Monthly Archives: May 2020

Torah Torah Torah

Torah is the iconic representation of the Jewish people. It is the foundation upon which we construct our sense of peoplehood and purposefulness. It defines our direction in life, our very raison d’etre.

If you were to ask a rabbi from Chabad, from the Aleph renewal movement, from a Reconstructionist synagogue, from a modern Orthodox synagogue, from a Reform synagogue – and a few other rabbis thrown in because, why not… — you would get a plethora of definitions for Torah. Some would claim Torah was given by God to Moses on Mt Sinai and that the mitzvot within it are divinely mandated. Some would say that the Torah is a human document, a collection of myth and law and custom that began as oral tradition and was completed in written form after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Still, others would say that it’s a divinely inspired human document and that the mitzvot within it evolve over time.

Perhaps, in the end, this stark combination of fundamentally disparate definitions of the Torah has to do with its authority in our lives. For some, the interpretation of the Torah through Jewish law determines virtually everything they do. For Reform Jews, the jurisdiction of the Torah is not about God’s command, but our understanding of our moral obligations to each other to ourselves, into the rest of the world.

Today is Shavuot, the holiday that we traditionally observe to celebrate having received the Torah. There aren’t many traditions around this holiday, except for two: staying up all night studying and eating dairy products. Staying up all night and studying is part of a more profound mystical tradition. The dairy products are about envisioning the words of Torah as mother’s milk.

I’m okay with the first custom. But the second one is more problematic, not because I have any problems with digesting lactose. My hard time has to do with looking at words of Torah as being so nurturing. I have been doing Torah studies with adults every week, give or take a summer, for 40 years. And while we have come upon some very nurturing texts, the text overwhelmingly tends to be laconic, obscure, harsh, and occasionally cruel.

The text itself does not provide much in the way of comfort. There’s nothing really warm and yummy about Torah. The part that really makes the difference is the reader in the process of interpreting. The longevity of the Torah is only assured when we accept the challenge of struggling with its contents. We are the ones that have to wrest meaning from it.

The process of meaning-making is an essential component of postmodern Judaism. It challenges us to acknowledge when the tradition strays far from our sense of dignity and compassion. It pushes us to extract the essence of Jewish ethics from the deep thicket of an ancient text.

Over years of Torah study,  we have often discussed what the intent of the author might have been, and how we are to respond to that. Sometimes our postmodern sensibilities are deeply offended by what seems to be an utterly insensitive God in a harsh and unforgiving literary context. We always reach this point where we have to jettison how people understood and sometimes continue to follow the text in favor of a new interpretation. We don’t do this lightly. But we do it because we believe that Torah is not a stagnant vestige of long ago. It is as if we resuscitate it every time we open it, every time we embrace it, every time we have to stop and shake our heads, saddened by its omissions and inconsistencies.

Today is Shavuot, a day of gladness. And even as Jews vehemently disagree about what the Torah demands from us, it’s worth noting that when we trace the deepest roots of our understandings, they all lead to the same source. In a world that feels so out of whack, it’s reassuring that we share this foundation of Torah, in all its forms and interpretations.

Remembering Memorial Day

My old friend, David Wrubel and I, speak regularly. We’ve known each other for more than 50 years. By now, we have a massive compendium of stories covering every aspect of our lives. We don’t dwell much on past glories or ignominious missteps. Frankly, we have enough going on in our lives – most of it quite good, really – that generally precludes us lapsing into past glories or foibles.

But the other day, David went for a deep dive set of Memorial Day recollections. We lived in different towns and went to different high schools. But we were both in the school band. I don’t know what David played. I played the cymbals, which was one of the coolest, most sought after gigs ever…

The Memorial Day drill was the same for both us. Up early Monday morning, full band regalia on (heavy white blazer, thick black pants, classic black, plastic-brimmed military style hat), I’d schlep to the high school parking lot, climb on the yellow school bus. We’d unload several blocks from the Middletown green, our ultimate destination, instruments in hand.

There was another high school at the other end of Middletown. It was a nicer, newer place with a tonier group of kids. Their band, directed by  Bruce Schmottlach [I don’t remember where I put my keys, but I still remember the band director from the OTHER school]  was larger and much classier. The MHS band, led by Santo Fragilio, was a funkier and slightly disreputable assortment of geeks and stoners and whatnot. If you ever saw the movie, Stripes, well that gang was us.

We would all be lined up in a large parade formation. Our band was mercifully placed first, towards the front. Thus, we were spared the embarrassment sure to come if we had followed the superior musicians of Woodrow Wilson. It was a scene.

There were a number of different organizations that marched in the Memorial Day parade: Police, National Guard, Knights of Columbus, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and so on. And always sharing a prominent position were the vets.

There were always a few WWI survivors along with a much larger contingent of WWII vets, most of them in their garrison caps. In those years (1968-1972), I don’t remember a very large presence of Vietnam vets. But I know they were there.

I know that Vietnam was in our heads, that all of my male band compatriots marching along, playing patriotic tunes, had to be thinking, “What if I get drafted?” I was surely pondering that question. It was terrifying.

As a kid, I was fascinated by WWII, by the good guys vs the bad guys. It was utterly ambiguous. To be so clearly identified as the liberators, saving the world from unimaginable pain, was so reassuring. That was a trope of American culture, a foundational truth of my childhood.  It began to take a beating in Korea, only to fall apart in Vietnam. Ever since then, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Cambodia and Laos, there’s nothing but blurred lines.

At the Middletown Green, after all of the marchers took their places, there were the speeches, and I can’t tell you what anyone said. But I do remember when they played Taps. I remember seeing crusty old men, guys who had waded up to their shoulders in swamp, guys who sat in foxholes in utter panic, deafened by the sounds of mortar and artillery shells, overwhelmed by the crackle of gunfire, guys whose souls were brutalized by war. They saluted as the bugle sounded, tears running down their cheeks as they remembered the friends they lost, as they remembered the pieces of their souls sacrificed on battlefields so far away. As Taps ended, the vets would pull out handkerchiefs and hastily wipe up their tears. The crowd would disperse, and we’d walk to our school bus.

Of course, there are still good guys and bad guys in war. There are the tyrants and the oppressors and the liberators. But if I learned anything on the town green, it is that we’d better be exquisitely certain about what this nation is doing when we send young men and women into harm’s way in the name of America. The losses we sustain are too high to squander even one person’s life. And we have lost so many lives.

May the memory of all of those men and women who gave their lives for our country rest in peace.


Thursday may have the most beautiful day yet in 2020. The sky a deep cerulean blue, the sunshine warm upon my face. A gentle wind wafted through, and my windchimes pealed quietly.

Maybe it was the windchimes. Or perhaps it was the heat of the sun… But I closed my eyes in a mid-day reverie. And I located myself in the moment – the very moment in which I existed. There was nothing else but my molecules vibrating amongst everyone else’s molecules, which were, in turn, vibrating with every thing’s molecules. In that short interval, that click of moments passing at the speed of light, I experienced the embrace of the eternal present.

To clarify: I was not under the influence of anything herbal or fermented. I was not seeking this experience. There was no premeditated series of steps to follow. My mind was simply clear of any clutter, anxiety, or fear.

Suddenly there was room for something else, something like appreciation, like God’s grace. The words from Psalm 118:24 flashed to consciousness: “This is the day Adonai has made! Let’s rejoice and be happy in it!” And just like that, I was filled with what the undefinable Hebrew word, shalva, describes: tranquility, peace of mind, alpha state, Zen…

We miss things all the time, distracted by the static of our loud and busy lives. We are distracted by a barrage of messages and calls and texts and God knows what else.  They call out distracted driving – talking or texting while operating a motor vehicle – as the leading cause of injury and death on the highway. In truth, we often drive distracted through our lives. We miss quiet calls for attention or love or warning. Something as majestic and as fleeting as a double rainbow, or a particular melody, can be lost because of nonsense or call waiting or sheer overload.

I get it. We are all so distracted by very real concerns. Any number of things set off anxiety chain reactions, and those fears are all utterly legit. I do not minimize the burdens we carry in these times. I do not appreciate reminders like, “This is not bad; the Holocaust was bad.” I know the Holocaust was a time of unspeakable cruelty and genocide. But don’t tell me that Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot make my current pain and fear any less real. It is. Period. Some of us are like breezy beach novels. Others are like Russian literature: dark and brooding.  One isn’t ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than the other.

The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, once taught, “The world is full of wonders and miracles; but we take our hands, and cover our eyes, and see nothing.” Sitting outside on Thursday in the perfection of a Spring day, I was able to uncover my eyes. I was able to rejoice and to be happy in the day.

Bad things will continue to happen to good people; it is the way of the world. There’s nothing to be done about it. However, this fundamental truth of existence and suffering does not negate a beautiful day. Seeing a beautiful day – being a beautiful day, if you will, is a gift of grace, a reminder that life is not either/or, but rather, yes/and.

We’re covering our eyes. A lot. How could we be doing otherwise? But through the gloom are places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments, we are transported to a wholly holy plane, if just for a few, double rainbow moment of shalva. Take your hands from your eyes. Breathe. Smile.


A couple of years ago, while perusing the Internet,  my wife came upon a picture of romaine lettuce. Not just any romaine lettuce, mind you. It was a romaine lettuce heart, root down in some water. And it was growing!

Liza has the mindset of 18th century Jews from central Europe, who experienced enormous deprivation: persecution, hunger, and generally, a bad time. She will save scraps of food even though she knows that no one will eat it, including herself. We have at any given time, a collection of Chinese food plasticware shoved into the refrigerator, filled with a piece and a half of wilted broccoli, leftover cooked rice as hard as gravel, a small piece of salmon that is slowly changing color, the things in the cheese drawer that may once have been cheese but are now wildly colorful fuzzy art.

So, the romaine lettuce, seemingly going through some form of biogenesis, was irresistible to her. Ever since then, we have a kitchen windowsill devoted to the ongoing harvest of little romaine lettuce clumps. It’s impressive.

I don’t get it, really. How can it grow like that without being planted in soil? Without any added nutrients in the water?? This isn’t what I learned in 5th grade science class!

But grow it does. Not a big, full head like the ones at Whole Foods, but absolutely, unmistakably, romaine. Imagine my surprise when, doing my daily, hourly New York Times reading, I saw an article about… wait… the regeneration of scallions! And that this is now a microtrend!!

There are undoubtedly many sure and certain explanations for the growth of scallion roots and romaine lettuce from a bowl of water  – not to mention, the apparent success of growing several other vegetables, like celery, fennel, and lemongrass. I know: chlorophyll, water, hydrogen/carbon dioxide exchange… and so forth. I’ve read about hydroponics…

But my theory is more spiritually-based, expressed first in Jurassic Park – the original, released in 1993. Jeff Goldblum, the actor who is always simultaneously cool AND a nerd, speaks one of the most famous movie lines of all time. He says, “Life, uh, finds a way.”

He means that, against all odds, we persevere. He means that there is some transcendent force – I call it God; Dr. Malcolm may mean it as simply the way DNA pushes ALL life forms to never surrender. But where it comes from is not as important as acknowledging that it exists. And it does.

Life finds a way. Read about the siege of Stalingrad, the American Civil War, the Spanish Flu outbreak, migrants walking on foot across swamps or deserts or mine fields. Despite every reason to the contrary, people put their heads down and walk right into the storm. Because that’s where freedom is. That’s where fellowship is. That’s where safety is. Life finds a way.

We’re living in a time haunted by the Angel of Death. Some of us go about our now circumscribed lives the best we can. We wave to others, we move through restricted spaces carefully, with respect for the way this virus spreads. But we venture out!

But then there are those who are utterly terrified, who see the spectre of the Angel of Death close by. Like the woman I saw yesterday who sat waiting in her idling car, her window open. As I approached from well over ten feet, she rolled her window up. That’s fear.

Yes, I know. The Angel of Death is a terrifying presence. It’s easy to bear down on the fear, to see everything as evidence of imminent demise. I have a newfound respect for the Angel of Death.

But when the terror grows so great, when everyone outside your quarantine circle is nothing more than a potential threat, then this world is only a grim anteroom to the grave. The shadow of the Grim Reaper snuffs out everything that is affirming, everything that creates beauty and light.

Yes, wear a mask when you go into the store, when you crowd along the trails or the beach. Wear gloves when they tell you to. Respect the Angel of Death. It’s a real force. But don’t forget. There is something even stronger than death.

Life will always find a way.

Honi Lessons

As we get older, we collect a veritable repository of stories. We carry memories: our own as well as those of our family and friends. We carry plots from the books and articles we’ve read and the movies and shows we’ve eagerly watched, and the lessons taught to us in classrooms and waiting in line at Starbucks (remember waiting in line?).

Over time it becomes more difficult to remember all of these stories as we initially absorbed them. Plotlines get twisted and garbled and half-forgotten. It is so frustrating! We conflate themes, combine different stories that have no connection.

Sometimes a story reemerges. Something tickles a corner of the hippocampus, that area of the brain where story files are kept. Parenthetically, I imagine this region of the brain resembles a library filled with papers and open books everywhere…

A tale came knocking on my door of consciousness. I remember hearing it for the first time about 55 years ago in Hebrew School. It’s about a guy named Honi the Circle Maker. How he got his name is another story altogether. Suffice to say, he was known as a bright, pious, impatient man.
I was so happy for its return! What motivated my unconscious to send it out is anybody’s guess; that’s why they call it the Unconscious. But I think I know how it got here… but first, the story.

One day, Honi saw an old man carrying a shovel in one hand, and a tiny sapling in the other. Honi asked him, “Hey! What are you planting?” The man replied, “This is a carob tree.” Honi said incredulously, “Wait – doesn’t a carob tree take a really long time to bear fruit?” “Why yes”, the old man said, “It will take seventy years for it to give fruit.” At which point Honi scratched his head and said, “So why bother? You’ll never live to enjoy it! What a waste of time!”

The old man thrust the shovel into the loamy soil; it made that uniquely satisfying sound shovels make at work. As he continued to dig the hole he said, “When I was a young boy, I ate the fruit from the carob tree that my grandfather had planted. Now I am planting a carob tree for my grandchildren. It’s not about me; it’s about us.”

On the most straightforward level, this story is a stark example of delayed gratification. It’s the realistic assessment of what one can have and what one must wait for. Things don’t just happen. They take planning and fortitude. It means sometimes we have to do without.

Up till now, we’ve been living in a world that touts instant gratification as the norm. You want strawberries in January – poof! – there they are on the shelf! You want food from a restaurant in New York? No problem; we’ll send it right out. You can get almost anything you want, any time.

And right now, for almost everyone, we are suffering from delayed gratification. We can’t have what we want right now. We don’t have access to the people, places, and things that are most significant to us.

I want out right now! I want it to be all better! Only it’s not, and the only people wise enough to offer dependable advice are epidemiologists, and they’re saying, “It’s not a good idea to move forward as if all is well, because it’s not.” So we have to wait. Behaving like little boys with toy guns having tantrums because the babysitter said they can’t go outside is not helpful. It’s stupid and tragic. And it’s dangerous to every vulnerable citizen. Delayed gratification is hard; it’s a sign of maturity and empathy. But Honi doesn’t understand.

The other lesson I derive from this deeply planted story is that we are not responsible only for ourselves. What we do in the world must be about others and not just for ourselves. Unborn generations depend on us.
The old man in the story reminds Honi that this is how Jewish life works. We sustain ourselves – and we plant the seeds for the future. We care for ourselves – and we protect the interests of the next generations.

Belonging to a temple is not just for our own children’s Hebrew school or B’nei Mitzvah or baby naming. It’s to provide a place for the next generations, a point in space that serves as the locus of community and wholeness – a place with a reputation and a philosophy that is progressive – and dependably present.

My hippocampus must have sent this story to my frontal cortex to help strengthen my resolve in the work we do and the promises we make. Honi learns a lesson, and we do, too. The best things in life are those that we create, nurture, and love. It’s delayed gratification, for sure. But in the end, those things are worth waiting for – they always are. We are not put here just for ourselves – we are part of a chain, a living chain of tradition and history. We must never forget that planting those trees for the future is our obligation. It’s not about me; it’s about us.
Shabbat Shalom