Monthly Archives: November 2011

A Puzzling Experience

The call came last Wednesday afternoon. I was walking into the barber shop for a pre-Thanksgiving haircut when my cell phone rang. I looked at the phone and asked myself who would be calling from Washington DC. I went back on to the street and answered it to hear the caller identify himself as calling from National Public Radio: “I imagine you know why I’m calling”.

Yes, I imagine I did. After years of entering the “Sunday puzzle” contest on NPR, never expecting to be chosen to play the puzzle on the air,  I was the “randomly chosen entry” from the more than 900 puzzlers who had correctly answered this week’s challenge. More than 900 of us who were able to figure out that the food item “Mayo” could, when subjected to the proper rearranging of syllables lead to the expression: “Yo Mama” and the celebrity: “Yo Yo Ma”. I had come up with that answer within a minute or two after hearing the puzzle and had forgotten to submit my answer, remembering to do so only an hour before the deadline. And now, two hours  later, I was faced with the reality that I would have the opportunity to be heard by millions, many of whom I’m sure would be ready to pounce on any hesitation  screaming out: “Oh come on,what’s the matter with this guy? ” while another person in the house would say: “Give him a break, it’s harder when you’re on the air”. (I know that conversation very well, we go through it almost every Sunday in our house.) But, there was no escaping fate.

Imagine having two days to prepare for an exam but not having the slightest idea what the subject would be? Each puzzle is different so there was no preparation except getting lots of sleep (yeah sure), deciding  where to talk on the phone away from the animals and other distractions and calming myself by thinking that no one really cares about the puzzle anyway.

On Friday, at 2:45 p.m. the call came in and I found myself surprisingly calm having rehearsed my answers to what I imagined would be the first questions asked by the host. I mentioned my daughter as I had promised her I would and we dove into the puzzle which, thank God, turned out to be easier than I expected it would be. When they stopped taping, they thanked me, told me I did fine and I hung up and only then did I announce on my facebook page that I was going to be on the air on Sunday.

Right away, I realized that my assumption that no one cares was dead wrong. The reactions to the Facebook announcement started coming in immediately  and after the show aired, the fun really started. Two phone calls came in within 30 seconds of the end of the broadcast, one from an Ann Arbor friend, one from a friend in New Jersey who sounded like he had almost driven his car off the road when he heard my name mentioned. Then the emails started: a former camper from Camp Ramah who is now a Rabbi, a person whom I hadn’t been in contact with for almost 40 years since we lived in the same dorm at school, friends of my parents from Boston who sent me a note telling me how they bet my parents would have been proud of me (he would have been but he would also probably have corrected my grammar and my mother would have told me I should have spoken up louder), two other Rabbis who had previously been on the air welcoming to the small club of Rabbis that had achieved this distinction, a few dozen friends from Ann Arbor and, most surprisingly, people I had never met who found the synagogue website and wrote congratulating me and asking me what the secret was to getting picked. It really was a great day and even today, the emails are continuing to come.

All in all, it was a bit more than the 5 minutes of fame I expected and it truly was a lot of fun. I’ve been doing puzzles of all kinds since I was a kid and I do believe that as we get older, this idea of “mental calisthenics” becomes even more critical to keeping our minds sharp. I’ll keep playing the NPR puzzle but knowing that I won’t get picked again, I imagine I’ll be a little less motivated. But, the thrill of being on the air and the fact that it connected me with so many people really made this a special weekend.

I have to close with a puzzle: What is the next letter in this series: O T T F F S S E N _ ? Feel free to respond with your answers to my email address at  I can’t offer you a lapel pin but it will keep you in good form if NPR calls.


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A favorite song

There are holiday songs I look forward to singing each year: Ma’oz Tsur when lighting the Hanukkah candles, Adir Hu at the Seder. But, last night, a few weeks before Hanukkah and months before Pesach, I had my one chance to sing publicly one of my real favorites. It brings back such warm memories of childhood, inspires me with a beautiful melody and always leaves me on the verge of tears.

Last night, the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County held its 17th annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration, an event I look forward to each year. This year’s program was marvelous as presenters shared songs from various religious traditions, readings from sacred scriptures and inspiring words and the gathered congregation joined in responsive readings and in two hymns. I like the 2nd one, Life is the Greatest Gift of All, but the first one is the one I look forward to year after year.

I learned it in elementary school back when, for better or worse, it was possible to sing a song with clear religious content. When I learned it, the song began: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing…” At our Interfaith Celebration, different words are used to allow for comfort for all: “We sing now together our song of Thanksgiving”. But, the melody is the same one I sang as a kid on the day before Thanksgiving and the thoughts move me so deeply: that this is a time to give thanks not only for what we have in our lives but for the vision and hope that “the prophets, the teachers, and dreamers, designers, creators and workers and seers” have provided for us. And, last night, in one small way, we were all and teachers and dreamers and seers and that song, and the others brought us together to commit ourselves to working together for a better community and a better world.

I’ve been involved in interfaith work since my first week in the Rabbinate and I continue to believe that it is important, holy work. I have learned so much and received so much inspiration from my colleagues of other faiths and I know they have gained greater respect for our faith through my involvement. But, it goes beyond that. These occasions provide an opportunity for all of us to stand together and work with each other to overcome the hatred and bigotry that, sadly, religious faith can  cultivate.

In the face of extremists of all faiths who bring violence and hatred to our world, I am proud to work with the Interfaith Round Table and I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to sing my favorite song with so many others of so many different faiths. It may sound a bit naive or perhaps a bit “corny” (I searched for a better word but couldn’t find it) but Thanksgiving strikes me as a “corny” holiday in many ways- and that’s why I love it so much.

Happy Thanksgiving and let us always sing together our song of thanksgiving.

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Acting on What we See

The stories coming out Penn State University are horrible. They infuriate us and well they should. These alleged actions are unspeakably horrendous and the failure of so many individuals to step forward is inexcusable. Our focus should, as has been said, be on the victims and on committing ourselves without question to fulfilling the Torah’s command that “we not hide our eyes” from what we see especially when what we see is harming children. This was the general tenor of my sermon on the subject this past Shabbat and the sermon will be up on our website soon.

But, I found a piece  in the New York Times this morning thought-provoking and challenging. In his op-ed piece, David Brooks writes that it is not as easy as it seems that it should be for people to commit themselves to being better than the people we are condemning in this situation. Brooks asserts that there are many natural tendencies that result in people not acting on what they see. I don’t read his piece- as justifying any of these tendencies or making excuses for them but merely stating that they exist and that this isn’t as simple as saying: “If I had seen it…”

I admire him for writing this essay. There is no way to justify the actions of those who didn’t stop or didn’t sufficiently report the alleged abuse. But, Brooks’ call for us not to feel so superior is a serious call to listen to. We all like to think that had we known, had we seen, we would have done what others didn’t. But, would we really have done so?

Occasionally, when I watch a tv show or a movie that I have seen many times before, I find myself switching the channel when something bad is about to happen, when there is an act of violence or a character I’ve grown to know is about to do something disappointing.  That’s cause for thought because sometimes  we do this in real life. Sometimes, we really don’t want to see.

I  believe without question that those who looked the other way at Penn State did not do their job as human beings and we need to stress that clearly and they deserve the strongest criticism.  But,  upon thinking a bit more, I do believe that opening our eyes and acting on what we see may be a harder job than we think sometimes. Still, that’s no excuse. We were created as human beings to do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult it may be.

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Time Traveling

I have always been fascinated by the concept of traveling in time even if I find it impossible to comprehend how such a thing might be possible. I love TV  shows (remember The Time Tunnel?), short stories and novels which are based on the idea of time travel and am fascinated by the way each author handles the ramifications of even the slightest change in history.

So, I couldn’t wait to buy the latest installment in time travel novels: 11/22;/63 by Stephen King. The book is about a man who travels back in time to try to stop the terrible event in Dallas, Texas on that day. The Kennedy assassination has always been a subject of great interest for me and I have dozens of books and videos concerning the horrible moment in our history. Add to that the fact that I love many of Stephen King’s books – usually the books which are less based on  “horror” such as The Green Mile- and I bought the book the minute it hit the shelves.

That was 2 days ago and I am already halfway through this 700 plus page book. King’s books can be quick reading but for the first time in many years, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table at 3:00 a.m. reading another chapter or two of a new book.

I won’t ruin the story for you but one of the ideas that keeps resurfacing in the book is that the past is stubborn and doesn’t want to be changed. On numerous occasions,  the time traveler finds obstacles which he interprets as being proof of this fact. He struggles to continue on with his quest despite this and while I don’t know yet if he succeeds (and I wouldn’t tell you if I did), it is fascinating that King presents the idea that the past wants to hold onto its place in our consciousness the way that it is, not the way that we want it to be.

As we read the Torah this week and especially when we read stories that are difficult- such as the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, the destruction of Sodom and Amora and the binding of Isaac- we often wish we could change the story so that it would be a bit more palatable. But, the past will not give itself up so easily. We can do midrash. We can interpret. We can question and challenge but we can’t travel back in time and change the stories. They are part of our past and we need to deal with them as they are.

And, what is true of the stories of our tradition is true of our lives as well. Unless and until someone figures out how to change the past- and I do not believe that they ever will nor should- we need to work with who we are and where we have been and work on changing the present and the future.


Shabbat Shalom.

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Excitement in the classroom

Yesterday, I visited our son at college for the first time since we moved him in.  I’ll leave thoughts about the  emotional aspects of our  “reunion” for another time and instead write about one less personal part of the experience.

Our son had only one class during the day:  Introduction to Chemistry. I went with him expecting to enjoy the feeling of being in a college classroom again but not expecting to either understand or care about the material. I am interested in some scientific disciplines but chemistry is really not one of them and I really thought it would all escape me completely.

But, surprisingly, I found myself interested in the content of the lecture about the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of certain materials or compounds and actually followed the formulas and concepts.

At the end of the class, the professor demonstrated how water (in the form of steam which had been heated to a very high temperature) could actually light a match. When he succeeded in doing this, he let out a shriek of joy and satisfaction and  expressed a clear respect for the amazing property of this most basic of compounds, H2O.

That’s when I realized why I was so interested in the lecture. It was clear through the whole presentation that to this teacher, this was more than formulas, more than scientific principles, more than a particular discipline. He passed along a sense of wonder and excitement about the entire scientific enterprise. While I have no idea if he is a “religious” man,- and I really don’t care- he clearly looked at what he had taught as being miraculous and wondrous. I heard his  “Wow” at the end of the lecture as if he had said “Halleluyah” and meant it literally.

I sit on a committee of scientists and clergy which meets to talk about the intersection of science and faith. There are so many ways that that connection takes place. One way is when we, as spiritually minded individuals recognize the beauty of God’s creation and appreciate science as a reflection of God’s wisdom in creating the world. Another is when a scientist expresses wonder and awe when considering his or her work.  I’m so glad I sat in on that class.



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This week’s parasha begins with God saying to Abraham: Lech lecha, Go to the land that I show you. But, the Biblical construction “lech lecha” which literally means “go for you” is interpreted by Rashi as signifying: “go for your benefit and for your good”. If you look at the story of Abraham’s travels, you realize that he was already heading with his family towards Canaan. But they stopped in Haran. Terach, Abraham’s father died there and God told Abraham: “continue with the journey- it will be for your benefit”. And Abraham went. And it was for his- and our-benefit.

I love to travel and I’ll refer to those travels I have taken and new ones to come on this blog. What I love most about traveling is the unexpected moment, the surprising experience, the unique individual I meet along the way.

I’ve been in all 50 states (if you count airports which I do as long as I’m off the plane and in the terminal) and while I won’t say I had such an experience in each state- getting out of the car and standing on the shoulder of the highway just over the Alabama border from Mississippi just before turning around and heading back was not a very memorable moment- in most of them, there was a moment that was unforgettable.

I reached my 50th state, North Dakota, the summer before last. I only spent 2 minutes there but the journey to get there was unforgettable. Our family was traveling in South Dakota and I convinced Avi to wake up at 4 a.m. and drive an hour and a half with me to the North Dakota border. He agreed and we drove in the pre-dawn darkness with the outline of hills in the background, with the noises of strange animals in the distance and with  one or two lonely gas stations as the only signs of civilization. We got to the border. I got out and walked across, said the shehecheeyanu and got back in the car to drive back to the rest of the family.

It wasn’t much. But, it was an unforgettable moment- and what was best was sharing that time with Avi, telling stories, laughing, reminiscing about the many road trips we had taken in his first 17 years.

Every time I read lech lecha, I think about the journeys I’ve taken. The long ones and the short ones and all of them, especially the ones I’ve been able to share have been litovati- for my benefit and for my good.

Shabbat Shalom.

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First post- Happy Birthday Sami!

I promised myself that once the holidays were over, say around the beginning of November, I would start a blog. Of course, that was three or four years ago but now I’m ready to jump into the 21st century and try my hand at “blogging”. Actually, I’m a bit wary of this means of communication because I tend to write very carefully, agonizing, sometimes much too long, over a word or a phrase. There’s little time for that in blogging it seems. The job is to get the word out as quickly as possible and assume that speed and frequency of posting will make up for any poorly chosen words or thoughts that were put into cyberspace too quickly. I’ll take the risk though and see if over time I can develop the correct writing style and produce words of interest.

What do I intend to write about? I assume that most of my postings will center around my thoughts as a Rabbi, spiritual thoughts analysis of texts, comments on world events etc. But, that will only be part of it. I hope to be able to use this blog to highlight other interests of mine: travel, sports, tv (mostly the old shows that I grew up with), trivia of all sorts and, while I will use discretion, my family.

And, that is where I’ll begin. Today, November 1, is a special day in our family. We are celebrating the third birthday of our best friend, Sami. Sami is the third in the line of Dobrusin dogs and she is one of a kind. She is a mix of German Shepherd, Beagle, Corgi and God only knows what else. Sami is a “rescue dog” in the truest sense of the word. We don’t know her past. We only know that she is very oddly proportioned, with strong legs that look too bulky for her body, a tongue that is about 5 inches too long, very flexible hips that allow her to slide off a bed at seemingly impossible angles, no tolerance for other dogs she meets on the street (we’re working on it) and most importantly, she is 40 pounds of pure love. No matter who you are, she will hug you and kiss you- whether you want it or not. After our dear Benny died last year, we thought we wouldn’t get another dog- the kids are older, we don’t want to be tied down etc. etc. But, when Sami came into our home for a visit, courtesy of Waggin’ Tales Rescue in Northville, Michigan, there was no turning back. She walked into the house, jumped onto the chair, looked out the window and said: “I’m home”. How could we argue?

So, thank you Sami for all you’ve brought to us. And, Happy Birthday. I’m glad to start this blog with good wishes to you and look forward to moving on to bigger and some would say more important things. But, for this moment and for many more, it doesn’t get much more important than the love shown by a loyal friend.

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