Composed & Arranged by Billy Dreskin

the universe can always use more harmony

Turning into the Rising Wind

This past February, on a family trip to Israel, we drove through the Hula Valley, an agricultural region up north that is especially fertile because of abundant fresh water. Our guide shared with us that the Hula Valley is a major stopover for birds migrating along the Syrian-African Rift between Africa, Europe, and Asia. Every year, 500 million birds migrate along that route.

500 million birds!

Israel has always been a major crossroads between great civilizations. In ancient times, Egypt to the southwest and Mesopotamia to the northeast would vie for control of this important corridor. But history always speaks of the human traffic. Who knew that birds followed this route as well?

The trip is 3400 miles long. To preserve their strength, the birds catch the thermals — rising masses of warm air — which occur only over land, helping them to stay aloft with minimal effort, also ensuring a place to rest and feed. Israeli bird watchers love this.

Israeli farmers not so much. 500 million birds consume a lot of produce. With the region responsible for so much of Israel’s agriculture, this little winged jaunt could be an economic crisis in the making.

So what did Israel do? They created restaurants. Restaurants for birds. And the birds have learned the routine. They know what time of day and they know the sound of the trucks and tractors that cart out the food. For example, in one area, 30,000 cranes are fed over four tons of corn each day.

This keeps the birds fed, and the crops uneaten. Clear across the Hula Valley.

Our lives are filled with challenges in search of solutions. These challenges can be most unsettling to our lives. They can threaten our well-being, and sometimes our lives. But perhaps we can learn something from Israel’s fluttering visitors and the farmers who see to them. Sometimes there are elegant, practical solutions available to us, even when the situation seems dire and overwhelming.

The month of Elul brings a forty-day period of time that includes the holiday of Selihot and, close on its tail, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These forty days arrive no less momentously than the 500 million avian visitors to Israel’s Hula Valley. The gift these days provide is to offer us time and ideas that gently encourage us to find solutions to the tests we face. And just as the birds of the Hula Valley are beholden to the farmers and their tractors which line the flight path, there are men and women (and sometimes children, and even dogs) whose love and support serve as our own “thermals,” helping us to stay aloft during the long flights that carry us from times of challenge to places of contentment and well-being.

Teshuvah – turning – is our goal during these forty days. With earnest effort, we can turn the corner on something of ours that’s in need of change. Our reward can be sizable: aery flight into new vistas of living that bring goodness and blessing to ourselves, and to all whom we encounter along the way.

Billy

Based on a Selihot thought shared at Woodlands Community Temple, White Plains, NY (Sep 2012).

Blessings from a Bolt of Lightning

From January through June, I was privileged by my congregation to receive a sabbatical from my rabbinical duties. Among its many renewing experiences was a trip this past February to Israel. Ellen and Katie and Aiden and I, along with Ellen’s brother Cliff and his wife Sandy, joined together for this expedition which, in a number of ways, was quite different from any other trip I’d taken there. First, and most importantly, it’s the first time I’ve gone to Israel with my family. During rabbinical school, Ellen and I had spent a year there, but that was before we had kids. Katie did travel with us once, way back in 1988 when Beged Kefet had been invited to perform for the CAJE Conference in Jerusalem. But she was only 6 months old at the time, so I’m not sure that really counts.

This time, it was the four of us together, and everyone was old enough to really appreciate it. But what made the trip most different of all was that Aiden, assuming his rabbi-and-cantor parents would want to (I guess) pray at every synagogue there, had asked that we not make it a religious pilgrimage. Ellen and I agreed to tone down “the Jewish stuff.” So, for another first, we spent only a couple of days in Jerusalem, and allowed the trip to focus mainly on Israel’s incredible natural terrain.

In the center of the country, we visited the startling, sparkling springs and hiking trails of Ein Gedi, meeting up with more ibexes than you can shake your antlers at. Up north, we walked along the banks of a rushing, very full Dan River. And near Tiberias, we spent time with the alligators and in the hot springs of Hamat Gader (the ‘gators do not occupy the hot springs).

Truth, however, is that we didn’t avoid human spiritual activity entirely. The Kotel (and its underground excavations) in Jerusalem were as magnificent and stirring as ever. Even Aiden seemed moved by it. We also visited the mystical city of Tz’fat, where we spent some time inside one of the small, timeless synagogues that dot the city’s street. Again, Aiden did not complain (I think he’s more spiritual than he lets on).

Tz’fat is, of course, home to many artisans and we love visiting as many of their galleries as our legs will allow. Sometime during our wanderings, we stumbled across the Canaan Gallery where they hand-weave tallitot. I had just finished a 20-year run with my current tallit, which was now quite thread-bare, and very much wanted to return from my sabbatical with a new one.

I loved this place because I didn’t have to select something off the racks. Invited to choose a fabric, choose a weave, and choose a color scheme, I was thrilled. And then I was invited to choose a text to embroider on the atara. The salesperson said, “Now please don’t forget about your order. You’ve made all your selections and paid me your money. Send me the text so I can finish the tallit and mail it to you.”

I never forgot the tallit. I never forgot the text. I also never sent her the text. Because I could choose any text in all of Jewish tradition, and because it could be anything, I knew it couldn’t be any text I’d ever seen used before. That meant I’d have to read the entire Hebrew Bible to find my text! So when the call came from Israel, “Why have you forgotten your order?” I explained that I hadn’t. I just needed some more time.

Finally, around the beginning of May, I found it. It’s in the book of Job. Job was the guy who’d had it all, then lost it all (apparently at the whim of God) and then got it all again. In his deepest suffering, Job cries out to God, asking to know the reason for his suffering. The Creator correctly admonishes him, saying, “You know next to nothing about the workings of My creation. Your questions to Me will always go unanswered.” While this sounds unduly harsh in God’s treatment of Job (who was sitting right there with God, so should have been able to at least get an inkling as to what brought all this about), you and I don’t get any audiences with God. God’s silence when we question is par for the course.

The text I settled on comes from God’s response to Job (38:35). God asks him, “Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?”

This text is perfect for me. We are so small and the universe is so great. We understand much about how it works, but our knowledge is still infinitesimal. Humility is in order. The lightning belongs to God. It will not come when we call it.

So while we pray, and sometimes think it in our purview to call upon the Creator of the universe to do our bidding, this tallit will serve as an excellent reminder that I can neither ask nor demand anything of God. Humility is in order.

At the same time, we are most definitely part of the universe. It happens around us. It happens to us. And we happen to it. We need to beware of getting in its way. And also, as guests here, we have a responsibility to take care of it, and to take care of each other.

It is with this sense of humility and of responsibility that my family joined together during my sabbatical to create The Jonah Maccabee Foundation. Three years after Jonah’s death, we feel that we can do more with the pain and the challenge that accompanied the disappearance of our son and brother. With the success of the annual concert at Woodlands Community Temple in Jonah’s memory, which raises funds to get Woodlands kids to URJ summer camps, we realized we might be able to do more.

So with the help of some very kind folks, we incorporated, applied for nonprofit status, built a website (http://jonahmac.org), learned how to Twitter, to harness PayPal, to advertise on Facebook, and even pin photos with a message on Pinterest. As a result, we have built a larger avenue on which to affirm life and not complain of its cruelty. Rather than simply carry on, which no one would begrudge us doing after Jonah’s death, we choose to draw something good out of something horrible.

There’s a wonderful story in which two men are traveling through a forest. It’s dark, the path has become nearly impossible to see, and the two men fear that they are hopelessly lost. Worse yet, a thunderstorm is headed their way and already, the skies have begun to rumble, announcing the approaching rains. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning splits the sky. One of the travelers looks up, startled and frightened by the lightning. The other looks down, understanding the brief light as a gift to help in finding their way back to the path. A second bolt of lightning flashes. This time, it strikes a nearby tree, setting it aflame. The first traveler runs away, in fear of the raw and powerful energy that had narrowly missed striking them. But the other runs toward the tree, understanding that it is precisely in the vicinity of that burning tree that the two travelers will find light and warmth.

Ha-t’sha-lakh b’ra-keem v’yei-lei-khu v’yom-ru l’kha hi-ne-nu … Can you dispatch the lightning on a mission and have it answer, ‘I am ready’?” The world isn’t an easy place for anyone. But understanding that, it’s possible to construct new things of beauty, paint new vistas, write new melodies – even when tears are never far from the surface.

Billy

By the Numbers

Years back, I read in The Washington Post (“The Shortwave and the Calling,” David Segal, Aug 3, 2004) about something really weird on the radio. In 1992, a guy named Akin Fernandez, who’s always been into collecting off-beat stuff, began recording middle-of-the-night broadcasts of numbers. That’s right. Stations whose signal can’t be found until the moon’s shining, and whose program consists solely of people reciting long lists of numbers. Sometimes they add words.

Gosh.

The voices can be male or female, and even children. The languages include English, Russian, Spanish, Czech and others. “You’re listening,” says Fernandez, “and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal. It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”

Film director Cameron Crowe, who used some of Fernandez’s recordings in Vanilla Sky, talks about the numbers stations as being one of the few mysteries left around us. That’s a really powerful statement. Whether it’s due to the quantum leap of the information age (just about everything about anything seems to be accessible to anyone) or our jaded loss of wonder in an all-too-harsh world, true mysteries take us by surprise.

And we don’t necessarily like that. Recent Nobel Prize winners gathered their honors for work done in measuring background radiation levels that continue to assert the power of the Big Bang Theory of Creation. In the New York Times, however, a telling comment about the density and patterns of the radiation reads, “Cosmologists now believe that these lumps or ripples are a result of quantum fluctuations, tiny jitters in the force fields that filled the universe when it was a fraction of a millionth of a second old.”

A fraction of a millionth of a second old. Wow! That bowls me over. Physicists are among the smartest people on earth. They can take us back almost to the beginning of time, but not quite. And that “not quite” is one of the universe’s great, unrelenting mysteries. Some will say, “Well, it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Big Bang itself.” But physicists shake their heads on that point, because the moment of Creation (and certainly, the nothingness that “existed” before) transcends every law and theory of the physical universe that we know.

It may never be figured out. Not that they won’t keep trying (and they should). But like the numbers radio stations, some mysteries may never be solved. By the way, the most solid theory on the numbers is that these are encoded messages being broadcast to covert operatives across the globe. Problem is, no government will confirm that.

The mystery continues.

Mystery is good, though. Keeps us wondering. And wondering is good. Keeps life in perspective. Because if we think we know everything, we may think we’re in charge. But when we’re in the dark, we may remain a bit more circumspect about how free we are to do what we want with this planet.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches an idea about God that he calls “radical amazement.” In a universe that – whether we have scientific understanding or not (and it truly cuts both ways) – ought to fill us with awe (because of its beauty, its complexity, its vastness), our response ought not be a jaded one but a response of joy, of surprise, of gratefulness (for receiving the opportunity to be part of it). And whether we sense a conscious entity making an intelligent choice to put us here, or we sense something that existed before Creation and is somehow responsible for life flowing out of it (the Big Bang moment) … there has never been anything quite like that, and “radical amazement” is a most appropriate response.

In religious traditions, the name “God” is assigned to the force that is responsible for our existence, and “prayer” is our very natural expression of awe and gratefulness at witnessing it all.

Perhaps one day we’ll find out not only what happened at the precise moment of Creation, but what was going on before Creation — maybe we’ll learn it’s all been a covert government operation! Even so, with knowledge or without, the universe is a radically amazing place. The numbers stations are kind of their own prayer — words and sounds broadcast for us to hear, giving expression to our thoughts of how great, big, beautiful and inspiring is the mystery of it all!

Billy