Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

A Piano in Taksim Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.

Women of the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

Women of the Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sure there are plenty who would agree.

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

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

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

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

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

Ken y’hi ratzon.



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

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

On “Human Rights Shabbat,” the Night Before Hanukkah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken y’hee ratzon.


Partners Across Time: Woody Guthrie and Malala Yousufzai

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

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

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

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

But how many of us have heard this verse?

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

Or this one:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Malala Yousufzai Interviewed on CNN (Nov 2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where the Wild Things Are

It was the third day of our congregational trip to Israel. This time, we didn’t head straight to Jerusalem but spent our first days in Tel Aviv. We soaked in the stories of exciting beginnings at Independence Hall, stood in quiet contemplation of the violent realities at Rabin Square, and sauntered unhurriedly through the ancient streets of Jaffa. A few of us even stopped for a bite, I kid you not, at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub! Then, on this particular morning, we woke up, grabbed something to eat, and boarded our bus which promptly deposited us bamidbar, “in the wilderness” – which happened to be a sizable parking lot somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a nowhere like so many “nowheres” we see here in the States – unlovely, too much concrete, and dirty fields just beyond the wheel stops at the lot’s edge. Unbeknownst to us all, however, we had just begun the adventure and the promise known as Leket Israel.

All our lives, we’re taught that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8), “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:8), the Promised Land “which [God] swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 6:8). That’s what the Torah says.

But there’s another side to Israel. A side where “the Promise” doesn’t quite ring true. Because while there aren’t too many people in Israel who are starving, there are plenty who live in poverty and cannot afford, as our guide told us, “to shop the edges of the grocery store.” They can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Leket Israel is the guarantor of the Promised Land’s legacy. It’s Israel’s national food bank. Where we had arrived was not a dirty field at all (well, not just a dirty field). It was a farm filled with sweet potatoes. BIG sweet potatoes. The farm’s owner had contacted Leket Israel and invited them to come get unneeded produce (either unsuitable for commercial sale, or simply set aside in fulfillment of Lev. 19:9’s instructions to “leave the gleanings of your harvest”). Volunteers, of which Leket Israel has some 40,000 annually, descend on sites such as this one and pick it clean. The food is then transported to organizations around the country that get it to needy families. 300 farms participate, donating 173,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables every week.

Leket Israel does even more. It supplies over 7000 sandwiches each day to needy school children in 24 cities. And it partners with catering halls, restaurants, bakeries and hotels collecting over 350,000 excess meals (from weddings, b/m celebrations, etc) each year.

In this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, God teaches Moses and Aaron how to bring their community bemidbar Sinai, through the wilderness of Sinai: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Num. 2:2).

Everyone knows, God included, that the wilderness is a tough place to build a home. But sometimes, we don’t get a choice about how our lives unfold. Wild things tend to intrude without them asking for permission. Life complicates.

But in these complications, there is also opportunity. When our days are formidable in their challenges, when we witness hardship in the lives of others, we are beckoned to engage with full heart and mind in the seeking of solutions and resolutions. As much as the wilderness can be harsh, it can also be breathtaking in its beauty. It is our sacred task, our holy honor, to bring out the magnificence that others cannot yet see.

Leket Israel assents to this sacred task. Through its gleanings of the fields, its sandwiches for kids, its redistribution of surplus meals, and its programs educating families about nutritional excellence, Leket Israel responds to God’s call that the Israelites “camp around the Tent of Meeting,” bringing them and us ever closer to God’s Presence among us.

Our group working bamidbar next to a parking lot that morning in the middle of nowhere probably did not comprise Leket Israel’s most productive crew of volunteers. Some of us were old, some overweight, others out of shape. Our yield may have been something akin to meager, but you can bet we picked as many of those sweet potatoes as we could, and we did so with voluble enthusiasm. The wilderness can be tamed wherever it appears. Everyday, there are opportunities to share the fruits of our lives’ harvests. But it’s not everyday that a city-dweller like me can actually stick his hands in the dirt and pull out a meal.

There’s an exceptionally heartwarming story about a Depression-era farmer in Idaho who habitually sends needy children home with bags of fresh produce, instructing them to return with payment in the form of a specific marble of this color or that design. The farmer never finds an acceptable exchange, and always dispatches the child to seek a different marble and, “Oh, take this bag of beans to your mom, as well.”

Prof. Michael Walzer (in Exodus and Revolution) teaches “that the winding way to [the] promise passes through the wilderness.” Whether we find ourselves bamidbar as tourist, as farmer, or as unwilling resident, there are always blessings to be found. We must stay alert, keeping open our eyes and our hearts to the wild things around us. We never know when a dirty field might hold within it the ancient promise to yield a better life for those who make camp in uncertain lands. Our assent to these sacred tasks will assure that every man, woman and child is never so distant from the Tent of Meeting that God’s bounty cannot be theirs as well.


This d’var Torah was written for the Israel Religious Action Center, an extraordinary organization that embodies the mitzvah to ensure all may camp around the Tent of Meeting. Learn more about Leket Israel by clicking here.