31 January 2011

Letter of Recommendation, I


A Letter of Recommendation

On summer nights I sleep naked
in Jerusalem.  My bed
stands on the brink of a deep valley
without rolling down into it.

In the daytime I walk around with the Ten
Commandments on my lips
like an old tune someone hums to himself.

Oh touch me, touch me, good woman!
That's not a scar you feel under my shirt, that's
a letter of recommendation, folded up tight,
from my father:
"All the same, he's a good boy, and full of love."

I remember my father waking me for early prayers.
He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
by tearing away the blanket.

Since then I love him even more.
And as his reward, may he be wakened
gently and with love
on the Day of the Resurrection.

--Yehuda Amichai

25 January 2011

A very powerful story. 

Bris on a deceased child

23 January 2011

2011 NFC Champs.
Go Pack.


Sounds of Presence

I noticed that days are getting longer; that when you wake up these days, you can still precede the sun rising but it is in fact rising earlier.  Last winter was long, dark and cold and this winter I made a personal pledge to myself to embrace the cold and the darkness, to inhabit them, and ride them like waves of time and existence, in order to explore their structure for wisdom.

This morning I woke up thinking about Robert Mapplethorpe, for no other reason I suppose than the fact that I'm finishing up Patti Smith's extraordinary memoir, Just Kids, and as I savored it to sleep last night was ruminating on the fact that I've run into three people in the last twenty-four hours who are also finishing it, approaching its last pages as slowly as I am, for the main reason that it's just so damn good, rooted in her personal integrity, and capturing an era of American cultural history through the honest perspective of one of the age's great artists.

I was thinking about Mapplethorpe's father actually, at least how he's depicted by Smith, and how a closed man can traumatize a boy and continue to perpetuate that trauma as the boy grows into manhood.  I went to bed last night thinking about Mapplethorpe exploring himself fully in New York and then returning to his parent's home on occasion to be anyone but himself, and how awful and damaging an experience that can be.  Fueling great art, no doubt; but stoking the fires of self-destruction as well.

And in the fog of early morning, with faint glows of light beginning to emanate on the horizon above the pre-war buildings on Plaza Street, I thought of Mapplethorpe's traumas, especially those from a silent and unforgiving father, and then the silent and unforgiving traumas of, described so eloquently and truthfully in some of the accounts I'm reading about the US engagement in Afghanistan.  In particular I'm thinking of the silence that accompanies explosion--the "deafening silence" as they say of bombs going off and creating an intolerable violent, silent, life-ending pressure that is nothing less than totally horrifying to consider.   If we had a draft, more of us would know this; as it is, we are voyeurs on the matter, only confounding the crippling silence of war's hell.

I leaped awake.  Suddenly I thought of Moses, who is essentially fatherless, except for the wisdom he receives from his father-in-law Jethro and, one wonders, his palace father Pharaoh, who must have been some presence for the future Jewish leader.  Joshua, who would inherit the mantle of leadership from Moses and lead the people into the Land of Israel, is equally "fatherless" in his scriptural biography.  A theory began to take shape, especially as I thought back on the moments of grave and horrific violence that both Moses and Joshua presided over during their terms of leadership. 

The silence of the leader in the face of the violence.  It's God whose credited or blamed with providing the force, the power, the justification for all the killing; it's God's voice goading them along, empowering them with the task of carrying out *His* mission.  But it's Moses and Joshua's silent assent that woke me with a start this morning.  Their complicity.  Their own destiny transposed onto an All-Powerful entity.  Enacting the trauma of the Absent Father onto the Invisible Father.

If, axiomatically, it's impossible to know what God really wants, we often have to face the fact that if we believe, we need to distinguish between what we believe, what we think, what we know, and how we impose that upon, or project that on to our understanding of God.  And when our expectations fall short of our confused, self-made reality, we lash out against the silence, killing others and sometimes, slowly or quickly, ourselves.  The self-destructive folly of human history, exposed.

I thought of my dad's precipitous collapse in life and wondered how absent or present his father was in his life; I thought of the men who stepped forward and supported me, mentored me in the shadows cast by his death, bringing light and wisdom to bear on the new shapes and forms of my existence.  His own self-destruction, the smokey embers of an absence he railed against, and then me, hearing sounds for the first time, sounds for me, sounds for him.  Birds.  Crickets.  Wind in the trees.  Rain on the roof of a car.

The Sounds of Presence.

My heart beats faster reading how present Patti Smith was for Robert Mapplethorpe; how present teachers were for me; how present others have been for us and we for others, filling in the gaps, the howling cold caves of darkness, with love and light.

22 January 2011

Important Green Items (3)

This from Eric McClure at Park Slope Neighbors about the latest DOT study of the Prospect Park West Bike Lane:
NYC DOT Reports That the Redesigned Prospect Park West is Significantly Safer

The New York City Department of Transportation yesterday released – and presented to a well-attended meeting of Community Board Six's Transportation Committee – an updated study on the effects of the redesign of Prospect Park West.

The big news: the redesign has made Prospect Park West considerably safer.  A comparison of NYPD accident reports from July 1st to December 31st, 2010 to the average of the three prior half-year periods reveals that crashes were down by more than 15% on Prospect Park West, while crashes with injuries were declined by more than 62%, and total injuries declined by more than 20%.  Best of all, there were zero reported pedestrian injuries during the six months following the redesign, and no reported injuries from pedestrian-bicycle crashes.  While the absolute numbers were relatively small, the trend is unmistakable – slowing cars down has reduced the incidence of crashes, and made the street safer.

Taken in conjunction with a huge drop in speeding, and a big increase in cycling, the results make it crystal clear that Prospect Park West project has more than met its objectives.  To that end, NYC DOT has proposed several enhancements: replacing the textured, at-grade pedestrian-refuge areas with raised, planted islands; installing low-profile "rumble strips" to alert cyclists when they're nearing intersections; relocating signals for better visibility; and narrowing the buffer zone, with a corresponding widening of the vehicle travel lanes, at the north end of Prospect Park West, to facilitate the roadway transition from Grand Army Plaza.  It's clear that they've listened to community input, and acted accordingly.

The Daily News quoted City Councilmember Brad Lander's reaction to the study results: "I think it's clear that the bike lane should be a permanent part of Prospect Park West."  We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

To see or download the full presentation, please click here: http://nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/20110120_ppw.pdf.

This from the New York Times Sports Page about Tramon Williams, Green Bay's impressive young cornerback:


GREEN BAY, Wis. — There is no longer doubt that Tramon Williams, the dynamic cornerback of the Green Bay Packers, has the skills to succeed in the N.F.L.: athletic ability, great instincts, smarts and a willingness to work. Williams demonstrated those attributes in the last two weeks, intercepting three passes, one for a touchdown, to help the Packers reach the N.F.C. championship game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. 
 And finally, the Second Annual Climate Awareness Day, which CBE is proud to host and co-sponsor.  Sunday January 23 at 2 pm.

21 January 2011

No Philosophy, Only Compassion

And another thing about Jethro and his Torah portion namesake.

During services tonight, while leading the Kabbalat Shabbat, I began thinking intensely about all the Gentiles in grade school, high school and college who gave me really good advice. 

Steady at the wheel Mrs. Block in fifth grade, right when my own special trademark anxiety really started to kick in and I couldn't still during class because there was just too much to think about---THAT Mrs. Block---who gave me permission to get up from my desk and simply pace the room.  "Some people get that feeling in their legs--just walk around when that happens.  Doesn't distract me from teaching one bit!"

Or Mr. Russell in sixth grade who, when I asked if he thought I could memorize the epic American poem, Casey at the Bat, said, "If you like it, you can do almost anything."  I found that re-assuring. 

In high school, I was turned on to critical thinking by two guys--first Mr. Kessler and then Mr. Jette--with latter practically giving me the keys to the faculty book supply room where I borrowed copious amounts of philosophy and history in order to stop from being bored the rest of the day in school. 

And in college, I'll never forget the kindness of an academic dean who let me drop out after nearly 11 weeks of school without losing credits or failing because "it's okay to admit your failure and then go back and get it right the second time."  Within a year I was at Hebrew University, studying in Jerusalem, and on a very different path in life. 

And finally, the gentle brilliance of my political philosophy professor, Patrick Riley, who bounced between Cambridge and Madison and in whose class I was sitting at the moment that my father had died.   Professor Riley was lecturing on Rousseau and I, who ordinarily paid strict attention, found myself inexplicably doodling in the margins of my notebook, sinking into a deep darkness and leaving class early.  I wandered down State Street, bought some food, slowly walked to my apartment and there was my uncle waiting to share the news that Dad had died.  When I returned to Madison after Shiva down in Milwaukee, I went to see Professor Riley and the first thing he did was bounce around to the front of his desk, throw his arms around me and say, "It's terrible for a son to lose a father.  There is no philosophy, only compassion at moments like this." 

I'll never forget that or many other moments; but those just listed stand out in particular on this week dedicated to Jethro's shared wisdom with Moses.

Sharing the Burden

Strikes me as fairly obvious that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, was a good guy.  Smart, organized, experienced in matters of religious leadership and decision-making, skills that Moses lacked.  Impetuous and strong-willed by nature, Moses begins to come into his own in this week's Torah portion but he can't really get past himself until his father-in-law Jethro the Midianite priest sets him straight when he sees Moses struggling mightily against the intensity of the demands made upon him as a leader of a recently freed people.  Moses is under enormous pressure to make all the decisions but his system is breaking down. 

"The thing that you are doing is not good.  You will surely wear away, both you and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it for yourself alone," Jethro advises.  And in so doing, helps Moses set up a kind of judicial system to help Moses judge matters, share the responsibility of adjudicating for the people, and keeping the system of self-government in devotion to God running in such a way that what truly matters--the fulfillment of God's will--can be attained.

I joked earlier this week that Jethro was like Hamilton writing the Federalist Papers, theorizing about the necessity for a judiciary in order to move the decision-making along.  And it was going to be an advance from the Articles of Confederation--call those the Covenantal Ideas set forward between God and the Patriarchs, which were about to get an intense re-reading and re-orientation with the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai.

Jethro's contribution is so critical to Jewish development that the Sages named this week's Torah portion for him--as fine tribute as there could be, yes?--and he represents for us, the reader, that quintessential non-Jewish guiding voice we've all had in some form or another, living in a greater society composed of people from all walks of life, re-affirming that Divine Wisdom is not the exclusive national inheritance of one faith or ethnic or national entity over another.  We all have it and are generally better off when we share its wisdom with each other.

I had this partly in mind earlier in the week when I met the new Schools Chancellor Cathie Black.  She convened several faith-leaders from around the city for a breakfast meeting about how religious institutions can be better and more active partners with the City in ensuring a quality education for the more than 1 million New York City public school children.  I shared a table with one other rabbi, along with several priests, ministers and imams and we had a very productive conversation.  

We have our kids in public school, a choice we are very proud of; and I was greatly impressed by the work being done in greater communities out there to supplement learning -- especially for the poor  and disadvantaged areas -- with after school tutorial programs, early childhood learning and enrichment, and engaging mentorships that can really make a difference in people's lives.  The Chancellor listened intensely, took copious notes, repeated back the suggestions made to demonstrate a clear comprehension of what she was hearing, and then shared the floor with her Deputy Chancellor, Shael Polakow-Suransky, and Ojeda Hall, who is managing engagement with families, parents and faith-based organizations. 

The three leaders chairing the meeting have business, educational and community organizing acumen; and the leaders around the table, for this meeting, were representative of the many different faiths, nationalities and ethnicities of New York City.  Each were deeply and demonstratively dedicated to fighting for and ensuring the best education for this city's kids.

It's a rhetorical stretch to say so, perhaps, but I'll say that despite the controversy over the Chancellor's hiring, I walked away from the meeting with the distinct impression that the Department of Education could manage to continue to combine business and management skills with curricular and instructional expertise--that the "passing on of wisdom" to our children would be a shared effort, not the sole responsibility of one Educator-in-Chief.  But as Educator-in-Chiefs go, I was impressed.

14 January 2011

The Verge of Seas to be

Israel goes forth through the parted waters of the Red Sea in this week's Torah portion.


Here's Emily Dickinson on the matter:
As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea--
And that--a further--and the Three
But a presumption be--

Of periods of Seas--
Unvisited of Shores--
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be--
Eternity--is Those--
Never published in her own life, Dickinson here makes me think of all those who went through those waters, but died in the desert, never having made it into the Promised Land:  "themselves the Verge of Seas to be."

13 January 2011

Wrong: Stop Talking

Sarah Palin is smart; but not particularly deep or capable of rendering historical terms with accuracy or nuance.  She is passionately sanctimonious and deeply committed to her Evangelical Christian faith, promising to care for America "with a servant's heart" while at the same time deeply isolated by a bubble of advisers who seem to aid her plotting machinations with a singularity of purpose that is impressively focused, if only on herself.  And typical of the pathological narcissism that runs through the veins of so many celebrities in our country, she can rarely have the humility to know the difference between moral scrutiny and self-reflection and that pernicious expression of victimhood and martyrdom that she does so well.  The act of true political bravery she pretends to have by selling her image was another missed opportunity.  "You know, all of us say or represent ideas irresponsibly sometimes; and I will admit that targeting political opponents with the graphic representation of the cross-hairs of a gun was a bad idea."  We know she didn't pull the trigger; but what would have been so wrong about taking responsibility for an overly partisan political climate?  We are all responsible.

This is the context in which we ought to understand her use of the term "blood libel" during her first official recorded message to the American people in the wake of the horrific killings in Tuscon.  Given the opportunity to offer condolences to the victims and an appropriate outrage to the killer, she quickly dispensed with her duties as a self-appointed, FOX-sponsored Consoler-in-Chief, and ran the flag of her own peculiar martyrdom up the pole in the only townsquare where she truly rules:  a four-sided broadcast screen.

I don't think she hates Jews; I think she admires us.  I don't think she hates Israel; I think she admires it.  So when she uses the term "blood-libel," in her own weird way, she's actually identifying with us.  Guilt by association!

The ADL's response was wishy-washy, representing Abe Foxman's continued ambivalent relationship with that segment of the American Right Wing that unconditionally supports Israel; other Jewish organizations fulminated over her use of the term as if it were an affront to Jewish memory and Jewish suffering.  Everyone had something to say about it, as if a Nazi rally had suddenly broken out on the Washington Mall.  To be sure, the history of the blood libel demonstrates that it is as vicious an anti-Semitic act, short of murder and genocide, that exists in Jewish history.  Alan Dershowitz uses the term to describe the Goldstone Report and yesterday, fairly quickly absolved Sarah Palin of any wrong in using the term.

Ironically, both Pain and Dershowitz are guilty--not of blood libel but of an ahistorical hubris and a politically self-righteous arrogance that only further debases our already noisy civil discourse.  The notion that we have a "victim" in a multi-millionaire celebrity, whose every opinion is carefully crafted and broadcast throughout the world, who is in the rarest of positions to serve her nation in higher office, is one of the great absurdities of the day.

How I wish one of our leaders would have said the obvious to Sarah Palin, like a good teacher says to a high school student working on a term paper:  "Blood libel--that's really the wrong use of the term.  Now stop talking and go back and finish your research."

12 January 2011

We Can Do Better: Rabbi Andy Bachman Statement on Millennium 2 and John Jay Campus

Along with several members of CBE who work in the public school system, I attended the community meeting about the proposed opening of Millennium High School in Park Slope at John Jay High School. 


I was heartened by the cogent and articulate expressions made by those in attendance during my time there--from 6:00 to 7:30 pm.  I was hoping to make a public statement as a community leader and since my duties back at Congregation Beth Elohim where I serve demanded my return to the synagogue for a memorial service for Jewish artist Debbie Friedman, I take this opportunity to share my "two minutes" of speaking time here.

Public Statement by Rabbi Andy Bachman, Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, Park Slope, on proposed opening of Millennium School at John Jay High School
Friends and neighbors, I thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.  I am Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, a synagogue community serving Brooklyn since 1861--when Abraham Lincoln was President, the country was in a Civil War, and African Americans were not fully free.  To be rooted in a community for 150 years and join in the shared commitment to sacred responsibility not only for those members of the Jewish tradition who affiliate with our synagogue but for the lives of the thousand members of our broader community--children, families and faculty of our Early Childhood Center, After-School program, and Summer Day Camp--Congregation Beth Elohim is privileged to carry out the words of the prophet Isaiah which adorn our Main Sanctuary:  "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples."

All are truly welcome at CBE because we believe that all are welcome in Brooklyn, regardless of race, faith, ethnicity, income and sexual orientation.  And what's true for CBE and true for Brooklyn ought to be true for our public school system as well--each child has the right and our Department of Education has the sacred obligation to ensure fair and equal access to educational funding and resources regardless of race, income or neighborhood where one lives.

Speaking as one observer of events, it appears to me that the students, faculty and families of those schools currently housed at John Jay High School have not been accorded the equality of treatment and fairness in funding that ought to be the right of every student in our public school system.  As unfathomable as it may seem, in our own neighborhood in Park Slope, we are likely witnessing, in our time, the historically anachronistic occurrence of a "separate and unequal" educational system which has deprived the John Jay campus of the funding and support it rightfully deserves.  If this is shown to be true, this is a grave injustice that we must not tolerate in our midst.

CBE members send their kids to public schools; CBE members are teachers and administrators in the public schools.  My wife Rachel and I send all three of our children to public school and our eldest will be attending high school next year.  It's this commitment to the enriching democratic life of this city that we share with our neighbors tonight.  And, in the broadest terms, like many members of CBE, we are a part of a faith community that believes fervently in the public education system.  John Jay students, though following a variety of faith traditions, have worked at CBE--as camp counselors and after-school teachers--and before that, were students in our After School and Day Camp programs.  "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples."

As students of history, we ought not to take lightly the words "Separate But Equal."  In fact, the fight for equality was achieved by all people of goodwill, including, on many occasions, important alliances between African Americans and Jews.  Just this morning in the newspaper, I read several moving remembrances by rabbis, now in their seventies and eighties, who recalled with pride their honor in having been arrested and jailed during a critical fight for justice in our country alongside the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement, declaring that Jews stood beside Blacks in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality.  And as the Senior Rabbi of Brooklyn's largest Reform synagogue, I declare myself equally dedicated to those principles of freedom, justice and equality today.

If it's true that the John Jay campus has been chronically underfunded; and if it's true that through misleading information the Department of Education has attempted to open Millennium 2 in Brooklyn without a truly fair and equal attempt to improve the John Jay campus for its existing students and faculty, then we ought to raise our voices against this injustice and demand fairness for all students regardless of race, income or background.  There is no question that Brooklyn is sorely in need of more improved public school options--not only for the children of Park Slope but for all the children of this borough.  In a democracy, we must remain committed to an educational system that sees the potential in every human being regardless of their origin.

I have a friend and mentor in her eighties, a brilliant and tough Jewish woman, who was a lawyer working for the American Jewish Congress in 1954 when Thurgood Marshall was a lawyer for NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  My mentor is one of the people who reached out to Dr. Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark about their work and research which proved that "separate but equal" was actually psychologically damaging to African American students.  That "footnote" to history was the shared effort of two of America's many sacred narratives--Blacks and Jews in the ongoing struggle for equality--and as a rabbi in this community, standing on the shoulders of my teachers, I dedicate myself to this community for a fair and equitable resolution to this educational challenge we face tonight.

Twice a year--at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--our Main Sanctuary doors with Isaiah's words are thrown open and nearly two thousand people enter our holy space to ask themselves and their God in what ways they may have done better in the past year.  Isaiah's words--Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All Peoples--could not ring more true tonight.  We know this truth in our hearts--our educational system in this great city of our must be a fair and equal educational system for all people.  We can do better.

Thank you.



11 January 2011

Who's Free from Sin?

on Joshua Seven

After writing about the Psalms for 150 days and then writing about Proverbs for another 31, I felt it was time to turn to more brutal material, if only to face certain narrative tropes of our tradition in the context of what many people believe is a growing brutalization of American politics.  In particular I wanted to face, to the degree that I am able, the perceived divide among Jews over the role of Divine Providence with regard to the Land of Israel and, additionally, with regard to domestic politics here in America.  The growing radicalization of the extremes across the political spectrum concerns me greatly and I often despair of my relative powerlessness from the pulpit to do anything about it.

When I was in politics my first few years of college--interning at the State Capitol in Madison, holding a student senate seat at the University, I ended up getting turned off by the incessant atmosphere of compromise and slow processes of decision making in the Capitol on one hand and the self-righteous and deeply annoying grandstanding of my peers on campus on the other.  One system was too slow; the other seemed, well, useless.  Therefore, when I started studying Judaism seriously after my father died, I found the combination of scholarship, theological reckoning and faith to be a more deeply satisfying engagement with the world.  For more than 26 years I've been deeply engaged in Jewish life, steadily gaining understanding and moving from one project to the next (I seem to have averaged 5-7 year stints) in an effort to have a substantive impact on a community.

I think I've always been a soul-searcher and these days, as I examine my own in the wake of the horrifying assassination attempt on Congresswoman Giffords and the death of six others, as a citizen of this great country I feel partly responsible for my own lack of involvement--beyond voting and an occasional campaign contribution.

For the past five years I have bloviated on this blog but I know that's not enough.  In a neighborhood of writers, one gets the impression sometimes that writing about stuff is simply what one does; and oh, how acutely aware am I of the relative uselessness of my thinking out loud.  Several devoted readers, to be sure, a reality I deeply appreciate.  But in the end of the day, as I look in the mirror, particularly with an awareness "out there" that things are terribly wrong, I have to ask, "What have I done?"

There are times when the rhetoric in politics is so debased, it's like a runaway train that's impossible to catch, grab hold of the brakes, and bring to a halt.   It's no surprise that likes of Sarah Palin and her supporters lack the political courage to take stock of their own mendacious and violent rhetoric as contributing to an *atmosphere* of hate, but even on the left, for example, as I was listening to Roger Hodge, author of The Mendacity of Hope, talking about Obama's betrayal on WNYC, it was with such an expectation of partisan purity, radically unrealistic in its own right, that reminded me of the unproductive narcissism of politics that drove me from it in the first place back in the early 1980s.  At one point he called Bill Daley a "plutocrat."  It would have been funny if it weren't so sad and off the mark.  Still, at least he didn't create a graphic of someone with the cross-hairs of a gun over their face and then deny it was a gun like these other jokers out there today.

How bitterly ironic that target of assassination in Tuscon was a mainstream, middle-of-the-road Democrat; a centrist; a principled woman, unafraid to take a stand but where necessary, willing to compromise.

Joshua quakes in the face of dissension, in the face of fear, in the face of the brutality for what he'll have to do to take over the land and lead his people into it.  In particular, he is aware of how badly his own people have behaved, in their looting of Jericho after conquering it, and he doesn't want to face the hard work of reckoning that lies ahead.  He voices that fear to God and God will have nothing of it:  "Get thee up; wherefore, now, art thou fallen up thy face?  Israel hath sinned; yea, they have even transgressed My covenant which I commanded them; yea, they have even taken of the devoted thing; and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have even put it among their own stuff.  Therefore the children of Israel cannot stand before their enemies, they turn their backs before their enemies, because they are become accursed; I will not be with you anymore, except ye destroy the accursed from among you."

Now, these fanatical weirdos from Kansas, who take the Bible literally, love this stuff.  We theologically liberal or agnostic traditionally don't.  But these sacred texts speak to a deep desire to connect with what is right in a covenantal, civil society, forcing us to reckon with our own collective sin when things go wrong.

Joshua carries out a brutal stoning and burning of the sinners, a horrifyingly violent response that, God forbid, should never be repeated.  But beyond rejecting such a text, I would propose that we read its testimony of devotion to the idea that we must always remain committed to rooting out evil; to finding it, like hidden crumbs of bread before Passover, in the small, dark places of our own souls, and being vigilant and ever-aware that our well-being as a nation depends upon it.

None of us is free from sin today.  That Congresswoman Giffords continues to miraculously fight for her life is proof, is the precious gift, that life itself and its animating ideals, remain worth fighting for.

10 January 2011

Wish I'd Have Said That

I recently came across a beautiful poem by the Charles Simic, prompting me to reach up to the book-shelf and retrieve Hotel Insomnia, the poet's 1992 collection.

Here's a favorite:
STUB OF A RED PENCIL

You were sharpened to a fine point
With a rusty razor blade.
Then the unknown hand swept the shavings
Into its moist palm
And disappeared from view.

You lay on the desk next to
The official-looking document
With a long list of names.
It was up to us to imagine the rest:
The high ceiling with its cracks
And odd shaped water stains;
The window with its view
Of roofs covered with snow.

An inconceivable, varied world
Surrounding your severe presence
On every side,
Stub of a red pencil.

09 January 2011

Foundations and Gates

on Joshua Six

Jericho enclosed.  Silently circled daily.  The priests, the Torah Ark, and Seven Shofars make seven circles.  A warning issued to take nothing; it's all devoted to the LORD.

On the seventh day, the blast, followed by the slaughter: man and woman; young and old; ox, sheep and ass, each by the edge of the sword.

The city is then burned and Joshua warns the people not to rebuild, as if the killing, having soaked the earth in blood, invalidates the foundation, permanently shuts the gate to the future.

What if this never happened but was conjured in an effort to imagine the horrifying, ruinous effect of man's sickening insistence on ransoming land for blood--and in the process teach us of war's folly?

But alas, there are those who, still today, seek to kill us.  For being Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or a Woman or Gay or Black or Latino and the list echos and reverberates, like those Shofar blasts at Jericho.

Who has time to build a foundation?  The gate--is it even open or closed?

08 January 2011

Let's Save Ourselves from Ourselves

We knew it would come to this.

At some point, the anger in our nation about its direction, the state of the economy, a sense that things are slipping away--has been moving across the land like a runaway train.  We've watched and read about rallies where the President is dressed as Hitler; we've heard about Unconcealed Gun Rallies in Starbucks; we've seen U.S. Representatives spat upon and reports of Congressional offices vandalized in some of the most partisan political attacks since the Civil War. 

Rising early this morning to get my fill of the news, to try to understand what exactly is happening in America, I read with sadness about the continuing battle over immigration rights in Arizona.  On the opinion pages of the New York Times, critic Adam Kirsch wove together the Republican's farcical reading of the Constitution on the House floor (their edited version neglected to mention that at the time of its composition, African Americans were only considered 3/5 human) and the decision to exclude the word "nigger" from a new version of Huckleberry Finn.  It's a fine essay, worth reading.

Before I begin leading services each week for our guests who've come to hear a kid become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I say a few words about the ritual, about Judaism, about why we gather to read Torah and say prayers.  Today I thought about Kirsch's essay; I remembered studying Huck Finn with my friend Allen in high school, laughing our way through it, and then going home after school to study the New Republic, and attempt to understand what was wrong with the world then, in early 1980, on the brink (or so it seemed) of nuclear war.  We had a social studies teacher who used to open the storage closet and give us books and I remember the day he gave me a copy of the Federalist Papers.  "This will come in handy some day," he said.  "There are some people out there who have some twisted ideas about what this stuff actually means.  Study up."  That's a good teacher.

One of our members ushering this morning is a constitutional lawyer.  At a quick glance I noticed the seven or eight African Americans were guests at our service.  And so I said:
"It's been an interesting week.  Republican leaders chose to read an edited version of the U.S. Constitution on the House floor but their version neglected to include the designation that African Americans were once considered, by the same sacred document, to be only partially human.  Admitting the fallacy of the document would be a blow the very Originalists whose agenda to transform America would be damaged by such an admission.  Sacred documents, ancient and modern, are meant to be interpreted.  There is a theological case to be made for Progressive Revelation and it's perfectly valid to make the case that we are always in the process of discovering greater truths about human existence.  So the Bar Mitzvah student this morning will be reading an unedited version of Torah.  He will wrestle with the brutality of the Exodus story, the killing of the firstborn in Egypt and God's role in hardening Pharaoh's heart.  These are difficult texts, but they are meant to engage us so that in every generation we can find their truths for our time."
Afterward, at kiddush, someone said to me they appreciated the comments before and during the service.  "I felt like I was in college again, treated like an adult with all the difficult ideas that religion presents." I thought of Levinas' famous essay, "A Religion for Adults," and the centrality that responsibility must play in the construction of religious societies.  And democratic societies.

Watching House Speaker Boehner flounder through an interview with NBC newsman Brian Williams, and prevaricate about the Birthers and their outrageous views that President Obama is not in fact a US citizen, the House Speaker committed the ultimate sin of irresponsibility:  "Sure Obama's a citizen, but I won't tell others what to think."   

And that is precisely the problem.  We knew it would come to this.

When news came in today (as I was finishing Shabbat lunch with my daughters) that US Representative Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at constituent event, practicing democracy; when it was revealed that Federal Judge John Roll was murdered; and that several others were either dead or in critical condition, it becoming abundantly clear for our generation that we were now officially living in our own harrowing time of dissension, division, danger and violence.  The Civil War; Vietnam; and now our time, threatening to divide the country, destabilize its government, place in the cross-hairs of a semi-automatic weapon (wait to will uncover the trail leading the sale and trade of that weapon) a sitting member of Congress whose office has already been vandalized for her pro-health care reform vote, who was the object of violent threats digitally preserved in some lunatic's Twitter account, and the Judge who fell beside her, singled out with death threats himself for his support of immigrants rights--we knew it would come to this.  As much as it pains us to admit it, we knew it would happen.

We Americans live remarkably unrestrained lives.  We live in the immediacy of our own narrative bubbles.  The unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the God of Individuality we worship to such an alarmingly perverse degree that we have lost the ability to collectively recognize the danger and the evil of the unleashed anger among us.

"Sure Obama's a citizen, but I won't tell others what to think" is a statement of the greatest political cowardice we have heard spoken by a national leader in quite some time.  And he said it this week, on national television.  More concerned with victory than with justice; more focused on winning than on helping the lives of others; this empathic shedder of crocodile tears should have said that though he came to power on a wave of anger that he himself is responsible for, we ought to realign our national values around shared ideas, cooperation, patriotism, freedom and justice for all.  Frankly, news that House Democrats plan to unleash their own partisan attacks should not cheer us up, unless, at the very least, they are continually vetted for reasonableness, historical accuracy, decency, and aspirational values.  Don't hold your breath.

We're a mess.   And we knew it would come to this.

We teach in the synagogue a truism of Judaism that has bound our people for generations--and in practice, I can tell you from first-hand experience, it's not easy to realize:  "Each Jew is responsible for one another."

At this stage in our history, with our country's democracy under threat of violence, can we say the same thing?  Do Americans feel a sense of responsibility to one another or has our devolution begun?

My girls and I read the news account and then we pulled the books off the shelves--battles over the Constitution at ratification; violent outbursts during the Civil War.  I wanted to convey that we fight these battles as a nation and the good and truth, so far, have prevailed.

Today, however, I masked my fear.  And reminded myself as we learned, that the recitation of the facts of history and the engagement with our sacred texts and sacred narratives would win out in the end.

Truth and Justice are the American way.  Right?

Right?

Mark Twain wrote a word that helps us understand the dehumanization inherent in a document that only claimed a man was not in fact a man but said that the one who was a man had the right to own a gun.  And amendment that made 3/5 a man was raised this week by Justice Scalia in the outlandish claim that the Constitution doesn't inherently protect the rights of women, gays, and lesbians.  And on the day of rest, a lunatic with a semi-automatic weapon that he had the "right" to possess, took aim at the sacred ideas embedded in the Constitution.

Originalists be damned.  We have an argument on our hands.  And the future of our nation lies in the balance.  Let's save ourselves from ourselves because whether we like it or not, we're all responsible for each other.

07 January 2011

We Did

Monday afternoon in the middle of a meeting our security guard walked in to tell me there was someone at the synagogue looking for a rabbi.  In walked a young woman, crying, explaining that her father had just died. 

"He was a Jew but didn't raise me in any faith tradition and I don't know what to do."  So I cleared the next hour in the calendar and sat with her until we came up with a plan.

"I don't know what to do."

This is the classic predicament of so many contemporary liberal Jews.  The best education, the most liberal democratic society affording aspirations and professional pursuits with unlimited horizons, but in the face of death, we are faced with the question of all questions:  what to do?

We talked about Jewish burial rites and customs; preparing the body; burial and sitting shiva.  In the end, she determined that her father had left in his will that he wanted to be cremated, so that's what she decided to do. Though "against" Jewish law, the Jewish funeral homes in New York offer it as an option.  As in all things, there's what we're "supposed to do" and what we do.  Sometimes, but not always, they meet up.

After our conversation she asked, "What does it cost?"  I said, "Nothing.  It's a mitzvah." I knew she'd  be paying to move her father's body; and I'm sure there would be numerous other costs as well.  I wanted to keep money far from our engagement.

Today we gathered for a memorial service in our chapel.  Over the course of an hour or so, the family shared stories about the deceased and I read psalms and talked extemporaneously about Judaism and death. 

I'd never explained so much before but it felt right--an amalgam of funeral service and seminar in why religion matters. 

I spent a lot of time on El Maleh Rachamim (maybe too much time, I don't know actually) and afterward we stood around the chapel, talking.  An aunt came up to me to offer a check to the synagogue for my services.  I graciously thanked her and said, "It's been a mitzvah."  She said something that has stayed with me all day.  Laughing, she said, "Other places don't act that way."

But we do, I said. 

We do. 

I actually don't think it's true what she said.  I think we're all predicated on the performance of the mitzvot; I think we're all set up to serve.  But I'm sure that out there it goes wrong.  Seekers come in to the engagement needing to be helped and are turned away; clergy are willing to help but run into a wall of resistance in those who are predetermined to fight against any religious expression.  Or, to be more clear, people are often very mixed up about their relationship to faith and tradition.  And when you add the intensity of critical life moments--birth, marriage, divorce and death--there's no guarantee who is going to be left standing.

But today, in our chapel, seeker and sought embraced.

We did.

06 January 2011

On Foreskin Hill

from Joshua Five

I like the idea of enemies hearts melting in the face of an impending loss or defeat.  While it removes some of the sport of the encounter (teams, for instance, like to face one another in battle) it would surely save lives if the obvious loser in battle wouldn't even raise arms to fight but merely submit, with melted hearts, to their fate.  Such was the situation when the Canaanites and the Amorites heard about the parting of the Red Sea and Israel's victory over Egypt.  As Joshua Five opens, those enemies don't even show up on the field. 

The chronology is a bit muddled, but in the next verse following, a mass circumcision takes place.  That would freak me out, I can tell you that, and herein one sees the first real sign in Joshua that we'll also see in Judges of a spasm of blood and brutality that takes hold before, during and after battle that will be an occasional source of meditation in the days ahead. 

"Make thee knives of flint, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time."  This notion, a second circumcision, triggers an interesting debate among the Sages, who wonder aloud about whether or not the practice of circumcision was suspended in the desert during the 40 years of wandering since the Israelites barely had time to rest and recuperate from such a procedure and so therefore simply postponed the ritual until they were ready to enter and take covenantal possession of the land that God promised them.  Makes sense.

But there is also the hint that the "second circumcision" is a hint toward a kind of brutal pre-war ritual of preparation, a sanctification in blood for the bloody battles ahead that would be waged in order to reclaim the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It's a gruesome sight to imagine and maybe because some of my own early views of war as a boy and young man were steeled in the novels and films about the Vietnam war, I imagine a kind of sarcastically rendered Foreskin Hill, with grimly focused soldiers, bloodied by their own hands as a first rite before the greater war of conquest begins.

"And Joshua made him knives of flint, and circumcised the children of Israel at Gibeath-ha-araloth."  That's Foreskin Hill to you, buddy.

It had me thinking about preparation in war and preparation in general--for life--and how so often we are in fact not adequately prepared to face the challenges we do.  In reading David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, his Pulitzer Prize winning book about President Bush's Iraq surge strategy, I was struck by how seemingly prepared soldiers are but how in fact unprepared they truly are when the killing begins.  And the series of reporting that we continue to read about rates of depression and suicide in young men and women who are emotionally devastated--at times less than thirty days into their tours of duty--we are reminded of the truism that one can in fact never fully prepare for the hell of battle.

After the mass circumcision takes place, Passover is celebrated and the obvious implication involved here is that a central "text" or idea of the binding of the Jewish people to God in covenant and freedom needs to be read and celebrated in order to prepare and then seal the people into the binding narrative that will under-gird their devotion.  The Republican Party's decision to begin publicly reading the Constitution notwithstanding (here come the Originalists in full-force, America's new fundamentalism rearing its head)--there is a powerful notion at play with regard to reading aloud, practicing aloud, the values of a society and its culture before moving into another phase of its leadership.

It's only then that an angel of God appears to Joshua, re-enacting for Joshua his own "Burning Bush" moment.  The circumcision, the reading of the Law (in this case the Passover narrative) release for the people their leader's encounter with God. 

"Take off your shoes," the angel says.  "You're standing on holy ground."

It's this, I like to think, that served as the cause of melted hearts.  Who can fight it? 

For one brief, shining moment, self-sacrifice and a moving narrative of freedom and redemption was the cause of victory, and the only blood shed was our own.

05 January 2011

Royal Bloom

video
on Joshua 4

Even before Joshua himself can cross over the Jordan River and into the Land of Israel, the Twelve Tribes of Israel are commanded clearly to take twelve stones from under their feet and carry them across the river, into the land, where they will set up an altar of devotion to God.  This rooting, stone-bound act of faith has always reminded me of the times when on days off of school, we'd drive to the Westside of Milwaukee to visit my grandmother--Mom's mom--and how we'd often leave with a rock from Grandma's garden to deliver back to our garden on the Eastside of town.  The silent conscription of stone from one side of the water (calm and distant from Lake Michigan's tumultuous shores) to the other (the prairie's aquatic horizon) felt like an exchange of currency only for the truly initiated.

So it was on these east - west journeys, brought to the garden by our mother's mother, to pay homage to hers, and then, in a totemic expression, transport back to the eastern boundary the rocks of remembrance. 

"And these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel forever."  Joshua's own stones stayed, unlike the others' which were brought up to Israel, as if to indicate a permanent exile despite the return home; the connection to a deeper heritage beyond the small remembrances brought from "there" to "here."

Some stuff leaves; and some remains.  That is the nature of the transaction.

On a recent trip home I drove past both the home where my grandma raised my mom, now owned and inhabited by another, as well as the home where I was raised, with a garden re-landscaped, many times, their stones of inheritance perhaps long gone.  How I yearned to step upon them!  And as snow fell around me, I contemplated the shared dynamic among the ideas of history, longing, and remembrance; and I contrasted it with the the certainty of not-knowing in whose possession are the rocks of our existence.

The rocks, of course, stabilized gardens where flowers bloomed; and so in the midst of my reverie, I conscripted my dear mother into an adventurous walk through our old local garden center's labyrinthine alleys of bromeliades--ostentatious, stubborn, bright.

After the drives back to our side of town, mom would insist on passing by this small garden center and we'd create important psychology--mindfully moving stones from one garden to another, while finding, buying, and planting permanently local beauties.  As if to say enough roads were traveled; it's permanence we seek.  Phosphorescent blooms blinding out simple pear and apple trees from atop a perch at the dining room table; willow and maple swaying, like young kids in a school dance.

I saw Epic Explosions; mom's hands, among the cuttings, always rendered realism, patience and beauty.

The Twelve Tribes took the stones of Jordan with them, eager to exploit their magic; Joshua leaves them put, confident in their royal bloom

04 January 2011

Sisters

video
winter break at the genzyme rink in cambridge, ma

03 January 2011

When the Staff Is No Longer Available

on Joshua 3

Moses' staff is no longer available to split water.

So Joshua appoints the priests to use the Holy Ark of the Covenant, carrying it into the Jordan River and dividing the water so the Children of Israel can pass through.

Charismatic leadership, individual power and prowess are replaced at times in history by communal leadership and the structures of the law.

Or, choose your own metaphor.  But keep it clean, people.

02 January 2011

Protection and Its Deceits

on Joshua 2

I'm immediately struck by how all the characters in this story--whether or not they're Jewish--speak in the simple, poetic Hebrew that Joshua has inherited from the authors of Deuteronomy, who were clearly quite conscious of their need to make the grandness of the narrative attainable to the people.  In this way, Joshua continues with one particular Torah tradition--the decidedly democratic nature of Judaism.  We are all obligated, not just the Priests and Prophets.

In this chapter we are also introduced to Rahab, the famous prostitute who hides the Israelite spies as they cross into the Jericho region in order to scope out the land ahead of the Israelite conquest.  She herself exhibits an uncommon bravery, it would seem; on the other hand, as a prostitute, she's used to veiling truths, keeping secrets, satisfying demands.  That there is hiddenness and deceit involved in protecting the spies simply goes with the territory of the work.  As a careful observer of an historic reality around her, Rahab also cleverly recounts to the spies that she has heard about the Israelites escape from Egypt, their vanquishing of that empire, and their impending arrival back in the land God promised them.  And in embracing that narrative herself, seeks protection for her own family, which is promised to her by the spies.

They work out an arrangement that when they leave in the cover of night, Rahab will attach a scarlet thread to her window so that when the Israelites return for good, they will know that she has protected the early navigators and will therefore be saved.  The scarlet thread like the blood on the doorposts in Egypt; like the mezuzas with their protective texts, even like (though I really hesitate to climb aboard this rickety wagon of un-reason) the red kabbalah strings on the wrists of pilgrims at the DisKotel (nod to Y. Leibovitz.)

But even protection has its deceits, masking betrayals and future violence.  It seems to do the trick but only to assist in a temporary escape, a diversionary tactic, leaving for another time acts of reconciliation and peace.

01 January 2011

Whithersoever

on Joshua 1
I'm often awakened in the middle of the night by the voices of conscience in my head and usually they're the voices of past teachers.  I hear them, as if in the room, and through the silvery darkness I imagine their faces, usually smiling, offering advice.  I understand why mystics call these moments visions, because they do take on a rather odd, supernatural quality; but for me, in these liminal moments between night and day, it's what I ascribe to my psychology and soul working together in the relaxed state of near-sleep/near wakefulness.

It's where succession takes place.

Joshua experiences it quite clearly in the beginning of his eponymous biblical book--and though he doesn't experience a vision, the narrative is quite clear in the structure and cadences of its Hebrew as well as in the literary tropes and forms of its activity, that he is succeeding Moses.  After all, in the books opening lines, Joshua is described immediately as "Moses' minister," that is to say, servant or even disciple.

"Moses My servant is dead," God tells him, "Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.  Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, to you have I given it, as I spoke unto Moses."  Moses himself, you will recall, inherits this narrative construct from God, learning as he came of age in Egypt, that God, through him, would fulfill promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Moses had met none of them; but he willingly takes upon their obligations as his own.  Joshua's connections to Moses are more intimate, more similar to the Patriarchs shared, inherited narrative than Moses' own break with history in actually claiming his Jewish identity, which is why, perhaps, the Joshua story begins in such a familiar style as that of Torah, though technically, it is outside the Five Books.

The moment of succession had to have been enormously charged and weighted with an uncommon sense of awe and responsibility.  Even the descriptions of the land the people were to inherit connotes vastness in geography and scale:  "From the wilderness, and this Lebanon, even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your border."  And later, "beyond the Jordan toward the sunrising."

The inheritance is, as one of my teachers put it, "a totality."  I hear his voice and I see his face say that and sometimes I even whisper it to myself, keeping him alive.

In its overwhelming scope, Joshua is brought into line with a new guiding principle of his existence, that he is to muster the will to be "strong and of good courage" in order "to observe to do according to all the Law, which Moses my servant commanded thee, turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest have good success whithersoever thou goest."

People don't say whithersoever as much as they should.

Where the sun rises and where the sun sets are geographic borders.  Land.  Wealth.  Where Joshua is meant to lead the people, in Moses' tradition, is the territory of the Law, of morality, of the good.

I remember the first time I realized that I would likely not be a wealthy man in the material sense:  the summer we sold our house, a couple of years after the folks' divorce, when I was already in the habit of accumulating mentors--teachers to serve.  They opened up fields of inquiry and sight-lines previously unseen.  They made connections between ideas and events with a kind of radiological precision that explained things.  And in so doing they created a narrative inheritance that would surpass in riches what any storehouse of silver and gold could offer.  (Though there are still a couple cars I'd like to one day buy.)

As I lay in bed sometimes, pondering my fate, I hear the voices, a chorus, harps and angels.  "This book of the law shall not depart from thy mouth but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy ways prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.  Have not I commanded thee?  Be strong and of good courage; be not affrighted, neither be thou dismayed; for the Eternal thy God is with thee, whithersoever thou goest."

Baseball coach.  Social Studies Teacher.  Professor.  Mentor.  Rabbi.

Wherever I went I found them and though each are now gone from my life, their voices give strength and courage.