Author Archives: rabbeinu

Dear Sally Rooney

Dear Ms. Rooney,
Let me admit it right away: I haven’t read your work, and I didn’t watch the screen adaptation of Normal People on Netflix. But I know many people did, including some of my own children. The consensus is that you are a fabulous talent.
The word on the street and in social media is that you are the voice of the millennial generation. You’ve created a voice at once unique and simultaneously one that captures the zeitgeist of your generation and your times.
I congratulate you on your enormous success. To become a writer takes hard work. It can be brutal putting yourself out there in print, subject to the slings and arrows of critics. But based on my cursory research, your reception has been very positive. You’re no flash in the pan. At age 30, you are a literary force to be reckoned with.
This open letter has nothing to do with the contents of your fiction or the style of writing you use to such good effect. The issue that motivates me to write this missive concerns your audacious decision regarding a Hebrew translation of your latest best-selling fiction, Beautiful World Where Are You.
You said that you were proud to have “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends,” published in Hebrew. You also said, “Likewise, it would be an honor for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house… I do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and supports the U.N.-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.”
You added that the Hebrew-language translation rights to the novel are still available and that if you can find a way to sell them and adhere to the B.D.S. movement’s guidelines, that you will be very pleased and proud to do so.”
I’m very critical of the Jewish State and the gross inequities that define the Arab-Israel conflict. There are so many egregious social, legal, and moral issues in play. That Israel must commit to peace and cooperation with the Palestinian people is essential. The lack of movement on this front pains me deeply.
However, it’s worth noting that many Israelis and Palestinians are working together to do what they can to bring about change on a grassroots level. It’s slow going, but it’s real. The commitment to ameliorate this decades-long struggle is an admirable dimension of Israeli-Arab dialogue and action.
You seem to admire the B.D.S. (Boycott Defund Sanction) movement. It’s a big deal in the Western world today. I imagine that your refusal to allow your novel to be translated into Hebrew unless you vet the publisher’s political stance is a variation on the B.D.S. theme.
It is so discouraging that a gifted young author would act in this way. You exhibit no sense of the political and cultural nuances of your actions. There are undoubtedly people applauding your bold statement. But let’s face it: pillorying Israel is so easy.
Now you become a hero of the anti-Zionist left. Various Palestinian committees and organizations delight in your taking up the cause. Like Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, your stage provides you the opportunity to take pot shots. I know you’re not an antisemite. And I’m not accusing you of that.
I suggest that by preventing Hebrew-speaking readers from sharing your insights through fiction, you are losing your power to inspire and motivate them. By turning your back on the Hebrew language – the language – you insult a deep Jewish tradition of learning and reading.
I am neither the first nor the last to suggest that this action of yours is easy. After all, how many readers will you lose? A hundred thousand at the most? How much money will you lose? Not too much. What if you refused the Chinese or Russian editions of Beautiful World Where Are You. There’s no lack of nations doing horrible things to their citizens. But that’s big bucks.
In fact, why publish in any language? Why not boycott all forms of expression until the world becomes what you want it to be? Hold back as an act of political defiance.
Ms. Rooney, we need works of art, expressions of conscience. Your singling out Israel from other nations is a cheap trick, a dance for the feckless, ineffective B.D.S. movement. I wish you luck with your writing career. And I hope you’ll mature into a great writer. In the meantime, it would serve you well to reconsider.

Torah

I’ve been around a lot of Torahs. Big Torahs. Little Torahs. Torahs with exquisite covers, with simple crushed velvet covers, or no covers at all. Torahs scribed in the Hasidic style, the Czech style, the Tzfat style, the Lithuanian style, and others I could not identify. Some Torahs were in terrific shape, like our very own commissioned Torah: so bright and clear, the black ink still gleaming whenever the light hits it. Some, like our Holocaust Torah and others, are over a hundred years old, the parchment drying out, the ink chipping away from endlessly rolling forward and backward and forward again.

I’ve never taken a Torah scroll – any of the ones I’ve held and/or read from and/or kissed with my tallit as it passed before me – for granted. I embrace the sacredness of the scroll. I understand its history and the traditions around holding it and honoring it, and reading from it. I cherish the responsibility with which I am charged to teach Torah in all its multitudinous layers.

But I am not in awe of a Torah. It doesn’t scare me to pick it up or to roll it. It’s a regular part of my life, integrated with prayerbooks and blessings.

We brought the kids outside for the opening of our Wednesday Jewish Enrichment Program (ok, I made that name up; I don’t like calling it ‘Hebrew School’ anymore. That appellation is just too fraught with negative connotations) for an inaugural session of prayer and song. Our educators, Heidi and Miryam, wanted to weave Torah learning into the experience. Since Simchat Torah (the end of Sukkot when we roll the Torah from the end back to the beginning) had just passed, we thought it would be a good time for our kids to see the Torah they would one day chant from for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

There, on a table in the middle of the TBA parking lot, I opened our beautiful Torah scroll to the very first verses of Genesis. I then asked the kids to gather around the table in concentric circles to get an up-close view. A few of the kids were nonplussed, but most of them were awestruck.

I gave them some basic facts about the scroll. They stared at the Hebrew intently. They touched the parchment, remarking on its smoothness. I saw wonder and amazement emanating from their eyes. This was very special: even with masks on, their faces were shining.

Then the questions started, lots of questions. “Rabbi! How long is the Torah when you open it all the way?” “Rabbi, what happens if you drop the Torah?” “How long does it take to write a Torah?” The questions were pragmatic, focused on the Torah as an object.

And then one of the kids asked, “Rabbi, is it real?” In all these years, no one had ever asked me that question before. I wasn’t even sure I understood what she was asking me. I asked her, “You mean, is this a real Torah, not a paper copy like the ones we give out to kids when they start their Jewish education?” No, she said, that wasn’t what she meant. “Is it real?”

It was, I supposed, a 4th grader’s invitation to a theological discussion about the origins of the Torah and who the Author – or authors – were. I tried to explain that the Torah was a series of stories written by humans who had experiences about who God is and what it means to be a Jewish person living in a big tribe with other Jewish people. I said the Torah reminds us to be the best humans we can be by showing love and kindness and understanding others.

I’m not sure the extent to which she took this explanation in or if I was answering her question at all. But I do know that it was a lovely moment of encounter and learning. I reveled in the circle of kids and teachers who were all so happy to be so close to the Torah, a real Torah.

Every year, Jews get to the end, and then we start all over again. No matter what else is happening, we follow this tradition. These are the things that define meaning. As the Universe rolls ineluctably to disorder, to have a dependable structure to hold onto until the end of time is a transcendent blessing. It makes us whole.

Shabbat Shalom

Taking the Time

This has been the longest roller coaster ride of my life… The roller coaster metaphor barely approximates this year without equal, this annus horibbilis.  What a ride…

There were many fraught moments when I remembered the Anthony Newley musical title, Stop the World – I want to Get Off. Where is the exit sign? Where is the Instruction Manual? What next?

This year of surgery, plague and anxiety, recovery, vaccination, and redemption is slowing down; the cars are pulling into the station. Finally, I can see faces again. I can hug again. I can take a deep breath.

Before Shabbat is going on hiatus for the summer, and so am I. The Stern Gang will be away seeking R&R during the month of July. I’m going to Cape Cod – again. It is, as so many of you know by now, my place of refuge. It’s where I excel at sitting in the sun and listening to jazz. I get to watch the ocean’s dynamic, ever-changing rhythms.

My Before Shabbat hiatus comes to make room for new thoughts and themes. It’s a way to consolidate my brain’s hard drive. I’ll be doing some reading, some grilling, and some relaxing. I hope to create some quiet time to think new thoughts about where we are right now and how we move in time.

Vacation or not, High Holy Day sermon themes rush through my head. It’s a long-time habit, a reflex. So I’ve been thinking about the things we learned over this past year. How did we alter our behavior? What motivated us to hold on? What were the sources of our resilience? What were the ways we stepped up and became better citizens? What lessons do we hope to adopt into our worldview permanently? But, just as importantly, what did we learn about ourselves that we vow never to repeat?

To help answer some of these questions, I’m waiting patiently for the first comprehensive history of this pandemic. It’ll take a few years for that text to be written. It must be a study of heroes and villains, of scientists and scholars, of fools and scofflaws. It will feature politicians who endeavored to head off the avalanche of preventable deaths.  It will expose other politicians who betrayed the health of their people in service to shameful preening self-interest.

Until that book or books appear, I’ll be compiling my answers and sharing them with you from time to time. I hope to provide some clarity and shed some light from our tradition. I take my inspiration from the rabbinic tradition, a two-thousand-year-old willingness to process history and experience through Jewish eyes and with a Jewish heart. I have always sought to express myself from that same place of engagement with life rather than retreat and pen commentary from a distance.

For now, though, as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan once sang, “This ol’ world/Keeps on and slowly going/ So I’m gonna sit here on this bank of sand/ And watch the river flow.”

Bank of sand or Nauset Beach, river or sea, it’s all about the breathing free and watching life flow.

We Remember

General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that “the 30th day of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion [the Civil War], and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet in the land. In this observance, no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” The holiday would first become known as Decoration Day. Memorial Day became its official title in the 1880s. After World War I, Memorial Day was officially designated to honor Americans who died in all wars.

Wars are vicious. They scar a nation’s soul and the souls of those who fought in them. Like Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who coined the phrase, “War is hell,” those who have fought in war know it better than those who merely write the stories of war and those of us who read or view their analyses. To know war as a soldier is to know that it is horrific. Hell can be defined simply as the furthest away you can get from what is good and right, the furthest away you can get from God; war is hell because whether we succeed or fail in our military objective, everybody finally loses a lot, even those who live through it.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can derail the best efforts of veterans when they get home. Depression, substance abuse, and homelessness are plagues that afflict far too many men and women who chose to serve their country. Since 2006, there has been an 86% increase in the suicide rate among 18-to-34-year-old male veterans. Veterans are at 50% higher risk for suicide than their peers who did not serve in the military.

No one has any cogent theories that adequately explain the shocking, staggering numbers. But we do know that there is something desperately wrong with this picture. These statistics are a signal, a bright red warning flag.

It’s essential on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend that we remember the veterans who have died in all wars. They deserve our attention. They deserve to be acknowledged, as do their families.

Those veterans who committed suicide and their families: parents, siblings, partners, kids – all deserve recognition and rachmones [empathy]. On this Memorial Day weekend, filled with sales and races and beer, take a moment. Acknowledge the tremendous loss of life in the wake of war. Consider the pain and the loss. We remember them.

Hoping

It’s all quiet on the western front – for now. Tonight, Israelis had a Shabbat Shalom – a Shabbat of peace. They came out of their safe rooms, hopeful that they will sleep through the night in their beds.

Palestinians in Gaza are taking stock of their situation. Some are seeking temporary shelter, their homes reduced to rubble. They are figuring out how to get water and food.  

There is, at last, a ceasefire, one we hope is durable. History suggests that it will inevitably be breached a few times before it’s accepted as the latest law of the land. But at least, for the time being, the sounds of warfare are not heard.

This latest war, the acting out of chronic political and ideological conflicts between Israel and Palestine, has created an ominous trend. “… We are witnessing a dangerous and drastic surge in anti-Jewish hate right here at home,” says ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement released shortly before the ceasefire was reached. “It’s happening around the world— from London to Los Angeles, from France to Florida, in big cities like New York and in small towns, and across every social media platform.”

It’s always frightening to read of a marked uptick in antisemitic statements and crimes. Whenever we hear a story of a Jew being accosted – or worse, we feel the vulnerability and draw on memories of persecution that are centuries old. The sordid story of antisemitism is a horrible, ongoing tale of ignorance and malevolence. Yet, no matter how many times we’ve heard about it or experienced it ourselves, it still shocks us.  

It’s also shocking that, throughout history, we’ve often found ourselves alone with our anxiety and fear over antisemitism. We didn’t see any immediate indignation in the media over Jews being singled out and attacked at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Had the attackers been neo-Nazis and the victims people of color, would there be more coverage, more outrage?

Is antisemitism just so de rigueur, deeply rooted in Western civilization, that people take it for granted? It just seems so easy to take figurative and literal potshots at Jews.

The hope is that moving forward, the ceasefire will cool things down in the Middle East and here at home, too. But then, what next? Will the end of hostilities drop Palestine back into the stasis of status quo, where it’s been ignored by the world for years now? And won’t that perpetuate this endless cycle of violence? A ceasefire isn’t peace.

Both Israelis and Palestinians deserve dignity and security. A two state solution is  the only way to make this happen. A Jewish and democratic state for Israel, and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinians. For those that wish to replace or destroy Israel, it is not going to happen. For those that want to ignore Palestinians hoping they will go away, that will not happen.

I don’t have any answers right now, just a fragile sense of hope that I pray we all can share.

Od Yavo Shalom – Peace May Come Maiyin Yavo Ezri –Where Will It Come From:

When I read about terrible events happening in foreign countries every day, whether caused by war or sickness, or climate catastrophes, we react with empathy and sadness. We may wonder what charity we can click on to send money. But it’s so far away.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in India now, where the air is thick with the ashes from countless funeral pyres. I don’t have any experience being hunted by my government like rebels in Syria. I could add endlessly to all the experiences I have not – and will never have. I don’t know the streets of Kabul or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or the alleys of Lagos.

But over the past week, I’ve been reading about the current war – and it is a war – in Israel. The fish restaurant that marauding Arab rioters torched? I’ve eaten there. I know the guy who owns it. The loud demonstrations in Yafo? I’ve stayed at my friends’ apartment there and walked in the flea market and bought ice cream at the best ice cream shop in Israel from the Israeli Arab owners. I’ve spent time hanging out on the beach in Bat Yam, where a bunch of Israeli thugs pulled an Arab from his car, beating and kicking him.

I’ve been there. I know the cities and the towns and the people. I have friends whom I love and visit. I’m a Jew. Israel is a part of me, which is why the current situation cuts so close to my soul.

I’m swiping back and forth between the Haaretz website and the Times of Israel. I toss and turn, checking the news at midnight, 4 am, and then all day. I wonder what may happen next. It surely seems that a ceasefire is not at hand. The possibility that the war might expand from Gaza to the streets of Israeli cities feels perilously close.

There is so much fear in my heart: for my dear friends. For the Yad b’Yad schools we’ve visited. For all the innocent adults and children, Arab and Israeli, caught in a cycle of hatred and anger.

Palestinian irridentism, Israeli political ineptitude, feckless leadership in Israel and Palestine, long-simmering Palestinian rage after 50 years of occupation, the blind hatred of Hamas – all of these and so many other factors created the perfect storm of war. But casting blame is never helpful. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past year in our country’s political history, blame needs nowhere. It must be about action and amelioration.

I have a long list of grievances and bitter commentary about the situation. There is so much that is so toxic that just keeps playing out, over and over. When will it stop? “I lift my eyes to the mountains and wonder from where will my help arrive?” While there may or may not be a spiritual answer, there must be a political answer – and I don’t know how that will come to be.

In the meantime, I worry. I read. And then worry some more. And yet… I saw a news piece, easy to lose in the endless barrage of missiles and the rain of bombs. And it touched me. Now maybe this is just another manifestation of my babyboomer antiwar marching days. You can call it naivete or projecting a privileged white guy’s conception of hope. I almost didn’t mention it at all. But I must be hopeful, even while I am not an optimist. There was a gathering at a major traffic junction in Israel today before Shabbat. Hundreds of Israelis and Arabs held signs that said: “Jews and Arabs Together Against Violence.”

I know. A small crowd. A far-fetched motto. A tiny speck of calm amid shocking brutality. But it’s something, some hook upon which to hang a vague sense of possibility. “Od yavo shalom aleinu.” Peace may yet come to all of us.

PS Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to Zoom some conversations with folks in Israel. The first one will be with Yonatan Shimshoni . He knows so much about every aspect of the current conflict. I’ll also be connecting with Adele Raemer, a wonderful woman who lives miles from Gaza. Our temple teens Israel trip visited with her last year. We’ll hear from what it’s like to be in an active war zone. That conversation and some others in the works will be announced soon.

PPS Read this piece to get a sense of all the moving parts in this terrible fight.

Shabbat Shalom

The Girls

My mother, may she rest in peace, had a red faux lizard skin case. Inside it was a bunch of tiles embossed with Chinese letters and designs, with pictures and numbers and who knows what else. There were also little plastic chips with the centers cut out to fit on spindles. Additionally, there were stands upon which to set up the tiles.

It may be that there were only two things my mother owned that were off-limits to us kids: her purse, and that case with the tiles and stuff. Along with the case, there was a blue card that apparently changed once in a while. My mother always got excited when “the new card” arrived in the mail. I remember looking at it from time to time as my mother studied it. Even after I learned how to read, I could never decode the cryptic lines of differently colored numbers.

Of course, it was all about mahjongg. Every 4th Wednesday night of the month, Faith and Anne and Lila and Gert would come over the house and engage in this strange ritual of clacking tiles and groans and odd utterances like, “5 Bam”, “2 Dots,” and so on. It was for women only – Jewish women , I assumed.

There was always coffee steaming in the Pyrex percolator, a coffee cake, and something called “bridge mix.” The ‘girls’ would laugh and laugh all night. I had no idea what they were doing, and I still don’t. But whatever it was they were doing, it looked and sounded great.

Children were categorically banned from the dining room when the girls were over for mahjongg. We could come to say good night, but that was all. None of us ever sought to test that law.

No one seems to know why or how Jewish women picked up the Chinese game of mahjongg in the ’20s and ’30s. I don’t know what the analog was for American women of different faiths. But for Jewish women, it was a mainstay, an important outlet for our mothers to relax, take time out, and enjoy adult female company.

The babyboomer generation of Jewish women has not, as a rule, followed in their mothers’ footsteps. Some do know how to play the game. Many have their mother’s mahjongg sets. But time has become so precious. Jewish women professionals are now expected to show up for their kids’ various practices and recitals and games, not to mention work full-time. Discretionary time hardly exists.

It was a mahjongg night the day my father died. I didn’t even think to call Anne or Faith or Gert or Lila. What did I know?  I was 14, with three younger siblings and a rotary phone. Of course, they came over.  I met them by the front door and awkwardly told them how my mother left the house in the ambulance and that father had had what looked like a heart attack. They wanted to know if we were ok. I reassured them that I had it under control, though, of course, I didn’t. They hugged me and left.

Years later, I found out that The Girls went to Middlesex Memorial Hospital to sit with my mother as she waited for the dire results. I remember being so touched that this circle of women existed for my mother, that she had friends who supported her, just as she had stood by them in their times of crisis.

My mother became a widow at age 38. She had four kids, all of whom would come to act out in various ways following our father’s death. She was a housewife who suddenly became a single mother whose husband died without an insurance policy or a will.

The Girls looked out for my mother. The entire Middletown Jewish community – a couple hundred families as I recall – looked out for her. People in the synagogue lent her money, helped pay tuitions, hired her for their stores, hired me for their stores. It was a quiet, loving, menschlich form of tzedakah that allowed my mother dignity as she received assistance without ever having to ask for it.

I never learned to play mahjongg, but the sounds of the tiles and the talking, and the smell of the coffee on a game night remain deep in the folds of my brain. So does my mother’s smile and her anticipation as she brought her faux-lizard case out of her closet. My mom, Shirley – one of The Girls – has been gone now for 12 years. But I still hear her voice: “One Bam, no Crak.”

Happy Mothers Day

Petals

I gaze out the window of my third-floor man-cave all of the time. It grounds me somehow, reminding me that there’s a larger world out there. During this pandemic, such a message has been neither simple nor superfluous. It’s the spot from which I’ve steadily Zoomed for a year. I’ve watched seasons come and go from this attic retreat. The leaves change, fall off, come back. I’ve watched the snow falling and the rain beating down. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end… you get it.

But this morning, I looked out the window and saw something new and beautiful. The wind began gusting like crazy! As it did so, I watched in awe as a cloud of cherry blossom petals flew past my window. This veil of petals seemed possessed, majestic in movement, graceful as it twisted in the air.

I planted the cherry tree from which these blossoms launched 24 years ago. My father-in-law, Herbie Weiss, brought it over. “Here you go, Keithy!” he exclaimed as he handed it to me. I hadn’t asked him for it. Frankly, I didn’t want to plant a tree in the front yard. I had visions of a flower garden for my new home. I didn’t want to add shade to the yard. I did not want to deal with the care and maintenance of a tree, no less a fruit tree.

But it was Herbie, standing there with this tree. It was his way of celebrating our arrival in Newton. What could I say? He was so exuberant, so sure it was just what I wanted. Of course, I took it from him and planted it.

The cherry tree is so big now. And yes, its shade causes problems and mars my grand plan for the garden. The cherries that grow on its branches are too small to eat – though the birds and the squirrels love them.

There are times when I thought about cutting the tree down (with apologies to George Washington). I would say to myself, “Someday, when Herbie is gone, I’ll cut it down.” After all, a gardener cannot afford to be sentimental. A good gardener will pull out weeds and flowers and bushes that are choking or overrunning the garden. That’s just the way it is. There’s a time to plant and a time to uproot that which has been planted.

I recently walked around the tree, thinking about how the canopy will continue to spread. Yes, the cherry blossoms are beautiful, but… I could use the space. I could use the wood for a table or a nice fire or something…

Herbie is gone now. Six months ago today, we buried him in that out-of-nowhere snowstorm on October 30th. It’s hard to conceptualize what it means to lose a loved one as measured by time. The funeral was six months ago. In this era after Herbie, I see the places he used to be in my memory, in my heart. Of course, for my wife Liza and her siblings, the places are so many and so deep.

Time is like fine-grained sandpaper, slowly rubbing away recollections and images. This is not disrespectful or selfish; it’s just true. This is the nature of memory and the human psyche. It’s why the Jewish tradition encourages us to remember our loved ones who have died with a yahrzeit memorial candle, a light bulb next to a name, attending a Yizkor service. It’s a way to spur our memories as we keep flowing with the river.

All day as the winds have continued to blow, I’ve watched cherry blossom petals. And every petal reminds me of Herbie in a sweet and gentle way. Sure: I could cut the tree down. I could make room for new flowers, expand the garden. But for now, I’m going to leave it alone. And I will remember when Herbie handed me that sapling as if it were a prize. Memory is bigger than a garden.

On the Porch

Immediately after open-heart surgery, my first cardiac rehab assignment was to stand up. I wasn’t allowed to use my arms to prop myself up from my seat. I had to rock back and forth, building momentum to carry me into an upright stance. It wasn’t fun, but at least I got my body moving through space.

During those early weeks of recovery, the doctor’s orders were clear and strict: no carrying anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Don’t overdo it. Get lots of sleep. I was an obedient patient. The days were long and arduous; just doing the simplest things pooped me out. It often felt as though I were living my life in slow motion.

I spent a lot of rehab time sitting on the front porch, looking at people walking by. There were few cars on our street in those days, which isn’t a busy thoroughfare to begin with. As I sat there, I also looked at my garden, slowly making its way back to life.  My eyes were drawn, reluctantly, to a clump of shrubs I’d planted 15 years ago. They were slowly taking over the valuable real estate of my garden, blocking flowers from view, swallowing up the nutrients from other perennials.

Six weeks following surgery, my doctor allowed me to start lifting things. The world around me was upside down, but I felt my strength slowly returning as my body healed. The world was coming back into focus. I looked at those overgrown bushes that I had planted with my own two hands. I had watered them, nurtured them. But now, I realized, it was time to uproot them.

Before I followed through, I wondered. Was it ok to take something I had planted and just get rid of it??  I could just leave it there. What the heck, I thought. Let it be and build the garden around these bushes. No. It was not time for the easy way.

So I walked over to the clump of bushes and started to pull. I had foolishly expected they would come up like a flower or a weed. But as I was to learn, they had rooted themselves deep into the soil. Additionally, they had combined their root systems to become stronger and more resilient. The gardening chore became my cardio rehab. I pulled roots out of the ground, slowly clearing the space, pulling, prying, using a pitchfork and a hoe and a garden saw and a rake and loppers and so forth.

It took me 15 hours of slow, sweat labor to complete my landscaping project. I was exhausted but exultant. I had not succumbed to the status quo. I did not take the path of least resistance. I had a vision, and I made it come to pass.

This experience in my garden last year helped lift my spirits. I was able to do something with a newly plumbed heart and felt terrific doing it. But it’s more than just the exertion that meant something to me. It was, I realized, a Zen activity, a teaching moment. In Ecclesiastes 3, we read that there’s a time for everything: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time to plant, and a time to uproot that which has been planted.

The metaphor is compelling right now as we determine what was and what will be. It’s not like the High Holy Day liturgy, which declares that it is God who decides who shall live and who shall die. No, this is a time for human decisions, our decisions, as to who we will become. What will we abandon? What ways are gone? What new ways are already taking root? What have we learned during this past year of loss and upheaval? What will we choose to remember? What will we choose to forget?

A year has passed, and I look at my garden transformed, enlarged. It is the same earth, but more beautiful than ever. The sweat equity was worth it. It always is when the time comes for change.

“When we get to the end…”

In Stage Fright, one of The Band’s best songs ever, Robbie Robertson tremulously sings about the angst of performing in front of tens of thousands of people. He describes the fear, the physical pain, the dizzying panic that hovers close by. Yet, he declares, “When we get to the end/he wants to start all over again.” Around and around we go…

I was humming the melody to Stage Fright a few days ago. Sometimes a song starts playing in my auditory cortex. I have no idea why. But surely there are reasons… maybe I heard it in the background while on Zoom. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve been going to the deep tracks of Passover this year, thinking about themes and paradoxes in the story and the impact they make.

A particular puzzle has to do with the very end of the Seder. I know that very few people make it to the end of their home seder. It’s tough to convince people with lots of wine, food, and dessert in them to return to the Haggadah. But if you do get there, you know that the last thing we do is sing Next Year in Jerusalem!

The message is more than a little ironic. We’ve just finished a long seder. We’ve learned together, feasted together, opened up our hearts and our minds to a collective memory of bondage and degradation. The celebration is all about one truth. We were slaves and suffered tremendously. We journeyed far. And we made it! Avadim hayinu, ata b’nei horin! Once we were slaves, and now we are free. This is not ambiguous. There is nothing opaque about the meaning of the moment.

And yet… when we get to the end, he wants to start all over again. What do you mean, next year in Jerusalem? Aren’t we done? Haven’t we accomplished what we set out to do?

Perhaps Jewish life is summed up in the cyclical nature of our rituals. We do the same things every year at the same time, acknowledging the flow of time and season. We get to the end of the Torah and then roll it back to the beginning. We finally conclude our Seder, realizing it’s a semicolon and not a new paragraph.

Jewish life is all about acknowledging that we are incomplete. We are never done, never allowed to lean back into our accomplishments. The river pulls us forward. There is always work to do: in the world, in our homes, in our souls. We may have arrived after the Exodus. We may rejoice in receiving the Torah. But we aren’t done. There is so much pain and incompleteness.

Listening to excerpts of the Derek Chauvin trial, I am often brought to tears. The stories about George Floyd, a hapless, loving soul, brutally murdered in a world so deformed by racism and prejudice. Is there any more evidence necessary to prove just how incomplete the world is?

Yes, we were redeemed at the Sea of Reeds. But others were not. So, our tradition teaches us, enjoy the feast, have a good time, take a few days off. But after the holiday, it’s time to start all over again. There’s work to do. We’re not in Jerusalem yet.

Shabbat Shalom