Monthly Archives: November 2014

Saying Thank You

Throughout the centuries people have come up with lots of reasons as to why bad things happen to us. One explanation is that it’s payback: “what goes around comes around.” Another is from the book of Job. Humans, the limited mortals that we are, cannot ever know the reason for our misfortune. We must take it on faith that there is a reason for everything. A third explanation for our misfortune is that we live in a random universe and sometimes bad things happen because that’s the way it goes.

Interestingly there’s not nearly so much thinking about why good things happen to us… Do we even need an explanation or is it simply enough to know that we get good stuff in our lives from time to time? Does performing a good deed necessarily mean that we will reap benefit from it? Sometimes, though we all know the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished”…

Our lives are continuously buffeted by all the things that happen to us and around us. We are overwhelmed by the velocity of every day, every hour. It’s easy in this world to lose track of the good things that sustain us.

Alan Morinis, a leading thinker in the Musar movement (about which you will be hearing much more in the months to come), writes: “…The very essence of gratitude lies in the heart …. An inner attitude or stance of thankfulness provides us with resources that help us face whatever we encounter in our lives. A grateful heart is a platform from which to reach out to take care of others as well as ourselves because this orients us toward the resources we have, not what we lack…”

But in order to attain a grateful heart we have to actually direct ourselves to think and yes, behave in a new way. We have to express thankfulness to feel it. Saying thank you from a grateful heart fills us up with even more joy even as it touches another. A significant part of our liturgy is all about thanking God. Directing our hearts to that task instead of mindlessly reading words connects us to the gifts of goodness we receive every day.

Thanksgiving is an opportunity to speak words of gratitude for more than just the great turkey dinner or the football game. It is the chance to gather one’s thoughts about the past year and to select a couple of things for which you want to give thanks. Maybe you’re comfortable thanking God for the love you feel from others. Maybe you don’t believe in God at all. This does not preclude your actually thanking the people around you at the table for what they bring to your life.

In a way Thanksgiving is like the other side of the spectrum of Yom Kippur when we spend our time asking for forgiveness. It’s time to share our gratitude. Would the world be a better place if people spent more time giving thanks for what they had rather than complaining about what they lack? Undoubtedly. Would we feel better about ourselves if we could acknowledge that we were the recipients of good things and not just hard knocks?

Next Thursday, look around your table and say thank you to the people who have made your life better. Look into your heart and give thanks for your breath, your vision, your mind. None of this is promised to us. We don’t “deserve” good health. We don’t “deserve” a good life. So say thank you.

Shabbat Shalom

Out There Somewhere

On the hot evening of July 20, 1969, I looked up at the moon from Camp Hadar, a Jewish overnight camp in Clinton, CT. The moon seemed so close. I squinted my eyes tightly, hoping to see Neal Armstrong step down onto the surface. On the moon: An ancient fantasy of humanity fulfilled in my lifetime! It didn’t seem possible that such a thing could be, yet there it was, unfolding on a black and white tv, broadcasting live. What did it all mean to a teenager of the 60s? That in a terribly broken world of war and racism and poverty, something profound could happen, something that exemplified the transcendent spirit of exploration, something bright and hopeful. My friend Murray argued throughout the night that this lunar landing stuff was all made up. He claimed that Nixon was using it to divert the public from his criminal actions in Vietnam. I haven’t seen Murray in about 45 years, but the moon landing conspiracy people are still out there. But I didn’t buy the conspiracy then and I don’t now. We did it. We walked on the moon. The probe landing on a comet the other day was certainly not as dramatic as Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon, but still! What an extraordinary achievement. To take 10 years to get there and then actually succeed – not perfectly, but good enough – to touch down in one piece and then start sending back information. Information on what? I hope the telemetry will reveal basic facts on the origins of the Universe itself. In other words, I hope what we discover is ourselves (ok, I was influenced a bit by the movie Interstellar…) Some folks have wondered whether or not the comet may yield evidence of alien life. I have argued about this notion for years. I am not a follower of Carl Sagan, who said, essentially, “Look out there at the billions and billions of stars; how can there not be alien life of one form or another?” I am a believer in the Fermi Paradox which states quite simply, “If there are billions of stars and planets in the Universe that are capable of supporting life, and millions of intelligent species out there, then how come none has visited Earth?” Since there is absolutely no evidence to support either side it comes out to be a question of aesthetics. But what if – just what if – I am wrong. What if the comet ends up holding some amazing and incontrovertible evidence that presents us with the fact there was and there is alien life out there? Does the Dow Jones crash? Does NSDQ soar? Do riots break out? Is there a food panic? And what about spiritually? What does it mean to people of religion if there is non-human intelligence in the Universe, potentially more intellectually advanced? What does it do to our relationship with God? Or to put it more colloquially: is alien life good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? The answer, simply enough is as follows: you do your thing, we do our thing. We respect you, you respect us. After 2000 years of being treated as though we were an alien life form, we can surely show some empathy for others from outer space. How other faiths may respond I can’t say, though my guess for traditional Christians is that a non-human intelligence would mess with their notion of the Trinity. That is, if God is Jesus and Jesus is God and both are spirit, how can there be an intelligent life form outside that sacred triangle? For Jews, God transcends this planet. Our God is not just our God. Our God is not a God of territory or ethnic or racial preference. Our God is larger than us, larger than the Universe itself. I looked up at the moon on a hot summer’s night 45 years ago and I wondered what would happen next? Would I walk on the moon? Would I go into space? Would I go to Vietnam? Tonight I’ll look up at the sky wondering how to even imagine something 300 million miles away. Will my children or grandchild (I’m patient…) leave Earth’s orbit? Will this planet still be inhabitable 100 years from now? Will my progeny one day look at Earth through a telescope, marveling that their roots are interplanetary? With or without alien life, the Universe is filled with mystery and promise and hope.




On the night of November 9, 1938, violence against Jews broke out across the Reich. It appeared to be unplanned, set off by Germans’ anger over the assassination of a German official in Paris at the hands of a Jewish teenager. In fact, German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and other Nazis carefully organized the pogroms. In two days, over 250 synagogues were burned, over 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed and looted, dozens of Jewish people were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted while police and fire brigades stood by. The pogroms became known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” for the shattered glass from the store windows that littered the streets. The Nazi state imposed a fine of one billion Reichsmarks ($400,000,000) on the Jewish community in Germany. Jews were ordered to clean up and make repairs after the pogrom and were barred from collecting insurance for the damages. The state confiscated payments owed by insurers to Jewish property holders. In the aftermath of the pogrom, Jews were systematically excluded from all areas of public life in Germany.

The morning after the pogroms 30,000 German Jewish men were arrested for the “crime” of being Jewish and sent to concentration camps, where hundreds of them perished. Some Jewish women were also arrested and sent to local jails. Businesses owned by Jews were not allowed to reopen unless they were managed by non-Jews. Curfews were placed on Jews, limiting the hours of the day they could leave their homes.

Kristallnacht is seen as a decisive moment in what Lucy Dawidowicz called the War Against the Jews. Mass violence was perpetrated against the Jews of Germany and not only did the authorities not intervene, they actually participated in official and unofficial ways. It showed the world that the Jews had been completely disenfranchised and without legal support or representation.

  It is said that many Germans disapproved of the events on that November 9th. It was too much violence for them at that point, and too up close and personal. The Catholic Church and the Protestant community could have spoken up forcibly at that moment, representing those people who were shocked and offended by Kristallnacht. But they did not. Many historians wonder what might have happened had there been some official Christian response to the German violence. Certainly headlines all over the world expressed revulsion, including the New York Times, where Kristallnacht was a headline leading story. But in the end, while many were disgusted, few said something; fewer did something.

The night of Kristallnacht my father was 11 years old living at the Baruch-Auerbachsche orphan asylum in Berlin. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be a Jewish orphan on that night of terror. Were the doors barricaded? Were the windows covered? Were the kids hiding under their beds? Could they smell the smoke of burning synagogues and Jewish businesses? Did they actively fear for their lives? Were these Jewish children, already victims of misfortune to be in the orphanage, utterly hopeless and lost? When these children fled Germany the following year, did they imagine that they would live to see adulthood?

What I know as the child of a Holocaust survivor is that my father was robbed of a childhood. He was robbed of any kind of rational balance point to perceive his world. That is, my father lacked any sense of what was “normal.” How to be a parent? He had no context. Trust in others? Only at risk of losing one’s life. The importance of lovingkindness? He would’ve said he couldn’t afford lovingkindness. He suffered as so many survivors did, the loss of everyone and everything of meaning. When the anniversary of Kristallnacht arrives every November, not only do I think of the broken glass for which the day is named, I think about my father’s brokenness. I think about all of the broken people. I think about all the Jews whose lives were smashed forever.

I carry, as do most children of survivors, my share of wounds and injuries related to the Shoah. Trauma has a way of seeping into the DNA of a family. Sometimes in pictures from the Holocaust I imagine seeing relatives: could that be? It looks so much like… Sometimes I imagine that I see myself. Other times I imagine being in a particularly hellish place and standing no chance of making it. These thoughts and experiences come not only on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Not a day goes by when some Holocaust language or imagery or allusion clouds my life. It is a bitter legacy… But it inspires me to stand proudly as a Jew in the world. It inspires me to declare the words “Never Again!” and mean it, not only for my children and grandchildren, but for all innocent men, women and children. I pray that one day no child will ever know the fear of my father or feel the pain of broken glass and broken dreams.


Shabbat Shalom