Author Archives: rabbeinu

The Stakes

On May 14, 1948, as the last British troops were leaving Palestine, Jewish leaders declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The Declaration of Independence was read aloud by the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in Tel Aviv and was broadcasted to the world. The declaration proclaimed the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, recognized the historical connection of the Jewish people to the region and pledged to uphold democratic values and principles. Most significantly, the text reads, “The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The current challenge to Israel’s Supreme Court jeopardizes these lofty goals and the foundational rights of Israeli citizens. Because if the authority of the Supreme Court is scuttled, then the currently constituted coalition government will redefine what Israel was meant to be since the time of the founders – and even before them.

The promise that Israel will “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture” is at risk. That’s why I am supporting the hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators gathering in every Israeli city to demand the government cease and desist in this attempt to destroy democracy.

Reform temples could lose all funding currently guaranteed to ALL synagogues in Israel. Reform rabbis could lose all of their rabbinic authority. Jewish women who want to read Torah at the Western Wall on the women’s side could be arrested.

For the LGBTQ+ community in Israel, all rights for equal access and fair employment standards could be overturned. Their status and their safety could be dangerously tenuous.

Secular Israelis and non-Orthodox Jews could lose access to transportation on Shabbat. Seven-Eleven-style convenience stores and restaurants, and pharmacies that are currently open 24/7 could be forcibly closed on Shabbat.

The settler movement in Israel could use this lack of judicial oversight to continue its increasingly provocative and violent behavior toward Palestinians with impunity.

Most of all, the gutting of the Court’s authority stands to besmirch the image of the modern Jewish State. It causes a calamitous change in who and what Israel has represented since the beginning: the only true democracy in the Middle East. If the Court is lost, so too, then is democracy.

My take on this is from Israeli narratives, not my own. I arrived at my cause for concern via articles and news reports by those on Israel’s Left and Right. From The Times of Israel and Haaretz, and the Jerusalem Post. I have heard the anguish expressed by Israeli army reservists. Jet pilots. Professors. Cab drivers. People in their 20s. People in their 80s.

If we’ve learned anything over the decades since the Holocaust, it is that we need Israel as a bastion of freedom and safety for the Jewish people. We need Israel to continue to struggle with the real-time dilemma of statehood in the face of occupation. We need the Jewish State to proudly embrace the citizenry of Israel with all of its messy, demanding challenges. We, Jews of the Diaspora, need Israel to uphold the best values of progressive Jewish life as it has struggled to do since 1948.

To speak out for a democratic Israel is to uphold the Jewish State’s promise as signified by the Declaration of Independence. It is to declare oneself to be a true Zionist. What are the pro-democracy demonstrators holding at rally after rally throughout Israel? Israeli flags. Hundreds. Thousands of Israeli flags.

Winter Is Coming?

What a miserable snowfall tally we witnessed this winter! It’s hard to fully comprehend just how pathetic it’s been. All those meteorologists and local tv news reporters, desperately watching the maps, comparing different snowfall models to predict future storms, and all of it for naught.
It’s so sad to lose a cornerstone environmental marker, a regular life event that defined not just the season but also an attitude about life in New England. Whenever it snowed, everything had to change. School was canceled, offices were closed, and plans were scuttled. We were all forced to look out the window, chill out, and enjoy the stunning sight of snow cover. Time slowed down, and so did we.
With snowfall would always come the skis and the sleds and the skates. And then, of course, the hot chocolate, the hot toddies, and tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches. What memories…
Certainly, snowstorms are not without peril and aggravation. Getting stuck in a storm on the road struggling to get home was always a frightening, exhausting experience. The relief of finally getting home, off the road, and pulling into the driveway was deep and gratifying.
And getting kids ready to go outside, stuffing them into snowsuits like making sausage, finding hats and gloves and scarves… not a lot of fun. But once the kids got outside, it was often a dream time. The requisite snowman, the attempt at a fort, and the snowball fight that would last until the youngest participant got smacked in the face with an icy mass are all templates of wintertime bliss. Even coming back into the house and stripping off the wet snow gear was beautiful! Chapped cheeks glowing, the warmth returning to fingers and toes: these are just a few of the joys of the snow.
I would be remiss were I to leave out the dissenting votes on wintertime snowfall. My mother hated the snow. She would no doubt be celebrating this climate change twist if she were alive today. But not me.
It is deeply problematic to witness the inexorable destructive power of climate change. The chickens have come home to roost. I have lost the snow.
I don’t know what the next winters of my life will look like, how cold it will get, what my garden will do. But I will do as Jews have always done: adapt. I will also lean into memories of another time, of deep snow, puffer coats, and boots. Since my heart surgeries, I don’t shovel snow anymore or use my snowblower. But I will recall the unique sense of accomplishment of a cleared driveway and sidewalks clean and salted. And I will, with irony, utter the words from Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.” I am still determining what it will look like, but arrive it will. I will engage in the Jewish practice of remembering what was and engaging in what is.

What If

“What if?”, is one of the most exciting questions in the human lexicon. “What if”, is the key to open the heavy door of  complacency and the status quo. “What if” gives permission to explore all the places we’re told to avoid. It’s the moment when Dorothy dares to look behind the curtain to see who the Wizard really is.

Asking questions is dangerous for those invested in not rocking the boat. “What if” dares to suppose that what you see is NOT what you get. And that can be the stuff of disruption and the harbinger of change and even revolution.

What if is foundational to science. One assumes that any experiment, complicated or grossly simple, begins with what if. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a multi-billion dollar project began when a few cosmologists got together with a few astrophysicists and a few astronomers and collectively asked, “What if? What if we could send a telescope into space, a million miles away from Earth, far enough to avoid light and heat and gravitational pull and scan the Universe? What if we discover findings we weren’t expecting?

JWST has found a trove of startling phenomena, some of which has changed everything we thought we knew about the Universe. Just recently, JWST has detected galaxies from very early in post Big Bang time that shouldn’t be there. They are huge, way bigger than anything that fits what the Universe was “supposed” to look like in the early formation era. The Pennsylvania State University’s Joel Leja, who took part in the study, calls them “universe breakers.”

“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” That’s what happens when you mess with assumptions and ask, what if?

Pushing the envelope, looking just past the margins, wondering what’s on the other side, whether it’s dark or light, is a Jewish preoccupation. From Spinoza onward, we’ve asked, ”What if?” We’re not afraid to imagine alternate worlds and systems. Whether it’s the early Reformers of the 19th century who dared to ponder an alternate expression of Judaism (What if the Torah was a human document), the disaffected Jews of the 19th century who were profoundly troubled by the societies in which they lived (what if there were a radical alternative to the brutalty of capitalism), or the intellectual Jews who looked at the world and sought to explain it in a new way: what if human consciousness included the unconscious (Freud)? What if there was a dimension called spacetime that warped gravitational force and explained relativity (Einstein)?

We love messing with what is to explore what might be. It’s in our DNA. Of course there are Jews who fight this natural rebelliousness in favor of keeping the rules narrow and the doors to change locked up. But in the end, the urge will bubble up. The Women of the Wall will keep gathering on the plaza to the Western Wall, and ultra-Orthodox Jews will slap them and kick them and try to prevent them from praying. There is a law before the Knesset that will prohibit women from wearing a tallit in public under penalty of incarceration. But WOW will keep going back, asserting that they have the right to gather and pray and read from the Torah. What if, they will ask, if women were truly treated as equal to men?

Asking what if and then daring to reflect on the answer is how we keep going, how we grow and evolve. It’s mind altering for scientists who imagined that early galaxies would be small and diffuse. But they asked anyway. And now look what they’ve done! As astronomer Joel Leja said, “We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.”

What if…? Women reading Torah at the Wall? Jewish life flourishing after the Holocaust? New Jewish traditions emerging? As Dr Leja said, “…here we are.”

The Medium is the Message

Paul Simon sings, “These are the days of miracle and wonder/ This is the long-distance call/ The way the camera follows us in slo-mo/ The way we look to us all.” Those words evoke the overwhelming amount of information that swirls around us 24/7/365. The endless news cycle, always hungry for new stories, finds all kinds of data and angles. It never stops.

Sometimes the sheer quantity of info comes at us as fast as a fire hose. Those are the times it can feel like way too much to handle. But for all my complaints, I deeply appreciate the access I have to knowledge from all over the world. Stories from Africa and the Far East places that, as a kid, were so far away and so exotic are now at my fingertips.

In these days of miracles and wonder, I can access live music from Mozambique and watch cooking shows from Taiwan. I can participate in a tour of the Louvre as I sit at home. It feels like, in so many ways, my Universe has opened up so much wider than I ever could’ve imagined in my wildest dreams.

I’ve had a cornucopia of very substantial international cultural and intellectual content from which to choose. As a result, my life has been enriched. I feel more connected to my world.

This proximity to so much, this shrinking of distance and erasure of boundaries is sometimes a double-edged sword. Because I don’t get to see only the good stuff. I see floods in California and murder in Memphis, and the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. And now: the unspeakable devastation in Turkey and Syria. As so many of us have done, I’ve watched videos of buildings collapsing, body bags lined up, and drone footage of neighborhoods that look like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I’ve heard cries of children and adults alike as they contend with an utterly smashed and disfigured Universe. They are cold, hungry, in shock.

And here I am, comfortably ensconced, watching it all. And it’s a terrible feeling. I am utterly powerless. Is this too much? Am I a voyeur? Should I look at all? The answer is that I must look. I must see the hardships of my fellow human beings. I must feel their pain and their loss. Marshall McLuhan, a founder of media theory, called the world a “global village,” reflecting this truth that we are drawn more closely together by increased exposure to each other.

We are all created in the image of God. This metaphor demands that we open our hearts with empathy and concern. We are powerless to intervene, and that is frustrating. But we can be present in spirit. We can follow the stories and share sorrow. We can speak out loudly for justice and aid. Sometimes that helps, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I can send tzedakah to an organization with access to sites in Syria and Turkey. My research has uncovered a few good and trustworthy charities that fit the bill.

1. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation is a global medical relief organization working on the front lines of crisis relief in Syria, neighboring countries, and beyond to save lives and alleviate suffering. SAMS proudly provides medical care and treatment to every patient in need.

2. Doctors Without Borders In northwest Syria, teams from DWB have been able to work since the early hours to respond to the destruction because they already had a presence in the region.

3. The International Red Cross Across Syria, around 4.5 million people living in hard-to-reach areas continue with limited access to essential life-saving assistance and protection. Almost 400,000 live in areas with little or no access to basic supplies or assistance. There has been growing international concern about the suffering of thousands of people in these areas. The ICRC will concentrate on delivering medical services.

 In this global village where we see appalling suffering and terrible deprivation, doing something – anything! – is better than doing nothing. We are, after all, neighbors on the same small planet.

Groundhog Day — Again

Yesterday I went to the Arsenal Mall Majestic Seven Cinema to see a special screening of Groundhog Day, a breakthrough film released thirty years ago directed by Harold Ramis. It stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Groundhog Day is a huge favorite of mine. I saw it for the first time the year it was released at the North Park Mall Cinema in Dallas. I later bought the VHS tape and watched it all the time.

Groundhog Day is a rare movie that comes in like a comedy but goes deep. It is charming, disturbing, sometimes dark, meaningful, and funny. It tells a story about arrogance, hubris, and the ineluctable flow of time. There are true life lessons to learn from this film.

Throughout the movie, Phil Connors finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Each time he experiences the day, he learns a little more about himself. At first, Phil tries to take advantage of the situation by living recklessly and indulging in every conceivable form of debauchery (it’s rated PG, so not to worry). But soon, the thrill of wanton excess leads him to deep darkness. He experiences his miserable life as torture, and as he explains to his producer, Rita Hanson (played by the fabulously openhearted Andie McDowell), he commits suicide several times – and yet awakens every morning back in his b&b in Punxsutawney, PA, at 6 am, with Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe.”

As he continues to relive each day, he goes through something of a Kubler-Ross journey. Eventually, he understands that life is more than just getting through each day. He realizes life is about the people we meet, the things we do, and the memories we create. The movie suggests that we should cherish every moment of our lives and make the most of our time on earth. Phil’s experience reminds us that life is short and that we must curate every scene.

Groundhog Day was written by two nice Jewish boys: Harold Ramis (may he rest in peace) and Danny Rubin. They do not claim that it is a Jewish movie. In fact, over the years, they received an enormous amount of fan mail from religious leaders from various faiths, all claiming that they see the film’s religious themes through the particular lens of their faith. Christians see Jesus and resurrection, Buddhists see karma and reincarnation. And Jews?

Well, this Jew finds Groundhog Day to contain profound Jewish teachings about appreciating life and taking up the responsibility to actively engage in the betterment of the world on the most intimate level. Phil knows that a man will choke on a piece of steak in the course of his day, so he learns the Heimlich maneuver to save him. Phil watches a kid fall from a tree and times his walk to catch him. When a carful of octogenarians gets a flat tire, he’s there with a new tire and a lift. None of these acts are Nobel Prize-worthy. And yet, these are the acts that matter. The little things don’t mean a lot; they mean everything.

This is a definitive example of our life’s task: to be a better human by extending ourselves to others. It doesn’t come naturally to Phil. He has to overcome his intrinsic narcissism. Who knows how many endless days it takes him to learn to, at last, break through? The movie points out that redemption can only be found in the relationships we form. And those relationships only truly matter when they are open and honest, which is why this film always resonates so profoundly for me as a Jewish movie. It’s all about being present for others. This is our holy mission as mandated by God.

My master teacher of essay writing and criticism, Roger Ebert (ז״ל), didn’t say Groundhog Day was a Jewish movie. But he knew how to caressingly describe its Jewish heart:  “We see that life is like that. Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people. There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, “When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.” The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”

Old Time Religion

In my Internet meanderings, watching old film clips from the greatest movies ever produced, I stumbled across a famous scene from Inherit the Wind, a film loosely based on the Scopes story. The Scopes Trial, also known as the “Monkey Trial,” was a legal case in 1925 in which a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was charged with violating Tennessee state law by teaching evolution in his classroom. The case became a national sensation and attracted widespread media attention.

I‘m almost certain that I saw it for the first time in 1961 from the back seat of my family car at the Portland Drive-in. And while I remember the giant tub of popcorn more than the plot of the movie or the stellar performances of Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly,  and Fredric March, a specific scene always stuck in my mind, one that popped up on YouTube the other day.

A huge crowd of citizens is gathered for a rally in the fictional town of Hillsboro, TN. They hold signs, some warning America to disavow science and embrace Jesus, and other placards that scoff at the very idea that humans are the descendants of apes. The crowd feels self-righteous and resolute as they begin to march, singing, Gimme That Old-time Religion. The scene shook me up, as it still does over 50 years later.

Why a young child would recall that scene is a mystery. Why it does now is evident to me. The nostalgic yearning for the old days, for something supposedly simpler and, thus, better, is a fearsome thing. The idealization of the past is a means to stall progress. It belies the notion that we can learn from the past or use history as the foundation upon which we build a better world without it limiting our reach.

This issue related to nostalgia and a yearning to restore the world as it was, is a constant theme in Jewish life. There is a continuous undercurrent in Judaism that accentuates our earliest ancestors, how they revered God, and how we must follow in their footsteps. Traditional Judaism is built on the notion that certain verities must be upheld and laws obeyed because that’s what God wanted then and wants now. To paraphrase the song, give me that old-time religion.

Reform Judaism was birthed a few hundred years ago in the aftermath of the Enlightenment and the rise of the secular state. Our Reform ancestors did not seek to annihilate Jewish tradition. They did seek to recast our spiritual yearnings as the same as those of our ancestors of the Middle Ages. They said it was time to acknowledge the rise of the rational and the ascent of reason. They suggested that our ideas of God, Torah, and Israel evolved. Practicing certain rituals like keeping kosher or separating linen and wool because it was always done that way did not compute; it did not match the growing expansion of the world of intellectual inquiry.

How do we navigate this parlous path between innovation and old-time religion? How do we preserve what we love about our Judaism without certain trappings driving us away because they are irrelevant and insignificant? How do we invoke the new without losing the thread to our shared past?

This dilemma is not new, but it continues to be urgent. Understanding how to find our way forward is all about shaping Judaism for the next 25 years. How do we make coming to Shabbat services a nourishing and spiritually fulfilling experience? More Hebrew or less Hebrew? Traditional prayers or contemporary poetry? Reading from the Torah and haftarah or…? What if it’s a major Jewish holiday like the beginning of Sukkot or Shavuot, and nobody shows? Do we cancel the holiday and close the temple?

The questions about old-time religion are real ones. They challenge us to evaluate what endures and what is transient. Jews are storytellers with endlessly good material. Legends of the past will continue to inspire us even as we dare to create tales woven from the future.

Carry Me

When did I first hear Crosby, Stills & Nash? By my calculations, I was 16 years old. I was primed for good music, a disciple of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and James Brown, to name but a few. The Vietnam War was raging, as were my hormones. It was a time to march against the war and be in love.
How perfect, then, was CS&N? Their music was a gorgeous mix of lilting love songs and anthemic anti-war and anti-establishment vitriol. Almost every song they performed scratched the itch of baby boomers seeking a new way to express outrage and to break the bonds of traditional American mores.
In the perfect mix of their voices were harmonies as daring as a high-wire act and as heartbreaking as the end of a love affair. In their songs was an invitation to lean way in, to listen closely and enter the music. I bought their first album –I can conjure up the cover art instantly – and I sang along. I learned every melody and belted it out—from Suite Judy Blue Eyes to Wooden Ships – every song. Sitting on my bedroom floor, I must’ve played that album ten thousand times until their second album, Déjà vu, was released. And then I played that one.
Amid the music, with a clear, smooth tenor, was David Crosby. Crosby’s voice had an exceptional quality, a certain je ne sais quoi, that thrilled and moved me to rapture and tears. His magic was an umami blend, and I always wanted more.
I used to think that Crosby’s uniqueness, the thing that moved me, was inspired by his love of jazz. By my estimation, jazz is a foundation for musical creativity and daring, and Crosby had that. He always wanted to explore new dimensions of music and push the envelope of vocal and instrumental possibilities.
But now I know that Crosby’s gift was his ability to reach deep inside and pull out his deepest self. Croz could be funny and generous. But he was also an absolute mess, by his accounting, a terrible person who lied, cheated, stole, and lost most of his millions. So much of his life was about excess: women, wine, heroin, guns, cocaine…
Crosby lost people he loved, most famously a girlfriend he’d lived with for a long time who died in a car crash. But he also lost friends. None of the oldest and closest friends from his early years would talk to him again. Graham Nash, who never spelled out why he shut Crosby out of his life, could barely contain the anger he felt towards Crosby.
Crosby was an addict, locked in a relentless wrestling match with an unquenchable drive to destroy himself and a spirit so pure as to be compared to a saint. He spent time in prison. He got a liver transplant. He messed up so many times.
Through it all, there was the music. Rich and deep, joyful, angelic, heart-crushing. All of us who loved Croz and his music are so sad today. An iconic presence is gone. A master of the music that lit up our lives when we fell in love and provided us with a balm when we broke up, who expressed our rage with the war machine and with injustice, is gone. In the shadow of this loss, we are grateful for all the music he made. Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and yes, Graham Nash, among others wronged by Croz over these many years, were all able to write words of sympathy and genuine sadness.
David Crosby released For Free a few years ago, his final album. The song below, I Won’t Stay for Long, is a gorgeous and heartbreaking song about loss and bridges burned. It’s a testimony to resilience and pain and what it means to live on after losing so much. It’s about forgiveness. It’s about David Crosby. Rest in peace.

A New Year Blessing 

The default response to the end of a year is usually, “Good riddance.” There are endlessly good reasons to slam the door on 2022.  We all have our own grievances and slights stored up and cataloged. This post-Covid world has dished up enough sludge and mud to gum up our lives, from war to inflation to the degradation of democracy to… well, as I said, every one of us has our legitimate agenda of woes.  

We could spend endless hours trading our various affronts – and sometimes, we do. I know I do indulge in this practice from time to time. And frankly, I feel utterly justified in doing so. We live in a crazy world. It is turbulent and often stormy. The outrage, the disappointment, the fear, that knot of foreboding are all real. 

It’s like the reporting on the Buffalo snowstorm. Here is a storm unlike anyone has seen in recent memory. Extraordinary snowfall, high winds, blizzard conditions, crushing cold. No one could’ve accurately predicted the ferocity of this storm. Nobody could’ve imagined the carnage left behind. Horrible things happened. Systems broke down. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. People made mistakes. Bad judgment was sometimes used.  

So what story leads? Who’s to blame. Who can be singled out as responsible for the loss of life? Who can we point to as negligent? Who can be accused of criminal behavior? This is the way of American culture. Split the world between the good guys and the bad guys. No shades of grey allowed. 

No one who works for the city of Buffalo is proud of what happened. Not one emergency worker, plow driver, or police officer, not one city official from the mayor to sanitation services wanted anyone to die. No one decided one citizen’s life was expendable. The Buffalo snowstorm was about people paralyzed and overwhelmed.  

There is another story to tell about that same storm. It’s a generative story about folks who owned snowmobiles who went out looking for stranded people and rescuing them from freezing to death in their cars or on the street. It’s about a restaurant that decided to be a literal shelter from the storm, taking people in and feeding them, keeping them warm and safe. It’s a story about action, not blame. 

There’s always so many layers to our stories. The maxim in tv news, “If it bleeds, it leads”, is a regrettable truism. But when one clears away the smoke and the fireworks there are more, quieter truths. The determination of people to reach out, to serve their community with acts of courage and empathy, not for profit or attention, but because they are called to do something – anything! — that is life affirming. 

As my teacher, Krista Tippett, writes:  

“We are familiar with a story of our time of catastrophe and dysfunction, and that is real. But it is not the whole story of us. There is an ordinary and abundant reality in our world of people walking with forms that are broken, with a world that is pain, with institutions that don’t make sense anymore – and finding ways to be of service, to have an edifying effect on the people around them, to be healers in so many forms, and to model and advance what it looks like when we rise to our higher humanity. 

We are capable of beauty and joy and dignity and incredible creativity and community and care…. Calling out this reality, naming that there is a generative story of our time is a way to begin.” 

As we enter 2023, we can write our generative story day by day as we live it and make it so. Imagine this new year to come as the field upon which we enact the promise to rise to our higher humanity. This isn’t about getting the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s about being a Jewish community devoted to loving and caring about each other – and about the world. 

Veterans Day

My wife and I have those fun conversations that couples engage in from time to time. Funny, irreverent conversations with silly or absurd set inductions. “If you had to eat the same meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?” “Is your left foot or right foot more important?”, “Would you prefer the North Pole when it’s light for two months in a row or when it’s dark two months in a row?”. You get the idea. Such conversations are a way to explore what matters in a light-hearted way.

I was reflecting on 2 of those questions for today’s Before Shabbat, two questions I don’t think about quite so lightheartedly anymore. 1) “If you could be born in any historical period, when would you choose?” And 2) “If you could be borne anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

My criteria for answering those two puzzlers are less bold than they may have been 35 years ago when adventure and expansiveness filled my soul. My considerations focus on safety and peace, and access to good healthcare. Boring? Maybe. Trivial? I don’t think so.

On this Veteran’s Day, I think about the time and place I grew up in, and my good fortune not to be pressed into fighting a war. I’ve known many veterans, men and women who served in the military, some willingly, others drafted. Some of them saw combat; others served stateside. For all of them, military service was intense and life-altering.

In 1863, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote to Confederate commander General John Bell Hood, saying, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.”

The sheer magnitude of pain and suffering of innocents and combatants alike cannot be measured. I am blessed to have been born in a safe country where I did not have to make the difficult decision about serving in a war. I am lucky to have been born in a country where men and women volunteer to defend my country. My home has never been under attack. I don’t know what it’s like to hear incoming mortar fire.

Some veterans know the sounds of war: stark, terrifying, random. And those noises never quite dissipate entirely. And it may be that humans are meant to remember, that something in our DNA forces the imprint of war and strife into every cell. For some veterans, the sounds of struggle are daily memories.

I was born after the Holocaust, after Korea. I am so lucky. I was born in the 50s. I was born in America. I may be alive at a sweet spot of history, in a sweet spot of geography. And for those who served, for all the veterans who carry the weight of service and the pride of service, I salute you. In your honor, I will not take my liberty for granted.


My friend and rabbinic colleague, Jim Simon, used to say loudly that if he were made the king of the Jews for just one day, he would promulgate the 11th commandment to be, “Thou shalt read the newspaper every day.” He’s a big believer in the power of a free press and the idea that an informed electorate will make the right decisions about what’s best for the entire nation.

I agree with Jim’s intent. Well-educated people making informed decisions is the fuel necessary to drive the engine of democracy. When people choose their information sources from unreliable and misleading sources, the process can get gummed up, and democracy can be at risk – as it is now.

 If I became king for a day, I would immediately invoke my 11th commandment: “Thou shalt vote.”  We Jews remember all too well the countless places we lived and struggled in. There was no justice, no representation, no power.   We relied on bribes and payoffs, and ransoms to protect ourselves. We had nothing else. We were the hapless objects of history, moved around like pawns on a chess board, or slapped to the side without recourse.

The fact of our powerlessness sometimes rendered us passive. We believed there was no way to alter the trajectory of our lives in the Diaspora. It’s like that moment in the Torah portion Shlach Lecha when the Israelite scouts return from their reconnaissance mission. They tell Moses and the Israelites, “We felt so diminished compared to the inhabitants of Canaan. We must have looked like grasshoppers in their eyes.” Notice that no Canaanite made that comparison. The grasshopper analogy was based on the scouts’ fragile sense of vulnerability. It was about their lack of confidence. They assumed a powerless stance and could not move beyond it.

If the nadir of Jewish powerlessness was the Holocaust, then the life-altering rise to power was in 1948 with the birth of the state of Israel. That event changed everything. The world saw Jews in a brand-new light. More importantly, Jews saw Jews in a new light. We were powerful. We were resolute. No one would mess with us anymore.

It is worth mentioning that Israel’s recent election shows us what happens when the exercise of power becomes hubris. When those in power become arrogant and make decisions without a desire for compromise or collaboration, it creates obstacles to understanding that the other is us. When the smoke clears, the new Israeli government will challenge our values of fairness and our opposition to racism.

To live in an open and free nation is a blessing of profound dimensions. To have a say in our political destiny is still somewhat new for us throughout history. There are 37 Jewish members of the 117th Congress. Of the 37, there are 10 in the Senate and 27 in the House of Representatives — 25 Democrats and two Republicans. All 10 Jewish senators caucus with the Democrats. In the 114th Congress, just 1% of freshmen members were Jews. It’s truly a modern political miracle.

Only it doesn’t happen via miracles. Campaigning is hard, sweaty, backbreaking, and challenging, regardless of the office level. Ask any TBA member who’s run for a local or regional office.

I love this country, I love Massachusetts, and I love my city of residence. I am proud that TBA is a voting site. I don’t vote in the temple’s ward, and I’m sorry. I regard the voting stations like shrines to democracy, a system of government that eschews any co-mingling of church and state. No one is registered to vote by religion or race. All citizens are invited to the table of freedom.

As we all watch the dangerous drift away from democracy in our nation, it is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to keep the ship of state on the rails. We are, more than ever, called upon to stand and deliver. I already voted for this election. If you didn’t, I hope and pray that you will appear at your respective polling stations on November 8th. I may not be a king, but as a very concerned Jewish American, I exclaim, “Thou shalt vote!”