Category Archives: Uncategorized

Remembering Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windchimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life will always find a way.

Honi Lessons


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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

In the Pocket

A few days ago, my grandson, Caleb, asked me a question. We weren’t on the phone. We weren’t on Facetime and we weren’t Zooming. He and his parents and little sister were visiting me and Liza at our home. Well, not exactly at our home – they were parked in front of our home.

I set up two lawn chairs on the sidewalk, and settled in, about 10 feet from the open car windows. I peered in at my precious son and daughter-in-law and my precious grandchildren inside  their red Toyota. Liza did not sit down next to me. She was being ineluctably drawn, ever closer, to the open window. All she wanted to do was to reach in, not even for a hug – but just to pet Sylvie’s hair for a second. I watched with bated breath, remembering how moths really are drawn to flames.

“Social distance”, I said, and Liza took a step back. No one cried or protested. It was business as usual in an alien world that defies belief. Don’t touch another human whom you love more than life itself. Ok, I won’t.

That’s when Caleb looked at me from the back seat, and asked, “Hey Bebop (my grandfather name – cool, right?), “When will I be allowed to come inside your house again?” I was struck dumb. I wanted to answer his very simple question. I could’ve said something like, “Soon, Caleb – really soon.” Or, “I can’t wait for that day to come.”

I couldn’t bear to answer his question directly, to say, “Sweet boy, I don’t know when. I just don’t know.” Instead I threw my doctor under the bus: “I’ll have to ask Dr. Klein for permission.” Can you believe it? That we live in a time where grandparents push our grandchildren away, to protect the grandkids —and to protect ourselves?

The other day I received an email request. A temple mom explained that her daughter requested a conversation with her rabbi. So, I called, first catching up on  the latest family info with the mom, who then handed over the phone. There was no time for pleasantries; my young congregant got right to it: “Did God send this virus to kill people because She’s mad at us?”

First: I loved her assumed gender pronoun for God. But second, and primarily: Where are we? On what planet does an almost six-year-old feel compelled to discuss theodicy with her rabbi? Shouldn’t we be talking about something else, something slightly more age appropriate?

I told her that image of God the Destroyer is not one we use anymore. God is not a punisher. God is not in the pain; God is in the healing. But this almost six-year-old lives in a moment when such a question does not seem abstract or theoretical. And it broke my heart.

There are days, some brighter than others, some warmed by the early spring sun, others grey with the dark clouds of spring rains. There are times in the course of a month, a week, a day – when confidence and hope and determination fill my resolute heart. I know that we will get to the other side, that I will be able to answer Caleb’s question, and tell him, “Come into our house any time you want; now give me a hug!”

And then there are times of despondency like I’ve never known. A helplessness driven by the cold brutish truth, that, as of this moment, there are no answers to when or how we come out the other side. Those moments are hostile and dark.

We are all a complicated construction of opposites, of up/down, yin/yang, happy/sad, light/dark. Not one or the other; we’re both and more, living lives in the wake of infinite duality.

 As Rabbi Simcha Bunem once taught:

Everyone should have two pockets and then put a note in each pocket. When one feels invulnerable and infinite one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” But, when one feels sad and blue, discouraged and alone, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”

This is our sentient, dualistic existence: simultaneously on top of the world and feeling down so long, it looks like up. We are not either/or. We are far more than that.

These days we must do a lot of reaching, for more than just Kleenex or our masks or gloves or whatever. Check your pockets, both of them. It’s ok to be sad and it’s ok to be hopeful. We can afford to be optimists and pessimists all in the same hour – or minute. Because that’s us – that’s how we’re built.

The secret of it all is to be patient, loving and kind with ourselves. We need to practice forbearance and forgiveness, not only of others, but of ourselves. This is a long road, and we have to pace ourselves – it’s the only way to get to the other side: with all of our sides.

One People

As days of quarantine have given way to weeks, we have all developed various coping skills. For some of us that means rigorous schedules: wake up time, shower, breakfast, first call/zoom/Facetime meeting, walk, lunch… you get the idea. A regimented trajectory for the day enhances a sense of control and high-level rational thought. It triggers executive functioning and self-esteem. Yes, it declares, I can do this. 

Others let the tide take them. No alarm. No schedule. No pants…

Some of us have kids at home. Depending on their age, school, sitzfleisch (power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power), and personality, the managerial skills necessary to attend to their needs are prodigious. This huge responsibility takes up a massive amount of our brain’s hard drive.

There are so many subcategories  of individual and collective experiences in this phase of our lives; way too many to list. Truth is, no two people fit into any category except one: we are all in this together. We are trying so hard to keep positive. We want to embrace hope. We want to take the Jewish notion of salvation and apply it to this moment, right now.

Jewish salvation is different than the Christian concept. In those cool and shocking drawings that interpret a fundamentalist Christian concept called the Rapture, God lifts the saved up into Heaven, leaving everyone else on earth to die miserable deaths. It’s plain and simple and requires no explanation.

Jewish tradition stipulates that no amount of mitzvot, of good deeds and good intentions, get you to the front of the line. The really bad guys get weeded out by virtue of their sins, which place them outside the large circle, or as the URJ calls it, the big tent of Judaism. And, to be clear, God shares a special sense of love and affinity with those who understand how to be a mensch. To have a sense of God’s love is a gift worth earning through living a good life.

But Jewish tradition eschews any notion of individual salvation. We cross the finish line together: the heroes and the not so heroic. The big guys and the not so big guys. The extraordinary and the below average. There is no class valedictorian, no captain of the mitzvah team. Because we’re a community, a family, a people.

We are in social isolation for the good of all of us. Our selfless adherence to a social policy is about the collective; it is about us. We are united in moving together. We are committed to the health and welfare of all of us. The stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s not about what I want or I need. It’s not about what I deserve. It’s not about finding scapegoats for the origins of Covid19. It’s not about sinister plots or 5G or immigrants or another Jewish plot to take over the world. Such twisted thinking is beneath contempt.

Each one of us is making our way, day by day. It’s tough going, even for the shiest introvert. We are cut off from so much. We miss the embrace of loved ones and friends. We yearn for the simplest touch of a hand, for the feeling of being in a group. It’s about all of us.

The Aleinu prayer contains a line that says, “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” This is the world we await. We yearn to see a world more united and at peace, where evil has been driven from the world, and where humanity gains a common vision of God that draws us closer, one to the other. This is a Jewish dream, a dream we want to share with the rest of the world. Proclaiming this hope is our mission, our light to the nations.

As you make your way through this weekend, isolated, restricted, remember that we have an old/new ideal, a concept bequeathed to us from our earliest ancestors and taught to our youngest babies: we are one as God is one. We will cross the threshold of despair and aloneness into a time of heightened awareness of the fullness of this gift of life we share.

No one said this would be easy. And nobody said that salvation was a simple concept. The saving grace in the story is that as isolated as you may feel, we will cross the finish line, perhaps in stages, perhaps with a variety of restrictions – but we will cross the threshold together.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Proustian Brisket

S. Chu, and J.J Downes, two well-regarded research scientists, wrote a paper in 2000, entitled, Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena. Their title tips a beret to Marcel Proust, the French writer, who wrote what is widely regarded to be, at seven volumes, the longest novel (and least read novel), In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu).

There is one part of his novel that is quite well-known and oft repeated. Proust romanticizes the deepest pangs of memory about the smell of a madeleine biscuit after soaking in tea. Chu and Downes define the Proust phenomenon as ‘the ability of odors spontaneously to cue autobiographical memories which are highly vivid, affectively toned and very old’. 

The Proust phenomenon was in full effect on Wednesday at the Stern house. The aromas of brisket and garlic and onions interplaying with matza toffee, melted chocolate and sautéed liver were utterly twisting my brain around into my oldest memories and some not all that ancient. It was like being on a Disney ride.

For instance, there is the distinct bouquet of the brisket.  I am remembering a Passover seder of my childhood, when I was maybe three years old. I recall being jammed together with lots of people in my grandmother’s Pittsburgh apartment. It’s very warm in her small space. But it’s not just a warm temperature. It’s a family warmth, a sense of home and connection. In my soul it becomes a touchstone experience, a mythic moment defining what it means to be a part of a larger whole.

I’ve used the same Passover brisket recipe for the last 40 years. The recipe is on an index card in my mother’s scrawling cursive. The recipe is her mother’s – my grandmother’s brisket. It’s not just a recipe – it’s an algorithm that gets entrée to my heart.

So, you see, the Proust phenomenon bounced me from one moment in Newton right into a crowded Pittsburgh apartment in the late 50s, a location filled with love, wide open and without limits.

Sometimes it feels as if we are, each of us, a smooth stone, skipping across the endless expanse of an infinite sea. Where we are in any given moment changes all the time as we move through space and time and memory.

The seder is filled with Proustian phenomena! The parsley dipped in saltwater, the haroset, the matzah itself! These are all purposely part of Passover. Each olfactory experience puts us somewhere else in a memory of another time.

Every Jew at a seder table is a kind of time traveler, bouncing between earliest memories of childhood and adolescence. And if we concentrate, we can travel beyond our individual memories to a collective memory, joining our thoughts and memories together in an infinite tapestry of thought and time, of devotion and wild success, of birth and death and rebirth.

Passover is that moment reminding us with all senses that life is transitory. One moment we are slaves, the next we are free. Only don’t forget; the Exodus doesn’t end with our freedom – the story just begins there. The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey tells us, is where to find the real action. And it isn’t pretty. There’s bad behavior, defiance, disappointment, betrayal, death, and even redemption. We’re not done: the road stretches out before us.

That’s our heritage. That’s the surface upon which our smooth stones skip and careen. This life is a composite of our individual experiences as well as of those who came before us. And we are building new moments, new memories, right now: with our family, our friends, our community.

There’s so much more to our story than right now! There’s an ancient history below our feet even as we reach toward the Heavens. That’s our Passover promise: to reach way past the confines of our homes toward each other, and beyond that.

And all that from my grandmother’s brisket.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

rebhayim

What Does God Think?

“How’s it going?” I ask. “Fine. How are you?” “Hanging in there…” “Yeah, us too. Stay healthy.” “You too.”

 We’ve passed each other on the street twice a day, 3 days in a row. We say the same things. Every. Time. It feels like a scene right out of the Truman Show (which is available on Starz and Hulu, NOT on Netflix or HBO). Same line, same faces. Every. Day.

I wonder as we pass: have we ever met prior to this awkward moment of rendezvous? Do we live on the same street? What are you doing to stay alive? Do you sterilize the kitchen counter when you bring in groceries? How much toilet paper do you have? Are you scared, anxious, terrified or freaked out? Who do you watch? Do you read everything from multiple sources? Do you avoid the news altogether?

I have a thousand more questions running in the back of my head. This social isolation has my poor extroverted brain spinning like a hard drive searching for a source… But, in the meantime, I nod to the strollers in the street – and there so many strollers in the streets! – and offer my desultory commentary.

Sometimes I think about what God might be thinking during this peculiar time. The God in my head is not a loud, belligerent manager screaming about what the heck it is we humans screwed up this time. God is not some punishing presence visiting a plague upon humanity because we are awful. And God is not some twisted teacher causing a plague to teach us a lesson so that we come out of this madness being better and kinder to each other.

That classical God image is archaic and cruel. The God with the temper, the God who causes calamity and loss and destruction – that God I don’t want or need. My God looks at this mess we’re in, shaking an anthropomorphic head in sadness. The Holy One has no power, no magic wand to wave and make it all go away. My God has absolutely no answers as to why and how this happened. COVID19 is as opaque and ominous to God as it is to us.

The God I connect with is a God of endless love, el rachum v’chanun: a God of mercy and compassion. This God consoles me, reminds me that I am not alone. God reminds me that I have a family and friends and a soulful congregation. God reminds me that the Holy One is with me, too. And that, “Even when I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, because you are with me.”

I do not pretend to know what’s next. But I do know that following the World Health Organization’s 5 directives is a sacred obligation, a true mitzvah:

HANDS Wash them often                                 

ELBOW Cough into it

FACE Don’t touch it

SPACE Keep safe distance

HOME Stay if you can

And I do know that staying in touch with people, reaching out via phone and/or Internet, even saying, “How are you?” to the same people every day is right and necessary – for them and for me, too.

Nothing happens for a reason or because God wills it to be so. There is no magical thinking in postmodern Judaism, just the assertion that we can rise to to the place God desires us to attain. It is a place of empathy and understanding. It is a place where we might candidly acknowledge our fears and sadness, even as we redouble our efforts to grow individually as human beings. We can participate more actively with our communities to feel and to be more connected, even when we are forced to be physically apart from each other.

It’s a long hard road and we’re on it together. No shortcuts in sight. We’re not alone. I’m all in, with your trust and love, knowing that God is by our side, giving the gift of infinite love as we make our way.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Take a Breath

I’ve been taking walks every day since returning home from surgery on February 25th.  I started with 5-minute strolls in the house, moving from room to room. The scenery got boring quickly, but there was a sense of satisfaction that I could move through space – at all.  

Four days in, I walked up and down the stairs. And while I would not characterize that as an accomplishment comparable to that of Sir Edmund Hillary, I did pause at the summit for a breath, and for a quick prayer of shehechiyanu. My goals in recovery, small and gradual, were in my power to achieve. 

On day 8, Rachel, my visiting physical therapist, arrived as part of my post op team. At some point I will give a shout out to my PT and the visiting nurse and… well, the cast of professionals at Beth Israel and those who came to my home to push me forward gently and to keep an eye on my vitals.  Anyway, my PT suggested we go for a walk.

As we strolled along, Rachel stopped, looked at me and said, “You’re hunching over as you walk, and your shoulders are up around your ears. Many post-op bypass people walk like that; it’s your body going into protective posture. But now I want you to consciously change that: stand up straight, drop your shoulders, and take a deep breath.” 

I endeavor to be the quintessential good patient, so I did as she suggested. I just let my shoulders drop. “Now take a deep breath, hold it, then release,” she instructed.

In that moment, still learning the vagaries of my post-op body, my limitations in it, as well as the  DNA-driven need to protect it, something deeply profound occurred. Doing the simplest things imaginable: relaxing my shoulders and taking a breath, created a dramatic surge of endorphins that swept over me. An immeasurable sense of well-being filled my soul. 

The decision to relax my shoulders and breathe was not magical or shamanic. I’ve made bigger decisions in my life… But there was something particularly consequential to it. I understood why I felt so tensed up, so physically defended. But that very understandable concern blocked another possibility: that I could untense, take a deep breath, and reframe my place in the world. Yes, I was operated on. Yes, my sternum was wired back together. Yes, I was so sore.

And – yes, I can accept that as all true and real and then anticipate feeling better as time slowly passes. It’s my choice, my decision.

I’ve largely stopped reading the prognosticators’ accounts of the future of the world in light of Covid19. There’s no good to be found in the projections and the gloomy assessments. It will be what it will be. We have no control over that. The prognosticators only true product is angst. I don’t want any of it, any more than is my own daily portion.

Just tell me the rules: where I can go, what I can do, who I can see, how far I have to stand back, what I can do to make others’ lives better, how I can help. I’d build ventilators in my garage if I could – but I can’t. I’d develop a vaccine, but I don’t know how. So, I’m going to be the best possible dad and grandfather and husband and uncle that I can be. I’m going to figure out how to be the best TBA rabbi I can be in cyberspace.

And I’m going to drop my shoulders and take a breath. And you do it, too, even if it’s for 30 seconds. Send some healing to your frayed soul. Let your body take care of you. It won’t make everything all better. But it will remind you of the peaceful presence of your soul, the goodness you contain, and the promise of a new day.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

The Wait


The waiting is the hardest part/Every day you see one more card/You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.

I am entering week two of my long road to open-heart surgery. Next Friday, I will be in the capable hands of a surgical team. In the meantime, I’m able to live my life right now as I want to, as long as I chill out. But Tom Petty (z”l) had it right: the waiting IS the hardest part.

I think a lot about this journey I’m on. Thoughts are always percolating. My mind spins like a centrifuge, whirring at a frightful speed. I try not to talk about it… Yet I talk about it obsessively.

People tell me this is normal. After all, next Friday, Dr. Kamal Khabbaz is going to split my sternum open and stop my heart. That is not a ‘procedure.’ It’s the real thing.Given all of this, I want to reframe my life for a brief moment. I want to shift from the existential life and death moment I am entering (and yes, I know the survival rate for bypass surgery is 97%), to a place of gratitude.

This is my incomplete list of gratitude, in no particular order:

I am thankful to be living in the greater Boston area that has, in addition to lots of good sports teams, the best medical care in the world.

I am thankful for Dr. Johanna Klein and Dr. Loryn Feinberg and their professional insight and their humanity. Their gentle medical care directed me for that stress test and now, to healing.

I am thankful to Dr. Kamal Khabbaz and the team that will be taking care of me on the operating table, and I am thankful for all of the docs, RNs, NPs, PAs, techs, orderlies, and others who will be getting back up and out.

I am thankful to my congregation, to former Texas congregants, and to my friends who have reached out to express love and support and suggestions. They have offered meals and walks and meditation tapes and all-around loving support.I am thankful for my family.

My wife, Liza, is a powerful and directed woman. Her presence by my side for 40 years, her love and support have given me strength. I will be depending on her and our kids and grandkids, to keep me going.And I am thankful to God. You know that gesture Big Papi made all the time. Lots of ballplayers use it after a home-run? When they cross home plate, they look up to the heavens and point an index finger at the sky? That’s what I plan to do as they wheel me to the car. It’ll be shorthand for thanksgiving, a reminder that the Holy One has surrounded me with blessing.