Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

This Shouldn’t Be Extraordinary

On Friday evening, February 28 (2014), something remarkable and beautiful happened on our bimah that I’ve never seen before. I hope I’ll see it many times again.

A Muslim, in particular a Palestinian Muslim, participated in our Shabbat Evening service. He didn’t just speak; he sang. But he didn’t just sing; he sang in Arabic. And he didn’t just sing in Arabic; he sang our ancient Hebrew prayers in Arabic.

peace dove hand symbol

Alaa Ali is a popular singer and songwriter who lives in Ramallah, outside of Jerusalem, across the Green Line in the West Bank. Alaa’s fans include countless Palestinians.

And me.

He came to us with his friend, Michael Ochs, who’s an American, Jewish singer and songwriter. Both are well-known: Alaa, in the West Bank and Gaza; Michael, here in the United States and Europe. Michael came to my synagogue last December, sharing his powerfully beautiful and moving liturgical compositions during our Shabbat Evening service. He spoke about his participation in a collaborative musical project with Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, American and Norwegian songwriters called My Favorite Enemy. The group’s objective is to lovingly nurture change in the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians by modeling respectful and welcoming contact.

Michael called me a few weeks ago to tell me that Alaa was arriving here in America and would I like to bring the two of them to Woodlands. Yes, of course I would. Michael assumed that he and Alaa would present a “sermon in song,” speaking and singing in the pause between our prayers about their shared journey. But I asked Michael if he would ask Alaa to be part of our prayers. To not only join in the ancient recitations, but to add his own translated lines in Arabic.

We opened the evening with Hinei Mah Tov, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to sit together.” We sang a bit in Hebrew, and then Alaa taught us how to sing it in Arabic. It was spellbinding. We all knew the words in Hebrew, of course. And we all knew what the song is about. So when Alaa began singing it in Arabic, the prayer embedded in this simple tune began coming true. There we were, Jew and Arab, creating layers of harmony in languages which have been at war with each other seemingly forever.

With the Barekhu, our “call to worship,” Michael and Alaa sang in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Their prayer this time did not include the actual words of the Barekhu, but its essence: We live in a world that never promises only success and well-being; it is in both the highs and the lows of experience that character and gratitude are formed, and that our challenge is to never despair of life’s goodness, no matter what it throws our way …

Thank You for the sorrow, the times I had to borrow
When my heart was hollow, all my tears and quarrels
Thank You for my madness, all my pain and sadness
Without it I would be less, without it I would not be as blessed*

And so the evening went on. 200 American Jews and one Palestinian Muslim. I am quite certain that, together, we learned what sacred community is really about.

Perhaps most powerful of all was the evening’s prayer for healing and wholeness. As always, we shared aloud the names of those about whom we are concerned. We even called it Mee Sheberakh, invoking “the One who blesses” to help us and our loved ones through these difficult times. But instead of singing the familiar melody, Alaa chanted a dozen lines in Arabic which Michael translated. In doing so, the two of them created a transcendent moment during which Alaa served as our spiritual guide and support, asking the One God to help us …

May you find peace from your pain
Before you feel the pain in your chest, my heart aches
If I could, I would carry your burden, I would carry your pain
How could I leave you to face this time alone
I will never leave you to suffer or face your pain alone
May you find peace from your pain

How many times have we sung the words of Mee Sheberakh? Always, it is among our most spiritual moments, among those points in our service when so many of us truly connect. We connect with something beyond us. We connect with each other. Through the prayer that Alaa and Michael offered to us, those connections seemed stronger than ever and, without uttering a single word about it, expanded our wishes for wholeness to every Israeli and Palestinian.

Michael and Alaa then led us in our prayer for peace, invoking the image of stones – these days, not a symbol of peace but of defiance, recalling so vividly the struggle and the enmity between Palestinians and Israelis. In their heartfelt plea, Alaa and Michael asked that we put down our stones and take one another’s hands instead …

So lay me down
Build a path
Walk on me as brothers
Let me be
Your common ground
Lay me down
And hold on to each other

As you might imagine, the evening’s worship was unforgettable. If ever we felt the tug of our tradition, pleading with us to embrace our neighbor in love, to beat swords into ploughshares, to look into our brother’s eyes and see the face of God, this was that moment.

Alla, Billy and Michael

Alla, Billy and Michael

Imagine! The words of the Shema, declaring the One God of the universe, and doing so in Arabic! This, I thought, is what the world’s religions must have intended when the clouds disperse and hearts can see clearly, and each understands that God wants us to care for one another.

A story is told of a young boy who, walking in the sand, picked up a handful of stones and took them home. Later, as he played quietly with the stones, his father took notice of one of them.

“Hand me that stone, my child.” Happily obliging, the boy watched as his father skillfully polished the stone into smooth planes and angles. In not too much time, he returned it to his son. The stone now glittered with brilliance, and the boy wondered at its splendor. He asked in astonishment, “How did you accomplish this?”

Replied his father, “I knew the hidden virtue of the stone. I knew its value, and I freed it from its coating of dross. Now the diamond can sparkle with its natural radiance.”

In our minds, it can be difficult to picture Jew and Arab side by side. For too many years, such pairings have produced dreadful results. And so, while many wait for peace to come, more have set such dreams aside.

But Michael Ochs and Alaa Ali are like expert lapidaries, with great knowledge of unearthing the ordinary and revealing the diamond within. These two friends make music, but so much more. They are builders of hope. The hope that Israeli and Palestinian can live side-by-side. The hope that Jew and Muslim can live side-by-side. And ultimately, the hope that all of humankind will finally learn to do same.

This was an extraordinary evening. We mingled cultures and religions, something that should not have to be extraordinary at all. Alaa and Michael showed us that this thing can be done, and that it can be done sensitively, and beautifully. We heard music that evoked our different cultures. And we shared in the shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary loveliness of their fusion. And perhaps more “shouldn’t-be-so-extraordinary,” we heard music and words that brought together two religious traditions: Islam and Judaism. It was startling. It was also uplifting. After all, Judaism and Islam share so many common values about the beauty of, and the responsibility for, human life. Throughout this service, we affirmed all that we share. And we reinvigorated our shared hope that, as God is One, the men and women of this planet can also be one.

I hope you will consider creating such a Shabbat service of your own. The differences between us have not magically disappeared. They all remain. There is always time to argue, to hammer away at our people’s disparate dreams. But when there is so much we hold in common, ought we not find time for that as well?

Billy

For more information, visit Michael Ochs’ website thepursuitofharmony.com (if it’s not live, check back in a day or two; it’s a brand-new website).

* lyrics used by permission

Who Is Perfect?

I can’t believe I missed it by one verse! I want to talk about Exodus 27:20, which turns out not to be from this week’s parashah, Terumah, but is the very 1st verse in next week’s parashah, Tetzaveh.

Verse 20 is part of God’s instructions to the Israelites for how to build the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle. “Bring clear oil of beaten olives,” Moses tells them on God’s behalf, “for kindling the Eternal Light.”

Beaten olives” the Torah tells us. Of course, how else can you get olive oil? You have to beat them. But our Sages couldn’t help seeing their own, often difficult, lives in this image. And it brought them comfort.

In the book of Jeremiah, olive trees are described as being y’feh p’ree to’ar … “beautiful with goodly fruit.” The Midrash teaches us that the olive is beaten, pressed, ground down, and only then does it produce its oil, which then gives rise to glowing, beautiful light.

And while people don’t have to be “ground down” in order to produce beauty, life kind of does that to us anyway.

At this time of year, we get colds. Some of us have to stay in bed for a while. And when we finally get better, we’re so happy to be out of bed, out of the house, and back living our lives. When I was laid up a few weeks back with my cold, I was not a very pretty thing. Just ask Ellen. I was coughing, and sneezing, and blowing my nose. And then there was, “Ellen, can you get me a cup of juice? Can you bring me some soup? Can you take my temperature?” I don’t think she thought I a very pretty thing either.

But here’s what’s worth noting. I am so happy to be back at temple. I am so happy to be able to help Ellen do things around the house again. I’m so happy to take Charlie for walks again. Life is better, because I’ve seen what it’s like the other way.

Beauty is something we feel we know, but it can change as our experiences change.

I want to share with you a beautiful video. It’s subject is beauty. The film makers use the word “perfect.”

They went looking for perfection, for beauty, and found it in what we, at first blush, might think an unexpected place. But what I love about this video is that, after about a minute, it dawns on us, “Of course. Why didn’t I notice that before?”

A pretty remarkable video, with a great lesson for us all: Beauty is everywhere, but sometimes we need a friend to help us see it.

In the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 27, “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of God were they created.” So important was it that we know our roots are sacred ones, that we were fashioned after none other than the Creator of the Universe, the Torah tells it to us twice. Even we have to be reminded that we’re beautiful.

Of course, looking like God is probably not a physical thing. The rabbis seem to think it has something to do with the way we act, the way we treat one another, whether or not we can look at a person whom others dismiss as unattractive and see the Divine image right there.

Here’s a different kind of beauty. The beauty of ideas. The beauty of imagination. Last summer, Tyler Levan walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after his bedtime and told them, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Tyler’s dad did what his father had done for him. He took out his monster spray and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Tyler’s parents then hugged him goodnight but Tyler stopped them, saying, “But how will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

Just beautiful! Tyler somehow managed to make the unreal real and then unmake it again. That’s art! And except for the scary part, it’s beautiful.

So expect the unexpected, and watch life get really interesting. Try not to ever dismiss something when your inner voice says it’s not interested.

There’s so much beauty in this world, but because we seem to insist on wearing blinders, most of us are missing lots of it.

There’s some truth, I think, to the idea that the difficulties in life can make us more sensitive to the goodness and the loveliness that still remain. So next time you’re hurting, stay alert, something beautiful may be coming along next. And you may just be one of the very few who can see it.

Maybe that’s what it means when the Torah says we were created in the “Divine image.” Just as God stays pretty invisible, maybe there’s all this good stuff that’s invisible too because we shut ourselves off from it.

Perfection and beauty are everywhere. Let’s open our eyes and open our hearts, and celebrate it all!

Jewish and American … Couldn’t Be More Honored

WH/HO PortraitToday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I was six years old at the time of his death and while, unlike many Americans, I do not remember where I was when I learned about it (I imagine I was in school), I do remember sitting in my next door neighbor’s living room and playing on the floor while our families watched the funeral on TV. JFK’s death was a seminal moment in my life as it was for so many others across the world, affecting me (as a kid, at least) far more than any particular Jewish moment had, including the Six-Day War. Which is not to say that the Six-Day War, which took place when I was ten, did not have an impact on me. It did. But JFK’s death meant something more to me as a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the sixties.

This certainly has much to do with my upbringing. My parents were happy to be Jewish. We always belonged to a synagogue. But I would never have described them as “fiercely proud Jews.” Being Jewish was something we were, but not something we were always doing. It would be during my teen years that temple youth group and URJ summer camps would propel me into a more engaged, active involvement in Jewish life.

So with Thanksgivukkah rapidly approaching, something that hasn’t happened for about a hundred years and won’t happen for another (perhaps) 70,000 years, the intersection of American and Jewish life has been on my mind.

Rabbis across the nation have been sounding off on Thanksgivukkah. Some of them view it with suspicion and/or disdain, as if it represents a watering-down of commitment to Jewish life, a cheapening of Jewish tradition. Others welcome it. Probably the same rabbis who, like me, welcome Halloween. In Halloween’s case, some rabbis are put-off by Halloween’s Christian roots, its pagan roots, or its ties to the occult. Others however, including me, dismiss those connections, seeing the holiday as a fun, harmless night of community gathering and socializing. After all, how often do you see your neighbors out on the street? And whatever the holiday’s origins, none of those are why we go trick-or-treating today.

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, which will transition us from the Jacob-story to the Joseph-story, the opening words of Genesis 37 highlight for me this challenge of being Jewish and living in America. “Vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz K’na’an … Jacob settled in the land of Canaan, where his father had sojourned.” The impression we receive here is that while Abraham and Isaac were immigrants, and considered themselves strangers in a new land, Jacob felt at home there. This certainly shouldn’t surprise us. After all, he was a third-generation resident. His grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, had been immigrants. His mother, Rebekkah, was an immigrant. And his father, Isaac, was the child of an immigrant. But Jacob had only known K’na’an as his home.

My grandparents, Philip and Anna Feldman and Harry and Mollie Dreskin, were all immigrants. They took various boat rides across the ocean from Russia to the United States. My parents were the children of immigrants. And I have only known the United States as my home. The children of this congregation, who will be eating turkey and pumpkin pie while lighting candles and opening their Hanukkah presents this year are, in many cases, the great-great-grandchildren of immigrants. They are American through and through.

The commentaries tell us that Jacob became complacent when he settled into life in K’na’an. And everything that befell his children, most especially the travails of his son Joseph and the eventual enslavement of our people in Egypt, were because Jacob had left behind his passion for spiritual living. He’d assimilated. And it led to crisis.

The recent Pew report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has raised concerns about the impending demise of Jewish life in America. I think the mere existence of a category they label as “Jews of no religion” has the pundits running for cover. Intermarriage, assuming the statistics are accurate, has risen to 58% of American Jews. Between 30 and 50% have little or no connection to the State of Israel. And only 30% think it’s important to be part of a Jewish community.

That’s a lot of people who are gonna miss out on Thanksgivukkah. No menurkey (turkey-shaped menorah) in their homes. No pumpkin latkes. No challah stuffing. And not even their great-great-grandchildren will get the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgivukkah.

Y’all know me. I’m an eternal optimist. Which certainly doesn’t mean I’m right all the time. I just don’t enjoy gloom-and-doom predictions. Yes, I think there are people who are drifting away from, and will ultimately leave, Jewish life. It’s the price of living in America. A free country. Free to go where we want to go, including our spiritual journeys. But that’s only part of the story. The other part I see right here at Woodlands. The 58% that’s intermarrying? A whole lot of them are living wonderful Jewish lives. Not only are they not disappearing from Judaism, but they’re bringing in others! Some are converting, while others are simply joining in. Around here, the results are pretty similar for both: kids growing up who love being Jewish, and don’t doubt for a second who they are even if mom or dad has a second religion.

The fact is, America has been good to the Jews. Its values are consonant with Judaism’s, often originating from the same place! The first Thanksgiving was very likely a reenactment of the biblical Sukkot. As Jews and as Americans, gratitude is an important value. We dine in the sukkah, away from all the creature comforts of the house, to renew our appreciation for the natural world. The first Thanksgiving brought European and Native American together to offer thanks for earth’s bounty. And Hanukkah? It’s also about gratitude. About a world where freedom may be fragile, but it’s worth protecting. And we light candles to celebrate and reaffirm a world where people can live side-by-side, applauding the differences that make life a brilliant tapestry of experience and love.

150 years ago this past Tuesday, President Abraham Lincoln delivered perhaps the most famous oration of all time on a field in Pennsylvania where 8,000 soldiers had lost their lives and another 38,000 were wounded or missing. In his address at Gettysburg, the President enshrined the purpose for which these United States of America had been born: “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He sought to give meaning to the great violence that had occurred there by reaffirming “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln’s speech, like Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech in Washington, resonate deeply in the Jewish soul. The dream of America, not an easy dream mind you, is a great dream, a dream worthy of our prophets! Isaiah and Jeremiah would, I think, have approved. They’d be disappointed in our setbacks, our failures, our lack of follow-through, but they’d rail against anyone who suggested the dreams were not good ones.

And that’s why I celebrate Halloween. Imagine, living in a country where children can go door-to-door, begging for food they don’t need, and getting a piece of candy and a smile to send them on their way. I know, there are far too many ghettos and rural backroads where good food is in short supply and no one would allow a child on the streets at night. But Halloween encompasses the dream … that one day, all of our children will be able to dress up like monsters and won’t have to ever face real ones.

And that’s why I’ll be celebrating Thanksgivukkah. Because America is about as Jewish a country as you can find (without it being Israel). And Judaism is about as American a religion as you can find, until (of course) you meet your Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh neighbor who also values freedom, full bellies, and peaceful streets.

When JFK got shot in 1963, even as a six-year old I knew something terrible had happened in America. And even as the history books are revising their esteem for the country’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy symbolized every hope and ideal millions of this nation’s citizens held close. Our shared dream of a land that all men and women could call home was sharply muted by the crack of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle. Our innocence stolen away, we have been forced ever since to see all of America, its glories and its horrors, and to work to build a future that is forever at risk, to struggle to continue to believe in a better day.

But then, that’s the Jewish dream, isn’t it? Bayom hahu yih’yeh Adonai ekhad ush’mo ekhad … on that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One. Which day? The day when we finally bring all people together, regardless of skin color, religious identity, even political beliefs, and join hands to finally, at long last, build a world of peace.

When Jacob settled in K’na’an, he may have given up his years of wandering, but he brought up at least one child who possessed an exalted vision of life as it could be. And in time, it would be Levi, one of Jacob’s wayward children, who would become the ancestor of perhaps our people’s greatest leader, Moses. Jacob may have settled down, and he may have settled for something less than his grandfather had hoped for, but he did not settle for a life devoid of meaning or vision.

And neither have we.

America need not be the dilution of anything. It stands for so much that is good in our world. It serves as the petri dish in which Jewish life can grow and thrive and prosper and, most importantly, do the good that was commanded of us by God at Mount Sinai … the same good by which this nation’s founders hoped the American people would live.

Happy Thanksgivukkah. As an American and as a Jew, I am so grateful for the life that is mine and for the possibilities of goodness for others that, although elusive, are very much worth all of us, together, striving for.

A Piano in Taksim Square

Opening Thought
A woman out for a walk comes around a street corner and finds herself in front of an accident victim lying on the sidewalk. Grateful for the first-aid course she’d recently completed at her local Y, she later tells her husband, “When I saw that poor man lying on the sidewalk in pretty bad shape, all my first-aid training came back to me. I bent down, surveyed the victim and his surroundings, put my head between my knees, and I actually kept myself from fainting!”

So maybe that wasn’t the outcome to the story you’d hoped for, or expected from a rabbi, but let’s face it, not everyone is equipped to save an injured person. You gotta know CPR, or how to stop a bleed or set a fracture. That may be more than a lot of us can handle. Still, there may be more we can do than just take care of only ourselves.

Tonight, we’re going to explore the idea of tikkun olam, of fixing the world, and of what repair jobs might be the right ones for you or for me. Tonight, we’ll be focusing on how each one of us can bring peace and gentleness and honor into our world, in a way that’s especially suited to us and to our individual abilities.

D’rash
Piano.01I love the piano. If you don’t know, I started lessons when I was in kindergarten. And I started practicing when I was in the tenth grade. That was when I discovered that I loved creating my own sounds. And while I had a brief period in my life when I was actually a full-time musician – complete with an off-Broadway musical – those days disappeared when I needed a real job with a real paycheck.

You know the story about Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great Russian-born pianist and conductor? Rachmaninoff himself told the story – it took place when he was very young and was giving a piano recital. He’d begun with a Beethoven sonata which had several long rests in it. During one of those measured pauses, a woman leaned forward, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “It’s okay, honey. Play us something you know.”

It’s a great story. And I suppose it’s better to believe in ourselves and not have others think we can do the job, than the other way around. Here’s another great piano story. This one comes from Istanbul.

You know what’s going on in Istanbul? Istanbul is a big city in the country of Turkey. And Turkey is a fairly democratic nation in the Middle East. It’s not so great on women’s rights, the ethnic rights of some of its citizens, or on freedom of the press. You might call Turkey a work in progress. But a lot of people are very hopeful that Turkey will become freer and freer in the years ahead.

Right now, however, there’s a huge protest going on in Istanbul that was sparked by plans to turn a city park called Taksim Square into a shopping center. It turns out, this is probably about more than trading in green space for money and profit. It turns out that, for many decades, Taksim Square has been ground zero for political and not-so-political demonstrations in Turkey (football games have gone bad there too). Violence has often broken out during gatherings in the Square and, until 2010, the Turkish government banned most protests there. Police were permanently stationed in the park around the clock to ensure no incidents took place.

Just last month, the protests against the shopping center started up. The world was pretty shocked to watch the police move in and use tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons against a gathering that looked a whole lot like Occupy Wall Street – in other words, a tent city, and a peaceful occupation of the land. An inconvenience perhaps, but not violent.

Watching the scenes from Taksim Square on CNN was pretty startling for me. You’d think the people had gone to war, like what’s going on in Syria, but they hadn’t. They were just upset and they wanted their government to know about it. You can imagine their disappointment when the government reacted with no dialogue, just force.

Piano Taksim Square.01Then, a little over a week ago, with tension still mounting between the protestors and the police, a German pianist, Davide Martello, appearing with a small truck and road crew, moved a grand piano inside of Taksim Square and began to play. For fourteen hours straight.

The protestors quieted down, gathering around the piano player. As photos and videos went out across Facebook and YouTube, the crowd grew. Eventually, they would stand at 1500 strong. And the police? It’d be lovely to say they came over and joined the concert. They did not. But they can be seen at ease, resting on their shields, themselves calmed for a few moments during which the only tension was in the strings inside that grand piano.

John Wesley, a Christian minister who lived in England about 200 years ago, taught, “Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.” I’ve always loved this text. It’s a lot like something Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote back in the 12th century, “If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need (Lev 19:16).”

These teachings mean a lot to me. Because even if we think, when there’s something wrong in our world, that we can’t do anything about it, we can always do something. What would it take to fix the problem in Taksim Square? What would it take to fix the larger problems of human rights in Turkey? I’m not sure if I can do something about that. But if I can play piano, I might be able to help a little. And if playing the piano can help a little, what about playing the flute, or making scrambled eggs, or jumping rope, or writing a check, or joining a protest in Times Square?

“Do as much good as you can, for as many people as you can, as often as you can.”

That piano player was great. For fourteen hours, he calmed things down in Taksim Square. It was amazing. But the government still wouldn’t talk to the people.

Then this past Monday, someone else showed up to do what he could. I don’t know whether or not he could play the piano. He didn’t bring one with him, I know that. In fact, he didn’t bring anything. He showed up at Taksim Square, he placed his backpack on the ground, put his hands in his pockets, and he stood there. For eight hours. People noticed, and they gathered around him. Four police officers searched him, and his backpack. They asked why he was there? He said nothing. And then, more than 300 people joined him, doing the same thing. Then people all over the city heard about the standing man, and they began standing in the same way, wherever they were.

“If one is able to help another and does not do so, that person has transgressed the mitzvah to not stand idly by when another is in need.”

Whoever you are. Whatever your education, your abilities, your age, your size, your courage, or the loudness of your voice. If you see something going on that isn’t right, there is always something you can do about it. Something you can do. It’s the Jewish thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do. It’s the decent thing to do.

I was reminded of it by a guy who played the piano in Taksim Square. He’s my new hero.

Closing Thought
CorduroyAre you familiar with the story of Corduroy? It’s about a little teddy bear who no one would buy because he was missing a button. A little girl who didn’t care about the button asked her mom to purchase Corduroy, but her mom said no.

The next day, the little girl showed up, purchased Corduroy with her own money, and took him home, herself sewing the button to hold up his shoulder strap. The teddy bear and the little girl live, of course, happily ever after.

Can you sew? Can you draw? Are you a mechanical engineer? Or a doctor? There’s lots that each of us can do. And there’s lots of what we can do … that we can also do for others. If each of us would share a couple of those things to benefit someone else in their moment of need, it could go a long way toward making at least one life and, who knows, maybe a whole lot more, better off than they’ve been in a long, long time.

Shabbat shalom.

Women of the Wall

GIFThere’s an uproar in the world today. If you’ve been watching “Mad Men,” you probably missed it. Oh, if you were doing anything with your life, you probably missed it. It took place at the Annual Webby Awards which honor excellence on the Internet. This year, one of the arguably coveted prizes (you know, by you and me) was given to Steve Wilhite, inventor of the G-I-F computer graphic file format (that oughta wake you up, eh!). For me, it’s actually a pretty cool and deserved award because I use the G-I-F format often during Visual Worship, when I want to put a picture up on the screens but make its background vanish, so that it appears as if a second image is floating on top of the first.

When Wilhite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

The uproar, of course, comes from the fact that most of the geek world pronounce Wilhite’s graphic format “GIF,” with a hard G, and not “JIF,” like the peanut butter, which Wilhite named it when he invented it.hite stepped forward to received his honor, his acceptance speech, which the award hosts limit to five words only, was flashed on the screen (because Wilhite had a stroke in 2001 and his speech is extremely limited). These were his five words: “It’s Pronounced ‘JIF’ not ‘GIF.’”

But just because you started something doesn’t mean you control it. That’s very true of language and even more true of human behavior.

When the State of Israel was reestablished back in 1948, leadership over religious matters was ceded to the Orthodox. The thinking was that internal, domestic matters would be solved once the new Israelis figured out how to survive the invading armies all around them. But since borders were never ever truly secured, matters pertaining to individual rights promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence got put off and put off and put off. And for a very long time, even the progressive Jews “behaved” (and I put “behaved” in quotations marks).

Women of the Wall

But the day arrived when, much as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., could no longer wait for “a convenient time” (again, in quotes) to make his move for equal rights, Anat Hoffman of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and Rabbi Uri Regev, formerly of Israel’s Reform movement and now the head of Hiddush, a progressive advocacy group in Israel, are no longer willing to wait for peace along the borders. Demonstrations and civil disobedience – including women who refuse to sit at the back of the bus and who insist upon wearing tallit and tefillin at the Wall – have now become commonplace.

The civil rights movement has begun in earnest in Eretz Yisrael.

Jewish Agency for Israel chair Natan Sharansky’s proposed compromise at the Wall, to extend the Kotel and create an additional equally-sized prayer areas open to women, has been rejected by many and, in my opinion, ought to be. “Separate but equal” is an idea that failed here a long time ago. It solves nothing; most importantly, it encourages no close-minded racist or sexist to change their mind.

The news from the Jerusalem District Court, upholding an earlier decision that women who wear tallitot in the Western Wall Plaza are not contravening “local custom” or causing a public disturbance, and therefore should not be arrested, is historic and groundbreaking. Finally, some sanity in Israeli politics. A recognition that it’s fine for individual women to choose not to wear ritual garb, but that no one else can force such a decision upon them and that they are welcome to wear tallit and/or tefillin without fear of reprisal … this is a welcome action indeed!

But of course, the response is not only one of celebration. The ultra-Orthodox reaction is familiar to us all. Grafitti on the homes of women involved in the protests. Spitting at them, throwing water bottles, chairs, garbage and rocks in the Kotel plaza — we’ve seen it all before, haven’t we?

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotkha (chapters 8-12 in Numbers) – words, by the way, that women may not read at the Kotel – includes the commandment to kindle in the Tabernacle a seven-branched menorah whose lights are specifically to be directed forward. While one may certainly interpret Torah many different ways, the image of using illumination to light the way before us, this is a powerful one for me. And it speaks powerfully of the need for good people to bring communal goodness to all.

The Women of the Wall have been shining a beacon of light on the injustices at the Kotel since 1988. It’s taken twenty-five years (!) for this decision to finally come down. While it’s understandable that their efforts have been opposed by the ultra-Orthodox, it’s unconscionable that the Israel political leadership has ducked the issue all these years.

Don’t expect the decision to resolve anything. Not for a while, anyway. First we have to see if the government has the courage to implement the decision, to back it with police protection, and to prosecute those who break the new law. It took Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send in federal troops so that American law would be implemented down south. Let’s hope the Knesset can take a lesson from American history on this one.

In the meantime, seven-branched menorahs can become very heavy. Our support – via letters, petitions and donations – can keep those lights shining where they’re most needed.

At about 6:00 am one morning in 1983, during my year of rabbinical study in Jerusalem, Ellen and I wandered into the Kotel plaza and noticed something amazing. A man on a ladder was reaching into all the crevices in the Wall and pulling out the hundreds (thousands!) of tiny notes left there as prayers to God. It made sense, of course, that eventually there’d be no room for more notes and that the Wall would have to be cleaned. Our jaws dropped just the same and I, equipped with camera, took a full series of photographs to record this stunning moment. But it was in the era of kodachrome film and mine, though installed, was not advancing. Not a single picture developed.

An act of God? A Divine message that you don’t mess with the Kotel? Or with the Orthodox establishment’s maintenance of practice there?

I’m sure there are plenty who would agree.

But not me. And thank God, not Anat Hoffman or Rabbi Uri Regev, or any of the Women of the Wall who will continue their efforts for another twenty-five years if that’s what it takes to secure not only their civil rights, but civil rights in general for all the people of Israel (including, by the way, her Arab citizens).

This week, here in America, the struggle for civil rights continues. The Boy Scouts of America agreed to allow young gay men to join its programs. But not to lead them. Which means there is a ways to go.

There is always a ways to go, isn’t there?

Dear God, Teacher of Mitzvot, Divine Instructor of Honor and Integrity, stop being so patient with us. Sear our hearts with a passion for kindness and welcome. Jolt our minds with understanding of openness and inclusion. There is no convenient time for justice. That time is now. It has always been now.

May we find the courage and the strength to join our hands, and our destinies, with those who have taken up the banner of these struggles. And may we live to see a world where no one must endure the sting of prejudice and discrimination.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

===========================================

Benediction

A woozle, a goozle and a foozle were spending an evening together. In the middle of their conversation, the lights went out. Undeterred, the woozle said, “Let us consider the nature of light and of darkness.” The goozle began to sing a hymn in honor of our Little Sister Darkness. But the foozle went down into the basement and replaced the fuse.

There is a time to consider life’s vicissitudes. There is a time to look that word up in the dictionary. And there’s a time to get to work. Whether it’s natural disaster in Oklahoma, homophobia in the Boy Scouts, sexism in Jerusalem, or any of countless injustices to be found the world over, and in our own backyard, may we each do our part to replace the fuse, and get the light back where it needs to be.

A Grocer’s Tale

CityGate.KoreaWhat’s the story you want your life to tell?

Each year, on Shavuot, we retell our people’s narrative of enslavement, liberation, desert wandering, and revelation at Mount Sinai. Whether we believe it really happened or not, it’s an extraordinary story. One that deeply affects the manner in which we live our lives.

God picks us out from among the suffering masses, saves us, and elevates us to Covenant status. Thousands of years later, we’re still telling that story! And here’s what I think it tells about us. About what’s important to us. Important as Jews. Important as human beings.

It says that slavery is a terrible thing, and that no human being should be made to endure it. Not just something we should avoid, but something we should endeavor to end in other people’s lives. That’s why we showed up for civil rights rallies and to end the genocide in Darfur.

It says that corrupt, destructive people can and should be stopped. They’re not just people who we keep away from, but tyrants we seek to topple even if it (merely!) helps others and not necessarily ourselves. That’s why large numbers of Jewish lawyers work as public defenders and for non-profits. That’s why large numbers of Jewish teachers help kids grow up to be selfless and kind. That’s why large numbers of moms and dads in Jewish families raise sweet kids.

And this narrative says something else. It asserts that, more often than not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things. In the quest for truth, our Jewish heritage is right up there with the best of the philosophical traditions – both secular and religious – that endeavor to figure out “the meaning of life” and help us discern what’s good and what’s not.

What story do you want your life to tell?

I have a friend who runs a small grocery store. It’s not an easy life. Long hours, low pay, always on the brink of going under. My friend wonders, “Why did I pick a grocer’s life? And how come I can’t seem to get out of it, even though I think I’d like to?”

This grocer then met someone who gives past-life readings. Now, like the story of Shavuot, which may or may not have happened but is still a story worth telling and learning from, so too with this one. I think there’s a great lesson here.

The “reader” said that in the lifetime just prior to this one, my grocer friend’s father had died young. The mother, unable to care for her two young children, sold one (the older sister) and abandoned the other (my friend) at the city gates, perishing there.

“What are city gates?” my friend asked.

Knowing a thing or two about ancient cities, like Jerusalem, I explained that where a city had a wall surrounding it, the city gates served not only as an entrance and exit point, but also where much local activity took place. Often including, I noted, a marketplace.

I theorized that my friend is a grocer today because, having been abandoned in the market place in a previous lifetime, is still in that marketplace today.

I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with this interpretation of the past-life reading. I was creative and realistic (I mean, to the extent that any wondering about past lives can be realistic).

But my grocer friend looked at me and said, “I don’t want that to be my story.”

I thought to myself, “You don’t necessarily get to make that choice.” Our lives are what they are. And most assuredly, our past is in the past. It’s over; there’s no going back and altering it.

But since no one knows what’s true and what isn’t here, just because my story has some poetic meaning to it doesn’t mean my friend wanted to own it. “Then why do you think you’re a grocer?” I asked.

My friend the grocer looked me in the eye and, with a powerful sense of conviction, told me the following. “Because my parents were not able to take care of me and abandoned me, I am a food seller today so that, no matter how difficult my work is, and no matter how precarious the world becomes around me, my children will always have food on the table.”

It didn’t take long at all for me to admit that my grocer friend was right. That’s a much better narrative. Rather than life being an ongoing act of mere survival, it becomes a commitment to bettering loved ones’ lives.

What is the story that you will write?

What will be the narrative for your life?

I hope it’s a question you’ll want to ask, and then ask again, and keep on asking. I hope you won’t allow others to be the only ones to respond, to decide what your life is all about. I hope you’ll share your ideas with people you love, with people you respect. And I hope you’ll hear some worthwhile possibilities in return.

But write your own story.

During Shavuot, we stand at Mt. Sinai. As fellow journeyers, we share the great tales of human experience. Some of those stories are ours; some belong to those we meet while on the road. None of our accounts are complete. No matter where we are in the adventure, as it says in our haggadah, it is a story “whose shining conclusion is yet to unfold.”

May yours be filled with beauty, with wonder, with purpose, and, most especially, with love.

On “Human Rights Shabbat,” the Night Before Hanukkah

HumanRightsAs we look toward lighting our first Hanukkah candle tomorrow evening, I have a story to share with you. Oddly, it’s a Passover story. But the message is perfect for tonight. And as an added plus, it gets us going on our Pesakh preparation as well!

In the nineteenth century, prominent Lithuanian Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, hadn’t been feeling well. This was just prior to Passover, and it became necessary for his students to take upon themselves the rabbi’s usual supervision of the town’s matzo-baking. Matzo is subject to its own rules of kashrut, ensuring that no leavening be allowed to occur at any time during the preparation, baking and storage of matzot. Keenly aware of this immense responsibility that had been placed upon their young shoulders, the students pressed Rabbi Salanter for guidance. “Tell us, rabbi, what must we be sure not to overlook.” To which Rabbi Salanter, pulling himself with great difficulty to a sitting position, and with the most serious of voice and expression, responded, “See to it … that the women who bake the matzos … are paid promptly.”

Judaism has always cared deeply for human rights. Starting in the very first chapter of the book of Genesis we are taught that all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. Each of us has the spark of God within and, as such, every person in existence is to be treated with dignity, honor and compassion.

And so, it isn’t surprising to walk into a synagogue and find any number of projects that have been adopted in order to empower the temple community to elevate the dignity and economic security of others. Woodlands is certainly no different. One of my favorite complaints, and I’ve been receiving it for all 18 years that I’ve been here, is that the front lobby is too cluttered with donations for the needy. I ask you: Who’d want it any other way? It’s like the Israelites wandering in the desert. Invited to donate for the building of the Mishkan, they had to be told, “Enough! Stop giving. We’ve got more than we can use!” I love it when our Social Action Committee can’t keep up with the volume of donations you bring. These days, we’ve been tripping over cleaning supplies and batteries to try and help the folks who were assaulted by Super Storm Sandy. You won’t hear me shout, “Enough!” — not for quite a while to come — because too many lives have too many needs that will likely continue for too many months, if not years, to come.

This certainly is not merely a Jewish value. Judaism’s purpose, I believe, is to help every member of a Jewish family to learn and to implement the values that all human beings should be practicing. And so, in 1948, when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we Jews could applaud their efforts and sign on the dotted line. The Declaration of Human Rights is based on the idea that “there are a few common standards of decency that can and should be accepted by people of all nations and cultures” (Mary Ann Glendon, 2004). Among the human rights enumerated are: fundamental principles of freedom, dignity, and equality, and the right to life, liberty and security; prohibitions against torture and slavery; equal recognition before the law; prohibitions against arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the presumption of innocence; the right to freedom of movement, to leave and return to one’s country, to seek asylum, to own property, to marry and found a family; freedom of religion and thought, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, freedom to take part in the government, and equal access to public service; the right to work and to receive equal pay for equal work; the right to join a trade union; the right to a reasonable amount of rest and leisure; the right to food, clothing, housing, medical care, and necessary social services; the right to education and to participate freely in the cultural life of the community.

What a profoundly moving and important document. What an intensely Jewish document!

How many times have you and I heard the words, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, having been strangers yourselves in the land of Egypt”? Does this document not enshrine the very values and principles upon which our own religion was founded? Our ancestors knew the sting of the whip, the denial of freedom, the whimsical destruction of life. And when they were freed by the waters of the Red Sea, they sought not merely to enshrine their own protection, their own safety, the security of their own babies, but have from time immemorial demanded such rights for everyone. Regardless of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, sexual or gender orientation, our Jewish heritage has taught us and urged us to advocate for the well-being of one and all. That’s why our front lobby gets cluttered with donations.

Of course, stating ideals is one thing. Living by those ideals is something altogether different. And so we find ourselves living a paradox, even here in the United States. Despite such a lofty document, the actions by the nations of the world in the years since 1948 suggest that merely signing a piece of paper has guaranteed nothing. And so we find ourselves living in a world that regularly denies full (and sometimes even basic) human rights to women, to children, to people of color, to the LGBT community, to Muslims here in America, to African asylum-seekers in Israel, to the struggling middle-class, and so many, many more.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was unanimously approved in 1948. But even though no country voted against it, eight countries did abstain. More disappointingly, virtually every one of them has fallen depressingly short of fulfilling the Declaration’s terms. In every nation across this exquisite planet of ours, too many are permitted to languish in lives and circumstances that neither you or I would ever tolerate for our own loved ones. Having so much richness in our own lives, you and I must do more than express concern for those who don’t. We need to act. We need to drive to the Rockaways and help rebuild. We need to fly to the Gulf Coast and continue the rebuilding. We need to volunteer in shelters and in public schools to ensure that children have access to learning and to love. We must stand up – in town halls, in our nation’s capital, on our street corners if need be – and share our values and our hopes aloud. Our elected representatives need to hear from us when the human rights of one are trampled by another. And we need to encourage our children, and our grandchildren, and our temple children (through our religious school and our worship), to learn and to act on these values as well.

I don’t know if the Maccabees had to bake matzoh. I imagine they did. I wonder if in their heroic struggle to regain their political rights, did they make sure that the women who baked their matzo were paid promptly? It’s tough to be a Maccabee. Even for a Maccabee.

Tomorrow evening, we’ll light the first candle of Hanukkah. Unlike our Maccabean ancestors, our struggles will involve figuring out from which direction to insert and to light the candles, how to avoid being splattered by hot oil when making our latkes, and deciding what gifts to share with our loved ones. For me, being a terrible gift wrapper, my personal struggles will include scissors and scotch tape.

But we’ll have missed the point, won’t we?

Tomorrow evening, when we light the first candle of Hanukkah, let’s try and think about the real struggles that are going on in the world today. Let’s tell the story of the Maccabees, and let’s try and find the Maccabees of our own day. And maybe, if we act to help others in their hour of need, we’ll become Maccabees ourselves. In celebration of Hanukkah, donate to places and organizations that are fighting the good fight. In celebration of Hanukkah, let’s go somewhere, roll up our own sleeves, and fight the good fight ourselves. You might want to talk to Stu Berlowitz or Jay Werner about joining them in the Rockaways. This need is particularly urgent. But there are so many opportunities out there, and so many good people waiting for you to offer a hand.

My cousin Kenny sent me a cartoon today that’s been making the rounds on the Internet for quite a few years now. It shows a family gathered around a cell phone, the father proclaiming with religious fervor and theological awe, “The cell phone only had enough battery power for one day, but it lasted for eight.” This cartoon has always represented the shallowest, consumerist dimension of Hanukkah. But during Super Storm Sandy, there was in fact a true need for batteries that lasted beyond expectation. So for the first time, this cartoon is actually poignant.

Eloheynu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our ancestors, what an incredible heritage You have bequeathed to us. Not just You, of course, but those ancestors of ours who thought that Your teachings were truly helpful in the challenge to become compassionate human beings. On this almost-Hanukkah evening, we’re so grateful for the gifts that have come down to us through the ages. May we make good use of them. And through Your gifts, may we make this world a better home for all. And may our children’s children one day thank their ancestors – us! – for making sure that they too were able to bake the matzo and to see that the women were promptly paid.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

Billy

Into the Fold

I have a video Jonah made in which he (dramatically, and with a driving soundtrack, to boot) thanks a friend for teaching him how to fold t-shirts. We’ll not get into how he missed his parents’ instruction in that regard. The video ends with Jonah pointing to the mess in his t-shirt drawer and proclaiming, “This will end … <he pauses to consider what he’s saying> … next week. I will be putting your advice into effect come … <he again pauses> … whenever I get around to it.”

I’m not sure the t-shirt folding ever happened, but I know for a certainty that other folding did. Jonah was a big fan of origami and he was able to create some pretty fancy designs, including birds and elephants. I will treasure these forever.

Lots of stuff folds, of course. Flowers create exquisite designs when their petals fold. Mountains and valleys appear when earth folds. Sound is made as air folds. And solar power can be boosted when light folds.

Origami begins, simply and humbly, with a single piece of paper. Without scissors, tape or glue, astoundingly complicated designs “unfold.” What makes this such a fascinating art form is that no materials are added or subtracted. You end with what you began, only prettier.

At a macro level, all existence functions this way. Lavoisier’s 18th century discovery that matter is neither created nor destroyed suggests the universe isn’t so different from origami. Which means that you and I, in our eight or nine decades of life, also follow Lavoisier’s principle.

We change, but we stay the same. Our journey through life gives us folds, too. Wrinkles on our faces. Wrinkles on our souls. Same person, changed appearance and changed spirit. We fold, but that doesn’t mean we’re finished.

The Talmud relates a story of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya and the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who asked him why God would place so much wisdom in such an ugly vessel. He instructed her to move her father’s finest wines into gold and silver vessels which, of course, spoiled the wine. When her father demanded an explanation, she told him what took place between her and Rabbi Yehoshua. The emperor summoned the rabbi and asked him, “Why did you tell her to do that?” Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he was simply answering her question. Just as wine is best preserved in humble vessels, so too is wisdom.

We may think our wrinkles, or other “imperfect” aspects of our bodies, detract from our value. But we mustn’t mistake the vessel for its contents. A person’s true worth resides within.

But it can take decades to acquire such wisdom. The book of Micah teaches us, “What is asked of you? To do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with God.” Our vessels are superbly equipped to accomplish these tasks.

It takes various amounts of time to fold that into our lives. Even knowing it, we delay (like Jonah and his t-shirts), leaving the drawer a mess. While folding t-shirts has limited (though certainly not insignificant) value, the origami of our lives can have purpose and value without end, creating exquisite art to be admired by us all.

Billy

This piece expands upon one that appeared in Makom, the newsletter of Woodlands Community Temple (Nov 2012).

Partners Across Time: Woody Guthrie and Malala Yousufzai

When I was a little kid, growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, I remember that at Bond Hill Elementary School, in music class with Mrs. Bachs, we used to sing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I’m afraid that, behind her back, we referred to Mrs. Bachs as “Old Battleaxe.” We couldn’t have articulated it at the time but I think we instinctively felt that while there had probably been a time in Mrs. Bachs’ life when she loved teaching children about music, that era had long passed by the time the sixth Dreskin (me) had arrived to her class. So I never found out how important a song “This Land Is Your Land” really was. To me, it was just some old American folksong that we had been forced to sing.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” could have told us that his song is about the America not too many people write songs about. It’s about racism and hunger and greed, about apathy and selfishness and irresponsibility. Of course, several key verses are usually removed from the song, making it sound like a love-song for America. Which it is. But sometimes love includes heartbreak, and Woody Guthrie was heartbroken that the America he loved could be so unkind and so unfair to so many.

You and I know lots of the words from “This Land Is Your Land.”

As I went walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway.
I saw below me that golden valley.
This land was made for you and me.

But how many of us have heard this verse?

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said, “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

Or this one:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple,
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

It’s a good thing Mrs. Bachs didn’t show us these words. She’d have had to talk with us about the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. She’d have had to talk about America’s poor and how people who wanted to work, and were willing to work hard, still couldn’t get jobs because there weren’t any.

Woody would have turned one hundred this past July 14, which means he was born in the year 1912. Woody Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs that have become an important contribution to the collection of American music, not because he was a great composer, but because he sang the poetry he wrote about the America he saw. It was how he spoke out, how he said what needed to be said, how he tried to encourage others to create change.

Woody wrote “This Land Is Your Land” after growing tiring of hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” one too many times on the radio. Woody thought there were other words that needed to be sung, and that he was going to have to be the person to do it. Here’s Woody Guthrie singing “This Land Is Your Land.” His delivery isn’t exactly the rousing patriotic version we usually hear. And the missing verses aren’t back. But now you know what Woody’s intentions were.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaI5IRuS2aE]

Woody Guthrie had so much to say to us. He cared so deeply about America, and about Americans. He sang of desperation and hope, of hunger and of aspiration. And America heard him; America still hears him.

But Woody Guthrie’s voice isn’t the only one out there. Lots and lots of good people speak out each day about the world they’re witnessing. They see injustice and inequality, and they work to do something about it.

For literally thousands of years, the Jewish heritage has been encouraging us too to speak out, with words like, “Justice, justice you shall pursue!” This vital passage from the book of Deuteronomy (16:20) has, for thousands of years, challenged us to do what we can to see that people are cared for.

Three days ago (on October 9, 2012), we heard about a young woman in Pakistan who was attacked and seriously hurt because she thinks girls should be able to go to school. This is a big, big deal because educating anyone, anywhere, is a threat to people who want to run things without anyone challenging them. Educating girls doubles the number of people who are willing to take a stand.

About a year ago, at the age of only 13 or 14, this extraordinary young woman, Malala Yousufzai, was interviewed by CNN. Her words are fantastic. Her passion is inspiring.

Malala Yousufzai Interviewed on CNN (Nov 2011)

Can we do anything to help? Well, for starters, if we’re in elementary school (or high school, or even college!) we can stop grumbling about having to get up every morning to go and get an education. School is a game-changer, and educated people can transform the world. So kids, go get your education, and then get out there and do great stuff. Fix things that we’ve broken. It’s more important than just about anything else.

Secondly, we can support young people in Pakistan and elsewhere, people like Malala Yousufzai, who want to go to school. One-tenth of America’s foreign aid to Pakistan supports education. $170 million, chump change for the U.S. budget, that can change the world. Don’t let people tell you that America’s foreign aid is a waste of money.

Thirdly, we can visit The March for Education and sign the petition there demanding that the Pakistani government make good on its promise to educate (and protect) every child.

Lastly, send a few dollars to efforts that support Pakistani education. Do it for Malala Yousufzai. While she lays in her hospital bed, you and I can continue her vital work. The American Jewish World Service is targeting donations to provide relief and building projects throughout Pakistan. And The Citizens Foundation, USA, is a Pakistani-based organization seeking to improve the educational opportunities there.

A hundred years ago, Woody Guthrie brought us the gift of starting the work for social change by singing a song. Each of us has that song within us. It may or may not have musical notes. We may sing it through art, or through writing, through dance, or through political advocacy. Woody’s greatest hope was that we’d sing, anyway we can.

He’d have been so proud of Malala Yousufzai. And he’d probably have written a song about her. He’d certainly suggest that you and I do what we can to help.

Billy

Expectant Mother

I read a beautiful article in the New York Times (“An Adopted Boy Considers His Origins,” Melanie Braverman, New York Times Magazine, September 3, 2010) about a five-year old coming to terms with the story of his birth and adoption. He learned he was adopted when his older sister angrily lashed out at him with, “You didn’t come out of Mommy’s belly!” She was factually correct, and even stumbled into a pretty good choice of words (except the tone of delivery conveying a momentary desire to ruin his life). A bit later, arms wrapped around her little boy, the mom would quietly explain to him, “Some babies come out of their mommies, and some come through other bodies to get to their mommies.”

I adore these words. And while I’m sure others will find just the right way to share this important piece of information with their own child, this was such a loving and accessible way to convey the needed message.

It got me thinking.

This world of ours isn’t easy for anyone. Whether we’re born into poverty or with a silver spoon in our mouth, there will be moments when life hurts. Perhaps nothing more than a bee sting; perhaps an existential crisis. Perhaps the rise of destructive anti-governmental (or governmental) forces; perhaps we just miss someone we love.

Minor or major, if the pain is ours, it can be a big deal. We honor our b’rit – our covenant – with one another when we take seriously feelings that may be ours or someone else’s.

In the book of Deuteronomy there is a passage (28:3) which describes all the blessings that will come from following God’s mitzvot. One verse promises blessing ba-eer, “in the city.” The Talmud (Bava Metzia 107a) cautions that city blessings come when we are part of our community, when we share our lives with others and let others share their life with us.

Religion’s greatest value is in its bringing people together to labor beside one another toward improving our lives and the lives of others. In this way, love awaits us like a mother awaits the arrival of her child. It doesn’t matter from where we’ve come; what matters is who’s there when we arrive.

Billy

This piece originally appeared in Makom, the newsletter of Woodlands Community Temple (Oct 2012).