AN ENCOURAGEMENT FOR THE NEW YEAR

In this week’s episode of my podcast, Wrestling and Dreaming, I shared a personal story and a prayer for the New Year. I encourage you to listen to the podcast but I wanted to share the prayer here.

I wrote the prayer in 2011 in celebration of the completion of my goal which I set for myself when I was 12, to be in all 50 states. It took 45 years but I succeeded!

I hope that you will find it thought provoking as we continue with the process of teshuva, repentance in anticipation of the New Year:

May we find meaning and inspiration all over the map this year.

In tribute to New Hampshire, the Granite State, may we be strong as a rock when faced with the difficulties and the tribulations of life. May we, in Bob Dylan’s words, have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift. May we face the world with stubbornness and determination.

In tribute to Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, may we recognize the important and essential elements of our lives, those elements which hold our lives together, and protect them and nurture them. 

In tribute to Wisconsin, the Badger State, may we finally learn to stop annoying ourselves and others with constant complaints and criticism. We should let old arguments or disappointments go, find ways to offer gentle constructive criticism and always hold a mirror up before ourselves. But, we should also give ourselves a break because badgering ourselves can sometimes be as bad as badgering others.

And, then, in tribute to Tennessee, the Volunteer state, may we take the time we save from not badgering ourselves and others and use that time to make the lives of others better, volunteering our time, our energy, our resources to make this a better world. 

And when we take a break from volunteering, in tribute to Kentucky, the bluegrass state, let us take pleasure in the music that moves us: whether opera, rock, country or whatever. May we find our lives calmed and sweetened by the melodies and rhythms life presents to us. And if you’re not a music lover and the garden is more your style of a place to relax, you can thank New Jersey for that inspiration. 

In tribute to Montana, the treasure state, may we always recognize that life is a treasure and one to be cherished and embraced at all times.

And, in tribute to Oklahoma, the Sooner State, may we stop procrastinating and make these changes now. 

Finally, in celebration of Alaska, may we never think we’ve reached the last frontier for no matter what accomplishments we have achieved, no matter how many goals we’ve attained, no matter how many long standing objectives we’ve crossed off our list, there is always another goal and another dream waiting around the next bend in the road. 

Shana Tova to everyone.

LESSONS FROM THE FAR NOTH

         In this week’s episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism (wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com), I shared a favorite text which I encountered for the first time a little more than fifteen years ago. As I explained in the podcast, I think the text reflects some of the most basic statements of Jewish thought and the wisdom of our people through the ages. 

         So, it is ironic is that the text is not from a Jewish source. I discovered the text during our trip to Alaska in 2006. We spent a day in the town of Barrow- now known by the name Utquiavik- the northernmost town in the United States, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. While there, I picked up a pamphlet which included a statement of “The Values of the Inupiat Eskimo People” published by the North Slope Borough School District in Barrow.

         This statement of values is truly inspiring and thought provoking and, in so many ways, reflects who we are as Jews. I say this not because I believe that there is any specific connection between the Inupiat Eskimos and Jews but because these are values shared by so many peoples and that inspires me. Hearing these same values said in different ways than we might say them is an opportunity to re-engage with the ideas.

         As we enter the month of Elul and the High Holy Day season and we consider more seriously the tradition of teshuvah, repentance and return to the proper path in life, these statements of values encourage us to consider the direction of our lives in accordance with the principles of our traditions. 

         In the podcast, I simply stated the values of the Inupiat people as expressed in this document and pointed out that I would post some further commentary on this website. So, here are some of those Inupiat values and some thoughts on how we as Jews have expressed some of the same ideas. 

         “Though the environment is harsh and cold, our ancestors learned to live with warmth, kindness, caring and compassion.” 

         As Jews we have lived throughout the world and the environment we have experienced has often been harsh and cold in many ways, most notably in the way we were treated by others. 

         Yet, from the time of the Torah, our tradition has taught us that we must learn from our experience and care for each other and for those who suffer persecution and degradation with caring and compassion. The most frequently taught law in the Torah is the commandment to care for the stranger because we know the soul of the stranger. 

         Although the surroundings have been harsh, we have been taught to live with warmth and compassion. 

         “Our Elders model our traditions and ways of being. They are a light of hope to younger generations. May we treat each other as our Elders have taught us.” 

         In the Torah we read: “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will tell you. (Deuteronomy 32:7)” The wisdom of our elders must inspire us. We respect and embrace the concept of “dor l’dor”, generation to generation, not only meaning the continuity of tradition but meaning as well continuing the search for wisdom. Our ancestors did not have all the answers but they gave to us the basis for the wisdom that we employ in our lives. 

         We truly stand on the shoulders of giants and, as Jews, we respect the wisdom of the ages, even as we shape that wisdom to the realities of our world.

         “It is amazing how sharing works. Your acts of giving always come back.”

         There is a beautiful tradition in Jewish thought: “s’char mitzvah mitzvah”, the reward for the observance of a commandment is another commandment.

         There are many ways to understand this statement but one of the ways is to understand that when we perform an act of kindness, we often find that that kindness is returned to us. 

         Here, I can share a brief story. In 1982, I and my rabbinical school colleague, Rabbi Allan Berkowitz, traveled to the former Soviet Union on a mission of outreach to “refuseniks”, those Jews who had been refused permission to leave the USSR for Israel and had suffered terrible persecution because of their decision to apply for emigration. 

         We came to the USSR with the intent to teach and to inspire but found ourselves in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova), on erev Pesach, without a place to attend a Seder after having failed to make a connection with any of the families in the city.

         We were standing on the doorstep of the last home on our list when suddenly the door opened before we even knocked, and we were brought into the home and down to the basement where the Seder was held away from the prying eyes of the police. 

         We came as the ones intending to do the good deed. But, instead, the good deed came back to us. And, after keeping in contact with the family and advocating for them continuously, we were able to return the mitzvah by welcoming the family to freedom. 

         Truly, “acts of giving always come back”.

         “With our language we have an identity.” 

         The native community of Utkiavik takes great effort to teach the native language to its children. Language is so critical for any community. 

This is an opportunity for me to stress the importance of Hebrew in our Jewish consciousness. The Hebrew language, our ancient and now renewed language, binds us to our past and to our brothers and sisters throughout the world. I can not urge anyone reading these words strongly enough to learn or improve their familiarity and comfort with the language of our people because it provides us with a key to our identity that is impossible to measure. 

Indeed, laughter is the best medicine.”

I love this statement. As we enter into Elul and think about Teshuvah, we should take a moment to take a deep breath and realize that many times what is most important is to not take ourselves too seriously. A good laugh, a great smile and an embrace of the world can help us get through many situations in life.

Finally, one last statement from the text: 

“Our creator gave us the gift of our surroundings. Those before us placed ultimate importance on respecting this magnificent gift for their future generations.”

         The idea of all that we have in our world as a gift from our Creator is the basis for all that we are as Jews and as human beings. We must place ultimate importance on respecting and using wisely that which we have been given. This applies to the miracles around us and the miracles of our own lives. 

         There are other value statements which I quote on the podcast but these are the most important principles and the ones which I feel reflect best the questions and challenges we should consider most deeply as the new year approaches. It is truly a blessing to discover wisdom from another source and realize the commonalities between human beings.

Happy National Dog Day!

Today, August 26, has been designated as National Dog Day and, from my perspective, it is a great day to celebrate.

Like so many others, I love dogs- of all sizes and of all breeds. Like so many others, I can’t resist asking if I can “say hello” to a dog I pass on the street. I volunteer at our local Humane Society as a dog walker and have found over and over again how easy it is to fall in love with a dog at first sight. Truly, as my wife, Ellen, likes to say: “God certainly got dogs right.”

But, as much as I love all dogs, there is a special place in my heart for our dogs.

We have had the privilege of sharing our home with 3 dogs and each brought something so special and so unique to our home.

Our first dog, Silky, was a cross between a Chocolate Lab and a German Short Hair Pointer. She actually was Ellen’s dog as she had adopted her before we met. But, Silky quickly took kindly to me and soon became my dog as well.

Silky was so incredibly smart. She understood so many words that we often had to spell things out if we didn’t want her to react. She was very protective of us and of our kids when they were born. But, she always was very kind and sweet to those she would meet on the street (unless the person was driving a UPS truck- for some reason she couldn’t stand UPS trucks).

She was also very sensitive. She knew when we needed comforting and I will always remember walking into our house when I returned from Boston where I had been sitting shiva for my father. Silky, who by then, was a very old dog who had some trouble walking, picked herself up off the floor, walked over to me and sat next to me, quietly letting me hug her and pet her which was such a comfort. When she died two months later, I cried like I had never cried before in my life.

We will remember her always.

Our second dog was Benny, the yellow Lab. What a gentleman he was! We adopted him from the shelter a week after the 9/11 attacks and he brought such comfort to our family.

Benny was not the brightest dog but he had a heart of gold and, unlike both of our other dogs, didn’t strive to be a person. He was satisfied being a dog, sleeping on the floor, not begging for (or stealing) our food. When our kids’ friends would come over to the house, Benny wanted to be right in the middle of the action, lying in the line of fire of pillow fights or dress-up games.

There are many Benny stories I could tell but I will share one which I have told to very few people. One summer, we took a group from the synagogue to Israel on a two week trip. The first week of the trip had been fantastic but very tiring and on the first Shabbat we spent in Israel, I lied down for an afternoon nap and fell into a very deep sleep. While asleep, I had one of the most intense and realistic dreams that I ever had. I dreamed that I had come home from Israel to visit and stood on our front porch and, in the dream, I started to knock on the door when I suddenly woke up with a start.

It was such a realistic dream that it took me a few moments to remember where I was and clear my head and suddenly, I missed home so much that I picked up the phone to call Ellen at home. When she answered, she asked to me wait a moment and I could hear a lot of commotion. She came back to the phone and told me that, for some reason, Benny was sitting at the front door, wagging his tail, and making sweet, soft barking noises. Ellen told me she couldn’t get Benny away from the front door. She said it was like he saw someone there but there was no one at the door. She couldn’t understand it.

When I told her about the dream I had just had, we both just sat on the phone in silence.

Dogs are so perceptive and our souls are really tied with theirs.

And then, finally, there is our current dog, Sami. After Benny died in 2010, we said we didn’t think we wanted to bring another dog into the house but the house was too quiet and as our daughter said: “It isn’t a Dobrusin house without a dog”.

So, a few months later, we saw Sami on the website for a shelter and fell in love with her at first sight.

Sami is a real “mixed breed”, part beagle, part German shepherd, part lab and all goodness and sweetness. She has calmed down from being the nutty, crazy dog she was when she was younger but she still has a smile that can melt my heart. She doesn’t like other dogs but she has human friends around the neighborhood who know her and love her.

Each morning when she wakes up, Sami thanks us with that loving smile but it is we that should thank her for the love she shows us each day.

So, for me, National Dog Day is a day to celebrate, a day to thank God and the human beings who centuries ago, brought these “wolves” into their homes and hearts and gave us all best friends forever.

Shabbat Shalom.

TEST

This is a test of the email notification for postings. Some of the email notifications for my early posting today ended up in spam files. If you did not see the posting from this morning, you can find it entitled: “In Memory of Vin Scully”.

Thank you

In Memory of Vin Scully

This morning, we learned of the death of Vin Scully who was, in my opinion, the best baseball announcer ever. As I thought about the joy that baseball announcers bring to our lives, I thought of a sermon I delivered in 1992 for Parashat Naso which contains Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of the priests. Here is the sermon I delivered that week:

SERMON FOR PARASHAT NASO 1992

A VISIT TO THE BROADCAST BOOTH

This past week, I fulfilled one of my lifelong ambitions. 

It wasn’t quite for real but it was the next best thing. 

On Thursday night, I was able to sit in a booth on the top level of Tiger Stadium, put on a headset, watch a monitor and simulate a broadcast of one inning of a game between the Tigers and the Red Sox as part of the “Fantasy Play By Play” promotion. Despite the fact that the inning that I chose to broadcast, the third inning, was the quickest, least interesting of a long and otherwise interesting ball game, I felt, for those ten minutes like I was where I was always supposed to be. 

As I sat high atop the stadium and barely resisted all inclinations to lock myself in for the duration of the season, a serious thought came to mind. I thought about one element that connects baseball to this week’s parasha, to Judaism in general and to myself. 

Baseball is a game of rituals. These rituals are found on two different levels. First, there is the ritual involved among the fans. In no other game or pastime is there such a unifying sense that you are participants, doing what you are supposed to do. You have to stand up for the seventh inning stretch. You have to eat hot dogs, unless thankfully spared by the laws of kashrut. You have to at least make a passing attempt to keep score in the program. You have to. There is no choice. 

But, baseball’s more enduring ritual is the ritual on the field. Each game, in essence, is exactly the same: a very carefully structured, balanced, regulated progress of 3 strikes, 3 outs, 3 times 3 innings, 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to the plate and 90 feet between the bases. As my teacher in such matters, the late Bart Giamatti wrote: “Baseball is a game of symmetrical demands in a symmetrical setting which encourage both passion and precision.”

Giamatti expressed the idea that because of baseball’s ritual precision, the players were encouraged to act passionately: to find the meaning in the precision by creating within the tight boundaries of the ballpark, new responses to the immutable structures of the game. 

As I sat on top of the stadium Thursday evening, I realized that one of the responsibilities of the announcers is to express the passion and allow others to feel like they were there and involved in the passionate ritual.

Before I listened to the tape of my broadcast, I knew I had failed miserably.

I only spoke. I knew what I was feeling but I wasn’t passing it along. If someone had read the script of my performance, it wouldn’t have been bad. But, I just didn’t pass along the emotion along with the ritual. 

What a challenge it is. It is what separates Ernie Harwell and Vin Scully and Harry Carey and, my favorite Red Sox announcer, Ned Martin, from all the rest.

And, it is also the ultimate challenge for those who engage in public Jewish ritual.

We have chosen as a people to believe that service to God needs to be repetitive in form, consistent, predictable. We have taught that our prayers and rituals mean more than the sum of the meanings of each individual word, that the structures are worth keeping merely because they have been kept for so long and because their roots are in our experience of the divine.

But, somewhere, the passion must come through. 

This morning, we read the section of the book of Numbers which contains birkat kohanim, the blessing of the priests which is such an important part of our tradition. 

Let me share with you two brief comments on this blessing. 

First: the priestly blessing is introduced with the words; koh tivarachu, thus you should bless the people of Israel. The commentaries offer many explanations to the word: thus. Each of these teachings indicates that the blessing had to be said in a particular way: aloud, in Hebrew, standing, with arms outstretched. The blessing was not just the words but also all that went along with the words. 

But Jewish tradition added an element to this ritual. It was not enough that this be a beautiful grouping of three phrases, each with a similar cadence, 3 words, 5 words, 7 words; the structure was not enough, even if we add the different elements which were required: aloud, standing etc. 

When the priests blessed the people, they preceded the blessing with another blessing: that God had commanded them to bless the people in love. It was not enough that they say the words and perform the rituals. They had to do it with love. 

I am quite sure that, on occasion, priests said this blessing without that sense of love. But, it is the potential that ritual has to be infused with love which keeps it alive. It is, in our tradition, the infusing of symmetrical structures with subjective emotion that brings about true worship.

I couldn’t pass that along the other night at the ballpark. No matter how much I love the game, I couldn’t quite pass it along the way I could while sitting in front of the TV or in the stands watching with friends. There the passion came through but not in the broadcast booth.

But, my experience taught me that what a rabbi does is not so different from the announcer. We have our ritual and we have people performing the ritual in varying degrees of love and sincerity. It is the rabbi’s role to make sure that those who aren’t on the field feel the passion involved in Jewish ritual by explaining, elucidating and commenting, orchestrating and coordinating. No rabbi succeeds in those tasks all of the time. But, it is the potential to do so that keeps us trying. 

The other night, I learned that there are similarities between the two respectable professions: baseball announcer and rabbi. 

I also learned the most important thing: no matter what my dreams might be, I’d rather be here. 

In Memory of a Childhood Friend

I never met him but I consider him a close friend and, tonight, as so many mourn his death, in a way I am mourning as well.

His name was Tony Dow but for so many he will always be known as Wally Cleaver.

I love classic situation comedies and have written and spoken extensively about my love of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show and so many others. These were the greatest examples of the uniquely American art of the Situation Comedy. I love them all.

But, as much as I love I Love Lucy and the others, MY show was Leave it to Beaver.

I am 7 years younger than Jerry Mathers and 10 years younger than Tony Dow but growing up in a family with one older brother, I identified with the show from the first time I watched it as a kid.

My mother didn’t wear pearls to breakfast and didn’t set a table with fine china and crystal for dinner each evening. My father didn’t have all the answers and didn’t turn every mistake I made into a gentle learning opportunity. My friends weren’t as colorful and quirky as Beaver and Wally’s friends. I never backed my father’s car into the street or climbed a billboard to see whether there was real soup in the soup bowl. I never made a funny face to ruin my class yearbook picture and I never insulted a friend who spoke only Spanish by repeating what I had been taught to say by a “friend” and telling him he had a face like a pig.

I never did any of those things but, in my mind, I was just like Beaver and although I had and still have a very close relationship with my older brother whom I love so dearly and respect so deeply, I always felt like Wally was another older brother.

He was just adventurous enough. He occasionally did “goofy” things but usually was the one to warn Beaver about the stupid things he was about to do and often helped him out of trouble he had gotten into. He was steady and he was wise and I learned so much from him.

And that is why Leave it to Beaver was my show. It was my show because I learned so much from it. I Love Lucy always made me laugh but Leave it to Beaver made me think about what it meant to grow up. And Wally, served, in many ways to be the role model of the one who made it through the hardest part of childhood.

I’m 67 and I still watch the show and I still love it and I still learn from it.

And Wally was always one of my most important teachers.

But, as true as that might be, what I’m feeling tonight is sadness: sadness for Tony Dow’s family and close friends who are in mourning but also sadness for me because tonight, I feel so much older.

I know how to feel better though. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to watch an episode of Leave it to Beaver and I know it will make me smile and it might just teach me something essential about life.

That is why it is MY show and why I feel tonight like I have lost a close friend.

May the memory of Tony Dow be for a blessing.

July 4, 2022

On this Independence Day, we placed our American flag in front of our house as we do every year.

Despite the fact that there is much to bemoan about our country at this point in time and much to fear as we look to the future, we still proudly display the flag. For, as so many have written so eloquently over the past few days, our country is worth believing in and working for.

Over the past few weeks, decisions by the Supreme Court have codified into law the direction that the United States has been moving in for the past few years. While not surprised, I am still shocked by the rulings in the matters of Roe v. Wade, gun possession, regulations intended to address the climate crisis and, as I discuss in my podcast to be posted this coming Thursday, the public school prayer decision. (wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com)

Each of these rulings have been so horribly upsetting to so many and, in fact, in some cases, the majority of Americans clearly disagree with the direction the court has taken. This fact, in and of itself, should deeply concern us for the future (but also should provide us some hope).

In addition, as more details emerge about the January 6 insurrection and more political candidates embrace the lie about election fraud, we appropriately fear what actions might surround the mid-term elections and the 2024 Presidential election.

There is so much to fear.

But, there is hope.

The hope lies in those of us who disagree with the direction of the court and reject those who continue to raise doubts about election integrity and who refuse to follow the lead of those who are moving in this country to disenfranchise others and to act as a nation without compassion or concern for equal justice. We must continue to raise our voices and continue to work for a different direction in our country.

In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln spoke the immortal words: “With malice towards none, with charity towards all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

There were many who questioned how he could have said these words when there were such sharp divisions in the nation and the wounds were not bound up neatly by any means.

Similarly today, it is hard to imagine how we might show enough lack of malice and enough charity and compassion attitudes to work to bring our nation together when the divisions are so deep. But, we can’t give up on the United States of America. We must speak loudly and clearly and seek common ground where it can be found to move away from extremism and to work together to the extent possible to repair this nation.

We must all continue to be proud in the hope our flag symbolizes.

May we all bring the spirit of hope to all we do in the days to come.

Two Beautiful Parks, Two Important Perspectives

         For many years, I have been intrigued by a place called Bryce Canyon National Park. I had never been there, but I had thought it about often. I have visited a few of the National Parks and they all provide great experiences, but I had dreamed of visiting Bryce for two reasons. 

First, the obvious reason: I had heard it was extraordinary beautiful and unique. 

And secondly, because I have a 2nd cousin whom I have never met who lives and runs a store just outside the park. I have wanted to meet her since we first connected about 15 years ago when two branches of my father’s family “discovered” each other. There had been a split in the family two generations ago and, thanks to a wonderful coincidence, we found each other and that led to sharing of family history stories and a better understanding of where we came from. 

So, visiting Bryce was always a dream of mine and when our son, Avi, and I were considering where we might go for a trip together during his vacation and he proposed the idea of going to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, I realized I could make my dream come true. 

We started at Zion National Park, and I have to say that it is an absolutely phenomenal place. In many ways, it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. The cliffs rising up from the canyon, the beautiful trees, rock formations and the way that the same view looks totally different at different times of day were enthralling.

We hiked on some of the less demanding trails (after all I’m 67, more about that later) in Kolob Canyons and climbing to what are known as the Emerald Pools. We walked along the Virgin River until it begins its course into the narrowest parts of Zion Canyon. 

It was an unforgettable experience, and I could easily see why Avi considers it his favorite National Park of the many he has visited. 

Then, it was on to Bryce Canyon. 

The experience of Bryce Canyon is different from that of Zion. Instead of looking up at the cliffs, you look down on the canyon from above and I found myself mesmerized- and I can think of no more accurate word- by the “hoodoos”- the spire like formations of rock. They are incredibly beautiful and seem to have a “personality” of their own, each different, each more exquisite and impressive than the next. 

Some looked like animals. Some arranged as if a forming a “temple” on a hill. Others, like the ones shown here, reminded me of a group of people, appearing like “sentinels” guarding the valley below. I have never seen anything like them in my life. 

         Now, I’m home, more or less over jet lag and thinking back on what I experienced in these two remarkable places and I realized that these two parks affirmed in a dramatic way something that I have always felt is one of the most important perspectives our tradition offers on what it means to be a human being.

Zion and Bryce Canyon left me with two contrasting but complementary feelings- each critical feelings which we need to continue to balance in our lives. 

While Zion was awe-inspiring and overwhelming in many ways, I felt swept up in the park, carried, as it were, up the walls of the canyon to reach for the skies. Looking up from the bottom of the canyon at the rock walls and cliffs elevated me and made me appreciate once again the glorious beauty of the world. It affirmed my thoughts on how important the role of God as “creator” is in my faith and my theology as seeing the beauty of the world and the intricacy of the universe inspires us to greater heights.

Then, there was Bryce Canyon which left me with a completely different feeling.

From the top of the canyon looking down into these enormous hoodoos, I felt tremendously small, humbled by non-human “figures” which dwarfed my shadow. I could not get out of my mind the fact that these hoodoos were there millenia before I was born and would remain long after I am no longer walking this earth. 

So, I was reminded again, as our tradition teaches, that we must each remember that we are created in the image of God with all that potential that implies while recognizing that we are but dust in ashes and that we are such an imperceptibly small part of our universe. 

Two contrasting feelings from two incredible experiences. Two contrasting feelings that touched different places within me. 

So, which was more meaningful? 

         In one sense, it is impossible to choose between them, nor should I, but if I’m honest, I would say that on a spiritual level, Bryce Canyon resonated with me just a shade more deeply. 

         Perhaps that is because of where I am in life. 

         I do not consider myself “old” and, God willing, have time to visit many more National Parks and experience many more milestones in my life. But I’ve reached the age where I am aware of limitations more than I was a few years ago. I find myself still dreaming, still grabbing onto visions of goals I haven’t yet achieved but doing so within the context of reality, the nagging aches and pains and the fears of watching the years pass by. 

         For me, Bryce Canyon affirmed something that we all realize as we get older: that we can and must continue to dream and continue to seek moments of elevation and grandeur, recognizing that we each comprise an irreplaceable and unique part of the universe. But we realize more clearly every day that our time here is finite and the universe will go on without us sometime in the not-too-distant future and that that is the way of the world.

         So, the lesson is that as we get older, we need to act on our dreams. We need to go to the places we dream of going to and meet the people we dream of meeting- and yes, I did meet my cousin for the first time, and we had a wonderful “reunion”. 

We need to continue to find places where we remind ourselves how grand it is to be a human being and how precious each day is and places which affirm what we’re feeling inside as we watch the years go by. 

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

I am posting here a sermon that I delivered in 2017 following the horrible mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. As I read it, I realized it has significant relevance today following the horrible attacks in Buffalo and in Uvalde.

        SERMON FOR PARASHAT HAYE SARAH 

November 2017

                     THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS

One of my favorite phrases in the Siddur is: Va’ani Tifalati. Taken from Psalm 69, the words can be translated in many different ways. I have always found great meaning in this translation: “As for me, this is my prayer.” 

As I considered the topic of my sermon for this week, I remembered a line from a song written by the late Jim Croce. In a song entitled “Which Way Are you Going?”, he wrote these words: “Words once honored turn to lies.”

It is true that there are certain words that once seemed perfectly honorable and acceptable suddenly begin to resonate poorly and can even become the object of ridicule. Such is the case today in many circles with these 3 simple words: “thoughts and prayers”.

After the horrendous tragedy which took place in Sutherland Springs, Texas this past Sunday, it seems that anyone who dares to say those once honored words: “our thoughts and prayers are with the families”, was being chastised. “We don’t need thoughts and prayers. We need action.”

And I agree 100% we most definitely do need action. 

But, thoughts and prayers can help as well. 

Let me share with you once again, as I know I have done many times before, my favorite thought concerning Jewish prayer. I do not know where I heard it stated as simply and clearly as I intend to do this morning although a lengthy commentary by the 19th century Torah commentator, the Malbim, seems to get to the same point in a rather subtle way. 

When Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is sent by his master to find a wife for Isaac, he says a prayer “may the one who offers water not only to me but to my camels as well, let her be the one you, God, have chosen for Isaac”. 

What kind of prayer is this? What is this prayer about? 

Reading it closely, we discover that Eliezer is not asking God to pick the woman and let him know who it is by having her ask to water the camels. Rather, he is saying to God: ”I have made my choice. I will choose the one who is kindhearted enough to offer to water my camels and I hope you agree”. In essence, he is saying that he is making this choice because it is consistent with the values that his master had taught him and he feels it will find favor with God.

Eliezer is not asking for a magic sign. He is instead reaching deep inside and deciding which course of action is best and hoping that it coincides with God’s will. He is not praying to God to release him from the responsibility to act. He is praying that he be wise enough to make a good choice. The object of the prayer is not to make God act, rather to have the wisdom and the courage to act in accordance with what he believes God would want. 

So, prayer need not entail asking for external, divine help for our problems. Prayer really means marshaling our own forces, convincing ourselves that we can at least attempt to solve a problem and building up strength and courage to overcome the obstacles in the way. It isn’t always enough but, as part of a bigger package, it is definitely worthwhile. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said; “Prayer may not save us but prayer may make us worthy of being saved”.

Telling someone who is in pain that he or she is in our thoughts and prayers after suffering a loss is truly a compassionate thing to say and I will not refrain from saying it. It does mean something essential to some people and it brings a sense of support and concern which can be so deeply helpful to an individual in pain.

And when we face a difficult issue, while prayer is not a substitute for action, prayer can encourage us to face the challenges of life, gather up our strength and do what must be done. 

Prayer is not a replacement for action, it is a call to action.

When we gather here on Shabbat morning and when any congregation gathers in any faith, the community expresses a yearning for more meaningful lives and for a better world. We reach out to God to inspire us to try harder, to dig deeper, to see more clearly and to act more decisively. 

Gathering in prayer is a call to action.

And we so desperately need action. Our nation’s leaders must face up to the terrible plague of gun violence in our society and do what has to be done to effectively address the issue of the horrible proliferation of guns in our nation, especially guns the types of which no individual should have any access to. 

How many more tragedies will it take before our leaders act? 

Action speaks more loudly than prayer. But, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the power of prayer. Prayer allows us to reach deeper to find the wise way to act and in this case thoughtful, considered introspection can, I believe, lead to only one conclusion, that we must change the way we think and act about guns in our nation. There is no choice. There is no option. It is what God would want and it is what we must do. 

Those mourning in Texas, in Las Vegas, in Charleston, in Connecticut and on and on and on and on must always be in our thoughts. They inspire and demand our prayers and our actions.

May we have the strength to stem this terrible tide of violence and death. May our leaders and all of us gather the courage and the strength to do what must be done. 

As for me, that is my prayer

And I know I share it with so many of you. 

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and, most importantly, the works of our hands that those meditations inspire, be acceptable to you O Lord. 

Amen.  

Publicizing the Miracles

         On the morning before the first Seder, it is customary to hold a siyyum- the recognition of the conclusion of a section of a traditional Jewish text. This is done so that one can then hold what is known as a seudat mitzvah, a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a commandment. Eating at this seudat mitzvah supersedes the traditional “fast of the firstborn” so that those who would otherwise be obligated to fast can in fact eat on the day before Pesach.

         This Friday morning, I will be teaching a section of text that I have been studying for the past month. I have a thought on the Seder based on that text which I will include in my teaching and want those of you who will not be at the siyyum to read this idea in advance so that you can, if you wish, include it in your thoughts about the Seder and plan accordingly. 

         One of the traditions relating to the holiday of Chanukkah is that the Chanukkah lights are placed in the window facing the street. This is done for the purpose of pirsuma nisa, publicizing the miracles of Chanukkah and identifies the home as one which celebrates the holiday. 

         This is a beautiful tradition and one which I believe can be connected to the holiday of Pesach.

         The Seder is the most dramatic and meaningful home ritual of the entire Jewish year. It is a beautiful and sacred moment whose beauty we sometimes take for granted. 

         That leads me to my suggestion regarding the Seder. 

         If your Seder is held in a room with windows facing out to the street, I suggest you keep your blinds wide open during the Seder. 

         Just as lighting the Chanukkah lights in the window makes the observance of the ritual a public statement, so, I believe this will help make our observance of the Seder a public statement. 

         The impact of this could be profound. 

         Imagine a person who was not familiar with the Seder, or Jewish traditions in general, walking on the street and looking into the window and seeing people of all ages gathered around a table, engaged in conversation, singing and feasting. Consider  what a person would think about Jews and our traditions if they saw the Seder taking place. They would appreciate how it brings together people from different generations to observe ancient traditions with joy and passion. They would, I believe, be inspired by the sight.

         We have an opportunity on Pesach night to perform another act of pirsuna nisa, publicizing a miracle. In this case, though, we would be publicizing two miracles: the miracle of the Exodus and the miracle of the survival of our people for millenia. 

         In addition, there is always the possibility that a Jewish person who didn’t have a place to observe the Seder or who had neglected to plan for participating in a Seder, might be moved to knock on the door and ask to be included. 

         That last point may seem a bit far-fetched, and, in fact, we might be reluctant to invite a stranger into our home for various reasons. But, we shouldn’t be so hasty to come to that conclusion and I say that it in light of a personal experience that I am remembering this Pesach.

         Forty years ago, I and my good friend Rabbi Allan Berkowitz spent the beginning of Pesach in the former Soviet Union. We were one of many pairs of rabbis, rabbinical students and Jewish educators who traveled to the USSR throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s to meet refuseniks- those who had been refused permission to emigrate to Israel. These Jews suffered significant persecution for wishing to emigrate and the objective of these “missions” was to encourage refuseniks to remain strong, to teach them more about Jewish customs and observance and to bring back information for those working for the cause of Soviet Jewry.

Those of us who participated in these journeys returned with experiences which changed us in many ways.

         On erev Pesach 1982, we found ourselves in the city of Kishinev, now Chisinau Moldova. We spent much of the day trying to contact several families we had been instructed to meet but we were unsuccessful.

         Faced with the prospect of observing a make-shift Seder in our hotel room, we tried one last time to make contact with one of the families. We knocked on the door of a home whose address we had been given and after I said the simple word: “Shalom”, the woman who answered the door pulled us into the home, welcomed us and fed us some matza latkes. We then accompanied her to services at the synagogue and later that evening, we joined her family for a memorable Seder. I have never forgotten the act of kindness that this family showed us as they welcomed us into their home.

         That Seder was held in the basement, as holding the Seder in a more visible place might have been an invitation for trouble. 

         As we gather in this wonderful land of freedom, observing our holidays without fear, we should open our windows wide to express our pride in our ritual, educate others and perhaps, in just the right circumstance, open our door to someone who is looking for a place to join in the Pesach Seder. 

         Hag Sameach to all!