31 March 2010

Omer 1: Justice

Omer Day One

Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those that return to her through tzedakah. --Isaiah 1.27

"The most striking phenomenon in the evolution of the Judaic concept of justice is the recognition of the injustice inherent in both divine and human justice." So wrote Haim Cohen in his essay on Justice for Arthur Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr excellent collection, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought (1987). The immediate corrective that the Jewish system put into place was to mediate the pure attribute of "justice" with the attribute of "mercy." True justice needs to reflect both characteristics in order to approximate its Divine origin.

Cohen concludes his essay with questions: "Might it be that true divinity, of justice as of all else, is a description of quality rather than of origin? That God in his wisdom instilled in every human being a sense of justice and a sense of injustice to serve as the test to which all justice and injustice must be put?"

I thought of this essay this morning, when reading a harrowing story by Nina Bernstein in the Times about Jerry Lemaine, a legal Haitian immigrant who is facing deportation for the offense of having a joint in his pocket. Arrested in New York, sent to an immigration court in Texas, where the Texas and Louisiana federal district interprets immigration law differently than in New York, Lemaine has faced solitary confinement, racial prison beatings, and untreated depression, only to be saved (temporarily) by a young pro bono attorney up in New York who decided to take his case (an amicus brief on Lemaine's behalf has been filed in a Supreme Court case that will soon decide his fate.)

I read this story as a Jew and a rabbi and come down unequivocally on the side of mercy. I find it mind-boggling that a federal law can be interpreted two completely different ways, depending upon where one gets sent in the unpredictable maze of US immigration law. I was complaining about this to my wife this morning when she reminded me of something we heard said by the amazing attorney Stephen Bright last week at the EJI dinner. Quoting an Alabama judge who presided over a death-penalty case, Bright recounted, "This judge said to me, 'The Supreme Court has over-turned me twice in my life but I overturn the Supreme Court every day.'"

No naivete here. I get how the battle for justice, and whose justice, will or should prevail.

But one reads a story like this and it seems to me, from the perspective of Judaism's reckoning, mercy should be shown to Jerry Lemaine.

In the counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot, we might ask ourselves anew what it means to receive Torah on Shavuot and to orient our sense of justice to Judaism's classic rendering: "The most striking phenomenon in the evolution of the Judaic concept of justice is the recognition of the injustice inherent in both divine and human justice."

Its inherent imperfection calls upon us for mediation whenever and wherever necessary.

29 March 2010

CBE Passover Greeting

As we gather at Seder tables tonight, we in the Beth Elohim community join with the entire Jewish people around the world in recounting the ancient words of our tradition which ask of us to see ourselves as if tonight we will be freed from the cruel bondage of slavery and delivered to a life of freedom and justice. This call to history, to battle the forces of injustice that still exist today and to bring light and kindness to all who seek it, makes Passover the true Festival of Freedom to all with whom we share this experience.

The Sages teach us that at Passover time we are obligated to recount our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land; but we are also enjoined to tell personal stories, family stories, journeys that have inspired and sustained us from generation to generation, until today.

Our experience in Egypt more than three thousand years ago taught us to hear the God of the Prophets and to always be attentive to those who suffer--the homeless, the hungry, those still oppressed, the widowed and the orphaned. In addition, our experience throughout the ages has taught us that in the words of the Yiddish proverb, "troubles overcome are good to tell." Our remarkable resiliency as a people owes its miraculous existence to our ability to tell a good story, to draw meaning from the simplest of life's experiences, and to pass those stories on, to another generation that will recall them.

So when we lift that First Cup at the Seder tonight, let's rededicate ourselves to memories both ancient and recent--both of which inspire us to build a world of justice, kindness, and meaning.

May each of you be blessed in this Festival of Freedom!

Rabbi Andy Bachman, Senior Rabbi
David P. Kasakove, President
Elana Paru, Executive Director

28 March 2010

The Daily Reckoning

They're painting the doors and floors of our apartment building, in an attempt to restore an authentic color scheme to our pre-war domicile, giving it that authentic Art Deco look.

During this transitional stage, the doors and floors look like the works in progress that they are, somewhere between what was, what is, and what will be--with the especial irony duly noted that 'what will be' will be 'what was.' At least as far as color is concerned.

In their transition from a pale green to a shiny black, the lintels have been painted partially, to test the colors, it seems; and as we have progressed to Passover Eve, I have been struck by the rather eerie feeling that not blood but paint has distinguished us all in this season, at least at this address in Brooklyn.

Do I merit being saved? Each time I enter my home, I am asking myself this question. And more than in years past, it is really spooking me, making me wonder, to a degree, what it might be like to spend the run up to Passover this way each year--paint the doors to signal your readiness for redemption. The animistic has a certain appeal, I must admit.

With difficulty, I admit to many short-comings. A half-year removed from the last season of penitence, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I have already given myself at least a year's worth of things to atone for. And so as the rain clouds give way in the next twenty-four hours to the twilight of our birth as a people, our epic journey from degradation to freedom, I wonder, yet again, why it is we keep on failing and why it is we always get another chance. I marvel at how forgiving our God is; and how forgiving those who love us are; and I also quake in terror at the possibility that one day, the Presence may not be present.

I am reading Aharon Appelfeld's most recent novel translated into English, Blooms of Darkness, and I am struck--haunted, seduced, mesmerized, is more like it--by his narrator's incisive observational eye, his capacity to grasp human suffering, and the macabre yet somehow playful nature of staring into the face of tragedy and devastation, leaving one, oddly, with a sense of hope and redemption. I wish a long, long, long life upon Aharon Appelfeld. How I will mourn him when he's gone!

Appelfeld's journey this time is deeply psychological, moving from a kind of surface, child-like naivete to a deeply troubling but illuminating set of mature conclusions about human nature, relationships, devotion and betrayal. I find it a terrifying experience to read this book, primarily because as I turn each page, I think I can sense the general narrative rhythm, yet the story deepens with such subtlety that I find myself lulled into submission, if one can propose such a thing.

Lulled into submission.

This is the post-Exodus journey that we have yet to take. We haven't left Egypt yet. But by tomorrow evening, after food and story and song and the requisite Four Cups, we will have been released from the mayhem of liberation and only then will the real work begin. A desert journey that will last forty years. And fittingly, a journey that for those born in slavery will not end in the Promised Land but will end just short--but our own sacrifices will have paved the way for others to enter. The painted doors are but a temporary accommodation for grand, as yet realized conclusion.

The very definition of humility: we strive to achieve not for ourselves but for others. This is the true liberation beyond the self and into an other, the Other.

May the idols of self-fulfillment give way to the realization best articulated by the great sage Hillel: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And yet, if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

If not now, when?

Let's make our Seders.

And let the Counting of the Omer begin. The delineated accountability. The daily reckoning.

27 March 2010

Questions Under the Hood


There is no question that one of the greatest periods of my dad's life was the time he spent in the service. Pictured above here, as a young man in the 980th Engineering Corps of the US Army, stationed at the time of this photograph at Camp Campbell, Kentucky, Dad learned how to work on jeeps and tanks, and, according to the stories he loved to tell, he also learned how to play ping-pong with a cigarette in his mouth, paddle in one hand, and donut and coffee in the other. Don't ask how he pulled it off--he never really showed me himself but as a kid of 6, 7, 8 or 9, I had no reason not to believe him.

These stories--more like small anecdotes or vignettes--would come pouring out during the years of my parents divorce, when I'd stay at his place and after a ball game if Johnny Carson's guests were a bit dull, I'd heave the box of his war pictures down from a shelf and make him recount various stories. The time his friend from Detroit thought their carrier was on fire and insisted on trying to bring a case of beer on to the lifeboats (false alarm) or the first time he kissed a girl, in France, of course. Dad didn't like to build too much narrative; his stories were minimalist, I'd suspect because by the 1970s, he was aware of their past place and not particularly sentimental about them. But he knew, and relished, the heroism I saw in them, despite their somewhat unremarkable martial relevance. He was one of several million guys who never actually saw action but served his country with pride, a legacy I wish I had continued, truth be told. My friend Rev Dan Meeter and I had lunch recently and we were talking about why we feel that politics and social policy should, to a degree, emanate from the pulpit. And we both shared the idea that we were motivated to serve our nation as much as were motivated to serve our God.

In 1985, a couple years after Dad died and I was a student at Hebrew University, I invited my teacher George L. Mosse to come give a talk in Ze'ev Mankowitz's undergraduate history seminar on Mount Scopus. George, who had just written about war memorials, asked me in front of the students if I had noticed what was carved inside of the large cross that stood in the center of the WWI Cemetery down the road. I gave him a blank stare. "The sword!" he bellowed. "The sword! To convey the notion that God and Country were virtually indistinguishable!" A lesson I never forgot.

Dad seemed to leave God behind when he returned home in 1946. GI Bill, a BA from Madison, some messing around, and then marriage and the start of a family by 1958. In succession there were kids from 1958 until 1965. By 1975 my folks had split and Dad died of a large and instantaneously fatal heart attack in 1983.

Each year when his yahrzeit comes, I marvel at the nearly incomprehensibly fast nature of his demise. It seems, from a certain perspective, that he lived life on the run from himself, never really pausing to make decisions based on just enough reflection to shift, alter, or even change direction.

He was smart as hell; really handsome; and ready with a joke. He had a kind of charisma that during my teenage years, made him the go-to guy for a lot of friends who couldn't talk to their dads but could open up to mine. I loved that about him.

As I was saying Kaddish for Dad this week in Shul (he died on the 8th day of Nisan, March 22 on the secular calendar) I stood in front of the congregation and my mind wandered (full disclosure) as it often does. I remembered a story I have written about before--that when Dad died, my uncle, Dad's only brother, came to pick me up at my apartment in Madison. We said very little to each other on the 90 minute drive home to Milwaukee; and the reality is, I can only remember one line: "Your father worked on cars during the war but he never looked under the hood of his own car." Or something to that effect.

Never looked under the hood of his own car.

The Sages could hardly have invented a better metaphor, had they lived in mid-century America where Car was King.

And so, dear reader, here is a Passover lesson for you as this last Shabbat in Egypt comes to a close.

First, look under the hood of your car. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipppur need not be the only times of year on the Jewish calendar when you examine your heart and soul and seek to make amends. Nisan, the month of our liberation and, according to the Torah, the first month of the year, is a perfect time for you to contemplate a new life, a new start.

Second, tell stories at your seders this year. Tell the Exodus, the grand narrative, of course, since its historic lessons obligate us to continually build a better world. But tell family stories as well. Tell the stories you want others to tell long after you're gone. This will prompt questions, questions beyond the Four Questions, an examination under the hood of our own lives that will help each of us, in our own way, merit redemption.

26 March 2010

Reading List

A week after another shot across the bow of organized Jewish life by the New Jewish Marketeers asking us to unplug, I wanted to propose some theoretical "what-ifs" about some classic texts of 20th century American Judaism if they had been written, published, and marketed today.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I, on the other hand, am exhausted by this endless onslaught of the desperate hip-ifying of Judaism so that our genetic continuity can be assured.

The Sabbath would be: Take It Easy, Baby by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rest, relax, drink. Talk about stuff.

Basic Judaism would be Just Jewy, by Milton Steinberg. Helping Hip Heebs Have Heeby Happenings.

Judaism as a Civilization would be God is a Concept I'm, Like, Not Totally Comfortable With, by Mordecai Kaplan. Besides, When I Was Getting My MDiv at Harvard, I Used to Get Totally Stoned and Think About Minoru Yamasuki's Architecture at William James Hall.

The Zionist Idea would be Look Out Goy Face! Jew Power Gonna Get Your Mama! Ten Simple Facts About Zionism That You Can Learn in the Back (or the Front) of a Birthright Bus! by Arthur Hertzberg.

The Lonely Man of Faith would be Avi in the Ashram: My Journey into My Personal Spirituality with My Special Life-Guide at My Place of My Personal Narrative Locus (Blog, Book-Deal and Movie, included), by Joseph Soloveitchik.

Night would be Oh My God, I Am So Bummed Out at the Way People Treat Each Other and Other Facebook Updates on Contemporary Issues of Genocide (Do You Feel Like Hanging Out and Talking About It?) by Elie Wiesel.

What are your favorite books?

25 March 2010

Back on Trek, er, Track



For those of you interested, we're going to be re-enacting "Scared Straight" in an effort to get Dan back on track.

Minutes, 1981

"The Business meeting then began with a reported request from Temple Beth Elohim requesting permission to hold the Worship of their Holy Days here at Old First; the reason being that there was imminent danger of their ceiling collapsing. A movement was made to grant their request. It was seconded and there was a unanimous vote of approval." --from the minutes of Old First Reformed Church, September 14, 1981.

Nearly 30 years later, here we go again!

Rev. Daniel Meeter handed me a copy of these minutes yesterday afternoon when we met for lunch and we had a good laugh over this factoid of history neither of us knew about. As is well known to each of us and our contemporary communities, Old First graciously opened its doors to CBE for Yom Kippur services last September when a large section of our ceiling collapsed and while we have made strides to create a master plan and move toward repair, that work will not begin for some time and so we plan on being at Old First again this year for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Thank God for friends like Rev. Meeter and Old First.

23 March 2010

EJI

We spent tonight with the leaders and supporters of EJI--the Equal Justice Initiative--one of the country's most selfless organizations that is led by one of the country's most inspiring and dedicated leader, Bryan Stevenson.

Among its many causes--seeking to overturn wrongful convictions, especially for those facing the death penalty, we heard moving testimony tonight about the astonishing number of young people across the United States, ages 13 & 14, who face prison without parole for crimes they commit as children with no hope for release or at least, rehabilitation.

Full disclosure: Rachel spent the summer of 1995, when she was in law school, working at EJI in Montgomery, Alabama, and ever since, the organization and its cause have been very close to our hearts.

Listening tonight to the speeches by Bryan Stevenson, by Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and George Kendall, a pro bono lawyer who has devoted much of his career to the preservation of habeas corpus, I felt transported back in time to the days of the composition of the Mishnah, when legal rulings of life and death really truly mattered and when the greatest minds of the Jewish world were concerned with epic questions of moral, ethical and historical dimension.

And I wondered what it might mean for a pulpit, for a synagogue, to have an ongoing relationship with one organization seeking justice in particular. To dig in for the long-haul. To recognize that the true test of devotion and faith in a final outcome can only begin to be realized from steady support year in and year out.

I heard the testimony tonight of a middle-aged woman who had been wrongfully imprisoned for six years and in her own "witness" she spoke with a feeling and determination of total conviction that God had sent her the lawyers from EJI. I was so deeply moved by the expression of faith and I couldn't help but think that as an organizing principle of our synagogue, ought we not to strive for a similar vision? What might it mean for our values to line up so well with our determination to see their realization in the world and when that confluence of aim, purpose and realization occur, to understand that this is, fundamentally, the will of *God*, however defined.

The last time I heard Bryan Stevenson speak was at the memorial service for a family friend who died. This friend delivered, over the course of nearly twenty years, a number of pro bono legal briefs on behalf of severally wrongly convicted prisoners whose lives were being wasted, waiting for death or execution. At that service, Kaddish was recited not longer after Bryan spoke and the sense of the sacred was prevalent--not only for the memory of the deceased but for the devotion of the living to the cause of life itself.

Similarly, this evening, when the dinner drew to a close, I had a sudden desire to rise and recite Kaddish d'Rabbanan (recited not for mourning but after learning) where this special Kaddish is in gratitude for teachers and their devoted insistence to uphold not only the law but the very order of existence.

Teachers of the law, practitioners of the law, and their disciples--without whom the very foundations of our society would crumble.

If I can one day be as relevant in my work as a rabbi as the lawyers in the room tonight to those for whom they have literally granted life, my work will one day, God wiling, merit someone rising to offer thanks not to me but to God.

I truly humbling experience of the power of faith and law, to which I thank our friends at EJI.

22 March 2010

No Fear in the Risk of Telling the Truth




Similar to the health care debate, I think that the pressure the President is exerting toward Israel right now will be understood to be correct. Obama's speech to the House Democrats, which Paul Krugman among others pointed out to be enormously moving ( a drash on Abraham Lincoln--“Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine”) was the appropriate seizing of a moral high ground that needs to be seized upon no matter what.

And the combination of the nuns and Catholic hospitals going along as well as the hideous acts of hate like spitting on US Representatives and hurling racist and homophobic invective, only prove to "neutral" types that appealing to our better instincts is often the better way to go in life.

With regard to the continuing public debate between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu Government (which Palestinian leaders must be thoroughly enjoying from the sidelines) I come down on the side that strongly favors the approach that President Obama is taking. I think his administration's orchestrated comments are more honest, fair and true; while it seems to me that Netanyahu has chosen, still more often than not, to defend the ability to hold his government together rather than risk the leadership necessary for there to be real, substantive movement on peace.

Secretary of State Clinton's remarks today at the AIPAC conference, "Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally,” were remarkably honest and strong. Their straightforwardness can, with time, really help.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other hand, is going for the rhetorical zinger--arguing at AIPAC after Mrs. Clinton spoke, using the line, "Jerusalem is not a settlement," when in fact the Obama Administration is not saying that it is. The red meat lines don't help, except to heighten the tension, rally the troops, and, arguably, prevent real progress being made.

The complexity of Jerusalem is exactly the point and in this regard, Obama's position has been more fair. Though that certainly is not a popular view--I mean, look at what Alan Dershowitz is now saying, for goodness sakes!

Iran remains the most grave threat; all the more reason to move with expediency toward a two-state solution that takes each sides' claims and concerns into account. On this score, I maintain, despite the emotional appeals being made, as depicted, for instance in Gili Yaari's photo in today's Times, that the President is on the right track. (The poster warns, 'Be Careful! There's a PLO Agent in the White House!") Yesterday in DC on the Capitol Mall I ran into a LaRouche weirdo who was hawking a poster of Obama in a Hitler mustache. It's the same irrational and stupid nonsense.

Open, honest criticism, rational civil debate, must be had in this country and in Israel. And with regard to both, it can be had while reasonable people disagree on policy while also asserting basic truths. There is no fear in the risk of telling the truth; it's a possible way out of a problem that has taken us more than 60 years to solve--from health care to those who need it and to two states for two people. On each of these, I'm with Obama.

20 March 2010

Ess, Ess Mein Kind








Eat.

Israeli cous-cous and chick peas.
Stuffed grape leaves.
Babaganouj
Hummus
Tabouli Salad
Pasta Salad
Pita
Challah
Grape Juice
Sweet wine.

This is our schmear every Shabbat at CBE.

Yachad, our Hebrew school, ends around 12.15 just when a Bar or Bat Mitzvah lets out, around the same time that the Lay-Led Minyan lets out, around the same time, twice a month, that Altshul lets out.

All told, a few hundred people who have all celebrated Shabbat in a variety of ways, converge on a couple tables, eat and talk.

This is good.

You should check it out some time.

Have a good week.

19 March 2010

On Unplugging

National Day of Unplugging.
Okay, nice idea.

Brought to you by the same young, hip Jewish media-elite that brought you 10Q--Yom Kippur on a billboard screen in Times Square. The savvy universalists of new media and information technology represent Judaism (shhh!) to the masses.

Who doesn't want the attention of the masses, right?

Especially the very same companies employing the worker bees and inventors who put the gadgets in our hands, digitally turning a profit at every turn, and then, like a Pharaoh who decides to adopt Shabbat (er, I mean, the Sabbath) in Egypt, before the Ten Commandments are given when the people would have been TRULY liberated, encourages a day of unplugging.

A Day of No Drinking, sponsored by Absolut Vodka!
A Day of No Smoking, sponsored by Philip Morris!

One day is better than nothing, don't get me wrong. But ought we not to question the assumptions that underlie this initiative? When the Man says rest, I'm dubious. Unless the Sabbath Manifesto talks about health care for the uninsured; the right of the workers to organize; real immigration reform for those who come to our shores now, not unlike our own Jewish ancestors whose shoulders we stand upon.

It is not without irony that we note that this day comes at the exact same time as the American Jewish World Service's Global Hunger Shabbat. On the Sabbath Manifesto webpage, the tenth principal, "Give Back" has a comment that the AJWS accepts donations. Hmm.

A National Day of Unplugging is not unlike an alcoholic taking one day off of the binge. It's a start, but the general addiction remains.

The Frontline documentary, Digital Nation, has done a more effective job of laying out the critical issues at stake here with an increasingly connected world. It's worth a good long look--after Shabbat, of course.

It's funny--President Obama stands at the very precipice of passing major health-care reform and it seems fairly clear that what saved him was not the Tweets and the Facebook Updates and the annoyingly incessant streams of email messages from the White House and Nancy Pelosi. Rather, human engagement, hand to hand combat, getting on a plane and going to swing districts in swing states and cutting deals to get the job done. The same generation that dislocates its shoulder patting itself on the back for being the most "connected" generation to elect a President demonstrates in recent polls that it will, for the most part, sit out the Midterm Elections. Why is that?

Because there are no celebrities running. And in Egypt, it's all about the Image, not the Substance.

George L. Mosse used to begin his Jewish history lectures at the University of Wisconsin with the line, "A Jew is an outsider with a critical mind." And by the end of 15 weeks of learning, we began to understand what he meant.

17 March 2010

Through the Sea of Steps



One of the most memorable moments during our visit to LA in February was an afternoon we spent at the Getty Museum walking through an exhibit on the Photographs of Frederick Evans (1853-1943), a brilliant artist whose principle work was on the many medieval cathedrals of England and France which manage to evoke, more than any photographer I can think, a stunning and profound relationship to architecture's mission to help bring awe to the experience of sacred space.

In the four weeks since returning from LA, I have returned to Evans' "Sea of Steps" over and over again--in the book, in my mind--and especially as we move through time into the month of Nisan, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt and the story of our national redemption by crossing the parted waters of the Red Sea.

Albany continues to crumble it seems; Israel-U.S. relations remain this week in crisis; but quietly, it seems, the President and the Democrats are putting together the votes for health care reform. Though hysteria remains beneath the surface for many, I marvel at the deliberate, plodding nature of this legislative battle reaching its conclusion this week. It may be that we are about to witness a controversial but monumental achievement, which has the potential to teach us that despite every tool in the partisan, political, media arsenal to stop it, the votes may be accumulating to make its passage a reality.

It will have been achieved via a Sea of Steps. Like many of life's great challenges--both personal and grandly epic--there is often, ultimately, only one way to go from here to there.

One step at a time.

For all the drama that has threatened to derail or destroy, one must give respect to the plodding, slowly evolving, strategic work required to cross this legislative sea.

And it's critically important to remember that the goal of goals, all along, has been to provide affordable health care to those in this country who do not have it. An admirable and worthy goal.

Beside the Point: SCTV Classic

16 March 2010

Waiting in Line

I watched a child today at the funeral of her great-grandmother clutch onto a copy of Harry Potter during the burial. The girl was 9 or 10 years old and since I'm currently reading through the series with one of my own kids, I was momentarily transfixed by the idea that this book, this series, and this author has developed a narrative construct that builds a world of fantasy and imagination in the minds of children at a time when their developing souls are facing for the first time the two most terrifying aspects of existence: sleep and death.

Sleep and death.

Two sides of the same coin, as it were, that evoke, depending upon the circumstances in which they are faced, a great fear, awe and at times, an odd sense of comfort and rootedness.

"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and staff--they comfort me."

The valley of sleep--long, seemingly endless. Dark. But the lulling narrative of a parent's voice, of an author's slow, steady, dramatic descriptions of prose that transports from one world to another--this is a lesson of early sleep habits that we are meant to develop. Sleep is actually a journey from one place to another, then back again. And the miniature death that occurs each night is two-fold: one, the death of the day released the moment we drift into sleep; and two, the death of the dream, experienced but unrealized, obliterated by the return to consciousness (whether in the dark of night or at dawn--gone, never to be return.)

The valley of death--eternal, endless. When falling asleep as a child, I used to focus on sinking. And what first alarmed me was that the sinking seemed without end, as one imagines Wile E. Coyote felt descending from the side of a cliff. I feared greatly the cartoonish POOF! at the bottom and a too soon relegation to oblivion. But by ages 7, 8 & 9, I imagined a buoyancy to the fall, like a brief sinking followed by floating and thus the 'death of sleep' felt somewhat conquered. Around that time, however, I first encountered the black earth of my first grave, a cold, wet deep cut into the winter ground in the near south side of Milwaukee in one of the city's older Jewish burial sites. I knew that hold stopped and at about six foot deep there was a bed of earth, but it seemed to me at the time, it would descend forever.

I didn't have a book in my hand at that moment--it just wasn't something that would have been. But there was the matter of all that Hebrew. The rabbi's chanting of Psalms; the mourners reciting Kaddish; my family's tears and anguish--though not linguistically decipherable, they were 'Jewish' cries. These became my Book of Death, my Transporter Bridge, the crossing apparatus from here to there and back again.

And there was an accompanying silence--that nearly 40 years later I can still conjure with ease. A looming, instructive silence. Like cars crawling in a line at the cemetery. One after the other, moving along, dutiful carriers of grief. Today, waiting in one such line, the sun shot through my windshield and in an odd moment of angular illumination, I saw my reflection.

A face of 47. A brown-gray beard. Glasses. But behind them my eyes looked nine, or at least like I imagined they looked when I first glanced down into the earth, to the place where we lay my grandpa down. I wasn't afraid then, in that cold winter past; I wasn't afraid today, as the sun broke forth. And I'm not afraid now, writing these words, hearing those words ('my cup overflows') and waiting in line.

Waiting in line. Not sinking. Floating. Somewhere between here and there.

'Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the House of the Eternal forever."

Right? Right?

15 March 2010

Astound and Give Fright

Monday morning.

Everyone moving a little slowly this morning, eh?
Weather?
Daylight savings?
Or, perhaps, a general malaise, as in, "Where are all the real leaders with all these problems out there in the world?"

I heard Republican John Boehner on the radio yesterday: "The only thing there is bi-partisan support for is a vote against health-care reform." How ludicrous.

The good news is that tomorrow brings in the new month of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar, the month of Passover, the month of Liberation from our historic bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt and, as the Sages figured out long-ago, a time of personal spiritual liberation as well. So dig deep--it's one week til Spring; two weeks til Passover. And if we focus our concentration on what is truly good and meaningful, we may begin to make some progress in our personal lives as well as the civic responsibility entrusted to those elected officials whom we call upon to serve our interests in City Hall, Albany and Washington, DC.

The Psalm for Monday

A song. A psalm of the sons of Korach.

Great is the Eternal, and highly praised
In the city of our God, on God's holy mountain.

Splendid, sublime on the north is Mount Zion,
Joy of all the earth, city of the great sovereign.

Through her citadels, God is known as a refuge.

The kings conspired and advanced,
But when they saw her they were astounded.
Panic stunned them, they fled in fright.

Seized with trembling like a woman in labor,
shattered like a fleet wrecked by an east wind.

What we once heard we now have witnessed
In the city of the Eternal of Hosts, in the City of our God
May God preserve it forever.

In your temple, God, we meditate upon your kindness.
Your glory, like your name, reaches the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with beneficence.

Let Zion be glad, let the cities of Judah rejoice
because of your judgements.

Walk about Zion, encircle her. Count her towers,
review her ramparts, scan her citadels.

Then tell her story to later generations,
tell of our God who will guide us forever.

--Psalm 48


A place dedicated to doing what's right has the power to cause fear in those who see themselves as powerful. This is the subversive power of communities of value and faith. What we do on the local level, if done right, can have impact when power moves into a proximal position, bears witnesses, and is left no choice but to step back in awe and respect.

Kindness and beneficence can astound and give fright--especially to those who would attempt to subvert their power.

That's the idea.

And the result?

"Walk about Zion, encircle her. Count her towers,
review her ramparts, scan her citadels.

Then tell her story to later generations,
tell of our God who will guide us forever."

14 March 2010

Shock and Embarrassment

Heard overwhelmingly often at our shul throughout the Shabbat:

Shock and Embarrassment over the behavior of Prime Minister Netanyahu's government toward Israel's friend Vice President Joe Biden and the United States government.

Expressed overwhelmingly often at our shul throughout the Shabbat:

An understanding that what Israel needs desperately from the United States right now is some very tough love.

12 March 2010

Throughout All Their Journeys

It was a busy week, even more so, since I spent two nights away--Sunday in DC so that I could be with some of our high school kids lobbying on Capitol Hill for the Religious Action Center; and Wednesday in Cambridge, speaking to the board of a foundation that supports our work in Brooklyn. In each instance, I found myself thinking about clerks.

Clerks at the Amtrak Stations in New York, DC and Boston; and clerks at hotels in DC and Cambridge. I thought of their levels of friendliness; the way in which their comportment was one which carried the weight of serving a customer. And I especially noticed the more silent or even invisible clerks, who make train stations and trains and hotels comfortable places to be. Are they clean? Are they welcoming? Is it *pleasant* to connect with them?

This set of reflections was brought about by my recent visits to Trader Joe's, which, I'll admit, I'm finding very pleasant--and not just because their beer, Simpler Times, is made in Monroe, Wisconsin (which produced Huber, a Madison favorite.)

At Trader Joe's, I found everything about the experience--from walking in to checking out--to be enormously friendly and enjoyable. Why is that?

In the corporate world, it's because good service generally earns you more money. But besides that, it earns you loyalty (which translates into more money, I understand) but the loyalty piece is what interests me, especially since these days, good loyalty is hard to find. In many ways one might say it's undervalued, given the clicky epidemic of instantaneous information overloads that we all suffer from. We're always on to the next thing. It seems very little actually *abides*.

So it had me thinking about the synagogue. Our synagogue, yes, but all synagogues, everywhere. And ways in which the strength of a synagogue in fact rests upon the shoulders of the clerks, those tasked with serving the community on all levels--from the rabbis to the staff to the security to the maintenance crew. Do we own the shared mission of creating a space in which to not only abide but thrive? Do we greet with a willingness and pride in service? Does the very space in which we do our work exude a sense of mission--whether it's a mission to spend your contributions well or serve you with an open heart in whatever capacity you seek an encounter inside our walls?

The synagogue's strength is often that it breeds familiarity. This is a great asset. It connotes accessibility, warmth, and the value of connection. But familiarity, as they say, also breeds contempt. And when things are going wrong, that same familiarity can tolerate what ought not to be tolerated. It takes vision, and wisdom, perseverance, and hard work to maintain a familiarly accessible, warm and connected community.

I always marvel at how in the week following the incident with the Golden Calf, this week's double parshah--VaYakhel and Pekudei--concerns itself with the sacred task of completing the Tabernacle, the place where God will reside for the Jewish people as they continue their journey in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The people's abiding interest in God and God's abiding faith in them is what fuels their reconciliation, one week after a disastrous apostasy, so that a home may be made for God and the people can keep God close.

The rather clerk-like "accounting" of the materials used to construct the Tabernacle give us an opportunity to be reminded that any synagogue community is, on one level, the aggregate of its individual parts. The strips of wood; the brass door knobs; the bathroom faucets; the memorial plaques; the answering machine; the website--each of these elements are portals into the reflective question, "Are we the sum of our parts?"

Or, perhaps more elementally, "Are we giving people a reason to believe?"

In Exodus 40.33, when the end of the building of the Tabernacle is described, the text says, "And he reared up the court round about the Tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work." This *finishing* the Sages teach us, is described with the same verb used to describe God's finishing the work of Creation back in Genesis and so by analogy they teach us that this task of Moses was God-like in its devotion to and vision for creating a whole universe for others to enjoy.

A universe where there is presence; warmth; and a sense of community in all that one encounters when one enters the walls of the synagogue.

How does the journey from Egypt, the Exodus, end? "For the cloud of the Eternal was upon the Tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys."

May we merit such presence at the corner of 8th and Garfield.

Shabbat Shalom

11 March 2010

Ye Civic Minded Patriots!

Penn Station in New York feels like the belly of the beast. It's hot, unventilated, and the smells of sweet rolls and coffee are less pleasant and more anesthetizing to just how disturbing a place it actually is. I contrast it with both Union Station in DC where I was on Sunday and South Station in Boston, where I am today, waiting for a train back to New York after being in Cambridge for a meeting.

Mayor Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver team up against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and developer Larry Silverstein on the Op-Ed page of the Times today, to make the point that the clock is ticking on making significant headway with construction of the final pieces of Ground Zero.

They write, "Delays at the site have already cost the Port Authority tens of millions of public dollars. Not only would further delays cost much more, but rent proceeds from a thriving World Trade Center would provide money for the Port Authority’s other transportation projects around the city, including Moynihan Station and a new passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River."

Bloomberg and Silver place blame squarely on the shoulders of the Port Authority.

Opposite their article, the Times editorial staff takes the opposite view, arguing that there may be a glut of office space at Ground Zero if all the building goes ahead as planned and therefore the Port Authority is correct in not helping Silverstein with the final phase of the loan program to make the project work.

And so the stalemate continues. The remarkably slow progress on civic projects is one of the things I find the most confounding about living in New York. It seems that no one really has the "whole pie" in mind and negotiations are forever getting bogged down in a series of bureaucratic stalemates and posturing that reminds me of what Joe Biden must be feeling on his mission to get Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other. Everyone's gotta get a leg up; few seem capable of making the necessary sacrifices for the greater good.

A city as big and powerful as New York needs an incredibly strong arm to muscle through successful civic projects like a re-conceptualized Penn Station. That the "greatest city in America" should have an energy conscious transportation hub should be a given. That the "greatest city in America" tolerates a hell-hole like Penn Station, where Maya Lin's public art is a grim after-thought and more attention is paid to the overwhelming circus like smells of cotton candy is just one of the dumbest things I can think of, literally.

There are projects that were under construction when we moved here in 1990 and twenty years later, they seem nowhere near complete. This can't be good for anyone, except the construction companies that keep winning the contracts.

What's the point, you ask?

In my neck of the woods, we're about to embark on a massive project to repair, renovate and renew our two buildings. As an historical project, we'll be taking on the Idea of the Reform Synagogue from one hundred years ago and seeing how those ideas are or are no longer relevant to who we are today. As a community project, we will be taking on all those ideas for what kind of community hub the synagogue should be, recognizing that we serve many populations in Brooklyn. And, most important, as a Jewish project, we will be managing multiple perspectives on what a public Jewish home is, what a synagogue is, what a gathering space, a meeting space, a learning space and a spiritual space is all about. It will be a tremendous challenge, requiring both strength and flexibility. But it won't take twenty years.

And it won't take twenty years because the goal is to develop a shared purpose, a unified mission, rooted in the notion that our synagogue is here to serve God, the Jewish people and humankind. Serving other interests will only distract us from this mission, and get us needless bogged down.

I'd like to hear THAT articulated by our civic leaders when they make their proclamations about Ground Zero, Penn Station, the BQE, or wherever. Public service, like Jewish service, is service. It is to, a degree, among the highest values of living a person can choose.

I yearn for a time, may it arrive soon, when the proud language of sacrifice and service returns to our public discourse.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the bright light and fresh air of South Station. My train arrives shortly, having arrived here by the electric powered T. Nicely done ye civic-minded patriots of Boston! To your continued success!

10 March 2010

Look Long Enough and Learn

I had a such a strange experience today.

Riding on the train up to Boston for a meeting, I read a week-old issue of the New York Times Magazine that had two political articles I was very much interested in exploring.

One was Frank Bruni's story about Scott Brown.

The other was Nicholas Dawidoff's piece about Alabama state legislator James Fields (along with Gillian Laub's brilliant photographs)

I found Dawidoff's piece more engaging, evidence of a deeper dig into the issues driving this profound question of the role that race is playing in American politics today and the symbolism of the Obama Administration and how it plays itself out in a predominantly white and historically racist part of the United States, unafraid to both express its past and come to terms with it as well. As political writing and solid journalism, I was left feeling moved by Dawidoff's article. Deeply worried about abiding divisions in our nation while also oddly hopeful that despite deep rivers of hatred, there is movement toward a kind of new accommodation with who Americans are and what America can be.

I have to admit to not feeling the same about Bruni's piece on Scott Brown. It was too adoring; too predictably coy and flirty about the handsome hunk Brown and the lightning quick "inspiration" of his sudden rise to fame and fortune in the United States Senate.

James Fields' story was filled with pathos and tragedy and compromise and struggle and redemption; Scott Brown was a kind of classic Golden Boy scenario that felt saccharine, flat, and, ultimately, was representative of our attention-challenged nation and its annoying need for a quick fix (the more handsome and sexy and charismatic, the better.)

Do I have a point?

I dunno. Dawidoff's story and Laub's pictures had Jewish pathos. Bruni's was all glitter.

And I worry that we are too easily blinded by glitter at the peril of the substance of what it takes to understand one another at a time of heightened tensions and divisions.

That's my point.

Perhaps it illustrates just how broken Washington is that the lack of substance makes the cover of a magazine but the real substance is buried in the pages and sweating out racial redemption, one house at a time, in a small corner of Alabama, that eludes our understanding, unless, Moses-like, we have the patience and virtue to look long enough, and learn.

On the other hand, kudos to the magazine editors for putting two such different pieces of reporting in the same issue. The contrast itself was rich and if that was the point, well, then, well-done.

09 March 2010

Don't Prevent--Promote

Tablet leapt on it.
Haaretz covered it.
JTA picked it up.

That's right ladies and gentlemen: Get your copies now! The Reform Movement's Rabbis Group Thing (the Central Conference of American Rabbis) says we should work with couples where one of 'em is Jewish and one of em isn't!

What next? A press release declaring that "everyone deserves breakfast" or "a smile helps you have a good day?"

I love my colleagues but we're being too nice here. Judaism has such great value and if we really believe it we oughtn't tip-toe around its greatest assets--Torah and Tradition--that call us to establish an open tent, a welcoming approach to greeting others, and a mission-driven rabbinate that sees its purpose in enlightening the world with meaning as people build families and make choices about who they will be.

Woe unto us that the strategic energy organ of the Jewish community--a community that gave us One God, the Sabbath, Honoring Parents, and Thou Shalt Not Kill--insists upon getting exercised about the most obvious strategic decision since NOT requiring poppy seeds on EVERY challah bread? (Kidding, kidding.)

Emancipation--the European kind--came with a price: Freedom to fall in love with whomever you wanted. Fine. That means we better be prepared to help those lovers and their offspring make Jewish choices. Period.

Because the point isn't our racial propagation but rather the continued, Eternal (yes, the E-word, ladies and gents) Covenantal relationship with our God Who demands of us justice and righteousness; food for the hungry and clothing for the naked; and a better, more peaceful world.

We should be "preventing" war.
We should be "preventing" hunger.
We should be "preventing" greed, hatred, and strife.

But "preventing" intermarriage?

Get out of the bedroom.

Get into the public square.

Abraham, who wasn't a Jew when he did it, had the courage to smash the idols of false worship as a youth. That's why God chose him. And he liked that validation of who he was so much that at a very old age, he agreed to be circumcised. At the command of an invisible God he heard. Those spouses we worry about hear God calling while we're wringing our hands worrying about a meaningless ethnic purity. Enough is enough.

Don't prevent--promote.

God is One.

Shalom.

08 March 2010

Have A Good Day

Rise at 6.00

Coffee, Sporting News Baseball Issue, Asher Yatzar by 6.15.
Shacharit by 6.35.

A beautiful sunrise run on the Mount Vernon Path at 6.45, heading toward DC--Reagan Airport, Jefferson Memorial, Pentagon, Capitol, Lincoln and Washington Memorials in the distance.

Gulls and geese overhead.

The fading half-moon of Adar still in sky but one can hear the redemptive footsteps of Nisan, and Passover, in the distance.

I got lost on the way back and had to run along the highway, which made for quite an adventure.

But it turned out okay, back in the room by 8.00.

Lobbying today for a better world. We'll see how that goes. Not quite Moses and Aaron going to address Pharaoh but that's a good thing. There's an excess of grandiosity in the Land.

Have a good day.

07 March 2010

Too Numerous

I saw an angry looking short guy in an NRA hat today as I was waiting for a train to take from Penn Station in New York City to Union Station in Washington, DC. I couldn't tell if he shot me a nasty look because he knew I was looking at his hat or because he was short and was used to being defensive about himself or if his train was late and he was in a bad mood. But whatever the reason, the hat sealed the deal.

My train ride was very pleasant. The last time I was on Amtrak, some drunk guy decided I would be the guy to save him from the police for being a stowaway (I wasn't) and he lunged toward me as the police attempted to track him down and flicked me in the face. It was the first time, and I hope the last, that I'll be flicked, a painless but oddly infuriating experience. I stood up when I got flicked and said, "What did you do?" But the guy was gone to another car and then grabbed by the cops, who cuffed him and led him off the train and onto the platform.

I calmed down quickly, found myself laughing about it, but still felt the flick. But no one heard a click. Like the click of a gun, that I imagined could have gone off--somehow. From the aggressor, who it turned out didn't have one; from the cops who were able to handle the situation without violence; nor, from myself, who would never own one.

The sun was shining in DC when I alighted from the train, hailed a cab, and headed into Virginia, where I am staying with some of our high school students as we prepare to lobby on Capitol Hill tomorrow for the social justice agenda of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center. As we drove past the Pentagon, I thought of the shootings earlier in the week, a disturbed man with a gun, now dead himself, who felt his rage against the government would be answered through the barrel of a gun.

The Pentagon, attacked on 9-11 for its symbolism of American Imperialism by one set of paranoids, now attacked by our own domestic paranoids, with or without permits, but with a gun.

I stood in the Hudson News back at Penn Station at the beginning of the trip and read an article in a magazine about the rise of militia groups and their determination to put a halt to the Obama Agenda, which now represents everything wrong with America for the angry and the armed. The sleepy station, the hungry and the homeless, the smells of coffee and sweet rolls filling the air. These paradoxes have filled trains stations for decades in our country. And some of the times we've lived through have been even worse. But this is the first time in my lifetime that the anger and the violence are so palpable, so strong, so seemingly on the verge of explosion.

I am deeply troubled by the level of anger and violence.

And so what do we do? Me? Tomorrow I'll put on a suit and lead high school students to the offices of Senators and Representatives where they'll engage in their civic duty to advocate on their own behalf, to argue for climate change legislation, sexuality education, immigration reform, and a comprehensive plan for peace in the Middle East. They will have studied the issues all weekend long; written and practiced some pretty persuasive speeches; even eaten in the House cafeteria, rubbing elbows with a whole class of civil servants who believe in the peaceful conveying of ideas and issues into law.

We'll walk past metal detectors to get in and out of the Capitol tomorrow and I'll say a special prayer for Capitol Police, who these days are risking their lives even more so, in order that each of us can exercise the privilege of having our voices heard above the alarming increase in explosions that are too numerous in our land.

05 March 2010

What We Do Not Demand

In the closing pages of his book, A Passion for Truth, Abraham Joshua Heschel tells the post-war story about an observant friend who worked for the Jewish Agency in Poland, helping Holocaust survivors with plans for emigration. On the train ride from Warsaw back to Paris, Heschel's friend shared his train compartment with a "poorly clad Jew" who couldn't find a seat anywhere else on train. Evening prayers came and the compartment guest didn't join the friend in prayer. Morning prayers arrived and as the friend put on his tallit and tefilin, the guest sat still. Later that second night, the two spoke and the guest said, "I'm never going to pray any more because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could I pray? That is why I did not pray all day."

Heschel continues: "The following morning--it was a long trip from Warsaw to Paris--my friend noticed that the fellow suddenly opened his bundle, took out his Talit and Tefillin and started to pray. He asked him afterward, 'What made you change your mind?' The fellow said, 'It suddenly dawned upon me to think how lonely God must be; look with Whom He is left. I felt sorry for Him.'"

I think there are fundamentally three reasons why most Reform Jews don't pray.

1. They don't want to because they don't believe in God or their agnosticism is such that their understanding of history is very similar to the compartment guest, who either sees or experiences evil and concludes that God is not worthy of prayer. Their lack of prayer is a protest against an idea of God that hears and deserves to hear prayer.

2. They don't need to because "in *Reformed Judaism* (it's just nuts when people get the name of the movement wrong) you get to "do whatever you want." The Reform movement in general suffers mightily from this perceived and actual "low bar" standard of performance. The lack of regular, daily, prayerful communities is one of the many manifestations of this phenomenon. Do-Whatever-You-Want-ism. Albany comes to mind--but not because Isaac Mayer Wise once served there.

3. They don't know how, a direct result of position number two above. Ignorance in education breeds inaction in life and when the standard of expectation is not set for daily practice and observance. When the demand is not made, there is a very large Rock left to push up a very steep Hill.

Ironically, in rabbinical school at HUC, there was a daily minyan. But there was also a paradox inherent to the experience of daily prayer: it was set up as a performance workshop which was managed and critiqued in such a stifling ways as to deprive it of any real meaning. Service leaders were judged by a panel of experts who rated decorum, tone of voice, and organization--leaving students often terrified (kind of funny in its own right) of failure. Every day those who had the discipline to show up would be treated to a morning service *as if* it were Friday night. There was accompaniment, cantorial solos, rabbinic teaching guides to help focus the prayer, and two service leaders standing at a lectern facing an "audience" of worshippers. I went nearly every day for four years and didn't enjoy it one bit but felt that it was my obligation to be there.

Imagine that: not enjoying your obligations. Like taking medicine. Or going to "work."

"Serve the Eternal with gladness; come before God with exultation." (Psalm 100)

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that "Divine service with rejoicing can give us true happiness, the feeling of steady and constant spiritual and moral growth, the continuous growth of all that is truly human in us, a blissful joy of life that is not subject to change in any manner by the outward circumstances which life may bring."

Finding space for daily offerings of gratitude and thanksgiving is essential for ensuring a state of constant growth. Hirsch brings the Sages to make this final point, "When one day in the future that is to come, all things on earth will be in such an ideal state that there will be no more cause for prayers and offerings; even then, prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving will never cease."

Articulating a vision and executing a plan of action for the discipline of daily practice among Reform Jews--now there's a *performance* that deserves a critique.

To not attempt to meet this demand severs the synagogue membership of the largest movement in American Judaism from the normative narrative of Jewish practice that could well be one of the greatest losses of modern Jewish life today. Is the Reform movement growing because of what we offer? Or are we growing because of what we *do not* demand?

Since we're a tradition of questions, it seems like a good one to ask.

04 March 2010

Judaism for Adults

"Man was created to gratify his Creator not his passions. Whoever behaves thus, gratifies his passions and displeases his Creator. This is therefore tantamount to worshipping idols since it will ultimately lead to it." (Iyun Yaacov, commentary on Ein Yaacov.)

Many of us have been in this place--overcome with anger, however momentarily, and experienced a sense of "loss of control." This loss of control threatens our equanimity; clouds our judgment; and can even lead us to acts of emotional or physical destruction. We experience at work; in traffic; at home with our families. And when the dark clouds or brief tremors dissipate, there is remorse. And the calming feeling that follows is one of regret, since we know, intuitively, that our actions were wrong.

In Nahmanides "Letter to His Son"--an ethical will left to the next generation--he makes the claim that "anger" must be eradicated in order to lead a life of true piety and righteousness. Once anger is conquered and only then can a person live a life of true love and humility with their God. As one who struggles mightily with this emotion, and seems to be in a long line of Bachmans & Siegels who do so, I can tell you, the work is never done. And I can also attest to the idolatry of the experience. It does feel like a large clay god at times inhabits my being and clouds my judgment. How I struggle to find the focus of Abraham and smash that idol.

But the smashing itself is an angry gesture.

Is there no escape?

In this week's Torah portion, Moses stands atop Mount Sinai, making the concluding remarks on the Revelation of Torah, and as he prepares to descend, word arrives that the Children of Israel are worshiping a Golden Calf. God's anger "breaks forth" and he's filled with rage. Moses placates God with self-interest--God, he says, if you destroy this people with your rage, everyone will question your wisdom, saying, "Oh, the God of Israel brought his people out of Egypt only to destroy them in the desert!"

God finds this an intelligent and reasonable argument, so He repents of His anger. But then Moses "descends," witnesses the idolatry, and is filled with rage himself. Has God's rage transferred onto himself? Is he filled with a profound despair at how seemingly hopeless this people is? Will he ever be able to lead them to where they need to go if they are so deeply committed to false worship? His entire plan is called into question and unable to contain his own rage, he smashes the Tablets of the Covenant against the foot of Mount Sinai.

The Sages suggest that what really got Moses' goat was that in addition to having cast in gold a calf idol, the people danced around it as well. A real finger in the eye of nascent monotheistic devotion. The Alshikh writes, "The essence of Divine worship is to perform it with joy and a glad heart. By the same token, for those who transgress His will, hope remains for the one who sins and grieves over it, to repent and make amends. But he who revels in his iniquity, is, God forbid, a hopeless case. The Almighty did not tell Moses that they were in addition enjoying themselves. He was therefore not all that angry but saw the calf and the dancing--that they were actually enjoying it too--then his anger burned."

Moses' anger. The broken tablets are but a precursor to the rock that he will strike, bringing forth water but not invoking God's name in blessing, giving into his anger without invoking the Divine. This minor idolatrous glitch, if you will, prevents him from obtaining passage to the Land of Israel. His anger blocks his redemption.

This is a very difficult lesson.

But it is message and lesson we must learn if we insist upon, in the words of Levinas, a "Judaism for adults."

Over and over again, from birth to death, we are striving for improvement and refinement. The work never ends but hopefully the reward is an arrival into the promised land of eternal redemption.

01 March 2010

Fix This Thing

I often take a journey in my own mind (oh, like, there's an alternative?) to a Saturday night in summer, in Milwaukee, in the 1970s. The Brewers maybe won or maybe lost--let's really pretend and say they *won*-- and my dad and I drive home in his red Chevy Impala convertible along a slow moving but moderately clear West Bluemound Road on our own way back from County Stadium, which, like so many behemoths of civic-business partnership in sports franchising, no longer exist. Spontaneously, it seems, we stopped at Gilles Frozen Custard for a "Hot Fudge Dusty" which consisted of vanilla custard, hot fudge, and malted. The sincerity and intentionality involved in this sentimental gesture of radical loyalty to all things Wisconsin is, to my soul, often on par with my morning chanting of an ancient, idyllic Jerusalem as represented in the Psalms. I still believe in it, though few believe it ever really was.

This fantastical remembrance is of what was; and today I am all too aware that it is, in fact, too sweet for me to consume. So quietly I conspire with myself to simply remember. And in remembering I find traces or hints of redemption. I can conjure them on summer nights, here in Brooklyn, 850 miles and 35 years away; I can bring them to life during a bedtime story with the kids; or now, in front of a keyboard, alone with my thoughts on a cool March evening, when my country seems to be both falling apart and not being assembled in any kind of competent way.

And I find myself asking at the recent report that there is now a Coffee Party vying for our allegiance, alongside the now infamous Tea Party: "Since when is our nation's survival dependent upon our devotion to a warm beverage?"

Our attention starved culture, morphed with the nauseating need to brand every new idea before it's even fully hatched, while feeding its own grotesque habits of consumption, demands another trend.

Friend it. Tweet it. Host it. It has the potential to *transform* our political culture.

Gimme a break.

Vote. Work. Make a decision and defend it. Take some risks. If you find that particularly exhausting, I suggest you take in a ballgame once in a while, followed by something a little sweet at the end of the night. (By the way, Lactaid can really help.)

And when facing your own particular reality the next day, I don't give a damn if it's coffee or tea or cool mountain water that starts your engine in the morning.

But you do have to get up early and get back to work. It's the only way we're going to fix this thing.