Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Kaddish II

After sharing the story (see “Kaddish“) of the first piece of music I ever wrote (at age 17), I’m delighted to share a new development. A very talented friend of mine, Amir Sinai Weisglas, emailed me with the following:

“When I listened to the old recording of your Kaddish, I was struck by its optimistic energy and beauty. I had to do a version of mine. The last two weeks were all around this piece. I recorded a grand first version, but it was not correct. So I started again and here is the second version. What I loved the most about your composition was that this text, which is for me (and us, Israelis) is usually connected to negative, dramatic, down-pulling energy, turned to be something optimistic, pray of bless.”

Amir’s original artwork for the song

Amir is a very dear friend of mine. We met in the summer of 2007 at Kutz Camp, the Reform movement’s teen leadership program in Warwick, NY. I was a volunteer rabbi on faculty teaching Jewish Ethics, Jewish Attitudes toward Tattoos and Navel Piercing, as well as Sonic Spirituality, a deeper dive into the emotional power of music. Amir, who is from Israel, served on staff for the Visual Arts program, an all-purpose role that included not only teaching but coordinating the wildest of requests from anywhere in camp for art support, including a working, life-sized Wheel of Fortune.

These days, Amir lives in Berlin where he now spends time pursuing the musical arts, a talent of his I hadn’t known about during our summer together. We reconnected a couple of years ago, just on Facebook, first to say hi and then to discuss our musical interests and ideas. Amir is such a kind, thoughtful and rather brilliant person that it was always a treat to spend some time with him. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to listen to more of his creations as he posted them on YouTube and Spotify.

When I posted here a piece about “Kaddish,” my first musical composition (written when I was 17 years old), Amir heard it and right away began thinking about how he would cover it.

“I knew I wanted to keep some of the original recording, which in my opinion is perfect (soooo many music producers are working very, very hard to get the tape/old/low-fi sound, and here it is in its full glory) and took it to my contemporary world, mixing electronica with orchestral work.”

This wasn’t long after the massacre of October 7, and Amir explained to me that these words of Kaddish were resonating quite strongly for him. Recording my melody became one more path for his grief journey.

“Every time I tried recording vocals, I ended up crying! I feel like this is my prayer at this moment, as so many are suffering, and so much disharmony is surrounding us.”

Back when I was 17, the only one close to me who had died was my dog, Frankie. So I really had no reference for the feeling of grief. The song was innocent and naive. I wrote it in a minor key because, well, wouldn’t you have to? But I’ve never quite been able to write sad music. To then learn that 50 years later it had moved my friend to tears, that came as a surprise and (can I say this?) an honor. Amir didn’t just like the tune; he was moved by it.

“About the upbeat recording, I find it full of power — your piano playing is great with strong fingers — and I love the upbeat feeling of the song. It has the youth(fulness) in it, without inhibition! I find it perfect.”

As I mentioned in the first article, I only composed this at the request of my teacher. Imagine how surprised (and pleased) I was to witness this emerge from inside me. I suspect all art is difficult at one level of another. The song hadn’t “emerged” but rather had been somewhat “torn” from my insides. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as difficult as musical composition. From the first project to this very day, the struggle is topped with immense satisfaction and pride. I was hooked and I still am!

“I also noticed your change of tempos in the recording, as it is clearly no metronome-based recording, and this brings it a special flavor. I also wonder where you recorded this, as the piano is tuned up about 60% above 440, a bit more than half a ton.”

This makes me laugh. I’m always having trouble maintaining a steady tempo. For Amir to tell me that “this brings it a special flavor,” is such a sweet way to respond to a person’s flaw. Would that we treated everyone like this!

So now, I’m very, VERY happy to share with you, Amir Sinai Weisglas’ “ElektroKaddish.” It’s quite different from my version, and I love every moment of it. Yes, he cultivates the lo-fi sound that’s in such vogue these days, but don’t let that fool you. Listen carefully to the quiet activity taking place in the background. As promoted above in my mini-bio of Amir, it’s brilliant.

You can listen to it on Spotify or on YouTube …

About his artwork for the song, Amir writes, “The image is part of a recent series of drawings I’ve been working on using ink, acrylic, and wall paint. I chose it intuitively after extensively searching for an image to accompany the song. The lyrics are profound and abstract, so an abstract approach to the image felt appropriate. Given that the text connects to the themes of life, death, and the entire circle of life, I immersed myself in the fluidity, flow and drip of paint. This allowed me to avoid committing to a single interpretation of the image of the music. Reflecting on it further, the tension between the electronic tools I used to create the music and bring it to you, and the manual, analogue work of the drawing and the music embodies the contemporary Holy Spirit. I am grateful for the ability to bridge the new and the old, merging electronics with analogue, and connecting the United States, Germany, and Israel today. The song and the image are my prayers for a better future.”

Thank you, Amir. I’m endlessly touched that you were moved to create this moving piece. While I doubt we’re going to make it onto the Top 40 this year, if nothing else your creation should be nominated for the Kaddish Music Hall of Fame. Yashir koach, chaver.

Billy

The sheet music and mp3 for my original “Kaddish” are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Or Zarua

Talk about taking your time! I first worked on this piece in 1981, but I didn’t finish it until 2022.

When I first wrote Or Zarua, it was performed by Beged Kefet in Jerusalem during my first year of rabbinical school (1982-83). Beged Kefet was a singing group. We started out as a community-service project, fulfilling Hebrew Union College’s mandate that each student, during our year in Israel, give something back to the country that was hosting us. I joined some friends who chose to give back through music. Thus, Beged Kefet began. The group included (Rabbi-to-be) me, (Cantor-to-be) Ellen, (Rabbi-to-be) Les Bronstein, (Cantor-to-be) Benjie Ellen Schiller, (Educator-to-be) Kyla Epstein and (Rabbi-to-be) David Wolfman. We performed at sites all over Israel like block parties and new immigrant absorption centers, and occasionally at our alma-mater-to-be, Hebrew Union College.

Beged Kefet in our heyday (1999)

Where did we get the name Beged Kefet? Well, first you need to know that it’s a very common Hebrew mnemonic taught to Israeli children in their elementary school grammar classes. “Beged Kefet” indicates the six Hebrew letters that, when they appear at the beginning of a word, receive an added dot (a dagesh) to modify its sound. We chose the name to give our mainly Hebrew-speaking audiences a heads-up that they’d need to be somewhat patient with us as we attempted to speak and perform in our second, their first, language.

When we returned to America, we kept the group, kept the name, added more music, and performed together for another 26 years. Our personnel adjusted slightly because Kyla and David finished their studies in another city, so our ranks were replenished by the addition of (Cantor-to-be) Leon Sher and (Cantor-to-be) Riki Lippitz, and our consiglieri Beth Sher (every band needs an attorney who can sing).

Or Zarua was performed many times during our year in Israel and, before we returned stateside in the Spring of 1983, we made an informal recording of it. Here you can listen to me, Ellen, Les, Benjie, Kyla and David singing it in its original form.

Beged Kefet would record three albums during the years that followed: The First Album, Go Out in Joy, and One Little Dot. But Or Zarua appeared on none of them. Why? Because I never finished writing it. In fact, we never again performed it … until the new recording below.

The text of Or Zarua is lovely. It comes from the 97th Psalm. “Or zarua la’tzadik ul’yishrei lev simcha … light is sown for the righteous and the upright of heart.”

I knew there needed to be another section of music for the song to be complete and I’m not sure why but it would be 40 years before I noticed that the very next verse of Psalm 97 would fit perfectly: “Simchu tzadikim b’Adonai v’hodu l’zecher kodsho … the deeds of the righteous celebrate God; every kindness radiates holiness!” That’s not an exact translation but one, I believe, that conveys the beauty of the text.

A bit more about the text.

If you’ve met me in my work as a rabbi, you likely know that while God is very much at the center of my faith, it’s not a literal belief. I don’t know that God actually exists, but I choose to believe in God because it helps me organize the principles by which I try to live my life. I like thinking that the universe wants us to be good to each other. I also like thinking that the universe feels the goodness that radiates from our acts of love and generosity. Less necessary to me is the notion that the universe will reward us for being good to each other. Frankly, if that’s why we’re doing good things, we’ve already missed the point.

In this video I made with Or Zarua as the score, I’ve provided lots of visual examples of people who are being kind and generous and selfless. They’re being the kind of people that I, in my better moments, would like to be. These are the people who bring light into our world. Light is not only “sown” for them, but they have “sown” light for all of us.

And you know what I say to that? God bless them all!

Ellen and I recorded Or Zarua with our dear friends, The Levins (Ira Levin and Julia Bordenaro), in June 2022. I added a fifth voice — a cello — to join the four of us as a quintet.

Hope you like it.

Billy

The sheet music (lead sheet and/or instrumental parts) is available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/or-zarua). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.

Thank You! (Final Sermon @ WCT, Jun 25, 2021)

This past Friday, I said goodbye to my congregation of twenty-six years. It’s been a wonderful adventure. These are my words before departing.

*         *          *

In 1986, when I was Woodlands’ rabbinic intern, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro invited me to explore whether or not temple members might like to participate in Hands Across America, whose goal was to bring millions of us together in an unprecedented attempt to form a continuous human chain across the country.

While the chain wasn’t quite complete, participants did raise about $15 million to feed and shelter America’s families in need. Back here at Woodlands, we filled three school buses which were supposed to drop us onto the George Washington Bridge. We only managed to get as far as the ramp leading up to the bridge, but it was still pretty exciting. If I hadn’t yet fallen in love with this temple, I certainly had by the end of that day.

Pretty much every intern who’s ever been lucky enough to spend time at Woodlands has dreamed of coming back as its rabbi. When I actually succeeded in doing that back in 1995, I received messages from many past interns letting me know that I was carrying all of their dreams with me.

That’s the effect that your synagogue has on people. There’s a reason Cantor Jonathan was here for 22 years. There’s a reason I’ve been here for 26 years. And there’s a reason that Rabbi Mara’s internship just kept morphing into new roles for her. We all stayed because we love this place.

At one time or another, you’ve probably heard mention of “The Woodlands Way.” It’s the special sauce that makes so many of us cherish this place. And while there’s absolutely no agreement as to what that “sauce” is, it leads us all to the same conclusion: Woodlands Community Temple … makom shelibi oheyv … it’s the place that our hearts hold dear.

When I was attending rabbinical school, I had two dreams about the congregations I would serve. First is the one we all had, let it be a place we like — which isn’t as easy to find as you might think. And God knows, some of you have given me quite a few challenges through the years but, on balance, Woodlands is just about as easy-going as a synagogue could possibly be. There are, of course, wisdoms for clergy to acquire that has made living with y’all possible. But once those had been learned – and admittedly, it took me far longer to do so than it did either Cantor Jonathan or Rabbi Mara – Woodlands became what constituted my second dream while in rabbinical school: to stay in one congregation for a generation.

And that’s what I’ve done — what you’ve allowed me to do. I’ve blessed your babies, blessed your Consecrants, blessed your B’nai Mitzvah, your Confirmands, your Graduates, and blessed your brides and grooms. I’ve sat with you in hospitals and stood with you in cemeteries. We’ve learned together, celebrated together, cried together, and worked to change the world together.

That’s what it means to stay in one congregation for a generation. And I am so lucky to have done that, and to have done that here at Woodlands.

I’ve had many favorite moments across the years, and I couldn’t possibly list them all. But here are just a few of them.

The Million Mom March in 2000, the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, and the Darfur Rally in 2006, all in DC. Our very first visual t’filah in 2006. Traveling to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in 2007 to help with Katrina Relief, and the fact that the project continued annually for ten years. Israel trips. Tent Sales. Hevra Torah. Talmud Study. The Christmas Eve Midnight Run. Thanksgiving Morning cooking (and how it always took me most of the morning to get the Macy’s Parade onscreen for us). Exotic Shabbat, nine Friday nights between 1996 and 2003 that we dedicated to laughter. Seventh Grade Family Torah. The night in 2002 when we said goodbye to the old sanctuary. Moving the temple offices into Elmsford while the temple was being renovated in 2002, and a prospective wedding couple asking me if I could prove I was really a rabbi. Everything interfaith: from shared learning to shared grieving, responding to Charlottesville with the Rivertowns Rally Against Hate, an interdenominational babynaming during the Friday night after the Tree of Life shooting. sTorahtelling. Hanukkah 2006 when WoodSY hijacked our Shabbat service to replace the Ner Tamid with a more energy-efficient bulb. The arrival of A Joyful Noise in 2007. Yoga Shabbat. Nashir, a national teen songleading program that landed several times here at Woodlands. Sharing with you the incredible story of the Yanov Torah, and your overwhelming response that resulted in bringing the Azizi family to America from Afghanistan. The fun we had when Shavuot fell on Memorial Day weekend and we replaced services and learning with “The Sinai Challenges” on the front lawn. Texting Shabbat in 2017 when we forced you to use your phones during services! Placing the “All are Welcome Here” sign on our front lawn when the Trump administration began slamming gates everywhere else. Mitzvah Hero Training before Jammin’ Shabbat. After Super Storm Sandy in 2012, Mara and I opening the Ark for Alenu only to find it empty because we’d forgotten to return the scrolls from safe storage. Michael Ochs and Alaa Alshaham, a Jew and a Palestinian on our bimah for Shabbat in 2014, and hearing Jewish prayers sung, for the very first time in our lives, in Arabic. Then there was everything we did for each during the pandemic. And of course, everything you did for me and my family when Jonah died, including the Jonah Maccabee Concert which not only brings great Jewish music to Woodlands and raises much-needed funds to help kids get to URJ summer programs, but ensures that Jonah’s memory lives on.

While those may be some of my favorite moments, they’re still just the tip of the iceberg. In twenty-six years, there have been tons of holidays, High Holy Days, Shabbat services, adult ed classes, Confirmation classes, stories at religious school t’filah, committee meetings, family meetings, pastoral meetings, and the list goes on and on and on. Which I mention not at all to brag, but to thank. A job like this has never been doable by one person. The support that I have had every step of the way has been invaluable and crucial. And so, here are a few thank yous that must get said.

First, my family. First and last and everywhere in between – my sweet, loving, precious family. No one has given more to this temple than you. The number of times I have had to leave you, the number of times I haven’t come home, the number of times you’ve taken a back seat so I could take care of someone else, and the number of times you have supported me when things got a mite heavy around here. I owe you everything. And for that I give you my thanks, my love, and this promise: From here on out, it all gets dropped for you.

For perhaps the first time in twenty-six years, you all take a backseat to them. But only a backseat. Because I owe you all so much too, for helping me succeed, helping me grow, helping me take care of you, helping me help you to build vibrant Jewish life at Woodlands.

And so I thank my temple presidents: Lois Green, Maxine Howard, Lance Rosenthal, David Fligel, Chuck Fishman, Rochelle Stolzenberg, Stu Berlowitz, Dayle Fligel and Andy Farber. Only your Boards know how much work you do around here. It’s unbelievable what you do. And I am grateful for every bit of it.

I thank my temple Boards. You have partnered with me to ensure Woodlands has stayed strong, weathered the bad, and built a spiritual home for thousands upon thousands through the years.

I thank everyone who’s ever worked in the office, from Renee Doynow and Marilyn Alper to, most recently, Liz Rauchwerger, Marjorie Mattel and Michelle Montague. All of you have kept this place on an even keel, making sure every staffperson and clergyperson has what they need, making sure every volunteer has what they need, and making sure every congregant is cared for in their moment of need.

I thank the three men who have cared for our building in the years that I’ve been here: Dominick DeFabritis, German Franco and Hernando Carmona.

I thank my Joyful Noise family. You guys have been so much fun. And you’ve let me push you around; I think you’re the only ones at Woodlands who’ve let me do that. Thank you for making music with me. And thank you for sticking with me … for fourteen years! What a treat and a delight you have been.

I thank my cantors: Cantor Julie Yugend-Green, Cantor Jonathan Gordon and Cantor Lance Rhodes. And Cantor Ellen Dreskin. Because she’s a cantor. Because she actually was my cantor during my interim year. And because, well, she’s my wife – and nothing beats that!

I thank my Directors of Cong’l Learning: Cantor Ellen Dreskin (yep, that interim year), Harriet Levine and Rabbi Mara Young. An army may march on its stomach, but a synagogue? On its kids. The care you have given them, the learning you have provided them, and the calm reassurance with which you have swaddled their parents – you are a mighty army of your own. Your deeds have been feats of magic, and our congregation owes you so much. As do I.

I thank my Directors of Youth Engagement: Scott Newman, Ross Glinkenhouse, Tara Levine and Lily Mandell. Just the other day, I was speaking with Rabbi Jonathan Stein, who had been my youth group advisor when I was in high school, telling him that one of the strongest, most persistent reasons I became a rabbi was to pay back some synagogue for what mine was able to do for me when I was young. Scott, Ross, Tara and Lily, thank you for giving our teens the safe and loving place of experiential learning that every young person needs while growing up. More than anyone else, you guys have been my proxies, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Thank you to my summer interns: Rabbi Josh Davidson, Rabbi Serena Fujita, Rabbi Craig Axler, Rabbi Judith Siegal, Rabbi Rachel Shafran, Rabbi Rachel Maimin, Rabbi Andy Dubin and Rabbi Andi Feldman Fliegel. Yes, you were a nuisance. You made me work harder during the only time of year we might have slowed down around here. But you were also the only interns who got to be around full-time, who got to go to hospitals with me, and to cemeteries. And you made me feel wonderful for being able to share all of that with you.

Thank you to my year-round interns: Rabbi Fred Greene, Rabbi Leora Kaye, Rabbi Darren Levine, Rabbi Vicki Armour-Hileman, Rabbi Erin Glazer, Rabbi Mara Young, Rabbi Dan Geffen, Rabbi Jason Fenster, Rabbi Deena Gottlieb and Rabbi Zach Plesent. I’m so glad to have shared with you the essence of this amazing synagogue, and to be able to send you out into the world and carry the spirit of Woodlands far and wide.

And to all of you who made it possible through your pledges for me to have these interns, I shall always be especially grateful. It’s been well-known how much I love our intern program, and how much the interns have enriched my time at Woodlands. But we also know how much our congregation enjoys having these young whippersnappers around here, watching them grow, and sending them off to their careers, feeling like we’ve done something really important to get them ready to be rabbis. We have. So please, make sure Rabbi Mara can have her interns too.

A word about Corey Friedlander. He most certainly should have become a rabbi. But instead, he decided to spend his career selling toggle bolts. A strange choice, but lucky us. Because of his not serving the congregations that would have benefitted so enormously from his leadership, this has been our great fortune. And mine as well. Thank you, Corey. We called you Shaliakh K’hilah but, truthfully, I still don’t know what to call you. I’m just glad you’ve been here. Thank you.

And a word about Cantor Jonathan Gordon. For twenty-two years, this man ridiculed and embarrassed me in front of my congregation. In spite of that, because of this man’s humanity and his poetic, principled soul, he never let me forget that I had important work to do. He supported me, guided me, and comforted me. Together, we did a whole lot more than joke around; we reminded us all that we are, first and foremost, human beings. We are flawed, but we are capable of doing great things. Highest among them, sholom … peace. Thank you, my friend.

I need also to thank all of the other rabbis who have served this congregation across the years: Rabbi Dan Isaac, Rabbi Samuel Kehati, Rabbi Stephen Forstein, Rabbi Sandy Ragins, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Rabbi Aaron Petuchowski, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and Rabbi Avi Magid. They not only paved the way for me. They helped you to create this amazing little synagogue. They cleared the way for the Woodlands Way, and we are all forever in their debt.

Which brings me to Rabbi Mara Young. People have always given me more credit for being clever than I’ve ever deserved. I’m continually asked if there was some master plan for bringing Mara on as my successor. Yeah, that plan took shape at a Board meeting last August when I announced my retirement and, fifteen minutes later, the Board had offered the position to Mara. Prior to that, we hired her as our intern, then as our sabbatical rabbi, then as our rabbi-educator. Each and every time, we just kept falling in love with her all over again. We watched her learn, watched her do, and watched her be a perfect fit for Woodlands. No master plan. Just a gradually evolving understanding at each step of the way: “She’s right for us.”

For me personally, Mara, I can only say what a delight it has been to work with you these twelve years. To have a rabbinic partner – not just any partner, but one with character, with integrity, with brains, with a kind heart, a creative spirit, and who has enjoyed being here – what a privilege that has been. And to now walk away from this place and know it’s all going to be great, that you and your team are going to carry Woodlands to unimaginable new heights, that’s the best retirement gift of them all.

Okay, I need to end this thing, my last sermon. I think I’ll do so by invoking the words of President Barack Obama. Recently, he’s been recording a podcast called “Renegades” with Bruce Springsteen. In one episode, Springsteen asks when Obama first thought he’d want to run for president.

Obama responded, “If you’re doing it right, running for President is not actually about you. It’s about finding the chorus, finding the collective.”

He talks about visiting a town in South Carolina, to which he’s gone to get the endorsement of a particular state legislator. It’s a long drive, Obama’s down in the polls, it’s pouring rain, and there’s a bad article about him in the New York Times.

So when he walks into whatever center he was appearing at, he’s in a bad mood. But as he’s shaking people’s hands, he hears a woman’s voice chanting, “Fired up? Fired up! Ready to go? Ready to go!”

It turned out to be this wonderful woman named Edith Childs. She had a great smile, a pretty flamboyant dress and hat, and apparently a habit of chanting, “Fired up! Ready to go!”

Obama first thought, “This is crazy.” But everybody was doing it, so he thought, “I better do it too.” And little by little, he started feeling kind of good.

Later, when Obama left that town center, he asked his staff, “Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?” And that’s when he discovered that when you’re doing something hard that you care about, other people will lift you up.

Which is what this congregation has done for me. Again and again, you’ve lifted me up. When the work was exhausting, you reenergized me. When the work was frustrating, you appreciated me. When the work was saddening, you gave me back my smile. And when the work was successful, we reveled in our success together.

If this congregation is great – and it is – it’s because we have done this together. We have loved this place, we have cared for this place, we have kept it strong. And now, you will do the very same with Mara, and with Lance, Abby, Avital and Lara. With Andy, with his Board of Trustees, with all of your committees, and just by showing up, saying hi, and lending a hand. That is always what has made Woodlands. Maybe it’s the Woodlands Way, I don’t know. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the Woodlands Way is, only that each of you knows there must be a special sauce, a special secret, and you keep loving that and you keep treasuring that and you keep sharing it with the next family that walks through these doors.

For all of these moments, and for ten thousand more like them, thank you. I am so blessed to have been here. And that blessing will most assuredly sustain me throughout the journey to come.

At last Friday’s service, Mara blessed me with words that I now use to bless you.

A man was traveling through the desert, hungry, thirsty, and tired, when he came upon a tree bearing luscious fruit and affording plenty of shade, underneath which ran a spring of water. He ate of the fruit, drank of the water, and rested in its shade. When he was about to leave, he turned to the tree and said, “Oh, tree, with what should I bless you? Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? Your fruit is already sweet. Should I bless you that your shade be plentiful? Your shade is plentiful. That a spring of water should run beneath you? A spring runs strong and true beneath you. But there is one thing with which I can bless you. May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seed should be like you.”

Woodlands Community Temple. You have given birth to so many fulfilling spiritual moments in your members’ lives. May it be God’s will that you continue bringing such blessings into our world. God knows, we need them. And may it be God’s will, Woodlands, that all of us who have benefitted from your gifts, may we be your seedlings, and bestow upon others the blessings you have given us. And in that way, your blessings will be your great legacy for countless decades yet to come.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Curse of Blessings

What’s the best terrible thing that’s ever happened to you? Is it some food you thought you hated, but someone made you try it and you liked it? Or did you have to go somewhere to which you desperately wanted not to go, but someone made you go and you liked it? One of my best terrible things is a musical called Merrily We Roll Along. It’s a story that moves backwards in time, from the lives in tatters of its stars at the beginning of the show to their starry-eyed beginnings at the end of the show. Merrily We Roll Along appeared on Broadway sometime in 1981 and even though it was created and produced by some of Broadway’s biggest names – Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim – the critics hated it and it was gone in two weeks. I saw one its sixteen performances, and Merrily We Roll Along has been one of my very favorite musicals ever since.

Food, trips and Broadway musicals don’t really come close to being the worst things a person can experience. But suffering is suffering. And learning to handle life’s difficulties with grace, to even find ways to be grateful for goodnesses that still remain, these are among life’s greatest challenges.

Here’s a story called “The Curse of Blessings.” It was written by Mitchell Chefitz (from his book by the same name).

Once upon a time, there was an Officer of the Law. A newly-minted graduate of the academy, he was filled with pride, dressed in his crisp, blue uniform, adorned with brass buttons, gold epaulets, and a silver sword at his side. But the young officer, also filled with self-importance, was arrogant and cold-hearted.

One day, while walking his beat, he heard a commotion in an alleyway. Stepping into the darkness, he saw a man dressed in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. But the man did not come forward. “I am an Officer of the Law, and I command you to come forward!” The man still did not move. Instead, he spoke, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

“Do with me?” the Officer replied. “Do with me? You don’t do with me! I do with you! I am an Officer of the Law and I order you to come forward.”

“Ahh,” said the man in rags, “now I know what to do with you,” and as he spoke, he drew his sword. “Now I know exactly what to do,” and without another word he moved to attack.

The Officer drew his sword in defense. “Stop that!” he ordered. “Put down your sword right now or someone is going to get hurt.” But the man in rags continued moving forward. “Stop!” he said again, but to no avail, and as the man in rags thrust his sword forward, the Officer of the Law responded in kind.

In that moment, just as the young officer moved to attack, all became silent and still. Suddenly frozen in place, he could not move. But he could hear. And what he heard was the man in rags saying this: “I am leaving you – but as I do, I place upon you the Curse of Blessings. The Curse of Blessings means that every day you must offer a new blessing, one you have never spoken before. On the day you do not offer a new blessing, on that day you will die.”

And then all returned to normal. Except the man in rags was gone. The Officer of the Law lowered his sword, wondering what he had just seen and what he had just heard. “I must have imagined the whole thing,” he thought.

It was late, and the sun was setting. The Officer felt his body growing cold. Did the man in rags exist? Did he really speak those words? Was the Officer’s life leaving him?

In a panic, he blurted out a blessing: “Thank You, O God, for creating such a beautiful sunset.” At once, he felt warmth and life flow back into him, and he realized, with both shock and relief, that the curse was real.

The next day, he did not delay. Upon waking, he offered a blessing: “Praised be the Source Who has allowed me to awaken this morning.” His life felt secure the entire day. The next morning, he blessed his ability to rise from his bed; the following day, that he could tie his shoes.

Day after day, he named features that he could bless: that he could take care of his body, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hands still worked, that he had toes on his feet and hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment. His house, the roof and floor, his furniture, every table and chair.

One day, running out of blessings for himself, he began to bless others. He blessed his family and friends, fellow workers, and those who worked for him. He blessed the mailman and the clerks, firefighters and school teachers. He was surprised to find they appreciated his blessings. His words had power. They drew people closer. He became known as an unusual Officer of the Law, one who brought goodness wherever he’d go.

Years passed, decades. The policeman had to go further and further afield to find new sources of blessing. He blessed city councils and university buildings, scientists and their discoveries. As he traveled throughout the world, he grew in awe of its balance and beauty and he blessed that. He realized that the more he learned, the more he had to bless. His life was long, and he had the opportunity to learn in every field.

He passed the age of one hundred. Most of his friends were long gone. His time was now devoted to searching for his life’s purpose and the one source from which all blessings flow. He had long since realized that he was not the origin but merely the conduit, the channel, and even that realization was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.

As he approached the age of one hundred and twenty, the Officer decided that his life was long enough. Even Moses had lived no longer than that. So on his 120th birthday, he decided he’d offer no new blessing and allow his life to come to its end.

All that day he recited old blessings and reviewed all the gifts he had received throughout his life. As the sun was setting, a chill settled into his body. This time, he did not resist it. In the twilight, as his breath grew shallow, a familiar figure appeared — a man in rags.

“You!” whispered the Officer of the Law. “I have thought about you every day for a hundred years! I never meant to harm you. Please, forgive me.”

“You still don’t understand,” said the man in rags. “You don’t know who I am, do you? I am the angel who was sent one hundred years ago to harvest your soul. But when I looked at you, so arrogant and cold, so pompous and full of yourself, there was no soul there to harvest. An empty uniform, that’s all you were. So I placed upon you the Curse of Blessings, and now look what you’ve become.”

In an instant, the Officer of the Law understood all that had happened. Overwhelmed, he said, “You, my friend, have been my greatest blessing.”

The man in rags replied, “Now look what you’ve done. A new blessing!” The Officer of the Law and the man in rags looked at each other, neither knowing what to do.

Sometimes we have a million blessings and can’t see any of them. And sometimes, when blessings are in short supply — that’s when we rise to our very best, seeing the most important blessings of all, and giving thanks for our great fortune.

I want to show you a video. It’s an excerpt from Britain’s Got Talent, filmed after the tragic bombing that occurred in 2017 at an Ariana Grande concert in England’s Manchester Arena.

Two stories. The same ending: that despite colossal difficulty, we humans possess such magnificent hearts and spirits that we can come back from most anything. And when we do, we are often in possession of a greater sensitivity to all the wondrous and truly gorgeous beauty that has always existed around us.

The trick, of course, is to acquire this sensitivity without having to endure tremendous hardship.

At Mount Sinai, the Torah tells us, God instructed that we should never make gods of silver or of gold (Ex 20:20). In a collection of midrashim on the book of Exodus called the Mekhilta, our rabbis interpret “gold and silver” to mean life’s best moments. “When happiness comes,” they teach, “give thanks. But when things get tough, give thanks then as well.”

The rabbis probably didn’t mean we should be happy when we’re sad, but that we should remember, even when we’re sad, that life has had its wonderful moments and, if we’ll open our hearts, we can have wonderful moments again.

Summer is almost here. Time for many of us to go play. For as long as I’ve been at Woodlands, I’ve been sending you into these lazy, frolicsome months with homework: to read a new book, think a new thought, and make a new friend. It’s just another way to remind us that life is filled with blessing, and we should keep our eyes and our hearts open every moment of every day so that we don’t miss any of them.

An Irish Blessing for Tough Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

As The Trump Presidency Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These are my words to the congregation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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And this is Jason Fenster’s closing:

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

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

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

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

Today, those things did not change.

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

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

Shabbat Shalom.

Thoughts for a New Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charleston+ShootingD

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GCRCMezuzah (6a)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

Shed a Lotta Light!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Honor of Being Alive and Part of Creation

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

Watson replies, “I see millions of stars.”

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy