In Memory

It has been just over 24 hours, but so many eloquent and inspiring words have been written in memory of Elie Wiesel. There is little to add to the many eulogies and essays that have appeared everywhere but I will try to add my own words, inadequate as they may be.

After a period of silence, Elie Wiesel dared to present to the world his theological and philosophical struggles in light of his horrifying experience during the Shoah. By doing so, he told us all that it is reasonable, in fact, it is obligatory for us to wrestle with this world- and with God.

He came out of the Shoah believing that Never Again meant not only that we had to protect ourselves as a people but that Never Again meant Never Anywhere to Anybody and he tirelessly worked for human rights for those suffering throughout the world while always remembering his own people and our struggles.

Elie Wiesel awakened us to many suffering communities and nations including the Jews of the former Soviet Union. In his book: “The Jews of Silence”, he let us all know about what he had seen in the U.S.S.R. and that book was a major factor in launching the Soviet Jewry movement which eventually celebrated the release of hundreds of thousands of Jews from modern day slavery.

There is one other point that I want to add. Elie Wiesel was able to smile.

In spite of so much oppression that he suffered and that he witnessed, Elie Wiesel was able to appreciate the beauty of the world and the importance of relationships with others. He did not give up on his faith in humanity.

While it is perhaps one of the least important accomplishment in his life, Elie Wiesel did something that most people do not remember. But, I certainly do. He threw out the first ball in the 2nd game of the World Series in 1986 between the Mets and the Red Sox. There is a whole story about that that you can read on line. I mention it only because it shows a person who was able to inspire us with the loftiest dreams and remind us of our greatest obligations while remaining always a mentsch.

Usually we say: “May his memory be for a blessing”. This time we don’t have to say that. It always will be. May he rest in peace and may we continue to be inspired by this giant of a man.

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The Responsibility that Lies Before Us

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation on June 18, 2016, Parashat Naso.

 

Chapter 7 of Bemidbar is the longest chapter in the entire Torah.

It goes on and on and on.

And, to add to that, it is so repetitive. Twelve of the Paragraphs present in detail the gifts brought by each of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the tabernacle. These lengthy paragraphs are exactly the same except for the name of the chieftain and the tribe.

The chapter is so long and very quickly, we realize that we’ve heard these words already.

It is a challenge to listen to.

You wouldn’t think Torah commentators would have anything to say of interest about this repetitive portion. But, in fact, they do.

Let me share with you two commentaries.

First, from a commentary called otzar hamachshavah, a treasury of thoughts on the Torah from the Hasidic masters, we read the following thought: why is it that the Torah repeats these sacrificial gifts over and over again in all their detail even though they are all the same? After all, says the commentary, and rightly so, we believe that the Torah contains not even a superfluous, unnecessary letter. So, why would the Torah waste 11 paragraphs in such detail when it could have recorded the first gift and then just said the other chieftains brought the same gifts?

Dayenu, it would have been enough.

The commentary’s interesting answer to that question is that each of the chieftains was not looking at what was brought before them in order to know what to bring. Rather, each one brought what their heart told them to bring. Each was a personal gift that just looked the same but really was different because of the spiritual motivation each one felt. And that each was called: “the sacrifice of Nachshon” or “the sacrifice of Nitanel” supports that point. Each one really was a personal gift even though it was the same as the one before and that is why the Torah repeats each one.

Then we have another commentary from the 18th century rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. He notes that the entire list of sacrifices begins with the word Vayihee. “And it came to pass”. As in: “And it came to pass that the first one to bring a sacrifice was Nachshon ben Aminadav”

Rabbi Pinchas notes that there is an ancient rabbinic tradition that the word vayihee at the beginning of a section of the Tanach always means “trouble is coming” as in Vayihee biyamay Ahasveraus. And it came to pass in the days of Ahasveraus, the beginning of the story of the near annihilation of the Jews of Shushan at the hands of Haman.

So, asks Rabbi Pinchas, what is the trouble that is anticipated in this chapter of gifts to the sanctuary?

He says, the trouble is that Nachshon, the first one to make an offering didn’t really feel he was ready to be the first. “Mee Anee u’mah anee”, he says according to legend: “Who am I and what am I that I merit this responsibility”?

But Moses says: “God has chosen you”. We can picture Moses saying: “Your humility will help you. But, you must do your job.”

I had an idea to teach some Torah lishmah, some “Torah for its own sake this morning. There is a verse that is very moving to me regarding the importance and significance of studying Torah but that will have to wait for another year. We can’t just teach Torah for its own sake this morning. We have to learn something to help us through this horribly difficult time.

And so, on this first Shabbat after the terrible attack in Orlando, let us learn from each of these commentaries.

First, and permit me to take a positive commentary and use it to describe a horribly negative situation, we can use the commentary about the repetitive nature of this section to remind ourselves of a critical fact about the violent attacks we have seen all too often in our country.

They may seem the same. But they are not. Even if they appear similar, they are not.

Any attempt to lump all such attacks together is misleading, futile and wrong.

We need to accept the fact that there is no simple answer to stopping attacks that are really different, one from the next. First of all, the targets differ.

This time it was the LGBT community which was the target, a community which, despite significant and positive legal advances in recent years still suffers from bigotry and threats of violence. I only hope and pray that members of the LGBT community know that this and many synagogues and other house of worship are places not just of inclusion but places of safety and sanctuary for you. We recognize the threats and stand by you and with you.

But, on this very weekend last year, it was an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina which was targeted.

No group, it seems, is safe.

And the profiles of the perpetrators differ as well.

Yes, we need to confront the danger that supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups present. That danger is real and significant. But as these attacks are carried out by perpetrators with different horrific agendas, we can’t assume that responding to this particular threat  will end violence.

There is, however, one as the Talmud would call it: “tzad hashaveh”, one aspect which links each of these tragic actions and that is, of course, the relatively easy availability of horrendous weapons of mass slaughter.

And, that brings us to the second commentary.

Our hearts are broken. Our pain is so great. We may wonder whether we are truly capable of doing what needs to be done to address this horrible plague in our society.

But, this is our job. We can not let fear get in the way. We can not let our pain paralyze us. We need to pray. We need to speak out. Most importantly, we need to act. And congress must act. And act now to address the access to weapons of mass slaughter in this nation.

This is not the time to be overly humble and to question whether we can make the changes that are necessary. We must.

Yet, some humility is necessary. We must not resort to generalizations and stereotypes, using bellicose words of hatred or suspicion. We need calm, reasoned, united, determined actions to seek sensible ways to prevent such tragedies and protect our citizens.

The problem is huge. The stakes are the highest they could be. Our responsibility is enormous.

Each and every one of us, in our own way, must do our part by raising our voices

And, even as we mourn the victims and pledge ourselves to action, we must do something else as well. We must embrace life, with concern but not fear. We need to show, as we discussed last Saturday evening at our tikkun leil Shavuot, gratitude for the blessings we have in this beautiful world. We need to teach our children who hear of these attacks that life is still a blessing and the world can be a place of beauty and joy.

In the words of a song which we will sing in a few moments, the world may be a narrow bridge but the essential part of life is that we not be afraid.

Let us do our work.

For the chapter before us is too long and we must stop allowing it to repeat itself on and on.

Please rise for a memorial prayer for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and for all who victims of violence.

 

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In Memory of A Giant

I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation Ann Arbor  Shabbat morning, June 11, 2016

 

IN MEMORY OF A GIANT

 

In today’s haftarah, Hosea prophesies that the day will come, says God, when you will call me ishi and no longer call me ba’ali. The words ish and ba’al both are words that can mean “husband”. But there is a significant difference in the words.

Ba’al, in addition to being the name of the Canaanite God, can be construed to mean “owner” while ish, meaning man, seems to reflect a more loving, perhaps a bit more equal relationship between a married couple.

God, in essence, is saying that I want you to call me by a name which does not imply idolatry but a direct, loving, monogamous, so to speak, relationship with one God.

It also seems to reflect, especially when viewed in retrospect through a contemporary lens, a relationship based more on love than on awe and fear, a relationship in which both parties can prosper and grow.

So God says: “this is what I want you to call me”. And, the implication is: “you will respect me by calling me as I wish to be called”.

L’havdeel, to make the separation between talking about God and talking about human beings, we often say the same thing to the world. This is how I want to be called. At one point or another in our lives, we say: “this is how I want to be called”. Names may be changed for any number of reasons, one nickname may surface over another and wee tell the world what we want to be called and it is an act of respect for others to address one as he or she wishes to be named.

It is no small thing and we were reminded of that this past week as we remembered a larger than life American hero.

Muhammad Ali was not perfect and certainly some of the things he said could certainly be disagreed with. But what Muhammad Ali did positively for our nation and our world, with his truly unique combination of strength and gentleness will never be forgotten.

Throughout his public life, Muhammad Ali made a great difference in our world. He raised issues that had to be addressed and this man who was, as some claim, the most recognizable individual on the planet influenced our world in real, tangible and significantly positive ways and he deserves the memorial accolades he has been receiving.

It occurred to me as I considered Ali this past week that while I would never call him a “prophet”, he lived a life that reflected in so many ways the prophetic tradition.

First, there was that voice, the cadence, with the spontaneous poetry. We don’t know what Hosea or Jeremiah or Eziekiel sounded like but their voices must have been something special. With so much technology around us, we have in many ways lost the appreciation for the human voice. But, Muhammad Ali, when his body allowed him to, spoke with clarity, a musical quality, a humorous, captivating voice that made you pay attention. Agree or disagree, charmed or angered, you listened to what he had to say.

But more important than his voice was what he used his voice for. Ali demanded that he be treated as more than just an athlete for the enjoyment of people who watched him fight. He demanded respect as a man. He demanded that he be called as he wished to be called, and while his brashness and his bluntness ruffled more than a few feathers at first, people began to understand that what he was trying to do not only for himself but also for all African Americans and for all people was to remind everyone that they must build pride and self-respect for themselves as a human being.

No doubt he caused discomfort when he associated himself with the Nation of Islam but as time moved along, he distanced himself from that organization and aligned himself with more mainstream Islam. And, in later years, he took very strong stands for mutual respect between religious faiths and spoke out strongly against radical Islamic terror while further learning about and dedicating himself to his faith. It seemed that His smile, his warmth, his love of his fellow human being came out of this faith.

This past week, it seemed that everyone in the world had a personal Muhammad Ali story. I don’t. But, the stories that I read were so touching especially the absolutely exquisite essay written by Rosie Schaap, daughter of sports journalist Dick Schaap in the New York Times this past week. If you haven’t read it, please make it a point to do so.

Still, Ali will be most noted for what he was willing to give for what he believed.

His stance against the Vietnam War and his refusal to be drafted cost him the championship he had earned and more than 3 years of boxing in his prime and cost him so much more than any money could represent. But, he stood firm. While his words were so difficult for many Americans to hear at the time people began to understand and perhaps that understanding more than anything else brought an end to that horrible war. He said:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

 

I can never feel what an African American man or woman feels today let alone what they felt in the 1960s but we all can and must hear in that statement the pain, the frustration, the prophetic like voice calling out for change. And, while people listened and the situation for African Americans in this country has no doubt improved since the 1960s, the pain is still there and the words still need to be heard as equality still has not been achieved.

We need to address, as clergy in Ann Arbor have done recently, the issues that people of color face with law enforcement and mass incarceration. This situation has to change. It is wrong and it is denying so many young people especially a chance at a life of equality.

And, we need to repudiate in the strongest terms statements that reflect racism. And, here I must particularly include those made by the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Generalizations and bigoted statements against those of a particular ethnic background, race or religion have no place in our political discourse.

Despite his horrible illness, Ali was a man of hope, standing up against hatred. He shared these simple words in 1996: Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. “We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.”

Muhammed Ali gave up so much to stand for what he believed and to use his fame to demand change. With that he joined the company of those precious few in our world who use their convictions as the guide for their actions to seek justice and truth.

 

No he wasn’t perfect. None of us are. But, what an example of a person warning, in the great prophetic tradition, that his nation and the world had to hold a mirror before themselves and ask themselves who they were and who they wanted to be.

While his physical voice had been stilled to a great extent for many years, he continued to smile and continued to be heard. And, we must allow it to speak much more loudly and clearly than some other voices we hear today.

I won’t conclude with Muhammad Ali’s famous statement about a butterfly and a bee but with the words of Pirke Avot which say something very similar: “Be strong like a lion to do the will of our father in heaven” and “Greet every person with a pleasant expression”. What a great lesson: let us always seek to combine strength and gentleness.

 

 

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In Memory of a Giant

As so many, I was deeply saddened this morning to hear the news of the death of Muhammad Ali. While I have not ever really been a boxing fan, I have always been a Muhammad Ali fan. I remember so clearly as a kid watching Ali’s fights on TV (often during “Wide World of Sports” time with Howard Cosell behind the microphone) and marveling at his moves and his strength.

But, Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxer of course. He was a man of courage who challenged our nation to recognize and respect African Americans for more than just athletic ability. He stood tall for what he believed in and never wavered in his convictions.

His eloquence, his sense of humor,  his wisdom and his passionate dedication to peace, civil rights and understanding among people are what remains in our minds as we mourn his death.

We occasionally use the term “larger than life” to refer to individuals. Sometimes it is deserved, sometimes it is an exaggeration. In Muhammad Ali’s case, it is no exaggeration. He was a giant. He will be missed but his memory will always be for a blessing as we recall the joy of watching him box and the respect that he earned inside and more importantly, outside of the ring.

May his family be comforted at this time of loss.

 

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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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Approaching the End of Pesach

So, here we are, the last day of Hol HaMoed, the intermediate “half-holidays” in the middle of Pesach. Tonight, we begin the last 2 days which are “full-holidays” leading up to the ancient and sacred words which will be spoken throughout the Jewish world on Saturday night, called; “Can we go out for pizza now?”.

By this point on the holiday of Pesach, most of us have eaten more candy and Pesach cookies than we should have. Our refrigerators are notably emptier than they will be over the entire year as the last of the Seder leftovers have either been eaten or disposed of and we’re desperately looking for something other than gefilte fish to eat.

The truth is that too often Pesach turns into the holiday of  eating habits rather than the holiday remembering slavery and redemption.

We do pretty well at our Seders focusing on the serious questions of freedom and celebrating our redemption but as the holiday goes along, we tend to focus on the fact that we can’t stop at Starbuck’s, have to drive past Dairy Queen without stopping and the reality that meals, especially breakfast it seems, are just so difficult.

That is truly unfortunate.

The themes of Pesach are eternal. They are intended to inspire us throughout the entire year, let alone through the 8 days.

So, at this point of our Pesach observance, I suggest that we all take a long look at the matza at some point today and remember what this holiday is all about.

As Rabbi Blumenthal and I wrote in our Pesach message to the congregation:

The Exodus story helps us to be sensitive to the plight of refugees. It helps us to be aware of the imperative to care about those who are not free in this world, and work to free the victims of modern day slavery. The Haggadah reminds us to teach the next generation to ask questions and to find appropriate answers for all of our children. Finally, the eternal symbols of the Seder remind us that we must to seek ways to adapt our ancient faith to today’s world and to build for an even more vibrant future our people.

These are messages that do not lose importance after the Seders. They must remain as the central point to focus on throughout this holiday, throughout all 8 days.

Hag Sameach!

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Play Ball!

The snow that fell in Ann Arbor yesterday and the very cold temperatures this morning are just an illusion, folks. Spring and summer are here! The first pitch of the baseball season takes place in my “adopted  home town” of Pittsburgh and in at least one sense: “All’s right with the world.”

My Red Sox don’t open until tomorrow and the weather in Cleveland is “iffy” to say the least. In fact, the entire week in Cleveland seems to be doubtful for baseball. But, I’m still hoping, if all goes well, to make the trip on Wednesday to see the Sox. We’ll see how the week develops.

Meanwhile, a word of tribute.

I love to listen to baseball announcers. I have my favorites. I grew up listening to Red Sox broadcasters Curt Gowdy, Ken Coleman and, my personal favorite, Ned Martin, who would say: “Mercy” whenever anyone his a long home run. I loved listening to  Joe Garagiola poke fun at his own baseball career on “the game of the week”. When I moved to the Philadelphia area, I loved listening to Harry Kalas and how he would stretch out the name of his favorite player: “Michael Jack Schmidt”. When I came to Michigan, I learned to appreciate Ernie Harwell talking about a hitter taking a third strike but “standing like the house by the side of the road”.

But, my absolute favorite baseball announcer is retiring this year and I can’t imagine baseball without him even though I get to hear him very rarely. Vin Scully, announcer of the Dodgers, is, in my mind, the best I have ever heard. His tendency to be understated, to let silence carry the scene as he did when Kirk Gibson hit his unforgettable home run in the 1998 World Series  just rank him as the best ever. Here is a clip but you have to listen the entire video right to the end.

I know that I often engage in nostalgia in this blog. But, I think it is fair to say that as good as some “modern” announcers are, there are none like the “old timers”. I know baseball will survive without Vin Scully but something will certainly be missing.

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Harry Chapin: An Appreciation

This morning, I turned on my car radio and decided to listen to the music that was on my phone. I set the phone on “shuffle” and the first song that came up was: “Mail Order Annie” by Harry Chapin.

I took that as a sign that I had to fulfill the promise I made on Facebook last week to write a blog post on my favorite musician. The occasion of the Facebook posting was the news of the death of the woman who inspired the song: “Taxi”. Taxi was the first Chapin song that I (and I assume many others) heard and while I can still sing it all the way though and still am moved at the story, it has moved  down the list of my favorite Chapin songs, replaced by songs that didn’t make the “top 40” charts but resonate so deeply.

A step back for those who need: Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian who raised so much money to fight world hunger as well as ror other worthy causes. His stories of real people, their triumphs and sadness, so often tinged with loneliness and disappointment are unforgettable. He was by all accounts a wonderful, real person and would often end his concerts (as he did when I heard him in 1977 at Brandeis) by staying until everyone who wanted to had had a chance for a handshake, a hug and an autograph. I still have the autograph.

Harry died in a tragic automobile accident in 1981. I can still remember the day he died. I was working at Camp Ramah as a division head for 13 year olds and upon hearing the news, I had to take some time away from everyone and wandered to the far end of the camp to sit and think deeply about what it means when a voice is stilled and when a good life comes to an end.

I want this post to be about Harry’s music and, more importantly, his stories. Someday, I’ll write the essay I’ve been dreaming of writing for many years and that is where his stories intersect with Jewish texts and values. For now, just some random thoughts of the songs I love most. I urge you to look up the songs on the Internet if you are not familiar with them.

So, which are my favorite songs?

There are so many but I’ll start with Mail Order Annie, the story of a farmer from North Dakota who meets his “mail order wife” as she gets off the train. The bridge in the song features the sentiment that while it’s a lonely life out on the plains, “there’s you babe, there’s me… and there’s God“. As he sings those words, they reach a beautiful crescendo falling softly to the last verse which ends with: “Mail order Annie, let’s you and me go home“. Such a tender, beautiful song.

Then there is Mr. Tanner, the dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio. His singing is praised by all his friends who finally convince him to try his hand at a professional concert. He uses all his savings and the critics suggest he find another profession. The part of that song that is so brilliant is how he sings the chorus while in the background, we hear  a beautiful. operatic rendition of “O Holy Night” which fits perfectly with the melody of the Chapin song.

There is A Better Place to Be which tells the story of the lonely waitress who listens to the sad story of the night watchman who comes in for a drink. He tells her the story of the beautiful woman that he found and then lost. She ends up crying with him and they leave together.

One of my favorites is Corey’s Coming, an odd story of a man who imagines a lover and tells his young friend all about her. I won’t give away the rest of this story. You can hear it for yourself.

I’ll just mention two more. One is one of the last songs that he recorded called: Oh Man which includes words which once moved me in ways that are too private and personal to describe here:

Now it must feel so very strange to have to throw away all the lines that you have learned and force yourself to change.

So many are so beautiful. Take a moment to listen to Vacancy, Tangled Up Puppet, Dance
Band on the Titanic and the sequel to Taxi, called appropriately enough: Sequel. The words
and music that accompany them are gems, as are so many others.

I’ll end here and leave the rest for that long planned essay. I’ll end with the
lyrics which are always, always in my mind.

All my Life’s a Circle
Sunrise and Sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my Life’s a Circle
But I can’t tell you why
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.

The years that roll by are richer as we still have these beautiful songs and stories
to accompany us.

Rest in peace, Harry.

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