Thanks on Thanksgiving

The world is too much with us, according to William Wordsworth. I couldn’t agree more. There is such a swirl of frenetic activity all around us, much of it dark and foreboding. It creates a kind of low-level anxiety that is always playing in the background. Dripping like a faucet, we can’t seem to get it out of our heads, even for a little bit.

But… tonight is the first snowfall of the season. It is a quiet snow, and everything looks beautiful in the glow of streetlights. As it covers the street and the sidewalks I begin to recalibrate a bit. I breathe.

Despite a creeping sense of vulnerability following Pittsburgh, the murders in Thousand Oaks followed by unparalleled fire damage and fatalities, missiles, and mortars in Israel, Ebola reappearing, and so many more disquieting facts and situations… the snow looks beautiful. What does this prove? That even in a dark, ugly time, there is still exquisite beauty in the world, still things that bring us a feeling of gratitude and even, dare I suggest it? – a sense of hope.

Elie Wiesel once wrote, “I believe it is possible, in spite of everything, to believe in friendship in a world without friendship, and even to believe in God in a world where there has been an eclipse of God’s face. Above all, we must not give in to cynicism. To save the life of a single child, no effort is too much. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.”

Wiesel was always my touchstone of hope. His ongoing testimony to the capacity of men and women to commit abominable acts of cruelty, and his affirmation of life and living was a tightrope walk I have long appreciated and learned from. It’s never just one or the other. Even in Hell, there is a not-Hell. Even amid sadness and loss, there is not-sadness and not-loss. Life and the blossoming of new ideas and the embrace of friends and family and community members are waiting.

This all comes as I watch the snow falling, remembering the fantastic joy the first snowfall brought me as a child. As lost as I may have felt, as vulnerable as I truly was, getting out there to the snow was an urge that pulled me from my sadness and worries with profound magnetic force. The sounds of nylon and zippers and buckled boots, the feel of the hat and the gloves, the edge of being overheated before getting outside, this is a transcendent mélange of memories.

Along with the snow is another fact, another memory set: Thanksgiving is coming. In less than a week, Liza and I will host a yearly convocation of the kids, the grandkids, and dear old family friends. We will sing and laugh and laugh some more. We will eat a fabulous meal that I will cook, and we’ll think about where we’ve all gone since our first meal together for Thanksgiving decades ago. And we will sing from our songbook and laugh some more. And all this: despite the slow spread of neo-fascism, the dreaded effect of climate change, the fire fatalities, the new normal that no longer chokes on mass murder and guns, and… well, fill in the blank…

All we’ve got is this world and this life. And all we can do in it and with it is to make decisions that affirm life, justice, dignity, and equality. It is, sometimes, next to impossible to know what to do. But leaning into righteousness is never wrong.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving. And for God’s sake, before you dig in and celebrate, take a moment to give thanks: for love, laughter, community, resilience, and each other.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Eighty Years

On the night of November 9, 1938, violent anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. Nazi officials depicted the riots as justified reactions to the assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been shot two days earlier by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year old Polish Jew distraught over the deportation of his family from Germany.

Over the next 48 hours, violent mobs, spurred by antisemitic exhortations from Nazi officials, destroyed hundreds of synagogues, burning or desecrating Jewish religious artifacts along the way. Acting on orders from Gestapo headquarters, police officers and firefighters did nothing to prevent the destruction. All told, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and schools were plundered, and 91 Jews were murdered. An additional 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Nazi officials immediately claimed that the Jews themselves were to blame for the riots, and a fine of one billion Reichsmarks (about $400 million at 1938 rates) was imposed on the German Jewish community.

On November 9, 1938, my father, Hans Stern, was an eleven-year-old living in the Baruch Auerbach Jewish orphanage. His parents had committed suicide a month or so before he was placed there. I have often wondered what it must have been like to be so vulnerable to uncontrolled, uncontained violence. To hear the noise of the mob, the antisemitic chanting, the smell of smoke in the air.

As I have previously shared with you, my father never spoke of his life. His day to day existence is essentially a light blur across a screen. The more I have learned about trauma and PTSD, the clearer it becomes to me just how tortured a soul my father had. He was angry, unpredictably violent, and lost in a terrifying world. When I try to put myself into his eleven-year-old mindset, I can only do so for a moment or two before I shut down.

Kristallnacht was a pogrom, a state-sponsored act of terrorism enacted throughout Germany. In her book, Between Dignity and Despair, Marion Kaplan writes that during the pogrom, Germans displayed “… a mixture of rampant viciousness, studied ignorance, and occasional kindness… What were the reactions of Germans not immediately involved either in the destruction or in helping the Jews? While most approved of, or went along with ‘moderate’ antisemitism, many disapproved of the open barbarism of the November Pogrom… Still, there are almost no cases of public opposition to it.”

After Pittsburgh, I thought a lot about our current vulnerability as Jews in America. I thought about our connections to the American zeitgeist and our contributions to the heart and soul of America. And I am ineluctably drawn to confidently assert that we are blessed to be citizens of the United States.

The number of people who are not Jewish, who, after Pittsburgh, declared themselves allies, is legion. The outpouring of sympathy has been heartfelt and authentic. In no way, shape, or form, is it open season on Jews in America.

I am much more worried right now about simply being an American, vulnerable to people like the Pittsburgh shooter, or the Thousand Oaks shooter, or the Las Vegas shooter, or… the list is endless. These are disturbed male loners, mentally ill and able to legally purchase deadly weapons and special ammo magazines that maximize the kill per bullet ratio. Their psychopathology leads them to feed on hatred, which is in no short supply. Their paranoid delusions about mobs of unknown evil people out to get them are stoked every day by a president who uses fear as a potent get-out-the-vote message. They get inspiration from neo-Nazis, fascists and rabble-rousing haters to go out and destroy the enemy: Blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, Sikhs, Hispanics – in short, to destroy the Other.

I wish to God I knew some wise response to these random acts of hatred. I wish the Parkland aftermath and the youth crusade had made a dent in gun violence. But the NRA and its allies knew that if they just kept quiet and refused to acknowledge these young people, the gun control push would slowly ebb and fade away. They knew they could count on Congress to do absolutely nothing.

Antisemitism is one manifestation of growing intolerance and violence in this nation. So is racism. So is the move to rescind rights for transgender people. There are not enough security guards in the world to protect America from the creep of fascism and hatred. We, along with our allies, must say no to extremism. We must say no to singling out those who are different. We must say no to those who spew hatred for profit. We must say yes to rational gun laws, yes to better mental health intervention, yes to educating our children in the strength of American diversity.

Eighty years ago tonight, was the official notice that Jewish life in Germany was going to end in tragedy and violence. Pittsburgh is not a message of an ending. It is not a signal to hide, to make our Jewish institutions castles with moats and gun turrets. Pittsburgh is a challenge to the Jews of America to remember the past and never succumb to fear.

 

Trying to Breathe

The Holocaust has been a part of my consciousness as a Jew since I was 13 years old. Not a day goes by without some image or song or phrase evoking a Holocaust reference. I know – it sounds excessive, perhaps OCD. It is a wound, a scar that never goes away. This Holocaust-centric consciousness is a burden that darkens many private moments in my life. But it also daily inspires me to be an upstander, and not a bystander to world events.

As hyperconscious as I am about the Holocaust, I have always been among those who find any attempt to use the past as an indicator of the future to be facile and ultimately uninformed. History does not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme. It is true that given similar situations, similar outcomes often occur. But History is like a river. Always flowing and never the same.

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory, about whom the movie, Defiance was written, was just interviewed in the German weekly, Der Spiegel. She said, “What we fight today is not fascism — or maybe, not yet fascism. It is populism, from the right and from the left. I am wary of Nazi comparisons, but what I see is a kind of ugly populism whose hateful rhetoric reminds me of how the National Socialists in Germany came to power. It’s an ethnocentric populism, it feeds a dangerous mood, a sort of tyranny of the mob. Many Americans think Hitler came to power by a revolution, but he won elections. We should not forget that.”

And as Abraham Foxman, former head of the Anti Defamation League, said recently, “We used to say, you want to find out the level of democracy in a country? Ask the Jews. The Jews are the canary in the coal mine of democracy. But the reverse is also true. If you want to know how Jews are faring, take a look at the level of democracy.”

Antisemitism is certainly on the rise in Europe as well as in the United States. We know from our own experiences in Newton that even in our bubble there are people who hate Jews, drawing swastikas in public schools and writing offensive antisemitic graffiti. This is real.

But – this is not the beginning of the end. It is exactly the right time to reject apocalyptic thinking. instead, we must actively work in ways that will strengthen our local Jewish community, as well as the entire American Jewish community. Wringing our hands will not do us any good. Indulging in anxious fantasies about the bad guys and seeking to transform synagogues into armed high-security enclaves is self-defeating.

So you want to know what’s next…? Me, too. I want to know what’s going to happen out there. How will the American conscience respond to this antisemitic attack? How will the Jews of America respond? Will we be able to band together? Or will we be hopelessly out of synch and out of time like we usually are?

Yes, this is a time where cynicism can easily become the predominant way of seeing the world. It’s tempting to assume the worst. So, when we get spooked by a disaster such as Pittsburgh, it’s not just a function of our present fear, but a recognition of our cherished past. We’re shocked because something about Pittsburgh felt so un-American, so foreign.

It’s easy to forget all this while our ears are ringing with cries of a rise in anti-Semitism; … Anti-Semitism may still be alive and well and growing in dark corners, but let’s not overlook the enormous outpouring of love and concern for the Jews from across the country. This should serve as a reminder of how fully integrated we have become in American society.

I was heartened to read a powerful sermon by Rabbi Julia Appel, Senior Jewish Educator and Campus Rabbi for Hillel at the University of Toronto. She is a Beth Avodah alum. Her parents, Neal and Barbara Appel, are members. She writes: “I refuse to walk through this world afraid. I refuse to walk through this world responding to the violence done to my people with a closed tent or a closed fist. 4 Because that is how they win. I will live my one Jewish life to walking through this world with the values given me by our people, our traditions, our families: Love the stranger. Remember where you come from. Do what is right…”

Her words remind me of the prophet Micah, who taught us that God requires from us just 3 things: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) When we combine Micah’s words with Rabbi Appel’s words, we have a roadmap into the unknown. The heading on the map is pointing towards dignity and courage and justice. It points to voting. We will move forward together.

This Shabbat evening service is being called #Show up for Shabbat. We will use our evening to pray and contemplate quietly as will synagogues all over the USA. This will be an important service to attend.

Fear

“… [L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR spoke these words at his inauguration in January of 1933. The nation was in a dark place, struggling to gets its equilibrium in the midst of a terrible depression.

FDR understood the power of fear and how it subverts attempts to change and do things in a new way. His mandate was to move beyond the binary good guys vs. bad guys motif to a clarity of purpose.  At least for some overarching ideals, he saw that to be an American is to be on the same side, to be united in common cause.

These days there are few messages of common cause. Instead, we see a world increasingly divided and divisive. You’re in or you’re out. Black or white. Republican or Democrat. Have or have-not. Conservative or progressive. Battle lines are being drawn.

All around us are social media and specialized news sources that cater to specific ideologies. We tend to stick with the news sources that most closely support our worldview. We hunker down and circle the wagons.

We embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs. Meanwhile, the existence of other people with beliefs and values that differ from our own can subtly undermine the protection this worldview provides. So, according to the theory, when these beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them.

Pointing out and accusing the Other – the one who disagrees with us – is a powerful tool. It provides us with an immediate enemy upon whom we can hang our mistrust. This fear that our way of life is threatened by people with whom we disagree or who look different than we do is growing, here and all over the world.

In Israel, this phenomenon is growing at a geometric rate. Religious Jews vs. secular Jews. Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic vs. Russian vs. Ethiopian Jews. Jews vs. Arabs. Two-state vs. one state. Democracy vs. nascent autocracy.

I should not be surprised by all of this, but it hurts nonetheless. I am so disappointed to be living in a time where fear has become a tool to maneuver public opinion. Anxious people respond to conspiracies and mobs and the Other with a predictable hardening of boundaries.

That’s why this past Tuesday night I was so proud that we sponsored an evening of conversation with J Street between two men of differing outlooks on Israel. Dr. Mike Makovsky, the president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is a mainline political conservative regarding Israeli and American politics. Jeremy Ben Ami, the president and CEO of J Street, is a mainline political progressive regarding Israeli and American politics. They disagree on a lot of issues. But they don’t objectify each other. They are keenly aware of the need for dialogue and a fair exchange of ideas.

Ben Ami and Makovsky proved a few things. They showed that civil discourse is possible, that two men from different sides of the struggle could enter into conversation. They showed that it was possible to listen to the Other without becoming defensive or apoplectic.

The most important takeaway for me and I hope for the entire audience was that when people are willing to speak with open hearts, we are able to discover a middle ground. There were things they both agreed on. That doesn’t minimize the differences, but it does underscore the danger of battle lines and how they obfuscate our common humanity and, in this case, a common love of Israel. If we can agree on even a few issues, then we have a common ground. This is the beginning of true communication and the end of manipulative fear-mongering.

“Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” remains a clear and present danger in this country – and in Israel. And it’s only getting worse. The only way to mitigate against this pernicious toxic cloud is to allow the light of truth and common cause to shine through it.

I know it’s far-fetched and perhaps only a dream that there could be civil discourse between 2 people with profound political differences. But I saw it happen in our sanctuary. I hope to see more of it. “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one”.

Shabbat Shalom

The Blessing of Debate 

When reading Talmud or various Jewish commentaries, one thing is clear, over and over again: Jews love to argue. The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta-in pairs with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional house of study is struck immediately by the noise level-havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

One of the rules of this argumentative style of learning is to always respect your study partner. One is not locked in debate with a fellow learner in order to prove who’s smarter. The experience of havruta is embraced for the sake of heaven. To put it another way, arguing different positions with respect and honor is considered a sacred act performed with God’s urging and God’s blessing.

It used to be that within the Jewish community this foundational belief that there is a multiplicity of opinions on virtually anything was paramount and entirely accepted. The resilience of the Jewish tradition has been in its ability both to foster dissent of thought and encourage consensus of action. That does not mean that every community acts in the same way, but that communities while acknowledging disagreements, can still mobilize to do important work together.

Of course, Jews have been known to vituperatively go at it with their fellow Jews. History books include many examples of loud and painful schisms. Medieval rabbinic Jews vs. Karaites. Followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah vs. Jews who did not accept him. The Hasidic movement beginning in the 18th century and the mitnagdim who bitterly opposed them. The Orthodox community and the first Reform Jews of the 19th century. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who called for an armed uprising, and the Jews who were vehemently opposed.
These internal struggles throughout our history have been deeply scarring. It can take a very long time for the wounds of opposition to heal.   Whenever we can hear perspectives that are not ours, and strenuously disagree, while still valuing the notion that we share a deeply personal bond, this is success. And whenever we disagree and disrespect each other, belittling the thoughts and the essence of the person with whom we disagree, then this is failure.

The sacred roots of havruta are being lost. There seem to be ever-wider rifts between us. There are few conversations and debates now, and more finger pointing and anger. I specifically don’t remember the subject of Israel ever being so dominantly divisive amongst American Jews.

Part of this is surely the “new normal” of political rallies. We see and hear people being insulted and booed at, accused of being liars and cheats, pointed out as being un-American because they believe differently than the party in power. We also see the use of the “us” vs. “them” paradigm, who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. In such an atmosphere there can be no constructive dialogue, just endless and tedious name-calling.

We have to listen more carefully to each other within our family circle. We have to support a true diversity of opinions and also unite when we collectively agree that something is harmful or dangerous. We have to work hard at bringing down the temperature of our differences and acknowledge what we can do together and what we cannot do. This is tremendously difficult, but not impossible.

On October 23rd at 7pm at TBA, we will be hosting a havruta: Mike Makovsky, President and CEO of the Jewish Institute of National Security of America, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street. Jeremy and Mike are on a speaking tour, modeling civil discourse and respect for each other’s commitment to the same goal – a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the State of Israel – while discussing their different approaches.

This discussion is a true model of what we can accomplish – respectfully. We can loudly disagree without calling each other names or accusing the other of being an antisemite or unpatriotic, or anti-Israel, or a fascist, and so forth.

This is how peace comes. This is how understanding comes. One conversation at a time, spoken in words of dedication to the truth and not to the sharpest arrow. Come be a part of this effort to listen and to understand, to agree and disagree, as the case might be, for the sake of heaven. For the sake of our children.

The Seasons

 

The primary indicator of Autumn’s arrival is all about the tree outside the Administrative entrance to our temple. It starts to turn colors – glorious colors! – at least 10 days before all the other trees. This is at least partly due to the halogen light that shines through the leafy boughs, speeding the transition.

As I walk towards the entrance, I see it, as if for the first time. And it’s always such a shock and surprise. It resonates with almost the same intensity as the first day of school, or when I sound the shofar. We’re here, for the first time – again.

For all the encounters of a lifetime and the new experiences that are often so exciting, there is something about the cycle of the year that I love. The cycles of life are reassuring: so definite, so clearly demarcated. To know something about what’s coming – the next holiday, the solstice, an anniversary – is solace for living in a world where we can know practically nothing else about the next day or even the next hour.

The regular rhythms of life keep us rooted. It’s one of the themes in Marc Chagall’s work. If we don’t have an anchor, we might float away!

The cycles of life are not just anchors. They actually provide opportunities to engage in the sacredness of life itself. Not just the big moments, like b’nai mitzvah or weddings, but moments like seeing the Fall foliage for the first time. Or the first time you pull out a sweater to wear. Or after your annual physical. Or carving your pumpkin.

The point is, we return to these moments again and again. As much as we may have changed over the past x years of our lives, these things stay the same; comfortable, familiar, blessed. By acknowledging them, paying attention to them, we give thanks for still being around to appreciate them.

In the Jewish tradition, there is the custom of reciting 100 blessings a day. For Jews who daven every day, this really isn’t so hard. In fact, the Aish.com website breaks it down mathematically. But for post-modern Jews, it’s a lot more challenging. The fact is that looking at the common things that cycle through our lives gives us opportunities to reflect, show gratitude, and then give thanks:  for the miracle of our senses, the capacity to love, to age in health, to be cared for, for life itself.

The leaves are falling, and soon the trees will be bare. The winds will howl and winter will come: cold, snowy, slippery. And just as you begin to despair you will see a crocus, daring to show it’s tiny, fragile bud. And you will say, thank you; thank you for reminding me that the world continues to turn, the seasons change, and that I am blessed to be a witness.

Kavanaugh

I know good old Brett. I never met him, but I recognize him from a mile away. He is the quintessence of the frat boy, one of the guys. Brett’s a poster child for the clean-cut white American, borne to privilege, borne to the assumption that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. Why shouldn’t he? He has money, brains, class, culture, and power. You know why he was such a petulant, tantrum-throwing brat at the hearing? No one says no to Brett. Not a lawyer. Not a coach. Not a terrified young woman. Not Senator Klobuchar — especially not a woman! How dare anyone call him on his behavior? He can do anything he wants! He was coached well by Trump and associates.

Brett is an insecure guy, a manchild who hides behind his race and his religion. He was bred for success. And succeed he has. Brett has convinced enough Americans and their elected officials that he deserves a seat on the Supreme Court. And, by God, he’s going to get it. The status quo stills breathes, still destroys anyone who might disagree or offer another interpretation of the truth.

I know Kavanaugh, the one who mocked the guys who weren’t athletes, who didn’t go to prep schools, who weren’t white and Christian. He was the one who rated the girls, who drank the beer, who puked and screamed. He was the one we always knew would be a hotshot at the country club, making coin, acting like the self-righteous snob that he is.

Shame on the people who would look at him — with awe, envy, admiration — and see a Supreme Court judge. See him for what he is: a man capable of lying about his life, under oath, without hesitation or compunction. But lying — bold-faced lying — is now the sine qua non of our president; why not his latest nominee?

Brett — you’ve won again. Have a beer.

Trump — what have you done to my country?

 

Hic Sunt Dracones

At the New York Public Library, amongst the various exhibits and artifacts in their collection is a little, 5-inch globe: the earliest surviving engraved copper sphere from the period immediately following the discovery of the New World. The Hunt-Lennox globe (about five inches in diameter), is among the first cartographic representations of the Americas known to geographers. Of the two continents in the Western hemisphere, only South America is represented, appearing as a large island with the regional names Mundus Novus (the New World), Terra Sanctae Crucis (the Land of the Holy Cross), and Terra de Brazil (the Land of Brazil). Cuba appears as “Isabel,” and the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Hispaniola) appears as “Spagnolla.” North America is represented as a group of scattered islands.
On the globe the creator engraved the following words: Hic sunt dracones; Here be dragons. Apparently it’s the only known place those words are written down on a map or globe. Which is very surprising. We just assume it says “Here be dragons,” on every old map.
Maybe we assume it mentions the imminent danger of dragons everywhere because we’ve seen maps decorated with etchings of sea monsters filling the vast empty spaces around the real and imagined land masses. Just seeing the words, even in Latin, brings a true sense of peril and fear.
Our ancestors looked out there at the endless oceans and felt so puny and insignificant. Who and what’s on the other side and what we might bump into was more than just free-floating anxiety. The unknown loomed with true malevolence.
Today one can go online and look at the pictures of earth taken by astronauts and the Hubble telescope. One can watch Yves Cousteau specials and see lots of things, including great white sharks and killer whales and narwhals… But there aren’t any dragons; or are there?
Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. Maybe not animals that breathe fire or swallow ships. There are, however, frightening phenomena lurking in our line of sight. Take your pick: global climate change, the spread of terrorism, the growing possibility of deadly pandemics, antibiotic resistance… and I haven’t even gotten started. We could go with a new virulent antisemitism, the rise of the alt-right, the slow crumbling of democracy here and in Israel, and more – so much more.
There is no antidote to the fear, to the imminence of scary things. There is no relief from not knowing what may happen next. All we’ve got is each other. In solidarity with our community, there is a greater sense of safety and comfort. Once we know that we don’t have to face the dragons on our own, we can be a little less anxious.
That’s why having a group, an affinity group, is such an important act. Being a temple member is not just about sending our kids to Hebrew School. It’s rather about connecting to and with others, about facing the vicissitudes of life knowing that one is supported and understood by others. It’s emerging from crises with the helping hand of a friend. It’s about social justice in a broken world.
The doors are always open, and the lights are always on. There’s plenty of room on this ship. So jump on board. We will fight the dragons together.

Sukkot Prayer

Every year around this time, the lulav and etrog arrive, just in time for Sukkot, which begins this Sunday evening. Opening the boxes is like taking a trip in time. Look at them! A palm frond stuck into a woven straw holder and two plastic bags, one containing two sprigs from a willow tree and the other, three sprigs from a myrtle. And then, the piece de resistance, the etrog, which appears to be a big lemon, but is not. On Sukkot, we will hold them all together in a prescribed fashion, and shake them as a means of saying thank you to God: for long life, for sustenance, and for the harvest which feeds us all.
As you shake the lulav, perhaps you can imagine how our ancestors held on tight, praying that the capricious ways of Nature would be mild in this new year. This year, as I shake the lulav, I will be channeling those who came before me, who shook their lulav for dear life. I will think about where this tradition began, before even our earliest Jewish past.
I am convinced that this practice of lulav shaking begins in our earliest prehistoric past. I imagine men and women preparing for a harvest 23,000 years ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. They have so much fear and hope. Will these seeds grow? Will the godssmile on them? The lulav and etrog were shamanic tools to conjure the benevolence of the gods. Because if the harvest failed, it would not mean higher prices at a store. Rather, it meant the difference between life and death, full bellies or starvation.
I guess that even the most observant farmers of todaywhen they shake their lulav, will be thanking God. But they will know about the acidity of the soil, the meteorological trends on their land, the proper use of irrigation and fertilizer and so forth. They will know that, while God’s blessing for a good harvest is always welcome, and yes, the capriciousness of Nature can still be devastating, that it is not a matter of life and death.
Given that we have so much more science behind us as we plant and harvest, it is mystifying how people can ignore the reality of climate change. I would be willing to bet that most farmers believe in climate change, are seeing it in their crop yields and water use.
Our children’s children will face a world of rising seas and rising temperatures. They will experience bigger storms that are more devastating and fires that are more destructive. A hundred years from now there will be water wars in Africa and the Middle East. There will be unprecedented destruction unless and until we begin to act with urgency.
So when I shake the lulav this year, I will be thinking not just about the earliest humans who realized that they could plant seeds and harvest the results. I will be asking for God’s blessing on the generations to come. I will be praying that they will live in an enlightened world that comes to grips with the folly of past generations who used the earth’s resources as if they were inextinguishable.
I pray for God’s blessing. I pray for our leaders to finally unite to save the world. I pray that we become wiser with how we all use our limited resources. That’s my Sukkot prayer.

The Other Side of the Shelf

One day my father gave me an assignment. I was 13 or so and like many budding adolescents, not excited to snap to it when directed by a parent to do anything. But my father was dangerous and unpredictably cruel to me. Therefore, I never, ever even hinted at not obeying his requests immediately, lest punishment were to ensue. He had just cut some wood at his workbench to build a few shelves for the closet, and he wanted me to paint them. My father handed me a can of paint and a paintbrush and told me to get to work.
It didn’t sound difficult nor did I worry too much about it. Just paint a few shelves… About an hour later he walked into the garage to check up on me. I was already done and probably in front of the tv. He called my name in a register that I recognized immediately as communicating his displeasure. Oh oh.
My father had a look on his face as if he’d just stepped in dog excrement. “Look at these shelves,” he said. “What’s wrong with them?” I had already begun to panic at the sound of his voice, so I was pretty shaky. I didn’t know what to say. I had not consciously planned to do a poor job. The only answer I had was a trigger for him. It was an answer guaranteed to get him angry – or in this case, angrier. “Ahh, umm, I don’t know.”
This answer set a whole scenario in motion, in this case, scenario #124.5. That’s the one that goes like this: “You don’t know? What the hell do you mean, ‘You don’t know’? Are you the one who [fill in the blank]?” Me: “Ahh, umm, yes [do not say, ‘I guess so’, because that wasn’t a trigger – it was a lit match next to a stick of dynamite].” My father: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do anything right?” To which my only real answer was: you guessed it – ‘I don’t know.’ But at this juncture, I knew that saying so would almost guarantee getting punched, so I remained silent.
The thing is, I didn’t know what was wrong with my work, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t do anything right, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me that caused me to be such a disappointment to my father. It was surely a primary assumption in our relationship. I was never enough for him: not smart enough, athletic enough, clever enough, good enough. And as a youngster, how could I fix it, how could I change? I DIDN’T KNOW.
He picked up one of the painted boards and held it in his hands more like a baseball bat and less like a shelf for shoes. I wasn’t sure what would happen next; was he going to hit me with it? I held my breath as he flipped the board over. “Look at this! You didn’t paint the bottom of the board! Why not?” I knew that this was not a rhetorical question. “Um, I figured since it would be in the closet and no one would see the bottom of the shelf, I didn’t need to paint it.”
My father made a face, a look of aggravation and disbelief that I could have been so stupid, so derelict in my duty. “The job is not done. Now finish it!”, and he tossed the board at me. It missed my head and clattered to the ground.
That scenario has never disappeared from my memory. It is, of course, hurtful and shaming. Interestingly, it leads me to a question, the same one over and over for fifty years or more. Did I mess up? Should I have painted the underside of the shelf, too? Was the job not done?
Who knows? Who writes the rules for such things? And, besides my father, who cares? The fact is that the job was secondary to the relationship. What my father asked me to do was less important than how he asked me and how he conveyed disapproval with his words as well as his body language.
Every human soul is a delicate vessel, filled with joy and sorrow, hurt and pain, joy, and ecstasy. We all have sore spots and traumas. We all know weaknesses and strengths. We are imperfect; so imperfect. There are so many things we get wrong with striking consistency. What’s a human to do?
Forgive.
Forgive the imperfect people around you. Forgive the dead with whom you are still angry. Forgive the young who are still learning how to be a mensch.
And, for your sake, for God’s sake: forgive yourself. Embrace your unfinished, imperfect self. Do it all with kindness and compassion. Believe you deserve this love, because you truly do. We are, all of us, the unpainted bottom of a shelf. I can tell you only this: the job isn’t done.
Shanah Tova and on this first Shabbat of 5779,
Shabbat Shalom,