Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.
https://open.spotify.com/track/4cP8Dz5GNdaVCbr9AJIG0c?si=6a5537070a9a4266

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.

Vote!

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!”

No Ye

I know very little about Kanye West. His music doesn’t speak to me. Hip-hop is not a genre that I can easily cozy up to…  Over the years, I have certainly come to respect West’s musical acumen and his cultural influence. He has earned tons of money, designed footwear, and fashion, opened a charter school, and many other accomplishments.

Kanye West struggles with mental illness. I’m not sure if an official diagnosis has been shared publicly, but the man has issues. His behavior has been erratic, and his relationships turbulent and often destructive.

The story of Kanye West is a complex portrait of a man with enormous capacity and talent. It is also a story of disturbance and poor impulse control. There are many examples of Kanye’s penchant for making himself the center of attention to the detriment of others. It’s sad and a little outrageous.

Now, on top of all these complications and the wreckage he’s caused, is a new and disturbing development. Kanye West is a loud-mouthed antisemite. He’s bought into the various traditional antisemitic tropes like Jews control Hollywood. Jews control the music industry. Jews are avaricious. Jews have an underground organization that seeks to control the world.

These old calumnies are always shocking. We’ve heard all the antisemitic slurs, all the awful lies about conspiracies and cheap Jews, and how we stain the world. And yet, when these insidious lies are spoken out loud by a public personage, a person who millions of people know and will listen to because of his fame, it’s painful. And frightening.

What motivates West to spew Jew hatred? Of course, no one knows what’s in West’s mind; he may not even know his own mind. But he swims in a culture increasingly plagued by lies. He shares a profoundly distorted take on reality that centers on conspiracies like QAnon, on plots to steal elections, and on charges that Jews are purposefully seeking to increase the number of racial minorities to displace the white American population. Supporters have used the conspiracy theory as a populist (and often racist) canard to advocate for anti-immigration policies and discredit politicians they perceive as left-wing. The theory has generated strong support in many sectors of the Republican Party of the United States and has become a significant issue of political debate.

West’s twisted comments are being fed by the noxious fumes that have spread over America these past six years. Antisemitic statements are more frequent. Hate crimes have soared. It is deeply troubling to see someone like West have no compunctions about talking trash about Jews. It means that people like West, who have quietly harbored animosity towards Jews, now speak it out loud. They think they have permission.

Seeing how the world has responded to West’s spouting off is gratifying. Companies have severed ties with him. He’s been excluded from social media sites. Many people have denounced him. This is all for good. I haven’t noticed an upsurge in antisemitic incidents. If anything, this whole Kanye incident is an awakening, a cultural moment of reckoning.

What are we supposed to do? How do we respond to West’s toxic discharge? I’m not sure we can do a whole lot about people who hate us because we are the Other: the non-Christian, the outsider, the interloper, the thief, the evil one. How do we discredit a two-thousand-year-old playbook about evil Jews?

A man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, five years ago and killed 11 people. He was infected by the same horrible, virulent lies, the same conspiracy theories that West proclaims. Our response is to live a proud, boldly declared Jewish life. We stand together and claim our own freedom to celebrate our history and our commitment to a progressive, inclusive future. We are not running away. We can never fear responding to hate. We will call it out every time.

Life Is Like

I’m always looking for apt metaphors and similes that comment on Life. It’s an odd preoccupation. After all, describing Life is like looking at yourself through a microscope – or sometimes a telescope… But you see? I couldn’t help it; I had to write a simile describing reading similes about Life… Am I in an MC Escher drawing?

Forrest Gump’s mother had a good one: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Or Zorba’s fiery declaration: “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.” Allan Rufus, a self-help author, said, “Life is like a sandwich. Birth as one slice, and death as the other. What you put in between the slices is up to you.” John W Gardner, a thoughtful educator, public official, and political reformer, wrote: “Life is like a drawing without an eraser.”

There are, of course, endless examples of these pithy aphorisms. Some are profound. Others – not so much. And every one of them is right – and ultimately insufficient. How do we even begin to define existence? There is so much we don’t even know! We fundamentally do not understand the origins of the Universe itself. We fundamentally do not understand the origins of Life.

I believe with all of my heart that searching for answers and similes and metaphors that illuminate this most primary of all questions is a vital task. We have to keep searching. It’s in our DNA. And it undergirds our belief that through this search, we see that Life is precious.

We want to understand our origin stories. We want so badly to figure out how we got here. Astrophysics, cosmology, astronomy, paleo-archeology, and paleoanthropology are all sciences that push hard at the boundaries of human knowledge to derive meaning from the chaos surrounding us. We spend billions of dollars on an endless variety of new instruments and tests that look up at the furthest reaches of the Universe and look down into the tiniest subatomic particles of quantum mechanics. And all of this is to answer the question, “What is life?”

Scientists tend to beg off what is often the next question to follow: does Life have meaning? They leave that to the theologians. And the philosophers. And to you and me.

Reading the opening verses from the book of Genesis, we see that our ancestors were just as curious as we were. They needed to understand what they saw and experienced and the origins of it all, just like us.

Stephen King said, “Life is like a wheel. Sooner or later, it always comes around to where you started again.” We’ve rolled the Torah all the way to Genesis 1:1. Here we are, pondering the process of creation, the origins of everything. Again. Welcome back.

Unacceptable

Whenever, and I mean, whenever, a name appears in the media of a person who’s done something significant or especially heinous, I ask the question. I know: it’s going to sound a bit chauvinistic, self-involved, and defensive. But I quietly say, “Is this person Jewish?”

You would be utterly justified to pose the question: “What difference does it make whether or not they’re Jewish? Does it change the facts? Does it mitigate or glorify the particular behavior mentioned in the story?” And you’d be correct to say this. We are all people, given to heroism, cowardice, altruism, and supreme selfishness. Isn’t our ethnic or religious background secondary to our identity as human beings?

I would say yes. Why magnify the differences between people when we share so much in common? But… for me, the ‘are they Jewish’ factor looms large. Because when push comes to shove, I take a Jewish person’s behavior personally. It reflects on the rest of the Jewish community and me. I am much more deeply connected to them simply because we’re both Jewish and historically linked in good times and bad.

For much of American Jewish history, the fear that a Jewish person’s behavior will be bad for the Jews is largely unfounded. A striking example of this is the Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, who rapaciously stole millions and millions of dollars from Jews and people who were not Jewish. His crimes fit so neatly into the stereotype of Jews and money. I was convinced there would be a calamitous backlash. But there was not.

Or how about when Donald Sterling, the former owner of the LA Clippers, was banned for life and had to pay out a lot of money in 2014 for making various lewd, inappropriate, and racist comments? He was horrible. Again I was convinced we would all be tarred. Of course, there was Internet buzz in the murky zones, but there was no rise in antisemitism, no ‘you people are all alike’ accusation.

And now, the owner of the Phoenix Suns(NBA) and the Phoenix Mercury (WNBA), Robert Sarver, is the latest member of the tribe who’s been outed and punished for despicable behavior. In this case, I do not fear a backlash. Instead, I am feeling, most of all, a deep sense of shame. This is not how we Jews behave. We don’t use the n-word. We don’t make nasty comments about women’s anatomy or where they belong. We don’t use wealth and power as leverage to treat people with contempt.

Only – sadly – sometimes we do. Our communal response must be that degrading another human being is defaming God every time in every place. Sarver’s conduct is a sacrilege.  

Is it right or fair to hold Jews to a higher standard? Yes. Absolutely. Our tradition is based on empathy. We are commanded to care for the powerless. We are taught in the very opening of Genesis that we are all created in God’s image. It’s never acceptable – EVER – to diminish someone else in order to feel superior. That’s a lesson we learn and teach as fundamental and non-negotiable. We must expect more from ourselves. If not, why bother raising these values? L’dor va’dor, from generation to generation, is not a slogan; it’s our mission.

Rolodex Brain

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

The Blessing and the Curse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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