What’s It Worth To You?

Have you ever asked someone for a piece of information, and their answer is, “What’s it worth to you?” It’s a flippant, provocative response. Sometimes – perhaps, most of the time, it’s meant to be funny and sarcastic. But sometimes it’s a real question. Sometimes the information being sought is, in fact, a tradable commodity. Perhaps it is delicate, potentially damaging evidence that gives an entry point into someone else’s secret life.

What is knowledge worth? And: what’s worth knowing? These questions are rhetorical. There is no way to assign value to knowledge. In a world where analytics is considered a crucial tool to measure worth and success, knowledge is itself, unquantifiable.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, former head of Yeshiva University, wrote, “Judaism is a culture of knowledge, in which learning and teaching, cogitation and reflection, intellectual effort and theoretical pursuit, are esteemed and elevated to the highest ranks of its precepts.”

The most elevated form of learning in Jewish tradition is called “Torah lishmah.” The best standard translation is “Torah study for its own sake.” To open one’s heart and mind to the process of inquiry, to develop a sense of curiosity and exploration – these are considered genuinely praiseworthy.

Why is pursuing knowledge for its own sake, upheld with such reverence? Why does Judaism embrace the pursuit of the mind so unabashedly, so lovingly? Perhaps because it offers us an escape from the world of things. It asserts that there is more to life than rules and obligations. It tells us that there will always be a place where one can be free to learn and pursue beauty and truth. This doesn’t negate our obligations to the world; Torah lishmah is not about escaping to an ashram or retreating to a cave or a monastery. Our tradition declares that we have both endless obligations (mitzvot) and aspirational goals related to achieve. How often are we reminded that we must perform acts of social justice because we know what it was like to be enslaved?

But everything is not – cannot – be transactional. The life of the mind, the pursuit of learning for its own sake, is a sacred mission. The world of intellectual curiosity is infinite, an ever-expanding territory of knowledge.

Why study the origins of the Universe? Why does it matter when the Big Bang occurred? Why travel in space? Why explore the deepest depths of the ocean? Why study a page of the Talmud every day for seven years? Why read fiction? What’s it worth to you?

It’s all Torah lishmah. Don’t try to explain going to the moon by creating a narrative that we did it because we wanted to learn many things that would be useful on earth. Tang tastes good, but it wasn’t the motivation for a moon shot. Of course, there were military and technological innovations and applications that were by-products of the moon missions.

But truly, we did it because we could. Because we’ve wondered what that object in the sky was all about since our earliest ancestors stood on two feet and pointed at the sky. It’s Torah lishmah.

In 1943, Rabbi Leo Baeck was deported from Berlin to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. There he was put to hard physical labor on a garbage cart. Witnesses remembered watching him and another prisoner pushing the refuse on a wagon, all the while engaging in a discussion of Jewish tradition and philosophy. It’s Torah lishmah.

In pursuing the life of the mind, we extend ourselves beyond three dimensions. We engage in an infinite Universe of possibilities, of reflection and joy, of laughter and tears. It’s all there to taste, to engage. It’s Torah lishmah.

Shabbat Shalom



Falling is all over the English language. Falling down on the job. Falling in love. Falling out of love. Falling for a scam.

The truth is, nobody falls on purpose. We jump on purpose. We hop, dive, and roll on purpose. But nobody says, “Now I’m going to fall down.”

The older we get, the more fragile our bodies are when they become objects hurtling through space. If we slip and break a leg or a hip or sustain a concussion, we go to the hospital for surgery. And then all hell can break loose. For a variety of reasons, some known and others not so much, it takes older folks longer to find their way out of the haze of the post-op period. And for a variety of reasons, some known and others, not so much, older adults die from falling and breaking a hip or a shoulder.

We’re just so vulnerable. On ice. On the beach. On surfaces, hard, medium, or soft. We’re in a perpetual state of war against gravity. Each and every one of us is a Leaning Tower of Pisa come alive, precariously perched on the surface of this globe.

Whenever we fall, regardless of age, we get so embarrassed. We apologize profusely for being clumsy, for not looking out for the cat curled on the floor, or for failing to notice the shoes by the door. We fall. And it’s as if we’ve done something terribly wrong, as if we’ve breached some ethical firewall. Which is crazy, because frankly, it’s a bit miraculous that we’re not constantly toppling over…

Falling is a natural response to gravity, a force with which we must reckon. We simply have no dominion over it. Think for a moment about the terminology used for launching rockets into space. We say we must “escape” gravity. We are hostages to gravity. We are Newton’s apple.

Christian theologians call the moment when Adam takes a big bite out of whatever fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge, the Fall. Capital F. Pulled down by the gravity of sin, these theologians say that we are a ruined, pathetic, irredeemable bag of bones. The only way to recover from this state of sin is through baptism and/or accepting Jesus as the son of God whose death is the sacrifice that raises them up, defying the gravity of sin.

In Jewish theology, Adam and Eve’s sin is understood as a deadly sin. They knew better, yet they were drawn by the force of sin to do the worst thing they could possibly imagine. The rabbis don’t spend so much time criticizing Adam and Eve. They mostly sadly shake their heads and reiterate just how badly Adam and Eve messed up. The first man and woman ruined the possibility of human perfection and immortality.

The Adam and Eve narrative can be strangely reassuring. If the first man and woman failed, if they were drawn into the orbit of sin, if they were so imperfect, then we must acknowledge that we, too are imperfect. It’s never going to be perfect. We just have to try harder to set our own orbit around sin at a safer distance.

Sometimes we fall on our faces. Sometimes we fall in love. What a hopelessly romantic image: that love creates a force so strong and ineluctable that all we can do is give in. Sometimes we regret that fall and the resultant pain. Other times… not so much. But we must all surrender to the gravity of the heart.

When one Googles the phrase “learn to fall,” the number of hits is over 78 million. Many of those websites suggest:

  • Stay Bent Over. Crouch down if you feel yourself losing your balance. You won’t have as far to fall. A crouch enables you to roll and protect yourself.
  • Keep Arms & Knees Bent. Fall with bent elbows and bent knees. It shortens the distance and saves broken wrists and elbows.
  • Land on Big Muscles. Land on your butt, the muscles of your back, or your thighs. Don’t catch yourself with your hands when you fall. Instead, roll and try to land on the meaty parts.
  • Keep Falling. Relax your body rather than stiffening up. Roll up into a ball. Keep the rolling going. Spread the impact out. The more you roll with the fall, the safer.
  • Protect Your Head. If you are falling forward, turn your head to the side. Roll to that side. Avoid a face plant. If you are falling backward, tuck your chin to your chest, roll, and try to land on your thighs and butt.

How can anyone think so fast while falling? How can we even remember these rules? Yes, it’s all logical. And gravity is a rational force; at least it seems to be logical. But how we fall is far from logical.

We all fall down. Gravity will always triumph. Finitude is assured. In the meantime, as rule #4 suggests: just keep rolling. “The more you roll with the fall, the safer.” The interesting part isn’t that we fall down; we all do. It’s how we get back up that ultimately defines us. It’s not always easy to get back up. And we often need help to do so. Until such time as the final fall comes around – and it will – keep rolling.

Ben Bag Bag

There’s a famous saying in Perkei Avot – The Ethics of Our Ancestors – attributed to a rabbi named Ben Bag Bag. We know nothing about him. There’s no bio, no way to trace his roots. We can reasonably assume that he lived in the land of Israel during the first century CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Ben Bag Bag is quoted just once in the entire corpus of Jewish text. Yet his teaching, his few words of wisdom, are surely repeated several times a day and inferred in every place where Torah is studied. Not too shabby. Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over and turn it over again because everything is inside of it. Look into it; become old and gray inside of it. Don’t back away from it – there’s nothing so satisfying.”

This multi-valenced teaching is a favorite of mine. It boldly defines what continues to be a fundamental tenet in Jewish learning.  Torah study is available to all of us. It isn’t the exclusive domain of Torah scholars or erudite academicians. We are all invited into the palace of study.

Ben Bag Bag is not issuing a gentle bromide here. The Hebrew word for “turn it over,” hafoch, is written in the second person imperative. He is urging us to jump in with metaphorical shirtsleeves rolled up, to grab this learning enthusiastically and shake it up.

Hafoch is not a gentle word. “Turn it over” is not dramatic enough to portray the deeper meaning of the word. It would be more akin to shaking a snow globe and looking at it from every angle. The more significant point here is that one must actively engage, fearlessly entering the text without considering it too delicate or fragile.

In fact, the Torah teaches us this very thing in Deuteronomy 30: Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

There is no such thing as a stupid Torah question. There is no censorship, no holding back. Anything goes in Torah study. Go for it, Ben Bag Bag says. It’s your Torah.

Ben Bag Bag teaches us that the Torah study imperative is not transitory. It is a life long relationship. Stick with it!, urges Ben Bag Bag; “Become old and grey inside of it.” The thirst for Jewish knowledge is never quenched. It is an ever-present phenomenon. There is no age limit.

Sometimes people suggest that coming to Torah study on a Sunday morning sounds interesting, but… “I don’t know enough,” or, “I don’t know any Hebrew,” or “I’ve never done anything like it.” Ben Bag Bag would say, “Don’t back away,” that is, don’t worry about what you know or don’t know! Just come in! It just feels good; it feels right.

One could extrapolate from this famous maxim in Pirkei Avot to simply say that learning for learning’s sake is so good for you. It’s the continual exploration of the Universe in which we live. It’s recognizing the infinite possibilities of human knowledge and the reach for more. It’s the way we express our human curiosity, to boldly go where we haven’t been before.

The most profound truth of the Torah is its open invitation to hold it up to the light and deconstruct, then reconstruct it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that goes together and then morphs into a new shape. So go learn: a Torah class, or an adult learning class or a Newton Community class or read a good book. Just keep turning it over and over. The palace of wisdom is an excellent place to become old and gray.

We’ll Never Be Royals

I’ve never felt myself to be at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about the royal family. Generally speaking, the file cabinets in my head – or should I say the folders in my database – are arranged as follows: general knowledge, trivia knowledge, Jewish knowledge, cooking expertise, jazz knowledge – and then miscellanea. There is no data entry about who’s married to whom in the House of Windsor. 

Yet… having said all that, I do love watching The Crown, a Netflix series that I find utterly captivating. If you’re one of the last 500 people who haven’t watched it yet, get to it! The plot revolves around Queen Elizabeth II, from her childhood to the present day. It is genuinely captivating, filled with drama and intrigue and more than a little humor. In the end, of course, it’s a TV series, not a documentary. It’s historically accurate – most of the time. Like all docu-drama, there’s plenty of imagined conversations and spiced up dialogue and additional color for the sake of a show that runs an hour at a clip. It’s only a TV show. 

A viewer of The Crown, who is not a royal family groupie, may have nonetheless raised an eyebrow upon hearing that a British royal, Prince Harry and his American, divorcee, wife of color Meghan Markel, were calling a royal time out, stepping away from any official duties as royalty. I admit to pausing as the story played out on NPR. I haven’t read anything about it.

I think Harry has red hair and a child named Archie. I’ve never seen the beautiful Meghan Markel in a movie or TV show. However, I love their courage and their élan. After all the catty British tabloid articles, some racist in nature, defaming Meghan Markel, and then all the ridiculous empty rituals and the intense pressure of being a royal, they bagged it. 

When does tradition for tradition’s sake go into an entropic death spiral? When ritual becomes a Monty Python skit, when various conventions become foolish and unnecessary, well then, why bother? This is where Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s decision gets interesting to a nice Jewish boy like me. 

When the fundamentals of a strict culture or tradition begin to chafe, something’s got to give. Humans don’t do well over the long haul when a system blocks access to the process of evolution. Daring to change brings out the best and the worst in people. It’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and it’s the guillotine. 

 In the 18th century, some Jews experienced the hegemony of a strict, unbending system of theology and sociology to be stultifying and opaque. They experienced Jewish Law as it was practiced from the Middle Ages to be empty. It’s not like they wanted Judaism to disappear (to be honest, a few did want that to happen, but that’s a different article…); they just wanted to reinterpret it. They wanted to use a different lens through which to view Jewish life and ritual and obligation. Once that started to happen, it changed everything. One response was Hasidism. Another was Reform Judaism. 

We Reform Jews are the inheritors of a courageous decision to step back from the assumption that we must observe the same laws and traditions in the same way they have always been practiced. Our current practices are fluid, morphing over time and experience. This is a good thing – and sometimes, not so good.

It seems that in our rush to change, to adapt, we sometimes drop the ball. We’ve surrendered certain values that have defined us over time. Shabbat, the sacred presence of God, the holy dimensions of Jewish life as an ever-present part of our worldview – these things have been compromised or completely lost. 

The fact is, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Humpty Dumpty is broken. Period. It may well be that the decision Prince Harry has made will be the dramatic act that poked a gaping hole in the zeppelin that is the royal family and its overripe history. 

In the meantime, Reform Judaism is still looking to the horizon, still attempting to find just the right combination of traditional life and secular life, between Jewish law and Jewish ethics. Evolution makes life interesting. Daring to push the envelope, to go for something big and different, is courageous. I genuinely admire Harry and Meghan for that. I love the rebels with a cause.

The Darkness and The Light

It’s the first Before Shabbat blog of 2020, and I have to speak about antisemitism; again. Antisemitism was the central subject of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur day sermons. I talked about it at length, reviewing the origins and the impact of antisemitism in America and in our own greater Boston community.

My motivation for those sermons was multifaceted. Some of it came from the terrorist killings in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. These awful scenes of violence shook us all at our very core. It created a sense of fear and vulnerability where before there had been little to none.

When in our own community, a swastika was scrawled in a Newton middle school hallway, the impact was dramatic. That incident spurred me to think deeply about where we were in this challenging and turbulent time.It’s not stopping. And now, I am trying once again to come to terms with the latest violent attacks on Jews in America. It is confusing and harrowing to see this pattern of hatred playing out the way it has for centuries.

As David Nirenberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago said recently, “I think that, in every moment in which anti-Semitism really becomes an organizing principle in society, and anti-Judaism starts to do a lot of work in society, it is because of political polarization, economic stresses, et cetera, which make that language of anti-Judaism so useful as a system of thought. Every context is different, every period is different, but the reason that anti-Semitism can be put to work in so many contexts and periods is that anti-Judaism is such an integral part of the ways we have learned to imagine the challenges we face in the material world.”

Over and over, it’s “The Jews did it.” We crucified Jesus. We poisoned the wells and caused the Black Plague. We produced the financial collapses in every kingdom, fiefdom, and nation in the world. We are the capitalists set on taking it all. We are the communists set on taking it all. We participate in the blood libel.

The infamous images of hooked-nosed Jews with money bags are still recirculated from time to time, images that pre-date Nazi Germany by centuries. The claims that “Jews are rich,” or “Jews are smart,” still cause resentment. Those stereotypes, in turn, create hatred and envy towards Jews, which in turn, feed into the notion that if something bad is happening, it’s all because of the Jews.

This the madness of antisemitism. It is the ancient repetition compulsion that emerges from the darkest, ugliest, most paranoid crevice of Western culture. It is a dormant virus that is over 2000 years old.

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said, “We’re definitely in a different era, and it also looks like we’re seeing more assaults. A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable. Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust have simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older. We are in an environment in which conspiracy theories seem to be in the news every day, and they’re not necessarily anti-Semitic conspiracies. But conspiracies are the lifeblood of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized. Most of the attacks are not done by extremists, but by your average Joe and your average Jane.”

You may be wondering what happens next. I wonder, too. How do we cope with this phenomenon? What are we supposed to do? I reviewed several options in my Yom Kippur sermon. But there is no strategy for “curing” antisemitism, no clear way to help people stop hating us.

Moving forward, we must be resolute when it comes to identifying antisemitism and hate crimes and then seek the full exercise of the law to prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent possible. We must neither hide nor barricade ourselves behind walls. We must be a safe and secure temple, even as we continue to be a place of openheartedness and community. We must be proud of who we are as Jews in America and hold fast to our freedom, a freedom we will not curtail, even if we are threatened.

None of these things is easy. But they are all vital components of how we will move forward. We are blessed to live in America, and we are cognizant, as never before, not to take our citizenship for granted. It is with a heavy heart that I submit my first Before Shabbat all about antisemitism. Again. I hope – and I will work for the possibility that we will yet achieve a time when it is calmer and safer for Jews, and for all others who are beaten and abused because of their race or religion or ethnicity or beliefs. It’s up to all of us to stand tough.


Last Shabbat evening, I was in Chicago with 5000 other Jews (including 11 other TBA board members and staff). I could go on and on about what we experienced: the people who spoke, the old friends we encountered, the new ideas emerging, the reassuring truth that we are doing so well as a congregation, and so on.
I could go on and on… but the ripples from the Chicago Reform Biennial will be spreading out at our temple and throughout Reform congregations nationwide. You will feel them and see them and hear all about them. The TBA delegation learned a lot. Our collective and individual experiences will coalesce as a decisive change agent in our community.
It is exciting to see how the Reform movement continues to grow, unafraid to embrace the reality of the American Jewish community. We are on a strong trajectory, always moving up with a deep commitment to our ever-renewing covenant.
But I did something else while in Chicago. I actually left the convention center from time to time. I got to the Art Institute, second in size, and depth of collection only to the Met.
The Institute is extraordinary. I felt immediately overwhelmed by the vastness of the galleries and the sheer variety: from Andy Warhol to Mesopotamian pottery to Alaskan war masks to photography to Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
At one point as I wandered, a bit slack-jawed I’m sure, I bumped into Edward Hopper’s 1942 masterpiece, Nighthawks. I didn’t know it was at the Art Institute. And it took my breath away. There was no bench in front of it, no place I could sit down and take it in. The dimensions are 30″x60″; not big at all. But so powerful!
To stand in front of the masterpiece was to be drawn into Hopper’s world, awed by the brushstrokes and the texture and the colors. Is the painting about isolation? Is it about loneliness? Or is it a warm place for a late-night cup of joe?
I will forget some of the things I learned in Chicago at the Biennial. Some of the speakers I heard will recede from my conscious mind. The names of the prayer leaders or the new melody of a prayer will evaporate.
But the pure, absolute pleasure; the thrill of being so up-close, looking at the original — THE Nighthawks – was a life-affirming event. It was a check off my bucket list that I didn’t even know existed. Or, as my wife says, it was a shechechiyanu moment.
I love my access to so many resources on the Internet. The information I can find at any moment, day or night, is a staggering new human experience that we are only just barely beginning to understand and incorporate into our consciousness. I love it and grow from it.
But it’s one thing to look at something online, even in HD quality, and quite another to be right there. Which is my biggest concern about the digital/virtual world.
My Hanukkah wish is to remind everyone – including myself! – that, like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang it in 1968, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” The moment of true encounter with a great masterpiece is sacred. And so is looking into the face of another human being. You can only get the sacred encounter with Nighthawks in a gallery at the Art Institute. But the holy moment of encounter with an other is around us every day. Don’t substitute it for a screen.

Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Ha-Ra

Our ancestors long ago identified a clear, dualistic truth of humanity. We are comprised of the yetzer tov (the impulse for good), and the yetzer ha-ra (the impulse for evil). Over 20 centuries, scholars have discussed and argued over the meaning of this duality.

Some assert that the yetzer ha-ra is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security. The yetzer ha-ra is all about my needs. It is about selfishness and egocentrism. They say that if it is left unlimited, it can lead to evil. But… they also say that without the yetzer ha-ra, no one would build a house or take a job. It is the energy of appetite and acquisition.

The yetzer tov comes from another dimension of the human experience of reality. It reminds us that we are NOT the center of the Universe. The yetzer tov, to borrow from another tradition, is a halo over our heads. It is the force reminding us that we do not live in a vacuum. It directs us to reach out to the other, as opposed to the yetzer ha-ra, that pushes us to reach in. The yetzer tov is all about idealism and altruism.

This, in our tradition, is the eternal tug of war, and we experience it on every level. It is the foundation of Jewish ethics. It’s an honest appraisal of who and what we are made of. It’s all too common not to want to help others, or give tzedakah, or lend a hand to someone who has fallen. It’s I/me me/mine all of the time.

We, humans, can be exceptionally selfish, destructively selfish.  We easily disregard, disenfranchise, and dehumanize. The history of the world is filled with the carnage of the yetzer ha-ra. The present darkness engulfing us emanates from that ugliest part of the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes I can almost smell the rot of it all.

But every now and then, someone reminds us that there’s more to it all than the yetzer ha-ra. Sometimes the purveyors of light arrive. I think of Greta Thunberg, the fantastic 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who is so filled with the yetzer tov. Her courage and indignation are a beacon of light. She is the yetzer tov personified. Her message, which is her life, is so pure and crystal clear. I admire her for her idealism and the zeal she brings to the table, a fearlessness when it comes to delivering an unambiguous yetzer tov message.

And whenever any adult throws his or her maligning yetzer ha-ra negative energy at this sixteen-year-old, it betrays an ancient human toxicity that is always ready to snuff out the light.

The fabulous extremism of Greta Thunberg and her yetzer tov is a valuable corrective. I’m not going to take a trip to Israel in a sailboat. I will fly. My yetzer ha-ra wants to be comfortable and safe. But I will think more clearly about how I do travel. I will no longer sit in my idling car to keep warm as it spews carbon dioxide into the air. I will calculate my carbon offset.

For most of us – ok, for me! – the yetzer ha-ra comes easy. Selfishness is the default human response to the world. The work is locating the force of the yetzer tov and raising it up. Maimonides, when speaking of giving tzedakah, says, and I paraphrase, “You don’t have to be happy giving tzedakah. You don’t have to pretend it’s nice or that you’d rather do nothing else than give money for worthy causes. But your yetzer tov beseeches you, begs you, to do something.”

We are the constant tightrope walkers, the yetzer ha-ra on one side pushing us forward on that perilous course, and the yetzer tov, keeping us deliberate and safe. Sometimes we err toward one or the other. That’s our lives. Looking for balance as we want everything for ourselves while being urged to open up our arms to embrace the other.

Our tradition teaches us that finding balance is our task. As it says in Perkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Those are our unambiguous marching orders.

Looking Up

I love Thanksgiving. I always have. Yes, there is a genuine affinity for the food… The traditional dishes: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, roasted winter vegetables, pumpkin pie, are all so good! They say that of all our senses, the olfactory system of taste and smell connects us to our earliest memories. And if I relax and conjure the scent of roasting turkey, and the taste of fresh -made pan gravy, I am right there, in a cloud of delight.

But certainly, there’s more than the meal. There’s more than a football game. It’s all about gratitude. We so easily fall into the rut of taking everything in our lives for granted. But that’s a trap that can create an expectation that somehow we deserve whatever we want. We can grow callous under the protective attitude of entitlement. But no one “deserves” anything. No one is guaranteed a fast track to love or attention or affluence.

Some of us have lucked into be borne at the right time, in the right place, and into the right family. It’s nothing anyone earned. It’s the luck of the draw. Some of us have worked hard to attain a level of comfort that we’ve extended to those we love. Some have earned enough money to share it generously with causes and places dear to them.

No one deserves any more or any less than anyone else. Yet there is a gravitational pull towards exclusivity, to judge those with less money or fame or privilege. And as we divide the world into us and them, we lose sight of the fundamental existential truth to which we’re attached from birth: that we are finite and that we share this impermanent state of being with every other human on earth. Or, as George Harrison put it:

But how do I explain

When not too many people

Can see we’re all the same

And because of all their tears

Your eyes can’t hope to see

The beauty that surrounds them

Now, isn’t it a pity

On this Thanksgiving I’m pledging to look up from my plate and see the beauty that surrounds us. I’m going to try to disengage from the painful arc of impeachment news. I will attempt to put down the reports of a sitting Israeli prime minister’s multiple indictments for bribery. I will even try to avert my gaze from the apocalyptic climate change reports and debates and Boston traffic and… so forth.

Looking up does not mean abandoning a just cause. It means seeing the perfect beauty of the Universe and embracing existence itself – this wonderful, cosmic little life I have. Looking up and appreciating the greatest gifts of life and freedom reminds me of why justice is worth fighting for. That life is not always utterly absurd. There is meaning and purpose in the struggle. Goodness needs as many allies as we can muster because the good is for all of us to nurture and share.

Have a terrific Thanksgiving. Look up.

Prayers and Their Meaning

Jewish prayer evokes all kinds of feelings. Sometimes it’s all about the familiar mantra-like experience of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Few people know what the words mean, or that there is no mention – no mention! – of death or dying in the prayer. Yet there is something profoundly moving about saying these Hebrew and Aramaic words – the sound, the rhythm, the cadence, the response of the congregation. The meaning of reciting the Kaddish transcends the meaning of the words.

Recently I’ve run into a Jewish prayer dilemma. A standard part of our liturgy has begun to bother me. It evokes some ire;  it stirs me in a very disquieting way. I love the prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoy chanting it in a variety of different melodies.  When I’m singing along, I don’t focus on the Hebrew – at all. The transcendence of the music lifts me, puts me in a place of calm and Shabbat. It’s the Jewish equivalent of zen.

But lately, I’ve gotten hung up on the English. I’m not quibbling over the authenticity of the interpretation or the grammar. In fact the problem has to do with leaving the melody and entering the meaning. What follows is the text that so bothers me.

Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.

What’s so problematic? The English is so passive. The entire supposition that peace is something that God can give us if we ask nicely. Or that peace is a gift we get at Dave and Buster’s after we win enough tickets playing Skee-Ball.

Peace does not come from God. It is not some divine, ethereal category of being. Peace, contentment, and the bonds of friendship are not from heaven. They are ideas that so many many people have desperately fought for and died to achieve, for themselves as well as their family, their friends, their community.

Suggesting that God doles out peace demeans the people who have tried to create it. Asking God to strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands is the ultimate cop-out.

It’s up to us to make peace. God may inspire us to do the work. God may remind us that there is divinity in every living being. But God doesn’t grant peace any more than God heals the sick.

God is the great presence that undergirds our sense of purpose. We were created to do that which must be done. The story of manna was inspiring, but no one gets fed without effort. There is no free lunch.

My English version of Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom is more like, “Dear God, remind us that we are the authors of peace. Help us, with your love, to gather the broken pieces and put them together. Help us to feel strong in the face of weakness, to rise to the occasion when we see evil, to extend ourselves to others who may not believe what I believe but who deserve compassion and empathy.”

I’ll keep singing the Hebrew words. Whenever I sing these prayers, I will focus on the music, on the soulfulness of the moment. But if I think about the words and their meaning, I know I can never again wish for God to make peace. It’s almost a shanda, a shameful thing to request. It goes from prayer to an empty gesture.

 The good news and the bad: it’s all up to us.  There’s no divine reckoning.  No Messiah.  No outstretched arm of God enforcing anything. No free parking. We’re all we’ve got. 

Remembering Rabin

I don’t remember where I was when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 24 years ago last Monday. But the shock wave at the initial announcement, and then the revulsion and disbelief that he was murdered by a Jew, an observant Israeli of the far right… That, I can never forget. 
Rabin had signed the Oslo Accord earlier that year and was preparing the nation for the inevitable challenges that would come along with making peace. The murderer, Yigal Amir, claimed that Jewish Law permitted him to kill the prime minister. In Amir’s eyes and the eyes of his fellow ultra nationalists, Rabin was a rodef, a dangerous pursuer. Therefore in their twisted logic, they had the right to protect Jewish lives by taking him out. Amir said he shot Rabin in self defense of the Jewish people.The courts did not agree, and Amir was sentenced to life without parole. At his sentencing, Amir proclaimed that he had no remorse and that he had done his duty to the Jewish people. 
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had far-reaching consequences in Israel and the rest of the world. In a very real way, Amir and his fellow far-right community, murdered peace. It was the end of a certain kind of hopefulness, and a recognition that a new force was erupting. It was a force that actively and openly disdained the rights of Palestinians in Israel and vehemently opposed any notion of a two-state solution. Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, embraced the movement and then led the opposition to any real and lasting peace. Prior to Rabin’s death, rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, “Rabin is a murderer” and “Rabin is a traitor”. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, “Death to Rabin”. 
The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin’s life and asked him to moderate the protests’ rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do. Netanyahu denied any intention to incite violence. But one doesn’t have to start a fire to cause a panic and a stampede to the exits.
When I heard about Rabin I felt that sharp pain of loss and despair that has become de rigueur for baby boomers. With every political assassination, from John F Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy, we watched dreams die along with the visionaries who spoke of them. We have seen, time and again, the triumph of hatred and violence over the fragile beginnings of peace and understanding. It’s happened so often that we have grown inured to the chipping away at new alliances, the denigration of compromises in order to achieve a new degree of harmony and communication between different ideas and ideals. 
We harbor a cynicism, a weariness that threatens to extinguish any spark, smother any flame of conscience. It calls to mind a well known Hasidic story that many have told, including Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov
Saw misfortune threatening the Jews
It was his custom
To go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.
There he would light a fire,
Say a special prayer,
And the miracle would be accomplished
And the misfortune averted.
Later when his disciple,
The celebrated Magid of Mezritch,
Has occasion, for the same reason,
To intercede with heaven,
He would go to the same place in the forest
And say: “Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire,
But I am still able to say the prayer.”
And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later,
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov,
In order to save his people once more,
Would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire,
I do not know the prayer,
But I know the place
And this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn
To overcome misfortune.
Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands,
He spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire
And I do not know the prayer;
I cannot even find the place in the forest.
All I can do is to tell the story,
And this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
The story is sufficient only if it leads us to consider the world in which we live, the world we wish to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren. The story is sufficient only if it inspires us to do deeds of lovingkindness, only if we strive to create a new clearing in their forest, a new prayer, a new flame that will banish the darkness of the world. We do a lot of head holding a la Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. If we don’t get out of our armchairs, then shame on us. As it says in the collection, The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “The day is short, the task is great, the master is insistent. It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it…”
The murder of Yitzhak Rabin will always be one of the darkest days in the history of modern Israel and in the hearts of the Jewish people. I deeply mourn his passing and the potential that died with him. But there must be more than memories and sadness and cynicism. It’s time, in Israel – and in the United States – to get up out of our armchairs. Anything less profanes the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.