Author Archives: rabbeinu

Be Concerned

“Should I be worried?” That’s the question of the hour. There are troops in the Capitol building. The National Mall is closed. Rioters last Wednesday wanted to “capture and assassinate lawmakers” and came “dangerously close to Pence”. All fifty states have been warned by the FBI to increase security around the state houses and other government buildings for fear of violent attacks.

“Should I be worried?”

All of my adult life I have forcefully responded to those seeking to use the rise of Naziism as an analogy to anything happening in American history. Too many differences in the cultures and the zeitgeists. Too many unique pieces to the puzzles of each society.

“Should I be worried?” I’ve been asked that question dozens upon dozens of times over the last decades. After assassinations. After school shootings. After riots and unrest.

My answer has always been, “No. I believe in the steadfastness of American democracy. As hard as it may be, all Americans hold certain truths to be self-evident.” There is an overarching reality that we share, common dreams and goals.

I don’t want to answer yes. I don’t want to knuckle under to the brutish violence of neofascism and militias and conspiracies that implicate Jews in everything from cannibalism to world domination to banking to God knows what. And I don’t want to feign indifference to those who would prefer the world to be a place dominated by the pathology of white supremacy.

So here’s my answer. I am very concerned. But I am not worried. This is more than semantics. To be worried is about anxiety and fear. To be worried presupposes that bad things are about to happen. Being worried is building a bomb shelter or buying cases of toilet paper. Concern means close attention. I am paying very close attention. I am reading and watching.

I am concerned. I am cognizant of our collective dependence on American democracy and its role in protecting the Jews of America and other minorities under the law in ways that we, as a minority culture everywhere we lived, never had. I am aware of the fact that we Jews are vulnerable, subjects of dark, rabid Q Anon fantasies that have proponents in Congress and a major place in the minds of the Capitol raiders.

We don’t have a script for this new chapter in America. We are in new territory. It’s like groping around in a pitch -black room. But I’m not worried. I’m concerned. I’m walking cautiously, carefully. Even in this darkness I feel like I can move forward without falling. If I’m careful.

You notice I’m not quoting Bobby McFerrin. I’m not urging you to be happy. And I’m not urging you to worry. I am urging concern. Now more than ever we need to lean into what it means to be a strong and loyal community. We need to carefully move forward, believing in our ancient tradition of gratitude and vision, and our American tradition of compassion and equality. We need to trust the legal system, which is not always so easy. We must think about present and future alliances between Jews and communities of color who understand historically how vulnerable we might be.

If you ask me whether or not to be worried, I will tell you not to worry. I will invite you to join me as we feel our way to a better place for us and for our kids. I will tell you that anxiety can paralyze us into an inactive, apprehensive funk. I will share with you the phrase repeated every time we conclude a book of the Torah. “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.” Be strong, and we will all be strengthened.

We Are All Co-Authors

Long-form journalism is an increasingly popular genre. In stark contrast to standard print or online journalism that is tightly edited and limited by a predetermined word count, long-form essays are looser. Authors have room to follow multiple tangents and connect them together.

The New Yorker, my favorite magazine online and in print, is the source par excellence of long-form essays. And no – I don’t read it just for the cartoons… It is somewhat of an inside joke amongst subscribers about how many issues are stacked up and dog-eared and left on various surfaces, all open to an essay that’s between 10000-25000 words.

In fact, the latest New Yorker is a double issue featuring one long-form essay by the Pulitzer prize winning author Lawrence Wright. Titled The Plague Year, it is a deep dive into the terrible, twisted tale of Covid and the astounding ineptitude of leaders and bureaucrats all over the world who got so much so wrong. I would urge everyone to read it. The essay is profound and painful, but also illuminates the brilliant, extraordinary scientists who made the vaccine possible.

As I was finishing my read of The Plague Year, I was interrupted by the first notification reporting the insurrection at the Capitol. The newsflash scared me, as did each subsequent elaboration. Throughout the afternoon I was alternately horrified, terrified, disgusted, and overwhelmed. Various friends and family began an ongoing chain of texts and emails decrying the violence and what it portended. We did a lot of handwringing.

A dear friend of mine wrote: “JFK assassination/9-11/1-6.” I thought about that for a long time. It did feel apocalyptic as the first photos appeared: a fool in bearskin, a thief stealing a podium, a vandal posing with his feet up on a desk in a Federal office he’s broken into, a guy in a MAGA hat breaking windows with a Confederate flagpole: you’ve seen them.

But as I thought about it, it came to me that this event, this preposterous illegal action that will be, along with the awful destruction that is Covid, the legacy of our outgoing president, will not be a date swathed in black. 1/6/21 will be a date of reckoning. It will be a reminder to all of us of just how powerful fear can be as a motivation for violence. It will remind us that words have consequences, even when they are spoken by hateful, bigoted people.

I’m not afraid. After all, history is a long-form story. There is no one moment that alone determines the trajectory of the arrow of time. The history of the Jewish people is nothing if not a large, ever-growing, ever-morphing long-form story. We have a deep sense of this continuing unfolding of our story, replete with tragedy and triumph.

January 6th will always be a reminder of just how low our nation can go. But the days after are and will continue to be a testimony to American fortitude and determination. Our story continues to unfold, and our dedication to an openhearted democracy that embraces all people who want to be here is tenacious.

American history continues to blaze forward, long-form style. It lurches, veers, disappoints, inspires, and grows, long-form style. We are engaged in a process of hope and fortitude. It’s not easy. It’s not over; not by a long shot.

I hope in this time of transition and honest self-reflection that we will continue to study the story of our nation. We will have many disagreements. They will be contentious. But my hope is that we can rise to a place of patient sensitivity. Each one of us is a co-author of this story. Let’s write a story that will lift up the hearts of our children. On that we must all agree.

Giant Steps

A college roommate from long ago and far away once gave me a life lesson. He was one of those guys who loved pointing out things I should know or do. It was often obnoxious, but occasionally he had real wisdom to share. I have no idea where he is now, but I want to give credit where credit is due. Thank you, Steve, wherever you are.

One day, Steve and I were walking outdoors without shoes or socks. I don’t know why, and I don’t want to hazard a guess – people did weird things living in West College at Wesleyan… We hit a patch of gravel, and I began saying ouch at every step, trying to avoid the gravel – which was impossible, since the entire path was made of it! I was doing that ridiculous dance people do when they’re in pain as they walk when it’s too hot or too rocky, lifting my feet quickly and taking short stabbing steps.

Steve wasn’t doing the dance. He was walking with a slow, deliberate stride. “Stern,” he said, “You’re doing it wrong. You know there’s nothing but gravel up ahead. So, don’t fight it – it’s too big to fight. Just take sure steps and it won’t hurt.” This advice made no sense to me. Putting my foot down with assurance would just cause more pain, I reasoned. However, as usual, I followed Steve’s instructions. To my astonishment, it turned out that Steve was correct. It was so much easier to just walk as normally as I could.

The path is gravel. There is no other path, no other way. Going back is not an option. Calling an Uber is not realistic. The only way forward is to keep on course to the destination. Is it comfortable to walk on little stones? No. Does complaining about the discomfort make the task itself easier or more uplifting? Not at all. Bemoaning the difficulty of the trek seems to make it feel even more onerous.

Steve’s wisdom points out that the way is long, and pain is unavoidable. It just is. It’s the truth of the human condition, to journey into places that make us wince. Mortality is assured. Complexity and disappointment are inevitable. The more we deny this, the harder it gets. The more little steps we take, the more exhausting it gets. There is no solution, no short cut.

So just put your foot down. Resolutely. Bravely. One committed step at a time. It makes it all so much easier. It would be nice if walking the path felt like treading on pillows or a shag rug. But it will never be so. We accept the pain because it is woven into the essence of the Universe. And because there’s so much more than pain! There is the pleasure found in connecting, in celebrating, in being fully present, loving, and alive.

It’s a brand-new year open before us. How will we move forward? It may get much rougher out there. The gravel might get sharper, the path itself more perilous. I’m going to try my roommate’s advice. I want to do less tiptoeing and more affirming steps. I will be safe and measured about staying well. And I will keep moving, stepping forward. Our temple community has continued to be a loving and strong place, as Bob Dylan might say, a “shelter from the storm.” We aim to keep it that way and to plan for what’s next. Being tentative doesn’t help us achieve our goal of being a place of warmth and openheartedness.

On this first day of the new year, I urge you to take a firm step forward – and to then keep walking, rough road notwithstanding. It is a time to be bold and imagine what happens next. As a popular Israeli song promises, “See how good it will be next year.” May it be so for all of us.

Not So Minor

Ok. Let’s get the small print done first.  Hanukkah is not a big deal. Our tradition deems it a minor, or lesser festival. There are some special prayers added to the liturgy, there is the lighting of the menorah, and… well, that’s about it. It’s not a major festival, when we cease from working and behave as we would on Shabbat.  

And yes, undoubtedly, the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas has created a competition for Jewish families to do something bigger than our tradition dictates. Gift giving on Hanukkah is largely an American phenomenon that the baby boomer generation was the first to cash in on… literally. How many Jewish kids grew up with the counter narrative to a Christmas tree, that instead of one day of presents  we get eight crazy nights???

I could give you a hundred compelling, rational reasons for a modified bah, humbug approach to the Festival of Lights. Only, here’s the thing. I love Hanukkah. And not just for the obvious reasons, like 1. Presents. 2. Latkes. 3. More latkes. 4. Family time. 5. The beauty of the candles. If that were it: dayenu! It would be enough.

But wait; there’s more. And this year it is particularly so. Because for many of us, the darkness has been thick and difficult to navigate. One of the ten plagues that ultimately led the Pharaoh to let our people go was darkness. The rabbis said that the worst part of it was that the darkness was impenetrable. No light could pierce the thick night. The Egyptians could not locate themselves in space, for they could see nothing. So they stumbled and fell, overcome with dread and fear.

The Israelites were in darkness, too. What some of them had – not all of them, it’s true – was hope. Some of them realized that they were poised on the threshold of a new life in a new land. They were able to envision something more than the darkness in which they found themselves.

The hope our ancestors held onto in the Egyptian darkness lit up the gloom.  This light guided them to await new possibilities, to prepare for unimaginable vistas and take on extraordinary challenges. This light, this hope, was and is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

I love Hanukkah because it reminds me that there is light out there, illuminating a future filled with potential. To see it is to believe it, even when you’re standing in the dark. The indomitable spirit of the Jewish people is there in every moment any Jewish child has tremulously held a burning shamus for the first time, and lit a lamp or a flimsy wax candle. It’s there in the resolute decision of a lonely Jewish school kid, who in a vast sea of Christmas greetings and carols and colors says, “Actually, I celebrate Hanukkah; I’m Jewish.”

Hanukkah may be considered a minor festival on the Jewish calendar. But this year more than any in recent memory, I need more light. Thank God for Hanukkah, coming at just the right time to light the way through the darkness.

Gratitude

Thanksgiving has always been a big deal with the Stern Gang. For years we’ve alternated between big family multi-generational gatherings and festivities with dear friends from Tulsa. There’s lots of food, fun, laughter, singing, and joy.

This year our Thanksgiving experience has been attenuated by Covid time and the restrictions it slapped on us. This year we had hoped to celebrate Thanksgiving with Liza’s dad, Herb. All kinds of work around plans were being carefully reviewed, even as the CDC warnings grew tougher and scarier. But he did not live long enough to make it to the table. We are left with the gratitude and appreciation we had wanted to show him.

Psychologists studying gratitude note that being grateful means much more than just saying thank you. Not only is the experience and expression of gratitude broader than thanking others but it requires … a set of complex socio-emotional skills. For example, researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro argue that gratitude involves perspective taking and emotional knowledge, skills that children begin to develop … around ages three to five.

This Thanksgiving has been, more than ever, about perspective taking. This is the right time for looking around and realizing how lucky we are, despite the limits imposed upon us by law and circumstance. This is the time to relish the moment.

There are differing philosophies on the appreciation of the moment. Liza quotes a friend’s mother, who once said, at age 90 something, “Don’t worry; it only gets worse.” Yes, phenomenologically one could objectively say that getting very old is not big fun. This casts the future as a successively darker journey as we age – and that’s without cataracts. It makes it difficult to appreciate the journey.

I’m not saying, to quote Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I am saying that I want to be thankful for this moment I’m living in, despite the truth of my decrepitude and obsolescence. It’s not “no, but”, it’s “yes, and.”

There is a Japanese tradition called Mono-no aware: the ephemeral nature of beauty – the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life – knowing that none of it can last. It’s basically about being both saddened by and appreciative of transience – and also about the relationship between life and death.

This is what we have right now, this moment. And in this moment there is pain and sadness and the looming unknown. And that will always be so, on one level or another.

But there is also the beauty of a new day. There is the beauty of memory and hope. We have music and art no matter what darker issues lurk around us at the same time. And we have each other.

As a young child, I had a kaleidoscope. I loved it! I stared into it for hours. Well, it felt like hours… Sometime I would see a phenomenal pattern. I don’t know what made it so special, but it caught my attention. And then I tried to figure out how to get the same pattern back again. I’d shake it, turn it quickly, and anxiously look, again and again. But no matter what I did, I could never recapture that pattern, that moment.

It was a waste of time trying to get back to where I had been. Not only was it frustrating, it was futile. And another thing: it was a total waste of time. As I frantically attempted to find the lost pattern, I wasn’t seeing the beauty playing out in front of me. All I wanted was, by the very nature of physics and statistical probability, impossible.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I am deeply grateful for the time I’ve had and all that comes next. I do occasionally yearn for some beautiful moments of the past, but that’s what memory is for. I give thanks for the ability to keep turning the kaleidoscope that’s right in front of me, filled with so much potential beauty. Along with all of the tragic, monstrous moments of 2020, I have experienced extraordinary meaningful moments: moments of connection, of love, of community, of healing.

Here’s to, “yes, and.” Here’s to you and our kaleidoscope.

Shabbat Shalom

Is Anyone Out There?

In the middle of a lush green jungle in Puerto Rico sits an astonishing testimony to the scientific imagination. The Arecibo Observatory is an engineering marvel, constructed over 50 years ago. It is a huge radio telescope scanning the heavens and recording a variety of planetary phenomena, asteroid approaches, odd energy bursts, radio signals, and other heavenly things that I do not know how to define. You’ve probably photos of it: a huge dish nestled in a sinkhole. Above it hovers a sub-reflector and a waveguide. It looks like an alien encampment, stark and vaguely threatening.

The Arecibo Observatory has accomplished much over the years in the way of astronomical research. Hundreds of programs and projects were birthed right there in the jungle. As I understand it, the original intent for the construction of this breathtaking telescope was to create an advanced means by which to detect Russian missiles launched against the USA. That didn’t work so well. But what they were able to detect was the action in our solar system. And as technology ramped up, from massive, slow computers to ultra-advanced software systems, astronomers were able to see more and more.

There have been many firsts from the jungles of Puerto Rico: the first asteroid ever imaged; the true rotation of Mercury; signal emissions from a brown dwarf star; the rotation speed of pulsars; the chemical composition of the atmosphere of moons of Jupiter. These are examples of the work done at Arecibo.

But of all the projects that have transpired at Arecibo, I am most transfixed by SETI: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We’ve all surely looked up at the nighttime sky, filled with so many shining stars and God knows what else, and wondered, “Is somebody looking back at me? Are there other places in the Universe with intelligent life? Or are we a lonely planet of strange lifeforms slapped together through the strange phenomenon of DNA?”

It’s one thing when you or I look up with awe and wonder in child-like amazement. But it is surely another thing when an astronomer or astrophysicist gazes at the same panorama. We see philosophy; they see science. We think about it all as a question, an interesting, ever unknowable question. They think about it as a problem to solve.

The urge to understand the cosmos and to solve the riddle of extraterrestrial life has been explored by scientists for hundreds of years. From Galileo to Newton to Einstein to Stephen Hawking to Kip Thorne, and a million people in between, scientists qua scientists have asked, “Are we alone?” – and then set out to definitively answer with real time data as evidence.

A group of scientists started the SETI project many years ago, using the Arecibo Observatory to scan the cosmos, looking for patterns, radio signals that repeat in a logical cycle rather than pulse randomly. So far – nothing. At least, nothing we recognize as anything other than energy impulses from the stars. But they’re still looking.

1974, some scientists adopted a new aspect to this work, called “active” SETI, or METI: messaging extraterrestrial life. They decided that, rather than wait for a message, we should send out a three-minute encoded pictogram into the cosmos, saying, essentially, “Hello from the planet Earth.”

And now, 46 years after sending out that cosmic message in a bottle, a series of budget crises, internal arguments about who really runs the Observatory, and grueling climate change wreaking havoc on the island of Puerto Rico 46 years later after, Arecibo Observatory is no longer. Engineers cannot find a safe way to repair it after two cables supporting the structure suddenly and catastrophically broke, one in August and one in early November. It is the end of one of the most iconic and scientifically productive telescopes in the history of astronomy—and scientists are mourning its loss. “I am totally devastated,” says Abel Mendéz, an astrobiologist at the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo who uses the observatory.

I am devastated, too. That Arecibo is gone due to human foibles seems impossible. The neglect of science and the notion that it is anything other than essential to understanding our present and future is destructive. That climate change, which has altered weather patterns and has made the southern Atlantic area increasingly vulnerable to storms, is played down as a hoax while people suffer from its effects, is criminal. That internal political bickering threatens the very essence of American democracy, and puts millions of Americans at risk, is intolerable. The end of Arecibo is a parable about what happens as Nero fiddles.

Is anybody out there? And if someone IS there? Do we invite them over for a play date? Given the condition of Earth right now, how comfortable would we be receiving guests?

So many questions. So much strife and angst. And yet, even as Arecibo is slowly swallowed by jungle vines and buffeted by hurricane winds, the message in the bottle continues its way across the cosmos. Space is expanding and the stars drift away from view while the light from stars that were born a billion light years ago is just reaching us. Today. The glass is half empty. The glass is half full. And here we are, looking up at the nighttime sky, looking for someone else, looking for ourselves.

Two Lives Lived

This week two men died, two very different men whose worldviews were inimical. Depending on your attention to current events and pop culture, you probably recognize one or the other. Some of you will undoubtedly know both of them. It is only on the obituary pages that their souls would ever share space.

The more famous of the two was Alex Trebek, who hosted “Jeopardy!” for a record-setting 37 years. I remember watching the first iteration of the show with emcee, Art Fleming, when I was 10 years old. I loved that game show. It was a place where being smart was considered a virtue. For an unathletic, “husky” boy, that possibility appealed to me from the beginning.

Alex Trebek was my adult guide to the shrine of knowledge. I admired him so much. He spoke so clearly, never fumbling with difficult words or names. Alex did his homework, and it showed. But more than that, he was the captain of the ship. He kept things going and did not do standup in the middle of a game. He would sympathetically wince when someone missed a Daily Double. He would grimace with slight disdain when someone gave a ridiculously wrong answer.

Jeopardy! was about facts – undisputable facts. And Alex had to hear the facts delivered in just the right way. If it wasn’t in the form of a question, you were wrong. If you botched a name, you were out. If you wagered all your money in Final Jeopardy, and lost, you went home with nothing besides a Jeopardy! boardgame.

The other man who died this week was Tom Metzger, the notorious former Ku Klux Klan leader who rose to prominence in the 1980s while promoting white separatism and stoking racial violence. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt told The Associated Press, “Throughout his life, Metzger engaged in a wide range of hateful activities from spreading anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric to launching vigilante border patrols as a California Klansman to recruiting skinheads to the white supremacist cause.”

Metzger’s mission, his raison d’etre, was to cultivate fear and hostility. He wanted a race war and longed to create a white Aryan nation.  He took old antisemitic images and tropes and combined them with 20th century ignorance and prejudice.

Tom Metzger used false accusations, showed contempt for the truth, and dismissed the simple facts of a multi-ethnic nation. His philosophy resembled the statement, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. It thus becomes vitally important to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie…” Of course, those words were written by Josef Goebbels.

It is uncanny how Tom Metzger and his determination to cultivate racism in America seems to be prophetic, in a twisted and disturbing way. Attorney Elden Rosenthal said. “What we have unfortunately learned over the last several years is that there’s a whole lot of people who share his views. … Once it seemed fringy, now it seems a bit frightening.”

Alex Trebek and Tom Metzger died this past week. One man represented knowledge and wit, the other disorder and ignorance. One man ennobled others with a sense of fairness and insight. The other delighted in destroying truth and discarding facts for fear.

I will miss Alex Trebek and the way he embodied the pursuit of knowledge. It was always so reassuring to see him standing there so calmly in control. He made us sit up and pay attention. We wanted to get it right for Alex.

As for Tom Metzger, there is an old Jewish tradition. Whenever the name of a despicable human being is mentioned, one is to say, “Yimach shemo” the translation of which is, “May his name be blotted out.” It’s a fact: the world is a better place without Tom Metzger in it. Yimach shemo.

Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow

Doomscrolling is a prevalent behavior in America, and probably the rest of the world, too. I love this word.  I firmly believe that it is destined to be Miriam-Webster’s word of the year (you read it here first!).  Doomscrolling is the act of reading an article, post, meme, or a piece of clickbait and then clicking on a link from that source to another article that further delves into the same subject. Oh – and for it to genuinely qualify as doomscrolling, the issue has to be about TEOTWAWKI: The End of the World as We Know It. And you have to do it just long enough to start feeling nauseated. Other symptoms include developing a tic, like slowly shaking your head back and forth, or yelling profanity out loud, or spontaneously reading a doomscrolling piece out loud, even if 1) no one wants to hear it, or 2) there’s nobody in the room.

Look – I recognize these patterns because, yes, I am a doomscroller. I can’t help it. I go down the rabbit hole without complaint or apology. And as I stew in the worry and the scorn and the disbelief, I wonder: how did I get here?

 Indeed, how DID I get here? And, speaking as an American citizen, how did we get here? In this odd place where one half of the country understands reality in a very different way than the other half, I mean here. This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t have an answer to unveil with much pomp and circumstance and drumrolls.

I grew up in the time of the Vietnam war struggle. I witnessed the battle for civil rights. I was party to the energy of the first wave of feminism. I was at the first Earth Day. Those times felt so dynamic, so filled with drama. But it never felt as bad as it does now. I don’t ever remember feeling quite so lost as I am now at the bottom of my doomscrolling well.

There is no easy path to find a bridge that we can all agree is mutually safe and sturdy. There’s just so much unease and such a lack of trust. It boggles my mind. I keep searching my memory for some hook, some means to get out of the doomscrolling.

How do we find a bridge? I don’t know. But maybe that’s no longer the top priority. Perhaps the thing to focus on is the work that must be done, no matter who is in power. The climate is in trouble right now. Systemic racism will still exist. The injustice we see will always be painfully limiting. Covid will continue to spread.

If it’s true that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then we have to be involved in the physics of it all. A moral universe is not something to be discovered; it’s something that must be created. By us.

Rodney King once plaintively asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?” If that’s always been an operant question, then this year, it is louder than ever. It’s become the leitmotif of the 21st century.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Spend a little less time head down in doomscrolling and a little more time with your head up; keep your eye on the sparrow. And as Stacy Abrams said, “Remember this in the darkest moments, when the work doesn’t seem worth it, and change seems just out of reach: out of our willingness to push through comes a tremendous power… use it.”

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Herbie

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Who Knows Where the Time Goes by Sandy Denny

My father-in-law, Herb Weiss, died this past Tuesday evening, and his funeral service is on Friday. Herb’s death was not a surprise; his health had rapidly declined over the last couple of years. And yet, his death was surprising. Because Herb was a force of nature, a fixture in the lives of his loved ones and friends and associates. A part of me could not allow for a world without him.

To be in Herbie’s orbit (so many of his family and friends called him Herbie, a name of endearment), was an exceptional experience. To be in Herbie’s orbit meant that you would always be greeted with real affection and pleasure. When he said, “It’s so nice to see you!”, he meant it: every single time. His face would light up and his broad smile would spread across his face like sunrise.

To be in Herbie’s orbit was to be given tchotchkes all of the time. Keychains. Little flashlights. Luggage tags. Tote bags. Pens. It was stuff that came from various trade conventions he attended. All of his progeny have drawers stuffed with Herbie’s offerings. We’d always say thank you and then store it away.

He also had a thing for gloves. Maybe he knew someone who sent them his way. Maybe he was part of a glove underground syndicate. All I know is that he would show up at a family dinner or on the Cape and pull tons of gloves out of his trunk. Of course, he would also pull out sweaters, sunglasses, purses, wallets, and other items.

Herbie loved to give. He relished the role of patriarch and provider and did a damned good job of it. It was a way he could open his heart and tangibly share his affection with others as he fulfilled his role in life. His generosity was moving and authentic.

Herbie knew a thousand jokes. I should know. Like most of his family I heard them all: several times. We would beg him to stop. We’d tell him we’d heard it already. We would roll our eyes until we looked like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. And yet, he persisted. Because he wanted to give us a laugh, because he liked to entertain us. And even as we groaned, he would laugh, and then we would laugh, because his own enjoyment was such a pleasure. Most of the time, anyway…

One of the first things I remember about Herbie was watching him do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, a task I’d always considered Herculean and frankly, impossible. Yet he’d plough through without breaking a sweat. This, I thought, was a smart man. And indeed he very smart, a true Renaissance man. He knew so much about everything. He loved classical music. Herbie could sing along with most of the great symphonies. He read voraciously: history, biography, politics, fiction and more. Herbie inspired me with his intellectual perspicacity.

Herbie’s politics were progressive in nature. He cared, desperately cared, about the future of our nation and the world. Over the years he was involved in local and national politics and philanthropy and did his level best to make a difference. He was a very patriotic man. He had endless gratitude for the nation in which his immigrant father rose from poverty to great success. He never lost faith in the possibilities inherent in the American dream.

My father-in-law was a deeply committed Jew. He did so much in his lifetime for the Jewish people. Herbie particularly loved Israel and traveled there several times. He was so very proud of his daughter, the Rabbi. Her sermons, her skill leading services, the very notion that she was a rabbi! thrilled him to no end.

Herbie was proud of his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. And his many nephews and nieces. Their accomplishments thrilled him. He always appreciated their attention. While he may not have been a classic family man, he unabashedly loved us all.

Herbie hated being hamstrung. The fact that it got harder for him to walk infuriated this proud, active man. He told me not so long ago that his life had become an obstacle course and that he was sick of it, sick of the pills and the rounds of doctors and most of all, sick of needing help. The limitations were torture for him.

So when he quietly died on Tuesday after a good dinner and a glass of scotch and a nap, I was relieved for him. I thought how blessed he was in the end to go quickly and without drama. It was a fitting end for a man who was ready to go.

For those of us left behind, a piece of our lives has forever disappeared. We are all celebrating his life, so happy that he no longer suffers. But we grieve for what we will no longer have: the jokes, the tchotchkes, the banter, the passion, the smile, the love – Herbie.

My own father was in my life for only 14 years. Herbie was in my life for over 40 years. He infused my life with his warmth and kindness. He didn’t want to be my father; I didn’t want to be his son. And so we became friends, enjoying each other’s company, talking about books and politics and the world at large. We sat in the sun on Cape Cod, smoked cigars, and gave thanks for the little pleasures that make us whole.

I will miss him so.

Who knows where the time goes?

Hillel and Shammai Strike Again

“Would it have been better had humans never been created?” This dark, brooding query carries the weight of postmodern existential angst. It sounds like something Kafka thought about as he dolefully sipped coffee in a Prague café.

In fact, the question was posed over two thousand years ago. It’s from the Talmud, Eruvin 13b. No one knows who asked it; the author remains anonymous. But the people who studied the question back then were considered the most extraordinary legal and philosophical minds of their generation. To this day, they remain icons and are revered as deeply ethical and thoughtful teachers.

Shammai and Hillel are the forebearers to our shared. Diverse Jewish tradition. Without them, there would be no such thing as rabbinic Judaism.

Both scholars and the academies they formed reflected intellectual acuity, devotion, and rigor to the study and practice of Judaism. Neither scholar pushed or practiced an ascetic lifestyle. They exemplified the Jewish tradition’s notion that “Life is with people.” Escape from the world, sitting for long periods of study in solitude, was frowned upon. We need others: for a prayer minyan, as witnesses, as a community. On this, Hillel and Shammai agreed.

But on so many other issues, these two men and their students were on absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum. They engaged in vigorous, passionate debate. When ruling on Jewish law issues, Hillel was generally seen as the more compassionate of the two. He would often take into consideration the particular context of an individual’s unique vantage point. Shammai believed in the principle itself as the most crucial element in a judgment. He was seen as being hard-edged and less forgiving. They were indeed the yin and the yang of Jewish tradition.

Would it have been better had humans never been created?” That both schools entertained the question is at first blush curious. The problem posed at least subtly questions God’s judgment. Is our existence an accident? Are we God’s mistake?

Hillel and Shammai do not question the integrity of the question. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that they studied it for 2 1/2 years, showing no small degree of dedication and seriousness of purpose. They pursue the most profound question humans ask: why? Why are we here? What is our goal? What is our place in the Universe?  It forces them to consider how we treat each other, how we behave, the things we do to the people we love and the people we hate…  It forces us to ask whether or not we have even earned the “right” to exist?

This question pushes us to the very limits of understanding. How can we imagine existence without human consciousness?  It is truly impossible to understand this except in the most theoretical ways. Yet the thinkers do not approach this philosophical, legal exercise as superfluous. They ponder its implications: what is our purpose? What is the meaning of our lives? Are we serving humanity as we should? Are we serving God as we should?

The first time I learned of this question and the fact that Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples chose to discuss it, I assumed I knew the ruling. Shammai, the dispassionate, rational thinker, would say that it would be better had humans not been created.  Hillel, the compassionate one, would say that, of course, it was better that we’d been created.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that, on this issue, Hillel and Shammai agreed! After 2 ½ years, both schools decided that iw would be better had humans not been created. What a statement! If this is so, if these scholars agreed that we were a mess, a failure unworthy of existence, then what are we to do?

Luckily for us, there is a coda in the Talmud. After reiterating that it would better had we never shown up, since we are here, we must examine our actions and seek to correct our mistakes.

We make a mess of things. We are very slow learners. Repetition compulsion is rampant. Meanwhile, the planet slowly deteriorates. Relations between the haves and the have-nots worsen. Then there’s Covid and well, the rest of it.

So what’s your pleasure? You can be part of the solution or a part of the problem. You can seek to make it better or just let it go like a balloon and watch as it all careens out of control. Hillel and Shammai teach us that life is hard – very hard. It’s not solemn or poetic – just true. While we’re here, we have a job to do.