Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

A Mixture That Must Happen: Tears of Sadness for the Tree of Life Family and, Eventually, Tears of Joy for Our Own

I presented this on Friday evening, November 2, 2018, one week after the Tree of Life murders in Pittsburgh.

Months ago, and I don’t really understand how, Jedd and a quite-pregnant Tiffany Chesterson scheduled a babynaming for tonight. Didn’t they know that first babies never show up on time? But I don’t argue with mama bears. Well, sure enough, Camila arrived on October 21 and found herself with a free evening so she’s come to be here with us tonight.

Who could have known what would transpire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh only six days ago, and that we would be gathering here this evening to remember the eleven men and women whose lives were ruthlessly taken by a vicious, hate-filled killer? And although our country has been here far too many times before – notably, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the Kroger killings this past week in Jeffersontown, KY, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT – you probably don’t know this, but also won’t be surprised to learn that there have been 297 mass shootings in our country thus far in 2018.

It’s clear to so many of us that America simply cannot continue “business as usual” any longer. We simply must pass new legislation to more effectively regulate access to guns in this country so that those who cannot responsibly own them are not permitted to do so. Perhaps most important of all, everyone of us needs to get to the polls this Tuesday and vote. Vote to elect leaders whom you believe will help our state and our nation get to a place where gun violence is dramatically reduced and the citizens of this country take better care of one another.

Our hearts ache for the dead and the grieving of Tree of Life synagogue. They ache as well for those in Jeffersontown, and in every other city, town and village where terror has come to call. The candles we lit this evening are in remembrance of eleven, plus two, plus seventeen, plus forty-nine, plus fifty-eight, and so on and so on and so on and so on and so on …

Rabbi Nakhman of Breslov, who lived and taught in 18th century Eastern Europe, insisted that, despite the decades and the generations of antisemitism and of persecution, we may not despair. We may not give in to fear or terror. We may not give up. There is always a better world and it’s not the one after this one. Rather, it’s this world that can be made better – safer, kinder – if we will only join together and make it so.

There are many people of faith here this evening. Faith takes a lot of different forms. Some include religious belief, others humanistic belief. In either case, faith is required — faith in God, faith in humanity, faith in what some may deem impossible — if we are to transform our world into a place of justice and of mercy. Rabbi Issakhar Dov Baer of 18th century Radoshitz, Poland, was once asked, “How are we to interpret the Talmudic passage where Shimon bar Yokhai tells his son, ‘You and I are enough for the world’?” The rabbi replied, “In our prayers we say, ‘You are our God,’ and in our Torah we are told, ‘I am your God.’ It is this ‘you’ and this ‘I’ that are enough for the world.”

Everyone believes in something. What is crucial is that we believe in something good, something that will inspire us, even compel us, to bring increased goodness into our world. Whatever our religious choice, it will be the values that our parents teach us and by which we choose to live that will determine the outcome of this current state of disarray. Let us please choose life – for us, for our loved ones, for every inhabitant of this planet — for in that choice will we find the only path to shaping the world so many of us desire.

And if this week that path seems more difficult than ever to find, let us remember the words of Rabbi Nakhman and not despair. Let us never despair. Let us hold onto each other, cry together, comfort one another, and strengthen one another, so that we can return to the sacred work of building a world of goodness and peace.

Camila Chesterson is only thirteen days old. She was born into an already difficult world. And she was born with a very special purpose: to come here this evening and to renew our faith, our hope, that there is an abundance to good, of good people, in our world, and that it is worth it to pursue justice and peace, and it will happen. It will happen! We may be stunned to find our nation at this crossroads, but there are tens of millions of us, hundreds of millions of us in this magnificent, promising nation of 325 million souls. We not only can fix this, but we will. Camila Chesterson is a powerful symbol of that, and she is counting on us – she and every other baby, ever other young person – to get to work, at the voting booth, in our legislatures, and simply in how we treat each other, to build the world we’ve promised them.

This week’s Torah reading, Khayei Sarah, tells the story of a despondent Abraham who responds to recent sadness in his life by insuring the future of his family, sending his servant on a long journey to find a bride for his son, Isaac. Camila, we’re not quite ready to see you married (although I know some 4-month olds who might interest you) but, by your mere arrival, you have insured the future of your family.

Children may turn our lives upside down but they also add riches beyond measure! Your mom and dad already know this, their lives having been delightfully upended and made immeasurably richer for your having come to them. But don’t expect it to be all fun and games! There are plates to be eaten clean, potty-training, homework, and grandmothers’ hand-knit sweaters to be worn and thanked for.

Camila, I’ve known your parents for a while now. Your dad became a Bar Mitzvah here, your parents got married here, and your mom became Jewish here. And now they’ve brought you here! And at just the right time too. I’m glad you don’t understand what I’m saying right now, but everyone else does, and this is important. After something terrible happens in our world – as with last Saturday’s shootings in Pittsburgh and Wednesday’s shootings in Kentucky – it simply must be followed by something that affirms what is good and hopeful in our lives. Which is where you come in, little one. Your mom and dad are good folks. They care about you, and will always care about you. But they also care about others, and they’re going to teach you about that in the years ahead, and we’re going to help them.

Judaism teaches that each of us is an important puzzle piece in putting together a world of goodness and peace. We don’t know when, where or how, but your puzzle piece, Camila, will come into play someday. It is our shared hope, the hope of everyone in this sacred space, that when the time comes, you will stand and act proudly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

So enjoy babyhood, kiddo – we’ve got big plans for you!

Camila, we conclude this ceremony by reciting the three-fold blessing from the Torah. It is a blessing of family, once upon a time spoken by the kohanim, those who officiated in the Jerusalem Temple, and (through the generations) by one family member as an expression of love and of hope for another. Tonight, the three of us, representing three different religions, representing your human family, recite this blessing as a sign of our love for you, and our promise to work together to build for you a world of safety, or inclusion, and of peace.


With Another Quarter

Bereshit, the first chapters of Torah, tells the Jewish people’s story of Creation, opening our eyes to the many avenues for interpreting and understanding how (and why) the world came to be. Then there are our own Bereshit moments — when the possibility appears (sometimes quite surprisingly) for new beginnings.

Why do we care so much about the Creation story, anyway? Why is it important for us to know what happened “in the beginning”? Beyond our quest for empirical understanding of the universe’s origins, is there some other motivation for our curiosity? Perhaps we’re drawn to it because Bereshit only begins—it doesn’t end.

Not so with our own lives. We are so fragile. We bend, and sometimes we break. Creation happened so long ago that it can give us hope for our own lives—that we too can last. And lasting, we can sense that our lives mean something.

In the 1990s, while spending part of each summer on faculty at the URJ Kutz Camp, I would steal away with a few friends to a nearby video arcade where we played one specific game that we all loved (yep, the “X-Men” game pictured below). Given enough quarters, we could sometimes finish that game. Along the way, there were many, many defeats. But as long as we had another quarter, there was hope of ultimate victory. As long as there was another quarter, “game over” never really meant the end.

Here are three examples in real life where perceived defeat led to important new beginnings:

1) In the wake of the global financial crisis (circa 2008), James Adams was fired from his lucrative Wall Street hedge fund job. To do some soul-searching, he applied for a job at McDonald’s. His application rejected (three times), Adams was hired by a local Waffle House willing to take a chance on a guy with an MBA but who couldn’t fry an egg. A year later, his life reset, Adams returned to the world of finance, this time to help and advise those who couldn’t afford financial consulting.

2) In 1998, a friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. Besides the needed medical work, she had to confront issues of fear, morale and mortality. With early detection, wonderful medical care, loving family and friends, and a good prognosis, she not only survived, but also saw her life settle into one of abiding gratitude and love.

3) And then there’s Jonah, my son who died nine years ago. The journey that has unfolded since has had its ups and downs. There are still days when I’m overwhelmed by his absence, but that’s not where I live my life. Jonah was kind, loyal, funny, and, as happens with most parents, made me glad to be alive. With his death, for a while I felt like dying. But in time, I chose not to focus on how sad I am that he is gone, but on how wonderful it had been to have him around.

Three stories of deep loss and struggle that gave birth to something new. It took time and travail, but for each of us things got better.

And there’s the lesson: Things get better. With another quarter, the game can resume.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, in his own commentary on Bereshit, writes, “To live life in its fullness, to face death so mysterious, to live on nonetheless in the face of it all. […] For a life not so easy, for a purpose not so clear. […] Because when we do it right […] hinei tov me-od (and it [can be] very good).”

In those darkest nights, may our sacred stories remind us that new days are always beginning.


How I Spent My Summer Vacation

In case you didn’t know, it’s the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, a time when most Jewish families are thinking about, well, probably nothing having to do with the High Holy Days. Including this Labor Day weekend, it seems to be a time to squeeze out the very last minutes of summer fun and relaxation.

Rabbis and cantors, on the other hand, are pretty much thinking about nothing BUT the High Holy Days. There is music to prepare, sermons to be written, and a thousand other preparatory activities that must get done before any of you set foot in the tent next Sunday evening.

Let me give you one small example of how this season affects clergy. On Facebook (you know, where all serious work gets done), we Reform rabbis have a page all our own. It’s a place to discuss Torah, Talmud, and contemporary issues of import. This week, amidst the intense laboring to prepare our sermons, this most crucial posting was placed by a rabbi I know. He asked: What’s a “fun fact” that’s actually fun?

And that’s all it took. Dozens of rabbis, all with way more important things to do, began chiming in. Responses included:

• Ducks are the fastest flying birds.
• Your ears never stop growing.
• In Switzerland, it is illegal to own just one guinea pig.
• During our lifetime, each of us will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
• Escalators never actually break, they just become stairs.

I know you’re impressed by the width and breadth of knowledge that rabbis possess. You simply have no idea! By the way, I can’t verify that any of these are accurate, except maybe that broken escalators are stairs. I did learn that ducks are not the fastest flying birds. While the swiftest duck may clock in as high as 100 mph, the peregrine falcon flies double that!

All of this is to say: One never knows how someone is going to spend their summer vacation. Sure, there may be trips to exotic locales and sunbathing at the local pool, but those aren’t necessarily summer’s most indelible moments.

My summers, by the way, like yours, aren’t all vacation (tho I do remember those sublime years of youth when nothing needed to be accomplished between the last day of school in the spring and the first day back in the fall). My summer, slowed down as it was, included a half dozen funerals during which I was honored to share in the sacred act of saying goodbye to someone who was well-loved and will be much-missed. It’s always a privilege to be invited into these private, intimate, holy moments in people’s lives.

Other significant moments in my life this summer have included:

• Presiding over the demise of my kitchen stove and oven, during which Ellen and I had much fun picking out new appliances, but not quite so much fun having to spend lots of money hiring a carpenter to modify drawers and cupboards that no longer opened because the new units obstructed things deep inside our cabinetry. The lesson: Home ownership is really satisfying except when, like an aging body, it requires surprise visits and expenditures to keep things running.

• Speaking of which, earlier this summer I thought I was going deaf in one ear but, upon visiting the ENT doctor, I learned just how much wax can build up inside there. The lesson: Try to stop being so dramatic about physical demise. While we’re all definitely disintegrating, it’s probably happening at a much slower rate that we think.

• I got to visit my two now-pretty-well-grown children. Katie is married and an art educator living in Montpelier, Vermont. This summer, she returned to Eisner Camp after a 10-year hiatus, where she taught yoga, meditation and, of course, art. Aiden has gone what they call “adulting,” moving to Denver this summer, getting himself five part-time jobs, an apartment, and even a new dentist! The lesson: All that love we gave our kids when they were young? It really does serve as the foundation for them building lives that are vibrant, healthy and satisfying. And I have to say, I’m happier for my kids now than any report card or school concert ever made me feel!

• Lastly, bringing it all together, there’s Mars. Throughout June, July and August, the red planet came nearer to our earth than usual. Mostly residing about 140 million miles from Times Square, this summer Mars almost made it all the way up to Westchester, coming 100 million miles closer than ever! But what was most profound for me was that no matter where I was this summer: Massachusetts, Colorado or New York, there was Mars, shining brilliantly in the night sky. The lesson: Everything is connected, no one is alone, and we are all part of the same magnificent, unfolding story.

So while, yes, the White House continues to give us reasons to wonder if civilization is rapidly coming to an end, there remains so much that is good in our world. And even while we fret – concerned for immigrant children still living apart from their parents, Russian meddling in our democratic elections, genocide in Myanmar, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and rampant gun violence – we can also rejoice – 12 boys and their coach successfully rescued after 17 days stuck in a cave in Thailand, the World Cup bringing us all together in global competition marked by shared friendship and excitement that transcended all ethnic and nationalist demarcations and, since the year 2000, 1.2 billion additional human beings on the planet have gained access to electricity, one of the first steps out of poverty.

There is still much reason to rejoice.

In this week’s parasha, Kee Tavo, we read (in Deut 26:11) Moses’ instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to conclude their 40 years of desert wandering and enter the Promised Land: “V’samakhta v’khol ha’tov asher natan lakh … you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.” This foundational value, shared as they readied themselves to go to war, serves as a profound reminder to us that human existence isn’t for the purpose of suffering; it’s to build lives that mean something, that provide sustenance and safety for all people, and ultimately to love and to laugh and to luxuriate in the simple joys of being able to have a place to live, enjoy one’s family, and even to chuckle at fun facts shared while avoiding matters of responsibility.

So I’ll leave you with two more fun facts and a wish.

1st fun fact: Banging your head against a wall for one hour burns 150 calories.

My wish: There are an infinite number of ways that we can spend the time allotted to us on this earth. Some of it should be spent helping make things better for everyone. And some of it should probably be spent fretting about how bad things are. But not only is it vital that we spend time with people we love and in activities we love, we ought also avoid, as much as possible, uselessly banging our heads against a wall, even if someone tries to convince us there’s a benefit in it.

The Israelites understood that joy was a fundamental component to life, and that all are commanded to enjoy, and to ensure others can do the same. From the dawn of Creation, a bounty has been bestowed upon us. It would be mean-spirited to squander that.

2nd fun fact: 7% of all Americans actually believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d bet it wouldn’t surprise many of you to learn it is (the 7% believing, I mean). This big, beautiful world of ours is filled with the full spectrum of humanity, including a few (what’s 7% of 325 million?) who think some pretty strange stuff. As the month of Elul nears its finishing line and we prepare to meet in the tent next Sunday to greet the New Year, may we embrace all of our human family, chuckling at those who subscribe to fun facts that are much more fun than fact, all the while extending our love and our compassion even to those from whom we differ immensely. Let’s resolve to make this New Year 5779 one of goodness, kindness, understanding, and the simple delight that comes from sharing the most magnificent fun fact of all: life.

That’s how I spent my summer vacation.

Ketivah v’khatimah tovah … may all soon be inscribed for blessing and peace. Shabbat shalom.


Father’s Day: Contemplating American & Immigrant Dads

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Chernick and Dr. Kravitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


After the Deluge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harim Hassad, Muslim Caretaker of Synagogue in Arazan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

One more thought:

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

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

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

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


Can You Hear Me Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

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.


Crawling to Peace (Memorial Day 2015)

MemorialDayOne of the last books Jonah read before his death in 2009 was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the author’s experiences as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam. I have wanted, and I recently found time, to read it. The book speaks not only of the horrors of war, about death on both sides in the conflict, but also about friendship in the trenches, girlfriends waiting back home, the struggle for normalcy after the war, and O’Brien’s bringing his daughter with him back to Vietnam to revisit his memories and to see that war-torn land at peace. The stories, which O’Brien readily admits are some combination of fact and fiction, transported me alongside the author as he recalled his Vietnam War years. Today, Vietnam is at peace, with 90 million citizens, a communist government, and an economic growth rate among the highest in the world. It also demonstrates an abysmal record in healthcare and gender equality. A fair record for a country that lived in a state of war from 1946 until 1975.

On this Memorial Day weekend, it’s appropriate for us not only to honor those who have died in the defense of our nation, but also to reflect on the state of war in our world today. You’d think humanity would have had enough of violence and death but, of course, it’s as if there’s an insatiable thirst for destruction in the human genome.

The hotspots of military insurgency this year include Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Boko Haram in Africa, Sudan, Ukraine and, of course, the continuing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank. As for American involvement in war today, depending on how you look at it, says one writer, we’re either involved in no wars (after all, Congress hasn’t declared one since 1942), five wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen … where we either have boots on the ground or drones in the air), or 134 wars (I won’t list them all but these are places where U.S. military forces are either involved in combat, special missions, or the advising and training of foreign forces).

And it gets me wondering. When will humankind finally rise above this insane use of might to get what we want in life? When will we finally agree to work out our differences by using our words like mom and dad always taught us?

I know, I know. Probably not for a long, long time … if ever. I searched the internet for articles on violence in the world today. I love that I found these three titles: First, “Is Society Becoming More and More Violent?” Second, “Why the World Is Becoming More Violent.” And third, “World Is Becoming Less Violent.” I suppose, like the definition of American military involvement, it all depends how you view things.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, asserts the following based on peer-reviewed studies using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records:

1) The number of people killed in battle has dropped 1000-fold over the centuries. Before there were organized countries, more than 500 out of every 100,000 people died in battle. By the 19th century, that number had fallen to 70 of every 100,000. In the 20th century, even with two world wars and a few genocides, the number dropped to 60. And now, in the 21st century, battlefield deaths are down to 3/10 of a person per 100,000.

2) In 1942, the rate of genocide deaths across the world was 1400 times higher than it is today.

3) In 1946, there were fewer than 20 democracies in the world. Today, there are 115 nations with significant elements of democracy in them.

Pinker’s opinion is that one of the main reasons for the drop in violence is that we are smarter. Intelligence, he thinks, translates into a kinder, gentler world. I like his thinking. I don’t know if he’s right. But I’m all for more education.

So, that’s pretty encouraging. Sounds a lot better than what the news media shares with us, doesn’t it? If we listen to them, the world is at death’s door.

Question is, how do we – “we” being the human race – make it the rest of the way? How do we (can we) reach that age-old Jewish dream that we intone every time we sing Bayom Hahu … “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One”? How do we build a world at peace?

However we get there, I don’t imagine it’ll be an easy road. On many Shabbat mornings, when introducing Sim Shalom, Cantor Jonathan likes to talk about how we already know how to make peace. We just have to live with kindness, generosity and compassion as part of our daily routine.

It’s a simple recipe, really. What’s not so simple, I’m afraid, is obtaining the ingredients.

Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist who recently published an op-ed in the New York Times, entitled “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science.” He was trying to correct misinformation about some of the world’s great scientific advances, explaining that things are rarely as simple as our most popular stories claim they are. Darwin, he writes, did not simply develop the theory of evolution while studying finches in the Galapagos Islands. Such a world-altering revelation would not be made public for many, many more years, including eight years spent writing a 684-page treatise on barnacles. On the Origin of Species, his magnum opus on evolution, would not be published until 1859, twenty-eight years after he met those finches. Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton would not discover gravity when an apple fell on his head. The truth is that while Newton theorized the existence of gravity when he was only 24 years old, he would not fully develop and publicly share his ideas until the printing of his book Principia when he was 71 years old.

Important stuff can take a very long time to complete. So while I can, and will, envision a world when all humanity finally commits to living together in peace, I suspect, like anything truly good and important, it’ll take a long while for us to get there.

This past Wednesday evening, in my words to those gathered for our congregation’s Annual Meeting, I said, “No matter what craziness life throws our way, let us together meet in the heights and in the depths, honoring our best selves, honoring one another, and honoring the Creator of all of it, whose most fervent prayer, I wholeheartedly believe, is that we just be good to each other.” I suspect that peace won’t come until the world’s religions all subscribe to this theological idea, and the atheists among us agree that the spirit of it is critical for the welfare of all.

There’s a Yiddish proverb: Ven ain zelner volt gevust vos der anderer tracht … if one soldier knew what the other was thinking … volt kain krig nisht geven … there would be no war. I don’t know how long it will take but, as my ancestors did before me, I believe with perfect faith that peace will happen. The day will come when there won’t be war no more. It won’t be easy. We’ll have to work hard and long for it. But on this Memorial Day weekend, I can think of no greater way to honor our nation’s military dead than to complete the work that they began.

We’ll start by teaching the little ones. Stella Marie Ivy, will you come up here please. I’ve got something to say to you. I know, you’re only about three months old, but there’s no time to waste if we want you to become a builder of peace.

[Stella Marie Ivy babynaming]

Shabbat shalom,

Postscript: Our rabbinic intern, Jason Fenster, made a beautiful contribution to this Memorial Day service as well. You can (and should!) read it here.

When “That Moment” Arrives

bravery1Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous. Hero: a person who is admired for courageous action.

The fire in a small warehouse had been burning for hours. The little community had no means of fighting it and other buildings were being threatened. Suddenly, down the hill roared an old truck. Right through the flames the truck sped, bringing to the epicenter of the blaze a crew of farm workers who had been riding in the truck’s rear. Jumping from the vehicle, the workers beat at the flames with their coats until the fire was completely extinguished. The grateful citizens thanked them profusely and immediately scheduled an evening to honor them. The town raised a thousand dollars and presented it to the driver of the truck. They asked him what he was going to do with the money and, without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “Fix the brakes on my truck!”

Bravery is much admired across the world. Individuals who are willing to step up in a moment of crisis, to do what is important but what others fear, is an attribute I imagine we all aspire to possess. But for many, if not most of us, we’re probably more like that truck driver whose vehicle was simply out of control and had no choice but to plunge into the fire (or perhaps moreso, we’re like the unsuspecting passengers in the back of that truck, who could only go where the driver took them).

But there are some amazing people who have stepped up and done fantastically courageous deeds. Malala Yousafzai, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her relentless devotion to educating young women in Pakistan, and doing so in the face of thugs who would see her dead. Andre Trocme, and the citizens of Les Chambons, France, about whom we read earlier this evening, an entire town that rescued thousands of Jews during the Holocaust when so many others did nothing. Those who headed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, while others were running out, and gave their lives to try and save the endangered. Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 bravely faced down narrow-minded bigots as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

What is it that makes an ordinary person into a hero?

At the beginning of the Book of Joshua, which comes right after the end of Deuteronomy and the Torah, Moses has died and Joshua has been appointed his successor. Way back in Exodus, Joshua had already proved himself a tremendous warrior and leader, guiding the Israelite troops to victory against Amalek, perhaps their most reviled enemy. And when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, only Joshua accompanied him up that mountain, only Joshua was trusted by both Moses and God to stand on that holy ground. And yet, when he was appointed Moses’ successor, one could not help but wonder what went through his own mind: “Will I meet God’s expectations? Will I prove able to continue Moses’ work? Will I be able to lead this people? Will the people obey me? Will I succeed in bringing them to the Promised Land?” God may have sensed the new leader’s hesitation when, only six verses into Joshua’s story, says to him, “Hazak ve’ematz … be strong and courageous.”

Even people who seem to define courage and bravery may themselves wonder why we would think of them as such a person.

In this week’s parasha, Bereshit, we return to the Garden of Eden and once again witness Adam and Eve’s banishment from paradise. After they have eaten of the forbidden fruit, God comes looking for them. Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide among the Garden’s trees. Here, the Torah teaches its very first lesson in bravery: own up to your actions, take responsibility for your mistakes. Once God gets them talking, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake. God decides they have some growing up to do and orders them to leave the Garden and to make their way through the world.

The word “hero” may begin not with saving lives but with living life with integrity, with caring enough to just be honest.

Truth is, while there are amazing people who have done some extraordinarily brave things, one could argue that just showing up to life – to work, to school, to the dinner table – is courageous enough. Because we don’t live in the Garden of Eden, life is quite complicated, and courage is often required of us in ordinary moments of our day – to make a presentation to our boss, answer a teacher’s question in front of the class, enter a room where there’s no one we know, stand in line as captains choose their teams, and on and on. Ordinary stuff … that can scare us stiff.

About a year ago, a woman walking with her child in Central Park saw another child fall into a pond and struggle to keep afloat. Reaching out to him, her arms weren’t long enough and so she went in to get him. Having helped the boy out of the water, she discovered she couldn’t save herself and would have to be rescued by others. She’d never intended to be a hero and then, having volunteered to do so, just as quickly needed a hero herself.

I wonder. What is required for any of us to step into the fray and to do what we can when it’s more than we’ve done before? I think of the reading we’ve heard so many times during services in this room …

The question engaged me: Would I have been on Noah’s Ark, to see the rains cover the earth? Would I have been righteous in my generation, and lived to witness the golden tones of the rainbow? Would Abraham have taken me with him to survey the destruction of Sodom? Would I have been among the fifty righteous? Would I have been the pillar of salt? Would I have been righteous in my generation?

I know we humans can surprise ourselves. I know that some of the most unadmired, untrustworthy people in the world have stepped up when true crisis called for brave and selfless response. But, for the most part, I think that courage begins with a simple upbringing of goodness and honesty. Building up a couple of decades of consistent human decency probably sets the stage for one to be able, in a pinch, to do the extraordinary.

silhouette-family-with-eclipse-1On a sunny afternoon in Oklahoma City, a father had taken his two kids to play miniature golf. Walking up to the ticket counter, he asked, “How much for a game?” The young man sitting behind the counter answered, “Eight dollars for you and eight dollars for any kid over six. Six and under get in free.” The man said, “Well, the lawyer’s seven and the doctor is nine, so I guess I owe you twenty-four bucks.”

“Hey, mister,” the young man replied, “did you just win the lottery or something? You could have saved yourself eight bucks if you’d told me the younger one was six. I wouldn’t have known the difference.” The dad looked at his son and daughter and then said, “That may be true, but my kids would have known.”

Courage: the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous. Hero: a person who is admired for courageous action. Where do such people come from? If I had to try and anticipate who might one day become a hero, I’d look to that dad and his two kids. It probably has to start somewhere, don’t you think?