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! 

A Memorial Tribute

Tonight and tomorrow we observe the 17th yahrzeit for my mother, Gertrude Dobrusin z”l.

It is so difficult to believe that it has been 17 years since her death. We feel her presence in our lives in so many ways and all who knew her will always remember her smile and her cheerful disposition.

Mom was, first and foremost, a wife and a mother. She embraced those roles with great dedication, and they defined her life in many ways. She graduated Simmons College with a degree in journalism and gave up her career as a newspaper reporter to marry my dad. She constantly supported him in his career and when he started his own public relations business late in life, she was right there with him editing his material and helping him succeed.

She was so proud of my brother and me and our families. She was also so proud of the fact that both of her sons were rabbis. Although Mom was not particularly committed to traditional Jewish observance and didn’t find great meaning in going to synagogue (unless my brother or I were conducting the service), in many senses, she was, in her own way, a very spiritual person.

As I wrote about her in my book: “Mom often told me: “I find my religion in the flowers and the trees. And while she was hardly what one would call an outdoorswoman, she loved to look at nature from comfortable places inside the house or riding in the car.

She had a special annual ritual as each spring she would take us to the window every day and show us the buds on the trees which I imagine was her equivalent of witnessing the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. She would look at them with tears in her eyes and loved that moment deeply.”

As I write this, I’m looking out our window hoping that the buds will soon appear and when they do, I’ll be looking at them every day as I do each year.

Her yahrzeit comes in the week before Pesach. While she loved to prepare for the Seder and to see the family together, there was one specific part of the Seder that Mom looked forward to. She loved to read from Psalm 114: “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like sheep”. Mom loved animals. She grew up on a farm surrounded by the goats and chickens and pigs and her dog, Duke. When she visited us, our animals were drawn to her almost magically.

I think she loved this phrase from the Psalms because she loved animals but also because she found great meaning in the image of the animals skipping with joy. In many ways, Mom skipped through life, always with a smile, always optimistic. Even during difficult times, she remained optimistic and hopeful.

Mom loved the Peanuts gang, especially Snoopy. And, in fact, I like to think she and Snoopy were kindred spirits and I mean that with the most respect. Mom was beloved by all. She was a dreamer, a loyal and loving companion to my dad and was always so full of positive energy and so full of joy.Her memory is always for a blessing to all who knew her and who will never forget her smile and her love of life.

Purim on TV

The holiday of Purim brings with it many traditions and one of them is the tradition of “Purim Torah”, using sacred texts in unusual and humorous ways to bring some extra joy to the holiday. Here is my attempt at a bit of “Purim Torah” especially for those who are fans of vintage (and somewhat more recent) TV shows.

Happy Purim everyone!

                           PURIM COMES TO TV!

                                            

         Did you ever wonder how the Purim story would be presented in somewhat contemporary culture? Probably not… but, in the spirit of this crazy holiday, here is a selection of pivotal scenes from the Purim story as they would have been portrayed on popular TV shows of the past:

         The Dick Van Dyke Show: As Haman approaches Esther to plead for his life, he trips over an ottoman and falls on Esther. At that moment, the King (played by Carl Reiner) enters the room and fires him.

         I Love Lucy: After learning that the King only picked her as Queen because she was beautiful and was bragging to everyone about her good looks while making fun of the way she sang, Esther shocks her him by appearing at the public marriage reception dressed in a fright wig with blackened teeth. The king promptly faints.

         All in the Family: Esther takes so long to tell the king about Haman’s plan to kill the Jews that his eyes glaze over and he pretends to fall asleep as he listens to the convoluted story. He only agrees to order Haman killed when his assistant Harbonah (whom he usually called “meathead”) explains to him the sociological implications of bigotry.

         Sesame Street: Haman sings to Ahasueraus: “One of these Persians is not like the other. One of these Persians just doesn’t belong…”

         I’ve Got a Secret: Esther is forced to cancel her planned guest appearance on the show because Mordecai told her not to tell anyone her secret.

         The Andy Griffith Show: Mordecai doesn’t bother to tell the King about Bigtan and Teresh who are plotting to assassinate him. He just runs up to them yelling: “Citizen’s Arrest, Citizen’s Arrest”. 

         The Honeymooners: Ahasueraus grabs Esther after Haman’s hanging and says: “Baby, you’re the greatest!”.

Friends : 4 Jews miss all the excitement because they spend all of their time in the city’s coffeehouse and bookstore called: the Shushan Noose.  

         Everybody Loves Raymond:  Mordecai and Esther can’t find a moment alone to discuss Haman’s plan because Haman and Zeresh, who happen to live next door, keep barging in to watch TV and complain about how dirty the palace is. 

         Mr. Ed: Haman does lead Mordecai around on the horse, but to avoid embarrassing himself further, Haman has the horse say: “Thus is done to the man whom the King wishes to honor”.

If you’d like to add to this list, you’re welcome to use the comments to do so. Purim Torah is for everyone! Happy Purim!!!!!

     

Courage in Ukraine

         I delivered this sermon last Shabbat morning, March 4, 2022 at Congregation B’nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio.

I had planned today to teach a text related to the upcoming holiday of Purim. The text, a section of liturgy entitled Shoshannat Ya’akov, is often sung after the reading of the Megilla on Purim evening. It is one of my favorite sections of Jewish liturgy and my plan was to uncover some of the meaning of the text by sharing with you a midrash that Shoshannat Ya’akov is based on.

         But the entire spirit of that Torah lesson is one of joy and humor and I felt that it wasn’t appropriate today given our concerns and our fears for the people of Ukraine and for the entire world.

         So, instead of teaching the text, I’ll go directly to the message I was going to share at the end of the Torah lesson and elaborate on it by reflecting on the situation in Ukraine.

         Before I do, let me tell you that while I have never been in Ukraine, I did spend a harrowing week in the former Soviet Union 40 years ago this Pesach on a mission visiting Soviet refuseniks. As part of that trip, I am my rabbinical school colleague Allan Berkowitz traveled both in Russia itself and in the Soviet republic of Moldovia, now the independent country of Moldova, a country which is currently absorbing many Ukrainian refugees. My memories of that week in the former Soviet Union are of fear and of the overwhelming sense of a complete lack of freedom and any sense of control over our fate. 

         Many years later, in 2013, I traveled to the former Soviet republic, now the independent nation, of Latvia. Walking in the streets of the beautiful capital of Riga and of my grandfather’s home town of Daugavpils, I saw Soviet era buildings and that took me back to that week in the Soviet Union some 33 years before. They reminded me so vividly of our frightening experience and, more importantly, of the horrendous era of oppression of Soviet citizens. But today those buildings today are the backdrop for cities brimming with freedom and people seeking to better their lives in the blessing of democracy. The cities, while facing the universal issues cities face, are full of people living their lives with hope and joy and I felt so comfortable and safe.  This is what the people of Ukraine are trying to save, and we stand with them in their fight.

         Now let’s think about Purim. The book of Esther is the only book in the Tanach which does not mention the name of God. God is not present in the story at all. But the post Biblical tradition tried desperately to find ways to prove that in fact God was present in Shushan watching over God’s people and ensuring their victory over Haman. 

         This was done in different ways. Some found clues in the text itself. For example, the name Esther was related by some of the rabbis to the Hebrew word for “hidden” and they claim that this shows that God was hidden from sight but still active. This idea strikes me as reflecting  the famous words of James Russell Lowell quoted by Martin Luther King during one of his most beautiful and passionate speeches delivered in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

         The Seputagint, the Greek translation of the Bible from the end of the Biblical period takes God out of the shadows and brings God right into the spotlight, right into the book of Esther itself. The translation features additions to the Biblical book which include fervent prayers by Esther and Mordecai, prayers which our text never even imply. Esther’s prayer includes these words: “O my Lord, you only are our King, help me who am alone and have no helper but you, for my danger is in my hand. Ever since I was born, I have heard in the tribe of my family that you O Lord took Israel out of all the nations and you did for them all that you promised… And now save us”

         Mordecai and Esther turn their attention to God for salvation and God is brought front and center into the story.

         Finally, there is the tradition I was going to teach about Shoshannat Yaakov which is that the Harbonnah, King Ahasureruas’ servant who suggested to the king that he hang Haman and finally end the threat was not the same Harbonnah, mentioned in chapter 1 of the megillah. This Harbonnah was none other than Elijah the prophet who made himself look like Harbonnah at that moment so that the king would listen to him. So, Elijah was there as he always is to bring about our final redemption. Esther and Mordecai laid the groundwork and God through God’s agents got the job done.

         Rabbinic tradition often tried to bring God into stories lest people think that human beings could achieve their own salvation. We see that at Hanukkah time as well as the rabbis, dare I say, invented the story of the oil burning for eight days. This was clearly a divine miracle, not mentioned at all in the book of Maccabees, the source for the Hanukkah story, which focuses only on the bravery of the Maccabees.

         But, despite all of the efforts of the post-Biblical tradition, the stories of both Hanukkah and in Purim feature  acts of salvation, initiated by human beings: courageous, brave and loyal human beings who seek to save not only their lives but their way of life. 

         We may wonder where God is present in the world. We look at the pain and suffering of desperate people and we wonder why God would allow this suffering to take place. We ask the same question when we consider the Holocaust and when we experience or witness some horribly unfair tragedy affecting our or others’ lives. 

This question is so difficult but let me give two brief answers. First, I believe that, as we read in today’s Torah portion, as our ancestors gave all the materials to build a perfect, symmetrical sanctuary, human beings have been given the tools by which to save the world, to create a perfect world. We know what we have to do. But we have also been given free will and with that blessing comes the threat that people like Putin and those who support him, seek to emulate him or praise him can wreak havoc on the world and they must be stopped.

         And the second thing I can say is that if God is in fact present today and I believe God is, God is present in inspiring the valiant courage and determination of the proud and brave Ukrainian people who with the support of well-meaning people throughout the world are seeking, against all odds, to save themselves and their nation. We wish them strength and continued courage.

         Like the rabbis taught about Esther and Mordecai prayers may help but they are no substitute for action and courage. 

         I will share a prayer with you, a prayer for Ukraine, but know that it is not prayer that will save Ukraine. I fervently believe that while God is inspiring the people of Ukraine with courage and strength, it is the human effort which will save this nation and I believe that God, in fact, is praying that the people of Ukraine and their nation survive. 

A Prayer for Ukraine by Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the UK and the Commonwealth:

Sovereign of the Universe
Who hearkens to our prayers.
We stand before You in solidarity
with all who are enduring the darkness of human conflict in Ukraine.
May You protect all innocent men, women and children
at this moment of great peril for them,
their country,
for Europe and the world.
Bring fortitude to the vulnerable,
resilience to the insecure
and strength to those who live in fear.
Incline the hearts of national leaders towards peace and reconciliation
and bless them with the wisdom, vision and perseverance needed
to end this war and restore peace to the region.
Almighty God,
strengthen the hands of those who pursue peace, not war.
Bring harmony where there is hostility;
relief where there is pain and hope where there is despair.
May He who makes peace in high places
Make peace for all on earth.
  

May it be God’s will…And may it be our will to make it happen. Amen

Something Is Missing

We took many great family trips with our two kids when they were younger. Family trips form some of our fondest memories.

But, I also took trips with each of our kids individually and those were great opportunities to spend time with our son or our daughter focused on their interests.

I have taken several trips with our daughter exploring our common interest in “supernatural” events. We’ve gone on several “ghost tours” and explored places that are said to be haunted. Some of those trips have been less than spectacular but a few of them , notably a “ghost tour” on the island of Oahu and a tour of the prison where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed were fantastically “creepy” and quite memorable.

Our son and I took many “road trips” around Michigan as he shares his father’s love for seeking out “off the beaten path” places. But, we also share the joy of being serious baseball fans, so we have also traveled to several Major League and Minor League stadiums to watch games and to just enjoy each other’s company amid the relaxed pace of a good ballgame.

But, the best baseball trip we took, in my opinion, was to Fort Meyers, Florida to witness our beloved Boston Red Sox’ Spring Training.

If you’re a baseball fan, going to Spring Training is like being the proverbial “kid in the candy store”. The “exhibition” games are not the draw. The attraction is spending time in the team’s practice facility which, at least when we went in 2008, meant you could watch the players practice up close, listen in on interviews with the players and coaches, meet and chat with baseball folks and, especially for those of us from the North, enjoy the warm Florida sun as a preview to spring.

Our four days at Fort Meyers were unforgettable. We watched our heroes take batting practice. We caught so many foul balls that we started throwing them back to the coaches. We listened on in a conversation between David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez (that in and of itself was an experience worth the price of the plane ticket), chatted with Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky and shared stories with other Red Sox fans, young and old.

Spring training is a magical time. No, the games don’t matter. But the spirit of the game of baseball, the sounds and sights of infield drills and that warm, warm sun brings a smile to the face of every fan.

As I write this, the Super Bowl just ended. It was a great game ending a great playoff season.

But, for me, the most important aspect of the Super Bowl (unless, of course, the Patriots are playing) is that when it’s over, Spring Training is only a few days away. Turning the page from football to baseball season takes place just as the sun is rising high enough in the Michigan sky to actually begin to bring some moments of warmth that embody the promise of spring.

Except for this year, that is.

I don’t pay attention to the state of negotiations between the owners and the players. I don’t really care about what the issues are that separate them. I only care that Spring Training won’t be starting this week and the promise that this annual ritual brings just won’t be here to warm our hearts and keep us hoping for sunnier times.

It’s been a tough couple of years for all of us. It’s so unfortunate that we have to face this month without the beginnings of the game of summer.

Detroit Tigers’ announcer, the late Ernie Harwell, used to quote from the Song of Songs before the first Spring Training game:

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

The birds will still sing, the flowers will still appear, but for some of us, there will be something vital missing as we look ahead to spring. For so many of us, the winter will seem to drag on that much longer.

I don’t know what the issues are that have led to this impasse. I only know that I miss baseball already.

THE CHALLENGER DISASTER- 36 YEARS

Today marks the 36th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the loss of the 7 astronauts on board. May the memory of Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe always be for a blessing and, in their spirit, may we always commit ourselves to exploring our universe.

As I have often written and spoken about, I have always been fascinated by the space program. I have so many vivid memories of watching the Mercury and Gemini flights from home and, more often, at school. Our teaches schlepped out the big TV and gathered us all in the school auditorium even if many of the kids did not really care. The teachers did and I certainly did. I was fascinated by every aspect of the flights and, when Apollo came along, I watched in awe as so many of us did as we saw “earthrise” for the first time and as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

The challenger disaster struck all of us very deeply and very hard. This was, after all, the first time a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, had been on board a space mission and her charisma and excitement just captivated the entire nation. It was such a horrible tragedy especially in retrospect as we now know that there were so many who were deeply concerned and adamantly opposed to having the shuttle take off in such cold weather.

But, the shuttle disaster also struck me on another level. I wrote extensively in my book about my love of the space program and commented about the shuttle disaster: “When I was a kid, I never believed I would own a computer that could fit in my pocket, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to assume that if a man could walk on the moon in 1969, I would be able to do so by the time I was 30 or 40.It took some time for it to sink in that it was never going to happen. I suppose I realized it before the Challenger disaster, but that horrible tragedy ended whatever future I had as a space traveler as it did for so many other millions of Americans. I cried that day for the Challenger astronauts, but I admit that I was also crying for my suddenly less exciting future.”

It was a sobering moment but it was also a moment that saw our nation rise to the challenge, inspired by President Reagan’s beautiful words at the memorial, of continuing to explore the heavens as we continue to do today.

There is one more point that I want to raise about the Challenger disaster and I do not do so in any way to diminish or minimize the personal tragedy but to point out a way in which our world has changed in 36 years.

The explosion occurred around noon. I had a lunch scheduled with a colleague. We went to lunch. I went to my office to do some paper work and begin writing a sermon for that weekend. Some time around 3 p.m., the phone rang and it was the mother of a bat mitzvah student calling me to ask if I was still going to meet with her daughter for tutoring that afternoon. I asked her why she would ask that. There was silence on the other end of the line and then she said: “Haven’t you heard the news?” I hadn’t.

It had been almost 3 hours and I had not heard the news.

That would never and could never happen today.

We live in a time when we have 24/7 minute to minute exposure to news events and that expectation carries over to every aspect of our lives. In many ways, that is a blessing, certainly it enables us to be in immediate contact with family and friends and that can be very important especially in critical times.

But with that immediate connection has come a sense of impatience that permeates every aspect of our lives. Nothing can wait, even for a moment and the expectations that we will learn about and react to events immediately puts more stress on all of us. That is one reality that I confront every time I think of the 3 hours I lived in complete ignorance of this terrible tragedy.

Returning to the real issue, though, the tragedy itself, we can not stop exploring and can not stop finding new ways, such as the new James Webb telescope to seek a better understanding of our universe. The expertise and the courage of all involved in the space program, especially the astronauts is an inspiration to all of us. And, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Challenger disaster as well as on Space Shuttle Columbia and Apollo 1 and those of other nations’ space programs as well, may we alway continue to look up and look forward.

Big Papi

Here is a newsflash: I am a Boston Red Sox fan.

That should come as a no surprise to anyone who knows me, has heard me speak or has read this blog.

As I love to point out, I have been a Red Sox fan since I was in utero. No surprise there either. If you were born in Boston or in most of New England (maybe part of Western Connecticut is the exception), you have to be a Red Sox fan.

It wasn’t always fun. I grew up watching the Red Sox finish in or near last place until 1967 when, in the year of the Impossible Dream, they came within one game of winning the World Series. That happened again in 1975 and 1986, each year bringing such excitement and then such disappointment.

And then came 2004.

And the whole world changed.

The Red Sox were down 3 games to none to the Yankees in the ALCS when, thanks to a 9th inning comeback-featuring a stolen base by Dave Roberts and a clutch single by Bill Mueller), the game went into extra innings.

Then in the bottom of the 12th inning, David Ortiz came up to the plate and hit a long home run into Right Field.

The legend was born.

The next night, another game winning hit by Ortiz, this time in the 14th inning.

The Sox won the next two and swept the Cardinals in the Series.

And through it all, there was David Ortiz, big Papi, smiling with his infectious smile, encouraging his teammates, laughing with key hit after key hit.

It went on from there. The Sox won the Series again in 2007 and, most impressively, in 2013.

2013 was the year of the Boston Marathon Bombing and David Ortiz lifted the team- and the city- on his back and with the slogan Boston Strong, endeared himself to the entire baseball (and non-baseball world) by taking the microphone before the first home game after the bombing and, after thanking all of the first responders and city and state leaders, uttered the unforgettable words: “Our uniforms today don’t say Red Sox. They say BOSTON.This is our f***ing city…Stay Strong!” Those words echoed though

He led the Sox to a great season, had the key hit in the ALCS against the Tigers and then led them to an improbable World Series win. His batting average for the series was an unheard of .688.

And now Big Papi is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

He is in the Hall of Fame because of his prodigious home runs and his team leadership.

But, he is there for another reason as well.

He is there because he was (and still is in some ways), the face of a team which finally rewarded its loyal fans and the face of a city which had been wounded so deeply by terrorism.

He is there because of his bat- and because of his smile.

Congratulations Big Papi!!!!

Stay strong!

Thoughts After the Attack in Colleyville

         On Saturday night, as we waited anxiously to hear news from Colleyville, Texas, hoping and praying for the safe release of the hostages held in the synagogue, many of us turned to the Internet to connect with others to share our pain and fear. I participated in three different Zoom gatherings that evening, singing quiet songs of hope, expressing words of faith, and sharing our fears for the future. 

         These gatherings provided a sense of strength and hope, and our hopes were fulfilled with the welcome news of the safe release of the hostages. 

         There is a blessing that we say upon hearing good news: Baruch Hatov v’Hamayteev, Praised is God who is good and does good. I said that blessing with great relief upon hearing the good news. 

         But, as Jews we believe that whatever good God might plan for the world, it must be performed by human beings inspired to do the good. So, this expression of praise should go first to the people who brought this crisis to an end. 

         The courageous and wise actions of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other hostages were exemplary as they, in many senses, secured their own release. The training that they had for emergency situations like these quite possibly saved their lives and this is a reminder to all of us of the importance of such training.

But, credit also certainly must go to first responders, law enforcement, and FBI hostage negotiator team whose bravery and expertise were so evident. I believe that the prayers of so many helped in some way we may not completely understand but this was a human drama that demanded a human response, and that response came. 

         In the days since this horrific act, two thoughts have repeatedly come to my mind.

         First, there is no doubt that anti-Semitism is increasing in this nation and that this should be a matter of grave concern for every Jew and every person of good will. We must take even greater steps to educate ourselves, and to protect ourselves and our institutions than we have already done. In addition, we must demand that our elected officials and public figures make statements and take actions to fight this terrible plague of bigotry. We must also make it clear to those who take public positions against persecution that anti-Semitism is real and it is dangerous and that the Jewish community must be recognized as among those whose members and whose institutions are endangered by hatred.

         But, as we recognize this need, we should also recognize the fact that we are truly privileged to live in a nation in which attacks against Jews, when, God forbid, they happen, are treated with the utmost seriousness. The massive response of law enforcement to this hostage situation reminds us that we are regarded as equal citizens in this great nation.

         While we justifiably fear anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions, we also must recognize the blessing that this nation provides for us, and we must take comfort in the support we receive throughout this country. 

         And that is the second point. Each of the online groups I participated in on Saturday evening included people of many different faiths and backgrounds. The prayers and hopes were not coming exclusively from the Jewish community. People of all faiths were standing with us as we faced this crisis just as we, as Jews, have stood with those of other faiths when their communities were the target of attacks. 

         This is what this country should always stand for. 

         I have never met Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker but, as we all heard repeatedly on Saturday, he is passionate about building relationships with those of other faiths and those relationships were reflected in the members of his local community who were present and public in their deep and sincere concern. 

         But, many rabbis and other Jewish leaders throughout this country have that same commitment to interfaith relationships and, again, this was reflected in the way that those of other faiths around the country expressed their concern and solidarity with our people at our time of crisis. 

         It was a reflection of the best that this nation can be. 

         On Sunday, I was scheduled to teach a session of a course at a local church. I was invited to teach the class by friends with whom I have worked in the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County for many years. The relationships that I have with my colleagues of other faiths have been one of the most important aspects of my rabbinate. I was glad to accept the invitation and have looked forward to teaching this course for months. 

But, even after hearing of the resolution of the situation in Texas, I wondered how I would, in fact, be able to teach the class given the emotions of the previous day. How could I gather my thoughts to teach a class on Jewish Biblical interpretation in light of what had occurred?

         But I realized that it was critical not only to fulfill my responsibility but to take advantage of the opportunity to say and to demonstrate something very important. 

So, I preceded my class with some thoughts on the news of the previous day and stressed the fact that by reaching beyond our own boundaries and building bridges with others, we not only develop a support system when a crisis occurs but also make the strongest statement we can against persecution and bigotry. It is when we get to know those of other communities that we can understand them and their joys and fears more deeply and will find it easier to identify with them at good times and bad. 

         So, even as we express and act on our justifiable fears about the rise in anti-Semitism, let us never forget two critical facts.

         First, we live in a nation in which people of good will and the institutions of our communities are there to support and stand with us as we face these threats. 

         And, secondly, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker and so many other rabbis and Jews in general demonstate, the building of relationships with those of other faiths is a critical expression of what it means to live in a country of freedom. Those relationships are critical for all of us, and we must continue to reach beyond the walls of our synagogues to form friendships and express and mutual commitments of support. 

         Those relationships become even more critical in light of these dangerous times.

The Power of a Song

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the “Shabbat of the Song”, the Shabbat on which we read Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea from the book of Exodus. In honor of the “Shabbat of Song, I share a personal experience which, while very simple and brief, points to the power a song can have. 

This past summer, we traveled to North Carolina for a family wedding. With most of a day to do a bit of sightseeing, we drove to Durham to see the Duke University campus. 


After driving through the beautiful campus, we drove into Durham and found that the weekly Farmers’ and Artisan’s Market was taking place. We wandered through the stalls for a while, admiring the produce and chatting with some of the sellers.

As we were leaving, we noticed a store which offered various handmade products from different artisans. The store was very pleasant with music from “our era” (the 60s and 70s) playing over the sound system. We spent some time in the store admiring the different pieces and, finding one that we liked, we went up to the counter to purchase it. 

The man behind the counter, whose accent and dress reflected his Caribbean background, was clearly busy with running the store and, while smiling sweetly, did not say much to us as we gave him the item. He took it and began to write out the receipt. 

As we waited, the unmistakable introduction to a somewhat well-known song from the 70s filled the room. I immediately smiled and turned to my wife and as the introduction ended, sang “O-o-h Child, things are going to get easier”… 

All of a sudden, I realized I wasn’t the only one singing. The man behind the counter had started singing at the same time and looked up to see who was joining him in the duet. He looked at me with his smile growing wider and we both sang a line or two together in rather perfect harmony. 

He grabbed my hand, shook it hard and was still smiling when we left the store. 

It was such a simple moment. But, it was one I will never forget. 

A song has the power to lift our spirits, to inspire us, to bring people together, including people from completely different backgrounds who met briefly and created a simple, beautiful memory which warms my heart as  I remember it on this cold winter day.

May the songs we sing always warm our hearts and souls.