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Living Waters

At some point in January, my wife, Liza, asked me a simple question: what do you want to do next month to mark the first anniversary of your open-heart surgery? Perhaps in another time and place, I may have suggested a gathering of friends and family to acknowledge this huge moment in my life. Good food, heart-friendly and otherwise, jazz, and lots of hugs, sounded like a fitting way to give thanks.

However, the default format of celebration – easy, defined, fun – was not available to me or anyone else. There could be no party. There could be no libation. And, worst of all, there could be no hugs from friends and non-podded family.

On February 7th, 2020 I had a routine stress test at BI, just days before I was to co-lead a group of our temple teens to Israel. I felt fine as the treadmill sped up, but I didn’t like the way my telemetry was being eyed by the techs in the room. Techs will never divulge the results of a test, but I could tell that something was up.

And there was something up. The cardiologist at the test site told me that he had concerns and needed to know more about what exactly was going on. He called my cardiologist and my primary care doctor. In short order I was taken to the cath lab, prepped, catheterized, all the while, feeling fine.

I received the diagnosis an hour or so later, my daughter Zoe, a nurse practitioner, hovering over me the whole time. My doctor, Johanna Klein, my cardiologist, Loryn Feinberg, and the heart surgeon, Kamal Khabbaz, were unanimous in their recommendation: I needed bypass surgery.

Two weeks later I was in the operating room. The surgery went very well: no complications, no surprises. I emerged from the anesthesia, extubated, and then wheeled to the CCU. The care I received was nonpareil: lots of attention and concern.

As we drove to BI before sunrise on February 21st, the world had already heard about Covid, but few were ready for what would follow. Hospital procedures had not yet changed. No one was wearing a mask. I had copied an article written the day before my surgery by a Harvard Med School professor, David Bloom, fully intending to read it when I got back home. The title was, Coronavirus: We need to start preparing for the next viral outbreak now. The day after I got home on February 25th, the New York Times published an article that said, “In spite of the spread of coronavirus, experts say it’s safe to travel with your children in the U.S.—for now.”

Within a few weeks, everything changed, everything shut down.

As I watched the world implode from my recliner, I wondered if I would ever get out again. Post-op from open-heart surgery, I was at the top of the immuno-compromised list. Cardio rehab was shut down. I felt like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, doing pushups for Lou Gossett Jr, and crying, “I got no place to go! I got no place to go!” But, in the end, most everyone was doing the pushups, exclaiming the same sad fate.

The year has been filled with loss and pain, but also with accomplishments and beauty. I’ve done too many small funerals and virtual shiva minyanim, and not enough weddings and babynamings/brisses. I have mourned the loss of loved ones and temple members near and dear to my heart. And, I am fully recovered from my surgery, vaccinated, ready for the next chapter.

So how to mark this most extraordinary year of recovery without streamers and ice cream? I realized that I did not want a party or a gathering, virtual or podded. I needed to turn inward. I needed to connect to the deep trauma my body sustained. I had been cracked open and attached to a machine. I was fully unconscious, of course. But my body, every fiber of muscle and tissue, every cell, was awake. I don’t know the science, but I do know that muscle memory, the deepest level of quantum consciousness, was engaged and traumatized. This may be why so many post-op open-heart patients experience depression. Our bodies have been compromised to save us. I get it. But does my liver?

While I was at Cape Cod this past January, I walked along the shore. It was very cold; the wind tore in from the northeast. Sea ice had formed. I gazed out beyond the ocean’s edge in the harsh grey light. The sea’s surface appeared frozen and unyielding. Yet I knew that, below the surface, the seawater was moving, congealing. And below that, the tide was still pulling the waves, deep deep down to the seafloor. Water, a simple molecular combination, one thing, so many different things, all at the same time.

The water reflected how I felt about my life and the complexities of existence. So simple and finite, so tentative and vulnerable. So weak, so resilient… all in one little life. It was then that I knew how I would acknowledge my year of healing amidst a year of vast destruction and sadness. It would just be me and the waters of the mikveh. I needed quiet time to immerse myself in the truth of my complexities. I needed to ask my body for forgiveness if that makes any sense. I needed to show special respect and gratitude for the workings of the myriad systems that were so terribly stressed during surgery. I had to go to the mikveh to find healing.

I scheduled my immersion for a Friday afternoon, the last appointment of the day. It was cold and thoroughly unpleasant outdoors. When I arrived at Mayyim Hayyim, I felt both at home – I’ve brought so many people there for conversions, I’m on the board – and slightly dislocated. It was very quiet and empty; I’d never experienced Mayyim Hayyim as quiet and empty in the shared spaces.

It was chilly in the building. I thought about the waters I’d looked out at on the Brewster flats in January as I showered and prepared to enter the mikveh. I wondered how the waters here would receive me in the transformative space. I hoped the water would be warm.

I entered the mikveh and recited the traditional prayer for ritual immersion, words I’d guided people through as they entered these very same waters, for conversion. Only now I was saying them for myself. The water was warm and enveloped my body. I went under the water and came up very slowly. And I did it again, seven times, all told. I then stood up in the water, held onto the edge of the mikveh, and I wept. So much sadness spilling out. So much anxiety and exhaustion. I traced the long scar that travels the length of my sternum and recited the traditional blessing that acknowledges the miracle of being alive. My tears comingled with the waters of the mikveh.

I spent about 20 minutes in the mikveh. When I got out, I felt so heavy, so weighted down. It was as if the waters had compressed my body, that my soul had collected the pain of my surgery and the pain of the pandemic. Eventually, my body regulated, establishing a center of balance. I drove home quietly, deliberately. I felt grief and joy mix together, which is, after all, a common Jewish experience.

The sea, the tears, the ice, all a single, simple element. My life: finite, fragile, here and gone. So simple. So complex. So much blessing, all pooled together in living waters.

Out Here

I’m not an early riser. I prefer staying up late. It’s always been that way, ever since I was a little kid. Over the past several years I’ve read so many articles about why it’s healthier to go to bed early and rise early. I get the medical position on it all. I do. It makes sense. But inevitably when someone – often my nurse practitioner daughter, Zoe – directs me to follow this medical advice, I quote Willie Nelson: “The night life ain’t no good life but it’s my life”.

While my night owl habits are still largely intact as I age, I am now waking up early in the morning, my brain already fully engaged by certain big questions and challenges. This unfortunate development tends to pop my eyes open way too early in the morning – 6:30am!

I’ve been focusing a lot of spiritual and planful time pondering the question, “What now?” What can I do in the world now that I am vaccinated? When can I travel? When can we gather together in the sanctuary? In a restaurant? When can we hug each other?

We’ve all been living in such an insular world, surrounded by our four walls. Technology has been our only doorway to meaningful connection. This reality has increased our focus on life in a very internal space, physically and spiritually. “Out there” feels further and further away.

It occurred to me recently that this applies to how we see – or don’t see – the rest of the world. We are so tuned out of other space and other people’s lives. For instance, we haven’t spent any time talking about Israel. Even though our congregation has a strong connection to Israel; even though we have traveled there with different cohorts over the years – we’re out of touch. And that’s with a nation to which we are tightly connected. What about, well, anywhere else?

We’ve been inside for so long, it’s hard to remember what it’s like out there. We have a hard time navigating international news in the easiest of times. In this pandemic world, it is infinitely worse. It challenges our ability to empathize with others, to feel a sense of compassion for the suffering of Venezuelan refugees or the people of Myanmar or… any number of other fellow citizens of this planet.

In the book of Genesis, there is a beautiful and evocative scene between God and Abraham. It sprang into my brain the other morning at around 630am. Abraham is concerned that he and Sarah will not be able to fulfill the promise they have made to God to be the father and mother of the Jewish people. He’s been brooding in his tent, dejected, eyes downcast.

 God takes Abraham out of his tent and says to him, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And God added, “So shall your offspring be.” Stop looking down! Stop feeling limited by your goatskin tent. The world is not your tent; it’s out here. Your destiny is not to be found inside – it’s out here where the line to infinitude is in the stars.

Perhaps this year has felt like the title of Richard Farina’s novel, Been Down So Long Looks Like Up to Me. We’ve been inside for so long that it’s taken over our sense of self. We are obsessively warned about how vigilant we must be, even as the sensational success of the three vaccines is downplayed. We feel the confinement is now our human condition.

God pulled Abraham out of his tent to look up and take in the sheer transcendent magnificence of the nighttime sky. We are a part of this Universe: expanding, brilliant, impossibly huge beyond our capacity to understand. We are stardust, a part of a cosmos filled with the thrum of connection and time. When God says to Abraham, “Count the stars”, the Holy One knows that Abraham can never count to stars. The idea isn’t to quantify; it’s to appreciate, to find inspiration.

What now? Who knows? But this I can tell you: it’s not in your living room or your study or your laptop. It’s not in the tent. It’s out here.

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.