Category Archives: freewill

Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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U.S. Blues

The Grateful Dead canon is filled with references to America, a land (in the Dead’s eyes) of on the one hand potential, possibility, and freedom, and on the other absurdity and utter hypocrisy. Think of the Bob Weir/Robert Hunter composition Jack Straw, with its cowboy anti-heroes, its flying eagles, its reference to the 4th of July and its copping of the phrase ‘sea to shining sea’ from America the Beautiful. In song after song Garcia and Weir sing of old time America, of the Great West and backroom card games, of cowboys on the dusty trail, of small town life and homemade whiskey, Tennessee Jed and ‘just like New York City.’ With parched throats and dusty boots the Dead came out of the West, fresh off the trail, seeking truth through experience, exploring the power of music to reveal the real, creating alternate community but connecting to something at the core of what our great country is about.

They knew in the end there was only so much they could do, but they never flinched. They were pranksters at their core and they could spot a con a mile a way. That may be why for so many years they intentionally maintained an apolitical stance, watching the issues and the elections come and go from the sidelines with bemused expressions. Even later when they started to touch on topics that might have been political they were big picture issues – the rain forest and the climate, the general human tendency to self destruct (Weir and Barlow’s Throwing Stones.) But to actually immerse in the game, to endorse a candidate, or take a position on a particular issue was anathema. Whether right or wrong, the Dead left that kind of thing to Springsteen or Bono or Kid Rock.

But they always watched, keeping the country and its doings in view, shaking their collective head at the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise. There was anger, too. Over the years Weir changed the lyrics in Throwing Stones: ‘Money green, its the only way – you can buy a whole God damned government today!’- always shouted with conviction and a ragged righteousness. In essence, in their own strange, bizarre, and beautiful way, they nobly filled the role of the artist, through their music granting us the flash of insight that reminds us of what it all should be about. Even politics.

The song US Blues captures it. Politics?! Uncle Sam?! The ultimate con-game, the largest and most dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ll even encounter in your life. Beware of patriotism – it can muddle your mind! Watch out for politicians – they’ll try to ‘run your life, steal your wife!’ The song’s couplets are playful, even comical. But the title drives it home – US…BLUES! This is a tragedy of epic proportions. The blues is sadness personified, the lowest and worst situation you can imagine. A blues for the United States is almost a requiem, rock and roll style.

Sounds about right as a description for the political farce we are all so avidly watching unfold day by day. The ratings are through the roof! Can you imagine that? This is what we want to do with our time? Watch men in suits yell at each other, talk over each other, and insult each other with ever worsening vulgarities? Here is a better suggestion: read Mary Beard’s new history of ancient Rome, SPQR. There are some eerie parallels in terms of rising and falling, of how great countries come into being, and of what brings about their demise.

At this point it really does have to play itself out. This great and uncontrollable wave, cresting and crashing, who knows where it might actually make shore? In that very last batch of Garcia/Hunter collaborations there was a sort of US Blues redux, entitled Liberty. Here its first verse: Saw a bird with a tear in its eye, walking to New Orleans, my oh my. Hey now bird wouldn’t you rather die, than walk this world when you are born to fly?

The bird, of course is America. The question is where is it going? And maybe even more importantly, how will it get there? Will it walk or fly?

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From Generation to Generation

this the text of my Shabbat sermon from 2/27/16 –

I have often been told by people over the years that their favorite moment in the service is the singing of ‘l’dor vador’ during the kedushah.  I think one of the reasons for that – along with the beautiful music – is that people know what the phrase means – from generation to generation – and that idea is important to people, it is something they have lived in their lives and believe in.  They know that they have received the tradition from their parents and grandparents, and one of the hopes they have is that they will see the tradition passed on to their children and one day grandchildren.

This sense of ‘generation to generation’ is not only about faith, we do it with many other things as well.  Music is one example.  I remember when Becky was pregnant with Tali, our first, I used to have her stand next to my stereo speakers with her stomach pointed towards the speaker and I would play Grateful Dead music, hoping that somehow through osmosis the baby would grow to love the music that is so important to me.  We also do it with sports – how many young Baltimoreans are given a Ravens or Orioles jersey when they are babies, the parents and grandparents hoping that that will set the child on the path to being a passionate Baltimore sports fan.  Of course we also hope to transmit certain values to our children, a sense of what is important,  of what should be prioritized in life, perhaps an ethical code we hope they’ll use to navigate the world.

And we also, probably more today than ever, hope to give our children our political values.  The way political discourse has become so polarized, I imagine there are quite a few Republicans in the room who would cringe if their children became Democrats, and vice versa.  The problem with all of this, of course, is that for some reason it just doesn’t seem to work precisely the way that we as parents have planned.  Go back to the music for a second – for all of that time Becky spent standing in front of that stereo that was blasting Grateful Dead music Tali basically has no interest in it.  In terms of sports, even in Baltimore you can find the occasional Duke or Pittsburgh Steelers or Yankees fan, a young man or woman with just enough of an iconoclastic streak to buck the trends.

Maybe more than anything else it is the area of politics where our children will take, at least to us, an unexpected turn.  It has been interesting to follow the debate taking place within feminist circles over the last number of weeks about the way younger women in the primary elections and caucuses have been voting for Bernie Sanders and not Hillary Clinton.  This is making the older feminists crazy.  It came to a head a couple of weeks ago when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned women around the country that, and this is a direct quote, “there is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”  She has since apologized for the comment, but the fact that she made it in the first place shows you how frustrated the older generation of women is – or at least a segment of that generation – by the fact the their younger counterparts are supporting Bernie.  And in large numbers!  There are some statistics that show that more than %80 of women under thirty support Bernie, a 74 year old white man, and not Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the great feminist icons of our time.

This idea of the younger generation having its own mind is not exactly a new one.  Some of you may remember the 60s and the incredible revolution that occurred with the college generation, the effects of which we still feel in today’s world.  But I would push it back even farther than that, all the way to the Bible itself.  In the Torah that younger generation is symbolized by the figure of Joshua, the loyal servant of both God and Moses.  It is Joshua who is the field commander for the Israelites when they battle against Amalek, the quarterback on the field to Moses’ coach on top of the mountain.  In this week’s Torah portion Joshua, who is patiently waiting at  the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return, calls out in alarm when he feels something has gone wrong in the Israelite camp.  Later on, in the book of Numbers, we know that Joshua will lead the ill fated mission of the spies when they are sent to scout out the Promised Land, and although the spies lose their faith, Joshua manages to stay true.  It is also Joshua who is filled with רוח חכמה – with the spirit of wisdom – in the very last verse of the Torah, when Moses dies and Joshua becomes the leader of Israel.  And it is interesting to note that Joshua has his own eponymously named biblical book, something that even the great Moses does not achieve.

But my favorite story about Joshua is found in the 27th chapter of the Book of Numbers.  It is in that chapter that God tells Moses that he will be dying soon, that he needs to begin to prepare the people for the next leader.  And I’ve always loved Moses’ response – very canny – he simply says ‘ok, then let God appoint a new leader, someone who will be able to handle the people, do all the things I’ve been doing, take care of all the problems.’  It is almost like Moses is saying to God – ‘go ahead and try to find someone who can do what I do.’  In other words, you’ll never find anybody, you’ll have to keep me around whether you like it or not.

God doesn’t hesitate.  ‘Joshua is right there Moses,’ God says.  ‘Right next to you.  Reach out your hand, וסמכת את ידך עליו –  put your hand on him!’  And what is always striking to me about that passage is that Joshua was standing right in front of Moses, and had been for years.  But Moses had no idea that Joshua had become his own person, with his own talents, his own leadership qualities, his own interests, his own life.  And it wasn’t until God said ‘there is Joshua’ that Moses realized the next generation really was ready to take over, and to begin to do things their own way.  Maybe Moses would agree with it, maybe he wouldn’t.  Most likely some of it he wouldn’t like at all, and some he would probably feel quite proud of.  But that wasn’t event the point.  The point was Moses had to let go, and let Joshua do it in his own way.

We might say the same for our own children and grandchildren.  We do our best to give them the tools they’ll need to live good lives and to be decent people, teaching them whatever we can in the relatively few years they spend living under our roofs.  But somehow, right in front of our eyes, almost without our knowing it, they become adults, with their own thoughts, tastes in music, values, sports affiliations, ways of being and doing Jewish, and even with their own political ideas and loyalties.  And if they don’t match with ours exactly, or even at all, our job at that point is to say so be it.

After all that is what we do our best to raise them to – to be thoughtful, independent individuals who will forge their own paths in every area of life.  That can be challenging at times, but it seems to me it is something to be celebrated, something that means we’ve done our work well.  May our children and grandchildren in turn do their work well, in their own time, and yes, in their own way.

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Rage Against the Machine

Imagine that. They had it right all along, the science fiction prognosticators, the paranoid prophets who saw in early computers a danger to humanity. The Terminator, Clark’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – all envisioning a world where the created over takes the creator, where the machines rise up and rebel, changing the course of history forever. Heck, even Mary Shelley saw it in the fevered opium dreams that produced her great novel Frankenstein. The funny thing is we don’t see it, but we very well may be living it.

The midrashic literature, speculating about the way the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, paints a picture of gradual and subtle deception. Over a long period of time, a decree here and an edict there, a new responsibility added one month, a new freedom taken away the next. And then, seemingly suddenly, they were trapped. What is happening to us is not so dire, nor restricting, and it is true, more than anything else we are doing it to ourselves. OK, the huge corporations, the Microsofts and Googles, the Apples and Amazons, they are complicit, perhaps even driving us. But still. And we are going along for the ride earnestly, not hesitating, even saying ‘faster, faster.’ Where are we headed?

To an age of ‘post humanism,’ according to Leon Wieseltier. In a scathing essay published recently in the NY Times he argues that by so fully entering the machine age, by becoming so dependent on data and so connected to screens, we are leaving our humanity behind. Here a quote that brings his point home: “Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Text without context is dangerous. Information without understanding, without wisdom, is meaningless, and perhaps even worse a path to apathy, to disconnection and dismay, to believing that nothing truly matters. What we must remember is that data can only describe our reality, it cannot make meaning out of it. The human element – intuition, insight, wisdom, inspiration – these are the impossible to quantify ingredients that are necessary for human intellectual life. Without them we do become like robots, responding to 0s and 1s, to code and data, knowing that a rose is beautiful, but not feeling that it is.

One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from Lear. Gloucester has been blinded, and he wanders on the heath with Edgar. By seeming chance they run into Lear, who asks Gloucester how he manages to navigate the world without his eyes. “I see it feelingly” is Gloucester’s timeless reply. (Lear act 4, scene 6) And there you have it. To see feelingly means to be sensitive to what is invisible. It is precisely what machines cannot do, and data cannot show us. And it is also, precisely so, the source of our humanity.

You can read the Wieseltier article at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted

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Hardening Hearts

this the text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/16/16 –

There are certain ideas in the Torah that for whatever reason seem to capture people’s attention.  They come back to these ideas again and again, struggling to understand them, learn about them, or come to terms with them.  Perhaps the most obvious example in the Torah is the binding of Isaac story.  But as compelling as that story is, and as well as we know it, I am asked more often about another idea that appears in the narrative of the Exodus.  We find it both in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and in this week’s portion, called Bo.

We are all familiar with the story.  In the process of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God brings a series of how many plagues against the Egyptians? 10!  After each plague Pharaoh is on the verge of letting the people go, fearful that another plague will soon appear.  But each time, before he acts and frees the Israelites, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened”  or “strengthened” and therefore he decided not to let the people go.

What troubles people – what people ask me about each year when we read these stories – is that it seems to be God Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  God says as much in a conversation with Moses:  ואני אקשה את לב פרעה “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)  When I study the text with people, they often ask:  “How could God do that?  Why didn’t God allow Pharaoh to let the people go after the first plague?  It almost doesn’t seem fair, and in the end, the Egyptians paid for it as much as Pharaoh himself.”  In other words, how could a just God, Who created human beings with freedom of choice, not allow Pharaoh to make his own choice, repent, and let the people go?

As is so often the case the classical commentators struggle with the same issues that we modern readers do.  They offer a variety of explanations for this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  The medieval exegete Nachmanides cites two different explanations.  The first is that some sins are so destructive they  make repentance impossible.  In this case, Pharaoh was deliberately attempting to destroy the Israelites, and so God did not see fit to grant Pharaoh the free choice enjoyed by others.  Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was a way of ensuring Pharaoh’s punishment would match his crime.

The second explanation that Nachmanides offers is based on a close textual reading.  Although we commonly think that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues, when we pay careful attention to the text we discover that through the first five plagues God does not do any “heart hardening.”  Instead, Pharaoh seems to be the cause of his own troubles.  For example, after the plague of Arov, wild beasts, the Torah tells us: ויכבד פרעה את לבו – “Pharaoh hardened his own heart.”  So the sense from the first five plagues is that Pharaoh DID have free choice;  but each time, he chose wrongly.  Then by the sixth plague, Pharaoh’s free choice is taken away, and God does indeed begin to harden his heart.

This pattern is something we have probably all seen in our own lives.  A person who makes a series of poor choices, who continues to do the wrong thing time and again by choice, will eventually find themselves in a position where they can no longer choose.  They find themselves in a place where they are boxed in by the behavior they have enacted and the choices and mistakes they have made.  This is something that can happen not only in the lives of individuals, but also in families.

My guess would be we can all probably think of a family we know that struggles with some kind of deep division.  It might be a brother not talking to another brother or sister, it might be a child estranged from a parent, and sometimes it even extends so you’ll have an entire part of a family not communicating with another part of the family.  You may remember one of my favorite scenes from the Barry Levinson film Avalon.  There are two brothers at the heart of the film, Sam and Gabrielle.  It is Thanksgiving day, and Sam and the entire extended family are seated and waiting to eat.  But the Gabrielle and his wife are late.  The family waits and waits, and finally Same tells them to cut the turkey and begin the meal.  A short time later Gabrielle arrives.  He walks in, he sees them eating, and he is outraged.  “You cut the turkey without me!”  he yells again and again, and he storms out.  It is a hysterical scene, but it also cuts to the chase, because many of us have been there.  The question is, how did we get there in the first place?

Believe it or not, all too often the answer to that question is nobody knows.  There was a sleight at some point – the turkey was cut!  And then someone storms out.  The other feels insulted – how could my brother behave that way?  And then both wait for a phone call of apology.  And wait.  And wait some more.  When it doesn’t come, they get angrier, and they begin to remember older hurts and slights which lie just under the surface.  Then they happen to bump into each other at the bank, and both turn their backs, refusing to speak or even make eye contact.  And then the next thing, and the next.  And before you know it, because of a series of choices they made, one after the other, they no longer have a choice – their hearts are hardened.  Like Pharaoh they are boxed in and they can’t get out.  And by the time they get to the rabbi’s office – which they often do – the anger is too deep, the gap too wide, and the hurt too painful for anything to change.

Some of you may remember the author Steven Covey and his best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  That book was required reading when I was at the Seminary, and truth be told I don’t remember all that much from it.  But there was a chapter about personal change, in which the following quote appears:  “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

It seems to me the message is clear.  Every choice we make is important in our lives.  Each time we choose, the impact of our decision is not only found in the present – it also potentially carries into the future.  Every poor choice sets us back and makes it harder for us to become the people we are intended by God to be.  Every wise and noble choice moves us forward, and opens up future possibilities of goodness and meaning in our lives, in our families, and in our world.

May we remember that and act upon it every day –

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Basheirt

You’ve heard the term. Most commonly we use it when talking about two people who fall in love – ‘it was basheirt!’ we say – in other words, they are truly meant for each other. But the term can be applied in a more general sense, used to mean that just about anything was meant to happen. ‘It was basheirt that I ran into him at the train station!’ It is another way of saying ‘fated’ – that there is some guiding force, and that force is, at least at times, directing our lives. As people so often say, things happen for a reason. And there is something comforting about that idea.

But here is another word: serendipity. Chance. Randomness. The molecules of the universe are flying around and sometimes just happen to bang into each other, and then interesting, unexpected things can happen. You’ve been happily married to one person, but chances are you could have married someone else and also been happy. You might just as easily have run into a different person at the train station, and your life might have been different, but still filled with goodness. Our fates are not being directed or predetermined. We make choices, sometimes we turn left, sometimes right, and in the end we often arrive at our destination. But there is no master plan. We are all just doing our best, muddling through.

Maybe life is actually a little of both. By and large I don’t buy in to the master plan idea. I don’t think everything happens for a reason, and in my experience there is a great deal of serendipity in the game of life. But there are moments when the pieces just seem to come together in exactly the right way. The odds of being in just that place at just that time to meet just that person are so infinitesimal, and yet it happens, and in that moment worlds can be created. After all, what are the mathematical chances for life to come into existence on this mysterious and marvelous planet of ours? As Damon Runyon wrote, the odds of life are 6 to 5 against.

A closing vignette. Last night, dreams weaving in and out of my mind, tossing and turning, noises in the night, thoughts flying through my head. But also the quiet of night, the stillness of the house, the gentle arrival of dawn. Then the alarm. I recognized the song instantly. Touch of Grey, the Grateful Dead’s only top ten hit in their long, 50 year career. We will get by, we will survive. Nice way for an old Deadhead to wake up. Obviously, it was basheirt.

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