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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

The High Holy Days Are So Big

The High Holy Days are so big, so truly filled with awe! As the day rapidly approaches (Monday night, by the way), I get into my New Year mindset. I hear “Avinu Malkenu” playing in my head all the time, like Christmas music after Thanksgiving. “V’Al Kulam” plays a lot, too. It’s the melodies that touch the softest places of memory, holy days of the past, memories of friends and loved ones who are gone.
These thoughts and melodies inevitably open gates of contemplation that lead me to various significant High Holy Day concepts. The ones that always rattle my cage are all from the prayer known as U’Netaneh Tokef. I call them the Big Three: Tshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah. 

 These words really affect me. It’s like God calling: “Pssssssssst! Hey you! Yeah you, the big bald guy with the beard! Pay Attention! Have you been taking care of business? How’s the asking forgiveness thing going? [That’s tshuvah.] And what about spiritual intentionality in your prayer life? [That’s tefillah.] And what’s the quality of your giving of time and your cash? [That’s tzedakah.]”
Well I hope you can imagine my response, which is flustered.   First I get defensive. I reach for my catalogue of good deeds, thinking, “I’ll show you God! Look at the size of this catalogue!” I’m thinking, man oh man, I have done lots of good things. Then I lift my book of good deeds and it’s light as a feather, paltry, embarrassing… And then it’s back to the Three Ts.
There’s no room for hubris and ego on the threshold of a new year. It has to be about honesty and vulnerability towards ourselves, to God, and to each other.  As much as we’ve accomplished, there’s still more to do. How we do it, how we choose to be honest and forthright, right now! reflects our willingness to take these next days seriously or not. 
I beseech you, as your rabbi and fellow traveler on the great road of repentance, to lay down your defensiveness, to consider responding to the Big Three. I know this is not easy to consider, really I do. And if you don’t do it, if you completely blow off the High Holy Days, if you don’t click on the link to services, or if you do log on but you don’t bother taking it –any of it – to heart, nothing bad will happen to you. No religious police will hunt you down. You are free! And I certainly won’t lay a guilt trip down on your head, that’s for sure.
But here’s what you lose. You lose a chance to find yourself. You miss a chance to gain courage to confront the terrible weight you’ve carried on your back until your shoulders ache. You miss the chance to feel nurtured by words and thoughts and melodies, to know that within the virtual world we create online, you count, you are important. You miss the chance to ask forgiveness from someone you really hurt. You miss the chance to spiritually grow in the light of God’s presence that shines on you through the eyes of every person in the virtual sanctuary.
I know it’s hard to believe. But it’s all right here, waiting. Open your heart. Open your mind. As Ram Dass nee Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy from Newton, once said, “Be here now.” I couldn’t agree more.


I wrote this essay 12 years ago. And it’s so odd to reread it and consider who I was then: my age, my sense of the world, and the world’s sense of me. I’m sharing it with you as a reflection of the past, and of the abiding transcendent truth of our tradition. The writer has aged, but the text is still bold as love.

No Boundaries

The other day I was engaged in some pre-High Holy Day wordsmithing – what else would I be doing?  I looked at some past notes and saw a favorite thought about Jews and Yiddish and what the language reveals about us. The standard Yiddish greeting is, “Vos machs du a Yid?” This doesn’t mean, “How are you?”, but rather, literally, “What are you making, bro?”

I suppose over the centuries wellbeing could be measured in what one produced, or what one’s skill set was. I began to think about that; what do I make?  I can use tools, roll a Torah, cook a good meal without a recipe, drive a car, and so forth.

I think at this stage of my life and in this particular Universe, I have a decent enough skill set. I’m not looking for any new merit badges. The notion of a bucket list, so compelling for some people, ignites no fire beneath me. It’s not that I don’t want to go places and do things I haven’t ever done. But frankly, these days I don’t think about traveling, because I don’t know when that will happen again. I probably should be amassing a bunch of really inexpensive plane tickets and making reservations for a luxury suite in Jerusalem for the 2021-22 season. I’m sure I’ll be reading articles about the smart folks who strategically made plans and put money down.

On the one hand, you could argue that these past months have felt constricting, filled with compelling reasons to stay in place. The limitations are truly grievous, and I often feel angry about it, that I can’t see who I want to see when I want to see them.

On the other hand, and quite remarkably, the very experience of being cloistered has led me to a rather remarkable conclusion. My state of consciousness is growing. No, I’m not a Timothy Leary proponent, and this is not a psychedelic experience to which I’m referring. It’s my brain’s response to the closed-in nature of my existence to push outward, to expand. It could be what happens when one’s mind gets gummed up by a form of existential claustrophobia.

I was about to go off on an extended tangent about the amazing adventures in astrophysics I’ve been having. I actually have an astrophysics mentor who periodically sends me articles and videos and then has the enormous fortitude to field my essentially moronic questions about black holes and gravity and the spacetime continuum and so forth.

But I stopped. Because you probably aren’t reading this for a discussion on event horizons and singularities. And because the essence of my excitement, the feeling I truly want to share is that aging is not the dimming of the day. The life of the mind doesn’t seem to care all that much about mortality. There is no speed limit to learning, to expanding consciousness.

My daily hope and desire is that by the end of the day I will have acquired some new fact or concept, something that makes me pause and take a short breath, and say, “I never knew that!” It can something as superficial as a sighting in Djibouti of a weird mammal called an elephant shrew, which I’ve never seen or heard of. Or it can be as ridiculously intense and complicated as string theory or the hard problem of consciousness.

It is this accrual of information that pushes my consciousness further. Every new thing lights a torch that burns brightly. It’s a potent reminder that feeling restricted and cut off does not mean I am a prisoner of my fate. This period in our collective existence is intense and uncertain. But the boundaries end as soon as we embrace learning for learning’s sake. It is what gives us strength and illumines our paths.

Did you know that there are more stars than grains of sand on the beaches of the Earth?

Keep going. Keep growing.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

Puzzle Pieces

I got an email last week from Ginny, owner of Stellina, a wonderful, long established restaurant in Watertown. It read, in part: “After 34 years, Stellina is closing its doors.  Next week is our last week…  I’m hoping that many of you will make time to come celebrate our time together and have… whatever your favorite dishes are. The reasons we are closing will come as no surprise to anyone:  the persistent presence of Covid19 and the limited seating required to keep people safely distanced make operating Stellina untenable.”

I read the email twice, searching for a missing paragraph about reopening or Doordash deals or selling their products during the day (as the valiant Dave Punch does at Sycamore). There had to be some sort of link to click to get calm reassurance from Stellina. I needed a sign, a signal that everything was going to be alright.

Liza and I dined at Stellina probably 35 times or more over the last 20+ years. It was easy to find parking. No battling crazy traffic or North End tourists. We loved the patio, the ambiance, the wait staff. It was a part of our complex jig saw puzzle life. It wasn’t a big piece, but it filled an important spot, nonetheless. And now that puzzle piece is about to disappear.

The second time I read Ginny’s email, I actually got choked up. It wasn’t just a restaurant closing; it was losing a friend, a little chunk of the pre-Covid world. I imagined those breathtaking videos from Alaska or other frigid zones when a glacier cracks and a piece of it slides into the sea, waves crashing, snow and frost clouds shooting into the air.

So you might think I take my food a little too seriously. And you wouldn’t be wrong. You might say I’m being a tad overdramatic. Well, yeah, I’ve heard that one as well.

Be that as it may, my sadness, my true sense of loss here isn’t just about the food, which was, by the way, terrific. It’s the place and what it represents. We’ve counted on people and places all of our lives. We’ve always assumed that the restaurants and theaters and concert venues and salons and arenas and stadiums are constants, that those places are always going to be there for us.

But Covid time pulled the rug out from under us and from under the people who serve us food and bag our groceries and show up to collect garbage. Covid time is harsh. All of us are continually confronted and confounded by how many puzzle pieces are missing. This is the stark truth we are juggling.

So what do we do? We take that quintessential jazz tradition of improvisation and employ it. We continue to work with what we have. As Janet Kessin, our most senior TBA member who, at 100 died of Covid, used to say, “Take a deep breath and keep going, one step at a time.”

We’re a month away from a new year. In this particular period, the month of Elul, we should bravely think about our losses. Because every loss recapitulates the previous loss. And the older we get, the longer the list grows. We are still here, still trying to make meaning in our lives and mourn the people and places in our lives that we have lost.

But Elul is also the time to number our blessings. It is the time to reflect on the cornucopia, the bounty we share. It’s not about being delusional. Covid time is sharp and jagged. We need to be realists, to wear our masks and look out for each other. And: we need to be thankful for love and being loved.

Stellina was so overwhelmed for final reservations that they extended the closing for another week. Maybe they’ll be like the Rolling Stones who’ve had about five retirement concerts over the last 10 years. And maybe not. The Stones will retire one day. Stellina will probably close next week. And I for one will miss that puzzle piece. I pray that Stellina and their crew will be ok in the months to come.

Elul: a time to reflect on loss, on blessing, on love. I will shed some tears over it all, and then as Janet used to say, I’m gonna take a deep breath and keep walking.

Shabbat Shalom

rebhayim

The Weather


The weather forecast for Cape Cod is useless. Planning anything based on any number of otherwise reliable weather apps is futile and foolhardy. I am not a meteorologist, but I am a fan of the science, so I understand why shifting winds and pressure zones and humidity’s rise and fall and tropical storms and so forth all make coastal weather prediction so tricky. Yet I still glance at a forecast, clap my hands for a sunny tomorrow and shake my head in the morning as the fog rolls in.
Is there truly anything that will help me predict the weather? Or the future? Of ANYTHING??!! Will public schools open for in-person learning? When will a vaccine arrive? When can we walk, en masse, into the sanctuary? When will the red and yellow flags of this race be replaced with a green flag again?
The answer is, of course, never. The existential proof of what we don’t know has been rudely revealed since the emergence of the sinister Covid19 pandemic. We have so many questions… and no good answers.
We guess a lot. We approximate. We gamble. We fake it ’til we make it. But we don’t know what happens next. There’s no reading ahead, no bootleg copy, no insider information.
This truth of not knowing is something all humans share. We are vulnerable, every one of us, which is why the current divisive atmosphere is so sad and so toxic. Sad, because we have each other. We know it all works better when we are united in purpose and goal, whether it’s a family or a nation. We know this in the fiber of our DNA, yet people choose sides on issues for which there is no debate, only science, and experience. For instance, we can weigh different responses to Covid19. But its existence, its virulence, its destructiveness is without question. Or should be…
The divisive nature of American society is currently toxic because as people deny simple truths, others are injured or infected or murdered. I am not fool enough to proclaim that love conquers all. But I am not jaded enough to declare that spreading calumny and hatred creates anything other than fear and conspiracy-addled thinking.
I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. Because hope is essential. With it, we are powerful, forward-looking, daring humans. Without it, we are abandoned to anxiety, we close the door to our hearts, morally weakened, spiritually bankrupt.
Is change possible? Will Americans acknowledge that wearing masks is an obligation, a gesture of love, empathy, and good sense? Will Americans recognize the legacy of institutional, systemic racism, and that it’s time to learn, listen, and act on that simple truth? I hope so. Because there’s nothing more deadly for democracy than hopelessness. Hope is the bridge from here to there – wherever ‘there’ is.
I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or even later today. I hope we’ll gather for Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope my Weber grill will fire up. I hope my car will start and stop at the appropriate bidden moments. I hope it’s a beach day tomorrow. I hope my family and friends are well. I hope you’re healthy and hoping.
I hope.

Pulling Down the Statues

Jews have never been statue people. Ever. We don’t respond well to the glorification of humans in sculpture form. And that’s because God has let it be known, from the very beginning of our long relationship, that God doesn’t like it. It’s not just the idolatry prohibition either. It’s about the glorification of the human form, a kind of deification cast in a mold or chiseled out of granite, then propped up for the worshipful masses. It has what they call in Yiddish a strong element of past nisht, something that’s just improper.

I might be wrong, but to my knowledge there are few, if any, statues of Jewish dignitaries in Israel – or anywhere else, for that matter. For instance, there’s a mountain in Jerusalem named after Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. But there’s no statue of him on the mountain that bears his name. At the site of Ben Gurion’s grave there is no statue. Instead there is a large stone slab with his name – and that of his wife’s name – on the edge of the wilderness where he lived out his long life.

From a Jewish perspective, no one – not even Moses – deserves to be worshipped or adored in stone. It’s not the physical form that is relevant. Rather, it’s the deeds and the ideas of humans that we revere. It’s not a statue we ask for. We want access to someone’s thoughts. Give us their books. Let us evaluate and then re-evaluate their essence, not a two-dimensional heroic image.

I know that there are other religious traditions that use icons and images in a way that we do not. I respect those traditions and the ways in which these representations are serious aspects of how they express their faith. I grew up in a small city that was very Catholic, with an emphatic Sicilian interpretation. There were thousands of Mary Magdalene statues. I get it.

It’s one thing when a family creates a religious shrine in their own space. It’s quite another when statues are erected in public spaces at public expense. Statues cast people in permanence. This is not a good idea, based on the fact that humans are fallible – that people who are praised may in time be revealed as not praiseworthy. Christopher Columbus, for example, turns out to have been the first transatlantic slave dealer. It’s not that he didn’t do some symbolic discovering. And he’s been a part of American mythology for centuries. However, it turns out, there’s a lot more that’s negative to say about him. His story is over. 

It’s time to create a new mythology, one that’s more inclusive, more sensitive to the origin stories of others. It’s time to pull down the statues of exclusivity and exclusion. It’s time to recognize that the regalia of the Confederacy, its stars and bars and its generals and its desperate defense of slavery and slaveowners is not some quaint Civil War story, but rather a tragedy of America.  That tragedy is surprisingly unknown by Americans. We don’t know our history. This seems like the time to start learning it.

It’s time to pull down the statues of those who actively sought to deny the rights of others. The story of America is ready for a rewrite. It’s time to widen the scope of our mythology. It’s time for indigenous peoples to be more than props in our story, time for the pain and testimony of Black folk to be more than a one month a year observance.

Don’t worry about our place in it all. Pulling down statues makes way for new ideas, more knowledge, more truth. That’s always good. The Jewish immigrant experience will not be erased. The Holocaust will not become an insignificant horror. We will continue to be a part of the American myth. We can all certainly be magnanimous enough to make room. And when we pull down the last offensive statue, we will get to the real work: pulling away our own prejudice to make way for a newer America, seeking greatness through diversity and compassion.