Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Panim El Panim

Do you know what he said when they asked Uncle Jeffrey (as we know him in our house, but most everyone else knows him as Rabbi Jeff Sirkman) who he’d like them to commission to write a piece of music honoring him for his 36 years as spiritual leader of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY?

“Uncle Billy.”

Yep, he’s one of my closest friends. My kids call him Uncle Jeffrey and his kids call me Uncle Billy. Just the same, his temple leadership wondered if maybe he wanted them to hire someone with a more proven track record.

“Nope. I want Billy Dreskin to write a song for me. And I want Beged Kefet to sing it.”

“But Uncle Jeffrey,” I fruitlessly explained, “Beged Kefet stopped performing more than a decade ago!” Jeffrey was adamant so I agreed to ask. And surprise surprise, everyone said yes.

But now I was in big trouble. Receiving a music commission is a big deal. I had to come through.

I asked Ellen if she would work on the lyrics with me and, thank God, she said yes. In a few days I came up with a starter idea for the music but before we set our minds to finding the words, I needed to do some research. I asked Jeffrey to send me his favorite sermons and bulletin articles which I combed through searching for common themes and motives, settling on an idea that he came back to again and again:

“Punim to punim.”

That’s Boshkenazic (Ashkenazic Hebrew with a Boston accent) for “face to face.” Throughout Jeffrey’s rabbinate, he’s always been about “meeting,” about people coming together. Whether family, friend, neighbor or stranger, Jeffrey believes that we actualize our best selves when we connect compassionately and whole-heartedly with others. Including with ourselves!

And that was plenty to get us going. Ellen and I started crafting verses, which inspired more music, which led the way to more words. It took a few weeks of shuttle diplomacy (Ellen in her study downstairs and me in mine upstairs). In time, we created a piece that we felt was perfect for honoring our friend.

I arranged the music for Beged Kefet to sing, joined by Larchmont Temple’s Cantor Katie Oringel along with her volunteer choir and temple band. Parts were distributed and rehearsals were arranged.

Beged Kefet met a month before, not only singing Panim El Panim together for the first time but ANYTHING for the first time since February 2009. What a treat to gather with these longtime friends and prepare this incredibly special gift, a gift for Uncle Jeffrey and a gift for ourselves.

On Friday, November 17, 2023, we joined Jeffrey and Katie on their bimah at Larchmont Temple and, along with 700 or so other guests, sang our little hearts out. This was the first time he had heard the song but when Jeff then got up to speak, he began his words with “punim to punim.” Guess Ellen and I chose right (even if he does pronounce it wrong).

The only thing left to do was to get into the studio and mix the raw tracks from that night and make sure it was sync’d properly with the video stream (which has a bunch of glitches in it but we were able to get the music to work just fine).

And here you have it. Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in nearly 15 years, Beged Kefet — live!

Hope you like it,
Billy

P.S. The mp3 recording and sheet music (lead sheet and instrumental parts) are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/panim-el-panim). 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.

P.P.S. If you want to learn more about Beged Kefet, visit https://www.billydreskin.net/or-zarua where I tell the whole story. You’ll also find links there to hear Beged Kefet’s three albums.

Old: A State of Mind (in More Ways than You Might Think)

On Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

“Abram went forth as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4)

Careful there. Reading that first sentence, you might think this is a duplicate of the other D’var Torah I wrote this week (“When I Become Old”).

You wouldn’t be entirely incorrect.

This past August, I stopped by ye olde stomping grounds at Woodlands Community Temple to attend a Shabbat Evening Service. Having retired, I’m no longer on the bimah but I do drop by every now and then. On this particular evening, WCT welcomed Cantor David Frommer who sang (cantors do that!) and he spoke (I love when cantors do that!). It might interest you to know that David has a couple of other titles he uses on occasion. At his place of employment, David is addressed as Chaplain Frommer. On his stationary, it reads, “Maj. David Frommer.” If you want a cool title like that, first become a rabbi or a cantor, then get yourself a commission at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.

Chaplain Frommer spoke that evening about the privilege of serving his country and how more members of the Jewish community should do so. I wasn’t exactly David’s target audience, but I was really inspired by his words.

Despite the many failures and disappointments in American governance that we hear about each day, I’m deeply proud and grateful to live in the United States. I never served in the military (the Vietnam War-era draft having ended just prior to my 18th birthday) but I did spend a summer in the USO. Our small company performed for American and NATO troops, presenting to hundreds of soldiers on major bases throughout Germany and Italy, and to a dozen or so soldiers at a time who were serving in tiny command posts located in the farthest reaches of the European theater. I felt extremely fortunate to be able say “Thank you for your service” in such an exciting and rewarding manner.

After that evening’s Shabbat service, I sought out Chaplain Frommer and told him how much I enjoyed his presentation and, were I younger, that I might very well have taken him up on his request to enlist. But now counting myself among the long, greying line of the aged (as opposed to “the long grey line” of West Point cadets), the best I could do is offer to help out if he felt there was something I could do for him.

And that’s how I found myself at West Point for lunch this week.

Sixty or so college-age cadets were seated cafeteria-style in the large dining space, buoyantly chatting with each other as they heartily consumed kosher Chinese food from Monsey. It was during their meal that I was introduced and given 25 minutes or so to share some Torah.

While you teachers out there might shudder at the thought of trying to speak to a roomful of young, hungry students while they sat with friends during one of the few breaks in their day, these kids were as polite and attentive as one could ever imagine. And I loved the gone-too-quickly 25 minutes I was able to spend with them.

I began by telling them about my other D’var Torah that I wrote this week for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a piece about getting older and, like Abraham (who the Torah says lived for 175 years), making sure those later years are filled with new experiences built atop a foundation of ever-increasing wisdom.

But, I continued, that’s probably not the most relevant topic for a group of 18-22 year olds. As I began to look for something else in Lech Lecha that I could share with them, it occurred to me that, with a bit of adjustment, these texts, and almost this same point, could work.

My thesis for the cadets was simple: Over time, regardless of age, many of us grow old in a metaphorical manner. We might be stung by disappointment. We might lose our youthful idealism. We might calcify, petrify, and otherwise toughen up into old and hardened ways. We might not become hard-of-hearing, but unhearing. We might not become blind, but unseeing. We might not die, but our feelings might.

I quoted General Colin Powell (not someone who frequently figured in sermons when I was un-retired). “Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

I told the cadets that I love this text, because it emphasizes the humanity of the military leader and of the military soldier. Both need to retain their most human emotions and feelings, and respect the same in others.

The young people at West Point are enrolled in program that grooms them to become leaders, militarily for a while and then perhaps something else when their period of service is complete. While they train, it’s crucial that they think about what it means to be a leader. Giving troops the orders that may determine whether young men and women live or die, this is certainly part of the military leader’s job description. But remaining approachable — especially by those whose lives might one day be placed in the line of danger — preserving and nurturing those parts of themselves that will allow a solder to bring them their problems, that is extraordinary leadership.

I served as a congregational rabbi for 34 years, 28 of those years with the same congregation. Throughout that time, I observed in myself, and in other rabbis too, an evolution; namely, that through the repetition of tasks we have mastered, our attitudes can and probably will change. I have hurried people along who shouldn’t have been hurried, not because I was in a hurry (although sometimes I was) but because, owing to my mastery of the tasks at hand, I was able to move more and more quickly. What’s curious here (and what I should have learned far earlier) is that, in my line of work, not only do laypeople not move as quickly as their clergy, ofttimes they don’t want to. The work we do (in my case, as a rabbi officiating at B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, funerals and so much more) includes moments when the everyday rush slows down because these are moments that are too special to rush.

But there I was, this young rabbi who, at times, grew impatient and frustrated when it took more time to bring someone to a place of understanding or completion. I lashed out (perhaps unknowingly, perhaps not) when I felt my time was more important than their experience. And I saw others do this too — other rabbis, as well as doctors, teachers, police officers, salespeople and more.

Life, I told the cadets, isn’t so much about slowing down as about paying attention, taking the time to pay attention. For them, maybe not in the heat of battle, but when they could make the time, take the time, and that it might make a difference. Human lives aren’t only at stake on the battlefield; every moment of contact with another person is a moment during which that person can be ordered, or they can be honored. Admittedly, both can happen at the same time but I hope they understood what I meant.

In Genesis 12:9 we read, “Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” I learned from Onkelos (in preparing my other D’var Torah) that Negev is related to Hebrew verb that means “dry.” The desert is dry. The land after the Flood became dry. And if we’re not careful, we too can “dry.” We can lose our youthful exuberance, our ideals, our sense of sympathy and, yep, our patience. We have so much to offer each other but, in the rush to success, we can lose sight of the purpose of our journey. We pursue grand ambitions (and we should) but because we have “dried,” because we have hardened, we have less and less to offer the people around us.

The I quoted General Douglas MacArthur. “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

There is wisdom that comes with advancement. To these cadets I suggested it was the wisdom of resolving conflict with words rather than with weapons, and what a truly magnificent achievement that is. Soldiers or not, we all face moments of choice between words and weapons, when we can work to resolve differences and disagreements through mutual respect for common hopes and dreams, or we can strive to impose our desired outcome without the hard work of negotiation and compromise.

When I think about the number of heads I butted in my youth, and how much more adept I became, as the years marched on, at working with people to find shared resolutions, I’m so glad I moved in the direction of growing attentiveness and compassion, rather than of well-honed skills alone.

In Genesis 14:14-15, seventy-five year old Abram “heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive. He mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them.”

At a time when that baton would have already been passed and such tasks would belong to a new generation, Abram took note. The new generation was being held captive somewhere and it was up to an old man to save the day.

This is where time and experience pay off, when we understand difference between biding our time and knowing it’s time to act decisively. Whether we are truly old (speak for yourself!) or we are well-seasoned, the key for all of us is to remain inspired and determined, to maintain our principles and integrity from day one (as cadets or rabbis or wherever are skills lie) to day last (as perhaps 5-star generals, CEOs, veteran educators, etc).

Then, as I wrapped things up, I quoted a general one last time. This time, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.”

Time will pass. Perhaps enough time to gray our hair and go on Medicare. Or enough that people have begun to look up to us as the voice of experience and (we should be so lucky) of reason. The trick is to not allow time to pass us by, to do what’s needed to remain strong of principle, of ideals, of conviction, of action. And we need to do so until the day we finish our own service – service to country, to ourselves and those we love, and our service to God.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy

P.S. Many, many thanks to Chaplain David Frommer for inviting me up to West Point. It’s hard to say whether this or my time in the USO was more fun!

When I Become Old

On Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

“Abram went forth as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4)

Numbers in the Torah are an odd thing. We love that people lived such a long time in that world, but our rational selves don’t buy it because science tells us that, back then, folks probably only lived into their mid-30s.* It’s reasonable then to assume that this age was ascribed to him either because Abraham looked older than he really was, or that he became quite renowned for his remarkable vigor and strength in old age.

So when we read that Abraham (here, referred to as Abram) was 75 when he left Haran, 100 when Isaac was born, and dies at 175, these are probably not literal years but are conveying the idea that he was no spring chicken when important things were happening in his life. We’ll probably never know, but we might be able to learn something from this about our own old age.

I am recently retired. I no longer work full-time. I have Medicare health insurance. I have to be more careful about what I eat and how I move. And I’m positively thrilled to have entered this chapter of my life.

Retirement is often a choice, of course. I know lots of people who continue their careers well into their 70s, their 80s, and some even into their 90s. For those of us who’ve left our workaday world behind, old age (okay, maybe just “advancing age”) can open new vistas that bring incredible excitement and challenge.

Whatever one’s choices during these later years, the opportunities which lie before us can reinvigorate, almost like (dare I say it) a Fountain of Youth! I not only meet each new day with an eagerness I’ve not felt since my twenties, I am savoring every day in ways I’d just not had time for when I was younger.

There’s a price, of course, for growing older. A friend of mine tells me all the time, “Old age isn’t for sissies.” The aches and pains, the doctor’s appointments, the unfortunate dismissiveness-because-I’m-old by some — all these are ever-present and incontrovertible evidence that we too, like Abraham, have arrived to an advanced age.

In 12:9, we read, “Then Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negev.” Onklelos, who translated the Torah into Aramaic, understands negev (in Gen 8:13), when describing the receded waters following Noah’s flood, as meaning “dry.” Onkelos’ point is that the Negev is a desert, not too far away from viewing advancing age as a time when life “dries,” when we lose our youthful appearance and have little to offer the world around us. But while Abraham may be experiencing the inevitable physical progression of aging, our story makes clear that his life is anything but “dry.”

A bit later in the parasha (in 13:8-9) we read, “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herders and yours, for we are kin. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate. If you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go north.’” Rashi asserts that not only has Abraham come to value the art of compromise, he also works hard to preserve the relationship he has with his nephew. Rashi rewrites this verse as, “Wherever you settle down I will not go far from you and I will stand by you as a shield and as a helper.”

There is wisdom that comes with advancing age. And the wisdom of resolving conflict, rather than reaching for weapons, is truly a beautiful (and far more reassuring) thing to behold. When I think about the number of heads I have butted in my youth, and how much more adept I became, as the years marched on, at working with people to find shared resolutions, I know that I wouldn’t want to be any other age than the one I am right now.

Lastly, in 14:14-15, we read, “When Abram heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them.”

Whatever the man’s age, there was plenty of fight still in him. His nephew had been taken captive and Abraham wouldn’t stand for it. A time for action had arrived and he would lead his retinue into the breach to restore justice and order.

Old age definitely does not mean checked out. Take at look at these late-achievers:

• In 2011, Minoru Saito from Japan sailed non-stop, by himself, around the world at the age of 77.

• In 2012, Yuichiro Miura, also from Japan, became the oldest person to conquer Mount Everest. He was 80 years old.

• In 2010, Nola Ochs, at age 98, became the oldest person to receive a master’s degree from Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

• In 2007, Leonid Hurwicz of Minneapolis received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in mechanism design. He was 90 years old.

• And one of my very favorites, in 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown in England, Captain Sir Thomas Moore celebrated his 100th birthday by asking for pledges as he walked 100 lengths of his garden. He raised more than $37,000,000 for the National Health Service.

No matter what fights our body may give us as we age, there can be plenty of fight left in us. We may relish the calm, quiet which we’ve settled into but, when it’s needed, there’s a tiger that can be let loose.

Lech Lecha is best known for God’s command to Abraham, “Lech lecha … go!” These words initiated the greatest adventures of Abraham’s life at a time we might dismiss as being past any period of productivity. Well, as the Gershwins told us, “It ain’t necessarily so.” Abraham has shown us that, regardless of age, we can literally change the direction of the world.

Half a lifetime ago, when I was thirty-one and performing with a music group called Beged Kefet, I wrote a song entitled, “When I Become Old.” I considered it a declaration of human rights for the aged. Thirty-four years later, I’m finally in a good position to critique my younger self’s efforts to understand what old age might be like.

Here’s what I wrote:

When I become old, I want to live
Where I can keep my self-respect.
When I become old, I want to know
I won’t be cut down by others’ neglect.

People are the same, we’re all people.
We’ve got rights that are basic,
Regardless of whether we’re female or male
Or we’re black or we’re white.
To tell me I can’t ‘cuz I’m old, isn’t right.

When I become old,
I want to work, have a career, ply at a trade.
Or maybe instead, I’ll volunteer,
Reach out to those alone and afraid.

People have a right to contribute
To the world that we live in.
Regardless of whether we’re tall or we’re short
Or we’re weak or we’re strong,
To tell me I can’t ‘cuz I’m old, simply is wrong!

Find me a place. Open your heart.
Give me a chance. Let me become a part
Of my life and my dreams.
Let me be more than it seems that I could ever be.

People, these aren’t just other people.
If you look in the mirror,
The person you see may be selfish or kind
Or in prison or free.
But that person will one day be old.
That person is you. That person is me.

When I become old,
I pray to God the prayers of my youth
Will not be denied.
When I become old,
I hope that old doesn’t mean … I merely … survived.

The way I figure it, if God felt that Abraham wasn’t too old to start a new career (creating Judaism) or have kids (Ishmael and Isaac), you and I shouldn’t think we’re too old to pursue our own dreams.

And you youngsters out there, don’t think for a moment that you’ll be too old to pursue your dreams either. In many respects, you’ll be just getting started!

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

You can listen to Beged Kefet perform “When I Become Old.”

*en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

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 Owner of the Garden

In this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Israel has completed its forty years of post-Egypt wandering and is looking into the Promised Land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Moses is about to die and is offering his farewell address, reminding his people of the b’rit, their Covenant with God, that was forged at Mount Sinai, and was repeatedly violated throughout their forty-year journey. “Tzur y’lad-kha te-shee,” Moses tells them. “You have neglected the Rock that begot you … va-tish-kakh Eyl m’khol-l’le-kha … and you have forgotten the God who brought you forth” (Deut 32:18). And yet, God remains a willing partner if Israel will just do its part and observe the terms.

It’s a problem, to be sure. No one among the Children of Israel, save Moses and Joshua, is still alive to remember the parting of the Red Sea, their miraculous rescue from slavery by God’s outstretched hand. Telling them that God has never stopped watching over them is like my telling you, “The setting of the sun, the movement of the oceans, the cry of a newborn baby, are all evidence of God’s presence in the universe.” For me, that’s exactly what these are. For you, maybe not so much.

And yet, here we are. Summer has turned to autumn. The changing of the seasons always seems to present nature’s best side. We take long drives to view the turning of the leaves. We take long walks on autumn afternoons when the sun shines brilliantly but the air is cool and comfortable.

That’s not why Sukkot happens now, but it’s lovely that it does. Sukkot occurs at this time because in Israel the rainy season is about to begin. And if you recall your geography, Israel and the Middle East are desert, or become desert if the rains don’t come. Sukkot was placed just before the coming of the rainy season because the ancient Israelites wanted to make their case before God that they needed God’s blessing of rain. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were actually preparatory holidays before HeKhag, Sukkot’s other name, which means “The Festival.” Sukkot was the High Holy Day of ancient Israel. Without rain, their crops wouldn’t grow, and that would spell disaster.

Dreskin Sukkah 2003 (l-r: Aiden Dreskin, Josh Rosenthal, Jonah Dreskin, Julia Rosenthal, Russell Steinberg and Matt Steinberg)

That was then and this is now. For us, Sukkot comes at a time when we feel wonderful about being alive. We’ve completed our High Holy Days, ostensibly having been inscribed in the Book of Life for another year, the autumn months bringing not just moderate weather but new beginnings as we return to work and to school after summer’s respite.

Judaism challenges us to see God at work in the universe. We may be tempted to take credit for the works of our own hands, but those hands – our tradition teaches us – are gifts from a loving Creator. Our High Holy Days asked whether we live our lives in a world of God’s making, or do we not care where the world came from, only what we can take from it?

Seeing God isn’t hard. But neither is it easy. It takes perspective. And perspective takes practice, and a special eye.

Rabbi Simkha Bunim lived and taught in early-19th century Poland. He told of a king who owned an exceptionally beautiful garden. So magnificent was this garden that the king felt it worthy of having a portrait painted of it. He hired the finest artist in the land, who captured the garden in remarkable detail, every tree, every flower, even the bees pollinating those flowers. Even the king himself was depicted in the portrait, enjoying the transcendent beauty of his own garden. The painting was of such superior quality that one might even mistake it for the real thing.

The king was so pleased that he invited the artist to come to a special reception of honor where all could view the painting on one of the palace walls. With hundreds looking on, surprised and happy cries went up as some birds that had gotten into the palace tried to peck at the apples painted onto a few of the trees. “How marvelous,” proclaimed the king. “Even the birds think your painting is real!” But the artist was disappointed. Asked why, he said, “If the picture had succeeded in truly looking real, the birds would not have pecked at the apples for they would have seen that is God watching over the garden.”

Judaism presents the idea of God as the world’s owner. The plants, the animals, the very ground itself, all belong to God. Judaism teaches that we should respect that. And respecting that should affect the way we relate to the world.

Have you ever screamed, “It’s mine!” Two men were arguing over a piece of land. One said, “This land belongs to me!” while the second shouted, “No. It belongs to me!” Their dispute went through numerous courts and arbitrations. A hatred sprang up between them, drawing others into the fight. Threats began to be heard from both sides. Eventually, they were persuaded to travel to the Rebbe and put their case before him. Each presented at great length not only his claims but contemptuous and insulting remarks aimed at the other side (sounds like Congress). The Rebbe listened quietly, noting how passionately they were arguing. Then, at last, he spoke. “From what you have said, I understand that both of you make the claim, ‘This ground belongs to me.’ That is the reason you have argued so violently, dragging those around you into your dispute. Why don’t you take my advice and listen for a moment to the voice of the ground itself. If you did so, you would hear the voice of God whispering, ‘Both of you belong to Me!’”

God is an idea, one that has helped shape how we view the world. Without God, there is no owner. We can do anything we want. Pollute, deforest, overpopulate, use up all the water, render species extinct, overheat the planet. And then there’s how we treat each other. Bigotry, prejudice, persecution, slavery, hunger, homelessness, murder and war. Nothing is off-limits when there’s no accountability.

For us in the 21st century, the juxtaposition of our High Holy Days with Sukkot is instructive. Theoretically, we’ve identified and apologized for the mistakes we’ve made in the past. Sukkot now presents an opportunity to do real teshuvah, to do more than say we’re sorry, taking the next, crucial step of demonstrating that we have stopped doing what we’ve done before. When we’re inside the sukkah and we look up at the s’khakh, and see holes, spaces up there so that we can see more than the roof; we can see the earth’s owner.

Sukkot stares us in the face and says, “Nu?” Did you mean any of that stuff you promised only a week ago? Have you donated to an organization that’s trying to help? Have you volunteered any time? Have you lent a hand? Do you know who your elected leaders are, and whether or not they’re helping or hindering? Do you vote in “off-year” elections, doing your part to get good people elected at the local level? Or are you only waiting for November 2020?

Can you see the Owner of the garden? Or do you only have eyes for the apples?

Rabbi Bunim teaches, “Most of us are like those birds. Because God is not real to us, we never see the Owner of the garden. We see all the beautiful things that have been placed in our world, but we’re unaware of God who created them. We think these things belong to us. In fact, we are nothing more than unappreciative guests.”

The purpose of Judaism is not to prove God. It can’t do that. Its purpose is to provide a way for us to live as if there is a God. And the trick is to see God in the garden, whether God’s actually there or not, and allow that perspective to affect how we live our lives. When we do that, if we’re true to the intention of our sages’ teachings, if we’re true to the promises we made on Yom Kippur, we might just make this world a little cleaner, a little kinder, a litter better than the way we found it.

As we all know, our garden is in big trouble. Every one of us needs to start working on fixing it, before it’s too late.

When I was a kid, my temple’s religious school put on a play for the whole congregation. It was a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I got to play Benjamin. Okay, I wasn’t really Benjamin; I was one of Benjamin’s sheep. Well, I wasn’t really one of his sheep either; I was one of six fleas on the sixth sheep. We had a lot of kids and I guess we all needed parts.

Afterwards, there was a big reception which, true to religious schools everywhere, served lots and lots of dessert so that nobody would have an appetite when they went home. Some long tables were filled with lots of goodies – candy, fruit, and veggies. Naturally, everyone swarmed. Having been a flea, you might think I’d be too small to get in there until the end. Actually, having been a flea (and yes, small), I got there first!

At one end, there was a large pile of apples. Next to the apples was a note: “Take only one. God is watching.” Dutifully complying, I took one (the upside of which was that left plenty of room for other stuff). Someone’s parents brought a tray of carrots and broccoli. No note needed there. Fortunately, most parents understood the assignment and, at the far end of the tables, lay the “treasures of Adonai”: chocolate chip cookies! I loaded up maybe fifteen cookies next to my apple. That was when I remembered the note at the other end of the table. I took the apple, bit into it, and let it hang there in my mouth. I scooped up the cookies and put them in my pockets. I took my paper plate, turned it over, wrote a note on it and placed it next to the remaining cookies. As I was walking away, I heard another kid reading the plate with glee. It said, “Take all you want. God’s watching the apples!”

As you can see, I began thinking about God at a very early age. Fortunately, my thinking matured a bit over time. I see God everywhere, reminding me how lucky I am to be part of Creation, how lucky I am to have consciousness and the ability to care and to love, how lucky I am to do my part to take care of Creation, and how lucky I am to have good people in my life and throughout the world with whom to share it all.

Danusha Lameris is a poet and author who lives in Santa Cruz, California. Her second book, Bonfire Opera, is due out early next year. As we contemplate the meaning of these Holy Days just past, reconciling them with the challenge of Sukkot and the open rooftop, I’m going to give her the last word. I think she can point the way forward for many of us:

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now. So far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Shabbat shalom.

With Another Quarter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

Now What?

Throughout my entire rabbinic career, whenever Sukkot has arrived, I have enjoyed explaining that sukkot – the three-sided booths we erect following Yom Kippur and in which we spend a week visiting with friends, dining with family, and watching squirrels carry away its vegetative decor – are fragile! Without a whole lot of trouble, they can fall down. But I never actually thought I’d see one tumble!

My synagogue’s sukkah, lovingly constructed each year out of sustainable materials harvested and built by our sukkah team, crumbled to the ground on the first day of Sukkot.

And I just love that! What a powerful lesson for all of us. We told you it could come down. And lookee there, it did! The world is a fragile place. Things can break. And sometimes they actually do.

I can remember when I was a kid, that from time-to-time I’d get to bring home a model airplane made of balsa wood. These were really flimsy objects, but if you wound up its rubber band enough times, the propeller as it twisted back around would make the airplane really fly. But it would only last maybe fifteen minutes before a wing or the tail would break right off. And I was always devastated by that. Those things were cool!

But sometimes things just break.

Sometimes, we break them ourselves.

Once when I was practicing meditation (you’re gonna love this), I was maybe seventeen years old and sitting still for twenty minutes was, under the best of circumstances, not easy to do. It was a summer day, and I’d brought a glass of ice water to keep me from melting, setting it on the dresser just behind my chair, which was also where I placed my watch so I wouldn’t keep looking at it. But from time-to-time, I obviously did need to look at it to see if I was finished. So I reached back and, while feeling around for the watch, my hand found the iced water, knocking over the glass so that its entire freezing contents spilled right down my back. Furious, I jumped up, spun around, picked up my watch and proceed to smash it to smithereens.

Sometimes things don’t just break. Sometimes we take care of that ourselves.

Once a couple of weeks ago, nature did some of the breaking.

Hurricane Florence dumped up to three feet of water on cities and towns throughout North and South Carolina. The damage was estimated at $48 billion. But the image I will always remember of these two broken states is of a cow struggling to swim through the flooded waters inside and outside her barn and just keeping her head above water until being rescued by a passing boat. Its skipper wrapped a piece of rope around the cow’s nose and mouth, holding its head above water as they towed it to safety.

Sometimes the world breaks all by itself. And all we can do is hang onto each other and ride out the storm.

Then there’s the United States Congress, rendered almost completely ineffective by their refusal to work with people of differing political positions and points of view. That wasn’t what I thought I was voting for. People used to say that nothing except compromise ever takes place in the Senate and House of Representatives. Oh, how I miss those days.

Sometimes we deliberately sabotage ourselves and break things on purpose! On purpose!

Which makes our little sukkah seem pretty insignificant, don’tcha think? Which is what it was always meant to be. Because it’s just a symbol. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of how fragile our world is, that sometimes we have to endure what naturally happens, but that so much of the brokenness is in our control to fix. And when we stand up and angrily smash our watch to pieces, we’re in need of … well, we’re in need of, quite frankly, something we just spent the last few weeks talking about: teshuvah … changing our behavior for the better.

Throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reading after reading and sermon after sermon urged us to fearlessly examine our lives and to inventory where we have fallen short of our obligations to the human family. Some of us spent more than a dozen hours in ten different services engaged in this sacred process of heshbon nefesh, of figuring out where we could seriously improve ourselves in the year ahead.

Now it is the year ahead and the question before each of us is, “So what are we gonna do about it?” Have we simply packed away the makhzorim from our High Holy Days and moved on? Or are we going to take that list of ways we can be kinder and more generous, and actually try to change?

That’s why I love our fallen sukkah. If we’ll let it, it’s reminding us that there’s so much brokenness in our world, and while we may or may not fix our symbol of life’s fragile nature, we can certainly get to work trying to fix some of the real brokenness that’s all around us.

A week ago, members of the Peace Islands Institute, a Muslim community organization, came to visit our high school Academy and served them a homemade dessert called Noah’s Pudding. Premised on the supposition that when the Flood ended and the Ark landed, the community joined together for one last meal, a meal made from the last supplies that still remained on the Ark – Noah’s Pudding – and broke bread together one more time before journeying into their new and individual futures, Noah’s Pudding is an offering from one person to another, symbolizing a wish that whatever lies ahead will be filled with sustenance, sweetness and human companionship. Their sharing of Noah’s Pudding with these Jewish high school students was a powerful and unforgettable demonstration of friendship, of building up, not falling down. I have no doubt that on Monday evening, through the simple sharing of a humble Muslim tradition, we fixed just a tiny bit of the brokenness in our world.

Things break. That’s going to keep on happening. Our great gift is that we can be there for each other when they do. Sometimes we can rebuild; sometimes all we can do is offer a hug.

During the High Holy Days, we shared in the dramatic and, quite frankly, frightening words of Un’taneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die?” When I encounter this reading, I no longer see it as God’s judgement of me or of others. Rather, I see it as a call to action. It reminds us that people do live and people do die. And sometimes, there’s nothing to be done, but sometimes, and perhaps far more frequently, there is something we can do; there’s much that we can do. Like helping a cow keep its head above the floodwaters, if we just keep our eyes and our hearts open, there are plenty of ways to fix things.

And then there’s Simkhat Torah. A simply wonderful celebratory holiday that wraps up this otherwise serious time period. A holiday that may be the most important of them all. It is a time when we dance with the Torah as a symbolic conclusion to these High Holy Days. The Torah is, of course, not only a symbol of our passion for learning right from wrong, it’s also a guidebook for doing so. We’re right to dance with our scrolls. In a world filled with brokenness, our communities must come together, with whatever ideas we can muster, and, like our friends from Peace Islands Institute, share in bringing hopeful change to everyone.

I imagine that I will never see a sukkah fall down again. But I will see children break some of their toys, adults break some of our communities, and nature break some of our homes. May we remember that each one of us is capable of doing something, maybe even a lot, to make things better. May these High Holy Days, and one broken sukkah, inspire us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Billy

Postscript: On Thursday (Sep 27), many of us listened in as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. While there is much to criticize about what took place, whichever side of the aisle and/or the issue we’re on, there was also something very right happening. We may not like what we see going on in Congress, but we have a Congress. It may be damaged and in need of repair, but it’s still there. So register to vote, run for office, or help someone else run. If you see a sukkah that’s fallen, figure out if it needs picking up. And if it does, let’s do what we can do to lend a hand.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other significant moments in my life this summer have included:

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

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

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

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

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

There is still much reason to rejoice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how I spent my summer vacation.

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

Billy

Life’s Ninth of Av’s

I have a story to tell you. It’s about a tiny bird. I’ll come back to that.

Tisha b’Av has been set aside as a day for the Jewish community to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple two thousand years ago. Traditionally, this day is observed with fasting, prayers of lament and rituals of mourning. Two thousands years is a very  long time, however, and grief abates.

So if Tisha b’Av no longer compels, what’s to be done with it?

Earlier this week, while I was trying to figure this out, I took my dog for a walk. Not ten feet outside the front door, we encountered a baby bird on the ground. It was alive but I couldn’t tell by how much. I could only imagine it had fallen from its nest perhaps fifty feet above and that couldn’t have been good.

Charlie sniffed but respectfully backed away. Ellen came out and very gently carried the bird to the bottom of the tree from which it had fallen. It was out of direct sunlight and the possibility of getting stepped on. It laid its head on its wing to rest. Not thirty minutes later, we checked on it and it had died.

For a good while after, our home was subdued. Even Charlie seemed quiet. It was only a baby bird, but in the few minutes that it had entered our lives, it had evoked our sympathy and stolen our hearts. We grieved.

I wondered. Is this what we need in order to feel the pain of loss? If we are to act on human suffering, must we experience that suffering firsthand?

I have a handmade tallit that I purchased in Israel. Before completing the order, I was asked, “What text would you like embroidered on the atarah?” Well, that was going to take some thought and I returned home to America without completing the order. What text would I want to see every time I place that garment across my shoulders? Three weeks later, I sent them my response. It came from the Book of Job (38:35):

For me, this text, God’s response to Job’s asking what we all want to know, “Why?” Why has my health failed? Why has my loved one died? Why is my marriage over? Why did that earthquake have to cause so much destruction? How can that leader condone so much suffering?

God’s response to Job was that there is so much we can’t control. And there are questions for which we will never have answers.

We may not like that response, but it seems pretty accurate to me.

There is a passage, however, from Noah benShea’s Jacob the Baker that helps me live with this unsettling reality:

Watching a flotilla of small sticks and leaves dropped into a river race and tumble around one bend only to be caught in another, someone said, “Clearly we are not in control of where our lives are going.” But another responded, “We are nevertheless responsible for how we conduct ourselves as we are carried on.”

This is how I’ve tried to approach my life, which has been a pretty easy one compared to so many others, but I’ve had my share of sorrows. I don’t hide my grief, but I try not to be crushed by it either.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about Tisha b’Av. Each of us quite likely has horrible moments that are ours. Not all are the result of evil people, but they are painful memories no less. Loved ones die. Natural disasters claim the lives of hundreds. Political disasters (like tearing immigrant children away from their parents) exact a different but no less painful price.

Tisha b’Av comes along. We allow our pain to reemerge, even after two thousand years. Or we just remember — we don’t own, or we don’t directly feel, that pain. The message in both cases, I believe, is that these memories and their concomitant feelings are valid but, if possible, they ought not end there. Painful memory can and should be used for good purpose.

Perhaps by limiting this communal grief to a single day, Jewish tradition is trying to say, “It doesn’t have to ever go away. But like that flotilla of small sticks and leaves, we need to choose how to live in its aftermath. Always always, choose life.”

We needn’t relinquish our sadnesses forever. The hurt might never fully go away. But if in addition to missing what has been lost, we can turn that grief (and our hearts) toward making the world a bit more hospitable for someone else, then our pain and the grief that comes from someone’s life having ended far too soon (or whatever it is that lingers on), perhaps we can turn it toward something of deepening value and even personal redemption.

That little bird haunts me. I think I’ll be carrying the image of its dying for a while yet. I don’t think I’m going to become a bird doctor, but my sadness did prompt me to write this. And perhaps, as Tisha b’Av approaches, that’s of some worth and a fine way to channel this loss.

For me, that seems like a good lesson learned.

Billy

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.