The Story of a Broken Spine

 I love my Mishkan Tefillah, the blue Shabbat siddur(prayer book) we use every week of the year. It’s the standard size of every other siddur in the sanctuary. But it’s a special edition, made with a stronger binding. And, get this: the page edges are gilded in gold. It has the look of an antiquarian treasure and the heft of the holy. 

Over so many years of regular hard-core use, my siddur has come to conform to my hands. The balance point on its spine is perfect. It never feels too big or unwieldy. The book knows what page I’m going to next. It opens at all the places we pray from. The oil from my fingers has left darkened corners on the pages with prayers I’ve opened to a million times, like Aleinu (pg 586or the Kaddish (pg 598)

I’ve spent real quality time with my siddur, at services large and small. Cold snowy Friday nights when we’re lucky to have a minyan (including a Torah or two…), big b’nai mitzvah celebrations with 250 people in the sanctuary, opening a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah – the list goes on. The beat goes on.

I love my siddur. So you can imagine how I felt when someone, somehow, took my siddur out of the sanctuary, something I NEVER do, my deluxe siddur with the gilded pages, and used it to copy some prayers. If that were all, dayeinu – it would’ve been enough. But it was far worse. While putting it in the copier, the culprit placed it on the glass surface of the machine. They then clearly pressed the siddur down hard to copy both sides of the book. I saw my siddur in the copy room next to the paper cutter and wondered why it was not in its proper place. I opened it and could instantly tell that it had been damaged. The offender inadvertently cracked the binding.

I was crushed. I felt violated and was almost in tears. My siddur, my source of strength, the sacred vessel with which I led the congregation in prayer and celebration, was broken. You might say, “Well, Rabbi; we own a few hundred copies of the siddur. Just grab one of those, or buy another one.” I didn’t want to take one out of congregational circulation. It would somehow not be kosher to use it. The siddurim are yours, not mine. 

I did call the CCAR to inquire about the availability of a special edition. The head of the CCAR Press personally searched high and low, but there were no more special editions for sale. They had sold out years ago. 

I decided I would simply carry on using my gilded, injured siddur. But it didn’t feel the same in my hands. It felt fragile. Whenever I turned the pages, I could feel the broken spine. It didn’t naturally open to the usual pages anymore. I had to open it cautiously to avoid turning to the wrong page. It was not ideal, but what else could I do? 

Then, a moment of reckoning. During a Jazz Shabbat service, when I turned to the Amidah (pg 164), two pages came loose. The spine had failed. I was heartbroken. What was I to do now? 

We had decided last year that with so many of our congregational siddurim in disrepair, we needed to send them to a bindery for restoration. So, with a heavy heart, I realized that I would have to trust my siddur in the hands of an unknown bookbinder. With God and Doug Ball as my witnesses, I taped a note to the cover of my prayer book. It read, “This is my beloved siddur. Please be kind to it.” It came back about two months later. It looked good! The binding was restored, maybe better than ever. I was mightily relieved and most grateful. But it’s not quite the same siddur it was ten years ago. We’ll need to get reacquainted. 

As the river pulls us all along, as we approach the rapids of a new year, we acknowledge that nothing is perfect, nothing stays the same. The pressures of work, infirmity, conflict, reversals in love and work and life, crushing disappointment in us and others – all the stuff that makes adult life so hard can cause us to break, just like the spine of my siddur. Amid adversity, what are we to do?

Giving up or giving in is sometimes the path of least resistance, but that’s rarely the best path. In the end, all we can do is to trust others to help us mend what is broken in us. This isn’t easy. There’s nothing carefree about it. We have to take a step towards health and believe there are those out there ready to catch us when we falter and fall. Nothing returns to the way it was. The past is accessible through memory but not through spirit.

My beautiful siddur is the same – but different, just like me. That may be one of the hardest truths about aging, about our victories and our losses. We’re precisely who we’ve always been. And we’re not. The river changes us – and I’m not just talking about wrinkles. 5780 will be here soon. I’m excited to face a new year knowing I don’t – I can’t! – face it alone. I’ve got my family, my friends, and my colleagues – and, thank God, I have you. So let’s embrace it all together: finitude and eternity, loss and new life, endings and beginnings, laughter and tears. With patience and humor, we can help each other mend our souls.


 It’s a momentous day today at TBA. Bryan Baumer has the final Bar Mitzvah of the 2018/19 this weekend. The sun is out and beautiful. Vacation and summer camp is around the corner. It’s that time of year when we share our intended destinations with each other.

I’m going to be traveling to Orleans this summer, as I have every summer for 40 years. I delight in returning to the same town every year, the same beaches, the same Main Street shopping, the same trip to P-Town, and so forth. As we cross the Sagamore Bridge, I know just what I’m getting. And I couldn’t be happier.

Because going to the Cape every summer has become a mythic ritual, a rite of passage that marks the passage of time. I feel like those Europeans who, without fail, withdrew from life (if even for a week), to the famed sanatoriums. Spa culture – defined by its intentional architecture, geographical remove and somnambulistic ambiance – was experienced in direct opposition to the rapid-paced, sick-making atmosphere of industrialized Europe. …[t]he bosky outreaches of central Europe served as a sort of mystical destination where people from kingdoms near and far could live temporarily apart from reality – intermingling, arguing – even as the security and sovereignty of the world around them remained imperiled. It’s unsurprising that a microcosm containing different types of people with little to do but reflect and cathect provided fiction writers with a generative setting, one which everyone from George Eliot to Henry James to Guy de Maupassant took advantage of.

When I get to the Cape, I have my best beach chair, my books, and music. I don’t want to go anywhere other than the Shaw’s Market, the fresh fish place on Rte 6, Chocolate Sparrow, Nauset Beach, or Pilgrim Lake. That’s it. It’s true that when I actually leave Orleans city limits, ending up with friends in Brewster or Wellfleet, I love it. But entropy is a tough habit to break.

I sit on the beach, soaking up the sun and fresh air. I look at the water and can’t believe my food fortune to be in such a beautiful place. I look at my adult children who were raised on these beaches, who never once kvetched, never saying, “Do we have to go to Cape Cod?” I watch my grandchildren splashing around, building sand castles, collecting abandoned beach toys, loving the ambiance, appreciating having around them their favorite adults who are not in a rush to get to work, or anyplace else. The Cape is absolutely a be here now place.

I had a friend who used to hate going on vacation. She thought it was a sign of weakness. She would stoically wave as others left for their summer destinations, all the while thinking, “I am more loyal then they are.” She did work very hard. Not surprisingly, she was not happy. She had so many complaints and concerns about her place of work and her co-workers.One day, her boss called, demanding she take a vacation. “You will be better in your work and your attitude by not doing it for a week or two. Think of it as imposed medical leave.” She did go away to Nantucket for 2 weeks. When she returned, she looked so – different. “I can’t believe I waited so long to do nothing. What was I thinking?”

I will be thinking about the new construction zooming forward in my absence. I will be thinking about my High Holy Day sermons. I will be catching rays. And I will be luxuriating in what it means to be free, loving what I do with my life and loving the people who are in my large extended temple family. I will be practicing the Zen notion of, “Don’t just do something, stand there,” or, in my case, sit there.

I hope all of you will find time to get away from the day-to-day, and just be. That’s hard work – at first. But once you relax into it, the idea and the practice of rest can be joyful. Don’t forget: even God rests from time to time. I hope your Shabbat is restful, good and long. See you in September.

Remembering D-Day

D-Day, the invasion of northern France in 1944, was the most significant victory of the Western Allies in the Second World War. American, British and Canadian forces established a foothold on the shores of Normandy, and, after a protracted and costly campaign to reinforce their gains, broke out into the French interior and began a headlong advance. This battle campaign effectively broke the back of the German army. The Nazi war machine could not recover. 

As a kid, I was fascinated by D-Day. I’d watch documentaries about it on tv. I’d take out my toy soldiers and my various vehicles – tanks, half-tracks, jeeps – and engage the Nazis on the beaches of Normandy. I didn’t know much about the war or the Holocaust, but I did know the Nazis were the bad guys and I dutifully hated them. I went to the movies and, at 9 years of age, saw The Longest Day, a dramatic retelling of the D-Day story with a star-studded cast, including Richard Burton and John Wayne. Afterwards I went to Brentanos in Hartford and bought the book.

 A few decades later, in 1998, I went to see Saving Private Ryan, the Spielberg movie that begins with the D-Day invasion. I have to say that I’ve never been in combat and pray I never will. The first minutes of Private Ryan is as close as I ever want to be. It is a staggering statement on the madness and the terror of war. The surviving men who fought on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago are now in their 90s. They were no more than boys then, adolescents with everything to lose. Some have never, and will never talk about their experiences. Others have made it a mission in life to speak of often and everywhere, a la Coleridge and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 

The story of D-Day has a special resonance for Jews. After all, the success of that Allied invasion led to the downfall of Hitler and the eventual liberation of the camps. Yet it is worth noting that saving Jews was never on the to do list of the US Armed Forces. Anti-Semitism would remain central to American foreign policy even as the nation stared down Nazi Germany. The United States entered the war in Europe, of course, but Roosevelt was shrewd enough to cast the move as fighting fascism on behalf of democracy. The war was about preserving American values, not saving European Jews. 

The truth of deep anti-Semitism in America and its consequences is not something I was taught as a child. My devotion to WWII movies and toy soldiers was not sullied by the deeper truth. Not true anymore. I see around the edges of simplistic patriotism and nationalism. I recognize that we can never be seduced into forgetting our past and our struggles. 

When the war ended, the world did not line up to profess mea culpa. But Americans came to understand the suffering of the Jewish people in a new context. In the decades that followed, we broke through walls and crashed through glass ceilings. We’ve worked hard to achieve our particular status in the USA. But we can’t take it for granted. We don’t need to search under every rock for hidden antisemites. We do need to be grateful and alert. 

And so today I want to express my gratitude for the 156,000 Allied troops who fought on D-Day. Without their sacrifices, even more Jewish people would have been viciously beaten, starved, and gassed. As the last veterans die over the next decade, we cannot forget that Holocaust survivors are decreasing in number every day. As we praise the efforts of the Allies and hear their stories, we cannot ever forget that we inherit the obligation to tell the stories of our ancestors, those men, women and children, ignored by the world and left to die. Not only must we say never again regarding our vulnerability, so too must we sign on for a world where no humans are devalued and left to fend for themselves against the vicious storm of hatred.

A New Election, a new Balagan (a big mess)

The American domestic news cycle is like a sack of cats: a raucous, undulating, unformed ball of noise and chaos. So it is possible, even likely, that you may not be tuned into the current state of affairs in Israel. Which is too bad, because the current political situation in the Holy Land is very high drama. Things are as dramatic and implausible as I can ever remember. It’s part West Wing, part Game of Thrones and part House of Cards. I’m not kidding.

To review, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 35 Knesset seats on April 9, a total that was tied with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz. President Reuven Rivlin is required to invite someone to form a new majority in the Knesset. He asked Netanyahu to attempt to form a government because he had the much clearer path to victory, with right-wing parties controlling 65 seats. (Only 61 are needed for a majority.) Some horse-trading would certainly be required, but it was widely assumed that the right-wingers would fall in line.

The parties that are lumped in as “right” or “far-right” in media coverage (particularly international coverage) include religious West Bank settlers, secular West Bank settlers, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, centrist neo-liberals, pot-smoking ultra-Zionist libertarians, and outright terrorists. Many of the disagreements between these parties have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issues that much international coverage of Israel tends to focus on. To expect consensus from this mixed collection of smaller parties was a fool’s errand.How would Bibi reach the magic number of 61? By bringing in a wildly unpredictable player, a secular Russian named Avigdor Lieberman, whose party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is very right-wing and hawkish.

Lieberman had been a cabinet minister for Bibi over the years but quit after ongoing feuds with the prime minister and his supporters. Despite the feuds and egos and who can out-macho whom, Bibi hoped that he would get Yisrael Beiteinu’s 5 seats to help constitute his ruling coalition.But – and here’s the drama – Lieberman said no. And Bibi suddenly felt the rug getting pulled from under his feet. Why did Lieberman essentially scuttle Bibi’s next term? There are a few theories.

  1. Lieberman is staunchly secular, and regularly derides the ultra-Orthodox ( when he’s not using their support…), for attempting to make Jewish Law the sole criterion for all that happens in Israel. Most controversially, while military service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Jewish Israelis, students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are exempt. Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the prime minister committed to passing Leiberman’s bill, without amendment, that would conscript more men and impose penalties on yeshivas that don’t comply. Without the ultra-Orthodox, Bibi cannot constitute a majority for his coalition. So he completely kowtows to them and their extremism.
  2. Lieberman just plain doesn’t like Bibi. He saw a chance to stab Bibi in the gut between the armor plates and shatter the prime minister’s future plans to rule [GOT reference…].
  3. Lieberman is the most inscrutable of Israeli politicians, and there are as many conspiracy theories for the “real” reason he shafted Netanyahu as there are pundits. But just based on the raw political data, it would seem that he is trying to stake out new electoral ground in what he believes is the twilight of Netanyahu’s career.

Leiberman’s refusal to join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox as long as they refuse to serve in the IDF and Bibi’s potentially severe legal troubles – he is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three corruption cases -weakened his leverage in coalition negotiations. When the prime minister failed to form a coalition, Knesset members, decided by a vote of 74 to 45 to dissolve the body just a month after being sworn in, making it the shortest-lived parliament in Israel’s history. The proposed date for new elections is Sept. 17.

Yes – you read it correctly. After a grueling, divisive election a month ago, they’re going to do it again. Which means that Israel will see deeper lines drawn between the parties of the Right, desperate centrists playing for time and power, ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against Army service, Lieberman taking swipes at Bibi as Bibi swings wildly, looking for 61 votes, praying he can constitute a coalition in time to pass a law that would grant him immunity from prosecution.

I would suggest a look at two Israeli news sources: and The former tends to lean Left, the latter tends to be relatively centrist. Not only is it an exciting story, but it is also essential for the Jews of America to follow this story, too. We may not be voters in Israel, but we are surely stakeholders.

Endings and Beginnings

Before Richard Gere rides off on his chopper to go scoop up Deborah Winger at the end of An Officer and a Gentleman, he watches his drill sergeant (Lou Gossett, Jr), preparing a brand new group of officer candidates. He smiles as he listens to the sergeant’s familiar banter and looks at the new class, young and terrified.

I don’t ride a chopper, but I relate to that scene. One class graduates and the next class begins. It is like the sea, a rhythmic, infinite flow that never stops.

Ok, maybe it’s just that I’m being nostalgic. After all, tonight is Midrasha graduation. A number of our seniors will speak from the bimah tonight, sharing their thoughts on their Jewish journeys. It is an emotionally and spiritually meaningful experience to listen to our oldest kids share thoughts and feelings about their connection to Beth Avodah. Their ongoing relationship to their temple and the people with whom they’ve grown up will be a permanent part of their experience set. It will hopefully lead them to continue to embrace their Jewishness. It will also, I hope, help them stay clear on what it means to live a Jewishly ethical life.

I constantly complain to anyone who will listen (the number is pretty low), that we don’t have enough time with our kids. I wish we could do more studying together. I wish we could explore more deeply the most perplexing issues of the day. I wish we could get deeper into the meaning and contours of Jewish history. Alas, I am destined to keep on wishing…

But I don’t have time to be nostalgic, because a new group of students will step up. A new Israel trip will take off in February 2020. In fact, tonight, the current fifth grade will be officially recognized as moving into the on-deck circle on Monday nights as they begin preparing in earnest for their bnai mitzvah. Just as the sea continues to ebb and flow, so too does life in our temple community.

Having said that, I must hasten to say that with every wave of students at every transitional stage, we analyze who they are and what we can do to meet their needs. In fact, we try to do that with ALL temple planning and programming. A couple of generations ago, the central message was to keep everything status quo. The synagogue was about preserving eternal truths and practices. Change was a dirty word. Not anymore.

We understand that change is a necessary component of our work. Most congregants don’t want it to be the way it always was – whatever that means. We all expect beta versions of so much in our lives: the technology we use, the ways we communicate, the ways we determine what matters to people… How can we not respond to how the broader community is changing, and how our own temple community is morphing.

We are committed to shepherding TBA through this transitional time on a trajectory of change. Staffing changes, building changes, cultural changes; these are considerable determinants in how we chart our movement forward. And make no mistake: we will continue moving forward!

I’m looking at the list of graduates and remembering many of them from preschool days. Such nostalgia! And then I look at the list of fifth graders attending tonight’s service, and I’m thrust toward the future. That’s temple life.

There’s no standing still in this life. We are aware that seeking to preserve past ritual and programs that have lost their meaning for the sake of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” is dangerous and utterly counterproductive. Such behavior leads to a quiet, underutilized building. No, we’re not taking the “Judaism in amber” road. Reform Judaism demands that we continue to embrace change, even when it causes us some vertigo. Reform is a verb.

Join us tonight at 615 for Shabbat services. Come for the nostalgia. Stay for the future.

Shabbat shalom,


PS I’m sure that, by now, you’ve read of the fires deliberately set at two Chabad centers. We are all horrified that such a thing might occur so close to home. I sent the following email to the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham:

Shabbat shalom to you and the leadership of the Chabad center. My congregation and I want to reassure you that we stand with you. This crime will not go unpunished, and we pray the perpetrators will be found quickly. In the meantime, if there’s anything we can do for you, know we stand ready and in complete solidarity. Shabbat Shalom,  Rabbi Keith Stern and the members of Temple Beth Avodah.

I also spoke to Rabbi Mendy Krinsky and reassured him that we are willing to help in any way we can. Knowing that we are aware and supportive during this time of tension and concern was deeply appreciated by Rabbi Krinsky.

The Tipping Point

Boy Scouts have always been told that whenever we departed from a campsite, we had to leave it in better shape than when we arrived. That ethic, that we are literally responsible for the world around us, that we are stewards of the earth, has always been a hugely important value in my life. This scouting rule nicely dovetails into Jewish tradition’s insistence that we see the Universe in which we live as a gift from God.  

For centuries, Jewish texts have stressed the ironclad obligation to, and responsibility for, nature’s integrity. “Nothing that God created in the world was superfluous or vain; hence, all must be sustained. An aggadah [rabbinic legend], often repeated in the literature, says that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect into a blueprint.”  

The world in which we live is so majestic, so beautiful. Flora, fauna, snow and cold, desert heat… I could go on forever describing the ineffable wonders of the natural world.  Only it seems to be the case that not all of the marvels of the world will be going on forever. 

The recent report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services delivered a sobering message that was truly painful to read. I avoided looking at it for as long as I could. I treated it like ominous lab results from my doctor. But eventually I felt compelled to click on the link. I should’ve left it alone. The summary of the research is that, “Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals – the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”   

 The Report finds that around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history. Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” said Prof. Joseph Settele. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”  One million animal and plant species are going to disappear – forever.

I can’t honestly compute the scope of such a loss. But when I do the math, two things become painfully obvious: 1) it won’t affect my life very much, and 2) it will dramatically affect the lives of my children and my grandchildren. And that breaks my heart.  

I’ve heard commentators who say that this extinction is the natural order of things, that it’s the price of freedom and free market capitalism. Of course, the most vociferous voices shrugging their shoulders in an “oh well” gesture are often the same ones who think climate change is a lie. Only climate change is real, and denying it has about as much legitimacy as the arguments of the anti-vaxxers.   This collapse, as Prof. Settele stated above, is primarily authored via the hubris of humans. It’s men and women creating absolute lies that will then be absorbed as fact. It’s a narcissistic rejection of responsibility for the world. It’s unJewish and – it’s unethical at the highest levels. 

I worry for my grandkids; not that they will never see a lemur or an orangutan, though that is horrible.  The worst part for the grandkids, and for all humans, aside from potential bee extinction and crop collapse, isn’t the end of any particular amphibian or reptile or fish or bird. The worst part is to live in a world where no one lifts a finger to save a threatened, small species of plant or animal. Because when we are nonplussed by the extinction of a species, how much do we care about the diminution or even extinction of a particular class or ethic minority group? In the future how will humans without money or power or a voice fare? If the only world I care about is the world according to me, then what are the chances for human survival, for cooperation and compromise?  

The extinction of any species, from snail darters to Indiana bats to polar bears to Mediterranean monk seals, is a disgrace and an ethical violation, because it is not inevitable. We’ve messed this one up. Can we fix it? Can we change this looming collapse? I don’t honestly know what to do next. Only this: we must do something. I’m open to suggestions. In the meantime, I’ll keep cleaning up the campsite.

Remembering to Never Forget

It happens at different times and in different contexts. Often it’s when the weather is bad. I bundle up in my warm black winter coat, wrap the scarf around my neck, pull on the gloves, grab the watchman knit cap and put that on, and finally start my car from my iPhone so the car will be nice and comfortable and the seat warmer will be fired up. 

As I walk to the car, insulated from the terrible wind and cold, it comes to me like a chyron at the bottom of a tv screen. What was such weather like for people in concentration camps? How did they endure the unspeakable cold dressed only in pajamas and wooden clogs? How did they tolerate standing in the cold every day as the SS guards did the daily count? 

When I read survivors’ accounts, it’s not as if they have a simple answer to the question, “How did you survive the concentration camps? How did you persevere? What was your secret?” They simply did whatever they could to stay alive. The angel of Death was so present in every second of every day. I doubt many believed that they would make it.

 To be fair to the survivors and to the ones who did not survive, bravery and courage didn’t have much at all to do with it. The simple fact is that, for so many survivors of the camps, it was all about luck. Sure, we know that victims did better when they had someone else to depend on. Two people scrounging for food, looking to grab an extra blanket from someone who had just died, and just looking out for each other was very powerful, and more efficient than being on one’s own. It also helped, according to survivors with whom I’ve spoken over the years, to have a friend who could remind you that you were still a human.

 With the capriciousness of every moment, just being in the right place at the right time was crucial. Which, of course, could not generally be planned for at all. An angry or bored SS officer could just as easily shoot someone standing in a line as he could walk right by them. One could get assigned a very dangerous work detail – or pick up stones from a field. Life was reduced to the most basic elements: stay warm, quietly obey orders, keep your eyes down, eat whatever you could find, keep moving. There was no moral order, no organizing principle beyond the imperative to keep breathing. 

As I reflect on the insufferable, detestable ordeals of our people during the Holocaust, I inevitably absorb these moments of horror, and I wonder: what would’ve happened to me? Would I – could I – have ever survived such unmitigated privation? I can’t imagine surviving a week in a concentration camp. Not to mention that so many people of my age were gassed right away. But in fact, the randomness of life and death, particularly in the camps, makes such speculation specious. Who in their right mind could ever imagine surviving in Hell? 

This much I know. I have been blessed in my life to know many survivors who came to this country, injured, traumatized, orphaned, alone. Some, like my father, were permanently damaged by their wartime experience of death and cruelty and loss. Others, who experienced far worse torture and pain than my father, ended up able to build a new life, despite it all. Such people have proven to me that it is actually possible for humans to move through deepest darkness and not succumb to the night. 

We officially remember the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. But unofficially, there are those of us who think of the Holocaust every day. Because of the weather. Because we see smoke stacks. Because we hear a story. Because the Holocaust opened a wound the size of 6 million people. Because it’s testimony. Because the Holocaust is our story, a story that still reverberates across time.

Count the Omer Every Day

“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach when an omer (an old Biblical measure of the volume of grain) is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”
The 2 Torah verses above from Leviticus point out a tradition our ancestors have followed for millennia since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. We continue to count the omer every year, even though we long ago gave up bringing harvest offerings to the temple in Jerusalem. Every day at evening services, until June 8th, we will pause and officially designate how many days and weeks have gone by, leading to Shavuot.
It’s a mystery as to why we continue to perform this mitzvah when we are no longer collecting grain offerings at the temple. What exactly, are we counting? Why does it matter?
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone knows. Yet even without a clear Jewish legal rationale, this counting of the omer continues to resonate deeply. It signifies a subtle truth, which is: we’re all of us, counting up every day. We will not live forever. We may say to our family something like, “I will always be here for you,” but of course that’s not true.
We are all counting up, every day. It’s not a maudlin or terrifying thought. It’s just the whole truth – unalloyed.What are we to do with our acknowledgment of mortality? We could get very anxious about it. We could be frightened by it. We might even deny it’s true. But all denial is futile. Which hasn’t stopped people from imagining another alternative.
In September 2013, Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company. Its mission is to reverse engineer the biology that controls lifespan and “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.” 
Then there’s Aubrey De Gray, a gerontologist who’s in the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry, who says that, “It’s conceivable that people in my age bracket, their 40s, are young enough to benefit from these therapies. I’d give it a 30% or 40% chance that people alive today will live 1,000 years.”
I have absolutely no interest in getting involved with this anti-aging movement. The notion of living a thousand years feels terrible. A modern-day Methuselah? Why?
It makes so much more sense to me to make every day of living as meaningful as possible. Connect with friends and family. Read a good book. Take a nap. Go skiing. Go to San Francisco. Go to the MFA. Do nothing, but do nothing intentionally.
The most important advice on this subject comes from the book of Psalms, where it says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” Help us to appreciate the potential goodness in the world. Help us to embrace the time we have with those we love, and with those who can teach us about the value of the moment. We aren’t going to live forever. So the time is a gift. Count every day like it’s the counting of the omer. Assign some real value to the present tense.

I Saw a Black Hole

Ask me about first-century Judaism, and I’m all over it. Bring me a question about aspects of modern and post-modern Jewish history, and I will not disappoint. But the moment we veer from my Judaic comfort zone into hard science, I am pathetically inept.

I have tried. God knows how hard I’ve tried, to figure out some of the basic principles of the Universe. But no matter how much I read about quantum physics or string theory or the theory of relativity, I am so out of my league. It doesn’t compute.

I read, and re-read the same pages over and over again without success. And the moment I see a mathematical equation, I hyperventilate. The numbers and the symbols just don’t speak to me. I may as well be looking at hieroglyphics!

But I will say this: even though I don’t understand how they got it (even after reading several explanations) when I saw that picture of the black hole the other day, I actually got teary. Since I was a kid, I so wanted to see this mythic object in space.

As a tried and true baby boomer, I was completely enamored of the space program. From the age of 7, I watched the live Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo liftoffs. I sent away to NASA, explaining how much I wanted to be an astronaut. They responded with an enormous package –first true parcel sent personally to me in the mail! – Of pictures and charts and maps and who knows what else. And I went everywhere with that stuff, showing it off, proudly listing the names of the first astronauts.

By fifth grade, I had learned that one needed to know something about advanced mathematics and engineering and – the killer of dreams – one had to go through a bruising array of physical challenges, including getting slammed upside down into a deep pool and then unbuckle the seat belt, swim to the surface, and not die. That wasn’t going to work for me. So my flying days were over before they began. But that did not stifle my curiosity about the great beyond.

When I look at that picture of the black hole, I feel the same chills and thrills I experienced when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Up to that point, space travel and event horizons were all speculation and science fiction. But the moon landing and the black hole have presented us with extraordinary truths about our Universe, its grandeur and depth and remarkable beauty.

These unspeakably astonishing discoveries also point out the greatness of humanity. Just when I am filled to overflowing with revulsion regarding people in leadership at home and abroad who are so venal, so transparently ignorant and disdainful of humanity, I look at that black hole picture, and I qvell (swell with pride and appreciation).

Albert Einstein created the theory of relativity and knew there just had to be black holes and used terrifying advanced math to try proving it. The math was even too hard for him until another German Jewish genius named Karl Schwartzchild came to his rescue and solved Einstein’s equations. These 2 humans figured it out! How? A young MIT Ph.D. grad, Katie Bouman, along with many others, worked together to capture the image of the black hole. How did she do that? How did this team of big egos, little egos, big geniuses, not such geniuses, different colors and cultures do it?  

As benighted and as foolish as so many of us are, what a joy it is to know that there are also people so smart, so enlightened, so open-hearted, that they seek to open up the Universe to all of us, not for profit, not to exclude others, but as a gift of knowledge. This gift reminds us that we all share the fullness of life on this little blue marble called Earth.

Who will be victorious in the end? Is it the yetzer tov or the yetzer ha-ra? Is the evil impulse stronger than the good impulse? Does selfless genererosity win? Or does pernicious narcissistic self-interest declare victory?

Of course, no one knows. And, truth be told, maybe we just keep bouncing between those two poles, endlessly buffeted by the collisions of truth and lies. I suppose that’s how it’s always been. But wouldn’t it be nice to awaken one morning and find that all of us agree that humanity is created in God’s image? That kindness just makes sense? Such a moment might even dwarf the picture of a black hole. Such a moment would light up the Universe. Amen.

Have a sweet Passover, filled with matzah balls, laughter, stories of freedom, and promises to embrace the good by doing good.

Passover Lessons

Many years ago I was a guest at a large seder in Jerusalem. Around the table, in great Yerushalmi style, was a sampling of all the classic residents and tourists. Some were American, some native Israelis, some Yemenites, some religious, some heretics, some crazy. Old, young, and in between. It was a classic scene, and I loved it. There was lots of wine and drama.

Hours went by until the Passover meal was served and the afikomen successfully hunted down. Right before the 4th cup of wine is blessed and then imbibed, the door is opened for Elijah. From past seders, I remembered singing “Eliyahu Hanavi” – Elijah the Prophet – into the night.

But there is another tradition, that does not include that plaintive song. It is instead a very tough reading that goes: Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

At that Jerusalem seder, there was a particular older man, a Holocaust survivor, as it turned out.  He was thoroughly enjoying the food and the wine and the Passover story and all the attendant festivities. But when it got to this particular passage, something happened.

When the door was opened, he quickly elbowed his way through the throng of people to the threshold and began to recite the imprecation above. Actually, reciting is not accurate. He screamed it, he bellowed it into the Jerusalem night, shaking his fist and crying. All those years since the crushing brutality and privation, decades since his liberation from Dachau, the pain of captivity still constricted his soul. I will never forget how he screamed and wept.

When I recall that story, I remember a line from the movie, Forrest Gump, when Jennie, now an adult, comes upon her old, vacant childhood ramshackle home where she’d been beaten and raped by her father. She looks at the place in silence, and then suddenly breaks into a sob, throwing her shoes at the hovel. Out of her mind with grief and anger, she throws stones at the windows and then collapses on the road. Forrest, narrating the scene, only says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

The liberation from Egypt may have been one moment in history. But just because we left Egypt does not mean that Egypt has entirely left us. The residue of servitude is hard to eradicate. All of the work people put into finding the chametz and cleaning it out before Passover is a metaphor for our own struggles with the past and how it clings to us. We can’t be complete when we are dragged down by remnants of the past.

We keep telling the story of Passover for a dual purpose. First, it reminds us of the bitterness of servitude and the therapeutic value in symbolically casting it out, much like the crumbs of Tashlich. And second, it tells us that we are not the only people who have suffered. Even as we acknowledge our long trek from slavery to freedom and the damage it did—and still does – to us, we see others who are not as far along on the road to freedom.

Some years ago, Solomon Burke sang None of Us Are Free, which includes the lyrics,

There are people still in darkness,

And they just can’t see the light.

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.

We got try to feel for each other, let them all know that

We care.

Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.

None of us are free.

None of us are free, when one of us is chained.

None of us are free.

This is the truest message of Passover. We were once slaves, embattled, beaten, murdered. Avadim hayinu. But now we are free. Ata b’nai horin. We sluff off the shackles of our oppressors. We work out the trauma of our past and enter into history fully present and engaged. And that engagement along with our empathy leads us to work for the liberation of all.

I know – it’s pretty high-minded stuff. But we are here for a reason. We are the hands of God, the outstretched arm helping others find their way to hope. Passover is not only telling stories of the past. It’s also sharing the undying hope that somehow, all of us will be free at last.