30 September 2010

Letter to Our Youth

To the Young People in Our Community.

I'm your Rabbi.  As such, I am occasionally asked to share a few words or thoughts when bad things happen to good people.  In this case, I want to write some words, directly to you, about Tyler Clementi's tragic suicide last week.  If you haven't read about it, you can read the story here from today's New York Times.

Tyler was secretly filmed having a sexual encounter with another guy on the Rutgers campus and that scene was broadcast on-line, to his own humiliation, which authorities think was the major factor in deciding to take his own life.  Rutgers University, where Tyler was a talented, quiet and kind student, and the local police, are in charge of an investigation, the results of which we'll keep reading about in the coming days.

But I want to address you directly, whomever you may be.  If you're gay or straight or bi or transgender or you just don't know, as a Rabbi in the community, I care about you as a person made in the Image of God.  It really truly doesn't matter what other people think about your struggle to be who you are in the process of becoming.

At our synagogue, in our community, and hopefully in each and every one of our homes, what matters is that you are welcome to be who you are.  And during a confusing time like this when a young person takes his own life like this because the pain and suffering of having been humiliated is beyond what he can bear, you need to know that no matter how badly you may feel about things going on in your own life, you always have someone to talk to, a community that will accept you, support you, and love you for who you are.

Tyler Clementi took his own in part because we still live in an imperfect world that judges people and attempts to hurt people, even kill people, for being lesbian, gay, bi or transgender.  That's sick, I know.  It's morally grotesque that we live in such a world that would harm people because of who they would love.   But you know what?  There are actually more people in the world who support your right to be who you are than not.  It may not seem that way, sometimes.  You may feel an incredible loneliness or confusion or anger at being different.  But in our synagogue and in our community and in our schools, we accept you and want you to always feel welcome and protected and honored and respected and loved.

Tyler Clementi also took his own life because his peers, besides reflecting a disgusting prejudice, also worshiped their technology.  Young people live in a world of too much access to too much instantaneous entertainment.  And with a webcam and a laptop and an internet connection, college students at Rutgers created their own bizarre "reality tv," without thinking about the moral and ethical and criminal implications of what they were doing to another human being.  A click and a laugh; and now someone with so much potential is dead.  And that, plain and simple, is wrong.  Technology can save lives but it can also be a tool for evil.  So take stock next time you're ready to click so quickly.  Think and feel before you act.

I'm straight.  But did you know that the man who told me to go be a Rabbi was gay?  And did you know that during my first year in Rabbinical school my Israeli roommate was gay?  I have a gay step-brother.  And lots of gay and lesbian and bi and transgender friends.  We all do.  Some came out easily; others struggled for years; others are still in the closet.  That's because we live in a society that doesn't accept sexual diversity so easily.  Yet.  One day maybe, we'll be able to say, "Who cares?  It doesn't matter!"  But because prejudice and bigotry about sexuality still exist, the point of that is to say that when a young man takes his life in the way that Tyler Clementi did, we are all affected.  We are all connected.  Whether we attempt to deny it or not.  And as the Jewish tradition teaches, we are all responsible for one another.  Which means that if you're reading this and you're sad or angry or confused or devastated or scared and you need someone to talk to, be in touch.  And always remember that you have a Rabbi and a community who care about you and accept you for who you are.  No matter what.

In friendship,

Rabbi Andy Bachman

29 September 2010

150 (16-18)

16.  I never felt that I had to explain God using the language of theology because for as long as I could remember, I have been conscious of God's presence.  I'm not denying that there have been times when I have done all I could with my limited human powers to banish that presence from my life and other times when I felt that presence but have been as determined as I could possibly be to deny that sense of presence unabashedly, angrily, or destructively.  But fundamentally, the relationship has always existed. 

"I have set the Eternal always before me; God is at my right hand side--surely, I shall not be moved.  Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices, my being is secure."  Well, not always.  But often.  I'm the first to admit I fall short and would like to get to a stage where I can stop with these childish rebellions.  "You make me to know the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy."  It's true.  There's happiness and then there's "fullness of joy."  I've felt that a few times in my life.  One time during the early stages of my serious adult pursuit of Judaism, I was sitting in shul waiting for Kabbalat Shabbat services to begin and I felt my soul leave my body.  I could smell Shabbat dinner cooking in the kitchen at Hillel; I could hear students and faculty enter the prayer space and greet one another; my feet were on the ground, my butt was in my chair; but my essence seemed elsewhere, heavenward.  My father had been gone for more than a year but I was re-constructing my life without him using the tools and scaffolding of Judaism.  Shabbat was a place of refuge.  To be there, in its comforting shade, brought happiness that was no mere fleeting expression.  It didn't last, but it was a window opened on eternity.  It's always felt the same on the few other occasions such moments occurred.  "In Your right hand, pleasantness for ever."

17.  From the fullness of certainty in the 16th psalm comes David's prayer, begging for mercy.  My God, how fleeting were his moments of peace and tranquility.  No sooner is that peace experienced than the shadow and threat of violence falls, yet again. 

What a beautiful morning we woke up to today.  I even managed to get the kids out of the house without a major fight over clothing, breakfast, teeth-brushing or generally, school.  The air was fresh, the rain had passed, we were all light on our feet.  But walking down 8th Avenue, for a stretch of three or four blocks, each of the garbage cans that had been set out for pick-up, were dumped out, their disgusting comments spread across the walkway as a kind of dystopic minefield of Park Slope consumerism.  Who did it?  A crazy person?  A violent person?  A vengeful person?  Was it an art installation?

Sometimes, even in mild forms, destruction pursues us.  And we cannot hide, though we want to.  I thought back to our elevator ride downstairs this morning.  The girls, Nathan and I hopped on the car and a little neighbor, around 4, got on with his folks.  We said good morning and he immediately hid in his mother's arms.  "He's shy," she said.  "He wants to hide," I said.  I get it.  Who doesn't want that on occasion?  To be shaded, protected, shielded, by what we must face:  a conversation, the assault of noise and garbage, the onslaught of poverty, violence and war.  I mean, some days, you just don't want to get out of bed.

"Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings."  Just for a few more minutes.  And then, with You showing me the way, let's go clean up more of this mess we've inherited here on earth.

18.  Visually, a thing of beauty.  I have no doubt David wrote it that way.  As I'm taking notes on these psalms, I keep a small notebook and my reaction to some psalms is graphically different than others.  We engage the word with word, with picture, with song, with silence.  But the 18th, like its clear inspiration in Moses' triumphant songs in the Torah, has a form all its own.

I like staring it.  Like a passing cloud, its shapes shift.  The poem opens with a nearly manic listing of God's metaphorical imagery of unmovable power:  Rock.  Shield.  Fortress.  Horn.  Tower.  And then a clear and proud expression of triumph over death.  David has triumphed and he is ecstatic and that shows, both in the language and in the graphic depiction.  Nature is in upheaval at the epic, divine battles for God's holy ones; the cosmological creation process moves in reverse to original time, chaos and disorder, before a new order breaks through.  The very foundations of the earth shake.  And David, like Moses at the beginning of the Exodus tale, is "drawn from the water" in order to redeem his people. 

In this fit of triumphant hysteria, he has one of his most subtle and powerful insights:  God is what we make God to be.  To the righteous God is righteous; to the merciful God is merciful; to the pure God is pure; and to the crooked God is crooked, subtle, quick with a curse.  What you see is what you show.  The Freudians might call this "projection."  For the religiously inclined, we might say that the world we build is the world we live in.  And when we're passive agents of having things always done to us, our "God" is passive, too.  So David, in his strength and victory, composes this celebratory words:
"Great is your salvation you give to your king--it's a tower we built!  You show mercy to your anointed one, to David and those who will follow, for evermore."  The spaces between the words, remarkable moments of quiet and reflection--which great leaders are capable of doing--in the midst of chaos, battle, war and triumph.

28 September 2010

from the CBE Archives

One of the great joys of an historic synagogue is its archives.  Our archivist, Martha Foley, and Congregational Scholar, Rabbi Dan Bronstein, have been unearthing great stuff.  Here is some material about athletics at CBE in the 1940s, where basketball leagues and a fairly robust relationship with Golden Gloves were regular parts of our community programming.  These are posted on my Facebook page as well if you feel like commenting there, too.  Enjoy!  

'40-'41 Season Schedule
DIY circa 1941
Red Holzman!
the tickets from the Golden Gloves bouts at CBE
when Jews fight, you need detectives
from the Brochure of the Opening of the Temple House in 1929
Boxing Check List
flyer from a Brooklyn Jewish Hoops Tourney hosted by Union Temple
from the category of "the more things change"

150 (13-15)

13.  The darkened face of the mourner, of the depressed individual, is one of the most pained realities to confront.  If we have known it ourselves, we're familiar with its tortuous, twisting roadways of anguish and pain.  And if we have encountered it in others, we are greatly aware of our limited ability to alleviate it for them, to lift their veil of darkness.  The loneliness is often the barrier.  "How long will you forget me, God?  How long will you hide your face?  How long do I rely upon myself?"  David's sense of solitude is deep.  Thankfully, he's not mute; and he's able to put into words a sense of utter helplessness that we may have felt in such times.  "Lighten my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death!"  Here is his hope--he sees his death but doesn't want it--will do what he must to live.  The psalm pivots here, and moves toward a kind of rehabilitation, if you will, of his own being.  Of interest is that he will grasp at whatever motivation he can--"lest my enemy say 'I have prevailed against him'" David shifts away from himself and reaches outward, in trust, to his God and others.  He knows he can't do it alone.  I sat with a mourner recently.  Words were choked from his throat.  He could barely speak.  But when we began to craft a plan for recovery, he looked up.  For the first time in an hour, there was light in his eyes.  "But as for me, in Your mercy do I trust."  Mercy, lovingkindness, and trust.  "My heart shall rejoice in your salvation."  The human connection, the Divine animating force, banish the darkness.

14.  The Sages debate David's intent with this psalm.  Is he talking about Israel being attacked by its enemies or Israel being attacked from within by venal corruption?  These days, take your pick.  Never has Israel been at greater risk from forces who seek its destruction and never has Israel been more corrupt, unable to unify for the greater good of the nation.  The brief glimmer of hope we may have felt when President Obama brought together Netanyahu, Abbas, Mubarak, Abdullah, Clinton, Mitchell and Blair, broke bread and made gains in the fight for peace, has nearly vanished.  Today Mitchell sprints to the region to attempt to bridge the rifts; settlement expansion continues; Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah smolder; Ahmandinejad stands at the dais of the UN spewing insane hatred of Jews and Israel--and just like that, it seems, hope vanishes.  "Oh that salvation of Israel were come out of Zion!"  Peace is in our hands.  Easy as it may be to continually blame others (for we have no lack of enemies) I say the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion.

15.  As I write this blog post, I am listening to Jeff Spurgeon's morning show on WQXR.  He's playing Johann Strauss II "Tales from the Vienna Woods, Opus 325."  What a beautiful piece of music.  All is in order.  I could see reading Psalm 15 along to this music.  David's words here are so perfectly structured, they're a delight to the ears and eyes, a calm ocean shore lapping waves of truth and righteousness on a concise horizon of morality, embracing a firmament of decency and goodness.  Surely the authors of Pirke Avot read this psalm with great delight.  I wonder what it would have sounded like, sung?
A Psalm of David
Eternal, who shall sojourn in your tent?  Who shall dwell upon your holy mountain?
He that walks uprightly and works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart;
That has no slander upon his tongue, nor does evil to his fellow, nor takes up reproach against his neighbor;
In whose eyes a vile person is despised, but he honors them that fear the Eternal, he that swears to his own hurt and changes not;
He that does not charge interest, nor takes a bribe against the innocent, he that does these things shall never be moved.

27 September 2010

150 (10-12)

I never would have imagined that a close reading of psalms would have elicited in me such a strong reaction to our political times.  But so far, they have.  I am overwhelmed with emotion when I read David's words; surrounded by roaring waves of righteousness, which is not necessarily a good thing.  The poetry is powerful, beautiful, revolutionary; and dangerous, shattering, destructive.  Beware, one might say, upon committing to such a reading.  When in the poetic hands of epic greatness, the soul truly is moved.  And yet the psalms are performative.  They are a kind of ritual theater of one man's soul, writ-large, upon the body politic of a people. 

10.  The ruthless ones deny morality and oppress the weak.  They are so good at it!  And the vast tools in their arsenal, so seemingly difficult to overcome:  cursing and deceit; oppression, mischief and iniquity; those who capture the poor, caught up in a lion's lair of greed and destruction.  David's mind stretched in angry directions at the injustices he saw and reading his words in our own economy of frustrating dislocation, one thinks of contemporary schemers and predatory lenders, taking advantage of unskilled labor and offering excessively low pay.  Capture the immigrant at the border; extort his meager wage; deny her health care.  How does one actually escape such a trap?  How awful that in a three thousand year span, such human greed continues!  And David charges ahead, shield in hand, saying that where such greed darkens life's horizons, there is no God.  His cry is meant to break the darkness, crack open the shell, reveal the light:  Break the arm of the wicked! Search out the evil of the wicked til none be found!  The Eternal is King forever, the nations are temporary; God hears the desires of the humble.  The hearing ear and the beating heart must correct the life of the orphan and the oppressed.  But as enticing as it sounds, it's so hard to do.  The brilliance of the poetry is that it's realized in the heart and the mind but the body must forge ahead, inspired by the words, but forced to plod along, one step at a time, hastening, though waiting, for redemption.

11.  I need to calm down.  David finally brings the bird.  He must have known that guys like me would be freaking out at this point in the reading.  Painter of words, he brings the bird.  A flash of light, wing and wind.  Even truth, at times, needs to hide, to preserve, and await a greater battle down the road.  "In the Eternal have I taken refuge; how say ye to my soul:  'Flee thou! to your mountain, ye bird?"  God won't save you, you have to save yourself, preserve yourself, be responsible for yourself, and sometimes that means withdrawing, if only temporarily, for a greater act of repair to follow.  Incredulous as the poet may be--"How could you say that?"--he nonetheless must retreat.  For he knows the truth:  "When the foundations are destroyed, what hath the righteous wrought?"  Oh, how grim indeed!  How utterly debased is the society! 

The Sages tell a story about Shimon bar Yochai, after the Roman conquest, unable at first to see the new society--he was still traumatized by the loss of sovereignty.  Eventually, however, not unlike that bird, he could emerge from his cave and see a new order, a new potential for a new world.  "The Eternal is righteous, God loves righteousness, the upright shall behold God's face."  Which is to say, it will happen.  You just have to wait; and you also have to make it happen. 

12.  On the sheminith, a stringed instrument, lower by an octave than the usual harp.  The low, sure, comforting tone.  Swing low, sweet chariot.  Is he still in the cave, singing?  "Save, Source of Life, for there are no more righteous ones.  The faithful fail from among the children of man."  Metaphor slips from music to metal and the poet recasts the narrative, the fire burns and melts the material of suffering into a new mold, a new paradigm.  Where the oppressed are defended and made to dwell in safety; where the words of the Eternal are pure; as silver tried in the crucible on the earth, refined seven times, like a new myth of creation.

Again, no miracles, if you think about it.  Only word and deed.  Wing, sun and air.  Metal and earth.  A promise from God, to be realized for sure; but only if we act in accord of our own song, rendered true by a prophet's view and the poet's rallying cry to build the world yet again.

26 September 2010

150 (7-9)

I am scared for the future of our nation.  Terrified, actually.  I believe that certain terrible forces will fight with whatever power they can muster--mostly a potent combination of lies, money, and anger--to win whatever they can in the next cycle of elections.  When I was younger, this fear used to animate my desire to work for positive change in my community, state and country.  Today, the fear empowers my work but the object of my fears is more ominous; the world seemingly more perilous; the backward steps and missteps in general have accumulated to such a point where it's not so easy to dismiss some of the weirdos and wackos who are attempting to seize power in the current age.  Is what I read real or is it satire?  Are those who would hold office clowns and artists or are they in fact genuinely interested in representing, in the halls of power, the positions they claim as their own?  Have I done enough in my forty-seven years to prevent such a reality?  Ought I to be doing more?  And if so, what?  And who are the leaders "on my side?"  Are they smart enough?  Strong enough?  Focused enough?  Committed enough?  Rich enough? 

7.  David's conscience torments him greatly after the over-throw of Saul.  Saul, deeply disturbed and tormented in his own way, lost power of his own accord.  He "deserved" to be removed; regardless, David is in anguish over his own role--real or by implication--in the fall of another.  His song here is a song of distress, appeasement, guilt, pain and a defensive justification.  Defensive?  Why?  What did he have to be defensive about?  Oh, how the conscience always wins in the end for those who will listen.  Because there is always something we can claim responsibility for, something to second guess, something to hold up under the light of scrutiny and demand that next time we do it better.  That second guessing can drive us nuts; but it's also the seat of our potential for growth. 

In our country today, in the days since Barak Obama became President, certain forces and coalitions have arisen in order to over-throw him.  And I believe in my heart--full disclosure--that those forces represent a very large number of people who have the wrong ideas about our nations future.  They have yet to prove that they are not substantively motivated by racism, xenophobia and greed.  But justify they do and cloaked in the garments of liberty and freedom and constitution, they stand at the edge of an abyss of hatred and retrogression that is truly terrifying.  But we, who voted our champion in less two years ago, are already tired.  Hah!  Generations before us built nations from nothing and we're a bit tuckered out from working for "change we can believe in."

So, yes, we're guilty.  And our consciences out to be in anguish at what has become of this nation.  In putting down one rebellion against a kind of federal government, we  have unwittingly given birth to a stronger one.  More trouble to come.  Psalms don't always comfort.  Sometimes they simply paint a picture.

8.  On the wine press.  David clearly liked to dip into the wine press now and then and let his pen move across the page.  Inspired words flowed like his intoxicating drink--with a blurry truth and potency, reckless insight, and on occasion, breakthrough moments.  He seems to be wondering about, drunk, looking at the sky.  His reverie has him reflecting on youth--"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings have you found strength" celebrating not only reason and reflections great gifts but also, literally, the energy and passion of the young to re-imagine their world.  He is euphoric, and given his dour frame of mind in the previous psalm, it strikes me that here he needed a night out.  Re-energized, re-awakened, he found in youth the insistent idea of searching for something new; but in so doing he was reminded of the first man and woman, who were told they, though not as "high" as the angels, were God's partner in creation.  Their power (not the angels) was the animating force in the world as we know it. 

I was at a wedding this summer and I saw a young man--in his late twenties--pointing his phone toward the horizon of the clear black sky on an August night.  Standing next two him were two others, nudging close to catch a glimpse of whatever was on the phone's screen.  It was a new google-app which aligns with constellations, mapping them out for you as you point your phone in the right direction.  The combination of the eternal gesture--a lad in the dark with a gadget, aimed heavenward--with the restless insistence on ingenuity and discovery--brought to mind David's euphoria regarding the "mouths of babes."  The earth and heaven's salvation; the roads and waters of our nation; medical research and the advancement of science; each promise regeneration in part because of youth's admission of what it does not and its playful insistence to know.  May they forever be strengthened!

9.  People like to point out that Judaism's philosophy of death can be summarized by the Kaddish prayer, which doesn't mention death or the dead but is a prayer about the sanctification of life.  In the face of death, we Jews assert life.  L'Chaim!  That sort of thing.

So it's odd to read a psalm dedicated "al mut la'ben," which could be read to mean "Regarding the death of Laben," (some guy who was finally defeated in battle) or "regarding the death of the son," which no one seems to hold with any seriousness, so of course I fixated on it.  What if David imagines writing a poem about losing a child?  How would he cope?  What would he say?  What would it do to his faith?  How would he continue to lead while also having his heart torn apart mercilessly from the indescribable pain of losing a child?

And so I read this psalm as a rehearsal of the principles of asserting life in the face of death, of reminding oneself of possibility and sanctification in the midst darkness and surrounded by black clouds of suffering and mourning.  This reading, likely wrong, still means more to me.  It simply doesn't interest me very much to read David's song of victory and his happy promises to God as a result of giving thanks for one such fortuitous result.  Rather, I'm concerned more with how his heart my seek to give voice to the mantras he needs to tell when things actually go wrong.  As if to say, "Despite how wrong things are, Hashem, I give thanks with my whole heart; if I can't thank you now, at my lowest, my offerings at my heights are for naught."  I believe that.  God is more present for me in the darkness than in the light, where it's so easy to be blinded into a bright and chirpy agnosticism. 

My child is dead and I give thanks, nonetheless.  It is jarring.  Disturbing to read.  NOW he has your attention.  You will banish the enemies; you will minister with justice; you will be a high tower for the oppressed; I will sing your praises in the Gates of Zion (where the mourners sit); the wicked will return to their repose in the netherworld and the needy will be cared for; and I need to say these things and write these things because my heart aches at the painful reality I am facing.  And without my faith in the face of death, I have nothing, nothing but a dead son and a God deaf to my own words of thanksgiving.

25 September 2010

150 (4-6)

4.  The torture of sleep.  David had his troubles.  We all do.  God knows, I've had nights where I thought I could tear my skin off, if only to release my soul to rest.  That haunting darkness, where in the black of nothingness we see ourselves, in the mirror-less image of painful self-reflection.  Here David reveals an inner truth--that it's not only being able to "look yourself in the mirror" at the end of each day, as the saying goes, but as you lie down to sleep you must be able to attest to your own righteous behavior, your own accounting of what good you brought to the world.  The Arcade Fire has a song called "Black Mirror."  The Mekons have a song called "Perfect Mirror."  I think of each on occasion, as contemporary psalms for a troubled time.  "Many say 'Who will show us goodness?'  Lift up toward us the light of Your face, Eternal One." Don't be fooled.  The light has a source--and the source is goodness.  Decency.  Kindness.  David, in his self-consciousness, digs deep, excavates his soul.  He knows what people want--leaders, those who bring goodness.  God, the people who have microphones these days!  We fail every day--our inescapable torment.  But the light remains, burning on through the night, there for us, enabling us to see. 

5.  In Psalm 5, the torment continues.  Not only is the night a troubled time but then he awakens, only to realize that he faces a troubled day.  I spent a lot of time this year reading the work of Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, a leading teacher and rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto, who died in the Shoah, and I continually am humbled by his radical insistence on honesty and decency in the face of evil and destruction.  Many are the times in Jewish history when our people and its leaders awakened to face the living nightmare of persecution; and many are the people today, of every race and faith and nation, who face similar torment.  It's to our shame that we tolerate such behavior from those who hold office or seek office in our own country.  History will judge us decisively by how we have treated those with less advantage.  "It's your lovingkindness that brings me into your house," says David.  "I will humble myself in awe of Eternal grandeur."  As for the others?  "There is no sincerity in their mouth, their inner being is a yawning gulf.  Their throat is an open grave, smooth-talkers, they are."  Hey--the truth hurts.  Especially when their truth is lies, turned outward, against the innocent.

6.  Psalm 6 is read daily, as part of the Tahanun prayers, offerings of humility and forgiveness.  I recently went back home to Wisconsin to visit family.  And on the way from the airport to my mom's house, I stopped off at the cemetery to visit my father's grave.  As I got out of the car I was reminded that it was time for afternoon prayers, so I grabbed my siddur and stood over his marker, singing the words of the Tradition.  It was a beautiful day.  A slight wind blew; the sun warmed my neck; trees swayed quietly.  In my father, for much of his life, an unhealed anger burned.  As a kid I used to think he smoked so much because he was on fire himself, nearly raging at all times.  Firecracker.  David begs in this psalm to be relieved of anger and wrath.  He wants grace.  He wants healing.  His bones hurt.  I felt my heart break that afternoon.  My throat closed up on me.  The words were choked out of me by some inexorably confessional force.  Here my father lies, dead, but his anger now living, resurrected, burning bright in me.  My inheritance.  Which I reveal to my own children.  Enough!  Don't be angry with me because of my anger (once his); don't be wrathful with me because of my wrath (once his).  Rather, show me hesed, hesed, hesed, love, love, love.  Punch the clock.  Douse the flame, with tears of humility and forgiveness.  Healing waters.  The broken hard-heart made whole.

24 September 2010

150 (1-3)

1.  Happiness can be found in doing good; it essentially is meant to have a positive, even palliative effect on a pained and troubled soul.  Easier said than done, no doubt, but who ever heard of moving forward without some pain and hard work?  "A person's delight is in the pursuit of the Law."  So wrote King David in the first psalm.  And one whose pursuits are toward the ethical is the stabilizing reality of a society--"he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season."  As if to say that there is a natural order to be discerned in doing what is right.  And the favor of that insight is returned:  "The Eternal knows the ways of the righteous."  Here the Eternal as the Source of Life, as All of Existence.  As Everything that Ever Was, Is and Will Be.  That kind of promise.

2.  In these nutty times, with all sorts of wackos claiming to know the truth, I take comfort in David's words in the second psalm:  "Why are the nations in an uproar?  Why do the peoples utter in vain?"  Don't they get it?  It's them against the "anointed one," and in David's case, he's quite clear that it's us v them.  This is challenging, even troubling thinking.  And yet who hasn't thought that they're right and everyone else is wrong?  That sure is a monkey on my back, I'll tell you that!  It gets better, and with a bit of Divine sarcasm and humor, it greases the wheels to be sure.  "God sits in heaven and laughs; the Eternal holds them in derision."  As it should be!  Who's proud that we executed a 41 year old yesterday?  Who's proud of the respectable racism that we see in our land?  Who's proud that fabricated fears and hatred have hijacked a nation from caring for its poor?  Laughter and derision, besides fighting back, may be the only tools we have to fight some powerful forces that are unified in their desire for destruction.  The psalmist gets graphic:  "Break them with a rod of iron; dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.  But serve the Eternal with awe and fear; rejoice in your trembling."   To translate your fear into service, your terror into rejoicing--oh, how that whets the presumed violent knife of self-defense into a determination to foil the forces of destruction with deeds of goodness and strength and determination.  Or, as a teacher in rabbinical school once put it, "Don't let the bastards get you down."

3.   Here the writer is aware of how others mockingly deride the notion of God.  People tell me every day they don't believe in God.  Some are guilty about it; others are humble; still others are arrogant and act like they've got it all figure out ("geniuses.")  Ukh!  David agrees.  "How many are my adversaries become!  Many are they that rise up against me!  Many are they that say of my soul there is no salvation in God!"  Many, many, many.  In response, David goes to Nature and cries out and his experience was that God spoke to him "from His holy mountain, selah!"  You know one of the most embarrassing things that happens to me as a rabbi is when people I know catch me talking to myself.  I talk to myself when I walk the dog; when I run in the park; when I stop to capture the image and experience of a tree, a bird, the sky.  I feel like those who give the knowing glance of "one who talks to Nature" are those of true faith, even if they don't have "faith."  We know who we are.  And that surety lifts the fear from our burdened shoulders.  "I lay me down, and I sleep; I awake, for the Eternal sustains me."   And, "salvation is in the Eternal, Your blessing upon Your people, selah!"

Of course, it begs the question:  what is salvation? David doesn't answer it yet.  There is no set theory, articulated in psalms one, two and three, of what that word actually means.  Except to understand it by what it isn't.  It isn't violence; it isn't fear; it isn't mockery; nor is it adversarial rebellion.  It simply is.  Everything that was, is and will be.  Eternally.

23 September 2010


As we began our evening prayers last night to open the festival of Sukkot, others came into the building for a meeting of their own.

For the better part of the last two years, we've hosted two different AA meetings--one that meets one evening a week and the other that meets on Fridays at noon.  Since my years at the Bronfman Center at NYU, where one day I was approached by the campus AA liaison asking for use of space for a meeting, I have seen it as a personal commitment, like many leaders of religious institutions, to offer support to those in the community who struggle with addiction.  It's important for many reasons, but most significant to me is that to one degree or another, each of us struggles with aspects of our personality or psychology or physiognomy that are hard to overcome.  Addiction should be no different--God knows, there's enough shame attached to it already.

My own mind focused on the spiritual meaning of the Sukkah--its historic relevance--remembering the Exodus from Egypt and the Harvest Festival of Ancient Israel; its religious message--to serve God with joy and gratitude for the bounty of nature; and its spiritual message--that shelter and protection, fragile and temporary as they may in reality be, are blessings.  And I thought of the varieties of ways that the synagogue is the seeking center for so many different people, in search of so many different things, I thought of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem, where pilgrims would ascend the steps on the Southern Wall as they prepared to enter into the courts of the most sacred place for Jews. 

We prayerful supplicants were in the first floor chapel, inaugurating the season with song and melodies both ancient and new; and others entered our gates, ascended stairs to an upper floor, and also found strength in the idea that the whole is not only greater but stronger than the parts.

When I was in the bookstore on Sunday looking for a tallit for the kid's bat mitzvah, I bought Abraham Twerski's new book, A Formula for Proper Living:  Practical Lessons from Life and Torah.  Besides descending from a Milwaukee rabbinic dynasty, Twerski has been a path-breaking leader in melding rabbinic and medical practice in the aid of addiction, founding the Gateway Rehab Center, an important "shelter" or sukkah, for those in need of it.

The power of ritual--meetings or minyans--to create structure to face oneself and steadily, over time, to improve oneself, is a great gift.  After all, it's not like a couple days of Rosh Hashanah and one day of fasting on Yom Kippur can wipe the slate clean for the year.  So this week, when you pick up that lulav to shake, challenge yourself to think about what you really want to shake off and get rid of.  Think about how spiritually you do need to engage your body in the act of bringing about the change you need--whether your body gets you to the gym or pool or the meeting or shul.  Mindfully embrace the ritual not as a one time thing but as something you realize, deep in your heart, that you have to commit to, day after day after day.  The sukkah is the sheltering structure that can symbolize that idea.  You have to build it in order to inhabit its sacred space.

22 September 2010

When It's Cool

The kid got one of her Bat Mitzvah presents in the mail today--a donation made to the Birthright Israel Foundation in honor of this milestone achievement of her life.  As she opened the envelope I could see her mind churning behind her bright eyes, wondering what she'd find.  And as she read it, her eyes widened.  Since turning 10, the kid has spent three summers in Israel; Israeli music and food are regular staples in our home; and several of her mentors and close family friends are Israeli, meaning that the kid's life is circumscribed by a deep and developing relationship with the Jewish state.  Pesak Zman, Bamba, and Limo-nana are greater tropes of her guilty pleasures than any American brand junk food and that's all by design on our part--making the engagement, even when we're distant, sweet.

She held the card in her hand and formulated her thought.  "So let me understand," she began.  "This card means that someone is going to go to Israel for free because I became a Bat Mitzvah?"  I nodded affirmatively.

The smile that swept across her face was immediate and radiant.  "That is so cool," she said softly, and then ran off to grab her haftarah, to go meet the cantor, to put in a few more minutes of practice.  She's a diligent kid, has her priorities in order, and really knows how to appreciate a moment.  She's always been that way.  Israel has been a gift for her over and over again.  That she somehow enables it be a gift for another--even for one she may never know--makes it all the more special.

My grandparents went to Israel in 1964 and toured the country, including a pilgrimage to a deeply divided Jerusalem.  I hang their keepsake--a moderately cheesy manifestation of Judaica, the Climbing Mount Zion certificate--in my davenning corner at home.  My dad never went to Israel, despite his vast travels during the Second World War; and it was my grandma, not my father, who assiduously conveyed certain mythic tropes of her own youth:  Golda Meir's Milwaukee roots; her father's Mizrachi activism; a rumored correspondence between my great grandfather and Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann (total goose egg on that score courtesy of the Weizmann Archive in Rehovot--I researched that one years ago.)  When I look back on my own life I remember and marvel at how my grandma's stories lit that spark in me, now passed down to another generation, and though my grandparents are gone and Dad's gone now, the kid bears my grandma's Hebrew name as her middle name--and has learned to "name" or recognize the connections on her own.

Yesterday we started another year of Hebrew School, which at CBE we call Yachad, meaning together, because at its core is a Family Learning component each Shabbat.  In addition however, we are now launching an Israeli After-School Program, Keshet, and have more than 25 families signed up.  The vibrancy of the modern Hebrew language and Israeliness permeate much of what we're trying to convey to the kids.  We're very proud of this work.

Anyway, yesterday I sat with my new 7th grade class, a group of really good students that I'll be meeting with on Tuesday afternoons for the rest of the year.  One from the group is heading off to Israel for a family bar mitzvah in Jerusalem and so as he prepared to leave yesterday, I taught the class the lesson of sending people to Israel as agents for tzedakah, giving him a dollar from my wallet and telling him that his agency was particularly important because he was going to perform the mitzvah of giving tzedakah but was also enabling me to do that as well--a kind of double portion of good.  "Who should I give it to?" he asked.  "Anyone you see whom you think needs it," I said.  "Jews, Muslims, Christians all live in Jerusalem.  You'll see someone who needs a dollar.  You decide."  Again, those eyes of youth brightened.

"That is so cool," he said quietly, and tucked the dollar away for safe keeping.

21 September 2010

In the Morning, Before the Morning

Upon waking one of my kids this morning, I asked her, "What did you dream about last night?"  This question usually elicits an energy inducing response, as I watch her eyes widen in thought and reflection for something, anything, truthful or imagined to share.

"I dreamed about so many things," she began.  "I don't think I could describe it all."

I couldn't tell if she was shading a window into her inner world, which, with age, she was learning to keep to herself; or if she was bluffing, delaying for any extra time she could wrestle from the strong grip of morning light.  Either way, that look in the eye is like the horizon after a dark storm, when the light breaks through the clouds and an original, irreducible freshness emerges into the world.  It's life at the source:  new, pure. 

That today was the beginning of a new season could not have been more apparent.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that King David was able to compose the Book of Psalms only because he was very strong in meditation.  The main time that King David would meditate was at night, under his bedcovers.  Hidden from the sight of all others, he would pour out his heart before God.  He thus said, "Every night I meditate in tears upon my bed."  (Psalm 6.7)  Happy is the one who can follow this practice, since it is the highest of all.

Happiness after tears.  Clarity after dark storms.  

"I dreamed about so many things," she began.  "I don't think I could describe it all."

Like the Garden of Eden before Adam started naming the animals.

20 September 2010

Random Thoughts

I left it out on the mat for RH & YK, I'll be honest with you.

I'm tired.

Digging deep for Sukkot & Simchat Torah, the kid's bat mitzvah, some weddings, and the day to day. 

Did I mention we need several million dollars to fix the place?

(The Packers winning helps move things, swiftly, along.)

Here's where prayer and study and running become the big sustainers.

Thinking of the Tiberias Marathon; an AJWS trip to Ethiopia; and stopping the Tea Party in its tracks.

19 September 2010

Trace of Forever

If I were to tell you that I rode my bike back from Williamsburg at 12.30 am and was the only bike on the road, along Kent, beside Steiner Studios, along Flushing, beside the Navy Yard, along Vanderbilt and straight up the sidewalk into the building--would you believe me?  Did I really just take that ride?  It felt practically ephemeral. 

I had those blessed bike lanes all to myself, ears still humming from a great Superchunk show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where Todd Barry was hilarious as an opening act (and even sat in on drums for Superchunk's cover of the Misfits's "Horror Business.")  A great night and the perfect palliative after the Days of Awe.  I felt like everyone at CBE "left it on the mat," as it were, really gave their all throughout the Holy Days and God knows you can say the same thing about Mac McCaughan and his band. 

I met Mac and his wife Andrea Reusing at the very hairy Roberta's of Bushwick, a dislocatingly hip pizza restaurant, and enjoyed the food despite the weird service; but of course enjoyed the company even more.  Andrea has a cookbook coming out in April which should be great.  She owns a wonderful restaurant in Chapel Hill, Lantern, and if you're ever there, you should eat the food.  It's delicious.

After the show I got some gifts for my eldest's upcoming birthday, saw old friends Lyle and Lisa and Mirla, and then hit that bike, that blessed bike, beneath a shining moon, on a warm autumn eve.  I realized, pedaling into the night, that my forty-seven years have thus far seen a few things; but the past to which I returned, and moving in it and through it like memory waves through liquid mercury, was of a fourteen year old lad pedaling with friends along lakefront streets in Milwaukee, with my whole life ahead of me and no concept whatsoever about decisions, responsibility and consequences. 

In all candor, maybe it's because before tonight I've never seen old friends, eaten good food, had a few beers and heard great, loud music in such proximity to the Day of Atonement.  The bright, truthful light of that day illuminated my perception of everything I saw and heard tonight.  It was all so contextualized.  The ordering and re-ordering of time and its subject was still freshly arrayed, in the year, before us.  And while never in a million years could I then have imagined as a fourteen year old kid any of the experiences of the past 33 years, the searching for God knows what on a summer night-- tonight, that ride home, was a kind of closing parenthetical border on an earlier time which knew not it's unknowable future.  

I love when things fit together--however brief.  Like a puzzle that one labors over, piece by piece, with the heart's temporary thrill at achieving cohesion, I take equal pleasure in the disassembling of the whole, the taking apart of the grand picture and the reduction, to explicable parts, each misshapen piece, which, when considered alone, is nothing if not lonely, apart, and waiting for another pair of narrating hands to complete its picture.

I wonder about God, above it all, watching his student biking along a path, conceived by other students, and musing about the dawn of his learning, the apprenticeship at the beginning of his faith journey. 

Then:  bikes, football scores, cold beers, loud music and moonlight had no perceivable sanction. 
Now:  every breath contextualized into the greater whole of age, meaning and mortality.

Ah!  I am no longer a young man!  And a damn night out has so much meaning!

But the feeling on wheels riding home, of a cool wind at one's back and the slow weave along a smooth asphalt road, is a trace of forever.

18 September 2010

YK/SR Notes/5771 3.0

Here is a brief summary of my Kol Nidre talk.  Maybe I should record and transcribe.  Not sure.  Thoughts welcome.


I changed my mind walking to Shul.  I was going to talk about one thing and then decided to take a different route, based on what fell out of the sky.

On the 8th Avenue sidewalk near Union Street I saw a satellite TV dish (Direct TV, RCA) that had blown off someone's roof in the tornado and lay, neglected, on the ground.  In a moment of inspiration I picked it up and realized that I had a prop to begin the sermon.  I immediately ran into my in-laws, who remarked that they had seen it, too--I think if not blown off the roof it served to symbolize for many who walked past it in the storm's aftermath as a kind of metaphor for our time--the dynamic between the human need for continual connectivity and God or Nature's powerful potential to call the shots and "connect" at will.

I had one text I knew I wanted to use, the opening lines of Psalm 19.  The entire Psalm is here.  Worth reading, because you can see how many of its lines get used in Jewish liturgy--7-9, the Torah liturgy; 14 from the end of the Amidah.

19:1 For the Leader. A Psalm of David.
19:2 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork;
19:3 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night revealeth knowledge;
19:4 There is no speech, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.
19:5 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath He set a tent for the sun,
19:6 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.
19:7 His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it; and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.
19:8 The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
19:9 The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
19:10 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the ordinances of the Lord are true, they are righteous altogether;
19:11 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
19:12 Moreover by them is Thy servant warned; in keeping of them there is great reward.
19:13 Who can discern his errors? Clear Thou me from hidden faults.
19:14 Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins, that they may not have dominion over me; then shall I be faultless, and I shall be clear from great transgression.
19:15 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O the Lord, my Rock, and my Redeemer.
The tension between a TV signal sent throughout the earth being felled, and decisively so, by a mighty wind, was too good to pass up.  And frankly a miracle that no one was hit by the falling dish as they ran for cover on Thursday.

In any case, I mused about the word "dish" walking to Shul.  I thought of the first kugel I ate, off a dish; I thought of a petrie dish, where life saving experiments are made; I even thought of Cole Porter's use of the term "dish" to connote the object of one's desire.  And then the satellite tv dish.  I loved the line in 19.5--"their line is gone out through all the earth."

But before reading those words, and holding up the dish, I wanted to convey what I thought was an emotion that was coursing through the room and was very much on the minds of many, especially given the themes of life and death that permeate much of Yom Kippur.  So after Yom Kippur and Shabbat greetings, I simply said, "Yesterday we almost died!" And many people laughed, conveying that truthful sense of wonder and desperation and gratitude that we had evaded a swift decision from God and Nature to do what they will with the earth where we live.  Secondly, in thanking Rev Meeter and the leaders of Old First for hosting us, I said among the 1300 people sitting in the Church for Kol Nidre were literally hundreds of Jews who, upon seeing the tornado and its aftermath proclaimed, "Jesus Christ!"  Storms drive us to the Church in the first place with last year's ceiling collapse; now a tornado on erev Erev Yom Kippur and here we are proclaiming the name of your lord--nice work, Daniel!

We had a good laugh.  The catharsis was important--humor plays that essential role and with mention of the tornado out of the way, along with a very healthy dose of gratitude that despite the destruction we had all been spared our lives, we could address Yom Kippur.

The core of my thoughts attempted to speak to the themes of utter seriousness that were upon us.  Each year on the Bimah for Kol Nidre is one member who usually has a joke or two to share with me.  But this year there were no jokes.  We talked about the soaring poverty rates; the unemployment that continues to plague; and the anger and accusations that fly across the political spectrum with little hope of productive progress.  Though one can feel helpless in the face of it all, it is important to remember and practice Judaism's central idea--that each of us are responsible for our place in the world, making what difference we can.

I told the story of two students I knew at NYU during my years there from 1998-2004.  One from an observant background; the other, a non-believer.  Each of whom surveyed the landscape of the obvious dislocation of the early 21st century and had decided to make a difference in the world *locally* by creating systemic change from the ground up.  One has partnered with Amish farmers to produce kosher, organic grass-feed meat.  The ethical and the religious melded into one and represented for those kosher keepers of the faith (present company included) a valuable and important contribution to the world.  The other was among the first to volunteer to provide relief through the American Jewish World Service's first-ever Alternative Spring Break, which NYU piloted with Columbia University at Ruth Messinger's request and the program itself has grown to reach hundreds of young people over the years, introducing them to the vitally important work international development and critical philanthropic support for NGOs. 

Holding up the dispatched dish, I wanted to convey the actual disconnect between those who stir the pot by clamoring to the airwaves and those who seek to make sense of our nutty times by rolling up their sleeves and doing the work, on the ground, to redeem our world.  How many were in the pews at that moment?  Hundreds and hundreds, each of whom with the potential to add goodness and kindness to our world.  We can decry a paucity of great leadership (thankfully our congregation is blessed with an extraordinary and hard-working United States Senator!) or we can do it ourselves--creating an unstoppable force for good in the world.

This fall the Charles H. Revson Foundation awarded us a grant to expand our work of outreach fellowships by creating a Community Organizing Fellow--Isabel Burton--who has done extraordinary work already meeting with dozens of congregants and community leaders to talk about what kind of work we might engage in to create systemic change.  And in the process, secured a small grant from UJA Federation of NY for Jewish Social Action month in order to partner with the Osborne Association to create an ongoing effort to provide educational and moral support to children of New York state prisoners.  This year, in addition to our annual Yom Kippur Appeal for valued and needed financial support, Isabel created a Yom Kippur Social Action Pledge Card, which allowed people to make a promise of what they want to work on in the year ahead.  There were numerous choices listed based on her "listening campaign" (classic community organizing principle number one:  listen!) and a write-in section for other suggestions as well.  Having a Fellow engaged in this work, God willing, means that the best of intentions--that dreaded bogeyman of good work, "follow-up," will be realized.

Our pal Seth was with us for dinner before services and he reminded me of a great story about Rabbi AJ Wolf, of blessed memory.  Seth grew up in his congregation in Chicago and loves to share stories and imitations of Arnold's inimitable style and moral urgency.  In deep, gravely voice, he channeled Arnold:  "Yom Kippur means we all must die."  That thought, along with what we must do to avoid death, propelled me toward Shul for Kol Nidre.

What if Yom Kippur really were the day of our death?  Had we done all we could to live our lives to the fullest?  That is the question on our minds--not so much *will* we live but *how* will we live?

And one certain measure of *how* we will live can be discerned through what we commit to doing in the year ahead to alleviate suffering of the poor, the unemployed, the incarcerated; to support human rights; to green our buildings, our homes, our community; to provide shelter for the homeless.  The fast God seeks, says Isaiah, is not the affliction we cause our bodies but rather the service we offer others.

If we die today, we all must ask, what is the measure of our lives?

The tent for the sun that is mentioned in verse five of the Psalm above--what is that tent but the structures we build in the world which allow for the light of Torah to shine?


If you are a reader of this blog and you want to get involved, write me or contact Isabel at iburton@cbebk.org

Shanah Tovah

17 September 2010

YK/SR Notes/5771 2.0

Likely not to deliver but I stand by these words.

Know who you are.
Know what you think.
Know who you believe.
Know what to do.

I imagined the jay singing those words, the confidence-notes trilling above my head as I cut to the right and ran down the wooded path of the lower park traverse, late in the afternoon as one final preparation for Yom Kippur set in.  What makes those birds so confident?  How do they know?  But as my feet hit the pavement and my eyes beheld the uncommon beauty of an early fall view and the uncommon occurrence of the tornado strewn landscape at every angle, the bird's voice, its stature, and the surety of its message lifted my steps.  And those were the words I heard, remembering the bird's song, as I moved along the upper traverse, heading back home.

Home--the place where you know who you are, know what you think, know who you believe and know what to do.  But in our day, where we are made multiple, in so many places, in so many ways, by so many different influences, it's hard to believe in home, or school, or government, or synagogue.  The radical deconstruction of so much of what we previously understood to be whole or sacred or both has been torn limb from digital limb, leaving what at times feels like an unrecognizable mass of individual parts, with no conductor to compose and orchestrate a beautiful piece from all the pieces.

For me, birds are an important part of the creation of my own self.  I don't actually know that much about them, but they've always been present.  The ur text for birds is my grandmother's backyard, right outside her kitchen window.  There were two feeders that hung from an apple tree which proudly shaded the back of her house and standing at the kitchen window, my grandmother regularly commented upon the two creatures that drove her nuts regarding the inherent greed and general piggishness of the animal kingdom:  squirrels and grackles, each of whom, she felt, behaved as if seed for any creature inherently belonged to them, an expression of the singularity of their desire which was, to put it plainly, offensive. 

Returning from my run this afternoon I noticed 8th Avenue backed up by several blocks, as city workers labored diligently and efficiently to clear trees and branches from the sidewalks and avenue, securing our safety and (whistling in the dark) creating a sense of temporary order out of the Natural Law Chaos that reared its insistent head yesterday evening.  Like after 9-11 or a beautiful snowstorm, the neighborhood was quiet yesterday evening, humbled and awestruck, by the immediacy and instability of that winded violent outburst, taking only one life but threatening hundreds, if not thousands, or even tens of thousands.  Even into the morning hours as people walked to work and parents dropped children at school, the grand narrative of the Tornado of 2010 was being written, everyone with a story to tell, a picture to post, a witness to bear.

How sad and how terribly predictable that a noble and brave city worker at 3.30 pm this afternoon had to risk his own life for a road raging man in a large pick up truck, blaring his horn in incendiary insistence at having to "get to work" while crews cleared the latest expression of God or Nature's impetuous and more powerful hand.  "Let all who dwell on earth acknowledge that unto You every knee must bend."  So says the Aleynu prayer, humbling words if there ever were.  Difficult as it may be to sublimate our more untamed parts, these are words one might daven regularly to be kept on track.  (They even match up theologically with yoga.)  I was reminded of how on September 12th, 2001, a mere twenty four hours after 9-11, I rode my bike into NYU to check on students and crossing Flatbush Avenue, and got hit by a car.  I wasn't hurt.  But the driver, clearly in the wrong, offered no apology but rather an original and unique haiku curse reserved for those who don't deserve to live.  Smoke still rose above the horizon further down Flatbush.  But other fires also raged in this lost soul.

I'm just not smart enough or deep enough to know God's mind but I'll tell you this.  A few years back I walked through torrential rains and lightning falling all around me, just to get to Shul to lead services for Shavuot.  I was convinced that if I were to die that night, I would have done so in service of Torah, not unlike the destabilizing but faith-forming terror our ancestors felt at Mount Sinai when the Revelation was first made.  Similarly, as I stood at the window yesterday with my children and watched the sky darken, the winds wreak havoc, while thunder and lightning struck out in a coordinated attack unknowable by mere mortals, I knew that some would live and some would die; that some would conclude, yet again, that there is no God and that others would find their faith strengthened.

I, for one, took comfort in the storm arriving so close to our holiest day of the year.  To be reminded not only by the constructs of man and woman, who put their ideas down on paper and print it in a book and compose melodies to sing their meaning so that the essence of who we are can be uniquely and communally understood, is a blessing.  But so too is it a blessing to behold nature's power to not only create but destroy, and in that destruction, teach us that each breath is holy, each breath is sacred.

There is a blessing for such moments.  "Praised are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power and might fill the whole world."

After a day like yesterday, each word is worth pausing to consider.

Know who you are.  A man who lives in Brooklyn.
Know what you think.  I think life has meaning and blessing.
Know who you believe.  I believe in God.
Know what to do.  Observe his commandments.

16 September 2010

YK/SR Notes/5771 1.0

The Anger.

When we throw those tashlich crumbs into the water each year and I pledge to curb my anger.  Usually, within twenty-four hours I have failed.  It's the idol, made of neither silver nor gold but the raw material of my human infallibility that I design, mold and cast into a god with greater powers than the God I believe in. 

My anger usually is exhibited in private--at home, a terrible place to rage; and while driving, another terrible place to rage.  Part of the illusion of expressing oneself in private is the belief that no one can see you.  But we are seen.  Even when we sneak around.  "As the thief is ashamed when he is found, so is the House of Israel ashamed."  (Jeremiah 2.26)  So year after I year I confront these idols, working on the days and nights in-between to tame those gods, bring them down, and destroy them. 

I believe this is one of the reasons the Sages chose Jonah as the prophetic reading for Yom Kippur afternoon.  Jonah is the quintessential Jewish character of descent.  He goes down, deep down into the belly of the ship where he sleeps and once discovered tossed overboard, is swallowed into the belly of the great fish, a descent into descent beneath the face of the deep.  Once vomited out, with all graphic implications being that he is covered in the filth of his hiding, he finds himself without his mission having been fulfilled and the very people he came to warn of impending doom had reconciled on their own accord--even without the prophet to deliver the dire warning, the people of Nineveh figured it out themselves and changed their ways.

Jonah's response:  Anger.  "And it displeased Jonah greatly and it grieved him."  (Jonah 4.1)  So much so that he begged God to take his life, arguably the final descent--choosing death over life.  "I would rather die than do the right thing."  If that isn't idolatry, then I don't know what is.

During my life, I have seen people take this path.  We all have.  Accepting an accelerated path to our own inevitable mortality is generally easier than that which preserves our life.  Sometimes its even cloaked in the veil of what gives us pleasure.  My father died of anger and sometimes it was even a charming and romantic anger, veiled in the noir expression of cigarette smoke, hard work, cynical disassembling of pretentious veneer, and being Jewish. 

My dad never knew what to do with his Jewish soul.  He could only understand it in the most basic terms.  His mother was an immigrant; his grand-parents were saintly and mythologized religious types who, as grandparents, likely were at most two-dimensional characters; and, his own childhood and young adulthood was as much about escaping Jewishness as being American.  He loved to point out that the "H" on his army dog tags stood for his designation as an American Hebrew but as for observing the mitzvah of "teaching his children," he'd having nothing of it.  I, his first-born son, am an autodidact.  I am literally his Kaddish--his death being the final impetus for learning the Hebrew language and catapulting me into the fellowship of those who remember the dead in the cadence, rhythm and structure of ancient Aramaic and Hebrew.  When I say Yizkor for him each Yom Kippur, I mourn the loss of his early death but I also mourn the loss he chose for himself: the lack of the sacred, the lack of the narrative structure of Jewish life and history; hell, even the lack of regular exercise.

You big jerk.  You missed my becoming a rabbi.  You missed my wedding and the naming of my children.  You will miss each Bat Mitzvah and each event of your Jewish grandchildren's life.  You, who loved the broad stroke narratives of your time in the service during the Second World War had nothing of substance to say about that H around your neck!  And now, in the community I lead, there are a fair amount of guys like you.  I see you every day.  And am reminded in observation and action, of that irreducible anger that, like sacred fire, gets passed around among the guys and passed down to those next in line, from one generation to the next. 

I've come to believe that one of the issues that sustains the proverbial dysfunction of the Jewish community in the place where it is has to do with an unresolved anger toward God, toward authority, toward the challenge of the sacred and morality; all of which, in the best of all possible worlds, are meant to build a better world but get seen and understood, by those who don't want to do the work of practicing the sacred, as impediments to our happiness.  And so those who do practice the sacred are annoying or self-important or holier-than-thou; those who care about Israel are "Zionist" or "right-wing;" those who practice the wealth and creativity of Jewish culture are too ethnic or caught in an enclave of solipsistic celebration.  The material plasticity of our impressions of what things are as opposed to the living reality of their vividness, their vitality, (certainly not their fixity!) and their all-too-messy malleability (the doing of ritual as engagement in the world) is, for some, too complex a series of choices to make--not only about living but about living as Jews.

Anger, in this construct, is a force of destruction but not Abrahamic, more Nebuchadnezzarish.  Not a righteous objection to a false god but the willful attempt to dismantle what is good precisely because unbridled goodness is for some, too much to bear.  Because goodness unrestrained is redemptive; it inherently causes more goodness; and in so doing, changes to rules by which we ordinarily live our lives. 

What was there for Jonah to be so angry about?  The people of Nineveh changed.  That was the point of the exercise, though in the process we read about Jonah's shame and embarrassment at his own failure in carrying out the plan.

"Is it right of you to be so deeply grieved?" God asks Jonah.  That's when he leaves the city, builds a booth, and sat under the shade until he would see what would occur in the city.  His pacifism in the face of the remarkable turn-around of the Ninevites a site to see in its own right.  The sun beats down on him and God offers him shade in the form of a tree, which, the Sages teach, gave Jonah not only temporary relief but the false belief that material comfort in this world was the reward he sought.  But the task he had been given was to save a town, a task he failed at miserably.  Seeing them having repented of their own accord, he believes he succeeded.  But his faith is a mere illusion.  An idol.  Ripe for the picking.  And so God sends a worm to devour the tree, and Jonah loses his temporary shade, and as the sun beats down and he grows ever-more weary, he utters his fateful words, "Better is my death than my life!"
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
  (Langston Hughes)

Unable to transcend the material, Jonah makes his final descent.  Choosing death over life.  As allegory for us Jews, on the holiest day of the year, made fundamentally more sacred by our denial of material comfort, we are challenged personally at this one moment more than at any other time of the year, unless of course we stand over the grave (God forbid) of one we love.

The inescapable pit.  The boat, the fish, the grave.  And the Aron Ha Kodesh.  The Holy Ark, home to the Torah scrolls, the word of God, open and empty awaiting not the return of the Word but awaiting us, our return, our words. 

"See I have set before you this day life and good and death and evil...therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed."

The seed of sustenance; the seed of another generation; the seed of a plant that provides shade from the sun; and the seed which grows into a tree, which is the Tree of Life, the Book of Books, that we learn one letter at a time, one word at a time, one idea at a time.  Taming our raging souls on life's seas of volatility and training ourselves to offer sacrifices of goodness and loving-kindness. 

15 September 2010

Do Not Ignore Your Own Flesh

A quick trip into the city this afternoon had me heading over to the Puck Building in order to meet with the Jewish student association at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.  The idea was a New Year reception and conversation and I had the pleasure of framing a discussion of how these young, future Jewish professionals could bridge their desire to live within a serious Jewish framework while also serving the broader public in civil service.  One young man spoke very convincingly about growing up in California and being continually reminded about the obligation to honor commitments to social action and social justice by his rabbi, who recently retired.  Another spoke about being the child of generations of Baghdadi Jews who experienced discrimination in Israel by Ashkenazi authorities and how it sensitized him to the plight of disenfranchised minorities--Jewish and Arab--and resulted in his desire to serve others.  Still another spoke movingly about being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and being motivated to work harder at making sure that Jewish service included Jewish remembrance.  The number of survivors left living in our world diminishes on a daily basis--how we remember them is essential to the preservation of our history.

Anyway, I found myself listening to their stories, drawn to their unique and individual paths into Jewish service while also fully cognizant of how their decisions to serve were shaped as much by others forming them as they formed themselves.  Our particular journeys rely upon a formative series of developments brought about by others impacting us.

I was reminded of a sight I beheld walking along East 4th Street before heading down Lafayette toward the Puck Building:  a homeless man, asleep beneath scaffolding, his ass half-exposed, and his prosthetic limbs neatly stacked against the wall of the building in whose shadow he sought shelter.  Deep in sleep at 5 in the evening, he didn't seem to notice a working city heading to home or yoga or the gym or a bar or wherever it is that one goes to relax at the end of a day.  Not to be overly pedantic but I seemed to be the only one who noticed him and so stopped to see if he had a cup in which to share some money or a box to place food or a merely a set of eyes, bound to a soul, with which to make a connection, man to man.  Alas, he dreamed; and I stared; and others walked past, lost in their own world, lost in the world.

"Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!" says Isaiah in the stirring and challenging Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning.  "This is the fast I desire:  to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh."

But ignorance reigned.  Person after person passed our man in the street, their own noses deeply implanted in digital denial devices.  What ignominious behavior!  At the very least:  look; observe; take note!  The neutral non-noticing was too much to bear.

As I walked, and looked, I noticed as well the absurd appearance of a young woman who nearly ran into me, her own face deeply embedded in her electro-connector.  She wore bright red leather shoes and she strode past our uprooted friend in blithely confident shoey showiness.  I wished I had a camera at that moment, to capture the devastatingly inhuman insensitivity to the legless man.

"Do not ignore your own flesh."

Even noticing can be messianic:  "Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing will spring up quickly."  Healing--personal and national--will result from a sensitivity to the plight of the disadvantaged.  Our fate is linked to others we do not know; our own fortunate reality is dependent upon the misfortune of our neighbor.  Simple, troubling, and obligating, as that.

I looked up after musing these thoughts to the graduate students and realized I was preaching a Yom Kippur sermon and here it was, not yet Yom Kippur.  Pedant!  Blabbermouth!  Still, Isaiah is right.  He put it one way for his generation.  I, in my suited gentility, paraphrased him, reserving his words for own own food-deprived and afflicted souls this coming Saturday:  Our particular journeys rely upon a formative series of developments brought about by others impacting us.  Or, as the brother put it:  "Do not ignore your own flesh."

Not bliss.  Torment.  Ignorance is torment.

If anyone should know that, it's those who choose "public service."  And those who sleep in the street, blissfully ignorant, for a few brief moments, of their own temporary bliss.  "What you don't know won't kill you."  But what about what you do know?  And don't rectify?  Or don't get rectified?  How do they live, and you live, and we live?

14 September 2010

from today's mail

"Unfortunately, the Messiah has found little faith in the Messiah."  


Here's the full text:


I found your email address on your internet website. Please forward this message to anyone in your organization who might be interested in this message.

The Government has been fighting against the Messiah for the past fifteen years. See more about this at the end.

This is my short course on the interpretation of prophecy in the Book of Revelation. Chapter 6: The white horse and a man given a crown conquering is the prophetic symbol of William the Conqueror who conquered England in A.D. 1066 with the Norman French army. The red horse is probably a symbol of the Crusades, beginning in about A.D. 1099, and continuing for more than a century. The black horse is a prophetic symbol of famine in Western Europe in A.D. 1315 to 1318. The pale horse is a prophetic symbol of the Bubonic plague, the so called black death, in Western Europe in A.D. 1348 to 1349, which killed millions of people. The fifth seal is a prophetic symbol of the religious wars which ravaged Europe for hundreds of years. The sixth seal is a prophetic description of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the mysterious daylight darkness in 1780 in America, and a great meteor shower of 1833. Chapter 7: A prophetic symbol of the beginning of Jewish settlement in Palestine in about 1878. Chapter 8: A prophetic description of a combination of natural disasters, including the great Sicily earthquake of 1908 which killed tens of thousands of people, and Halley's comet of 1910, and the four years World War One, from August 1914 to November 1918, one third part of a 12 year span symbolized by the 12 signs of the heavenly zodiac. Chapter 9: The prophetic description of the rise of Hitler's Nazi Germany and World War Two, from July 31,1932 until September 2, 1945, an hour and a day and a month and a year, a prophetic symbol for a day and a month and a year and 12 years. Chapter 10: The prophetic description of an angel with feet as pillars of fire is the prophetic description of the United States Space Shuttle rocket during launch from by the seaside in Florida, with the roaring and thundering sound of the rocket engines. Chapter 11: The prophetic description of the terrorist attack in New York City against the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the war against Islamic terrorism which followed. There is much more detailed explanation that could be given of this interpretation of the prophecy. This is the ending point of my short course on the interpretation of the prophecy of the Book of Revelation. Please consider what I have written thoughtfully.

The news media and the Government have known of this interpretation of the prophecy of the Book of Revelation since the time of the middle of October 2001, but the treasonous and lying Government and the treasonous and lying and complicit news media have kept this interpretation of prophecy secret.

The Government has been fighting against the Messiah for the past fifteen years, and the Messiah has been fighting alone against the Government. Unfortunately, the Messiah has found little faith in the Messiah, among either Jews or Christians. The Messiah has been living in poverty for the past fifteen years, and the Messiah cannot continue to fight alone and in poverty against the Government. The prophecy of the Age of the Messiah will fail to be fulfilled if no one is willing to help the Messiah. If you know anyone who would be willing to help the Messiah, please contact me.

Thomas Miller
3201 Abbott Street
Fort Wayne IN 46806

13 September 2010

The Bench

Exhaustion.  Written all over their faces.  A young couple, whom I've never met, was seated on our newly installed benches along Garfield Place, in today's noontime sun, saying nothing to one another and eating fresh falafel, I'm guessing from Pita Pan on Seventh Avenue.  (It's a good falafel, I might add, in the Egyptian mode, and particularly satisfying with hot sauce--lots of hot sauce.)  In front of the repasting duo was a small baby, two months old, happily asleep in a stroller.  The scene, if drawn, could have been a New Yorker cover, I swear.

It reminded me of a favorite story I like to tell my kids.  One day, about 25 years ago, I was home from school and was doing nothing-in-particular, feeling reflective and profound like a college student should, when I walked into the kitchen where my mom was eating a sandwich with her feet up on a chair, staring out the window, deep in thought herself.  The symmetry was mind-blowing.  I looked at her across the room and developed an entire narrative structure of her inner world--an independent, divorced woman, reflecting on a life raising her kids, now grown; the tides of time shifting in America from the Great Depression where she grew up, through the 50s and 60s (Adlai Stevenson, JFK) and now into the early 80s (the crushing meekness of Carter, the outrageous imperialism of Reagan) a time of great expansion but complex international crises to manage.  I'm fairly certain she was thinking about nuclear annihilation as well.  Alas, when she looked up at me and smiled I said, "Wow, Mom, you look so deep in thought...contemplating the whole picture, hunh?"  "No, actually," she offered, amused by my aimless speculations.  "In fact, I was perfectly happy thinking about absolutely nothing at all."

So Zen, before Zen.  Robert Pirsig notwithstanding.

I've learned, since then, to notice the look.  The happy stare.  The quietude of nothing.  The respite.

Back to Brooklyn, today.  In the midst of our weirdly imploding Nation.  God I pray that our Shul can be a bulwark against the nuttiness.  As I walked past the couple I said hello, met the baby in their stroller, shared an appreciation for Pita Pan's particular felafelly aesthetic, and let the couple know that the benches in front of Shul were there for folks like them, to find some rest from it all in the shade of a synagogue.  We were happy to welcome them.

After this brief encounter they returned to their sandwiches and as I walked back into my office I thought of Abraham and Sarah, preparing a meal for the three visitors who came upon their tent in the heat of the day.  Food was prepared and they were welcomed.  Eventually, the three guests announced that after years of barrenness, Abraham and Sarah would have a child--Isaac.  The encounter would prove monumental in the narrative of the Jewish people and immediately following that moment, the three men head off toward Sodom and Gomorrah, where after learning that his personal family would grow, Abraham then engages in his famous dialogue with God over the nature of Divine Justice and whether or not the innocent should be swept away with the guilty in matters of war.  Which is to say that those quiet, contemplative moments of a brief repast are often wedged between the epic sweeps of history.  Or not.  I can never really tell.

I'm just glad the bench was there for a couple people and their baby.

12 September 2010

Kristof v Peretz

I found reading Nicholas Kristof today to be a frustrating experience, actually.  To his broader point--there is a demonizing mass hysteria in the land that is distorting American and constitutional values and is being used to attempt to stop the Islamic center downtown or derail President Obama's agenda with racist lies--I am in full agreement.

But the way in which he rhetorically makes use of Martin Peretz's recent blog post in the New Republic online is deceptive and I think, fundamentally flawed.  Look, what do I know about these kind of internecine battles among the lions of the great liberal media--the Times and TNR squaring off--but I believe that Kristof misses an opportunity to engage Peretz's broader point, which he's brave to make, though he shoots himself in the foot with potentially inflammatory lines like, "So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

For much of America, the First Amendment is of higher value than the First Commandment (so much so that it's even invoked to allow corporations to destroy the campaign finance system) and so any argument which suggests any potential diminishing of constitutional protection is cause for battle.

But Peretz rightly raises an important question which Kristof and many other liberal proponents these issues often ignore--the question of why so little is said to openly condemn the wanton bloodshed we see taking place virtually every day throughout the Muslim world--of Muslims killing Muslims--and how disorienting and disturbing it is to see classic liberal thinking defend the pluralism of American religious life while worrying in private that in our zeal to accept we fear being politically traif by also criticizing those we have drawn near.

Peretz wrote,
"I want to believe that Muslims are traumatized by the unrelieved murders in Islamic lands. Frankly, the only demonstration against a mass killing (after all, they happen nearly every day) I've read about was last week in Pakistan when some 30-odd people, not designated and not guilty of doing anything except going to a Shia shrine were blown right then and there. A day or two after two bombs went off taking the lives of what turned out--you can read it about in the recent Tehran Times--to be just under one hundred Shi'ites in two town different towns.  This intense epidemic of slaughter has been going on for nearly a decade and a half...without protest, without anything. And it has been going for decades and centuries before that."
 This is an issue I'd like to see Kristof address head-on because I think it's the fundamental question that Peretz is asking.  The hatred and xenophobia we see coming from the Right can't only be countered by an equally unquestioning tolerance from the Left.  Somewhere in the middle people have to be able ask difficult but necessary questions.  That kind of debate is also what the constitutional process is all about.

I want to be very clear.  I favor the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan; and God knows, I believe that President Obama is being thrown every ugly tactic and imaginable lie in the book to derail a noble and important agenda.   But because America's engagement with Islam--both the moderate Islam here in the States and the radical Islam abroad (and also here in the States as is evidenced by attacks and by a number of arrests) is far from over, and therefore many more questions remain.  And they should be asked and debated civilly, responsibly, and honestly in full view--it's to everyone's benefit.