Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote, “Ask the average person which is more important to him, making money or being devoted to family? Virtually everyone will answer “family” without hesitation. But, watch how the average person actually lives out his life. See where he really invests his time and energy. He will give away the fact that he does not really live by what he says he believes.”
Our tradition is practical. We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We all have impure thoughts but as long as we don’t act upon our baser instincts we have no need for guilt or atonement. As long as our actions are good so are we. However, this works both ways. While we are not held responsible for the sins we only wish to commit, we don’t get credit for those things not begun. No matter how good the intention, if we don’t actually take the time to be with our children, we are not parenting.
I am reminded of the story of the little girl who asked her mother, “Mommy, where do we go when we die?
Her mother answered, “Everyone goes to heaven.”
“Daddy can’t go, he won’t leave the office.”
Children model their parents. This means that as parents we must take an active roll in our children’s education. We must also be educators. For this we have to leave the office. We have to be clear as to our values.
The Giraffe Project teaches that the fundamental questions in each child’s education should be, “Who are your heroes?” If you asked your children to list five of their heroes, who would make the list? Would it be sports figures, rock stars or actors? Would it be the people who adorn the teen magazines and Sports Illustrated? For that matter, who are your heroes? If their list would not satisfy you, would your list satisfy you? And, would your children know who your heroes are?
People often confuse the word “hero” with the word “star.” The dictionary tells us that a hero is “a person admired for their achievements and accomplishments, a person who shows great courage.” A star is a person who “is widely known and referred to often.” A star is a person with unique talents, someone who can perform feats that very few can duplicate. They become celebrities because of this talent. But, they are not heroes.
As a congregational rabbi I often find myself sitting with families who have lost a loved one. As I listen to their stories I can see the legacy of love and values that will survive the loss. But far too often my experience is different. Sometimes there are no stories or values to be passed down. I have stopped counting how many times an adult child has regretted their inability to have been able to talk to their parents, how many times the parent/child bond was defined by watching football on Sunday afternoons or talking sports, buying clothing and dressing up. I have heard too many lives encapsulated as being “impeccably dressed” or “classy.” In too many cases this is all the survivors are left with; the deceased has left behind no stories or memories. For what will they be remembered? What footprints have they left behind?
Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
To me, “father” and “soldier” are almost antithetical words. My 89-year-old parent was an English professor. He taught Shakespeare. His world was (and still is to a certain extent) a man of theatre, books, film and intellectual banter. A hammer and a screwdriver were dangerous tools in his hands. His mind was much stronger than his muscles.
But my father was indeed a soldier. He served in the South Pacific for three years as a sailor on a Mine Sweeper. Like many from his generation, he did not speak much about his service during World War II. His stories had more to do with the salamis his mother sent him, escapes to hiding places to read and sea sickness, than they did with battles, blood and death.
Slowly, just because I was tenacious in my curiosity, did he begrudgingly tell of his brave Captain who saved his life through a Monsoon; or the times that his ship morphed into a hospital unit; or his relief in learning of American victory so that he might return home.
“Didn’t it affect your life? Weren’t you scared? Did you ever think you would die”?, I would ask. “I didn’t think about it that way. That is what we all did. There was no other way,” he would answer as a matter of fact.
My teenage brain could not understand. I needed more. Finally, he told me that six months after he returned, while getting ready for Shabbat dinner, he burst out in a deep cry for a half hour. He wiped off his tears and went to have dinner with his family. He didn’t remember processing the reaction with his parents. “I guess I needed to let it all out somehow and that was my reaction. I have never thought much about it since,” he told me.
Needless to say, as we commemorate Veterans Day this week, we are a nation so exhausted from almost fourteen years of war. As much as we try to extricate ourselves from battle, there is no clear end in sight. We no longer send ALL of our children to serve and I wonder if we have lost our connection to the “soldier’s narrative.” My father’s generation didn’t think they were anything special because they were all obliged to serve our country. It didn’t matter if you were made to be a soldier or not.
I am as opposite of a soldier as my father was in his day. But in a strange way, I long for his time when service was not an option. He grew up faster. He understood obligation to others sooner. He learned to navigate a complicated world before he graduated college.
We don’t know the soldier’s story today because we are not asked to serve ourselves. During this week when we honor those who fight on our behalf, I think it is our obligation to know the America whose stories are too often hidden. And, it is time that all of us think about service of all types. Many of us are not cut out to; or inclined to fight as soldiers, but we live in a country crying out for us to serve in a variety of ways which can help us become whole.
As a rabbi of an innovative global organization, it is important for me not just to be in my office but to also be on the road learning from others. That means I try to attend a handful of conferences each year—and today I’m a first-time attendee at the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, known in shorthand as “the GA.” It’s a conference for volunteer and professional leaders of Jewish Federations and those with an interest in Jewish philanthropy.
At events like this, my hopes are that I will make connections to new friends and colleagues, that I will learn some new tools, that I will leave with just as many questions as answers, and that I will have a sense of optimism about what is possible in the Jewish community.
When I was flipping through the list of sessions, I realized there are two ways to view them, one more positive than the other.
There’s a long-standing tradition that Jewish telegrams were easy to recognize because they would say simply, “letter to follow. Begin worrying.” And, it is easy to read through a list of session topics at a conference like this, and to begin panicking: How will we fundraise? What will Israel’s future look like? How will we engage teens/young adults/aging adults/interfaith families/fill-in-the-blank? What will we do about rising anti-Semitism in Europe? How do we balance collectivism and individualism? Is Jewish education working or not?
Some people answer those questions with doom-and-gloom answers. But I don’t think that’s what this conference is about (otherwise I wouldn’t be here!). Conferences like this work when those in the room confront the realities of Jewish life and then figure out how to embrace opportunities for what could be rather than bemoan what is.
While there is some truth that worrying is part of the Jewish historical experience, it is also the case that celebration has long been an affirmation of a positive Jewish identity. We are a people of happiness and joy, laughter and humor. We are a people of hope.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a speaker at this conference, once said that “Judaism is humanity’s faith in the future tense; the Jewish voice is the voice of inextinguishable hope.”
Being at a conference with thousands of people who care about Jewish life and want to celebrate it – this gives me much hope. My telegram (now a tweet) from my time at the GA will say: email to follow, no need to worry—we are a people of hope.
To watch my Rosh Hashanah sermon on which this blog post is loosely based, please click here.
I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.
I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.
By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.
Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.
The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”
Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.
What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.
And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4
The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5
1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.
Last night I sat among 850 supporters of Israel and its Israel Defense Forces at the annual Friends of the IDF dinner here in Metro Detroit, Michigan. I attend this event each year and last night was not much different than past events. I was moved to tears watching the video screens and hearing about young Israelis who had to overcome difficult personal challenges while serving in the Israeli Army to defend the Jewish state. I listened as one young man, now an attorney in Israel, thanked a local Detroit family that sponsored him so he could attend law school after the army despite both of his parents being unemployed due to serious medical problems. He, like so many Israeli professionals, had to leave his job over the summer when he was called up from reserves to serve in Gaza.
There wasn’t a single person in the large synagogue social hall last night who wouldn’t identify as a strong supporter of Israel. There were hundreds of Israelis in that room last night who had served in the IDF and emigrated to Detroit. There were also many Americans who had volunteered to serve in the IDF or who are related to Israelis who had served. There were families who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Friends of the IDF to build army bases and classrooms and fitness centers throughout Israel. Like me, I’m sure, all 850 of the men and women in that room remember precisely what had happened in Tel Aviv nineteen years earlier. It was on November 4, 1995 that the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist. And yet there was no mention of that day.
Rabin’s assassination was my generation’s JFK assassination. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. It was a beautiful, sunny Shabbat afternoon. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were standing outside my AEPi fraternity house when someone told us that there was a rumor that Yitzhak Rabin had been shot dead. CNN was already showing video footage of the peace rally in Tel Aviv where Rabin’s life was taken. As my fraternity brothers began returning from the afternoon’s football game (I hadn’t attended), I told them the news. We were all shocked. As a leader at my university’s Hillel, I was asked to speak at several community vigils the next day. I was called by newspaper reporters asking for my opinion on the assassination and whether it would end any hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It was my first experience being interviewed at a TV news studio. I had always been a Zionist, but November 4, 1995 made me, and so many of my peers, feel closer to Israel than ever before. I began researching ways to return to Israel that summer.
So much has happened in the 19 years since that horrible day. Israel has endured more terrorism, fought more wars and has yet to mend its internal fractures. As Americans went to the polls yesterday in our midterm elections, so many of us refused to check our concerns about Israel at the door. We take them with us into the voting booth. We discuss the candidates’ positions on Israel and the Middle East.
I’d like to think that last night’s omission of the anniversary of the Rabin assassination was just an oversight. We memorialized all of the victims of terrorism and all of those men and women who lost their lives while serving for the IDF. Yitzhak Rabin was an IDF general long before he was a politician or a statesman. For me, I will never forget November 4, 1995. I pray that we continue to honor the memory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. To forget his contributions to the State of Israel would be an assassination to his legacy.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
I’ve never actively sought out or consulted with a medium, or anyone who made claims to be able to communicate with those who have crossed over. But on this week, following up from my colleague Tsafi Lev’s piece yesterday on the possibility of spirits of the dead communicating with us, I’d like to share the story of what happened to me the first year I led a Rosh Hashanah service.
Now, I should preface this story with the knowledge that, traditionally, Judaism has been quite clear that we should not consult with mediums—there is a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:31). At the same time, we have the dramatic story of King Saul (I Samuel, 28), who had himself banned such people from his Kingdom, consulting in secret with the Witch of Endor, to get one last piece of advice from the prophet Samuel, at that time deceased. What I find fascinating about both the biblical prohibition and the story in Kings is that, while we may not seek guidance in this way, our tradition clearly recognizes that such a thing is possible and that people who have the ability to communicate with the other side exist. Whatever you believe to be true, there’s certainly a rich history and folklore in our tradition on this subject.
So, back to my story. I was a student rabbi who had just started my first year of rabbinical school. I was contributing to the High Holy Days at a synagogue in northern England. On the second day I had been asked to provide a less formal, creative service that would appeal to families with children, and so I was on the bima taking the lead for that particular morning. About 20 minutes before the end of the service, I noticed a middle-aged blond woman in business attire enter the sanctuary and take a seat. I thought it a little strange to arrive so late in the proceedings, but being a visitor to the community I had no idea if she was known to others or not.
When the service came to an end, a number of people came up to me but most of the congregation quickly moved toward another room for the Kiddush. The blond-haired woman approached me and the first things she said was “I have a message for you.” Her eyes fluttered and the tone of her voice changed, and she proceeded to share a message that had less to do with who might be doing the communicating, and more to do with where I was in that moment in my life and the decisions that I knew lay before me. They were framed in such a way that, as I listened, I was drawn in and fascinated by what was unfolding before me, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism that this might be a con and it was easy enough to make my own connections between the words she shared and the situation that I was applying them to. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but as I was trying to decide, she snapped out of the altered state.
Speaking quite normally, she explained that she was driving by the synagogue on her way back from a business meeting. She didn’t know this was a synagogue, but she received a strong message to enter the building. So she pulled up, sat down, and knew she had to wait until the end of the service to speak with me. She told me she didn’t control when these messages came and that she had learned just to be the messenger and those that she delivered messages to would figure out what they meant to them. I asked for her business card (which did not list her as a Medium), thanked her, and she promptly left. I went to join the rabbi and the congregation at the Kiddush, and didn’t say a word of any of this to any of them. It felt very surreal.
I’m still not certain what I experienced that Rosh Hashanah of 2001. I wrote and thanked the woman, but never had any further interaction or communication with her. The words she shared with me that day were words that I heard to be of direct relevance to the fork in the road where I felt that I was standing at that moment in my life. I don’t know if I would say that she helped me choose which fork in the road to take, but when I made my choice, her words echoed in my mind, providing reassurance that I had made the right one. A Medium or a Messenger? In Hebrew, the latter is a malach—which we more typically translate as “Angel.”
I’m no more certain today than I was then of what is true or what is real. But whenever anyone approaches me with,
“Rabbi, I have a story, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me…” I’m ready to listen.
Recently a woman asked me if it was okay during her prayers to pray to her deceased mother. She said,”the first thing I think of when I start to pray is my mother. My friend told me that I was being a bad Jew because there was something, my mother, between me and God. Rabbi,” she asked, “Is there something wrong with my prayers?”
This brings us directly to the question of Halloween, and what it is that we believe, or not, about ghosts. Years ago, I had a congregant whose son spoke to his beloved but deceased Bubby through a conch shell that she had given him. I once counseled a woman whose phone rang every day precisely at the same time. She was certain that it was her father calling. He had passed away several months before. Do we believe in ghosts? Why not? Religiously speaking, believing in a God you cannot see or hear or touch but still feel in deep relationship with, is even more complicated. So why not ghosts?
The Zohar, Judaism’s primer on mysticism, teaches that when a soul departs, the soul of the departed experiences three things simultaneously: a) The soul enters into the Mystery of the Infinite One. To my mind, it’s something like what happened to Yoda and Obi Wan Kanobi; they became one with the Force. b) The soul remains to comfort those who mourn. c) The soul enters into Gan Eden and experiences the delights that he or she enjoyed while on earth.
What I told the woman who asked me about praying to her mother is the following.
“I believe that your relationship with your mother is foundational in your understanding of the transcendent. I do not believe that you confused your mother with God, but that she is the closest access point you have to loving energy beyond our own realm.”
Do we believe in ghosts?
I’m not sure, nor am I that curious. It doesn’t make someone a “bad Jew” to answer this question with a “yes.” Tevye’s wife certainly believed in ghosts. I’ve performed several weddings where the spirit of late relatives, mothers, fathers, grandparents, were invited, and welcomed by name.
In the end, I am glad that my friend is still comforted by her mother in this different capacity, that a young boy with his conch shell still has an active connection to his deceased grandmother, and that at 3:15 every afternoon, when her phone rings, my former congregant still has her father.
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”
These two verses by Dylan Thomas came in to my head the other night unbidden and would not leave. I had not read this poem written by Thomas about his dying father since high school. Yet, the verses echoed through my head. In order to quell the refrain, I went to find my battered and much beloved copy of The Norton’s Anthology of Poetry. To my great surprise, the book opened immediately to the page the poem was on, as if it knew just what I was looking for. God works in mysterious ways.
Reading the poem in its entirety, I burst into tears. Yes, I thought. This is how I feel. All around me the light seems to be dying, and I am angry. I am angry that in 2014, we have an African American president, yet black men are incarcerated and shot on the street by cops in ever increasing numbers. I am angry and scared that an epidemic like Ebola is killing so many in Africa and is making its way to our shores. And on a more personal level, I am angry that cancer can capriciously cut short a vivacious person’s life.
Life is not fair, and I am angry.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I am not good with anger as an emotion. In fact I hate it, I makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to control it or express it in a positive way.
As this refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” echoes in my head I realize that I have to do something, or it will tear me apart.
Meditation and prayer do not calmly disburse it.
Yelling at God through tears does not help either.
So, I have decided to embrace my anger. I am going to wear it proudly, and try to use it for good. God gave us anger to be a motivating force. The best social movements were started because people were angry about the status quo. Abraham angry at his father, rebelled against his culture and created a new religion. Moses angry at the mistreatment of Hebrew slaves led them out of Egypt. The daughters of Zelophechad, angry that they could not inherit their father’s property because they were women, petitioned Moses to change the law, and won. In modern times, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and African American civil rights would not have been won without righteous anger fueling the causes.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Instead of trying to carefully stomp it out the rage. I will use it to feed the light. Pirkei Avot teaches “You are not obligated to finish a task but neither are you free to neglect it.” I may not solve the problem of police brutality in America, or find the cure or Ebola. I may not be able to save my friend from cancer, but my anger will fuel me to keep trying to make the world a better place.
The absence of this anger would leave me with nothing. No will to move forward in the world. So for now, I am holding on to it in all of its fiery glory.
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”