Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

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.

Mentors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Chernick and Dr. Kravitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

After the Deluge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harim Hassad, Muslim Caretaker of Synagogue in Arazan

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shabbat shalom.


One more thought:

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

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

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

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

Billy

Committing to Memory

Last weekend, Ellen and I traveled northward to Buffalo where Ellen was officiating at the 2nd wedding ceremony of two very dear men who wanted to marry under the newly-legal auspices of New York State. We joined them on a small boat that travels the famous lock-system of the Erie Canal. Ellen presided over the re-union of the two gentlemen while the boat was being lifted in a lock from one level of the canal to another. It was a beautiful, touching, incredibly loving celebration that, for many of us, was enhanced by the excitement, if not the symbolism, of rising up with the waters beneath us.

Afterwards, as the boat ride continued, family members handed out words to a Bruce Springsteen song about the Erie Canal. As they taught it to us, I couldn’t help but laugh, knowing that I had learned this song when I was maybe ten years old and Bruce was just learning how to play guitar.

“I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal. Fifteen years on the Erie Canal. She’s a good old worker and a good old pal. Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal. Low bridge, everybody down. Low bridge cause we’re coming to a town. You’ll always know your neighbor and you’ll always know your pal, if you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.”

It was written in 1905 and recalls a time when mules walked along the shoreline, pulling the barges along the canal. I happen to know this because, growing up in Cincinnati, it was perhaps the only part of the social studies curriculum that actually caught my attention. Why we studied a New York waterway in Ohio, that I never understood until I looked it up on Wikipedia this week and learned that my teacher had probably tried to get me to understand that Ohio also had a canal system that formed, along with New York and Pennsylvania, what must have been America’s “super-highway” system of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Riding that little boat through the old locks, albeit sans mule, was for me a nostalgic journey that filled my mind with wonder and my heart with a certain satisfaction that comes from climbing into one of those boats that had been described to me more than fifty years ago. I bet I’d ace that quiz if I could just take it once more.

Memories are an important part of what makes us who we are. Without memories, not only would we lose much of our personality, but we’d also be far less able to make good decisions about nearly anything. We wouldn’t know what tastes good to us. We wouldn’t know with whom we enjoy spending time, or how we enjoy spending time. And at a meta-level, without memory, our communities would be unable to learn from previous experience and prepare for what awaits us all down the road.

Part of the conversation taking place right now is how the city of Houston could have been so unprepared for the waters of Hurricane Harvey when, back in 2008, Hurricane Ike killed nearly a hundred people and caused $30 billion in damage. It was a dress rehearsal for Hurricane Harvey, and yet little was done in the years since. So while Houston has been experiencing incredible economic growth, it has also erased marshland after marshland, leaving few escape routes for the eventual floods that were coming. They were sitting ducks, they knew it, yet did nothing about it.

We’re all familiar with George Santayana’s prediction that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what about those who do remember the past and ignore it? Same thing, I guess. Except for the added characteristics foolishness and arrogance.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “The past defers to the future, but it refuses to be discarded. Only he who is an heir is qualified to be a pioneer.”

We learn perhaps the same lesson from the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy, in which the Israelites are told, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, how, undeterred by the fear of God, he surprised you on your march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. When God grants you safety from all your enemies around you in the land that God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

I suspect that “blot out the memory of Amalek” means precisely the opposite of how it sounds. Do not forget Amalek. Ever. And if he should reappear, remember what he did to your ancestors and act to prevent it from happening to you.

Memory is supposed to be our teacher. But like I tuned out during social studies and only learned a portion of what was being offered to me and to my fellow students, history – whether it’s retelling the story of a fascist dictator, or recounting the devastation caused by weather patterns (that are patterns, folks, and they will return) – there’s great wisdom in the past. It can help us determine best avenues for the journey ahead. But only if we study it.

I’m reading Dandelion Wine, one of the great narratives by Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451 fame. It took a while for me to start enjoying it. I turned that corner when I realized that, with each chapter, the author was drawing these remarkable pictures of small-town life in 1930s America. And while these are not my memories, I’m loving the neighborhoods which Bradbury has invited me to visit with him.

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental affection for the past. This visitation through Bradbury’s writing to Green Town, Illinois, may seem like it’s just for fun. But the author’s intentions go further. Bradbury wants to teach us about fears that we all must, at one time or another, face, and about the acceptance that is sometimes all we can offer in the face of our inability to change where things are headed. Memory may not provide the tools to win, but it can give us enough knowledge to equip us to live as gracefully and gratefully as possible. Technology, for Bradbury, is both the way forward and a door that sometimes shuts unceremoniously on ways of life that we have loved and must increasingly leave behind.

I have occasionally engaged in grieving for the ridiculous. A television series that’s come to an end. A food I can no longer find in the grocery store. Even this past summer, when a flood in my basement destroyed items long-stored, I was saddened to lose possessions that neither Ellen nor I were ever going to use again.

Still, those memories are pleasant ones. And life ought to include unsubstantial acts that bring us a bit of joy and contentment. We can’t always be saving the world. As Ray Bradbury would suggest, everyone should take the time to make some dandelion wine, that is, to capture one’s best summer memories in a bottle and, when winter has frozen the world around us, head down to the basement and take a sip every now and then to remember warmer times.

In this week’s parashah, Kee Taytzay, there is a passage in the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy (v14) about what to do with the women you capture when you’ve been victorious in battle. Apparently, you can bring one home to mom and dad, and make her your bride. Then, and I now quote, “Should you no longer want her, you must release her outright. You must not sell her for money. Since you had your way with her, you must not enslave her.”

Setting aside the awful way that people in the past, our ancestors included, sometimes comported themselves, I found myself reading this passage as if it were about memory. “Should you no longer want them, you must release them outright.” Some memories need to be let go. Their pain debilitates us and we are continually diminished by them. I’m thinking of memories about terrible ways some have been treated, and how long the memories of such moments last. Their pain can continue for decades. To move forward in a life that has been bruised by such experiences, it might be better to let go of these memories. To leave the traumas behind. Since there’s nothing but anger to fuel the way forward from them, it is better perhaps to abandon both the narratives and the emotions that go with them. We ought neither enslave those memories to us, nor become a slave to them.

It is the month of Elul. In three weeks’ time, we’ll gather here for our annual Days of Repentance, of turning, of doing the work to make our and others’ lives better. For that period of reflection to be a successful one, we are called upon to look back at the year just ending. We think of our actions, our deeds, where we stood tall and where we demeaned ourselves in order to engage in the unimpressive deeds that should be beneath us. But first comes memory. For memory is a sacred act. It is a holy act. During this High Holy Days season, may we do our remembering with humble yet insightful recognition that where we’ve been is a precious asset. For out of our past, we can plan a better future. In the new year 5778, may we succeed in making that so.

Shabbat shalom.

Billy

“Come Then, Put A Curse Upon This People”

In this week’s parasha, Balak (Number 22-25), we read of the king of Moav who, seeing what Israel did to the Amorites (asking permission to pass through their land and, refused, wiped them out), resolves to avoid that happening to his Moabites. He hires Bil’ahm, a sorcerer-prophet, to curse Israel and thus protect his people and his land. Bil’ahm responds to King Balak, telling him that he can only do what God instructs. The first time Bil’ahm inquires, God forbids him to go to Moav. But the second time, God sends him to meet this king.

After a run-in with a talking donkey that protects Bil’ahm from a sword-swinging, ninja warrior with intent to kill, the warrior delivers to Bil’ahm a message from God that he is to continue on with his journey. Arriving in Moav, Bil’ahm meets Balak and reiterates that he can say only what God instructs. Three times, Balak orders him to curse Israel, but instead he offers only blessings. Balak fires him but, before he departs, Bil’ahm curses Balak and Moav meets the very end that they’d been hoping to avoid all along.

A bizarre story, yes. But a not so bizarre question arises from it. What are you and I willing to do to curse an enemy? Perhaps in terms more applicable to our lives: What are we willing to do to vent our anger? Do we say “only what God allows” us to say? In other words, do we behave? Or do we let it all hang out, and go for the jugular because that’s what we feel like doing?

I’m going to come at this from a surprising direction. In May, I saw the musical, “Waitress.” With songs by singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, it’s a remake of the 2007 film starring Keri Russell about a small-town waitress trying to escape a loveless marriage.

Also in 2007, Bareilles got her big break: a recording contract with Epic Records. Her first giant hit was “Love Song,” which catapulted her onto the pop scene and set the stage for these past ten years of success, including three albums and her Broadway musical.

Last night, Aiden and I went up to Kutz Camp, where Ellen’s been serving on faculty and where we celebrated her birthday. During the drive home, we were listening to a mix of pop songs from the last five decades, and on comes “Love Song.” I listened to it, as I had countless times before, mostly to the music (because that’s how I hear songs) but also trying to absorb the story she was telling. Here’s how I heard the song:

“You made room for me but it’s too soon to see if I’m happy in your hands. I’m unusually hard to hold onto.” She’s writing about a new relationship, wondering where it will lead, knowing that such things are not easy for her.

“I’m not gonna write you a love song ’cause you asked for it. ‘Cause you need one, you see.”

As a composer, I imagine many of her feelings are expressed through her music. So if you had just begun a new relationship, and it was with a songwriter, wouldn’t you want your new boy/girlfriend to write a love song just for you? But, she demurs, it can’t come from what amounts to little more than a song request; a love song has to bubble up from some deeper place, from one human being’s profound need for, and devotion to, another person.

Okay, so the lyrics were a little vague, which left me guessing, but pop lyrics often are. “Ventura Highway in the sunshine, where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine. You’re gonna go, I know.” Or how about, ““Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower. Elementary penguin singing Hare Krishna. Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe. I am the eggman. They are the eggmen. I am the walrus. Goo goo g’ joob.”

Oh sure.

So imagine my surprise when the song finished playing and I asked Aiden what he thought the piece is about. He replied, “It’s about her record company ordering her to write a love song and she basically tells them where to shove it.”

Billy’s jaw dropped. How’d I miss that?

I looked up some articles and, sure enough, Bareilles explained that it had been her first big recording contract and none of the songs she was writing were pleasing the company. They wanted something more commercial, something that would sell big.

“Love Song” was her response.

“If all you have is leaving …” which I now understand to be saying, “If you’re just going to threaten me with cancelling my contract” … “I’m gonna need a better reason to write you a love song today.”

This is Sara Bareilles’ most popular song ever, and it got written out of frustration and anger with her handlers. That’s the exact opposite of a love song! And until Aiden pointed that out, I’d completely missed it.

And I love that! She was totally ticked off, but all I heard was a love song. Which leads me to a couple of observations.

First, Bareilles herself admits she was being passive-aggressive, letting everyone else know how angry she was but not confronting the source of her anger (although I imagine that by the millionth copy sold, the producers understood what she was saying to them). But she’d say (and she has said) that this was more about her own growth, about learning how to work with others, how to collaborate in the creative process, something that took time and much adjustment for her. Isn’t this how we learn, and how we grow? Often through frustration and resentment that lead to illumination and understanding.

Second, there’s something here about how one shares anger … either about couching those feelings poetically so that they don’t shout like hatred (which we hear so much of these days, and it’s not poetic at all), or about setting one’s feelings to music (literally for her, metaphorically for most of us) so that angry words get softened. We can’t help but become angry at times; how we act when angry, that’s an art!

And third, in today’s atmosphere of divisiveness seemingly everywhere we turn, we may be able to take a lesson from “Love Song.” Could we approach life like a singer-songwriter, choosing our words more carefully, and considering how each one will affect its listener? Could we set a goal of sharing what’s on our minds, but doing so with such care and regard that the recipient will kind of feel like they’ve just been hit with a …. love song! Imagine yelling at each other like that?!

Bil’ahm could say only what God placed in his mouth. Sara Bareilles might have been asserting a very similar kind of message. Perhaps we, and an awful lot of America, could think a bit about which are the best ways to share our thoughts with one another. It’s not just about saying what’s on our mind, but also how our words affect those who hear us. Bil’ahm got a talking donkey and a sword-wielding warrior as an assist in his efforts to sort through the challenges of his day. We get each other and a few sacred texts to help us out.

Let me end with this. Words are a sacred duty. To mangle Sara Bareilles’ lyrics a bit: “I’m not gonna write you a love song” … I’m not going to tell you what’s on my mind … [just] “cause you’re asking for it” [and I feel like you deserve to get it with both barrels blasting]. Instead, I will only speak the words that need to be spoken, the words that say what’s on my mind but that wield no poison to weaken or to harm you. We can care for each other in ways that are honest and forthright. We can disagree and even argue as circumstances call for, but we can do so always mindful of our responsibility to treat one another as family, as a family of Americans, a family of humankind.

If we can sing our songs like that, I think God might just conclude that we’ve finally learned why the story of Bil’ahm was given to us in the first place.

Eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu … dear God and God of our ancestors … help us not only to understand that there are different ways to share opposing points of view, but to choose the way that is accompanied by respect and unyielding love. May we understand and acknowledge that those who advocate for that which we’d spend as much energy as we can to oppose, they love this country just as we do. We need not acquiesce but we certainly can listen and (like the rabbi who got the meaning of a song entirely wrong) realize that words spoken to us may feel misguided and hurtful, but these very words are expressing powerful feelings of the speaker’s fear and anxiety concerning what is felt to be an unpromising future for the world they love.

Let’s learn to join hands, especially with those whose opinions are drastically different from our own, find common paths, and insist upon journeying to places which will allay fear and anxiety — for all of us — by securing a promising future for one and all.

What’s Up With Elul?

beethovenLudwig van Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827. During those fifty-seven years, he composed a ton of music. When he was 28, in a fit of rage he fell and stood up to discover he’d gone deaf. For twenty-nine more years, he wrote his music without being able to hear well or, for the last thirteen years of his life, at all.

One year before he died, Beethoven composed his string Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Upon listening to a performance of this remarkable composition, another celebrated composer, Franz Schubert, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” The piece is technically and physically demanding work, and must be played without pauses for more than forty minutes. This leaves the musicians with no time to retune their instruments. Done badly then, the piece can end up a mess.

In the film, A Late Quartet, Beethoven’s composition serves as a metaphor for life, and it isn’t a subtle one: “What are we supposed to do?” asks a quartet of musicians preparing to perform the piece. “Stop,” they are advised. “Or adjust to each other” as you’re playing the piece.

Tonight begins the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Elul. These are the twenty-nine days that lead up to Rosh Hashanah. During them, Jewish tradition challenges us to get ready for teshuvah, the process of turning – of recalibrating our lives for the better – in the year-to-come.

elulThe days of Elul seem to me not unlike Beethoven’s string quartet. School has begun, we’re back to work after summer vacation, we never stopped working at all, or taking care of our kids, or any number of jobs and responsibilities that prevent us from ever slowing down enough to take the time and review how we’ve been doing.

But that’s what Elul’s supposed to be for! During these four weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, we’re to take stock of the kind of person we’ve been in the past year. We identify where we’ve fallen short. Have we been kind enough? Have we been generous enough? Have we been selfless enough? And even, have we taken enough care of ourselves?

All of these questions need answers before we enter the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because there’s important, serious and not very easy work to be done in there. We’ve all made some mistakes in the past twelve months. Maybe lots of them. By the time we enter that room, we really need to know what each of us is dealing with. In that way, we can spend time thinking of ways to be better, kinder, more compassionate and just human beings. We don’t want to simply acknowledge our shortcomings during the High Holy Days services; we need strategies for overcoming those shortcomings.

Yesterday morning, while reaching over a counter to open up a window, I pulled a muscle in my back. It really hurt. It got so bad as the day wore on that I had to lie still for most of the day. So I had a lot of time to think. Which is kind of interesting, owing to it being Elul and thinking is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Here are my two significant thoughts from yesterday. First, it took a temporary but debilitating condition to carve out time for me to do my Elul work. And second, that pulled muscle demanded of me my full attention. I couldn’t say I was too busy; the pain relieved me of that excuse. But the pulled muscles of our souls, the debilitating condition of our spirits, that’s much easier to ignore. I received a gift – a mixed bag, to be sure – of uninterrupted time to ponder the questions posed by Elul. But what am I gonna do tomorrow, when I’m not stuck in bed? What will any of us do with these twenty-nine days?

ramadanIn Islam, the month of Ramadan serves much the same purpose as our month of Elul. But Muslims have many rituals – including the pre-dawn meal and prayers of suhoor, and the sunset prayers and meal of iftar, and of course the day-long fast – all to focus them on the spiritual meaning of the Muslim relationship with God.

You and I have the same month, same opportunities, and an occasional blast of the shofar to remind us the High Holy Days are coming.

This fragile world of ours needs good people to take care of it and to make it a safe home for all. Goodness isn’t an impossible task. But it does take work. More than anything, it takes resolve, telling ourselves over and over again, for a lifetime in fact, “I want to be a good person. I will be a good person.”

May these reminders never hurt like a pinched muscle. And even though the challenge never ends … just like Beethoven’s string quartet, may we be ever able to retune our instrument – our bodies, our words, our actions. And may we use this gift of the month of Elul to get ourselves ready so that, when we enter into Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah — the Ten Awesome Days of Turing — only a few weeks from now, we make the best use of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, helping one another to become the gracious, understanding, loving people that God wants us to be.

L’shana tovah … may it be a year of goodness for each of us, because we made it so for all of us.

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

The Wilderness of Our Lives

This week’s parasha is Re’eh. It comprises chapters 11-16 in Deuteronomy, and takes place at the end of the forty years in the wilderness. Moses is preparing the Israelites for life in the Promised Land, reminding them of God’s most important instructions.

Efes kee lo yihyeh b’kha evyon is one of them. “There shall be no needy among you.” Now, does this mean Israel will never know hunger? Or does it mean we should make sure that no Israelite ever knows hunger? Food for thought.

As with the mitzvah about hunger, God reminds the Israelites that everything they need has been placed before them – all they need do is follow God’s instructions on how to live and all will go well for them. This is the central message of the parashah and of Deuteronomy.

River of No Return Wilderness Area

River of No Return Wilderness Area

I recently watched for a second time a remarkably beautiful movie entitled, River of No Return. It follows a biologist and his wife as they spend a year inside one of America’s largest protected tracts of land, the River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho. The preserve includes 2.4 million acres in which, every summer, trail crews with hand saws and axes clear nearly eight hundred miles of trail. But the wilderness just takes it back again, and it can take hours to go a single mile.

One evening on their journey, the couple witnessed something amazing. One of the wolves they were watching turned and crossed a meadow toward them. It looked very young, and her approach was all curiosity. She came within thirty feet of them before circling and passing by. Not so much a brush with danger as a brush with antiquity, with our primitive past when wolves were once our constant neighbor.

The narrator says, “We’ve taken the wildness out of our lives and mostly out of our country too. But in the River of No Return, it’s like we can reach back to a place where we can still see, hear, and feel a little wild.” And goes on to say, “We’re pretty soft these days. Much tougher people lived in these mountains for thousands of years … the Tukudeka, a peaceful, mountain-dwelling tribe. They had no word for wilderness. They probably never imagined nature as something separate from themselves. But we do. And now, when the natural world is slipping away, we’ve had to create a place to call wilderness, a place managed to be wild.”

Our parashah is filled with teachings that seek to tame the wild in us. “Take care to observe the laws and statutes that I have set before you.” “You shall not behave like everyone else, every person as he pleases.” “When you consume meat, be sure you do not partake of the blood.”

These all seem beneficial. But there’s also some worrisome stuff in Re’eh, passages that sound quite foreign to you and me but, in other contexts of our day, sound far too familiar. God instructs the Israelites not to tolerate the other peoples living in the Land – to “tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods.” “Destroy all the places where they worship other gods, whether on lofty mountains or under luxuriant trees.”

Not the kind of teachings we like to repeat around here. We’re the temple that shares a Ramadan meal with our Muslim neighbors, brings Christmas cheer to the homeless on our December 24th Midnight Run, and welcomes a Buddhist monk to teach us in our own sanctuary. We don’t smash our neighbors pillars; we revel in them, in the common humanity shared by the different religions.

Of course, that’s now how all members of the Jewish community see the world. And quite likely, not everyone in this community.

A few months ago, a Conservative rabbi in Austin, Texas, was planning community trip to Israel that would focus on Israeli-Palestinian relations and wanted to include a stop at the grave of PLO founder Yasir Arafat. An explosion of criticism denounced the rabbi for “paying homage” to Arafat, likening it to paying respects at Hitler’s tomb. He was accused of opening a new page in the history of treachery, of glorifying murder and terrorism, all of which rendered him lower than any kapo during the Holocaust.

These kinds of unrestrained attacks on “the other” are what Re’eh seems to endorse. We don’t.

So the question is, do these passages in Re’eh have anything for us? Is there a positive message, an open and generous one that we can proudly carry home with us?

Rabbi Yaacov Haber focuses on God’s providing us with blessing and curse. We’re to choose one – blessing or curse. And every Jew knows which. “Uvakharta bakhayyim … choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” Rabbi Haber’s online shiur shows a photograph of someone holding an apple and a doughnut, illustrating that choice. We all know which is the better option, but we also know that desire frequently wins out over sensibility.

Which may be what wilderness is all about. In the wild, animals live by instinct, acting to self-preserve. Domestication comes about when instinct gets set aside in order to live in community with others. Animals can learn this, and so can we.

It may take a while, and sometimes doesn’t take at all. I’m referring to the domestication of humans. There’s an awful lot of intolerance, hatred and violence in our world today. We see it in nations attacking other nations. We see it in communities within a nation committing genocide against a neighboring community. We see it in election-speak in our own nation today, words that appeal to the basest among us, that embrace xenophobia, racism and sexism.

3ec0c0d07220603c6856d792322940c9Sometimes, it seems our world, like River of No Return, is returning to wilderness. Re’eh – and Torah, in general – seems to be trying to tame us. To control the course of mighty rivers, to clear brush from needed pathways. To demand that we live our lives according to a set of higher principles that were designed to improve not only ourselves but the lives of everyone around us.

Torah didn’t get it right all the time, but it’s also three thousand years old. The American Constitution is only two hundred years old and it embraces slavery. But the Constitution is also working to tame us – and in the centuries since, when we’re at our best, subsequent lawmaking adds to our Constitution, sometimes even improving it.

I used to think the world was always getting better. I still believe it is, but only in part; as often as we move forward, others take steps backward. We are forever challenged to defend high principle, and to try and make sure it’s what people choose (as in the Torah, “choose life”). The key may be in cross-cultural dialogue, that no one and no group can make all of the right decisions but that we need to work our ideas out in the world arena so that, together, we figure out best paths for as many as possible.

By the way, not unlike the traditional experience of Torah Study. Jews don’t study Torah by ourselves. We sit around a table – both with our neighbors and teachers, as well as the great sages through time – and work through our ideas of what God expects of us. No one gets to to be the sole arbiter of the terms of Jewish living; we work that out together.

The River of No Return is a protected wilderness area in Idaho. Yep, we need to protect our wildernesses. Which seems like an interesting metaphor to me. Is there wilderness inside of us that ought not be tamed?

While you’re thinking about that, kudos to President Obama for his recent executive orders creating 87,500 additional acres of protected woods and waters in Maine.

But what of the wilderness in us? Is that to be protected as well? There’s something appealing about that idea, about keeping parts of us untamed and spontaneous and free. But there’s something appalling about it too. When it comes to respecting and preserving human life, the time has come (though it never will, not fully, I don’t think) to tame us all. As Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, once taught: We must strive together “to create human beings untterly incapable of shedding blood.”

His mother called him “Wild Thing!” and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” So he was sent to bed without eating anything. He winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts and, after successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as King of the Wild Things. He enjoys that for a while but starts to feel lonely and goes back home where he finds a hot supper waiting for him.

Elohenu v’elohey avoteynu v’imoteynu … dear God and God of our wild ancestors … help us cherish the wildness that’s inside each of us. May we run and tumble and laugh often. But help us understand that everybody needs love and hot meals. May we listen and hear and respond to a world that desperately needs selflessness and generosity to heal what ails it. If we want “wild,” let’s go wild finding ways to make life better for those who just can’t figure it out on their own. And let no child ever go to bed hungry because of an empty pantry – let such a thing only happen because a wild imagination hasn’t yet been tamed.

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

Woodlands Community Temple (White Plains, NY)
Sep 2, 2016  • 30 Av 5776

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

Charleston+ShootingD

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GCRCMezuzah (6a)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy

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

Serakh bat Asher: To Grasp Fame Without Doing Famous Things

At Woodlands, we’re following Israel’s schedule of Torah readings. So this week, it’s Pinkhas. The rest of you can get a jump on next week.

There’s a reason rabbis seem to only speak about the character of Pinkhas when this parashah comes along. The rest of the Torah text (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1) is mostly genealogies … a long list of descendants from the original twelve tribes. By and large, these lists aren’t terribly interesting, so much so that I recall many years ago Reader’s Digest publishing their own version of the Bible that left out these genealogies. So if you happen to have that version at home, you’ll miss out on the chance to meet Serakh bat Asher.

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher (by Sefira Ross)

Serakh bat Asher is actually mentioned three times in Tanakh. 1st, she gets a mention in Genesis 46:17 as the sister to Asher’s boys: Yimnah, Yishvah, Yishvi and B’riah. She’s mentioned again in parashat Pinkhas, in a census of all Israelites who are able to bear arms, once again as the sister to her brothers (‘tho curiously, one of the four boys, Yishvah, is missing from this list — somebody want to tell me why?). Then, in I Chronicles 7:30 (books toward the end of the Tanakh that review Israelite history), Serakh is mentioned once more as their sister.

Let me tell you about my sister, Joan. She’s the eldest of the six of us, one girl followed by five boys. She was (as far as I could tell, being 13 years her junior) super well-behaved, always doing her parents’ bidding, and living a very conventional life. As a result, while I was growing up in Cincinnati, I would hear many references to “the Dreskin boys” who were always making a name for themselves — either through their achievements or from getting into trouble.

As the youngest of six, I was in awe of them all. But my sister was pretty much known only as “and their sister Joan.” Such is what comes, perhaps, from being dwarfed by your little brothers. Don’t be mistaken, though — she could whup every one of us. And we lived in respectful fear of her. In our constellation, “and their sister Joan” was the star.

Serakh bat Asher is mentioned only in passing in the Torah. For all intents and purposes, she is a mere footnote in Israelite history: “their sister Serakh.” But in midrashic literature (stories composed by rabbis who lived much later down the line), her reputation looms huge. The reason for this is likely because she gets mentioned at all in Torah. Not a lot of women get that. Eve did. The matriarchs did. The daughters of Tzlophekhad did. But they also all had stories they were part of. Serakh bat Asher is known in name only. One can’t help but wonder why (unless you read the Reader’s Digest version, in which case you’re not doing any wondering at all).

The rabbis loved mysteries like this one. Why in the world would someone get mentioned three times without any story? And for generation after generation, they assumed it’s because this woman had a story! So Serakh bat Asher became a most beloved character in our rabbis’ imaginations. Here are just some of her tales:

• The rabbis imagined that, having been present both at the descent down into Egypt as well as the Exodus out of Egypt, Serakh must have lived an extremely long life … somewhere between 200 and 400 years!

• The rabbis imagined that, when Jacob was to be told his son Joseph was still alive, it was Serakh who was sent to play music for her grandfather, and to sing of Joseph’s fate in order that it be revealed to Jacob with utmost love and care.

• The rabbis imagined that this was the source of Serakh’s longevity. After delivering her message with such tender and gentle tones, Jacob gave her a most powerful blessing: a life whose length would surpass most, if not all, others.

• The rabbis imagined that, in the Book of Exodus, when Moses was having difficulty persuading Israel to let him lead them to freedom, it was Serakh who spoke to them and convinced the people to follow.

• The rabbis imagined that later, when Moses needed to find Joseph’s bones in order to carry them up from Egypt for burial in the Holy Land, it was Serakh who remembered their location.

• The rabbis imagined that, in II Samuel 20, which takes place long after the Exodus and during the reign of King David, she may still have been alive, for a certain isha khokhma … an unnamed “clever woman” advised the Israelite general Joab how to win a certain battle and save countless lives while doing so. The rabbis say that “clever woman” was Serakh.

• And then when Serakh’s life finally reached its conclusion, the rabbis imagined that God conferred upon her the honor of entering Gan Eden (Paradise) alive – a distinction that was reserved for the likes of Abraham’s servant Eliezer and the prophet Elijah. According to the Zohar, Serakh resides in heaven to this day where she has become a renowned Torah scholar.

So this supremely unvetted (to use election-time parlance) woman of the Bible, whose name we receive but nothing else, is provided a back-story like no other. And about the only reasonable fact, if we can even call it that, to take away from Serakh’s story is that she must have been a person of substantial importance. To achieve in the Tanakh even a single shout-out, and she gets three, that’s impressive. All we can really do is ponder the question, “How did she earn that?” God bless our tradition for making up so many imaginative and loving tales in response to this question.

Here’s a different story. It’s about Serakh bat Asher, but not the one I’ve been mentioning. This Serakh is one more unknown figure in history whose story – in this case, only slightly better known than her biblical counterpart – impresses and inspires. From 1950s Montgomery, Alabama — specifically during the 55-56 bus boycott which had been sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks and which really kicked the civil rights movement into high gear — Georgia Gilmore is a name you probably don’t know but really should.

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore (1920-1990)

Georgia Gilmore lived in Montgomery where she worked as a midwife while caring for her own six children. She also worked as a cook until the boycott began and she was fired for speaking out against racial inequality. Georgia’s cooking had become so well-known that, now out of work, she was encouraged to open her own business. It didn’t take long for leaders of the boycott — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr — to begin using her home as a meeting place (which happened to serve some mighty fine vittles) and as ground zero for the nascent civil rights movement.

Georgia’s food was awfully good, but her talents and her destiny with the movement were not limited to her cooking. Dubbed “the Club from Nowhere,” to protect the anonymity of its participants, Georgia established a clandestine group that organized food sales – cooking up a storm of meals and desserts to be sold throughout Montgomery and whose proceeds went into coffers of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the guiding leadership behind the boycott.

The significance of Georgia’s efforts is two-fold: First, she was incredibly successful in her fund raising efforts, cited by some as the force which kept the boycott alive, both through the financial assistance it provided and, just as important, the visible community support for those on the front lines that it generated. Second, through Georgia Gilmore’s example, African-American women were inspired to support the boycott wherever and in whatever ways they could. Rival clubs sprang up, initiating friendly competition in providing greatest support for the boycott. Folks did what they could, which amounted to plenty. More than plenty. Gilmore herself is quoted as saying, “They were maids and cooks, and they were the ones that kept the boycott running.”

Georgia Gilmore is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. Like Serakh bat Asher, Georgia’s name is not well-known. But her impact was true and strong, her story very much worth remembering.

Most of us will never become famous. At best, and this is no small thing, we will become famous in the hearts of a small number of people who have known us, and who celebrate us for our principles, our efforts and, yes, our achievements. We need not plaster our names on the fronts of buildings, or proclaim ourselves the savior of a people. We just need to try and do what is right. Some may say that’s not enough, that the powers of corruption and greed are just too great. But take a page from the life of Serakh bat Asher.

Or if you don’t believe that story, take one from the life of Georgia Gilmore. And know that our actions can make a difference, a very big difference. It’s possible that no one will ever hear about it. But perhaps that’s how life is best lived.

I don’t know where these next words came from. But every now and then, they show up at a funeral, recalling the memory of someone whose impact was huge, but known only to some. I love these words, and share them in the hopes that you’ll know someone to whom they apply.

Few of us ever achieve the acclaim of everyone,
But that is not to say that fame has escaped us.
In the hearts of a handful of people whose lives we have touched intimately,
Our torch will continue to burn without us.
And who is to say this is not a greater achievement,
To grasp fame without doing famous things,
To be loved for what we were instead of what we were able to become,
To be forgiven our faults,
And to be celebrated simply for our spirits,
Our character,
And our willingness to try.

Shabbat shalom,
Billy

Rewards and Blessings

Maybe two years ago, Tyler Levan, who’s now nine years old, walked into his parents’ bedroom shortly after they’d tucked him and said, “I’m afraid of the monsters and bears.” Don, Tyler’s dad, then did what his father had done for him when he was little and afraid of monsters in the dark. He took out his “monster spray” and shpritzed Tyler’s door, his windows, his closet and his bed. Don and Judy then hugged Tyler goodnight, thinking that should do the trick, but he stopped them and asked, “How will the spray work if monsters aren’t real?”

TrophiesAnd with that deeply philosophical question which confronts our awareness that something may not be true and yet we cling to the possibility that perhaps it is, Tyler Levan touched upon a debate that has dogged humankind since our brains brought us out of the trees. Religion used to make excellent and effective use of fear to get people to live morally upright lives. The formula was a simple one: do God’s mitzvot and receive God’s reward; stray from God’s mitzvot and prepare to meet thy doom. Such “understanding” of how the world works used to go unquestioned, and many behaved better because of it. Today, we may have great difficulty believing in the doctrine of reward and punishment, but we sure wish it were real.

Judaism used to believe that reward and punishment are meted out in this lifetime. In this week’s parashah, Bekhukotai, which encompasses the final chapters of Leviticus, it’s still the first year following the Exodus with the forty years of wandering still ahead (although they won’t know that until chapter 13 in Numbers). In Leviticus 26, God tells the Israelites that if they follow the mitzvot, the rains will fall in their season, the land will yield its produce, the trees their fruit, wild beasts will not pursue them, and their enemies will flee before them. But God warns without so much as taking a breath, if you choose not to follow the mitzvot, “I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. I will bring a sword against you. And if you withdraw into your cities, I will send pestilence among you, and you shall be delivered into enemy hands. Ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.”

This strategy worked for a while, I suppose. And in fact, there are still plenty of people today who fear God’s retribution for lying, stealing, and worse. But most of us have seen how this works. Lots of bad guys get away with everything – crooks, liars, murderers – so many going unpunished, enjoying their stolen riches that, when it comes to being the good guy, we might conclude, “Well, someone’s gotta be stolen from, lied to, and rubbed out.”

Where’s the justice in that? Judaism’s response came about twenty-five hundred years ago, sometime after our Torah narrative was born, in the book of Job. The story describes a protagonist who has it all but, one by one, he watches his business, his health, and his family be taken away from him. Comforters arrives and interrogate Job to determine what sins he had committed to earn such ill treatment from God. The book is a powerful critique of Torah, challenging the reward-punishment doctrine and echoing what must have been rampant doubt about God’s reliability in matters of just desserts. Twenty-five hundred years later, Rabbi Harold Kushner articulated similar ideas in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He seeks not to explain why bad things happen – that ship sailed when Job’s author upended our sense of God watching over the world and sending home report cards assessing our moral behavior. Kushner shrugs his shoulders when questioned about God’s intentions; instead, he tries only to be helpful to those who want responses and strategies – not answers – for surviving crisis and tragedy.

By the middle ages, Maimonides listed the doctrine of reward and punishment in his famed Yigdal – the 13 Attributes of Faith – but he moved it from bodily consequences to the fate of the soul, and so did Jewish tradition. Reward and punishment are no believed to necessarily be part of this lifetime but are meted out in the world-to-come. In other words, if we’re good, traditional Judaism teaches that eternal fun and sunshine await us; and if we’re bad, we’re consigned to something akin to the flames of eternal damnation.

Heaven & HellYou may be saying to yourself, “I didn’t know Judaism believes in heaven and hell?” The short answer is yes, we do. What those two things look like, nobody pretends to know. Jewish thinkers and writers throughout the ages have toyed with these concepts, but the rabbis only settle upon this admonition, “Just observe the mitzvot. Be careful how you live your life in this world and the world-to-come will take care of itself.”

In spite of Judaism’s clarity of faith on the question of reward and punishment, it’s simply not good enough for me. I’m way too impatient to shout at the guy who just cut me off on 287, “You’ll get yours in the world-to-come!” I need something more instantaneous to satisfy the Angry God-complex inside me. Ellen is frequently horrified by the things I say behind the safety of our windshield to drivers who do stupid, rude and dangerous things. Driving while texting, tailgating, turning right from the left-hand lane, people who throw their garbage out the window, all of these drive me insane.

But my own feelings about the need for instant retribution aside, is there any real payback in the here-and-now for a person’s behavior?

To some extent, I believe – or at least I want to believe – that karma is real, that the universe reacts to how we behave. That “the Force” in Star Wars really can be with you. Back when I was into Transcendental Meditation, we used to refer to this as “the support of nature.” And sometimes I feel like there might be something to that. Dr. King taught us that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” And Steven Pinker, in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, asserts that violence throughout the world – including military conflict, homicide, genocide, torture, treatment of children, of animals, and of minorities – such violence has declined. In other words, life has gotten better for all of us. Admittedly, that’s a very general statement, and life for any given individual may be horrid and cruel, but overall human existence has grown more secure across the generations. Which means, I would imagine, that more bad guys have been brought to justice and more good guys have felt the sun shining at their backs.

Besides looking for evidence in the daily news of increasing fairness and justice, I suggest that equally as important is what we see in our everyday lives around us – the people with whom we have regular contact, whom we watch day in and day out, how they treat others around them, and the effect this has on how others view – and subsequently regard – them.

I think that perhaps the greatest joy, and honor, of serving as a rabbi at Woodlands is observing how you live your lives. I see how you spend time with your families – with your partners, your children and grandchildren, your parents and grandparents – and I’m endlessly touched by the generous love you give to each other. I see how you spend time with other members of this congregation, how a simple greeting can lift another person’s day, how a shared opinion can be respectfully welcomed during a discussion, and how a visit to a congregant in need – and I’m thinking especially of your visits to Irene Gurdin at the Sarah Neumann Nursing Home and to Gloria Falk at Care One in New Jersey – and I’m simply bowled over by the love that you’re willing to bring to others. And then I see how you roll up your sleeves and distribute food and clothing on the Midnight Run, how you prepare meals and engage in conversation with the elderly folks from Project Ezra. I witnessed your incredible desire to help families whose homes had been damaged along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina and then right nearby during Superstorm Sandy. And I watched as you built a Jubilee Tablecloth and presented nearly $4000 in donations to my friend, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, and the organization Mazon which seeks to reduce hunger worldwide.

And then I watch as the leaders of this congregation – from committees that prepare scavenger hunts, barbecues and college mailings right on up to our Board of Trustees and Executive Committee – how you treat one another, listening respectfully, disagreeing lovingly, and acting to create something of beauty here at Woodlands that goes way beyond any particular program or project, but blossoms in the relationships that reflect Judaism’s admittedly idealistic hope that when we look into each other’s eyes, we see God’s face, and we treat one another accordingly. It doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it feels awful, but so very much of the time, it does happen. And that makes my spirit soar.

These kindnesses that we bestow upon each other, they are very much their own rewards. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle. And so it goes. Souls going this way and that trying to assemble the myriad parts. But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle. Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane, insuring that all the pieces were there. Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. And when you present your piece, which is worthless to you, to another, whether you know it or not, whether they know it or not, you are a messenger from the Most High.”

We carry one another’s puzzle pieces. Our tasks – perhaps assigned to us by God, maybe comprising one or more of the universal sparks which our mystical tradition describes as our role in tikkun olam, making the world whole – these tasks invite us to increase goodness wherever we can. And in so doing, welcome others to increase goodness for us.

KindnessIt may just be my greatest statement of faith, but I absolutely believe that goodness abounds, that while temptation and perhaps fear can drive us to act contrary to what we know is right, most of us try to do the right thing. And not just because it’s right, but because we like doing good. And I suppose my other great statement of faith is that I believe these things come back to us. They come back in the respect we engender within ourselves. They come back in the admiration and love we receive from others who observe our kindnesses. And maybe they even come back in a loving universe that appreciates the good we’ve done and tries to offer some good in return.

A number of years ago, I found myself sitting in the dentist chair, with the hygienist describing in great detail events that had brought her to the conclusion that she is definitely being watched over by a guardian angel. My mouth, at the time, was filled with dental instruments and so I was unable to react. I might have told her I don’t believe in guardian angels and that we run the course of our lives within the very logical (‘though not always kind) forces of nature. But perhaps it was better that my mouth was otherwise occupied and that I lived another decade or so before responding to her here tonight. A little older and, I don’t know, wiser? Humbler? Kinder? Now I think, who am I to tell anyone that their life is anything less than a blessing? And that the forces of the universe don’t love someone who values gentleness and caring.

The number of our years is far too few to spend them on anything other than being good to each other. Maybe that makes me her guardian angel. I can’t swoop down and make sure that she and her family are always safe, but I can put in a good word with her boss that I think she’s a great hygienist, and I can tell you how wonderful she is, how she models the kind of behavior and approach to life from which I think we’d all benefit. Which maybe makes me your guardian angel. And later, when you share your story of someone’s not-extraordinary kindness (because “extraordinary” is the last thing that kindness ought to be), perhaps you’ll be my guardian angel.

Tyler Levan quite likely wanted his parents and their “monster spray” to look out for him. But that big brain of his understood that reality might be otherwise. There may be no monsters in the night. But if that’s the case, how do we manage the fear that we feel nonetheless?

The answer may be in our mitzvot. Whether it’s the 613 that are denoted in Torah, or some other collection that we learned from our parents, from our teachers, in our books, or just by watching how life works … regardless, our actions may very well trigger re-actions that reflect back some of what we’ve put out into the universe. And while the reward or punishment may or may not be felt by us in our lifetimes, it’s out there somewhere.

I choose to believe it is. And try to live accordingly. It was good enough for my ancestors, and that’s plenty good that’s left for me.

Hazak hazak v’nitkhazek! With these thoughts, we end this year’s cycle of learning from the book of Leviticus, and we wish one another strength of body, strength of spirit, and strength of faith that goodness is indeed, in some way known or not, a source of personal and universal reward.

Ken y’hee ratzon.