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Mars and More

Mazel tov to all of us! NASA has landed a new probe on Mars! It’s not the first; there have actually been a few. But this one, the Perseverance, is incredibly exciting due to its advanced technological capability. It’ll drive around the planet for 2 years, taking photos and measurements. It will also release the Ingenuity, a small 4lb helicopter drone, that will fly around the surface of the planet, traveling greater distance than the Perseverance can reach. The flight of the Ingenuity will be the first-time humans have achieved flight on another planet. Amazing.

The many tasks for the Perseverance include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

The Perseverance will also drill down for regolith samples that will be remotely picked up and brought back to Earth in 10 years. Finally, scientists will have the opportunity to find evidence that once there was life on Mars, organic matter of some sort. It is an extraordinary time for interplanetary exploration and knowledge.

What might it feel like to be the first humans examining Martian regolith? And perhaps the first humans to see actual incontrovertible proof that once there was life on Mars? It would be the start of a new era, and we’d never look up into the nighttime sky in quite the way we had before Perseverance.

When I read the way engineers have planned to get those samples back to Earth, and how long it would take to get them, I paused. Ten years… That’s a long time. And I want to be around to read about it, to see the photos, to listen to the scientists describe it.

Along with my hope to be in good health ten years from now, I also have a concern. In ten years, what will the world look like?  What kind of shape will our nation be in?  Will people care about these samples being fetched across space from almost 130 million miles ?

It could go so wrong. With so many in America still proclaiming lies about the recent presidential election, and so many held in thrall by dangerous, hate-inspired conspiracies, our nation could become a land covered in darkness by the eclipse of reason and strangled by white supremacy. This is not some idle anxiety. We all have more than enough proof to genuinely worry for the future of the United States as a freedom loving democracy, comprised of so many races and religions and points of origin.

One of the images that stubbornly sticks in my mind from the insurrection is a rioter, wearing a MAGA hat, beating a police officer with a flagpole; American flag still attached. It was such a devastating incident to witness. It was as if this criminal was desperately beating a cop to somehow beat back the truth of an America he could not countenance. His violence mirrored the sorriest part of the American story that has always been diverted from our eyes: that some white Americans are threatened by the other: Black, Brown, Jewish, Hispanic, LGBT, and so on. And when threatened, they will resort to violence and exclusion, whether by burning a cross, lynching a Black man, enacting Jim Crow laws, etching a swastika on a wall, passing anti-LGBT legislation, blocking American citizens from their right to vote… and so on…

There is, however, a counter-image. It’s from the Perseverance landing. This is not a reference to the first photo from Mars, though that was very cool. No. The counter-image is the photo taken of Mission Control personnel when they received the signal confirming the Perseverance had landed safely.

Remember all the movies and tv shows about space, and how Mission Control was always filled with white guys in white short-sleeve shirts, most of them smoking Camel straights? And remember actual Mission Control videos, and how they were, in fact, white guys in white shirts smoking Camel straights? Mission Control for the Perseverance was another picture altogether. No one was smoking. There were no white shirts, just blue polos.

The counter-image: even with their masks on, it was easy to discern that the room was filled with men and women. They were White and Black and Brown. They were Asian and South Asian. And they were cheering for and with each other.  People from six different continents collaborated, transcending the limitations of language and the infinitude of space.

What would it take for our nation to pin that picture to the bulletin board of our hearts? What would happen if we chose that achievement of communication and cooperation over the execrable acts of destruction and desecration?

My Teacher Chick Corea

Our teachers come to us from so many places. The classroom is, of course, the traditional location for learning. I remember some of my teachers so well. Mrs. Marshall, of 4th and 6th grade, taught me how to think critically about what I do and what I say. My 5th-grade teacher, Mr. Krupa, taught me how to carry a football. Mr. Kleiman, my Hebrew School teacher in 4th grade, taught me how to read and write Hebrew. At Wesleyan, Rabbi Michael Berenbaum taught me how to read traditional and contemporary texts and approach the Holocaust.

But we have so many other teachers in our lives, people who have never met us but whose impact is profound and everlasting. The writer Ray Bradberry taught about the wonderment of imagination through science fiction. The philosopher, Richard Rubenstein, taught me about the deepest dimensions of Jewish life after Auschwitz. A guy named Elliot taught me how to open my car’s frunk off of a YouTube video.

And then there’s music. Some lyricists have taught me how to express the pain of losing love. The first time I heard the Beatles For No One from the Revolver album, I was 13. Now, what did I know of real heartbreak? Not much. Yet that song knocked me sideways, and it prominently featured in subsequent breakups. It gave me insight into the vocabulary of emotion.

I’ve never met Paul McCartney, and I never had the pleasure of shmoozing with John Lennon. But they gave me more than entertainment. They gave me insight into the reaches of the human spirit. Lennon and McCartney rank up there with my reading teacher of first grade: they provided me with tools for perceiving the Universe and how I fit in it.

Then there are my jazz teachers, and there are so many. Today I am thinking about Chick Corea, a foundational jazz pianist, and virtuoso, who died yesterday. His death felt very sudden, and it hit me hard. His fellow pianist, McCoy Tyner, died almost one year ago. He was another favorite of mine. He taught me about the way music tells a story without lyrics.

McCoy played with a kind of power and energy that engaged me at the very core of my being. He taught me how to let go of the linear and step into the rarified air of improvisation and dare to follow one line, then another, then another… and then return to Earth, safe and sound.

McCoy did not go for funk or fusion. He was an acoustic piano man. While he didn’t disdain other musicians or their choices of expression, McCoy had his wheelhouse and pretty much stayed in it his entire career. I experienced him as a rather formal character, who could sometimes be austere even when he was swinging hard.

Chick Corea, whose chops were deep and mighty, taught me about the beauty of music and how it inspires and honors the human soul. His music touched me to my core.  Chick taught me something else, something about flexing to try new things and go other places. Chick created over 70 recordings and played on hundreds of others. His discography is jaw-dropping. He didn’t get hung up on labels. He played spectacularly intricate solos that pushed into avant-garde jazz. He played flamenco melodies. He played with Bobby McFarren. One of his last releases was a virtuosic recording of classical music.

My teacher, Chick Corea, taught me to transcend traditional boundaries. He pointed out that the unifying quality of music transcends the channels through which it flows. Chick could and did laugh and groove during a performance. He could also be very focused and intense.

Yesterday my teacher, Chick Corea, died of cancer. He was from Chelsea, MA. His given name was Armando Anthony Corea. He taught me all about the beauty and multi-dimensionality of music. He taught me that life is about revering traditional forms and then stretching to embrace as much as possible that is new and exciting. I will miss him.

Old Guy

I watched the first Superbowl with my father in January of 1967. The Chiefs and the Packers played in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It wasn’t actually billed as THE SUPERBOWL until after the fact. It was just the championship clash between the two football conferences. I wasn’t sure why we were watching; I grew up a Steelers fan and didn’t really care about sports much then – or now.   Perhaps it remains in my memory because it was something my father and I actually did together… Whatever the reason, we watched.

And now we’re at Superbowl LV – I have no idea why they have to use the Roman numerals. I suppose it’s more dramatic, evocative of gladiators entering the ring. It’s quite dramatic for me: fifty-five years is a hunk of time; when I quantify it as more than half a century, it becomes rather jarring. In fact if I stare at those Roman numerals for too long, it causes back pain…

Thinking back fifty-five years conjures up all kinds of feelings about aging and the power of the unknown. As a kid, I couldn’t wait for the years to pass. I wanted the days to fly by like it was regularly shown in movies, the pages of the calendar flipping by, blown by the wind and by time itself. But now, I sometimes wish the pages wouldn’t flip so fast…

The two quarterbacks in Sunday’s game have very different calendar sequences in their heads. My guess is the Patrick Mahomes, who is 25 (younger than my youngest children, by the way), is all about the wide-open vista of a big, fabulous life. He can’t wait to seize the day. Let those pages fly!

Tom Brady’s calendar is a little more complex. Look, he’s 43 (older than my oldest child – by just a few years…), and already signed up to play for his team next year. Brady is, to quote Bill Murray’s encouragement to John Candy in Stripes, “a lean, mean, fighting machine.”

Brady seems to have made peace with his calendar, which, for a professional athlete, is never easy. I think he sees his calendar blowing by and accepts it for what it is with a very Zen attitude. He has chosen not to make time an enemy. He doesn’t deny it. He goes with the flow, working to build his body, his mind, and his game. As long as he’s healthy and able, why not keep going? Why not embrace the reward of a passionate, dedicated life? And seven years from now, when he receives his invitation to join AARP, I don’t think he’ll have an identity crisis.

On Superbowl Sunday, I’m rooting for the old guy. Not out of any sense of loyalty or duty, but because he inspires me. I’m old enough to be his father, and wise enough to respect that greatness is not just an intellectual standard, but one of physical and spiritual prowess as well. I’m rooting for the old guy and the way he parses time and possibility.

On the eve of Superbowl LV, I’m looking at my calendar. I wouldn’t mind it if those calendar pages slowed down a bit.  But that’s not going to happen. Instead I want to honor and embrace Tom’s Zen calendar assessment. As long as one can keep going, then why not… keep going? Keep harvesting the benefits of love and laughter, of knowledge and spirit. It’s watching the days pass without panic or depression, accepting the limits, but not being imprisoned by them.

I don’t look down the path and see darkness, though I know it will get dark… I just see so many opportunities to make meaning out of my life: not Nobel Prize-sized meaning, just reaching in with gratitude and pulling out a plum… or a mitzvah… or a good book… or a Shabbat… or a moving melody.

This Sunday, I hope Tom wins. I don’t care about his team (or Gronk) or his politics. I believe in his determination to walk the walk of accomplishment and strength, not in spite of his age, but rather reaching in and fully acknowledging it. I’m voting for the old guy.

One With Everything

Some time ago the Dalai Lama travelled to New York City. As happens to any NYC visitor, the Dalai Lama came upon a hot dog cart. The vendor took one look at the flowing robes, the beatific countenance, and recognized his customer immediately. “Your Holiness! What can I do for you?” The Dalai Lama smiled and said, “Make me one with everything…
I know – it’s an old joke. I know – the Dalai Lama is a vegan. But it still works.
The Jewish mystics throughout history have been a diverse assortment of people who seek to find God. It is a pursuit not unlike astrophysics. For some scientists the question is, how close can we get to the beginning of the Universe? For other scientists the question is, how close can we get to see the end of Universe? And perhaps for another subset of scientists the question is, how are those two questions actually the same?
One group of Jewish mystics are set on finding God through the lens of duality. The question is, in a world of good and evil, light and darkness, mortality and eternity, how do we come to know and serve God best? How might we hack through the jungle of disorder to find peace? For these mystics, it’s about moving from the outside to the inside. 
For another group of mystics, it all begins with the assertion that there is no duality. God, they say, is One. And if God is One, then everything in the Universe is ultimately One. There is no outside, no inside; just now. Like the Dalai Lama’s hot dog order…
There is, they say, a transcendent reality attainable through seeing past the illusions of fracture to a greater truth of wholeness. BB King once sang “There must a better world somewhere.” To which the mystics of Oneness would say, “No BB. The better world is right where you’re standing. You just have to train yourself to see it.”
For dualists, there is a better world: the Olam Haba – the World to Come, a place of perfection and wholeness and peace. But in this world? It’s all about gathering broken pieces, restoring that which has been shattered, knowing that it cannot, and by definition, will not, be perfect. And we do live in this world only.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about unity and perfection, from Washington, D.C. of all places! Our new president and vice president are leaning heavily into oneness. As a confirmed dualist, I’m not so sure just how unified the Universe – or America – can ever be. The forces of divergence, the way opposite poles repel, are deeply rooted in the human experience. Unity seems so far away from reality. The likelihood that those who believe the election was fair and legal and true democracy can unify with those who would declare the election null and void by virtue of a conspiracy, an ideology that triggered an insurrection, is farfetched. 
Can we find a common desire to pick up the broken pieces of our nation? Can we, from opposite ends, agree to get more people vaccinated more quickly? Can we acknowledge a common desire for clean water and air? I doubt it; but I’m a dualist.
All a person can do is aspire to do better, to choose a path that leads towards peace and not war. Who wants to care for more people, look out for the disenfranchised and powerless, and keep the freedom of democracy alive? Who wants an end to racism and antisemitism? The answer is that everyone is invited to try. Everyone is invited to cooperate. 
The work is not about creating a more perfect union. The phrase “more perfect” carries a little too much hubris. How about creating a good enough alliance of Americans, an adequate confederation of people willing to recognize the centrality of ethics and enact change in light of those ethical dimensions of our society? That’s what we need: not perfect, just better.
Part 2 of the Dalai Lama joke came a few years later. The hot dog vendor passes the Dalai Lama his order. The Dalai Lama’s assistant takes the hot dog while the Dalai Lama reaches in his robe and hands the vendor a $20 bill. The vendor takes it and says thank you. The Dalai Lama looks up at the price list on the cart which states that the hot dog with everything is $7.50. “Excuse me,” the Dalai Lama says, “What about my change?” To which the vendor responds, with a smile: “Your Holiness, change comes from within.” 
It’s time for the change. I’m ready.

Be Concerned

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

“Should I be worried?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are All Co-Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giant Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not So Minor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Is Anyone Out There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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