Monthly Archives: May 2016

Highways

I’ve posted several different kinds of pieces on this blog over the years. Sometimes, I post sermons or serious essays I’ve written and sometimes I just like to share one of my non-rabbinic interests. This post is of the latter type. It does not address any issue of lasting significance. But, it reflects a long standing interest of mine.

I love to travel, especially by car and I am fascinated by all things geographical. I particularly find highway signs to be fascinating. This can easily be traced to my childhood growing up in Massachusetts where the state highways feature what we fondly refer to as “entering signs”. You can find an interesting blog about those signs here: https://neckpickup.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/five-for-the-record-massachusetts-town-line-signs/   and at the end of this piece, you can read a sermon I wrote about the entering signs.

But, the entering signs were only the beginning for me. I have many pictures of state line signs that I have taken in travels across the country and I have a small photo album full of pictures that Ellen or one of the kids have taken of me standing pointing to state highway signs in many of the 5o states.

For now, though, I want to share two brief thoughts about highway signs that have been bothering me over the years.

First, Ohio. Anyone who has traveled in Ohio has noticed that the state highway signs feature an outline of the state surrounding the number of the route. It is easy to find an example on line if you’re not familiar with it. What fascinates- and bothers- me about these signs is that when there is a state highway number with 3 digits, the map of Ohio is elongated to insure that the numbers fit into the state borders.

This has always bothered me terribly. I understand that the digits need to be read clearly when traveling, especially at a distance, but it would seem to me that the geographic integrity of the state borders should take precedence over any matter of convenience. Obviously, the powers that be disagree. In fact, it was noted in one discussion on line (clearly, I’m not the only one interested in this issue) that even on two digit signs, the borders aren’t precise but are altered to insure visual clarity. I’m not satisfied.

I would much prefer that Ohio did something like Idaho or Minnesota or several other states do, including the outline of the state separately from the numbers so that it can retain its proper borders. That’s not going to happen though so I assume that any travel I undertake in the lovely state of Ohio is going to cause at least some sense of frustration.

OK, that’s one off my chest.

Now, one last story. For many years, there has been a standing joke in our family that has now been threatened. If you take US 23 out of Ann Arbor, heading south towards Ohio, you come upon a sign at one of the exit ramps which points the way to two towns. The sign simply says:

IDA

PETERSBURG

Every time we drove past that sign, I always tell the kids that my grandmother used to play cards with Ida Petersburg and now she has her own sign. Actually it was Ida Goldberg that my grandmother played cards with but that’s not the point. We always laughed.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed that heading northbound, the sign has been changed, it now reads

IMG_1630-2

It is all that I can do to restrain myself from pulling off the road and painting a comma after Petersburg. I would never do this and would never advocate it, of course. But, I’d love to know if anyone else had that same temptation. Probably not. Still, the joke lives on.

That’s all for now. Just some thoughts after a long drive from Atlanta over the past two days. It may not be much but thinking about these two issues kept me awake over many miles.

And, by the way, here is the serious sermon I gave on this subject back several years ago. Happy traveling!

Rabbi’s Message – Parashat Masei 5768: The Signs on the Road

I want to confess publicly to an obsession. Up to this point, only my family and a small group of anonymous people on the internet who have the same obsession know about this. My obsession is harmless, I guarantee. It has to do with road signs.
Not any road signs, mind you, although I find websites that have collections of road signs fascinating. But my obsession is with one particular type of road sign: the signs I refer to are what I grew up calling “entering signs.” These are uniformly shaped signs which you see on every state highway in Massachusetts when you leave one town and enter another.

By the way, the way things work in Massachusetts and much of New England, the state is divided into cities and towns and every square inch of Massachusetts belongs to one town or another. You can’t be “between two towns” unless you’re standing with one foot on one side of the sign and the other foot on the other side. It confused me no end when I traveled in Israel for the first time. We left Jerusalem and headed towards Mevasseret Tzion on the bus, and I asked somebody where we were and they said: “Between Jerusalem and Mevasseret.” And I said, “Yeah, but where are we?” And they repeated the “between this and that” line again, and I finally gave up and realized most places in the world aren’t like Massachusetts where you go from one town to another. In some places in the world, you can really be between this and that place.

I truly am obsessed with these signs. I loved them as a kid and I used to keep a record on a clipboard of all the towns we went through; I can’t possibly quantify the excitement I felt when I saw a sign for a town I had never been in before.

And they’re very serious about them in Massachusetts. Even if you only briefly leave one town and enter another because of a bend in the road, you’ll see the sign ushering you out of one town and into the other. So, in what is known as the “hairpin turn” — a u-shaped turn on Route 2 in the Berkshires — you go out of one town, into another, and then back into the first one within about 25 feet; and there are two entering signs that help you track your progress out of North Adams into Clarksburg and back to North Adams. The two signs are right there on the curve, practically touching each other side by side. But you have to be precise. You have to know where you are.

Who are the Internet people by the way? A group which is putting together a slide show of entering signs contributed by similarly obsessed people. I added a significant number of photos during my recent trip to Massachusetts.

I did what I always had wanted to do. I got out on the shoulder of the road and took pictures of entering signs. Very soon after I started, I realized something critical: I didn’t have to take a picture of each sign. I only had to stop at every other one because I could take the picture of the sign from both sides and get both towns, the one I was leaving and the one I was entering. There were two sides to each sign: where I came from and where I was going.

Now that that’s off my chest, let me tell you what this has to do with the parsha.

There is a fascinating verse in this Torah portion, Numbers 33:2 — “And Moses recorded the starting points of their journeys as directed by God. Their journeys and their starting points are as follows…”

It is interesting that the first part of the verse mentions starting points and journeys, the second part mentions journeys and starting points. Why the change in sequence? You could explain it away as literary structure: a-b-b-a. But that is not enough for most commentators.

One Hassidic commentary explains it this way. For Moses, who could see the big picture, what was important was the destination, Eretz Canaan; even if he wasn’t going to get there, he knew the people would. For the people, the important point — since they didn’t have this deep love of the land — was getting out of Egypt. The Rabbi says that Moses wanted them to ask: “How close are we to Israel?” But they kept asking: “How far away are we from Egypt?”

So to Moses, the journey was more important than the starting point. For the people, the starting point was still more important than the ultimate destination.

It’s easy to criticize the attitudes of the people, not fixing their eyes on their destination. But I think that in certain situations, recognizing that you are still part of where you came from until the time you arrive at where you’re going is a healthy attitude. Looking forward is great in many ways. Seeing the sign down the road is critical. But it is just as critical to know that in the real world, things work like they do in Massachusetts: you’re not between two places, you are still where you are. And recognizing that until you reach the border you are still in the place you started is not such a bad idea.

My vacation is over. Rarely do I finish my vacation this early but, for a lot of reasons, I have finished my vacation. Summer, while it goes on for my kids, is effectively over for me. That means, of course, that the holidays are right on the horizon. I’m already thinking about next year’s programs and writing the High Holy Day sermons.

But that’s a necessity of my profession, it is not reality. We are observing today Rosh Hodesh Av and there are two full months to go before 5769, and one full month before the month of Elul, the month of Teshuva, of repentance and planning for next year.

It is not next year yet. It is still 5768 and I urge you to think of the midrash on that verse and my entering signs. It’s not time yet to think about the destination, it’s time to think about where you came from. It is not time yet to plan for 5769. It is not time yet to give up on 5768 because this year is still very much a reality. Please take the time this month and next month, as well, to realize we are still on this side of the signpost. With most of an entire book of the Torah to read, with the fast day of Tisha B’av and the time of redemption that follows, with time to enjoy the warmth and the long days, and with time to work on last year’s promises, you can still make this year the best of all years. And the world still can be redeemed before we cross the line into new territory.

Sometimes, planning too early for next year is a way of avoiding this year’s responsibilities.

The road to 5769 winds on. We may see the sign on the horizon but we’re not there yet. Don’t rush it. Don’t wait for it to come. Make this year the year of our dreams.

Robert Dobrusin, Rabbi
Copyright © 2008, Robert Dobrusin.

Permission is granted for distribution of this message providing that it is distributed in its entirety and with full attribution, including this copyright statement.

 

 

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The Land

This week, we read parashat Behar, a section of the Torah which deals principally with agricultural traditons. While thinking about the parasha, I considered once again a sermon I gave two years ago when this parasha coincided with Yom Ha’atzmaut: Israel Independence Day. I realized that I had never posted the sermon on my blog so it was worth doing so even though we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut a couple of weeks ago. It is one of those sermons which brought together so many of my interests that I thought it appropriate to post it today.

SERMON FOR PARASHAT BEHAR

CONNECTING WITH THE LAND

May 10, 2014

 

 

My sermon this morning is inspired by several different sources. It certainly is inspired by the agricultural traditions spoken of in Parashat Behar. But it also has its source in this week’s celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, and my fascination with American History.  Finally, it is inspired by one of the most unsettling moments I have experienced in my life. I will describe that event in all of its not so gory details in a few moments.

But, before I begin, let me tell you one thing my sermon is not about. It is not to be viewed as a veiled reference to any political position regarding Israel. I remain a staunch supporter of the two state solution which I believe would mean security and stability for Israel and self determination and an end to the occupation for Palestinians. God willing, it is still an option and will occur in our day. But, today’s sermon is not about political conflict or solutions.

I want to begin by teaching you an expression from the Talmud. After an exposition on a point of textual interpretation, the Talmud often includes the question: Mai Nafka Mina?. This literally means: “What comes out of this?” “What are we supposed to learn from this?” Or, as we might say today: “What is the takeaway from the story?”

When a particularly impactful incident has occurred to us, we might ask: “Mai Nafka Mina?”This past week, I realized that there may be a different “nafka mina” from a personal story that I have told many times from the bima and in print.

The scene: kibbutz Mishmar Haemek, a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley in Central Israel. The date: October 1979. The participants: a 15 or 16 year old ideologically passionate kibbutznik and a naïve, idealistic 24 year old third year Rabbinical Student. This student had never been to Israel before arriving 10 days earlier to begin a year of study in Eretz Yisrael. Still somewhat jet lagged and still unsure how the year was going to go, he stands facing the kibbutznik.

In case you haven’t guessed, the student is me.

So, the young man asks me: “Why would you ever want to be a Rabbi?”

My answer: “I want to be a Rabbi because I want to teach Torah and help people understand the significance of Jewish tradition for their lives.”

The young man’s response: “Stick out your hand”.

I dutifully stick out my hand.

He reaches down, picks up a clump of mud from the field we are standing in, shoves it into my open hand and says: “Zot Hatorah kulah”. “This is the entire Torah” and he walks away leaving me with my hand dripping with the mud of Eretz Yisrael.

I was stunned and quite angry to say the least and immediately came up with my nafka mina, my takeaway. Immediately, I recognized that my fears in going to Israel had been confirmed. I feared I would be surrounded by people who thought that all one had to do to live a good Jewish life was to live in Israel. Values, Torah, holidays, Jewish law- none of these would be important to them. All one has to do is stand on the ground-the rest is superfluous and meaningless.

And, that interaction with this young man bothered me for weeks. I began to resent being in Israel and I couldn’t wait to get home to my promised land of American Conservative Judaism and Camp Ramah in New England.

Fortunately, after a few weeks, I began to realize that not all Israelis thought like this young man. And, while I still couldn’t wait to get back to Camp, I realized I might learn something from my year in Israel and opened myself up to other experiences and realized how much Israel had to offer me. I also realized how much I might gain from talking with people who expressed their Zionism in equally passionate if not so disrespectful ways. It turned out to be a very good year and my 12 subsequent trips to Israel have been unforgettable.

But, this week, as I mentioned, I began to think of another takeaway from the story rather than just remembering a young man’s denigration of the importance of Torah. And, that takeaway is critical for all of us.

Today, we read about the Sabbatical Year and many other agricultural traditions. We read about how to treat those who work the land for you. And, there are other laws in Behar most of which highlight connection with the land. Reading between the lines of the Torah we find an exposition of the importance of a connection of a people and the land they stand on and dig in.

As I thought about the parasha in this way, I thought of another area of personal interest. I have been doing quite a bit of reading about American History in the last few years, especially enjoying biographies of the presidents and I thought about the marvelous biography of John Adams by David McCollough. I remembered how he wrote about Adams as a farmer before and after his presidency and how his passion for independence intertwined with his commitment to farming.

Then, in looking for a quote from President Adams to use for this sermon, I came across another book which I have ordered but haven’t read by Andrea Wulf called Founding Gardeners about the dedication of so many of our founding fathers to farming. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, the author said: “On an ideological level, the founders believed America should be an agrarian republic of virtuous citizens who were connected to the country because they worked the soil.”

Even this city boy can understand how much we’ve lost by not connecting more to the soil and why it is so important to regain that connection. The connection leads to an affirmation of values and of feeling part of a society.

Perhaps that is why so many have chosen to help the future of urban areas by urban farming. I know this is happening quite a bit in Detroit and our madrichim, our high school students, have helped with urban farming in the city. In doing so, they have understood graphically how people are finding new hope in the city by connecting with the soil.

And, think of our own Beth Israel garden. Yes, we give many of the vegetables to tzedakah and that’s certainly important. But, in and of itself, digging into the dirt with one’s own hands make this city feel even more like home. We become more deeply connected by working the soil.

That brings me back to Israel. Even as Israel has developed into the “start up nation” and high tech is everywhere and everyone has cable TV and Toys ‘R Us and McDonalds dot the landscape, the image many of us have of Israel in our moments of emotional connection is of the farmer digging in the soil of the holy land.

If you have the feeling, as I do, that Israelis aren’t quite as passionate about their nation and as patriotic as they used to be and if we think that is true of Americans as well, perhaps it is because too many of them and too many of us have lost touch with the land, with the soil.

Maybe my young friend on the kibbutz wasn’t telling me that Torah is not important. Maybe I was supposed to walk away with a different nafka mina. Maybe he was saying to me that the land, the soil, the ground we stand on and put our hands and feet in is in fact the basis of Torah. For Israelis, for Americans, taking greater note of those who farm the land and joining them even in small ways can breed a restored passion for the nation in which we live and the values which we hold dear.

Let me conclude with a simple Israeli song that I learned many years ago. As so many of us seek to regain the passion we felt at one time about Israel and maybe our own nation as well, I suggest we might turn our attention away from politics and technology for a moment and consider, even in our urban environments, the simple truth that the ground we stand on and dig in is holy.

Eretz Yisrael sheli yaffa v’gam porachat

Mi bana u’mi natah? Kulanu biyachad

Anee natati etz b’eretz Yisrael.

Az yesh lunu etz. V’yesh lanu bayit b’eretz Yisrael.

My Eretz Yisrael is beautiful and flourishing

Who built it and who planted it? All of us together.

I planted a tree in Eretz Yisrael.

So, we have a tree and a house in Eretz Yisrael.

The founders of Israel who worked the land to free themselves and better themselves, the founders of our country who connected farming with independence and those today who farm the land, either in rural or urban settings, teach us all a very important takeaway: that the land we stand on and dig in is holy and that, in and of itself, inspires passion, a re-connection with our highest ideals and a sense of home.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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Thoughts on Yom Ha’atzmaut 2016

I read a piece last week that noted that May 2nd was the 16th anniversary of the beginning of one of my favorite pastimes: Geocaching. Geocaching is more widely known today than it was when I began to pursue this hobby but it still can bring about many quizzical looks when I mention my interest.

Geocaching is, in essence, a treasure hunt that you undertake using a GPS system or the geocaching app on a smart phone.  By using longitude and latitude coordinates, the GPS will get to within 20 feet or so of an object called a “geocache” and your job at that point is to find the object, sign the log and move on to the next one. The “classic” geocache is a container filled with trinkets such as small plastic animals or souvenir pencils. You can take one, provided you leave something in its place. But, other geocaches are simply small containers magnetically attached to road signs or other structures with only room for the log to sign. The fun in geocaching comes not necessarily from the objects found but in seeing places you haven’t seen before and succeeding in what can be a frustrating search for the cache.

Geocaching’s birth, in the year 2000, came about when GPS usage was opened to the public and the hobby began to grow from very humble beginnings to the point where the principal geocaching website: geocaching.com,  has stopped giving an accurate count of how many geocaches there are in the world and simply says that there are millions.

I have found geocaches in many states and in three foreign countries. I have made several geocaching trips to Canada, found two in my short visit in Latvia a few years ago and, finally, have found two geocaches in Israel.

I found my first Israeli geocache in 2009 on a walking path down a hill below the tourist area of Jaffa. Our synagogue group had just arrived in Israel and I disappeared from the group for a few minutes to search the bushes for the promised container. After a short search, I found it, signed the log and started to leave when a couple came down the hill and saw me with my GPS and then asked me in Hebrew if I had found the cache. One of the unwritten rules of geocaching is that it is not a competition, so I was more than happy to share information with them and we celebrated together the finding of the cache with a Mazal Tov and a smile. We then got into a brief conversation about where I was from and what brought me to Israel and we parted ways with a “Naim m’od” (nice to meet you) and “Shalom”.

Through all of my 13 visits to Israel, among the memories I cherish the most are chance encounters with Israelis on the street. I have had countless memorable conversations with people I met only briefly: an elderly Russian woman, a recent immigrant, who used her newly learned Hebrew to try to give me directions to the post office; the man behind the counter of our favorite falafel stand in Jerusalem who claimed he remembered me after an absence of 4 years; the cab driver who insisted that the only real rabbis were “dati” (Orthodox) although he personally had no use for any rabbis; the front desk clerk in a small hotel in the town  who was as fascinated with weather as I am and who shared his deep concern for global warming; the man who sat next to me every morning for two weeks when I was saying kaddish for my mother at a shul in Jerusalem and talked to me a bit more each day until by the end of the two weeks, we were talking about commentaries on the Torah portion; and finally, a sweet conversation I had in the town of Shavei Tziyon with a yellow lab who reminded me of our dog, Benny. These conversations and dozens like them made my trips to Israel remarkable. But, there was something symbolic about the geocaching conversation in Jaffa that makes it stand out.

For me, the most important part of being a Jew is searching: searching for meaning in our lives, searching for a closer relationship with God, searching for the right way to live and searching for ways to live up to our obligations to our fellow Jews and fellow human beings.

But, sometimes serious searching has to take a back seat to doing what you need to do to survive or at least to get through daily life.

I am 60 years old and at times, I admit, I get tired of searching. While the idea of finding more meaning in life and continuing to search for better understanding of our tradition and our world is still very critical to me, I confess that at times I think more about minor (thank God) health issues that seem to crop up or how I can keep my energy up to get through the long days at work rather than engage in deep spiritual thinking. And, when I have the time to do it, sometimes I am more content to just sit and watch a ball game than to think about the state of the world or of matters of faith. That is the way of the world.

I have been troubled in the last several years by what I see as a lack of vision in Israel, a lessening of the enthusiastic spirit that the country embodied not too long ago. I remember my first visit to Israel, as a student in 1979 in which there were still so many echoes of the passion of the pioneers who founded the state. And, while I haven’t been to Israel since 2009, in reading the news and talking to people who have visited often, I believe my concerns are valid.

But, the fact is that it is not completely fair to level this criticism against Israel. I say this for two reasons: first because there are places where that passion exists. But, more importantly because if it is not always noticeable, perhaps it is because Israelis are more concerned with getting through daily life than in recognizing every moment that they are engaged in a search for meaning for the Jewish state. If I can feel that way about my life at age 60, Israelis who have been through so much pain, so many threats and so much uncertainty can be forgiven for thinking more about surviving each day than filling each day with meaning.

But, I can’t abandon my search and neither, I believe, can Israel.

All of us need to keep searching in our own ways. We can never give in to cynicism or to apathy about the important questions of life. And, so, after complaining again about the fact that this or that doesn’t feel right this morning, I sat down to write this posting to share some serious thoughts that have been occupying my mind.

And, similarly, I pray Israel will continue to do the same. I pray that the people of Israel, even as they are legitimately concerned with the realities of daily life, will continue to search for the right path: ethically and spiritually. I believe it is that passionate searching for what it truly means to be a Jewish state which, along with the stunning beauty of the country, the miraculous story of its birth, the musical sound of Hebrew on the street and the absolute wonder of seeing people from so many cultures joining together in one place,  has led so many diaspora Jews to feel pride and admiration for the State. I want to feel that way and I want other Jews, especially younger Jews who themselves should be engaged in their own searches, to feel that sense of connection with Israel.

I pray that all of us will, in our own ways, search for a deeper meaning and a more ethical and moral life and hopefully, like that brief encounter in Jaffa,  diaspora Jews and Israelis will realize we can search together.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach!

 

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