Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Wonder of a Shared Memory

I have mentioned previously on this blog that I am the member of a Facebook group called Originally from Brighton on which members post pictures or stories about growing up in the Brighton section of Boston. Most of the postings are on the order of: “Who remembers…” followed by reminiscences of a person,  bakery, restaurant, news story, or any other aspect of growing up in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s.

Yesterday, as I spent the day lying in bed trying to recover from the flu, I kept thinking about one place I knew growing up. For whatever reason, I thought about the small supermarket which was up the street from our house. The market closed sometime in the late 60s, I believe after a particularly bad snowstorm in 1969. There was nothing special about it but one small detail has stayed in my mind all these years.

So, after Shabbat, I decided to post on “Originally from Brighton” and ask whether anyone remembers the market. I purposefully did not mention the one aspect that I remembered. I wanted to see if anyone else would mention it.

Sure enough, almost immediately, two of my Facebook friends, two women whom I went to elementary school with, each posted the fact that they in fact remembered the market and, incredibly, each mentioned the detail that I remembered. They each mentioned that they remembered that at the checkout stand, there wasn’t an electric belt but rather t a wooden handle which that the cashier would pull to move your groceries down to the cash register.

I don’t know why I remembered that specific detail so well but clearly I’m not the only one.

It is a great comfort to know that there are memories we share with others.

As we prepare to sit down at the Seder this coming Friday night, we will gather, each in our homes or the homes of family or friends, to remember the Exodus in the way that we choose. Our seders will be different as each of us will bring our own family traditions, political perspectives, attitudes towards Jewish ritual etc. etc. towards the night’s proceedings. Each will be different and that is the way it should be.  While our Seders may be different in detail, the fact that we are sitting together remembering this ancient miraculous story of redemption connects us with every other Jew at every other Seder table.

But, I also believe that, on some level, somewhere within each of us, there is a memory of a small detail about the experience of the Exodus which unites us with every other Jew. We may not appreciate it. We may not understand it. We may not be conscious of it. But, it is there. Underneath all of the cosmetic and more significant differences which make “our Seder different from all others”, there is that shared memory. I plan to ask those who are at home what they think that memory might be. While the answer might be different for every person, maybe we’ll be surprised and realize that there is a memory that truly unites us.

May those memories continue to unite us as a people across space and across time.

Opening up the possibility for such a shared memory  is what makes “this night” special.

 

Hag Sameach

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Thoughts on the Election in Israel

I am trying very hard this morning not to overreact in disappointment after the elections in Israel. I say that for a number of reasons.

First, we must remember that the election results reflected the will of the people of the State of Israel and the will of the people should be respected.

Secondly, there is still the issue of the formation of the government which could, conceivably, end up looking much different than the election results indicate (although from what I have read that seems unlikely).

Thirdly, politicians say and do things to be elected and then often change their minds so it is always possible that what was said over the past few days might not necessarily be true predictors of the future.

But, with all of those disclaimers  I still am so sad and, to say the least, concerned for the state of Israel and more immediately for the relationship of American Jews and the US government with Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement a few days ago that there would never be a Palestinian state as long as he was prime minister was a shocking turn of events. While he has always seemed ambivalent at best about the two state solution, he at least presented it as something he could support and would work towards. Now we know that it will no longer be a possibility and a plurality  of Israeli voters are willing to actively support his position or at least live with it while they accept his perspective on Iran and other issues.

The two state solution is not an ideal solution in many ways and a Palestinian state on Israel’s border is cause for serious concern. And, yes, it is true that Palestinian leadership has itself rejected proposals Israel made in the past. But, there is no better solution that has been offered for the future and it is absolutely inconceivable to me and it should be unacceptable to all of us that the occupation and the denial of rights to Palestinians in the West Bank should continue. To close off the possibility of such a negotiated settlement puts Israel at odds with the US Government and many Jewish organizations which actively support the two state solution. This is a tragic turn of events for all concerned.

And, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement during the election yesterday warning about the “Arab voters coming out in droves” and urging people to vote for Likud might have been a wise political move but it was clearly an attempt to play on an “us vs. them” racist mentality which flies in the face of Israel’s commitment to equality for all of its citizens. I believe that it was a shameful statement to make.

As I think about the results of the election, one point comes to my mind most clearly and it is a point which I made in a sermon this past Rosh Hashana and have spoken about and written about on many occasions. If Israel is truly to be considered a “Jewish state”, then the “Jewish” aspect has to go beyond merely a statement of identity and a commitment to the survival of the Jewish people. It has to reflect values and principles of which we as a people can be proud, rooted in the values of justice and an unwavering search for peace that are the foundations of our sacred tradition. While I understand that the Israeli voter may have voted for Netanyahu because he or she feels he would make their nation safer for their children, many of us who do not live in Israel and who see our Jewishness in the light of values and ideals which can help us function with the rest of the world rather than standing alone against it are at a loss when considering the election results. The man who claims to be the “spokesman for the Jewish people” has just finished a campaign with an endorsement of the status quo of the occupation and a statement which can easily be read to be a blatant rejection of the equality of non-Jewish citizens of the State. From the perspective of who we are as a people, that should be unsettling to all of us.

I love Israel, in principle and in practice. But, I reject a Jewish self-definition which only sees us as victims or potential victims and therefore justifies any action or statement we make. What will insure our future is legitimate, appropriate concern for our survival with an equal commitment to the values and ethical principles of our faith and tradition. I see this election as widening the gulf between what many American Jews, myself included, believe and the principles which are guiding the state at this time. That is terribly troubling.

I’m not giving up. I have confidence in those in Israel with a clearer and more sacred vision for the future. But, after this election, I am less convinced than ever that they will win.

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A Favorite Author

Yesterday, a book that I had ordered arrived in the mail and I couldn’t wait to start reading it. The book is called Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania written by author Erik Larson. This will be the 5th book by Larson that I have read and I have enjoyed each of them tremendously. I love the genre that he writes in as he makes history come alive by highlighting personal vignettes and making the characters seem  so real.  His last book, In the Garden of the Beasts, was a fascinating account of life in pre-war Germany and how the first years of Adolf Hitler’s power were perceived differently by different people and I would recommend it and his other book’s highly.

My interest in Larson as an author stems from his first book which I consider to be one of my favorite books that I have ever read. It is entitled Isaac’s Storm and tells the story of the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900. But, it is really the story of Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist in Galveston.

The story revolves around Cline’s absolute conviction that the storm would not be as bad as some feared and his steadfast refusal to order evacuations of the city even as the storm worsened.

I spoke about the book  at Kol Nidre in 2001 and have reprinted the sermon below. It is one of my favorite sermons and I hope that you will find it meaningful. I also hope that  it conveys the respect I have for Erik Larson and his books as well.

I am not so provincial to think that everyone in this room lived in Boston during the 1960’s but I will ask those of you who didn’t to bear with me while I speak to those who did.

Every morning when I was a kid, we would eat breakfast while watching a show called: “Daily Almanac” on Channel 4 at quarter of 7. There was Jack Chase who ended the news cast by saying: “Make it a good day”. There was Guy Paris who gave the market report from the farmer’s market and talked about vegetables I had never heard of. There was Chris Nahattas, a guy who sold something called the Saladmaster machine and talked a mile a minute and sometimes banged two pots together to show how strong the pots he sold were.

And then, there was my favorite, my hero, Don Kent. Don Kent wasn’t the weatherman, he was the meteorologist. He didn’t just give the weather forecast, he taught about radiational cooling and backdoor cold fronts and the way that the wind should shift to the northwest when the snowstorm which had turned to rain passed by us and how that might lead to a couple of inches of icy snow which might just be enough to make it a traffic problem for the morning rush hour (and, of course, for school to be cancelled). He was great and he inspired my interest in meteorology.

I’m not a scientist. I have no vast reservoir of knowledge of physics or chemistry or whatever else goes into weather forecasting. I’m just fascinated by the whole enterprise.

It is that fascination that drew my attention to a book that I spotted in an airport bookstore earlier this year. The book, entitled Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, is an account of the Great Hurricane of 1900 which turned Galveston, Texas into a ghost town by killing over 6,000 people. The storm is still considered the greatest natural disaster in American history.

It wasn’t the most appropriate and comforting reading for plane trips, but it was the most absorbing and captivating book that I read this year. It is truly a fascinating account of a tragedy and brought to mind two subjects which are appropriate to consider on this evening of Yom Kippur. One has to do with the world we live in and one has to do with the kind of people we are.

Let me deal first with the easier of the two, the one about the world we live in.

Early in the book, Larsen address the question of what makes a monster hurricane like this occur. If we dispense, as I certainly would, with any idea of Divine purpose or intent, he ponders what makes this mass of clouds and droplets of rain turn into a killer.

He cites a book called Perils of a Restless Planet by Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. who had described the complex process of the development of a storm and then theorized that any small incident, even the sudden burst of heat from a warship staging a gunnery drill in the area of the storm’s formation could cause the pot to boil over. “Add a little glitch, a metaphorical butterfly, to a complex process and sometimes you get an outcome no rational person would ever have expected.”

As Larsen writes about the days before the storm hit: “Galveston spun through space at nine hundred miles an hour. The trade winds blew. Great masses of air shifted without a sound. Somewhere, a butterfly opened its wings.”

Such is the world we live in. A world in which something so insignificant in the scale of things can change our entire world and upset everything for which we had hoped and dreamed, planned and labored. The infinitesimally small virus, the mutation in a single gene, the red light we hit or don’t hit, being in a particular place at a particular time. Our world is full of metaphorical butterflies which, at random, create chaos out of order.

I can’t explain why God created the world in this way. I refuse to accept that every specific act is ordained from on high. All I can do, all any of us can do, is to prepare ourselves as best we can to respond when the butterfly opens its wings.

We must structure our lives with the kind of support that can be summoned to face the sudden crisis: a strong family, a network of friends, a supportive community, faith to overcome despair, confidence in ourselves to meet the hardships which life presents. These are the things we must work for in our own lives.

This thought is, according to some commentaries, the p’shat, the intended meaning of the most difficult passage in the machzor. In the prayer u’n’taneh tokef, we read: “u’tshuva, u’tifeela u’tzidakah ma’avirim et roa hag’zayra”. Our machzor translates these words as: teshuva, repentance, tefilla, prayer, tzedakah, righteous deeds avert the evil decree. But, some note that the Hebrew words are not properly translated as “evil decree” but as “the evil nature of the decree”. Thus, say these commentaries, the prayer does not mean to indicate that doing teshuva, praying and doing righteous deeds will prevent negative things from happening to us but will take some of the sting out of the experience by giving us something to fall back on when the experience does take place. A strong sense of self-respect, a relationship with God and a network formed when we showed concern for others will place us in the position to respond more constructively to the negative events which will, no doubt, happen to us.

We can hope and we can pray that we will never be touched by such disorder. But, at some point, in some way, to some degree, we will each be affected by the slight glitches in the natural world that turn lives into chaos. May we do what we need to do before the glitch occurs to better live our lives through the turmoil which will inevitably result.

That was the easier of the two subjects raised in the book. The other concerns us as human beings.

The name of the book is Isaac’s storm and the Isaac in question is Isaac Cline the director of the Weather Station in Galveston during the time of the storm.

Larson’s book is really not about the disaster as much as it is about Isaac Cline, one of the most noted and able weather forecasters in the country at the time. As Larson describes him: “[Cline] was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century and he believed deeply that he understood it all.”

The popular myth from the Galveston hurricane is that Cline was a hero who tried to personally reach everyone he could in the city with the news of the impending tragedy. According to this story, Isaac Cline was the Noah the Rabbis of the Talmud created, the one who took so many steps to convince others to repent and who attempted to convince God not to bring the flood.

But, Isaac’s Storm casts doubt on that story by showing clearly that Cline refused to believe that a storm of this magnitude could exist. He disregarded the signs he saw and he dismissed the gnawing sense of doubt growing within him. He debated those, including his own brother, who tried to convince him that he had been wrong while there was still time. He was so confident that he could not have been wrong, that there could be no glitches, that storms had to do what they had always been known to do, that he failed to accept and believe the signs of the impending doom properly.

And, as he steadfastly told his family and friends and those who depended on his wisdom to stay put, as he continued to hold by his story, the death toll mounted and the tragedy worsened and the world turned upside down.

Teshuva, repentance, can mean many different things. It certainly can refer to looking back on our lives and returning to what we know to be the right path. But Teshuva can also be seen in a different way. Teshuva is the power that we have to recognize, even when going down a path, that that path is wrong. It is the power that weas human beings have to act proactively, to cut through arrogance, pride, fear, vengeance, whatever negative characteristic is propelling us, and stop the damage before it turns our world and the world of others upside down.

I don’t know how many lives might have been saved in the case of the Galveston hurricane. But, I do know how many times each of us, every one of us, has watched ourselves make decisions, follow patterns, go down paths that damage our lives and the lives of others. We ignore the warning signs, push away those feelings of doubt and we allow momentum to carry us onwards, resting on our own abilities to understand everything that needs to be understood and ignoring the new realities which surround us.

We need to have the courage and the inner strength to admit that there are times when the quality of our lives and the lives of others are endangered by paths we follow. We need to be able to put on the brakes, look in the mirror and change our lives. We need to admit as Isaac Cline never did, that we are wrong and that we are allowing our own arrogance to stand in the way of what we know is truly right.

The Talmud teaches: yehay adam rach kikaneh v’al yehay kashe kierez: a person must be supple as a reed, not hard like a cedar. We must be supple as a reed, willing to change direction, to turn inward, to confront the reality of life while ther eis still time to save ourselves and others.

It is not easy. Sometimes we need help. We must seek out that help. And, we must use the High Holy Days as the time to awaken us to the paths we are on.

So, I leave you with these two messages from this book. First, remember that the world is complex and subject to unpredictable events which we must prepare for as best we can. And secondly, we must avoid the trap of trusting in ourselves to the point that we can’t see clearly the evidence around us that we are going down a path that endangers our well-being. Those two messages are the essence of the Days of Awe and we must learn them.

Repentance Prayer and righteous deeds can take the sting out of this world. Let us hope that we can prove that to be true as we face difficult days ahead in the world. Let us build around us a system which can sustain us and let us always be sure to take note of the road on which we are traveling.

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