Category Archives: Uncategorized

Is Anyone Out There?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Lives Lived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Herbie

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

Who Knows Where the Time Goes by Sandy Denny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will miss him so.

Who knows where the time goes?

Hillel and Shammai Strike Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounded By Torah

I’ve learned how to be a proficient Torah roller. This is not generally acknowledged as an official job title, but it is in the realm of those things commonly called “a rabbi’s work.” There are many occasions when the Torah requires rolling. Every Shabbat, we move from one portion to the next. Sometimes, on holidays, there is a particular Torah assignment out of sequence with the weekly order. This necessitates moving from, let’s say, Exodus, all the way to Numbers, and then back again to the weekly sequence.

Preparing the Torah scrolls for the HHD is a big task unto itself. There are readings from Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and the Torah scrolls must be rolled to the special chapters and verse designated for each sacred occasion.

Torah rolling is not an incredibly difficult job. One needs strong wrists. Your flexors and pronators have to be toned up. But that’s not the tough part. No, the hard part is finding where it is you’re rolling to.

It’s easy to find one’s place in the narrative chapters. I can just read along in the text until I find the correct part of the particular story. After all of these years, I have the Patriarchal/Matriarchal stories and the Exodus pretty well established in my memory. But whenever it comes to the sections – which are many – about the sacrifices, the structure of the Tent of Meeting, and priestly duties, I get easily confused. In my defense, this is due to the highly repetitive nature of the text, mixed in with various names of tribal chieftains, priests, and so forth. It never gets comfortable. It just gets murky!

The anxiety I feel when I am cut adrift on the sea of Torah, searching for the safety of a port – some familiar word or a phrase – must find its roots in my horrible sense of direction. The relief I feel when I do indeed see the right combination of words – oh, THAT vayomer Adonai el Moshe La-mor – is absolutely akin to when the signs on the highway match my GPS. Or as the song goes, “I once was lost /But now I’m found!”

Torah rolling is literally a hands-on task. Whenever I engage in this holy obligation, I think about those whose hands have been on the Torah before me. I think about all the B’nei mitzvah kids who’ve held the wooden spools, standing on the bimah, so nervous, so young. I think about all of the parents and grandparents who passed the Torah to that youngster with so much pride and with such great expectations. I think about the older, big Torah scrolls, about Rabbi Miller’s generation of B’nei mitzvah and their families and how they too held a Torah that I am rolling for a holiday reader.

Torah rolling ends up being a meditation of sorts. It’s a way I connect to the anxiety of getting lost, the relief of finding my way, and the strength of binding myself to the community I love, a community of spirit and tradition—a community of Torah.

A favorite holiday activity on Simchat Torah has been for us to completely unroll a Torah scroll and then surround our kids with it. What a great image! So much love, so much history, so much hope. Tonight we will not be doing that. But the metaphor abides, long after the scroll has been rewound to the right place.

At 500pm tonight, please come drive by the temple. Many of the staff will be outside, holding Torah scrolls, waving to you. Blow a kiss to the Torah; yell out hag sameach! It’s not the same as an indoor Simchat Torah – but it’ll do in a pinch…  And then, at 615pm, the mother-daughter team of Beth Kozinn and Peri Barest will join us for our weekly Shabbat Zoom, during which they will read the last verses of Deuteronomy and the first verses of Genesis.

From sitting in the sanctuary hearing someone chant Torah to dancing with a Torah to looking for the right Torah verses to rolling a parchment scroll of Torah to virtually chanting an Aliyah:

We will always surround ourselves with Torah and with blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim l’simcha,

rebhayim

#Hope

It’s a full moon tonight and the cicadas are singing their song, which is at least 40 million years old. There is a slight chill in the air and Halloween candy is on sale everywhere. The drama of life is in the groove, and the world keeps on turning. Everything is the same and everything is different. It’s part roller coaster and part Ferris wheel.

There is a storm of emotion all around us and inside of us, too.  We are moving from the intensity and introspection of Yom Kippur into the barely restrained joy of Sukkot, from a spiritually interior narrative to a delicious flashy outdoor observance, from beating our chests and asking God for forgiveness, to shaking a lulav and etrog and embracing the fertility of the Earth. It’s a bit dizzying. 

Sukkot comes at exactly the right time this year. We are more than ready for a healthy dose of positivity. In this dramatically wonderful moment, we receive an open invitation to acknowledge the sheer abundance of the Universe. 

I know; the climate change struggle can dampen our enthusiasm for this. Our eyes and hearts are so trained on the terrible mess we’ve made of it that sometimes we forget to look up at what we still have, and to exclaim, “Hallelujah!”, or something like that. Then we can go back to the soulcrushing work of wrestling for the future of the planet with those who see it as no more than a generator of capital.

Sukkot challenges us to lean into hope, to believe. Vaclav Havel, a great 20th century intellectual and a former president of the Czech Republic once wrote,  “I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Hope has become a hashtag in my head. I am trying to lean into all signs of it. With the chaos level ticking up – I know, how is that even possible? – it seems dramatically necessary to consider hope as a sort of ballast, to keep my soul together. 

Sukkot is a balm to the achiness of being squeezed into our respective homes. It’s a metaphor for the goodness of harvest, which we take for granted. Bathe in that gratitude, feel the hopefulness that comes with the crisp apple, the pumpkin patch, the Autumn leaves.

The hope comes from so many places. Tonight, in particular, it comes from the cyclic nature of Nature and the Jewish calendar. Sukkot will always be the night of the full moon. Sometimes it’ll be 80 degrees, and sometimes it will be snowing. But the moon will always be full, and we will always just have emerged from Yom Kippur. The hope from the alignment of stars and planets and galaxies shines on us with sweetness and joy. Perhaps this is what Havel means when he says that hope is something we get from elsewhere. 

As we hang on in this interregnum period of Fall, in a time we can still be outdoors together – the safest way there is – we give thanks for God’s presence, for each other, and for this community we have sculpted together. We give thanks for this holiday of Sukkot, a reminder of the bounty we share together. We are thoughtful about how tenuous it can be, how easily things can go wrong.

And on this Sukkot, we lean into hope, inspired to do whatever must be done, not for selfish, self-centered reasons, but because it’s the right thing, “even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.” Now more than ever, as Jesse Jackson once said, “Keep hope alive”. And as I say, hope keeps us alive.

Hag Sameach,

rebhayim

A Lifejacket

This is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of return and repentance. This particular Shabbat is a rowboat on the seas of the Days of Awe. We feel secure as the waves gently undulate beneath us. We hold our oars and know how to navigate, to port or starboard. We are lulled by the sounds of the sea that are, after all, the first sounds we heard while still in utero. The repetitive rhythm comforts us.

And yet we know how quickly things can change when a storm is coming. The sky darkens. The wind changes direction. The sea, once so calm and nurturing now becomes rougher, and we begin to feel unsafe, and vulnerable.

Yom Kippur is the rough sea ahead. It’s a time to think about who we are and what we are supposed to be. It’s a time to shed light on the darker places of our soul. We know we didn’t always do the best we could do. Instead we did  the expedient thing. We took shortcuts. We chose the easy way, not the best way. We have said things we regret. And we have left unsaid words of love and comfort. And forgiveness.

The best thing we could possibly do over Yom Kippur is to think about who we want to be in 5781. It’s about the only thing we do have control over. It’s the only thing we can be sure of in this new year: that we have choices. We are not doomed to stay locked in regret and grudges. We are not consigned to the locked room of resentment . We hold the key. Are we willing to do the work to open the door of our heart?

It’s complex, you might say. I know. You may candidly acknowledge that your anger and hurt feel too important and definitional to let go of, that somehow forgiveness makes you weak. But forgiveness is a sign of strength and character. And: it’s really difficult. But letting go of the sharp pieces you’ve held so close to your chest is profoundly liberating.

But this is Shabbat Shuva, the calm before the storm. Right now, in this space in time. Breathe. Feel the warmth of this day. Give thanks. Call someone with whom it’s been too long and just say, “I’ve been thinking about you. Have a safe new year and have a meaningful fast.” Nothing fancy. If you have someone to hug and/or kiss, give them a special one, a Shabbat Shuva kiss for comfort and appreciation.

Then get the oars out. Check the soundness of your boat. We’ll provide the lifejackets.  

Here It Comes

It’s a cool, cloudy morning. The leaves are turning and starting to fall. The colors of my garden are fading. Yes, there’s no mistaking it: this is it. The new year has arrived.

Tonight will be familiar and yet, so different. We’ll be together in the way we always are to welcome the new year. But the way we’ll be gathered, well, that’s a first.

Rabbi Larry Kushner calls Rosh Hashanah “the annual meeting of the Jewish people.” I love that image and it’s sustained me for almost 40 years in the pulpit. It’s the homecoming, the enormous satisfaction that comes with seeing one’s community in attendance. It’s reassuring and powerful. It directly links us to our first tribal assembly at Mt Sinai.

This time, the gathering is remote. There are no hugs, no sharing photos, no catching up face to face. All we have is the link you click on to be here now.

But that’s ok. Most of us have handled online zoom chats with friends, family, business, commerce, music, lectures – it’s a part of the landscape now. We can do this.

What to wear? Put on a tallit? How to set yourself up? Where to sit? When to click in, live or delayed? That’s your call. For some, tonight will feature Susan singing, me talking, Jamie playing, and a big bowl of popcorn, and sweats. For others, it’s dress for the occasion: a new outfit, an actual dress shirt and a tie! It’s all about how you want to settle in for the service. Sing out loud, follow along, Facetime with a friend and participate in the service together. There’s no right way, only your way.

Let us know between now and Sukkot what it’s like. We want to share the home experiences we’re having. It’s another way to share and celebrate together. And don’t worry – there is no judgement. Many people – particularly in my family – have longed to put me on hold…

Your TBA staff – all of them – has worked long into the night over the last few months to make this a memorable, spiritually significant experience. In the beginning, it may feel weird and slightly surreal; I’m pretty sure I’ll feel that way, too. But I’ll be looking at you. I’ll be connecting to you. And we will connect to each other through the speed of light and sound. And through history and memory. And through familiar liturgy and music written on our hearts.

Please email Becky Oliver (boliver@bethavodah.org) wish her a sweet new year and then tell her why she is the most extraordinary woman ever: able to leap tall buildings, send out links, consider camera angles and raise two school-aged boys with her terrific husband, Mike. Let me put it simply: without her, we would be pale and anemic, monaural and blurry. She’s on the rainbow side of Oz.

Eileen Brooks has gone so far and above the call of duty. There are countless examples of her dedication and creativity all over the HHD: colors, fonts, information access, Facebook links, video, and more. She has kept connecting us since the pandemic began – and before.

Amy Tonkonogy has devoted countless hours to helping us put together a service experience online that is utterly nonpareil. Her eye for detail, her producer’s acumen, and her love of TBA, combine to give all of us the extraordinary opportunity to be present and engaged in this strange new world of 5781.

Liza and I and the Stern Gang wish you a sweet new year. We pray that you and yours stay healthy and safe. We entreat you to wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and social distance.

I know that it’s a tradition to say, “L’shana haba-ah b’yerushalayim” at the end of a seder. This year, I will add a similar aspiration: l’shanah haba-ah b’chazera lbeit tifilateinu: next year, back here: in our holy space, at TBA.

See you in a little while.

Shabbat Shalom and shana tova,

rebhayim

The Glow of the Unknown

Memory can be so unforgiving. The name of a song, the name of a place, the blank drawn when someone places you in a story and you don’t remember even being there, that sheepish headshake when you find yourself looking in the refrigerator – or online – or in the closet – and you have no earthly idea what you were looking for. It’s a strange sensation to experience just how fleeting the past can be.

Clearly traumatic memories are stored in another part of the brain. I know this because every time I glance at a digital clock and the time is 9:11, I am shaken. Not incapacitated, but taken aback. It’s like having a hidden bruise that gets bumped while you’re doing something, and it’s momentarily shocking that it still hurts 19 years later.

There are two different levels of my 9/11 memories. One level is the experience itself. It’s the pain and the shock of others: the scenes on tv of folks fleeing the crumbling towers, covered in ash and dust and blood. It’s the people who were up close to me, people suffering the unthinkable loss of a son, a child, a husband, a future. It was deep appreciation for Heidi Baker and Rachel Segall who were woven into my life that day as we attempted to swim to the surface of what-needs-to-be-done.

The other level of memory is the experience of my experience. It was my own disequilibrium and fear. It was like an existential vertigo.  How did I manage to think straight? How did I process it all? I do know that however I experienced the world changed me.

This is the tricky thing about memory. Neuroscientists say that our memories are not cast in bronze. They change and warp and flex like soap bubbles that sometimes pop. So the memory of what was back then has been filtered and altered by subsequent encounters. I can’t truly know what I knew or felt then, which is its own interesting phenomenological problem. But I surely know how it’s resonating right now.

The predominant feeling of 9/11 that plays when I let it out and reflect on it is utter disorientation. After being with David Retik’s family I arrived home to learn that my next-door neighbor, Danny Lewin, of Akamai, was on the same flight. An omen of catastrophe and loss.  What next? Is everything I know about to fall apart?

You may remember that all air traffic was suspended for a few days right after 9/11. Newton Centre is in a very heavily traveled air route: there’s hardly a moment when, if you glance up from the TBA parking lot, you won’t see a plane or contrails. I didn’t know that then as I stared into the beautiful blue firmament. It was so quiet. And so surreal. Because the quiet was not emerging from a meditative space. Rather, it came from shapeless, unanticipated, unnamed fear.

There is something so similar about COVID time and memories of 9/11. It’s the inchoate fear, the looming presence of the unanticipated, the “what’s next” of it all that has been like the terrifying orange glow in the skies of northern California, a harbinger, of what…?

It’s 19 years since that terrible day. And the memories always put me in a contemplative funk. But even as I write these words, I know that’s a common condition these days. Perhaps one of the lessons I’ve learned since 9/11 helps me contextualize COVID time. This life is the only one we’re going to get. What are we going to do with it? The fear is real. The darkness is real. But so, too, is our resolve to keep going, to keep believing that there is something greater out there, something that’s worth the struggle, something that inspires us to reach down deep for courage and resolve.

We who were witnesses to 9/11 continue to live and remember, and in the mysterious glow of the unknown we hold on tighter to what we do know: that love and connection keep us whole and alive. That those who have lost have found. That trauma and the loss do not evaporate in the hot sun, but are incorporated into the waters of time that draw us down the river.

Next Friday night is Rosh Hashanah. Come connect and celebrate our collective resilience and our ability to pick our way out of the fear to love.

Shana Tova

rebhayim