30 November 2010

Where the Paths Meet

from Proverbs Eight

"Doth not wisdom call, and understanding put forth her voice?  In the top of the high places by the way, where the paths meet, she standeth; beside the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors, she crieth aloud."

Sure beats having your ship dashed against the rocks, don't it, hey?  (Sconnie Vocce)

When one's learning is dissonant, conflicted even, it can be seen as standing where the paths meet.  This is the way I've always understood that great American turn-of-phrase by Robert Frost about 'the road not taken.'  Our best learning, our deepest insights, often come from the choices we make to leave the path we think we're on because a voice calls us down another road.  Less the element of play and more the necessity of risk in the name of growth, evolution, advancement, even (though adding a new dimension) depth.

Kids in our schools are so deeply engaged with their secular work--it's a challenge to convince them at times of the necessity for understanding the deep rivers of Jewish civilization.  That just as profound as the exploration of ideas can be in the best schools of New York City, so must the exploration of ideas be for the synagogue as well.  Otherwise, we're just jolly life-cycle factories--a good economic model, I suppose.  But not really advancing the ball for the Jewish people.

I was studying with a student on Monday afternoon.  Smart kid.  We had examined the various circumstances surrounding God's call to Abraham and after 20 minutes or so he looked up from his book and said, "Rabbi, we haven't even finished the first verse."  His eyes lit up when I showed him the page of a medieval commentary with many voices on the page, spanning centuries of inquiry into one word--one word but many paths.  Each gate the Gate of Inquiry.  He smiled at the prospect of passing through one, then another, and still another.

Suddenly the door to my study shook.  Someone outside had bumped into it, perhaps?  Or rogue stroller?  Or in another part of this old building, one door closed while the latch to my study door engaged.  As did another young mind, connected to Torah.

"She crieth aloud."

29 November 2010

Stay Sharp

from Proverbs Seven

I remember it feeling like it happened in slow-motion.  During school one year, a student received feedback for a speech they had given and during the question and answer session, when the practice was to offer critical remarks in an effort to sharpen ideas and debate, one interlocutor stood up and pronounced, "I just want to say one word:  Wow!"  And then sat down.

In one fell swoop, a tradition seemed to topple.  The ground shifted.  For it appeared that ever after, one who stood to actually criticize was publicly perceived as "negative" and part of an "old culture" that was "behind the times" and not "positive and supportive" of people's "personal spiritual growth" in the way it ought to be.  Like a cloud passing over head, changing shape and dissipating into the bright blue sky of indifference, my base of assumptions about what school would be all about was gone.

What of "pilpul," that old European Jewish tradition of sharp-edged thinking, employing critical faculties to arrive at a better and better conclusion, not for my sake but the Sake of Heaven?  Back on campus, before rabbinical school, I remember walking up to a professor after a particularly brilliant lecture in which I didn't catch all the literary references.  In genuine awe and humility, I approached the lectern to seek clarification and elucidation of the specific point.  The references were to works outside the "required reading," so I figured the Herr Doktor would gladly give me the thumbnail.  "Read the work," he said, smiling.  "What are you afraid of?"  God, I thought.  And you.  But I read the work and perhaps ever since understood one's intellectual reading to be a matter of enjoyment but perhaps more important, a matter of work.  With an ethic and an obligation to a higher duty other than oneself.

"The fear of the Eternal is the beginning of Wisdom."  So saith Proverbs back at the beginning.  And I consider that line here in the seventh chapter, as the author lays out an argument against blinding wonder, against the seduction of illusion, against just one word--"Wow."

"I beheld among the thoughtless wonderers, I discerned among the youth, a young man, devoid of understanding, passing through the market, I went by the way to her house."  Here the author employs a sharpness--frivolous learning is a prostitute, painted and seductive, a beauty among a bazaar of alluring objects, just one more thing to acquire for the sake of immediate pleasure.

"He goeth after her straight away, like an ox to his slaughterer, or as one in fetters to a fool's correction."  The capacity for self-critical thinking here, for the author's ability to transcend his own motivation and lay bare his ego's involvement in, striving for pleasure without substance, is one of the most difficult challenges we face when studying Torah.  What does it mean to find the line, to know the line, between the pleasure of learning for oneself and the pleasure of learning for the Sake of Heaven?  When there is so much wonder, who is really being served?  And til when does one reckon the price of such (perish the thought!) "self-service?"

"Til an arrow strike through his liver, as a bird hastens to his snare and knoweth not it's at the cost of his life." 

Long before my father died, he once observed about me, "Son, you're sometimes like a deer caught in the woods--you hear a twig break and your head turns one way; you hear another twig break and your head turns in that direction."  There his metaphor came to a halt.  As did his instruction.  But his point had been made.  Though Chesterton observed "the world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder" it's also possible that there can be too much wonder.

"Let not thy heart decline to her ways, go not astray in her paths.  For she hath cast down many wounded; yea, a mighty host are all her slain.  Her house is the way to the nether-world, going down to the chambers of death."

Stay sharp.  Like a surgeon's tools, the mind in service to God can save your life.


28 November 2010

Rhetorical Questions. Then Commandment.

from Proverbs Six

A Manifesto for Revolution, if you care to read this chapter that way.  The sculptor of proverbs reminds us of the particular evil of indebtedness and the debilitating power it has over the innocent and the guilty.  One cannot read these lines without considering the still smoldering embers of our shattered economy hovering in the distance, an augury, a warning for future economic catastrophes to come.  When I walk Nathan at night, late, as I often do; or early, as the sun rises above Eastern Parkway, at each interval of darkness and dawn I see men and women digging through garbage for cans and bottles to trade; for discarded food to eat; for cigarette butts to inhale for the fleeting pleasure of smoke, nicotine, and escape-clouds of smoke, magic, making them invisible, however briefly, to their own misery.  This is the country in which we currently live.  It reminds me of the New York I moved to in 1990 only worse--because the unemployment is higher but the illusion for those on the wealthy end of the spectrum shines more brightly.  The blinding lights of escape have sharpened their ability to fool us, transfix us in the image.

Here's an image:  "Give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to the thine eyelids.  Deliver thyself as a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and as a bird from the hand of the fowler.  Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise; which having no chief, overseer or ruler, provideth her bread in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest."

It's hard not to read this through a Marxist lens.  Workers in our nation have limited access, it seems, to the real means of production.  Capital is so very limited in this economy; yet we are seduced by the illusion of markets rising and falling.  But we seem to produce so very little.  And fewer and fewer people are capable of living lives of true self-sufficiency--of having "no chief, overseer or ruler."  It never ceases to amaze me that Americans are relatively non-violent about their dire economic circumstances.  That is, until I catch a glimpse of someone's face staring at a television or computer screen--the great anesthetizers of our media saturated culture.  We main-line radiant images.  Beats dealing with a guy digging through your garbage can off the front stoop, I guess.

Proverbs author hits hard here.  Takes aim at laziness, sluggardness, excessive sleep.  He hates he who walks 'round with a "froward" mouth.  A depressed person, he charges, opens up a society to the prospect of calamity.  And so the author prescribes morality and chastity, warning against the seven abominable forms of behavior:  haughty eyes; a lying tongue; hands that shed innocent blood; a heart that deviseth wicked thoughts; feet running to do evil; breathing out false witness (so effortless, like breathing!); and, sowing discord among brethren.

What's the counter-force?  The Revolution of Faith and Tradition:  "For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is a light and reproofs of instruction are the way of life."

What greater reproof have we as a nation than that in which our poor go begging for bread in our public refuse cans?  How low have we fallen than this testimony for the way in which they eat?

But who can hear this reproof inside ears inside headphones inside screens imprisoning eyes made to melt from the burning images before them?

I see you.  Late at night it's just me and my dog and we both see you.  Your faces are blue; your information is up to the minute.   But your precise knowledge misses the man over there, rummaging for his next meal.  "Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned?  Or can one walk upon hot coals and his feet not be scorched."

Note:  these are rhetorical questions.  The answers are *that obvious.*  If only it were that obvious.

We've again begun our Food Drive with City Harvest to do our part.  Bins are in the Temple House entrance at 274 Garfield.  Please do your part.  Thanks.

27 November 2010

Ask for Directions

from Proverbs Five

"For the lips of a strange woman drop honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil; but her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword."

Here's where metaphor can get ahead of you.  Good wisdom is a familiar man; bad wisdom is a strange woman.  Proverbs' author is intent on driving that point home ("driving the point" a typically "male" thing to do; "home" being the traditional domain of the "female.")  Rashi is concerned about this--being the father of daughters as well as an inherently fair and brilliant man--and he's insistent on reading this chapter with discomforting metaphor in mind because the implications of the literalist reading is to mean that bad wisdom *is* a female creation.

"Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on the nether-world; lest she should walk the even path of life, her ways wander but she knoweth it not.  Now therefore O ye children, hearken unto me, and depart not from the words of my mouth.  Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house; lest thou give thy vigor unto others, and thy years unto the cruel; lest strangers be filled with thy strength, and thy labors be in the house of an alien."

Like a rabid dog's teeth cut deep into the bone, this is the metaphor that won't let go until maximum damage is done.  It proves, without a doubt, the feminist critique of our sacred texts and calls into question their validity if the texts themselves are predicated on misogynist premises. 

Of course Rashi is right--it *is* metaphor!  But there is a recognition in having to say so that the damage is already done.  Corrective interpretations are among the ways the Tradition seeks to save itself from its worse impulses. 

A small people, concerned with its ethnic and national dissolution; stubborn ethical monotheists in a sea of pagan culture; human nature, where otherness attracts; take your pick--any one of these serve as a valid explanation for why the authors are concerned with the "seduction" of a female wisdom from a culture other than their own. 

But Zipporah circumcised Moses' son; Ruth stayed with Naomi; and in our contemporary context, thousands of woman not-born-Jewish ensure the Jewish education of the sons and daughters of Jewish men by insisting on a religious education, membership in a synagogue, obligatory participation in a community of meaning. 

Though not born Jewish, many women in our synagogue and others subscribe to Proverbs command here:  "Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.  Let thy springs be dispersed abroad, and courses of water in the streets."  One of the realities of our plural culture is that people pair up with whomever they want to pair up with; I've yet to see a communal policy that can truly prevent that from happening.  Therefore, our wisdom must be made accessible, an open well from which all who seek its waters may drink. 

Fact is--and a lot of Jewish men know this--when they get to the well, they discover "strange women" already there, having discovered the water's healing powers long before they found. 

Maybe it's like driving.  Women ask for directions; men get stubbornly lost trying to find their own way.

26 November 2010


from Proverbs Four

Today I get a text from my sister, who's heading back to Chicago from Thanksgiving.  "Where's Dad's plot, exactly?"  Something to that effect.  By the time I reached her on the phone, she was standing over his grave.  "Send me a picture," I asked.  And there you have it.

Fall is the most meaningful time of year--seems a perfect place created for the transitions that come with it.  The brighter light, the cooler air, the leaves on the ground--evoke for me a conceptual inner landscape of clear neutral composition, a template upon which one projects one's own soul.  It's spareness provides room to experience, interpret and grow, albeit alone, an essential qualification for one's emotional, spiritual and intellectual development.  No wonder the Tradition chooses the New Year and Yom Kippur to challenge us at this time of year.  In my secular soul, fall was also the loss of the baseball season; the loss of summer's redolence; the loss of trees' shade; the sacks and tackles and stitches brought on by football games in the yard; the decreased capacity for driveway basketball games to last, players driven inside by high winds, rain, and frozen hands.  Dad died in the spring but I started to say good-bye in the fall, when it seemed pretty clear to those of us watching him closely that he had simply decided to let go.  Winter that year was like the peculiar act of a play in which the actors remain on stage but behind the curtain.  Through muffled velvet curtains their lines are barely heard.  And then all of a sudden, at fall's mirror-image, spring, the curtain rises and voila!  Finis. 

During every season after my grandfather died, I'd ride with my dad out to the cemetery to visit his grandparents and father's grave; and then five years later, his mother's as well.  But during those last few years, dad started to let go.  His sense of place in history and his own family narrative eroded.  What was once an obligatory relationship to the inheritance dissipated; and I was conscious of my own rightful place as one of its new keepers.  Axiomatically speaking, it meant that he was on his way out and I would have the responsibility of replacing him; but I knew that he had been in that position with his dad as well, so it seemed natural, if not fated, to be so.

He had given me this truth.  And I agreed to receive it.

"Behold a good doctrine has been given you, my Teaching, do not forsake it."  One ordinarily hears this verse uttered in the synagogue each time the Torah is returned to the Ark but the author of Proverbs composes this line in the context of a father passing on wisdom to a son.  During the first years of my parents divorce, on the nights I'd stay at Dad's, we'd sit up late pouring over his photographs--pictures from growing up with an immigrant mother and grandparents; pictures in the Service; back on campus courtesy of the GI Bill, and at an early career and marriage.  Stories were attached to each one and during those moments when it seemed one part of my childhood was shattered, a new life was being built up within--the moral life, the historical life, the life responsible for remembering.  The temporariness of it all was transcended by a timeless endeavor that told greater truths for those willing to receive them, and guard them, and protect them.

"Above all that thy guardest--keep thy heart.  For out of it are the issues of life."  Dad's heart is what gave way in the winter of 1983, a cardiac failing that began, no doubt, as leaves started to fall a few months before.  A life-long smoker, long having given-up on exercise, and with little interest in a proper diet or meaningful stress-reduction, he hardly "kept his heart."  At least the physical one.  But his heart of hearts--that subtle, loving place of self and family; of time and generations; of humor and the meaning of life--that beats on.

I heard it when speaking to my sister today, who found her way to dad's spot, on a hill's gentle incline.  There she stood, aiming her camera at my request and sending the picture along.  She stood there in real time; and I, through the screen of my phone while traveling on a train between Baltimore and New York City, was present as well.  Both of us looking into our destiny as his children.

"Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee."

They say perfect eyesight is 20-20.  Maybe it ought to be 20-20-20:  for parents, children, and those who will come after, seeing backward and forward into eternity.

25 November 2010

On Healthy Navels

from Proverbs Three

"Be not wise in thine own eyes, fear the Eternal and depart from evil--it shall be health to thy navel and marrow to thy bones."

Years ago, a synagogue member once said to me about not making much of an effort to control a rebellious kid in Hebrew school, "Rabbi, we don't believe in God; we believe in the Co-Op."  This was back in the 90s, before the Park Slope Food Co-Op had 12 million members and so obviously, this woman was way ahead of her time.  Long gone from the Jewish age of adulthood for her kid, she can still be seen on occasion, pushing her toting cart, brimming with boxes of delicious, organic food.  She certainly looks no worse for the wear and by God, she looks healthy.  It would take a TSA scanner to determine the relative condition of her bone marrow, but one can presume it to be fit.

This, at times, is my quixotic dilemma.  I serve in a broader Brooklyn community that worships something, I'm just not always entirely sure what.  There's the proverbial God of soccer; the preponderance of yoga mats over tallis bags on Saturday mornings; the wondrous messy democracy of a public school PTA; and then, of course, there are the homes and the kitchens, the finer domestic pursuits that serve as the hearth around which families once gathered for the oral transmission of where we come from and where we are going.  Flames burn on Viking stove tops; light is emitted from our screens; but I still have the distinct impression that a cold, heartless darkness is winning.

There is something terribly disturbing about the recent wave of political victories in our country which some on the Left, from a position of relative bourgeois comfort, dismiss as religious fanaticism or right wing fascism.  There is an awful movement afoot, no doubt:  Hatred of the immigrant; hatred of gays; hatred and distrust of the nation's first black President.  But mixed in with these morally reprehensible views is another crisis--of a failing national economy; a struggling public school system; increased levels of social isolation; a greater desensitization to violence, poverty and even war.  Most people from any place on the political spectrum don't seem to genuinely know where we are going, a confusion that only feeds the distrust in the political process.

GK Chesterton, writing at the turn of the last century for the London Daily News, argued that "of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of external ties and tragic human morality." 

Our neighborhood is a very comfortable place to be; but around us, it seems, the city and the nation are in a crisis.  I'm not always so sure that it's *we* who get it right while in a greater perimeter there is folly.  It's often as much the case that we live in a cave of our own acceptable aesthetic darkness, hoarding for ourselves what precious Light there is.

"Be not wise in thine own eyes, fear the Eternal and depart from evil--it shall be health to thy navel and marrow to thy bones."

We make a grave mistake in thinking that the attainment of wisdom is a personal commodity--like a broccoli rabe sauteed just so.  In fact we may find that the "external ties" which we find so worn and troubling in our civil society will be repaired more felicitously by our ability to transcend ourselves and our own healthy navels.

24 November 2010

Hold This Lamp for a Sec, Will Ya?

from Proverbs Two
  • First you have to receive the words.
  • Then you store them.
  • When you're ready, remove them from their packaging and listen.  If you can hear them, move to the next step.
  • Which is to feel them in your heart.
  • The resonance between the inner ear and a beating heart is a clever one--not as easily discerned as one would like.  Much can go wrong in that communication loop, so do what most reasonable people do:  Call for understanding.
  • But don't just call for it--seek it, pursue it, search out like one would go after silver or gold or a precious jewel--like an object of value.  
  • (Remind yourself, however, that we're not talking *objects* here but materially ethereal but substantively (when realized) quite formidable.

If you find this treasure, after following these steps, you will know it.  And then, of course, there is the practical matter of applying it to your life.  Which is easier said than done.

Conclusion:  Wisdom is knowable as a dyad:  the object of pursuit and the realization, in living, of its attainment.

"That thou mayest walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous.  For the upright shall dwell in the land, and the whole-hearted shall remain in it."

I find myself thinking a lot lately about how some of the most upright people I've met don't have access to or the means of ownership of property.  They dwell "in the land" but don't possess it, since  possession, for better and worse, is not always value neutral.  There are those who work fair and square for what they have; and there are bad people who do bad things to good people in order to get what they have, which complicates the picture when we set to contemplating things like wisdom.

"Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."  People sometimes forget that before Jefferson set to crafting the Declaration of Independence, George Mason had written for Virginia's Declaration of Rights, that one is to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of property as well.  Happiness was of a moral concern; property, as Franklin put it, was a resource to be taxed.

I'm with Franklin.  I would prefer to make more money but I don't really have a problem giving it away, especially when I know that it's the price of membership in this shul--Congregation United States of America--and the taxes require that we're protected by an army, that our transportation is maintained, that our schools teach our children, that we care for our poor, that we ensure access to health care, and that we clean up the messes we make.

What we possess is a gift; how we protect it is, paradoxically, the privilege of living generously.  The treasures we pursue and do not bury for our own safe-keeping are treasures unearthed, clearly understood, and spread forth, radiantly--a light for all to, well, possess.

23 November 2010

Feed Me, House Me, Clothe Me

from Proverbs One

"Wisdom crieth aloud in the street, she uttereth her voice in the broad places; she calleth at the head of the noisy streets, and the entrances of the gates in the city, she uttereth her words:  How long, ye thoughtless, will ye love thoughtlessness?  How long will scorners delight them in scorning, and fools hate knowledge?"

This teaching came to mind when I opened the paper this morning to read the news that certain Wall Street boys and girls have their "wallets out" and are engaging in their fun and games.  Look at this grotesquery:
"Real estate agents say Wall Street executives have already begun lining up rentals in the Hamptons for next summer.  Dolly Lenz of Prudential Douglas Elliman said the bidding this year was “hotter and heavier” than previous years. 'There is a passion now in the market I haven’t seen in a while,' she said.  She said her clients, almost exclusively from Wall Street, were afraid to lose out. Just recently, Ms. Lenz said, she had three people bidding more than $400,000 for a summer rental in Southampton."
 I still can't get out of my mind the growing gap between rich and poor in our country and the outrageous statistic that nearly 30% of the wealth in the United States is in the hands of 1% of the population.

In some places in the country, the pursuit of the idea and the aspirations of the soul are coming together to do interesting things, like this story I read about UW researchers looking at high levels of diabetes on Menominee Indian Reservations and teaching healthy eating and sustainable agriculture--ironic on Thanksgiving Weekend, no?

But tonight when I walk Nathan, my dog, who is more well fed and housed than thousands of humans in this city, I will see men sleeping on park benches around Grand Army Plaza, bracing themselves against the autumn chill, giving a kind of thanks (for what, I wonder) and I hope to hear wisdom crying.

But that wisdom crying in the street will be more like a scream:  "Feed me!  House me!  Clothe me!"

22 November 2010

Bellow's Letters

In case over the course of the weekend you moved your book review section of the Sunday paper to somewhere near the middle of the pile of things to read this week, go find it and move it to the top.  And when you sit down, read Leon Wieseltier's review of Saul Bellow's Letters. 

It is really a beautiful piece of writing.

21 November 2010

50 x 3 = 150. The End.

Sometime in the spring I came across a small collection of Psalms, published in Berlin in 1906, and compiled by a Haskalah Movement scholar named Meir Halevi Leteris.  There are places and times I would have liked to see in their glory and Berlin at the turn of the century is one such place.  I have spent the last several months carrying this small volume around with me, serving as a muse, a source of inspiration for my 150 Psalms Project, now complete.

The experience of reading three psalms a day, and writing about them publicly, has been deeper than I would have expected.  In my naivete, I was searching for an encounter with lost ancient poetry; and I wanted to get in the ring with a radical Biblical theology that would challenge the soft underbelly of contemporary Jewish thought and its "concern" for the "self."   The psalms were more than willing, if one can detect a will, to engage in this sport.  But the journey of the soul was another matter entirely and I will admit to having gone through numerous ups and downs in the last fifty days, sometimes feeling as though I was in the grip of an Eternal Language which, like Jacob's angel, has left me newly named and with a limp.  But the new name is an old name and the old limp is a new limp--so who knows?

I can only compare it to walking off a basketball court as a young man--maybe a broken finger one night; a few stitches another; the future down-payment on back trouble years ahead, prefigured in my careful stepping off the wood and into the locker-room.

Exhausted, enlivened, and ready to do it all over again.

150 (148-150)

148.  Creation's triumph here celebrated, which we need to do sometimes when man's own dystopic renderings--the noisy grid, the iridescent wonder of all we've made left out on the curb like garbage, and our indifference to it all--threaten to overwhelm us.  Don't give up!  Look to the sky!  Sun, moon, stars of light; heavens of heavens and waters above the heavens.  Fire, hail, snow and vaporous mists blowing in from the sea.  Mountains and hills, fruitful trees and mighty cedars; beasts and cattle, creepy things and winged creatures.  Kings, queens and all the rest; princes, judges, young men and maidens; old ones and children, too. 

What if this were all on your mind as the Torah is returned to the Ark on a Saturday morning.  The orchestral transcendence of the Matter of Life:  "Let them praise the Name of the Eternal, for His Name alone is exalted; His glory is above the earth and heaven.  He hath lifted up a horn for His people, a praise for all His saints, even for the Children of Israel, a people near unto Him.  Halleluyah."

This is our testimony.  It's for Someone else to judge, to make order of our chaos, to raise the Law over man.

149.  Triumph and the execution of Justice.  A victory without justice is more chaos.  How can it be done, I wonder, in a society where everyone has a right?   As we're not often enough reminded, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  We often make the mistake of interpreting this to mean we have an unfettered freedom to do whatever makes us happy; but Jefferson, who wrote the words, and Lincoln, who drew from them great inspiration for his view on the development of American law, knew that such Happiness could be found in a moral, covenantal upholding of the Law.  Law, not Chaos, but on American terms, not British terms. 

Similarly, there was Law in Egypt; and then Freedom.  And then Law at Sinai.  Which we agreed to follow, albeit against our will, as the Sages point out--with God holding a mountain over our heads, saying, "Accept and live or reject and this rock will be your grave." 

We are all born into obligation:  to the poor and the needy; the widow and the orphan.  "He adorneth the humble with salvation." 

A society that aggregates nearly 30% of its wealth in the hands of 1% of its population leaves the humble by the curb, like so much garbage.  Not a whole hell of a lot of happiness to pursue there.  Righting these wrongs and inequities is not easy; but it doesn't mean it ought not to be done.

"To execute vengeance upon the nations, and chastisements upon the peoples; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written; He is the glory of all His saints.  Halleluyah."

You break one set of chains only to find yourself bound up in another.  Happiness is over-rated.  Goodness, unlimited.  Halleluyah.

150.  Cue the music.  No words.  Blow a shofar.  Grab a violin.  Play a harp.  Tap a timbrel.  Dance.  Pluck strings.  Clean out your pipes.  Bang and clang your cymbals.  If you have a gong, now would be the time to use it.  But don't speak.  Just your breath, the one breathed into you at the beginning, from the One who gave you life, long ago, when you came into the world.

Now say 'thank-you.'  Again and again.  Halleluyah.

20 November 2010

150 (145-147)

145.  This is not just any old psalm.  It's the last among the 150 that is an acrostic, an alphabetically ordered wonder that stands proud in its literary trickery (braggart!) of praise and adoration for the Source of Life.  I was first introduced to its structure and beauty as a young college graduate, working as a Hebrew School teacher at the Conservative Synagogue of Madison.  Twice weekly the students, teachers and rabbi would gather in a small room before afternoon classes began and from an over-head projector, we'd recite Minchah, the afternoon prayer service attributed to the patriarch Isaac, which begins each day with Ashrei, or Psalm 145.  (In fact, to dial things back a few weeks, Ashrei in the prayerbook opens with a line from Psalm 84.5:  "Happy are they that dwell in Thy house, they are ever praising Thee.")

I was happy to dwell in that house--having recently decided to pursue rabbinical studies, I wanted to *work* in the Jewish community and this congregation would have me.  Except for one guy, a rather reactionary fellow, who made a stink out of the fact that at the time I was "patrilineally Jewish" and not matrilineally, therefore halachically, Jewish.  In other words, the dude wasn't kosher.  That prompted discussions with the rabbi, and my conscience, and my teachers and friends, and my sense of history, an agonizing journey of the mind and heart and soul, brought home one afternoon at shiva for my great-aunt Rose, where over a shmear and a glass of scotch, the Conservative Rabbi of Milwaukee, who presided over a synagogue, the historical antecedents of which were founded in part by my great grandfather, said to me, "Andy, you've got the neshama (soul); now you need some architecture."  He may have said "scaffolding."  In remembering, I've brought it "up-to-date."  Made it "my own."  Saints preserve us.  Selah. 

Good line.  So good, in fact, that I agreed to have a drop of blood drawn from the skin of my, well, passport, and a dunk in the mikveh.  My mentor Irv was there and I'll never forget his face at that moment.  It said, to the best of my ability to interpret its quiet concern, "It's not easy to be a Jew."

I think of all this each day upon reciting this Acrostic of Blessing.  How funny to read it, study it, among the other 150. 

The day I read it I was riding the 4 train home after a meeting in Midtown.  A tired man sat across from me, sleeping.  His jeans and boots were covered in dusted dry-wall and plaster.  A folded NY Post and his lunch box rested easily against his legs.  I began composing my own acrostic, for him:  "A Black Callous-Handed Dreaming Edifice, Forgetting Gain, His Identity-Justified Kinesis:  Labor."

My mind returned to the psalm and in it my favorite line:  "Thou openest Thy hand, and satisfiest every living being."  Imagine that!  God's hand opens and there is enough for everyone.  Yet people go hungry.  People remain ignorant.  I find myself thinking of this line often and being reminded that there really is enough for everyone; it is we who lack generosity.

146.  Look.  I'll give it to you straight.  Don't trust princes.  There is no help in mortals.  Happiness and hope are in God, Who, by the way, ONLY MADE HEAVEN AND EARTH!  THE SEA AND ALL THAT'S IN IT.  YOUR GUARDIAN OF TRUTH FOREVER.  Brings to mind Larry David's bit about growing up next to Jonas Salk's mother. 

What is that eternal truth?  It executes justice for the oppressed; gives bread to the hungry; looses the prisoners' bonds; opens the eyes of the blind; raises up those bowed down; loves the righteous; preserves the stranger; supports the fatherless and the widow. 

Here is Kedusha--Holiness:  "The Eternal will reign for ever, Thy God O Zion, unto all generations."  An overwhelmingly powerful expression of the ethical God.  And man, finding himself reaching, with aspirational soulfulness, toward Zion.

147.  Among God's many healing miracles is that He names each and every one of the countless stars in the sky.  The naming goes on and on and on.  "Great is the Eternal, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite."  Among those levels of understanding is the fleeting nature of man and the Eternal reality of God.  "He delighteth not in the strength of the horse; He taketh no pleasre in them that fear Him, in those that wait for His mercy." 

A name is enough power.  As for legs, well.  There's always another set, just around the corner, ready to run.  But run where exactly?  The world is round; and gravity keeps us down.

19 November 2010

150 (142-144)

142.  David in the cave.  His plea for help.  From the cave!  Who hears it?  The echo, against cold rock walls.  Only he can hear it, a torture in its own right.  What an utterly, totally debilitating darkness!  "When my spirit fainteth within me--Thou knowest my path--in the way wherein I walk have they hidden a snare for me."  Stumbling through the darkness, feet caught in the thick, no way out.  "Bring my soul out of prison, that I may give thanks unto Thy name."  We cannot adequately address the situation until we are recovered.

143.  The near-death experience of persecution.  "For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath crushed my life down to the ground; he hath made me to dwell in the dark places, as those that have been long dead."  But the reaching out and up is the restorative act.  First prompted by the meditative act of remembering, which in Judaism's conceptualization, is followed by immediate action.  "I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Thy doing; I muse on the work of Thy hands."  And like a plant reaching toward the sun, our arms stretch toward the Source of Life while our feet root in rivers deep underground.  "I spread forth my hands unto Thee; my soul thirsteth after Thee as a weary land.  Selah."  Again, our turn outward from the absorption of our own all-consuming depression to the joy of service to others is here expressed:  "Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; let Thy good spirit lead me in an even land."

144.  Moral striving as a physical barricade of protection.  Here expressed in the radical differentiation between man's pathetic insignificance and God's power and majesty.  Love and protection find their source in this idea, not in the musings of our own design.

18 November 2010

150 (139-141)

 139.  In "Grandmother's Song," Steven Martin famously sang  "Be dull and boring and omnipresent."  Which is one way to look at, *it* being the very idea of omnipresence.  If something is always there, it's so present as to be nearly invisible, since our overly-stimulated sensory systems need a constant renewal of synapse re-uptaking in order to function.  So it goes.

But what of the Omnipresence that is Conscience?  "Hashem, You have searched me and known me."  Here there is no escape from the All-Knowing Eye.  No weaseling out of responsibility with double-talk.  No clicking away.  "Thou measurest my going about and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.  For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Eternal, Thou knowest it altogether."  Even before we know the words ourselves, there is Knowing.  I know this and still screw it up every day.  There is no escape during our highest highs and our lowest lows.  "If I ascend up to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the netherworld, behold, Thou art there."  And not only that, before we were born, a narrative was written for us.  We were already in the book.  "My frame was not hidden from Thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.  Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance, and in Thy book they were all written, even the days that were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them."

I have a picture of my great grandparents, immigrants from Minsk, holding their first grandchild, my father, a year after he was born.  I wouldn't be born for another 39 years but I see myself there now, only finally discovering what was already known.  Intentions and aspirations, successes and failures, triumphs and persecutions:  from Milwaukee to Russia to Jerusalem to Egypt to Canaan to Haran to Gan Eden to the Beginning of Space, Time and Consciousness.

Have I lost you?  Please listen to this.

140.  "Deliver me, Eternal, from the evil man; preserve me from the violent man."  The ghosts of past angers; the descending darkness of those past generations whose traumas we inherit and struggle mightily against ourselves.

Save me from those men, coursing bitterly through my veins, in a race against time for control of my destiny.  It's them or me.

The prescription for eradicating my own evil which attacks me, building a prison around my isolation:  "The Eternal will maintain the cause of the poor, and the right of the needy.  Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto Thy name; the upright shall dwell in Thy presence."  The only door to walk through for peace is that which leads to the redemption of our fellow human being. 

141.  "Set a guard, Eternal, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips."  Again a concern with the overwhelming power of wickedness, violence and evil.  And again with the iteration that its prevention is achievable through a vigilant protection of our consumption.  What we eat; what we drink; what we say.  When the only mouths mentioned in this psalm are my own, the righteous who correct me, and that of the grave, there is a lesson to be learned.

17 November 2010

150 (136-138)

136.   "Give thanks because God is good, for His kindness lasts forever."  It sounds much better in Hebrew.  Still, I like the idea of goodness and kindness twinned, pillars at the Gates of Forever.  The poet speaks of Wonder.  And he conceives of the Heavens as having understanding.  After laying out these strong principles--kindness and goodness emanating throughout the universe forever along with a great sense of wonder and understanding, the poet reiterates, recapitulates, or reorganizes certain deep mythological tropes of Jewish life and thought:  the Creation; the Exodus; the Wandering; and the Return to the Land of Israel.  These re-tellings are meant to activate in the Divine a sense of that aforementioned "goodness and kindness" so that God will "answer us in our lowly state" and "deliver us from our adversaries" and "feed us bread."  These aren't "air-quotes" but actual themes, building blocks of a Tradition.  Know them.  Rely upon them.  Be freed by them, into them.  Forever.

137.  Exile makes us weep.  And turns us Jews into an Ur Source so Reggae singers write songs about our texts.  "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps.  For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, and our tormentors asked of us mirth:  'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' "  We had a willow tree in our front yard and I used to go there for comfort when young.  After the folks divorced and we sold the house, I thought of that tree.  It wasn't next to a river, just a small prairie ditch but I'd see frogs and rabbits and an occasional snake.  I never wept but I lay down there.  And now I remember that Zion.  And in my own cunning I never forget.  Believe me, my tongue cleaving to the roof of my mouth is not my problem.  I'm certain there are some who believe it should be.   I remember a summer wind through my bedroom window; and ball games on the radio; and my dog asleep under the birch on a warm afternoon.  But I never wanted revenge, or to "dash thy little ones against the rock."  I hate how religion sometimes intrudes on a good song and ruins it.

138.  Strength.  Uncommon fortitude.  And thanksgiving.  "I will give Thee thanks with my whole heart, in the presence of the mighty will I sing praises unto Thee."  On VE Day in 1945, the photographer Paul Goldman captured Jews dancing in the streets in Tel Aviv, celebrating the Allied victory over German and Italian Fascism.  It's one of my favorite photographs of all time.  "In the day that I called, Thou didst answer me; Thou didst encourage me in my soul with strength."  Sometimes, rare as it may be, things come together.  When it does:  sing; dance.

16 November 2010

150 (133-135)

 133.  Hineh Mah Tov.  "How good and pleasant for us to dwell together as brothers."  We can all sing that.  Did you know that the poet goes on to suggest that the feeling of fealty and community are best understood as an anointment of fine oil, dripping down the head of the exalted priest Aaron, or like dew rolling down a mountain top--forever, from the source of Forever?  I suppose kids at camp feel that way, rocking back and forth in the grass, far from school and sibling rivalry and annoying parents.  Or rats that cross your path; garbage long neglected; callous drivers; racist neighbors; corrupt and greedy stewards of the "common good."  Are there bad mountains and good mountains but still piles all the same?  The rallying mess of dwelling together that tightens its grip, closes rank, and burns from its records those whose names are unfamiliar; and the rallying assembly of pleasant dwelling, the well-oiled machine of commonality, friendship, and decency. 

"Like the dew of Hermon, that cometh down upon the mountains of Zion."  Goodness, at times, has to come from far away, travel great distance, in order, once again, to emanate its decency from the source of Forever.

134.  Again with the standing all night long.  This time, like a magic trick, with hands lifted toward the Sanctuary of the Eternal.  I imagine a community meeting.  All members of CBE standing at the corners of Eighth Avenue and Garfield Place, hands raised toward the Sanctuary, blessing God.  We need blessing to repair our sacred spaces.  But we need money, too.  Lots of it.  "The Eternal bless thee out of Zion; even He that made heaven and earth."  This is a truth we have been davenning for three thousand years.  Still, please give.  It's cold outside.   And our arms are tired.

135.  Hey!  Who caused the vapors to rise from the corners of the earth?  What is going on over there?!  Alright, alright!  It's lightning out of the window over here!  Hello!?  History marches on; we survive against all odds.  Egypt; the Wilderness; Canaan; the Land of Israel.  Nothing can stop us--and their "gods" are mere idols.  Allow me to repeat myself:  Silver and gold are mere works of their hands; they have ears that don't hear; eyes that don't see; mouths with no breath; clay made from clay.  It all fades away.  House of Israel!  House of Aaron!  House of Levi!*  Blessed be the Eternal out of Zion, who dwelleth in Jerusalem.  Hallelujah!"

*("ye that fear the Eternal,"  as an aside, by the way.)

In other words, as I read this psalm:  We've been given the strength and support to survive.  But man, do we ever have the potential, at any given moment, to tear ourselves down.

15 November 2010

2 Jews and 1 Welshman This Thursday

A big night in Brooklyn this coming Thursday.

CBE's Bookapalooza, our annual fund-raiser for the Early Childhood Center, kicks off at 7.30 pm at CBE with a great literary conversation featuring our members Nicole Krauss and Jodi Kantor, talking about Nicole's new book, Great House, which has received Great Reviews.

Later, at the Bell House at 9 pm, Jon Langford and Skull Orchard will be singing songs of Wales and other punk legends.  

Should be a great night.

14 November 2010

150 (130-132)

130.  "From the depths I call out to You."  From the earliest age that I can remember, I have had this dialogue with God.  I do question God's reality from time to time--and to be clear, I mean reality, not existence.  There I definitions of God that at times I find wanting; definitions that sink like rocks into a dark pond; definitions that madden, offend, cause more trouble than they're worth.  But never do I question the actual existence of God.

Am I lucky?  Troubled?  Deluded?  Confident?  Faithful?  Certain?  Probably some of each, depending upon the week, the day, the hour, the moment.  But always there is the dialogue.   The reality of my speaking and Someone hearing.  And knowing.

"If You should make note of all one's sins, God, who could stand before you?"  I believe that.  I think our incessant propensity to get it wrong, even as we attempt with the best of our abilities to get it right, is one of the most humbling and enduring manifestations of our existence.  And I do fundamentally believe that as we pick ourselves up off the mat, a hand is there to lift us up.

"My soul waits for the Eternal more than watchmen for the morning, watchmen for the morning."  Rising light is the natural but artificial edifice of protection.  Words of prayer heard, love, is the plenty of redemption.

131.  "Heart, eyes, self:  not too haughty.  My soul is stilled and quieted, like a weaned child from its mother.  Hope in forever."  In a manner of speaking.  Walk in those ways.

132.  "I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids."  When we stay up knowing we shouldn't.  When we do not rest knowing we should.  What are we doing with those hours?  How do we use them?

"I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids until I find out a place for the Eternal, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob."  Literally wrestling ourselves into bed, into home, into peace.  And from that place a ladder ascends to heaven.

13 November 2010

150 (127-129)

127.  Did you know that the priest who used the phrase "the family that prays together stays together" has the jingle written for him by an ad executive and that the priest was used by the CIA to fight left-wing politics in Central America with his religious campaign?  And no, I didn't learn that by watching "Mad Men."

Frankly, I prefer "Except the Eternal build the house, they labor in vain that build it; except the Eternal keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."  No matter the faith or lack thereof, I believe that a home, whether occupied by one or many, ought to be founded on morality.  It is the foundation of a purposeful existence.

So are kids.  Our stroller parking lot at shul can be a real pain to navigate.  There are alot of them and in a neighborhood as precious as ours, it's important to remember that it's not really about the stroller or its adorned add-ons like organic juice dispensers, the perfect coffee-cup holder, or nibbly cheerios receptacle but the soul in seat, the little one, brought forth to life to add goodness and kindness to the world.

"Children are the heritage of the Eternal; the fruit of the womb is a reward.  As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are children of one's youth." 

Let's raise them to fight injustice, to shoot arrows that will pierce the armor of inequality, to destroy the giants of hatred and oppression.

"Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be put to shame, when they speak with their enemies in the gate."


128.  "A song of ascents.  Happy is every one that feareth the Eternal, that walk in His ways.
When thou eatest the labor of thy hands, happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee."

I was explaining to one of my kids my teenage decision one summer to not play baseball for my high school team but to work.  I gave up the dream of earning a Letter for a jacket and traded it in for the satisfaction of labor and earning my keep by cutting lawns, all day every day from June to September.  There was a life-long lesson there and despite certain lost opportunities of youth (the letter, the jacket, the girl) I earned instead a lifetime commitment to work, self-sufficiency, and independence that I've always appreciated.  And after all, what really is guaranteed?  Here the poet argues that all one can truly attempt to achieve is a god-fearing life at the center of a family, employing the imagery of a well-tended garden of productivity and reproduction.

"Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of thy house; thy children like olive plants, round about thy table.  Behold, surely thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Eternal.  The Eternal bless thee out of Zion; and see thou the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life; and see thy children's children.  Peace be upon Israel." 

129.  Contrasted with the abundant blessing of the above psalm is this, a curse:  "The Eternal is righteous; He hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked.  Let them be ashamed and turned backward, all they that hate Zion.  Let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which witherith afore it springeth up; wherewith the reaper filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom."

Everyone cutting off his enemies produce!  And with signs of glaciers melting more and more, who is Zion?  Who is wicked? 

12 November 2010

150 (124-126)

124.  A poem to the narrow escape; the quick-breath look over the shoulder; thanks for eluding the grip of danger and destruction.  And again the bird, winged but helpless; fragile, tender, weakened under the crushing blow of hatred and oppression.  The snare.  The teeth.  The overwhelming drowning waters. 

This poet has known depression, its dark solitude, the lack of promise.  The utter helplessness of it all.

Except:  "Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken and we are escaped.  Our help is in the name of the Name, Maker of heaven and earth."

Like the wonder and miracle of the trees this time of year; the clear sky, blue and pure. 

125.  There are two geographies I identify with:  the prairie of Wisconsin and the hills around Jerusalem.  In the core of my being, these are me.  When Jacob dreamed his dream, the Sages say the entire land of Israel was beneath him.  It's like that.  There are places and times when we become the land.  I have felt that in my life in two places and so it shall always remain.  Nearly twenty-one years in Brooklyn, and I just don't feel it.  Though I do enjoy very much all the new bike lanes.

"As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Eternal is round about His people, from this time forth and forever."  Earlier the poet had made the claim that those who trust in the Eternal "are as Mount Zion, which cannot move but abideth forever."  In other words, we are a trusting hill and we are surrounded and protected by promise, mutuality, covenant. 

You know how the landscape looks when hills converge, one upon the other, and the vista allows for small pathways, in and out, to arrive and escape?  This is the flow of spiritual traffic.  The crooked along crooked paths, led out of the City; the righteous move inward, to the City, with the Eternal round about.

126.  "When the Eternal brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream."  Those dreams.  They seem to last for hours but science and medicine tell us that they are but a few brief moments.  The Sages call them 1/60 prophecy.  I read this psalm with a broken heart at how fleeting is the dream for a return to Zion, how soon after our arrival, following each exile, does the dream end and the interminable challenges of governing in righteousness become our singular challenge.  And in the coursing veins of that bloody realism, the world waits for our missteps, ready to pounce.  It's critical, in every generation, to stay positive!  "Though he goeth on his way weeping that beareth the measure of seed, he shall come home with joy bearing his sheaves." 

We reap what we sow.  It's always true, no matter how look at it, no matter when.

11 November 2010

150 (121-123)

121.  Like a lot of American Jews, my childhood identity was predicated on being an American kid.  I had Jewish *grandparents* but in the home we were a family that lived in Milwaukee, we visited Madison regularly, and we rallied around sports and politics.  Faith and ethnic identity were not prominent values.  It was different for my grandparents' generation.  They represented a different engagement with the world, one that was rooted in particular expressions of identity and a more self-assured relationship to the European past.  Their fading sepia photographs bore no real relationship to our set of American Heritage magazines that were on our living room bookshelves.  Truly, George Washington was a more relevant founding father than Abraham from Haran.

But this number, One Hundred and Twenty-One, stands on its own as the sole inheritance of a nascent faith.  I learned it at a young age, having been told by my grandmother that it was her favorite psalm.  For most of my childhood, I could remember the first line:  "I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains:  from whence shall my help come?"  We didn't have mountains in Wisconsin; this was a far-away thought.  But it was a spiritual glance back to an ancient past and an aspirational gaze into the future. 

I've often mused at how instead of running for office or writing for a newspaper--the two things I thought I'd do when I was in high school--I wound up as a rabbi serving a community.  "Behold, He that keepeth Israel doth neither slumber nor sleep."  It's as if one day I *woke up* and found myself doing my life's work "beneath the shade of God's right hand," that apparently, had been there all along.

122.  "Our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem!"  What is enough space in Jerusalem?  Is every set of new houses, in order to make the case for Jewish hegemony over our holy city, essential?  Isn't effective control of security through police and military enough?  Why continue to build in areas that are clearly Palestinian simply in order to assert control, to make a point that we are already strong enough to make?

"Jerusalem, that art builded as a city that is compact together."  It's charm is the close-together intimacy of its stone, it's people.  Continued expansion is not in its character.  "Jerusalem thou art a sprawl of aggressive geo-political posturing" just doesn't sound right.

Despite the diplomatic efforts of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to explain to Prime Minister Netanyahu that America acknowledges Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, there remains the incessant need to build in Arab areas of the city only to assert further control that is already in place.  And the character of Jerusalem will change for the worse.  It's really quite tragic.

"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may they prosper that love thee," Jews and Palestinians.
"Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces," Jews and Palestinians.
"For the sake of the house of the Eternal our God I will seek thy good," Jews and Palestinians. 

123.  "Be gracious unto us, O Eternal, be gracious unto us; for we are full sated with contempt."  Glen Beck blabs on in ignorance about the Holocaust; the Boycott Israel movement (which is really a One State Solution movement meant to hasten Israel's particular disintegration) has a love-fest in my neighborhood; Iran forges ahead with plans for a bomb that could destroy the Jewish state.  We're surrounded with those who have contempt for us.  We really are.  Sometimes I'm amazed at how little has changed in three thousand years. 

My only objection here is that the psalmist didn't end with the line he opened with:  "Unto Thee I lift up mine eyes, O Thou that art enthroned in the heavens."  I would have felt better ending there than remembering that there still are those who wish we would simply fade away.

10 November 2010

150 (118-120)

118.  "Out of my straits I called upon the Eternal, He answered me in the wide-places."  From narrow to vast is an image that prevails in much of the psalms and is a classic trope of the Biblical spiritual mindset--the strictures and oppression of Egypt yield to the parted waters of the Red Sea to expanses of the wilderness and on into Eretz Yisrael.  This historical theme can be understood on the individual level as well, marking an identification or acknowledgment of personal suffering--a restricting, limiting, even imprisoned depression--broken by Eternal light.  "Hashem li--The Eternal is for me, I will not fear; what can man do to me?  The Eternal is for me as my helper; and I shall gaze upon them that hate me.  It is better to take refuge in the Eternal than to trust in man."

This kind of giving up of "oneself" is a paradox.  It creates a distancing on one hand from one's fellow human being, a potentially dangerous and isolating maneuver; while on the other hand, in giving oneself over to a greater power in the universe, one submits to what one cannot truly control, thereby freeing oneself to truly live.

"The Eternal is my strength and song, God is my salvation."  The Source of Life is the animator of existence and it lasts forever.  In this there is no death.  This is the gate.  The chief corner-stone.  This is the day.

119.  Let's be honest:  how many poems do you know about the Torah at all?  What we have here is something that is simply no longer done.  But when you consider its scope and construction, it stands as the greatest poetic expression about Torah learning that has ever been written.  An acrostic, constructed of each twenty-two stanzas, each beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alef-bet, it's a thing of beauty.

I have decided to share with you, in order, the opening lines of each of the twenty-two stanzas.

"Happy are they that are upright in the way, who walk in the law of the Eternal."
"How will a young man keep his way pure?  By taking heed according to Thy word."
"Deal bountifully with Thy servant, that I may live, and I will observe Thy word."
"My soul cleaveth unto the dust; quicken Thou me according to Thy word."
"Teach me, Eternal, the way of Thy statutes; and I will keep it at every step."
"Let Thy mercies also come unto me, O Eternal, even Thy salvation, according to Thy word."
"Remember the word unto Thy servant, because Thou hast made me to hope."
"My portion is the Eternal, I have said that I would observe Thy words."
"Thou hast dealt well with Thy servant, Eternal, according unto Thy word."
"Thy hands have made me and fashioned me; give me understanding, that I may learn Thy commandments."
"My soul pineth for Thy salvation; in Thy word do I hope."
"Forever, Eternal, Thy word standeth fast in heaven."
"Oh, how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day!"
"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."
"I hate them that are of a double mind; but Thy law do I love."
"I have done justice and righteousness; leave me not to mine oppressors."
"Thy testimonies are wonderful; therefore doth my soul keep them."
"Righteous art Thou, Eternal, and upright are Thy judgments."
"I have called with my whole heart; answer me Eternal; I will keep Thy statutes."
"See mine affliction and rescue me; for I do not forget Thy law."
"Princes have persecuted me without a cause; but my heart standeth in awe of Thy words."
"Let my cry come near before Thee, Eternal; give me understanding according to Thy word."

120.  "Eternal, deliver my soul from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue."  This is an appeal to God, to our conscience.  Who are you going to believe--Me or your lying eyes?  If we can hear the truth, we can know the truth.  Our challenge in life is often to be able to hear that truth and live in it, difficult as that may be at the beginning.  There is the torture of the small lies we tell ourselves on our way to living a greater sense of wholeness and purpose in life.  "My soul hath full long had her dwelling with him that hateth peace."  Here we see an acknowledgment of the tortured soul.  But then, with time and faith, there is a guarded resolution, while battles yet rage all around:  "I am all peace, but when I speak they are for war." 

For some, this is their tortured spiritual reality--always doing battle.  You can see it in their eyes.  Soldiers of God.  It is powerful.  Refining.  But lonely.  And not for everyone.

09 November 2010

150 (115-117)

115.  "Not for us, God, not for us but to Your name do we give honor, for Your mercy, for Your truth."  Arthur Hertzberg used to say that we American Jews descend from the Jews who wanted to escape their Jewishness in coming to America; that the majority of the pious remained behind, consumed in the flames of the Shoah.  It was a humbling and grim observation to think that the American Judaism that would emerge in this land after the great wave of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century would be a Judaism developed far from the crucible of yeshivas and observance in Europe.

I think of sitting in the movie theater with my dad (I think I was in about 4th grade and *not* in Hebrew school--we were American, afterall) and he pointed up to the screen as the credits rolled and identified all the Jews who worked on the film.  This is a somewhat common experience for Jews of a certain generation--that Jewish pride in Jewish accomplishment and the conveyance of that pride to another generation.

But all is vanity, no?  "Not for us, God, not for us but to Your name do we give honor, for Your mercy, for Your truth."  Not for us.  It's not about us.  Thinking of the radical idolatry of it all--pointing at a lit screen, flashing images before your eyes, and naming yourself.  Who is it that walks before you as the credits roll?  "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands."

And:  "They have mouths that can't speak, eyes that can't see, ears that can't hear, noses that can't smell, hands that can't handle, feet that can't walk, and throats that can't speak."  The relentless unraveling of the image, the false god.

The realm of the Divine truly does belong to God and Earth God has given to we mere mortals.  Key word here--mortals.  "The dead praise not the Eternal, neither any that go down in silence."

Despite what we think, it's never about us.

116.  That we will die is axiomatic.  How we will live on, beyond that truth, is the basis for faith.  There is no reason for it otherwise.  "Return O my soul unto thy rest; for the Eternal hath dealt bountifully with thee.  For Thou hath delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.  I shall walk before the Eternal in the lands of the living."

Sunday I led two unveilings in the cemetery.  There was an hour wait between the first and the second.  The sun was shining, the air was cool, somewhere else in the city thousands were running the marathon.  I walked among the gravestones, reading names aloud, studying inscriptions, imagining lives.  I imagined names and faces brought back to life by the mere utterance of their carved, linguistic essence.  For many moments in that hour it would appear that I was alone but I was not.  "I shall walk before the Eternal in the land of the living."  Even those living six feet under, in the dark cold earth.

"I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Eternal."

117.  Praise.  Laud.  Mercy.  Truth.  Forever.
Put that on a Bat Mitzvah Sweatshirt.

08 November 2010

150 (112-114)

112. "Happy is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth in His commandments."  Now there's a proposition for the Liberal Jew:  Can you delight in the Commandments of Judaism?  I mean, truly be happy about them?  We complain often about what we have to do and operate in Liberal Judaism under the construct that what we do as Jews is what we *want to do* -- a kind of promise we make to ourselves that above all else we are autonomous and this is what makes us happy.  But what of the proposition that our devotion to something greater than us is what makes us happy?  Serving another greater than ourselves--whether in earthly or accumulation or heavenly immanence.

I have come to believe at the age of 47 that if it's all about us, then all is darkness.  But here the psalmist comforts me:  "Unto the upright He shineth as a light in the darkness, gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous."

I want that light.

It drives away and establishes.  It endures.  Forever.

113.  "From the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof the Lord's name is to be praised.  The Lord is high above all nations, His glory is above the heavens."  Be careful not to get too drawn down into the idea of God's reign but think first about the time frame--from the rising of the sun to the going down--and what it might mean to retain that idea all day long.  Maintaining one's faith in that way, all day long, is difficult.   You need some things to do to keep the engine "a huffin' and puffin' and chuggin' like a choo-choo train" as Mavis Staples might put it.  Try these suggestions:  "Who raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill; that He may set them with princes, even with the princes of His people."  Sunup to sundown we must play the role of equalizers, in partnership with the Great Equalizer.

114.  This psalm is a family favorite, at every Seder, every year.  We remember a late, old family friend, a former Protestant intellectual, who sat at family Seders and laughed with pleasure at the joyous and slightly comic metaphor employed herein:  "The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like young sheep."  Someone reads that line from our Hallel each year at Passover and we remember our old friend, who loved this line, was amused by it, and our laughter covers our grief at his passing too soon.  

But for me, at this point in the Seder, I've already had a few glasses of wine and my soul is slowed by the fermented lubricant coursing through my veins.  I stay with the moment.  God narrating God's own miraculous moment, of a splitting sea, redemptive.  Ordinarily we may stand before the crashing waves and behold God's power.  But what of a sea itself, so overwhelmed that the sea itself flees from its own crash and rush of waves?  It flees its own miraculous moment.  And on dry land, it's not that rams themselves skip along over hilltops but that the hilltops themselves skip like rams--the moment is that large.

Here God intercedes with -- and we must admit this -- Divine Sarcasm, almost mockery.  "What aileth thee, O thou sea, that thou fleest?  Thou Jordan, that thou turnest backward?"

Does the laughter mask a reality too great to bear?  A world transformed into a manifestation greater than what we could ever imagine, so radically re-altered as to have the sea flee from itself?  The mountains skip not *with* rams but *like* rams, those mountains nothing but a mere earthly iteration of Divine will?   Not crashing waves that inspire fear in we who witness their power but waves themselves fleeing a more mighty and terrible power than even they, our superior in strength, could ever imagine.

Laughter here becomes fear.  And fear becomes awe.  The ultimate equalizer.

07 November 2010

Sunday at Mt Carmel Cemetery in Queens

Abraham Cahan, Founder of the Forward Newspaper

At the entry gate to the CBE Plots, Mt Carmel Cemetery, Queens

Sholem Aleichem's grave, Mt Carmel Cemetery, Queens

06 November 2010

A Poem for Shabbat

(Robert Frost for a Fall Saturday)


A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an appletree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

--from A Further Range, 1936

05 November 2010

The East Bank

I started a new column in the Jewish Week.  It's called "The East Bank."
The East Bank of the East River is where I’ve lived for the past twenty years, in a territory known as Brooklyn, which began as Native American land and was then settled by the Dutch. George Washington and his troops beat a hasty retreat from the British in the park where I run. It is now among the most sought after places to live in New York City.
I’m rabbi of a large synagogue that has been here since 1861, when Abraham Lincoln was president and our nation was deeply divided in a war to end slavery. Our synagogue serves a community of Jews and their partners that was unimaginable to the generation which founded it. In 1861, the majority of the world’s Jews lived not in America but in Europe, North Africa, and the Arab lands with a small, steady settlement in the Land of Israel. Men and women and blacks did not share equal rights; gay marriage was inconceivable. There were no labor laws; the public school system was just coming into being. In the 150 years that the Jews of Brooklyn have occupied the East Bank of the East River, the world has never stopped changing and the Jews have never stopped adapting to the growing needs and demands of an ever evolving Jewish reality.
Read the full article HERE.


04 November 2010

150 (109-111)

109.  "God, since I've gone to this effort to praise you, you can't be silent."  This is like a lot of relationships, isn't it?  The give and take?  The recognition that if someone is going to be saying nice things about you, you should really be making the effort to say nice things about them, right?  I mean, without it, we're stuck feeling ignored and trod upon, abused and neglected.  Feeling abused and neglected is one major reason why relationships fail and in religious communities, that set of feelings stands at the core of many people's ambivalent relationship with God (whether they "believe" or not) and their fellow Jews.  It doesn't feel good to say but it's true:  you can't deal with leadership in Jewish life unless you're prepared to deal with abuse and neglect and the role they play in the formation (or lack thereof) of faith.

We humans experience--as the psalmist delineates quite clearly--evil, deceit, lies, hatred, fighting with no cause.  "But I am all prayer!"  So he writes:  Prayer is all I got!  It's a confession of weakness in the face of an overwhelming assault but poetically and literarily it is an ordering of a thought process that allows one to construct meaning, faith communities' greatest asset.

There occurs a turn in this psalm that I understand and find morally repugnant at the same time.  Damnit.  He emerges from his realization of weakness by praying fervently for the utter and total destruction of all those enemies around him, which satisfies but leaves one feeling ruined as well.  One can hear the deafening critique:  See?  Religion is all about abuse and neglect.  It's painful.  And fortunately not true.  Tradition's evolutionary reality, made clear to me by reading Rabbi Leo Baeck, is discernible in the ways that the Sages inherited the Biblical texts, like precious jewels. and polished them into words of value for their own time, garnering new insights to the word-forms as they arose from the page.

The response to abuse and neglect is repentance, our rabbis taught, an option not often enough considered when it's perhaps easier to simply lash out in revenge for, well, abuse and neglect.

110.  "Sit here at my right hand while I take care of business."  God as superhero.  Able to transform himself into an ever-regenerating Deity of life and redemption.  "The womb of dawn.  The dew of youth."  It's a compelling argument--the notion that spiritual insight can renew the flesh. 

And what of we?  His willing soldiers.  "He will drink of the brook in the way and therefore he will lift up the head."  When one rests from the battle, it's very important to know where to rest, and what to drink while you're resting.  A successful campaign depends upon it.

111.  A Glorification Acrostic.  You did not hear it here first.  But it's always good to be reminded that sometimes the psalmist likes to enjoy himself with his acumen for alphabetical beauty constructs, delighting eternally for God's heavenly insights.  That sort of thing. 

Onehundredeleven ends with this one, a concise doxology:  "The fear of the Eternal is the beginning of wisdom; a good insight to all who do so; God's praise endures forever."

03 November 2010

150 (106-108)

106.  "Who can express the mighty acts of the Eternal or make His praise heard?"  We should always remember to pierce our sense of celebration--when we sing of the Macabees' heroism ("Who can express the mighty acts of Israel...") and remind ourselves that the song of Macabees' victory, made contemporaneous by linking the psalm's sentiment with the historiographical invention of Jewish heroism for a modern Jewry, is just one such invention.  Others have long deconstructed the Macabee myth and Jeffrey Goldberg is writing a whole new book about it, and I bet Orin Hatch reads it!  Still, it's always important to remember the Classical Judaism ethic that justice and righteousness are the base of God's throne, not war and anger (though the latter two get much play in the Psalms and elsewhere.) 

"Happy are they who guard the Law, who do acts of justice at every moment."  Despite our betrayals in the wilderness, great and small, it is the assiduous duty to what is right that renews the Covenant each day.

107.  "Give thanks to the Eternal because He's good and the whole world is filled with His lovingkindness."  A formulaic phrase, here employed to express gratitude for the return from exile, for being brought forth from darkness and the shadow of death.  "The upright fear Him and rejoice!"  And do you know what else?  "The wise ones guard this idea, they daily consider the mercies of the Eternal."

It could always be (and in fact has been) worse.

108.  This line interests me greatly:  "Give us help against the adversary; for vain is the help of man.  Through God we shall do valiantly; for He it is that will tread down our adversaries."  The soldiers sublimated sense of service means, from one measure, feeling he's fighting a holy war, which our own era has shown us to be a radically dangerous idea.  And yet, a sublimated sense of service means precisely that that same soldier is bound, to ethics and decency despite the inhumane manifestations of having to take another life.  In my pulpit, I know some very righteous men who served, with distinction and with faith, in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War, the Korean War, Vietnam and Iraq.  Even in their aloneness, they remained close to God as well, which rooted their values as they made their way through the darkness and the valley of the shadow of death.

02 November 2010

150 (103-105)

103.  "Bless the Eternal, my soul; and all that it is within me, bless His holy name.  Bless the Eternal, my soul; and forget not all his awards (like love and mercy.)"  Again with the Hebrew and its rhyming sounds.  The sense of being overwhelmed, encompassed.  "For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him.  As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgression from us." 

Go to the park.  Lay in the grass.  Look up at the sky.  Try to grasp a mercy or love as great as the height as the heaven above; try to imagine compassion and kindness as vast the distance between the farthest points east and west.

Our fate is beyond our mere physicality.  So much time passes that eventually our names are worn off the stones that mark the place our bodies are laid to rest.  And by then our bones have turned to dust.  And after time, even the stones wear away. 

It's at that moment when we realize our names are all One.

104.  Many of the psalms are poetic re-creations of past events in Jewish history, rendered as expressions of faith, a new take on old narratives.  This psalm recalls Creation, its purpose, and how it might be remembered, generations after the story was first rendered by the Tradition.  Having said that,  I wonder that this line is doing there:  "And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, making the face brighter than oil, and bread that stayeth man's heart."  In the general category of food, I suppose, but still.  The agenda seems clear--drink in moderation is alright (unless of course it isn't, a particular pain some feel.)

Onward.  "Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening.  How manifold are Thy works,  Eternal!  In wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy creatures."  We work but at the end of the day we stop.  I believe the implication here is that God is in a constant state of creation, an expression of wisdom that we are given the ability to apprehend.  Life's ongoing force is never abated.  Again, up against our limits, we are humbled by our comparative smallness when set beside the Source of Life.  "I will sing unto the Eternal as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have any being."

And then, silence.

105.  Similarly, another recapitulation is here found not in the Creation narrative but in the story of Israel's Covenant.  Past acts in the narrative of the Jewish people are pronounced, given dramatic literary form.  Memory, covenant and commandment converge on one another, a formula with the strength of a thousand generations.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The Land.  Joseph.  Enslavement in Egypt.  Moses and Aaron.  The Plagues.  Redemption through the Red Sea.  The Pillar of Cloud and Fire.  Water from the Rock.  And Law. 

Again with the Curriculum.  But it works!  But it works!

01 November 2010

150 (100-102)

100.  "Serve the Eternal with joy."  Serve with joy.  A teacher in college said, "Choose the work that makes you happy; you'll be working more than anything else for the rest of your life."  The irony here is that there is, on a certain level, an eradication of one definition of the self, sublimated to one's work, which is then meant to bring "joy." 

"It is He that hath made us, and we are His."  Again, the obedience.  The fidelity to that which is greater than us.  Losing oneself in work isn't the point; serving with joy is.  This yields an insight into Eternity.  Goodness.  Mercy.  Faith.   Seamlessly one gives thanks in the gates of the city.  Seamlessly one gives praise in the courts of righteousness.  There is equilibrium.  Balance.

101.  It's rough all over.  "When will You come to me?"  Beneath the polite pleading, the songs of mercy and justice, there is urgency.  One does one's work, day after day.  And the end result seems to be the same.  Working for justice is not unlike cleaning out the barn.  In reality there is no end to the endeavor.  The way I read the poet here, he's imagining an end to purging Jerusalem of evil but knowing there is no end.  "When will You come to me?"  Enough already.  That sort of thing.

102.  The sad psalms are the best.  The deeper the anguish, the better.  The more pain, the greater the experience of hearing the words and feeling their impact.  Hammering away, the plaintive heart.  Hear my prayer.  Let my cry reach you.  Hide not your face.  Give me your ear.  When I call--answer.  My days are smoke.  My bones burn.  My heart, like grass, withers.  I am so distracted I cannot eat my bread.  My bones cleave to my flesh.  (Cleaving is never really very good.)  I am like a pelican, on sliver of sand, awash at sea.  I am an owl among the wasted places.  A sparrow, alone on a rooftop.  Taunts from enemies, consuming ashes, I drink my tears.  And I'm not even half way through with this dirge. 

The irony of suffering's insight:  it opens a window onto the Beyond, the knowledge of which provides unlimited comfort for seemingly unlimited pain.  There is more to life than what we see or think we know.  Terminal patients know this.  And when they can see beyond the horizon of their own anguish and put it into words, they become our teachers, revealing truths we too often turn away from knowing.