I love this shot. A young woman and her baby, just at dusk. The long and winding road. The distant ocean. Beyond that rolling mountains. And captured in her silhouette against the sea the smallness of each of us and the vastness of the universe in which we dwell. But a boat is there, just off the shore. There is a way to travel in that universe, despite its size, its unimaginable distances, its stars, planets, its space and time. And at the end of the day we are all travelers.
Monthly Archives: July 2015
In yet another summer reading list detour, I am about half way through a wonderful little book called The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. The book is part memoir, part ode to England’s Lake District, part tribute to the ancient farming culture that has existed there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Rebanks is a wonderful writer with an eye for the little details that fully immerse the reader in the story he is telling. The book has been well reviewed, and as I make my way through the pages I understand why – it is an evocative portrait of a family and a culture in which we can see ourselves and our own lives.
The Shepherd’s Life is also a book soaked in nostalgia. For childhood. For a simple life of steady work and uncomplicated days. For a lost grandfather, the patriarch of the Rebanks family. And of course, like all things nostalgic, for the past, in this case an ancient farming culture that slowly but surely gives way in the face of modernity. There is a wistfulness to the carefully composed sentences, a longing for things gone by and memories long cherished.
We are all familiar with that feeling, in one way or another. And it seems to me that summer is a particularly nostalgic time, perhaps the most of any season of the year. Vacations and visits often bring us back to places we’ve known for many years, often reunite us with family and friends who have known us from the time we were children. The old haunts, the old activities, games, rituals, stories, jokes, conversations, even feelings! They can flood back into our minds on long summer days and warm summer nights. There is often a sense of mystery in the remembering. How did we get here from there? Where have the years gone? I came to this place when I was a child, or a young adult, or first married. How is it that now my children or grandchildren come here? This great line from the John Prine song Angel from Montgomery comes to mind: But that was a long time, and no matter how I try, the years just flow by like a broken down dam.
The key, of course, is to remember the past but not to be trapped by it. The old places and memories and thoughts and feelings remind us of who we once were, but also of how far we’ve come in the intervening years. We can’t go back, not all the way. But the past is with us, part of who we are, coloring the way we see the world, the thoughts and feelings we have, the sense of where we’ve come from. Each day is truly a new day. But soft summer breezes remind us that new days are built on old ones.
As in the human heart. Just a couple of days ago I brought the newspapers in after walking the dog. Part of my morning ritual. After feeding the pooch I open the papers on the kitchen table, get my coffee, glance at the headlines. The front page of my local paper, the Baltimore Sun, proclaimed that a sixteen year old had been shot in the city during the night. Drive by shooting. This was one in a series of shootings that have been taking place in the inner city – 35 in the last month, a little more than one per day. What a colossal failure. Of education and social services. Of culture and society. Of humanity and the human spirit. Imagine the anger, the hatred, the hopelessness, the casual disregard for life, the fear, that all come together to create an environment where people are simply being shot on the streets, every single day. That is the darkness that can grow and fester in the human heart.
Then the other headline, front page of the NY Times. About the Pluto mission, the incredible pictures being transmitted back from deep space of the planet’s surface. The flat plains and the towering mountains made, reportedly, of ice. And therein lies the mystery. How is it that the same species that can fall to a place where murders become a daily occurrence can also imagine the possibility of sending a spacecraft to the stars? Can have the intelligence, the brilliance, the curiosity, the vision, even the desire, to reach that far, to touch the stars and travel through the heavens? How could the same kind of hand that wielded the gun that shot the boy in cold blood, the same kind of hand, build the hardware, write the software, that enabled that rocket to reach the farthest edges of our solar system? The same mind that can be filled with vengeance and hate and anger could also breathlessly experience the beauty of the universe, could feel both small and sacred at the scale of it all?
And yet it was so. There were the papers, right there on my kitchen table. Side by side. Arriving the same morning, delivered together, even in a single plastic bag. Darkness and light. Despair and hope. The depths and the heights. “Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord,” wrote the Psalmist. And also this: “My soul thirsts for you, God, like watchmen for the dawn, watchmen for the dawn.”
The literary world has been abuzz over the publication of a ‘new’ Harper Lee novel, entitled Go Set a Watchman. In a release reminiscent of a Harry Potter installment, fans lined up in bookstores to purchase the book just at midnight, supposedly scurrying home and reading into the wee hours of the morning. Perhaps there is something to be said for the idea that one great sermon, (sorry, Freudian slip) rather novel, can make a career.
The new book is most likely an early draft of Lee’s beloved masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, for generations considered standard reading in high school across the country, and commonly acknowledged as one of the great American novels. In Go Set a Watchman the story is set years after the Mockingbird narrative, but the setting and the characters are the same. Scout, the mischievous little girl who in Mockingbird provides the reader with a first hand window into the narrative, is an adult, now in her early 30s. And Atticus Finch, the charming southern gentleman whose impeccable ethical and moral standards made him a beacon of decency and symbol of dignity for all, so memorably played by Gregory Peck in the film version of the book, is an old man. And, astonishingly, a racist.
Literary critics have begun to puzzle out how Lee got from here to there. It seems that her editor took the first draft of Watchman and recommended that Lee focus more on some of the memory sequences, where the now adult Scout recalls her childhood. Over time (evidently Lee worked on the manuscript for close to three years) the Watchman text morphed into the courtroom drama we all know so well. The novel’s chronology was shifted back some twenty years, to Scout’s childhood. The title was changed. And the character of Atticus, initially conceived of by Lee as a symbol of the still racist south as it was in the 50s, became the moral center of the book, reminding us all that there is such a thing as true justice and that all people are created equally in the image of God.
You Star Trek fans out there may remember an episode from the original series called ‘Mirror, Mirror.’ Through a transporter malfunction, Kirk and two of his crew are sent to an alternate universe where all of the show’s characters are evil. Spock is portrayed as a cold hearted sadist. Kirk a megalomaniac and an assassin. At the heart of the episode is the following question: what makes us who we are? Nature? Nurture? Some combination of the two? A Kirk by any other name would still…you get the point.
In the ongoing nature/nurture debate, science recently has been listing towards the nature side. Our genes determine who we are, the course of our lives, our successes and failures, even the day to day choices we make about what we eat, read, whether we turn left or right at the traffic light. Here Judaism disagrees strongly. Instead, the Jewish view is that we are born as blank slates, morally neutral. We are given a good inclination and an evil inclination. The task of our lives is to learn and love and grow so that our good inclination will keep our evil inclination in check. Then we can live moral and ethical lives, remembering to treat all of the creatures in God’s world – and God’s world itself – with dignity and kindness, compassion and caring. Perhaps the new Harper Lee novel is a reminder to us that darkness can creep into any soul. So we must always be on our guard. Set a watchman indeed.
“Gave the best we had to give, how much we’ll never know”
A line from the great late period Hunter/Garcia masterpiece called ‘the Days Between.” Written in 1992, it was first played live and sung by Garcia in February of ’93. The haunting melody matches perfectly with the lyrics – tinged with loss, colored with fading hope, acknowledging the ephemeral quality of all things, even, and perhaps particularly, the Grateful Dead. This past Sunday night, it made its appearance as the second to the last song, in the last set, of the last show in the Grateful Dead’s already historic 5 day farewell run dubbed Fare Thee Well. Bob Weir howled out the lyrics, eyes ablaze, head tilted back, giving it everything he had to the last syllable. The entire run, and certainly this last night, every song, every line, every word, every nuance seemed fraught with significance. Clearly the songs had been selected to reflect what was happening before our eyes. Could they have closed that last show with anything else besides Not Fade Away? Built to Last acknowledged their staying power. Estimated Prophet their California roots. Touch of Grey their age, the wear on the wheels and the water under the bridge. Samson and Delilah all those years of holding big tent revival meetings. Unbroken Chain that next generation of musicians who seem to be taking up the Dead’s mantel. And The Days Between in someway summed it all up. The Dead and the Deadheads, one last time.
It was quite a sight to see. Reminiscent of the late 80s shows, when the Dead reached their all time popularity peak, when stadiums could not hold all of the fans who came out to see the shows, when Garcia was one of the most recognizable people in the world. All of that energy, that vibrancy, the excitement and the craziness and the fools and the hipsters and tricksters and hippies, the day glow and the tie dye, the bean burritos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, all of it showed up at Soldiers Field this past weekend. It was almost like stepping into a time machine. Suddenly, as if out of thin air, it was all there, like it had never been away. And most of all the love and gratitude. From the fans to the band, from the band to the fans. It was palpable, in the air, invisible but you could feel it. How does it feel? growled Dylan in Like a Rolling Stone. GREAT!!! Like it always did. The music weaving and bobbing and rising and falling, binding us together. Sage and spirit. Inspiration, moving us brightly!
But it was bittersweet. There were tears. Many. A part of people’s lives, something that is/was at the core of their beings, part and parcel of who they are, was in a way, a profound way, ending. The last page had been turned, the cover had been closed as the last ragged vocal harmonies of the last song, Attics of My Life, sweetly lifted into the late night Chicago air. We acknowledged it together, that ending. The Dead gave us that opportunity, and it was beautiful and it was hard, it was joyful and it was sad, and it was a gift. How much so I don’t think we realized until we breathed a collective sigh and walked out of the stadium clapping and singing. The old Bo Diddley beat, our love will not fade away, not fade away. Echoing and reverberating, filled with meaning and poignancy, a promise that exits in past, present and future. Gave the best we had to give. Indeed. How much we’ll never know. The Dead might not, but the Deadheads surely do. And we are grateful. Truly, deeply, profoundly grateful.
this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 7/4/2015
One of the books on my reading list this summer is called Bringing Up the Bodies, the second in a series of historical novels about the court of King Henry the 8th by the British novelist Hillary Mantel. The first book is called Wolf Hall, and that title may sound more familiar to you, as one of the hottest tickets on Broadway these days is an adaptation of the novel by the Royal Shakespeare Company that is currently playing to sold out houses and rave reviews. The two books together tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, a born commoner, the son of a brewer, who becomes a lawyer and rises through the layers of British society until he is the most important man in England after the king himself. The books present a wonderful portrait of Cromwell, truly one of the fascinating figures of his age, a person who through the events of his life becomes a symbol of the transition from the traditional structure of the monarchy to what would ultimately become the democratic model of government that changed the world.
One of the ways the books try to illustrate this is by comparing the characters of Cromwell and the King. Henry is portrayed as capricious, self centered and self indulgent, and suspicious, and his central concern is the preservation of his own power. Cromwell, on the other hand, is shown as being clever and thoughtful, sharply intelligent and perceptive, a self made man who is concerned with power and understands it, but believes that power should be applied for the ultimate benefit of the people. If you know the history you know that the story will not end well for Cromwell, but in the course of his life he manages to set the stage for the democratic process that will one day banish the monarchy to a purely symbolic role, devoid of both power and purpose.
There is no question in my mind that Judaism would take a Cromwell over a King any day. Here is a confession: I always feel just a tad bit guilty when I sit with the pre-school kids on Friday mornings and sing ‘David Melech Yisroel.’ They love the song, they know the words, and the hand motions, and it puts the idea of King David in their heads pretty much for the rest of their lives. But the truth is Judaism has always been suspicious of the institute of the monarchy in general and the figure of the King in particular. When we meet kings in the Bible they are generally portrayed as dangerous, selfish, and destructive. Remember that Pharaoh, the great villain of the Torah, is referred to time and again in the early chapters of Exodus as מלך מצרים, the King of Egypt. In this week’s eponymous Torah portion we read about Balak, the king of Moab. He is a vindictive and spiteful man who spends his wealth and energy on trying to hire Bilaam, a gentile prophet, to curse the Israelites. In a series of almost comic episodes his plans are thwarted by God, who causes the prophet to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. The message with both Pharaoh and Balak is quite clear – there is one king, and one king only – God! – and any human who pretends otherwise is only fooling himself.
To get back to King David for a second, the Bible doesn’t even seem to be happy with the idea of Jewish kings. Many of the Israelite kings described in Tanach are portrayed as misguided, dangerous, and as having rejected God and God’s ways. That is in fact one of the central roles of the prophet in the Bible – to tell the king that he is, as they say in the Orthodox community today, OTD – off the derech! – he has strayed off the proper path. Even the institution of the monarchy is described in the Bible as being an accession to the will of the people, but in general not a good idea. You may remember the story in I Samuel chapter 8 where the people go to Samuel, the great prophet of his time, asking that he establish a king over Israel. This is Samuel’s memorable response: This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: he will take your sons into his army, he will make them plow his fields, reap his harvest, make his weapons; he will take your daughters, he will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and love groves, and give them to his courtiers. He will tax you and take your animals, and the say will come when you cry out because of the king you yourselves have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you on that day.’ Not exactly a ringing endorsement. It is the kind of statement that King Henry would have shuddered to read. But Thomas Cromwell, who by all reports knew well the early English translation of the Bible by John Wycliff (1380), would have quietly nodded his head.
So it is perhaps no surprise that the Bible was a source of inspiration and wisdom for the early founders of the United States. The Pilgrims who were settling what would become New England in the early 1600s saw their own story as a virtual recreation of the biblical exodus narrative. England, in their eyes, was Egypt. The King of England was their Pharaoh, and the Atlantic Ocean was their Reed Sea. Last, but certainly not least in their eyes, America was the land of Israel, the Promised Land where they would be free from oppression, and would make a new life under God’s watchful eyes.
Of course the founding fathers also looked to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration. The Bible’s inherent district of the monarchy spoke to them as they struggled against the England and its tyrannical king. It is no small coincidence that so many early symbols from the Colonies and later the United States came directly from Tanach – the Yale, Dartmouth, and Columbia seals all have images and/or words that come from the Hebrew Bible. The inscription on the Liberty Bell is a direct quotation from Leviticus chapter 25, verse 10. And perhaps most interesting of all, the very first design for the official seal of the United States of America, recommended by no less than Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, depicted an image of the Israelites crossing the Reed Sea. As with the Pilgrims before them, the founding fathers saw in their own struggle against England and its monarchy a reflection of the ancient Israelite story of freedom that will still tell each year on Passover.
Perhaps the thread that runs through all of this, the fundamental building block, is Judaism’s insight that all human beings are created in the image of God. If you believe that, then it also must follow that all human beings are equal, deserving equal treatment, equal rights, freedom, and having an equal say in their own destiny and the destiny of their community. A king has no place in that system of thought, where everyone counts, and everyone, ultimately, has a vote. That one simple yet profound idea was brought into the world by Moses, and many thousands of years later would help the founders of this country, on this day 239 years ago, to sign their names to a document containing this most memorable phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
may that be our destiny for many generations to come –