Monthly Archives: December 2015

Per Aspera Ad Astra

My family moved to Middletown, CT when I was in 3rd grade. We had been living in Cromwell, a small town 15 minutes away from the metropolis of Middletown. It’s hard for me to remember who I was then. And there’s no one left who knew me well at that stage of my childhood. I think I was a vaguely depressed first born kid.  I had few friends in Cromwell and no cousins to help socialize me. I read a lot. I teased my sisters. I tried to avoid my father.

We moved into a new housing development and were among the first on the dead end street. The street lights were not yet fully functional so that nights could get dark. I mean very dark. On one such night in early spring I walked outside to the back yard to take out the garbage (I think taking out the garbage has been “my job” since 6).

Like I said, I don’t remember who I was then, more than 50 years ago, but I think I was lonely. And I had nowhere to go. There was a chaise lounge set up near the trash cans, so I sat down on it. The back support was set very low, so when I looked up it was like a planetarium.

In the night, in my solitude, on a black canvas, hung an astonishing vista of stars and planets. I sat there, stunned. You might assume in such a situation I would feel even worse, one little kid in a new school, isolated by demographics and religion, looking at the vastness of the Universe. I did not feel dwarfed by the heavens above.

I looked up and experienced genuine exultation! My God! I am connected to the infinite Universe! Sitting on this cheap little chaise lounge next to the garbage cans in my backyard I am part of the cosmos. And if the light I see now is from a star that’s been dead for a million years, then what light might I emit long after my body is gone? If the air I’m breathing contains stardust – yes, literally star dust – from the Big Bang, then what of my dust?

My mom called me back into the house, breaking my reverie. I could’ve been there for 5 minutes – or 2 hours. I don’t remember that part. But I do remember that night. I don’t know who I was then, but I do know that when I walked back into the house, I felt different. I knew that I wasn’t trapped, that there was a way out. When I grew up and saw the motto, “ Per aspera ad astra” – from hardships to the stars – I knew just what it meant.

We are all connected to something so much bigger and grander than our small individual souls. We link to others souls and other places over time and space, from the origins of the Universe to its closing moments, and perhaps even beyond that. The urge to explore the Heavens comes from that truth, which is that, in a way, Pluto is as much our home as this Earth upon which we stand.

This is why we send satellites to study the moons of Saturn, the surface of a comet, the planet of Mars, why we listen to radio waves from all over the Universe – not to explore alien worlds, but to get to know our home that much better.

Of course, it’s a lot to imagine that these truths might be shared by all humans. So many people imagine anyone and anything outside their own arbitrarily drawn circle of color or privilege or social status as alien. I think God is in all of this, that God IS all of this. You may not feel that – and in truth, it doesn’t matter. Just keep looking up and out, towards hope and love and the infinite possibilities in all of us.

Shabbat Shalom


Shedding Light

It’s odd celebrating Hanukkah in a quiet, empty nest of a home. There’s no clambering for gifts, no rushing to multiple events at multiple locations. No one is getting positioned in front of a favorite menorah for lighting rights.  There aren’t a multitude of gifts on the dining room table. There are no clumps of wrapping paper from the previous nights’ festivities floating around the house. We’ve only made one night’s worth of latkes, so the house does not have that usual redolence from the magic mix of oil, onions and potatoes. And this year, for the first time in over 3 decades, Liza did not decorate the house with the multitude of Hanukkah zibben-zachen: no streamers, folding paper menorahs, little Maccabees, and so forth.

This empty nest feeling did cause a bit of the blues to enter into the Hanukkah blessings. But it was also an epiphany of sorts. If being Jewish is experienced primarily as the responsibility of passing it down to the kids, and the kids are gone, then isn’t the job done?  Why engage in behaviors mostly deemed pediatric? No wonder so many Jews leave their temple after years of belonging! It becomes largely irrelevant to day to day, week to week, month to month life.

The holidays weren’t “invented” for children only. I know, I know: I’ve heard the “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” theory of Jewish holidays. And yes, it’s a pretty accurate superficial gloss. And we do simplify them, reduce them to a sweet, savory sauce. But they are so much more. They are complex expressions of gratitude and longing and fear and courage.

An empty nest doesn’t have to be devoid of spirituality and community. It can be a place of connection and engagement. This is the challenge of 21st-century Jewish life: to embrace the various dimensions of Judaism and Jewish life as mature adults, to care about choosing Judaism for ourselves and not for our children. There really is more to it than dreidels and toy Torahs.

A temple thrives when every generation feels engaged. A temple thrives when folks find in it a means by which to navigate a harsh and often hostile world. And if the Jewish tradition gives us anything, it’s instruction on how to have faith and even flourish in a world that has not exactly rolled our the red carpet for us.

Whether your nest is full, or whether it’s empty, we need you as a part of the community. Your input. Your presence. Your passion. You!

Bring your light to your temple. The more light, the brighter, the warmer the flame. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. That’s an adult Hanukkah message.


I don’t want this to be depressing. I don’t want to be depressed. With Hanukkah so close, I want to write something cheerful. But, alas, my heart isn’t in it. My heart is in San Bernardino, aching over the terrible loss of life.
This loop of mass shootings seems to play and never stop. President Obama has anguished over the routinization of gun violence. On October 1st after a lone shooter killed ten people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon he said:  Earlier this year, I answered a question in an interview by saying, “The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings.”  And later that day, there was a mass shooting at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana.  That day!  Somehow this has become routine.  The reporting is routine.  My response here at this podium ends up being routine.  
As if to underscore the surreal notion that mass shootings in America are par for the course, the BBC report on San Bernardino began, “Just another day in the United States in America-another day of gunfire, panic, and fear. This time in the city of San Bernardino, California, where a civic building was apparently under attack.”
God help us if this does become routine for the 21st century. And God help our children who are living witnesses to these violent melees. It doesn’t feel routine. But sadly it’s not surprising. Upon word of a mass shooting now the first response is not, “Oh my God a mass shooting!”; instead it’s “where is it this time?”
In another part of his October speech, the president said, “We’ve become numb to this.” But I don’t feel numb at all. I feel the opposite. I feel uneasy and anxious watching the news. And because it seems virtually impossible to do anything to change gun laws in the foreseeable future we will continue to experience this mass shooting loop.
The rising wave of mass shootings crushes the human spirit. It besmirches the American values of freedom and confidence. It’s as if we all are in danger of becoming traumatized by this deadly phenomenon. “Everybody is filled with what we sometimes refer to as anticipatory anxiety – worrying about something that is not currently happening in our lives but could happen,” said Alan Hilfer, the former chief psychologist at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn who is now in private practice. “And they are worrying that the randomness of it, which on one hand makes the odds of something happening to them very small, that randomness also makes it possible to happen to them.”
What’s to be done? Perhaps someone will devise a winning strategy to change gun laws and to better regulate easy access to large amounts of ammunition and extra large clips. In the meantime, in one of the great ironies of American democracy and the will of the people, it feels as if the NRA and its supporters have locked out any possibility of gun legislation.
That being the case, we have to study what our options are. “I think awareness of your own fears is the only way to go and to do the things that are soothing and comforting and distracting to do, and to do things that bring meaning to your life and bring comfort to other people,” said Dr. Sherry Katz-Bearnot, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “It’s what your grandmother said: Keep busy.”
I appreciate Dr. Katz-Bearnot’s advice, but it doesn’t exactly make for good long-term public policy. Are there answers? Can we figure out why this act of mass shooting occurred? Why a mother of a six-month-old baby girl is willing to make her an orphan for the sake of a political cause? Why a man would shoot up a roomful of people, most of whom he knew and worked with? How anyone can demonize a bunch of folks who worked for the city or the county making sure restaurants were not filthy and that bathrooms were clean? Regular folks of various backgrounds raising families, living their lives?
It’s frightening to feel so helpless in the wake of a pernicious phenomenon that seems a permanent part of our national experience. It’s going to take a lot of inventiveness and courage to make a difference, to figure out just what exactly is going on in this country. This cannot become the new status quo. My Hanukkah hope is that we can bring the light of courage and determination to this very dark place.