovakia, Haiti, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia and many more. Vietnam was on their list.

Peter signed us up to assist with the boat people and work was to begin a month or two down the road. But a call came in that very same day announcing that a family was in the air and was soon to arrive at JFK airport. Details are murky, but corroborating reports place Gerry Weingast at the airport to pick them up. Gerry drove Kim Ly, the mom, along with three of her children – Nganh (her daughter), Tich-Ha and Tich-Boi (the two boys) – to the home of Amy and Morry Stein, who ran Camp Echo Lake and therefore (or so Amy tells me) Peter felt they were uniquely qualified to bring a family into their home. It was supposed to just be for a weekend while housing was secured for them elsewhere. But Amy felt a powerful surge of duty and mitzvah, and persuaded her family to keep the Huynhs with them for six months. Amy’s thinking was that Kim Ly and her children had much to learn and it would be easier with the stability of one place to stay and an American family to guide them along the way.

Of course, the Steins were in no way alone in this monumental project. The entire congregation got involved, donating time, goods and services to assist the Huynhs. Morry made passionate appeals to the congregation. Irwin Miller, Mel Oppenheim, Don Moskovitz and Stephen Stein all provided much-needed dental services, as well as heroic efforts to keep these otherwise incredibly well-behaved children from screaming their heads off. Ron Reiss helped them find an apartment. Joel Walker served as project leader, providing legal services as well as a steady, patient and unflappable presence in their lives. In many respects, Joel became a surrogate father. Iris and Nat Adler arranged for a different temple family to host the Huynhs each night for dinner, and for weekend activities to keep them busy and to help acclimate them to American life. Nat helped with taxes. Eileen Stein became Kim Ly’s friend and confidant, and her entire family became the Huynh’s extended family.

Of course, once an apartment was secured, Woodlands fell all over itself contributing furnishings and supplies so that the Huynhs could begin their new life in earnest.

The kids were enrolled in area schools, including Rye Country Day and the White Plains school. They were sent to summer camp: Tich-ha and Tick-boi to Echo Lake, others went elsewhere. Nganh loved walking Amy and Morry’s dog Max who, in return, came to love Nganh. And Kim Ly went to night school, learning English and earning a license in cosmetology.

Thus, the early years of their new lives moved forward.

Down the road something quite surprising happened. Because of the language barrier, no one originally knew that Kim Ly had a fourth child. Tich-duong, the eldest and the one in whom their original hopes for survival had been invested, was the first to leave Vietnam, sent by his parents with a gold bar and a close family friend to seek refuge in Hong Kong. Relieved of the gold, Tich-duong was abandoned in Hong Kong and forced to survive on his own. But survive he did. And when temple members learned of Tich-duong’s existence, they jumped into action, working with HIAS to try and rescue this child. Andy Block, who was working for Citibank, reached out to the affiliate there. Tich-duong was found, and brought to America for a reunion with his family. Amazingly, as he stepped off the plane to greet his family and soon-to-be new friends, he brought gifts with him. This one had the knack for survival.

In time, the children grew into adulthood and built lives of their own. Nganh attended college, earning a PhD in Biology & Biomedical Sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University. Tich-ha attended Pace University and completed his degree at Westchester Community College. Tich-duong attended Skidmore College. And Tich-boi went to Brandeis where he earned a BA in biochemistry and biology.

Today, Nganh works for the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC. Tich-ha is a realtor here in New York and has two kids of his own. Tich-boi and Tich-duong are both IT guys. Tich-boi lives in Boston and has a 5½-year-old child named Jacob who loves to read, especially “Magic School Bus,” and adores playing with the iPad. Tich-duong works for a mutual fund company in Connecticut.

Eventually, Tich-duong bought the White Plains apartment for his mom so she’ll never have to worry about a place to live ever again. Today, Kim Ly owns a nail salon in Elmsford and also works as a crossing guard in White Plains. All of them are United States citizens.

Kim Ly’s husband never made it out of Vietnam. He died there.

As the family became increasingly independent, the temple’s involvement in their lives lessened. The Chai Fund, which had been established to raise money to help the Huynhs, was repurposed a few years ago as the name for our General Fund. The Steins, the Adlers and Amy Stein became and remain the closest of friends, and they remain in touch with the Huynhs to this day.

Tich-boi, Ngahn, Jacob & Kim Ly (circa 2013)

Tich-boi, Nganh, Jacob & Kim Ly (circa 2013)

Peter wrote me the following: “In many ways we got back from the family more than we could ever give. It was beyond saving life. It was saving a family. It was enacting the Jewish values about which we always talk but rarely engage so fully. It was watching heroic members of Woodlands putting themselves out beyond expectation or compare. It was about a synagogue realizing the fulfillment of a mission, the core of their identity, the blessing of our nation and our faith. The Hyunhs helped us become a greater, more loving and caring and noble family.”

In this 50th year of our temple’s life, it is with tremendous pride that we remember all that was done for the Huynh family. We have always strived to be a caring community. Frequently, we demonstrate that through social justice activities, community service projects, and inreach to offer compassion and love for our own. It’s a major part of why we love this place so deeply. And it continues to be a driving force behind temple involvement for so many.

A Syrian refugee holds a baby in a refug...A Syrian refugee holds a baby in a refugee camp set in the town of Harmanli, south-east of Sofia on November 12, 2013. Bulgaria's asylum centres are severely overcrowded after the arrival of almost 10,000 refugees this year, half of them Syrian. The influx has fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment in a country already struggling with dire poverty. AFP PHOTO / NIKOLAY DOYCHINOVNIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian refugee camp in Bulgaria (Nov 2013).

Which brings me back to the Syrian refugee crisis. With 100,000 visas approved, a whole lot of Syrian families are on their way. Like Peter before me, I reached out to HIAS and asked if we can help. With one-room apartments in Manhattan renting at a minimum of $3000 a month and luxury apartments topping out at $80 million, it should come as no surprise to learn that New York isn’t really where HIAS or any other resettlement organization wants to spend their money. Most of the refugees are headed for Texas, Ohio and Michigan – places they can find homes and futures.

So what can we do? HIAS and others have set the following three goals for themselves. One, to address the needs of the most vulnerable by committing to welcoming 100,000 add’l Syrian refugees into our country. Two, address the needs of refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan by committing as much humanitarian aid as possible. And three, elevate the Syrian conflict so that it is viewed and responded to by our government as a critical foreign policy issue. This will include petitioning the President to take bold leadership, to engage our member of Congress who will be the ones to decide the funding for assistance.

HIAS and other organizations are asking three things of us. First, to get involved with advocacy efforts that aim to have our nation’s leaders commit resources and immigration visas to saving Syrian lives. Two, finding out if there are any resettling activities in our area and doing what we can – through donations and volunteering – to help. And lastly, signing onto websites like hias.org to donate our dollars in support of their efforts.

There are security issues to be managed in bringing Syrian refugees to the United States. No doubt, our government will be supervising that very closely. Interesting and, admittedly, somewhat off-putting is the notion of us – Jewish men, women and children – extending ourselves to help Syrians, people from a nation that has never brokered a peace with Israel and certainly has a history of treating its Jewish citizens miserably.

But what can we do? The rules of tzedakah and of gemilut hasadim don’t say, “Help someone only if they are your friend.” Judaism teaches us to help anyone in their moment of need.

And this is where I end. Once upon a time, Woodlands Community Temple did what it could to help strangers. In the time since, we have done similar things more times than any of us can count. The question is, this time, when it’s the Syrians, will we step forward to help?

In this week’s parasha, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent when three strangers arrive. He runs to greet them, runs to prepare food for them, and runs to help them feel as comfortable as possible on whatever journey they are taking. Such a wonderful message for us this week. When strangers approach, our ancestors – Abraham and Sara from millennia ago, and the families of this temple from decades ago – opened the flaps of their tent. Opened them wide. And said, “Come in. Naturally, come in.”

Billy

Thanks for Nothing (a Sukkot reflection)

maxresdefaultWhile procrastinating about writing for tonight, I watched what I thought was a pretty extraordinary and wonderful film called The Road Within. Released without much fanfare earlier this year, it’s about three teenagers – one with Tourette Syndrome, one with obsessive compulsive disorder and the third suffering from anorexia – who flee from their residential facility and embark upon the first great journey of their lives. I think what I love about this film is that these three teens, whose medical conditions are typically ones that debilitate an individual’s chance at having any sense of normalcy, set off on a road-trip which not only exacerbates their conditions but liberates them from constant enslavement to those conditions as well. Nothing goes away but, as the characters evolve, each tests the boundaries of what they can achieve in spite of their disability.

We’re finishing up the week of Sukkot, Judaism’s harvest festival and a time during which we wave the lulav, sniff the etrog, and spend time in the sukkah, all to celebrate and express our gratitude for God’s gifts. The ritual for waving the lulav has us do so in six different directions, the purpose of which is to affirm that God’s presence is everywhere, no place is devoid of the Divine.

That’s all well and good when life chugs along without disappointment or pain. And for a while, a lot of us get to live lives like that. But even for the most privileged among us – and by that, I not only mean materially but also physically and emotionally – time comes when we learn our lessons. It may wait til we get old and we learn that old-age hurts; it may come sooner when illness or setback or loss finds us and pushes our lives into a deep hole. But it does come. Eventually, we all learn what it means to live without.

In The Road Within, Vincent, who has Tourette Syndrome, complains, “This <bleep>ing sucks. Can’t I get one <bleep>ing advantage out of this <bleep>ing illness? [My tics] only come when I don’t want them and only in the worst <bleep>ing moments!” But Vincent soon discovers that he can live life, and he can do so with grace, with intelligence, and even with a smile. He may be a fictional character, but I’ve encountered him many times.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reelected President so often they had to pass a law to keep that from happening again, was paralyzed from the waist down by polio at the age of 39.

Oprah Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to an impoverished, teenage single mom. She was raped at the age of nine, pregnant at 14, and lost a son during infancy.

Sylvester Stallone was a forceps-baby, complications from which resulted in the severing of a nerve that caused paralysis in the lower left side of his face, including parts of his lip, tongue and chin. This is what gave him his famous snarling look as well as slightly slurred speech. Truly, “a legend was born.”

And Marc Zupan, a paralympic Gold medal-winner in wheelchair rugby, he’s rock-climbed, sky-dived, and been a guest at the White House.

We all know someone whose life has been destroyed by something that plagued them. But we also know someone who rose above the worst that life had thrown at them, and prevailed.

201In the Talmud (Sukkah 23a), we’re taught that one may use an elephant as one of the walls of our sukkah. An interesting argument occurs there: “If he used an animal as a wall of the sukkah, Rabbi Meir declares it invalid and Rabbi Judah valid, for Rabbi Meir was wont to say, “Whatever contains the breath of life can be made neither a wall for a sukkah nor a side-post for an alley, nor boards around wells, nor a covering stone for a grave. In the name of Rabbi Jose the Galilean they said, “Nor may a bill of divorcement be written upon it.”

Pretty outrageous stuff, right? But it begs the question why one would even consider using an animal in any of these circumstances. Accusations of exploitation and mistreatment aside, I can imagine someone justifying this because they simply have no other options. And before you start yelling at me that no circumstances can justify mistreating animals, I am inclined to agree. But as often occurs in the Talmud, what they’re speaking about may not be what they’re speaking about.

Sukkot, as I’ve mentioned, is our gratitude holiday, our Thanksgiving. And much as we Americans consider it a fairly sacred national observance to prepare turkey and all the fixings, building a sukkah is the same kind of sacred (in this case, religious) observance for Sukkot. But if for Thanksgiving you can’t afford a turkey, what then? Families try to figure out some way to make Thanksgiving happen, whether it’s getting a turkey through the local food pantry or serving bowls of cereal because that’s all you’ve got and Thanksgiving needs to happen so cereal it is. The issue here, of course, is not Thanksgiving and it’s not the bowl of cereal; it’s continuing food-insecurity in America. When we hear about a family serving cereal for Thanksgiving, or even when we drop off our turkeys here at Woodlands for Hudson Valley Community Services to distribute to families living with HIV or AIDS, our minds (and our hearts) need to go to that next place, that next question: What do I do about the fact that there are people living in my community (in Westchester, for God’s sake!) who have nothing but cereal, or nothing at all, to serve at any meal in their home?

That’s what Sukkot is all about. And what that elephant holding up a sukkah is all about. If we can understand the blessings present in our own lives, then perhaps we can better see and respond to the lack of blessing in other people’s lives. A well-known Hasidic story has a rabbi imploring a very wealthy person to stop limiting their meals to bread and butter alone. “If you can survive on only bread and butter,” says the rabbi, “will you then assume the poor can survive by eating rocks?” Where we have blessing, our appreciation of those blessings can help ensure we don’t miss the blessing that is missing from other people’s lives.

Tonight, we’ve heard from five congregants who have shared their thoughts about the challenge of living these imperfect lives of ours and, despite the difficulties encountered along the way, the desire to (and sometimes, the success at) coaxing a sense of beauty and abundance right there in the middle of it all. It inspires me to hear from fellow journeyers that others are figuring how to feel grateful for life’s goodnesses even while struggling with its adversity.

20140405114919-campfire-picEarlier this evening, before the Silent Prayer, we read the words of Noah benShea, reminding us that during our efforts to “build a fire” in our lives, we sometimes have to scratch at the ground “hoping to find the coals of another’s fire,” but all we come across are ashes. While some will crumble in despair because no light, no warmth remains, others will be comforted by their understanding that “somebody else has bent to build a fire,” “somebody else has carried on.” That too can be a blessing.

When my son Jonah died at the age of 19, it felt for a while as if my life was over. I was emptied out, broken-hearted and irretrievably lost. In time, however, I began to remember all the goodness that had been Jonah’s life, his antics, his energy, his kindness. And though I will never cease missing him, I will scratch at the ashes on the ground, forever grateful that I got nineteen amazing years to experience him and to love him. Each Sukkot, I remember how he always jumped in to help us build our family sukkah. His spirit was delightful, uplifting and inspiring.

I won’t say I’ve mastered the art of expressing gratefulness for life’s bounty even when that bounty eludes us, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it. And while unfortunately life provides each of us with opportunities to practice gratitude-amidst-hardship, it also showers us with an embarrassing abundance of riches-without-any-cost-other-than-being-human, for which I will always be practicing my thank you’s.

The traditional greeting during Sukkot is “Moadim l’simkha,” which means something like, “May the moments in your life always place you on a path that brings you to a deep, abiding sense of joy.”

Moadim l’simkha,
Billy

P.S. Thank you, Joshua Spodek, for writing about People Who Succeeded Despite Adversity.

And just in case you’d like to read a bit more, here’s a poem written by W.S. Merwin, an American poet who was particularly prolific during the 60s anti-war movement. He lives in New York City and is 88 years old. This is entitled “Thanks.”

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

To which I add Anne Frank’s immortal words, “In spite of everything.”

W.S. Merwin’s poem is published in Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

Elul: Preparing to Forgive … Others, and Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

Me and my big brother

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

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

Unfortunately, it gets easier where others are concerned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

The Honor of Being Alive and Part of Creation

The-Night-Sky-by-Eric-HinesHolmes and Watson go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine, they lie down for the night and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.”

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

Watson ponders this for a moment and then responds, “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all-powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes is silent for a minute, and then speaks. “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

How unlikely an honor it is that we have been created at all, that we are living life, and that we are living it as a next chapter in the continuing story of the Big Bang.

While, from time to time, it becomes necessary to focus on minute details of our individual stories in order to survive, it is our connection to the meta-story of life that I’ll be writing about – how big we are, even as an infinitesimally small piece of the universe.

Just the other day, someone asked me not to jinx them by saying so-and-so. I looked at them incredulously, which a rabbi really ought not do, but I was stunned to witness firsthand that superstition is alive and well in the 21st century.

A study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when college students were asked to say out loud that they would definitely not get into a car accident this winter, follow-up questioning ascertained that they definitely thought it more likely that they would. When subsequently asked to “knock on wood” on a table in front of them, the effects of the jinx were believed to have been reversed; these students were no more likely to think they would get into an accident than those who hadn’t jinxed themselves in the first place.

We humans, no matter how well-educated we are, are very reluctant to let go of our primordial fears. Not only do we hang onto to age-old superstitious beliefs – black cats crossing our path, walking beneath a ladder – we’re creating new ones all the time: sports players who pitch or bat well at a game, then try to maintain their success by wearing or doing some repeated act for each subsequent game; candy consumers who avoid certain M&M colors believing they might cause illness or the risk of terrorist attack. There is no end to our beliefs in supernatural forces acting on our natural world.

Perhaps the best-known act of superstition is prayer. The ancient Israelites believed that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were necessary preliminaries leading up to the most important prayer-day of their year: Sukkot, during which they prayed to God for rain. In a few weeks, we’ll gather in our tent and, while praying for no rain during the High Holy Days, many of us will ask God to forgive us for our sins from the previous year. Along the way, we may ask for a few boons as well: healing for a loved one, a raise at work, maybe even a curse or two for our annoying neighbors.

prayerNot infrequently I’m informed that someone no longer believes in prayer because God never seems to be listening; that is, God doesn’t grant the requested favor. But that’s not the main purpose of prayer – not in the Jewish tradition, not in any religious tradition.

Do you know the story about the man who is sitting at his wife’s bedside at an out-of-town hospital they have unfortunately had to come to while traveling? A local rabbi invites the man to attend his synagogue while he’s in town, to which the man responds, “Rabbi, if I have anything to ask of God, I can do that right here.”

Certainly when our loved ones are not well, we pray for their recovery. And we would welcome God’s altering the course of nature, if necessary, to grant our loved one a miracle. But traditional prayer is neither about our asks nor the granting of miracles. Prayer is about acknowledging the magnificence of life and expressing thanks that we’re part of it. Rather than bending God’s will to our own (a fairly presumptuous thing to do), prayer encourages us to align our desires with God’s. The end of the hospital story is the rabbi saying to the man, “Well, perhaps God has something to ask of you.” The universe is huge, infinite. Prayer expresses our gratitude and our awe at how lucky we are to be part of it. Especially in light of the improbability of life existing on earth in the first place.

photosynthesis-3In the earliest chapters of earth’s history, there was no oxygen in our atmosphere. The sun’s rays did create a bit of oxygen by splitting it off from carbon dioxide and other molecules, but the oxygen molecules quickly disappeared when they formed bonds with others, transforming into compounds like rust and hydrogen peroxide. It wasn’t until some three billion years ago, when microbes evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis, that oxygen became abundant, and you and I became possible.

Prayer is the human response to that unlikely event and the subsequent evolution that has brought you, me and everything we love into existence.

This past Monday, I stood at the graveside of a congregant’s grandmother as we laid to rest the sacred vessel in which she had lived her life. Before we left the cemetery, we joined together in reciting Kaddish. As always, I shared with those gathered that their isn’t a single word in the Kaddish prayer about death. Kaddish is a grand poem in which we proclaim two truths: the first, that life is an extraordinary gift to each of us; and the second, that the appropriate response to that gift is thanks. With Kaddish, we thank God for a universe in which life is possible, and how grateful we are for having shared in the life of this person whom we have loved and whom we now return to the infinite ocean of life from which we all emerged.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, shortly after we’ve first opened the pages of our new High Holy Days makhzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we will read these words:

“My Lord is not a shepherd and I am not His sheep. No monarch greedy for my praise is worthy of my prayers. Oneness that exploded into cosmos, spun the double helix over eons of evolution, made all things beautiful in their time, gave me intellect and initiative to envision Oneness: a single chain of life, a single human family, and myself one part — responsible and responsive, member of a people who dreamed of Oneness, worked and suffered for its sake, and still lives in service to that Unity: This I honor. This I hold sacred.”

Now that’s prayer. In a world whose mechanics we increasingly understand, the awesomeness of the Force responsible for its existence only grows more impressive. While I am quite sure you and I will continue to knock on wood when someone we love is in peril, let us try and remember how great the universe is, and to never withhold our profound thankfulness for having the magnificent honor of becoming one tiny share of that infinite magnificence.

As we continue our Elul preparation for the upcoming Days of Awe, let us remember that while we are but dust and ashes, we are also but a little lower than angels.

lithium-setRadiolab is a nationally syndicated radio program produced by WNYC that focuses on topics of scientific and philosophical nature. In the episode, “Elements,” they focused on a young woman diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and whose successful treatment involved the administration of three tablets of a salt called lithium. Besides how effective lithium is in treating the young woman’s condition, the program explores the fundamental, essential character of the drug; lithium is an element, an atom, not a complex drug – it appears on the Periodic Table of Elements and has been around since the Big Bang.

Ben Lilly, who writes about psychiatric drugs, found this to be a “profound reminder that the forces that shape everything in the universe are the same as the forces that are shaping who we are.”

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors …

How did we manage to wind up on the invitation list to this cosmic gathering? Why have You included us as part of the continuing story of the Big Bang and Creation? We may never know. But thank You – for whatever it was You did to get us in the door.

May we live our lives in such a way as to be worthy of being part of it all.

Billy

Zero to Hero

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

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

My brother Jimmy came up from Florida last week to spend time with me and my family. Jimmy is number five of the six Dreskin children. I’m number six. We’re two years apart. Much of my childhood was spent fending off attacks – both physical and psychological – from Jimmy. When I was six, he sent me flying through our all-glass front door bestowing upon me a wrist-to-elbow scar that has been ever-so-useful, to this day, in prompting his guilt-ridden conscience to do pretty much anything I ask of him.

So, for seven days this past week, Jimmy fixed things around my house. And since he used to build houses for a living, he can pretty much fix anything.

But here’s the problem. He fixed things a little too well. Our bathroom door, which used to require powerful effort to move it along the carpet in order to open or close, is now damaging my dresser when I push it too hard and it flies above the carpet only to be stopped by what used to be the beautiful finish of our bedroom furniture. Same with the bathroom mirror. It used to not even close but now, held firmly in place by a strong magnet, my pull to open it sends it careening into the adjacent wall. And then there’s the secret annex, a collection of shelves that is home to many family photographs but whose existence hides a storage space behind which we keep our Shabbat paraphernalia, cookbooks and more. The shelves used to require a rather Herculean effort to lift and simultaneously pull the unit open. Now, thanks to my brother, a simple, gentle tug will access its interior. But since my brain’s neuron-firings haven’t yet learned that, I continue to lift and pull which sends the photographs flying across the room.

I say this all not to complain about my brother. Although that’s always fun. To the contrary, I am in awe of his abilities. And after helplessly standing by as, year after year, more parts of our home whither and atrophy, Jimmy’s prowess at restoring hinges and catches and the like makes him nothing less … than my hero. Ellen’s delight at walking into our kitchen and having a flood of light replace the dim shadows she’s cooked in for two decades is all the reward this husband ever needs.

Which got me thinking about heroes.

hero_03We all grow up, I think, with pretty clear ideas of what makes a hero. Heroes save lives. Heroes sometimes sacrifice their own to do that. They certainly put their own welfare last when it comes to helping others. War heroes like Gen. George Washington in the Revolutionary War, Maj. Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I, and Lt. John F. Kennedy in World War II, conjure up magnificent images of brave men risking it all to save others. When 9/11 occurred, firefighters and police officers became our heroes as we watched them run into falling buildings to rescue those trying to get out.

Recently, we have seen heroes work their magic in ending the Ebola outbreak in Africa, aiding victims of the earthquake in Nepal, and fighting the flames of major fires out west. These folks do the work that needs to be done if lives are to be protected, but is work that neither you nor I can nor (probably) would want to do.

Jewish tradition has its heroes too. Noah saved the remnants of global destruction. Abraham risked the wrath of God to challenge the Divine’s decree against Sodom and Gomorrah. Esther knew her place but stepped away from it in order to reverse a king’s edict for genocide. Young David felled the mighty Goliath. And the prophetess Deborah led successful military campaigns against Israel’s enemies, freeing Israel from oppression beneath the yoke of Yavin, king of Canaan.

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the Torah teaches us. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Paving the way for myriad heroes to arise from our own ranks effecting social change for the better in all corridors of human life.

And so we’ve seen Jews step up and be counted in so many different heroic ways. In 1964, Andrew Goodman gave his life in the struggle for civil rights. In 1952, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first successful polio vaccine. In 1776, Polish-born American-Jewish businessman Haym Solomon was possibly the prime financier of America’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. In the early 1900s, Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears and Roebuck Company, established a fund that helped build nearly 5000 public schools for America’s black children. Film director, producer and screenwriter Steven Spielberg not only brought us “Schindler’s List,” but, in 1994, created the USC Shoah Foundation Institute which has recorded and preserve testimony from nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.

The list goes on and on. And on. And on. And on. Our measly 1/4 of 1% of the world’s population has effected immeasurable change for the better throughout the world.

Had to wander back through time a bit to get all the Dreskin men in one photo (my wedding, 1982!)

Had to wander back through time a bit to get all the Dreskin men (and then some) in one photo (my wedding, 1982!)

And then there’s you and me. During his week with us, Jimmy was telling me how he’d done nothing of importance with his life. It’s a Dreskin trait, especially among the Dreskin men. My father, a much-loved physician in Cincinnati, always lamented that he’d not won a Nobel Prize in medicine. As a kid, Jimmy had dreamed of becoming a nuclear physicist. While he had the brains for it, he lacked the ability to sit still and do the hard studying to get there. And me? I look at rabbis like Gordon Tucker in White Plains, David Wolpe in Los Angeles, and Rick Jacobs at the URJ, and, like my father, I too lament what I have not become.

Do you suppose I was listening when I said to my brother, “Are you kidding me? Look at your life. Look at the beautiful, loving, giving children you’ve brought into this world. Look at the home you’ve built for them, a space in which they grow, safe and loved. And look at the good you’ve done for so many by making their electricity work, their roofs not leak, their doors and windows open and close, and a thousand other ways that you improve other people’s lives. Believe you me, when you get the lights working or fix the heat in one of the homes you’ve visited, you’re that family’s hero.”

Maybe I’m stretching the definition a bit. I don’t know if we have to risk limb and life in order for others to place us in that superlative category. Sometimes a quiet conversation when someone is troubled can leave that person feeling like their life has just been saved. Even a student who’s got a paper on ancient Greece due in three days and, not knowing how to get the work done, is calmly ushered through by a teacher or a mentor who simply takes the time to help – that’s a hero.

My wife Ellen’s mom is 93 years old. She’s blind and suffers from dementia. Other than that, she’s been nearly as healthy as a horse. But this summer, her body put her through the wringer and it didn’t look like she’d be around much longer. Ellen and her sister Claudia tended to their mom around the clock, sometimes trying to save her life, sometimes just trying to make what appeared to be the end a bit more comfortable. It was exhausting work for them. To me, it was heroic. What a gift, whatever the outcome, that they gave to their mom. A gift of profound love during this late chapter of her life.

Even when the photographs of Pluto began streaming back to earth from three billion miles away this summer, I very proudly made one of them the feature image on my phone, so grateful was I that some team of rocket scientists and computer geeks had figured out how to show us a piece of creation that resides so far away.

I’m pretty enamored of heroes. And I try to stay open to every possibility for meeting new ones.

Hanging in my home is a framed piece by artist Brian Andreas who draws somewhat goofy but delightful cartoons accompanied by pithy words. This one reads: “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.” Ellen, one of the wisest people I know, put the Andreas piece on our wall. It reminds us both that the world is an amazing place and that there are equally amazing people living in it. We ought never get so busy nor so preoccupied with ourselves that we can’t find time to be amazed. Hence, the Pluto pictures on my phone.

Kohelet wrote, Ein kol hadash takhat hashamesh … there’s nothing new under the sun. While many read this verse as an excuse to be blase about everything because, after all, we’ve seen it before, Kohelet’s point was quite likely the opposite. Stay awake. Stay alert. The world never stops being amazing. And if you think it has, you’re missing out on the best life has to offer.

To see as heroic the sandwiches a young parent makes for a kindergartner’s first day of school … makes the world a bright, interesting, affirming and wonderful place. To see as heroic the young idealist who licks envelopes so that others can receive and learn about the candidate this kid thinks will be great for our community … warms our hearts and fills us with hope that a new generation is going to do what they can. And yes, to see as heroic the efforts of a big brother who once scarred his bratty kid brother for life and now fixes his doors and cabinets so that they move freely for the first time in years … why not?

courage-capeTo love and appreciate because someone can – you fill in the blank – administer a life-saving drug, cook a nourishing meal, teach a curious child, give a warm, loving embrace, are these not among life’s most spectacular moments? And are these people – you, me, the members of our families, our friends, our neighbors – not performing heroic deeds by simply showing up to life each and every day, doing the same, un-famous things year in and year out, and being loved for it as if we were world-acclaimed celebrities?

My teacher, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, writes about wrinkles and how they are the marks of a life that’s been lived. It’s up to you and me to decide whether it’s been well-lived. But we get credit – lots of credit – for just showing up. True Dreskin that I am, I lament the accomplishments that I haven’t achieved. But then I look at you, at this beautiful, sweet, holy community, and I thank my lucky stars that you believe I have enough to offer that you invited me and my family to move in with you twenty years ago.

Ein kol hadash takhat hashamesh … there’s nothing new under the sun. But we can, and ought to, renew how we look at everything under the sun. It may not be new. But our appreciation of it might be.

I really am in awe of my brother’s abilities to improve the space that a person lives in, to make it lovelier and more functional. Can a million other people do the very same thing? Absolutely. But for the folks who creak front doors he is invited to walk through, Jimmy is the most important of them all.

Someone else will treat the illnesses. Someone else will put out the fires. But for those who are lucky enough to have you and me step into their lives and make a sandwich, explain something confusing, give a hug, even fix a broken light switch – we too can be their heroes.

Let’s just be sure we don’t get too comfortable, fall asleep, and miss out on the excitement.

In 2012, astrophysicist Summer Ash underwent heart surgery to replace a defective aorta. Upon her recovery, Summer discovered that her heart had developed certain acoustic anomalies that resulted in her heartbeat becoming audible to the naked ear. She, and others sitting close to her, could hear the steady beating from inside her chest, not through a stethoscope but from the heart itself.

Through this odd experience, Summer Ash achieved a level of recognition of her heart’s purpose. With her engineer’s brain, she understood the heart as a pump. But as a human being with this unique experience of living with her own audible heartbeat, always, she came to appreciate the work our hearts do to keep us alive, every minute, every day.

A different kind of hero, to be sure. But with the same message, I think … to not miss out on our lives, and to give thanks for the great gifts that are bestowed upon us … every minute, every day.

Billy