Monthly Archives: June 2022

Rolodex Brain

The older we get, the more memories we accumulate. Ok, I know – this isn’t a particularly innovative insight, but hear me out because it’s one thing to know that this is true. But living it? That’s a real and abidingly complex experience of life.
When we can’t precisely place a name or face, it’s not the beginning of the end. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s. Instead, it’s a full Rolodex brain (I know, the reference is, at this stage, archaic), bursting with information: names, numbers, pictures, business cards, and, generally, obscure references.
To further complicate things, there’s not a very good filtering process for this data. Rolodex brain just sits there with names of the long-deceased, businesses that have been closed for decades, authors I want to read, musicians whose music I want to hear… along with an unbelievable collection of trivia.
The other day at a beautiful temple wedding, a couple approached me. They were, like me, in that late 60s range. “Remember us?” they said. I looked at them and smiled with, I’m sure, deer-in-the-headlights eyes. The Rolodex brain got into gear, rifling through the cards as fast as I could. Like the classic rotary file, the one with the big black knobs you use to flip through contacts, I was spinning as fast as I could.
I was about to concede when, for obscure reasons, my Rolodex brain stopped at the first letter of their last name. I couldn’t get any further. I apologized. But they gave me an A for effort. It had been more than 20 years since they had been temple members. They were still in the Rolodex brain.
The TBA Rolodex brain collection is 25 years old. It’s filled with names, many of which are surrounded by an event, a conversation, a ritual, laughter, tears, travel, and more. Reviewing the myriad contact points and people with whom I’ve communed over the years is sobering and inspiring.
And it’s joyful, too. That wedding I mentioned, the one where I desperately sought to recall a distant thread of connection, was extraordinary for many reasons. Most meaningful, when it comes to discussing names and memory, was the bride. The bride: a sweet young woman with whom I sang Bim Bom Shabbat Shalom 23 years ago – or was it 24? – sitting on the bimah steps with her Super Star poster in her hands.
There we were, on the same bimah, only she was holding a bouquet, not a poster. For a moment, time collapsed. There was a remarkable merging of past, present, and future into a sacred space of connection. There was no need to sort through any cards. We were connected, even to the bimah. I felt so lucky to be present, to be alive.
I am blessed to carry around this Rolodex brain, filled with so much that is deep and soulful. It’s an honor to have so much to remember, so many cards, from a letter in the alphabet to Bim Bom to the smile of a bride. It’s all there, all in the cards of my Rolodex brain.

The Blessing and the Curse

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” I first heard that bromide when I was just a little kid. This maxim is always uttered in a singsong fashion, probably because saying it in a normal voice would reveal the sheer stupidity of the statement.  

Anyone who’s ever been bullied can tell you that the physical abuse is terrible, but eventually, it’s over. The name-calling, the put-down, the isolation, and the despair last a lifetime. The barbs of a defamatory nickname or a hateful comment about… well, anything! – lodge so profoundly that it’s impossible just to let it fade. The harm from names leaves scars.

My research indicates that this saying first appeared in print in the mid-1800s in a British publication, which is not surprising. Sticks and stones…etc., conveys that stiff upper lip attitude so valued in British culture. Americans were all too eager to adapt it for domestic usage. It fit so well with the Calvinist notion that diligence, discipline, and frugality result from a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith. It also matched the cowboy ethic: a man is terse, defended, and not emotional. Not to mention Frankie Valle’s 20th-century admonition that big girls don’t cry (which even he admitted was just an alibi…).

We acknowledge that “sticks and stones” is facile, destructive, and just plain wrong. Words wound us deeply. But the converse is also true. Words can lift up spirit and soul. Words can inspire us to action and remind us of our worth. Words can heal and bless us.

The truth of kind words emerges from this week’s Shabbat Torah portion, which includes the Priestly Benediction: The Eternal bless you and protect you. The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you. The Eternal bestow divine favor upon you and grant you peace. There’s nothing complicated here, no hard-core if/then scenarios, no punishment meted out for failure to perform any number of mitzvot. It’s about wishing someone else good health and luck and hoping they receive love, grace, and kindness.

This shouldn’t be so difficult to accomplish, wishing someone well with words of blessing. But kindness is in short supply as anger and bullying grow by the second. Sharp, bitter words of condemnation saturate every corner of our lives. Whatever that brief, shining moment was during Covid, when we tried to live by the notion that we were “all in it together,” has dissipated to almost nothing. Every issue is toxic, making any interaction with a fellow human being fraught with anxiety.

We have a choice between offering up a blessing or a curse in so many moments. Do we engender cruelty or kindness? It’s so easy to surrender to the forces of pessimism and privilege. But it’s not our destiny. It’s not our way. Who knows better than we do about the destructiveness of hate speech? Opt for blessing.

The Voyage of Meaning

We are voyagers journeying across the spacetime continuum. The Universe in which we travel is expanding. Which means that the destination we are reaching for will eternally be beyond our reach. But we are enroute, in motion.

There are no signposts pointing the way, no pre-assigned pathway through the mysterious, unseeable landscape up ahead. There is no one looking out for us. There is no unseen hand guiding us, no puppeteer, no strings.

God is not some cosmic pilot. God is the force of life and consciousness. We receive inspiration from the Holy One. But God is not a beacon or a searchlight but rather the light within us. God accompanies us but does not clear the way. Every one of us on our own unique voyage is tasked with being a trailblazer, hacking away at the darkness.

Jews aren’t big on fortunetellers or soothsayers. We’re not convinced that tarot cards or crystal balls are anything more than a scam. It’d be a welcome relief to have some information about tomorrow, some inside track. But tomorrow is not accessible. God cannot tell us what happens next.

As we speed forward without any brakes, we can feel overwhelmed. How do we make sense of the finitude of life in an infinite Universe? How is it that the Universe literally just goes on and on and on… and we don’t? That all we have is just on loan? That we take nothing with us…? Is there any sense to be made of our lives? What does our voyage even mean?

Those questions, my beloved congregation, define why we are here. We gather to acknowledge shared traditions and history and culture. We gather and share matzah balls and shabbat chicken and challah.  We gather to make minyans to lift up the hearts of those in mourning. We create rituals and ceremonies. We share Jerusalem and St Petersberg and Odessa and Leghorn and Rabat. We share the birth of Israel and the Holocaust and the Inquisition and the Exodus.

We are Jews, a people with a deep and complicated past, flecked with strength and loss. Diaspora dwellers, outsiders, bound and determined to define our own lives as precious.

We build purpose, and hope. We make meaning with Jewish stories and values and menus and tools. Our raison d’etre is to provide stability and strength in times of darkness and anxiety. TBA isn’t a club or a community center or a school. It’s a crucible for making mensches, a place of justice and forgiveness and laughter. It’s home. It’s a collective beating heart.

When our educators show our youngest students how to make a spice box, they’re not seeking to indoctrinate them into a halachic practice, to learn ritual for ritual’s sake. It’s rather a mind-opening exercise of translating the scent of cinnamon and cloves into an appreciation of the earth and the gift of the senses. It’s about connecting them to a deep past and a comforting present. They are making meaning.  

On Friday mornings, the youngest kids spread out their challah covers on the floor in the foyer or on the blacktop outside in the Meisel tent. They arrange their kiddush cups and candleholders and participate in a Shabbat ritual. We sing, laugh, and hear from a talking challah. We break bread and we sing prayers of gratitude.

We signify life in those moments. We acknowledge that sacred moments exist. We make life holy. That’s what we do.

There’s been nothing slow or gradual about how the world has changed over the past few years. It’s been turbulent and often scary. The sheer enormity of Covid, and its ongoing hold on us, body and soul, is impossible to quantify. The rise of authoritarianism across the world and with it the rise in antisemitism and hate crimes casts a troubling shadow. The advance of climate change and the lack of alarm in the boardrooms where real change is possible is disheartening. The threat to women that they will lose the right of autonomy over their own bodies is unspeakable. The carnage in Uvalde, Texas, caused by a kid who walked into a gun store and legally bought ammunition and weapons whose sole purpose is to kill multiple victims, is almost too much to bear.

We need our temple now more than ever. We need our common heart to beat with humanity and compassion for each other and for the world. We need to establish a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace.

We commiserate, and then we reach out for life. We make meaning. We don’t look down – we look ahead. We do so not in a naïve way, but instead in a resolute way. We don’t know – we can’t know – what is going to happen out there. But we can decide who we want to be. We don’t find meaning: we make meaning.

We cannot rely on what we were 15 years ago to define what we will become as an evolving congregation. The stakes are different. The challenges feel particularly daunting. We will dare to do things we’ve never done before. This congregation has never shied away from innovation.

We are voyagers journeying across the spacetime continuum. And this place, this community, this Jewish life, provides solace and support and shelter from the storm. Come and we will build meaning and community and hope.