Monthly Archives: September 2019

It’s Only Words, And Words are All I Have

I am in a tiny dinghy on a vast sea of words. Hebrew words, English words, transliterated words. I’ve picked up my High Holy Day Machzors a hundred times and chanted, read, then reread all the pages we’re covering. For weeks I’ve been writing and rewriting. The tyranny of composing essays or sermons, or really anything on a computer is that you never arrive at the final draft. You can continue to edit right up to the very moment you have to get up and deliver the sermon or submit the article.

This means I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing and editing my words. I reach a point when I begin to panic. Does this make sense? Have I written my way into a corner? Is this sermon worthy of your attention?

Words. When this existential confrontation occurs, I am reminded of Flaubert’s aside in Madame Bovary, when he writes, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”

Jules Feiffer, the famous cartoonist/writer/gadfly, produced a weekly cartoon commentary for the Village Voice. One of the recurring themes was a woman in a black leotard, doing modern dance steps while proclaiming a variety of profound truths, nonsense, and provocative insights about the world. For some reason, I’ve imagined doing a sermon like that. Don’t worry – that would never happen. And I hate to dance. And I’ve never attended a single dance performance, save my daughters’ endless dance recitals, which were, let’s face it – deadly.

It’s not the dancing per se that attracts me. It’s just words never seem entirely up to the task. They’re a cracked kettle. They’re opaque, easily misunderstood. So maybe a form beyond words alone. Maybe interpreting words through movement could make their meaning clearer. Maybe?

So here I am – heneini – talking about the limits of words – with words. And I don’t have many moves beyond the literary ones. This is what I’ve got. And I will share with you, through all of our filters and thoughts and experiences, my best attempt at making meaning. Think of it as an offering of truth or a challenge to preconceived notions. Come join me on this sea of words.

Thinking About the Good Old Days

There’s a significant phrase in Jewish liturgy. We hear it most commonly at the end of the Torah service.

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֵלֶֽיךָ וְנָשֽׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵֽינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם

Hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, hadesh yameinu k’kedem.

This line comes from the book of Lamentations, chapter 5, verse 21. Lamentations was written after Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian empire conquered Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem, and then destroyed the first Temple in 586 BCE. It was a horrible and traumatic time for the Jewish people.

In its original setting, this text is the next to last verse in the entire book. It is a desperate cry. The author begs God to let us back into the divine presence. After the destruction of the Temple, he feels cast out. After so much pain and loss, he despairs of anything good ever happening again.

It’s a complicated sentence to translate because these 6 words imply so much. My interpretation would be, “[Forgive us; open your heart to us]. Let us come back to you, and we will come back; make it like it used to be.”

This dream of restoration, that the good old days are possible to reclaim, is an ancient and abiding hope. But the good old days is a mythic construct. It’s gazing into a rearview mirror vainly hoping we’re looking forward. Nostalgia can be so sweet and intoxicating. If we could just go back to the way things were, we could fix everything and make it all better.

I’m in that new club of older adults who say things like, “I used to be able to walk so much faster.” Or, “I used to stay up until 1am reading and working – what happened?”

Here’s what happened; life happened. It’s not mysterious, and it shouldn’t be surprising. Yet it is both mysterious and shocking.

As we greet people to have a sweet new year, I consciously do not say anything about having a year of peace. Because I don’t think it’s appropriate to wanly wish for something that cannot happen. At least, not right now. I do remember a time in the Sixties when it felt like we could do anything. It was a time that felt ripe with new possibilities. We truly believed that we could end the war in Vietnam; we would give peace a chance.

It’s chilly out there these days, in temperature and temperament. There’s no going back. It’s all about moving forward with resiliency. The myth of the good old days is so comforting, but not instructive. It’s not real. The notion that one day, peace will come, as if it’s a long lost zeppelin, coming in for a landing, at last, is crazy.

It has to be about the will of the people of the planet to decide on just how ludicrous it is to posit that some people deserve more than others based on their race or religion. Peace will only come when we’re all willing to work for it by rowing in the same direction.

And that’s why the hope for peace is a Messianic ideal. Because, quite frankly, the whole world already knows the harsh reality of climate change. We are all under its thumb, yet we still refuse to act in concert as a human race. Which is why I can’t say we pray for peace in the new year.

Here’s what I can feel comfortable saying on the cusp of the new year. Dear God, give us the strength to live through each day with dignity. Give us the courage to stand by the ideals of justice and mercy. Give us the selflessness to extend ourselves to others as we take care of ourselves.

The wishlist is staggering. But wishing and praying are a good foundation for action. As we enter a new year in a little more than a week, I pray that we can find the courage to hope and the strength to do what must be done.
There’s no good old days, just the days to come. They’re empty pages; what a sweet new year it would be if we were to fill those pages with abiding love and holy intentions.

Shabbat Shalom

Come Take a Ride

When I was a kid, my parents would load us into the car on a Sunday afternoon and then take a Sunday drive. Do people still do this? I can’t imagine. All of us, the young and the old and those in between, are so programmed now. Who can imagine ever find the time to get into the car and just … drive?

We had no destination, no roadside attraction where we would eventually arrive and do something. We just sat in the car while my father drove. He would meander on secondary roads through the little towns and villages of Connecticut. One of his goals, I think, was to purposely get lost and then figure out how to get back home (I know, the metaphors are so overdetermined here that I can’t even begin to explore them now – I’ll save that for another essay…)

Within 20 minutes of getting into the car, everyone but me was asleep: my mother, riding shotgun, my sisters in the backseat. And I was as far away from my father as I could be, rolling around in the wayback of our Studebaker Lark station wagon.  

He had nothing to say to me, and I had nothing I could say to him that felt safe. So we sat in silence as the rest of the family dozed off. I don’t remember listening to the radio. I just remember the hum of the wheels on the uneven pavement.

This worked for him, driving along in silence. As for me, it felt odd, this aimless, directionless winding through New England. I appreciated the quiet. But there was always some anxiety associated with this trip to nowhere. What if we got lost? What if he really didn’t know where he was going and how we were going to get back? (Yet another essay…)

To this day, the notion of just taking a walk with no destination in mind and with no goal makes me a little crazy. I’m ok to say we’ll walk 25 minutes and then turn around. That’s fine. But when someone says, “let’s go exploring!” my imagination hyperventilates.  I start to worry. I think, “How long will we be gone? When will I be back in my familiar setting, in my space?”

I don’t know how Magellan and Columbus and the Vikings and all those History Channel people did it. Just setting out, as Tom Petty sings, “into the great wide open”? Perhaps it’s my existential vertigo acting up? I know for sure that I would never sign up to be crew on the Nina, the Pinta, or even on the Santa Maria.

I would wave from the shore, cheering the brave souls on. That night, I’d crawl into my own bed and fall asleep, knowing the next morning, I would be right where I belong. It’s not very brave or courageous of me, I know.

Some people were borne to push themselves to the outer limits. They are the ones who listened to all the flat earth stories, and then said, “What the heck!? Let’s see what happens.” They are the ones like Theodor Herzl, who said, “Let’s create a Jewish State!” and then set about doing it because, well, why not?

Sometimes we’re the driver, mapping it out; or not. There may be a destination. Or not. But we are the drivers. And other times? We’re in the wayback, awake while others sleep, looking out the back where we’ve just been. I was just there for the ride. And sometimes, that’s the best place to be.

Shabbat Shalom


The Story of a Broken Spine

 I love my Mishkan Tefillah, the blue Shabbat siddur(prayer book) we use every week of the year. It’s the standard size of every other siddur in the sanctuary. But it’s a special edition, made with a stronger binding. And, get this: the page edges are gilded in gold. It has the look of an antiquarian treasure and the heft of the holy. 

Over so many years of regular hard-core use, my siddur has come to conform to my hands. The balance point on its spine is perfect. It never feels too big or unwieldy. The book knows what page I’m going to next. It opens at all the places we pray from. The oil from my fingers has left darkened corners on the pages with prayers I’ve opened to a million times, like Aleinu (pg 586or the Kaddish (pg 598)

I’ve spent real quality time with my siddur, at services large and small. Cold snowy Friday nights when we’re lucky to have a minyan (including a Torah or two…), big b’nai mitzvah celebrations with 250 people in the sanctuary, opening a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah – the list goes on. The beat goes on.

I love my siddur. So you can imagine how I felt when someone, somehow, took my siddur out of the sanctuary, something I NEVER do, my deluxe siddur with the gilded pages, and used it to copy some prayers. If that were all, dayeinu – it would’ve been enough. But it was far worse. While putting it in the copier, the culprit placed it on the glass surface of the machine. They then clearly pressed the siddur down hard to copy both sides of the book. I saw my siddur in the copy room next to the paper cutter and wondered why it was not in its proper place. I opened it and could instantly tell that it had been damaged. The offender inadvertently cracked the binding.

I was crushed. I felt violated and was almost in tears. My siddur, my source of strength, the sacred vessel with which I led the congregation in prayer and celebration, was broken. You might say, “Well, Rabbi; we own a few hundred copies of the siddur. Just grab one of those, or buy another one.” I didn’t want to take one out of congregational circulation. It would somehow not be kosher to use it. The siddurim are yours, not mine. 

I did call the CCAR to inquire about the availability of a special edition. The head of the CCAR Press personally searched high and low, but there were no more special editions for sale. They had sold out years ago. 

I decided I would simply carry on using my gilded, injured siddur. But it didn’t feel the same in my hands. It felt fragile. Whenever I turned the pages, I could feel the broken spine. It didn’t naturally open to the usual pages anymore. I had to open it cautiously to avoid turning to the wrong page. It was not ideal, but what else could I do? 

Then, a moment of reckoning. During a Jazz Shabbat service, when I turned to the Amidah (pg 164), two pages came loose. The spine had failed. I was heartbroken. What was I to do now? 

We had decided last year that with so many of our congregational siddurim in disrepair, we needed to send them to a bindery for restoration. So, with a heavy heart, I realized that I would have to trust my siddur in the hands of an unknown bookbinder. With God and Doug Ball as my witnesses, I taped a note to the cover of my prayer book. It read, “This is my beloved siddur. Please be kind to it.” It came back about two months later. It looked good! The binding was restored, maybe better than ever. I was mightily relieved and most grateful. But it’s not quite the same siddur it was ten years ago. We’ll need to get reacquainted. 

As the river pulls us all along, as we approach the rapids of a new year, we acknowledge that nothing is perfect, nothing stays the same. The pressures of work, infirmity, conflict, reversals in love and work and life, crushing disappointment in us and others – all the stuff that makes adult life so hard can cause us to break, just like the spine of my siddur. Amid adversity, what are we to do?

Giving up or giving in is sometimes the path of least resistance, but that’s rarely the best path. In the end, all we can do is to trust others to help us mend what is broken in us. This isn’t easy. There’s nothing carefree about it. We have to take a step towards health and believe there are those out there ready to catch us when we falter and fall. Nothing returns to the way it was. The past is accessible through memory but not through spirit.

My beautiful siddur is the same – but different, just like me. That may be one of the hardest truths about aging, about our victories and our losses. We’re precisely who we’ve always been. And we’re not. The river changes us – and I’m not just talking about wrinkles. 5780 will be here soon. I’m excited to face a new year knowing I don’t – I can’t! – face it alone. I’ve got my family, my friends, and my colleagues – and, thank God, I have you. So let’s embrace it all together: finitude and eternity, loss and new life, endings and beginnings, laughter and tears. With patience and humor, we can help each other mend our souls.