Monthly Archives: December 2016

Answering In the Form of a Question

On Rosh Hashanah, I talked at length about questions. Specifically, I discussed that we stop asking them. The world goes by at a blistering speed, and we watch it all blur by. We spend an inordinate amount of time trying to focus on what it is we’re seeing, but by the time our eyes adjust, it’s all in the rearview mirror.

While there isn’t any sign of a change in the rapid pace of our lives, we can do something – several things – to offset the whirlwind. That is, we can live more mindfully. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, instead of letting your life pass you by, you live in the moment and awaken to experience.There are so many means to that end. Yoga is a great practice for quieting the pace of one’s life. Meditation is another spiritual practice that can profoundly assist in feeling more centered.

Another way to achieve a measure of mindfulness is to ask questions. Not yes or no questions. Not what restaurant to go to, or where the best Chinese food is in Newton. I’m talking about substantive questions that force you to stop and ponder, questions that make you pull over and get out of the fast lane.

This essential value of asking questions is attested to in a story about the Nobel laureate in physics, Isador Rabi. His dear friend, Arthur Sackler, an American psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, once asked his friend, ‘Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?” Rabi’s answer? ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That difference – asking good questions -made me become a scientist!”

I told that story on Rosh Hashanah, and I love it. It reminds me that the value of inquiry is priceless. It challenges me to frontload more on the question side. As Rabi attests, questions made him more mindful, more inwardly focused.

What follows here are some questions for you to ask over the next week or two. Pose them at the dinner table. Bring them up on the long ride to Sunday River. Ask anyone to join you: kids, partner, work people, parents: just ask questions!


  1. What is something you would love to learn more about? Why?
  2. What is a skill you do not possess, but wish that you did?
  3. Who were three great teachers in your life?
  4. What is the last book you read, from cover to cover? If you can’t remember, why don’t you read more?
  5. What’s the next book you plan to read?

Enjoy pondering these questions. Ask them and watch what happens! If you’d like to engage with me over these questions, by all means, email me and we can dialog in virtual time.

One last thing. If you like this format, share some of your questions; I’ll share them with the congregation.




Godspeed, John Glenn

One of the most extraordinary concepts I ever learned about was outer space. From the second grade on,  I loved books and pictures and maps and graphs about the solar system. I suppose it was the pre-dinosaur child’s obsession. I was hooked!
I was captivated by the notion of so many stars and planets out there. I just couldn’t believe that there was a planet called Saturn with actual rings. Scientists say that the rings are made of dust, rock, and ice accumulated from passing comets, meteorite impacts on Saturn’s moons, and the planet’s gravity pulling material from the moons. But no one seems to know to this day, why they’re there. Then there was giant Jupiter, not to mention tiny Pluto. Oh and regarding Pluto, I don’t care what anyone says, I will always call it a planet!
When a Russian cosmonaut actually flew into outer space, it was truly mind blowing! In 1961, Yuri Gagarin reached the outer limits of the Heavens. I didn’t immediately understand the political ramifications. It didn’t matter to me who got there first. The fact was that a human being had flown into space and made it home to tell us all about it.
It didn’t take long for me to begin to absorb all the cold war rhetoric about conquering outer space. The push to the stars had a distinct competitive edge, and neither President Kennedy nor Premier Nikita Khrushchev lost sight of that truth. It wasn’t about space: it was about global dominance. And while the Russians obviously had the initial edge, the USA opened the treasury and spent whatever they needed to win.
Who would be the great gladiator leading us into space? Who could counter Russian arrogance with American pride and ingenuity? John Herschel Glenn, thank you very much! Glenn entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in March 1942. He graduated and was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1943. After advanced training, he joined Marine Fighter Squadron 155 and spent a year flying F-4U fighters in the Marshall Islands. He flew 59 combat missions during World War II.

After the war, he was a member of Marine Fighter Squadron 218 on the North China patrol and served on Guam. From June 1948 to December 1950 he served as an instructor in advanced flight training at Corpus Christi, Texas. He then attended Amphibious Warfare Training at Quantico,VA.

In Korea, he flew 63 missions with Marine Fighter Squadron 311. As an exchange pilot with the Air Force Glenn flew 27 missions in the F-86 Sabre. In the last nine days of fighting in Korea, Glenn shot down three MiGs in combat along the Yalu River.

Glenn attended Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center. After graduation, he was project officer on a number of aircraft. He was assigned to the Fighter Design Branch of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (now Bureau of Naval Weapons) in Washington from November 1956 to April 1959. During that time he also attended the University of Maryland.
Glenn was as clean cut a guy as NASA could find. His Eagle Scout sincerity, his smile, his traditional Midwestern values, and his combat record made him the perfect standard bearer for the US space program. He was the right man at the right time.
The book, by Thomas Wolfe, and movie of the same name, The Right Stuff, points out just how straight arrow a Marine Glenn could be. Compared to some of the other first astronauts, who did a lot of carousing and test pilot extreme behaviors, Glenn was a regular stick-in-the-mud. But he was an utterly sincere stick-in-the-mud.
I was awestruck by John Glenn. I remember the broad, brave smile glowing through his helmet. I remember his calm and steady voice even as he considered the possibility that he would burn up upon reentry due to a faulty heat shield. I remember the enormous sense of relief I felt when he appeared on the deck of the destroyer, the USS Noa.
Looking back now at that moment, I feel a sharp pang of nostalgia. I was a kid inspired by a young, dynamic president who helped to open the way to what Kennedy called the New Frontier. My uncle and aunt were among the first to join the Peace Corp, an expression of the New Frontier. There seemed to be so much in store for me. The world was my oyster. And then, with this hero, John Glenn, leading us into the future, I thought anything was possible.
What followed was so disillusioning. Assassinations, riots, Vietnam, the Generation Gap, racism, misogyny, and on and on. There’s not a lot of room for heroes anymore. I still have a few, but they’re nothing like the heroes of my youth.
Does anyone grow up and not look back with sadness? Does every generation believe that things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to work? Do the visions of childhood usually end up crashing against the rocks of the unknown?
I don’t have any explanations for why so many of our dreams evaporated. I want to believe that young children can still find people whose lives set examples of bravery and meaning. I want to believe that there are brighter days ahead.
Thank you, God, for the blessing of men and women willing to take the ultimate risks to push the envelope, to lead the revolution, to speak truth to power, to boldly go where no one has gone before. Godspeed, John Glenn.

No Coincidence

In the 1850s, Emperor Franz Josef ordered the construction of the Ringstrasse, a 3 ½ mile promenade in the center of Vienna.  It quickly became the prime location for the mansions of royalty and the ultra-rich. It became the location of large, official buildings, everything from the Parliament to City Hall to the Vienna State Opera to the Museum of Fine Arts. But even more importantly, the Ringstrasse became the place to stroll. It was, and remains, the promenade to walk.

Elie Wiesel talked about Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. He described Herzl, a Viennese Jew, taking his constitutional along the Ringstrasse, thinking about the future of the Jewish people. One day, Herzl decides that a land for the Jewish people is the only way forward. And as impossible as it may sound, he said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Another Viennese Jew walked along the Ringstrasse contemporaneously with Herzl: Sigmund Freud. Imagine, said Wiesel, if Herzl uttered his famous declaration out loud as Freud walked by. Perhaps Freud would have stopped and said, “Dream? Did you say ‘dream’?” They might have engaged in conversation. And then, who knows? Perhaps the Jewish State would never have been founded!

There’s a scene in the Joseph story where Jacob sends his favorite son to check on his brothers out in the fields with the flocks. Joseph doesn’t know where his brothers have gone. When he reached Shechem, 36:15 a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” 16 He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” 17 The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.

If it weren’t for that chance meeting with a nameless stranger, perhaps Joseph would have never found his brothers. Instead, he would’ve packed up and gone home. Had THAT happened, the Jewish people would’ve never come to be. We’d have died out in Egypt.

When I was in 4th grade and offered with a limitless choice of what musical instrument to play, I chose the oboe. I don’t mind saying that it was a bad choice. With all due respect to oboists everywhere – even on Mozart In the Jungle – it’s just not a cool instrument. Had my parents or some stranger intervened and said, “No dude. Pick up the alto sax!”, I may never have ended up as a rabbi.

Some people say that there’s no such thing as coincidences. They say God’s hand is in all such things. That man in the Joseph story who literally appears out of nowhere, without context or explanation, must have been strategically placed there by God. And perhaps it was God who led my music teacher to say that the oboe was a good idea, to keep me away from another path that would lead me away from what I was meant to do, which was not to be a jazz musician, but rather to be a rabbi.

I’d like to believe that God’s hand is in much of what we do or don’t do. I’d like to think that coincidences are holy encounters, the nearest thing to a proof of God’s existence. I’d like to believe that those people who appear briefly in our life stories and change everything are placed there, even if they have no idea. I’d like to believe that everything happens for a reason.

But alas! I do not. I am glad no one handed me a horn in 1963. I am thankful the first professor I spoke to in college became my mentor and friend. Because of him, I was drawn to the rabbinate. I don’t think God made that happen. I’m just glad it worked out as it did.

The world is filled with random events careening off of each other like atoms in a particle accelerator. And we careen right along with them. To get some balance, we find others who share common concerns and hopes. We build a community that provides lasting stability. That is not coincidence. That’s hard work. That’s commitment.

God’s presence is not in chance encounters. It is, rather, in every moment we decide to open our hearts and our minds. God’s presence is in the gesture of humanity. That’s no coincidence.