Monthly Archives: April 2017

What a Beautiful World It Will Be 

I grew up with the bedrock Western philosophical assertion that as time goes on, life will get better. People of all colors and creeds will recognize that what joins us together is so much more significant than our differences. As our technological skills increase geometrically, so too will our ability to cope with issues like poverty, hunger, and disease. The cup will not be half-full. The cup of Western civilization will “runneth over.”

This ideology is best expressed in a Donald Fagen song called “IGY” which stands for International Geophysical Year. The IGY was an international scientific project that lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958. It marked the end of a long period during the Cold War when scientific interchange between East and West had been seriously interrupted. Sixty-seven countries participated in IGY projects. The promise of a new course for the world was palpable. When Kennedy was elected, the New Frontier promised a world soon free of fear and oppression.

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free…

A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

The lyrics simultaneously recall the spirit of the moment, the true belief that we were really on to something. After the Holocaust and Hiroshima, we were ready to forge ahead into the New Frontier. Of course, the lyrics also evidence the profound naivete of that time and are actually sad.

We are farther than ever from a beautiful world. There is so much fear. People are more divided than ever into political and socio-economic wagon circles. The cup has gone from overflowing to cracked and slowly leaking out.

It is at such moments, reflecting on the hope that was and the present sense of doom and disappointment, that we Jews need to reflect on our history and philosophy. We survived the destruction of the Second Temple, actually emerging from that traumatic period with renewed purpose and resilience. We did not fold, though many other civilizations teetered and fell under far less dire circumstances. The fact that after 6 million perished during the Holocaust we did not shut down and quietly fade into history is the example par excellence of Jewish grit.

We have faith in our story of rising and falling and rising again. We have faith in the value of life in all of its diversity. We don’t need the world to be Jewish to justify our existence. Because we are all created in God’s image, we know that that we have an ongoing obligation to make this world better than it is right now. Some Jews believe that the completion of history will come with the arrival of a Messiah, a human designated by God, to bring about a beautiful, perfected world. That belief is often accompanied by the necessity of war and struggle and bloodshed as preliminary to the great peace.

Most Jews no longer believe in a personal Messiah. Instead, we contend that there may be a time called the Messianic era and that we, not God, are the architects of that time. So we work. We build. We pray. And then we build some more. And even though logic might suggest that the world as we know it is circling the drain, we persist. As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Perkei Avot, “You are not required to finish your work, yet neither are you permitted to desist from it.”

We are not looking for perfection. It’s not about the dream being in sight. It’s about making it better. That’s our job: through our work and the sweat of our brows and the hopes we cultivate, to make it better.


Shabbat Shalom


The Courage to Speak Out

One of the things that attracted so many viewers to Mad Men, a series about advertising execs in the 60s and 70s, was just how well they captured that period of American cultural history. Every partner at the firm had a full bar cart in their office, stocked every day with ice, clean glasses, and bottles of whiskey. Smoking cigarettes was a ubiquitous habit in offices, restaurants, airplanes, hospitals, etc.

They got the clothing just right. The men’s suits, the shoes, the women’s fashions, and the hair-dos the props and continuity folks did their homework diligently and well.  The automobiles and buses and other vehicles were all properly placed. It was truly a flash from the past.

Whenever I talk to folks who were in the ad business then – or any other white-collar business – they mention how realistic Mad Men was, capturing so many of the unique cultural practices of that bygone era. They talk about the three-martini lunches, the extravagant office parties, the number of hours men were expected to be in the office, and the general attitude of the triumphalism of post-war capitalist America.

There are some other aspects of the early to mid-60s and forward that Mad Men also captures. There is, of course, institutional racism that African Americans had no place in corporate America unless they were cleaning up or running elevators. There was also institutional antisemitism, a clear line of demarcation for where Jews could work, where Jewish doctors could practice medicine, what country clubs we could belong to, and so forth.

Then, of course, there was the misogyny. The idea that rampantly pulsed through corporate America was that women were meant to remain at home to take care of the kids to fulfill their lives. If they had a job, it was only to save enough money to live in a decent apartment until they met a man who would save them. Women were not seen as intellectually competent, though smart enough to file and take dictation. Career women were to be mistrusted; there was something ‘wrong’ with them not wanting to be at home.

Along with this paternalistic attitude towards women was another dimension: that women were sex objects to be ogled, fondled, cat-called, and harassed – but all in “good fun.” Women were not to complain about this treatment; in fact, they were to feel ‘lucky’ and grateful when powerful men deigned to pay attention to them. Women were to be submissive, lest they lose their jobs for having a bad attitude.

I didn’t grow up in a house where women or girls were treated, spoken to or about as objects. Sure, as a teenager, amongst my male friends, we could be rude and crude, mostly about things we didn’t know or hadn’t experienced.  This kind of banter is called locker room talk, even though I spent little time in a locker room.

But we never demeaned or degraded women. We were very attracted to them and loved to look at them. But we knew the difference between looking and leering, between saying hello as a way of being friendly as opposed to being obnoxious.

Obviously, there are men who were not raised as I was. There are men who were not introduced to Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan by earnest girlfriends or sisters. There are men who were not told by their moms or teachers or dads that, “We don’t know talk about women that way.” There are men who were taught that as white Christians with means they were entitled to rule the world.

But that entitled, triumphalist attitude about women and minorities no longer sits well with people and corporations that, until recently, subscribed to that same ethos of success. Companies like  Mercedes Benz and Aleve and other Fortune 500 companies dropped their sponsorship of Bill O’Reilly’s show after multiple complaints emerged regarding his sexually harassing women at Fox. The NBA left North Carolina when they denied the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom they preferred to use.

At some point down the line, the notion that we are all created in God’s image has to mean something. Otherwise, everything that follows in the Torah is nonsense. Either we together acknowledge the power and protection of American democracy, or we circle the wagons and wait. When American corporations intimate that they care about what is being said on their dime, I perk up. When the NBA draws a line for human decency, I am thrilled.

There are so many rivers to cross before we arrive at a place of true moral decency and equality. The power of antisemitism and racism and misogyny is still immense and still tolerated in so many places. This is why we speak out. This is why no one is free until all of us are free.

Now What?

Every year my wife Liza fashions an army surplus parachute into a tent under which we celebrate the seder. Over these last few years, she has chosen to erect the tent in a large room on the third floor of our home. The younger folks sit on the floor on rugs and blankets. The older ones have chairs and a couple of couches. It’s rather dark under this tent, even with some lamps. It actually sets a mood of anticipation and excitement. It’s like a journey is beginning.

And that’s just what Passover is all about. There is the story of the Exodus itself, a quintessential exploration of moving from one place to a radically different location. On a deeper level, it is all about the movement that is a part of existence itself.

We are confronted almost every day with a question: are you moving forward or backward? Will you reach for freedom or fall back into servitude – in this case, servitude to bad habits and laziness.

It also begs the question: are we capable of changing? Can we decide to actually improve our lives by changing our behavior? Can we make new choices that veer away from what we “always” choose? Can we order a new dish at a regularly frequented restaurant? Can we respond to a child’s tantrum with less frustration and more empathy? Can we take a deep breath when someone cuts us off in traffic rather than speeding up to box him in?

It’s easy to say, “Of course we can change!” But to actually make the change is a whole different ballgame.

After getting to the other side of the Sea of Reeds, our ancestors cheered. But later, as they sat in their tents I imagine they wondered, “Now what”?

I thought about that when I went up to the third floor today to survey the empty room that was packed with guests and haggadahs and parsley and so forth a few nights before. I stood in that tent and I wondered, “Now what?” Have we taken away some teachings, some thoughts about change? Have we been inspired to step out from the tent and do something that might bring some love and hope into the world?

Passover is a yearly dose of optimism. It is a reminder that the cycle of liberation and redemption is not easy. As Richie Havens once sang, “It’s a long long road/Before we’ll be free.”

Passover reminds us that we are liberated not as individuals, but as a people. We cross the sea together with our tribe – AND the multitudes, Egyptians and foreign slaves who came along with the Israelites because they learned from us that no one deserved to be a slave, that there was more to life than living under the whip of an oppressor.

Can we be free? Can we free ourselves? Can we free others? Can we change the way we’ve been living to accommodate the needy? How can we say no? Come out from the darkness of your tent and celebrate in the light of day. And then be the change.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover.



What Will Your Seder Mean To You?

I’ve been anticipating the arrival of Passover for about a month. So why am I still shopping for matzah meal and eggs? My seder guests will be assured that everything is fresh…

This year more than most, I’ve reflected on the deeper meanings that undergird the Exodus story. It’s one of those Hillel moments: If not now, when?

We are so lucky, as Americans and as Jews, to live in a place that provides such freedom. Our choices are so varied and so plentiful. Just contemplating what life might be like were we to lose even a fraction of those rights is so unbearable – but not unimaginable.

We must extrapolate from that thought of just how precious our basic rights are to acknowledge how many people have no basic rights. As we sit at our Seders it would be sinful not to pause and say this out loud. It would be shirking our responsibility as Jews were we not to balance our gratitude with a sense of a moral calling.

What follows are a few links to websites with some inspiring supplements for your Passover seder. As good as the meal may be, the sweetest part is always the connection between everyone at the table. In this case, the connecting theme is that none of are free until all of us are free.

We do a lot of eating and laughing and loving at our Passover seder. And we also make a lot of promises about what we might want to do to make a difference. I’d like to suggest a few things you might consider proposing to your seder guests.

  1. Click this link. It will lead you to a Youcaring website featuring Jennifer Pilalas, a wonderful young woman who is going to a Greek island next week to help refugees who have ended up there and now have no place else to go. We met her at TBA last Sunday. She was in the audience to hear Dima Basha speak about her life as a Syrian refugee. Money to Jennifer will help her purchase food and medical supplies and clothing. It would be a good thing to help her out.
  2. Click this link to find some great readings to add to your seder from American Jewish World Service. They do invaluable work.
  3. Click this link for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that has worked very hard to help all refugees from all over the world to make a better life. They have a few great readings for your seder as well.
  4. Commit to checking out what’s going on with our temple’s domestic violence social justice work. Ask what you can do to make a difference in helping free people enslaved by fear and tyranny – in their own homes.

We celebrate our liberation and redemption on Monday night. How can we extend a hand to those who struggle for freedom? For justice? For human rights and dignity?

Have a sweet and memorable Passover. And remember, the theme this year is: none of are free until all of us are free.

Shabbat Shalom and a zissen Pesach,