Charlottesville

I sit typing these words just a few days after the tragic events in Charlottesville Virginia.  It is hard to imagine that in the year 2017 (5777) White Supremacist and Nazi groups walked the streets of an American city, chanting anti-semitic slogans and carrying flags adorned with swastikas.  Americans were chilled by the images that came from Charlottesville, but for Jews the images were even more disturbing, bringing to our minds memories of the events of the Holocaust and the twisted and irrational hatred of our people that has all too often plagued us over the long years.  It felt like the nation had collectively taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

We must always be on our guard.  Even here, even in America, so far away, in both time and place, from the horrors of World War II.  How easy it is to grow complacent, to allow ourselves to imagine that our hard won freedoms are guaranteed, that the forces of evil have been utterly defeated.  Remember the line in the Haggadah – “In every generation there are those who seek our destruction.”  And the Torah warns us of the dangers of complacency in the Book of Deuteronomy:  “Beware, for at the very moment when you feel settled, when your wealth has grown, when your home is strong, when your life is good – beware lest at that moment you begin to take it all for granted.”  (Deuteronomy 8)  The blessings of life should never be taken for granted.  And the greatest blessing of life, after life itself, is freedom.

The key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  When some are free and others are not freedom is illusory, a house of cards that can all too easily come tumbling down.  That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We have yet to realize that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Over the last days there have been rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Moving forward we must make sure that those are the values and ideals that we embrace as a nation and as individuals.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our hearts and poisoning our minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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Teach Your Children

Penned by Graham Nash, the song first appeared on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  Arguably one of the best known and most beloved rock songs of all time, the opening lyrics are unforgettable, sung in the high, soaring harmonies that marked the group at its height:

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you will cry,
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.*

The song came into my mind this past Sunday evening, when Becky and I had the chance to see Dark Star Orchestra at the Maine State Pier in Portland.  The band was in rare form, probably the best I’ve seen them, playing with energy and verve through a concert, as they say, ‘originally performed by the Grateful Dead’ in the spring of 1989.  It was a GA venue over looking the water, a gorgeous and sunny Maine afternoon, everything just about exactly perfect.

It just so happened that we found our spot in the sea of Deadheads a few yards in front of the soundboard.  To our right was a multi-generational Deadhead family.  The original Heads, now in their mid-60s, brought their daughters and grandchildren to the show.  The grandmother took great joy in sharing the time and the music with her grandchildren, spending a good part of the evening dancing with them, holding them, laughing and playing with them.

There is something about old Deadheads that tugs at my heartstrings.  They’ve often seen a lot, been through a lot, done a lot (maybe in some cases too much!).  Their bodies don’t quite move like they used to (whose do?!).  But there is a powerful resiliency there.  And also a love of something deep and true.  When the lights go down and the music comes up, the first notes ringing loud and clear through the blue sky of a late summer afternoon, they get to their feet and begin to move.  The heads start to nod, the hips shake, the feet shuffle, the fingers snap.  And yes, the lips smile.  They feel it in their hearts and souls, the sweet melodies that have accompanied them through so many years, so many moments of their lives.  The music brings them to their feet, rejuvenates their spirits, gives them a few precious hours to leave the world behind and to join in the great tribal celebration with family, friends, the extended Deadhead community, and yes, even with grandchildren.  Perhaps, especially with grandchildren.

The second set of the show opened with Shakedown Street, the Dead’s nod to the late 70s disco revolution, somehow turned into one of their great jamming vehicles.  “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart!”  We might say the very same thing about the old Deadheads.  Teaching the next generations, they are still on the road, still driving the bus.

* Deadheads will remember that the opening pedal steel guitar licks of the tune are played by Jerry Garcia

here is a link to the Grateful Dead’s original performance of the Pittsburgh ’89 show

And below a picture of the proud grandmother and her grandchildren at the show – IMG_4940

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Detours

Each year I release a reading list to my congregation of books I plan to read over the summer. I generally read the books that make the list, but I also add one or two unexpected titles. These are my reading ‘detours.’ I discover them in local book shops or in the NY Times book review. They catch my interest for one reason or another and before I know it the official list books are on the back burner and I am deeply immersed in some new narrative.

This year two detour books have appeared. One is the 2013 Mann Booker prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Cattan, and the other the new David Grossman novel To the End of the Land. I finally finished the Catton book a few days ago. A monster of a read at 850 pages.  It is beautifully written, but I had the feeling I was watching a magician’s trick – it was enthralling but at the end it didn’t ring true.  I have high hopes for the Grossman novel but want to finish Hillbiilly Elegy before I get to it.

Some summers it is the detour read that ends up the best of the batch. This summer the jury is still out, but I have a feeling nothing will beat Lincoln in the Bardo which I loved, a book that truly moved me.

In the meantime I will keep my eyes open for further detour opportunities. After all, isn’t that part of what summer is about? Finding the hidden roads, the never before tasted treat, the unexpected delights and pleasures of being away?

What is it that Bobby Weir sings in Lost Sailor?

Drifting, you’re drifting; drifting and dreaming; ’cause there is a place you’ve never been; maybe a place you’ve never seen; you can hear them calling on the wind…

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Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

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An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Limiting God

There has been a bit of an uproar (maybe more than a bit) in the worldwide Jewish community over the Netanyahu administration’s recent decision to freeze plans to establish a mixed prayer space near the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem.  Liberal Jewish groups have long argued that the sacred site belongs to all Jews, not just those from the Orthodox world, and so should be open to various styles of worship, to include men and women praying together, and women leading prayer and reading from the Torah.  A year and a half ago it seemed as if this long held goal was about be realized when an agreement was hammered out between Netanyahu’s government and  various Jewish groups.  Suspiciously (although perhaps not surprisingly) the agreement was never put into action, with various and sundry excuses offered as to why things were taking so long.  Then last week the announcement was made – the idea was being ‘shelved.’

Netanyahu could care less about the Wall as religious artifact and sacred site.  If anything, it signifies to him the sovereignty of the state.  But he is beholden to the Orthodox members of his governing coalition, and so, pressed to mollify them, he is allowing the Kotel to essentially be held hostage.  This political dynamic has been extensively analyzed over the last few days, and a quick Google search will turn up any number of articles describing it.

So I would like to focus for a moment on another issue, namely that by suggesting there is only one way to ‘do the Kotel’ the Orthodox community is in fact limiting God.  Essentially what they are saying is this:  God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the cosmic Creator of the entire universe, and yet God is also (you’ll please excuse the anthropomorphism) small minded.  That in all of God’s vast power and knowledge God can only accept one narrow path of human behavior in terms of being worshipped.

This is irrational.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  God, in all of God’s vast power, can only accept one way of worship?  Instead, doesn’t it make God greater to understand that God can accept many ways of worship?  That there are a variety of pathways that will ultimately lead to God?  Some are Jewish, some are not.  Even within Judaism, there are multiple pathways.  And if we stop to think about it, wouldn’t we imagine that God is ‘big’ enough to accept them all?

It is true, to a certain extent, and maybe even entirely, that God is inscrutable.  I don’t pretend to know God’s will, and I struggle to understand what God demands of me, of my actions,  of my day to day life.  But I do know that the God I am in relationship with is מי שאמר והיה העולם – the One Who spoke and the world came into being.  A vast force of power and mystery, open to all seekers.  From the 145th Psalm:  “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God in truth.”

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