Archive | September, 2015

#TieBlog #Sukkot & #EtrogandLulav

26 Sep

Rabbi Ed Bernstein

The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40. The four species that are brought together on Sukkot, as described in Leviticus, 23:40.

In time for Sukkot, here is the newest tie in the #TieBlog collection. Two central commandments from the Torah related to this harvest festival are dwelling in the Sukkah (booth) for 7 days. The other is to gather four species of plants and wave them (based on Leviticus 23:40).

The Midrash (Lev. R. 30:9-12) notes that each of the species has different qualities. The Etrog (citron) has both a sweet taste and a fragrant smell. The lulav (date palm branch) has no smell but its fruit tastes sweet. The Hadas (myrtle) has a fragrant smell and no taste. The Aravah (willow) has no taste and no smell. Taste and order represent Torah and good deeds, respectively. Some Jews possess both, some perform better at one and some do not perform well at either. Yet we…

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Fears, Goals and Trade-offs: The Makings of a Meaningful Conversation

22 Sep

 

Author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande's prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

Best-selling author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande’s prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

There’s a story about a man who hoped for his whole life to be in the movies. Years went by, but he never had his chance. Finally, a film crew came to town, and they were looking for extras to appear in a Civil War picture. The director gave him one line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The man was so excited to land a speaking part, and for days he would practice his line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The big day came for the shoot. On his way to the set, the man says to himself over and over, “Hearken unto the cannons! Hearken unto the cannons!” He puts on a Union Army costume practicing his line, “Hearken unto the cannons!” Then, they finally start shooting the scene, and there’s a gigantic blast of a cannon, and the man shouts, “What the hell was that!”

As we go through life, we are not always prepared for the roars of the cannon, momentous changes that alter the course of our lives.  For example, any one of us or our loved ones may seem perfectly healthy one day, then receive a serious diagnosis of illness the next.

During this season, we create a communal cannon blast, as it were. It’s sort of a fire drill to prepare us for the real cannon blasts that shake up our lives. We gather in large numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and put on a display of pageantry through our services to remind us of God’s grandeur. This pageantry is designed to create a framework in which we can do the real work to bring God’s presence into our lives by bringing healing to our relationships and our world. That work is called Teshuvah (return). If we do this work well, we will be better equipped to deal with the unexpected cannon blasts that shake up our lives.

Teshuvah is not easy. Teshuvah  requires thought. Teshuvah requires intentionality. Teshuvah requires action.

For ten days we have sung in synagogue the plaintive melody of Avinu Malkeinu. We cry out to God as a parent, Abba, someone who is close to us; we also call to God the Melekh,the distant ruler of the universe.   At the end of that prayer we say aseh imanu tzedakah vacheseddo with us acts of tzedakah—righteousness— and loving kindness. We say to God: “this is what we are doing. We are inviting you—even imploring you—to join us on the way. If you join us, then You, God, will have no choice but lhoshiainu, to redeem us.

We all have times when our faith is challenged. We see loved ones suffer from illness. We see people around the world suffering from natural disasters and man-made disasters, such as war and terror. We ourselves suffer from illness and hardship.

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), taught that there will come a time in everyone’s life when we lose faith in God. Too many things may have happened to us. We have too much knowledge of bad things that happen to good people. “At that moment,” the Rebbe says, “go take care of someone who is sick. Go visit someone who is lonely. Go do an act of tzedakah, of hesed. You will feel God in your hands and your faith will be restored.”

As we prepare to say the Yizkor service, I’d like to suggest specific actions we can do and words to say to a dear one with serious, perhaps life-threatening, illness. My hope is that when we take such action those who are suffering in some way, particularly those near and dear to us, feel cared for and valued as human beings.  Through simple action and words, we have the potential to strengthen the relationships that matter to us most. Through the bonds of those relationships, we will feel God’s presence.

The action that I propose is derived from Dr. Atul Gawande  and his remarkable book Being Mortal. Dr. Gawande is an accomplished surgeon at Women’s and Brigham Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a columnist for the New Yorker. In his book, he notes that the medical profession has developed great technology for treating disease and keeping people alive. At the same time, he writes, “Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

Gawande notes that for much of the last century there have been two kinds of doctors. One could be described as “paternalistic,” an all-knowing priest-like figure whose advice a patient does not question. Another form of doctor is “informative.” This doctor will give you the facts of your disease and then offer different choices of treatment. The course of treatment is up to the patient, the doctor is just providing information. Gawande, however, advocates for a different model: the “interpretive” doctor-patient relationship.  Here the doctor’s role is to help patients determine what they want in the big picture. Interpretive doctors ask, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” Then, in response to the patient, they provide appropriate guidance for treatment based on the patient’s priorities.

Gawande shares lessons not only from his own career and how he has grown in his practice of interpretive medicine but also from his personal experience of the medical system. He describes his father’s battle with a rare form of tumor in his spinal column that threatened to make him quadriplegic and kill him. Gawande’s father and mother are both doctors who immigrated from India.  Their entire family speaks the language of science and modern medicine. The father, therefore, was able to ask very sophisticated questions about his own condition and potential treatments. Gawande contrasts two neurosurgeons whom his father visited for consultations. Both agreed that the tumor could not be removed; it could only be decompressed. In both cases, the neurosurgeons described the benefits and risks of surgery. Their styles, though, differed greatly when it came to answering the father’s questions.

Gawande writes that one neurosurgeon wanted to operate immediately and was annoyed by his father’s many questions. “He was fine answering the first couple,” he writes. “But after that he grew exasperated. He had the air of the renowned professor he was—authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do.”

Gawande continues: “Look, he said to my father, the tumor was dangerous. He, the neurosurgeon, had a lot of experience treating such tumors. Indeed, no one had more. The decision for my father was whether he wanted to do something about his tumor. If he did, the neurosurgeon was willing to help. If he didn’t, that was his choice.” The elder Dr. Gawande made a choice—not to use this surgeon.

Gawande reports that the next surgeon also exuded confidence. “But he recognized,” Gawande writes, “that my father’s questions came from fear. So he took the time to answer them, even the annoying ones. Along the way, he probed my father, too.” This surgeon reflected that the father was more worried about the harm the operation might cause than the tumor itself.

Gawande continues, “My father said he was right. My father didn’t want to risk losing his ability to practice surgery for the sake of treatment of uncertain benefit. The surgeon said that he might feel the same way himself in my father’s shoes.” The neurosurgeon spoke to his patient as a fellow human being rather than a diseased specimen to be treated, and he won the trust of the author’s father.

As Gawande tells the story of his father along with the maturation process of his own surgical practice, he highlights three questions that doctors should ask patients, particularly when confronting terminal illness. He calls this a “hard conversation” and that doctors need to muster the compassion, courage and skill to engage in these conversations. The questions are:

  1. What are your biggest fears and concerns?
  2. What are your most important goals?
  3. What trade-offs are you willing to make or not? For example, Gawande describes one patient before agreeing to a risky operation who asked if after the surgery he would still be able to watch football and eat ice cream.

Of course, for any of us who are caring for loved ones with serious illness, this is a template for the hard conversations we all should have. In times of illness, each of us should sit with our loved ones, hold their hand and be fully present. We then should ask: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make in the face of this battle? When we have such a conversation, we reaffirm the humanity of our dear ones. We fulfill the words of Avinu Malkeinu and literally bring God in our midst to be with us as we perform an act of hesed, loving kindness.

Returning to Gawande’s story, these three questions played a significant role in his father’s treatment and final years of life.  The senior Dr. Gawande was an accomplished and respected surgeon in his own right who enjoyed his practice. His greatest fear, it turns out, was not death but quadriplegia. His goals were to practice medicine as long as he could and continue other community activities that he enjoyed. In terms of trade-offs, if surgery were to save his life but leave him paralyzed, he would forego surgery.

The father delayed surgery and continued in his medical practice for a time and in a respected community leadership position. He monitored his symptoms, such as tingling in his hands. He established a red line with the neurosurgeon as to when he would have to have surgery. Some two-and-a-half years passed with the father living a fairly normal life until pain and numbness had advanced. He retired from medicine and eventually opted for surgery. The tumor was decompressed and he was able to maintain mobility, at least for a while.

Some time after his father’s surgery, Gawande was invited to give the commencement address at a university near his parents’ home. His father’s health had declined, and he was confined to a wheelchair. The tumor had indeed taken its toll. For a while, Gawande feared his father might not survive long enough to hear his speech. When it became apparent he would, the planning turned to logistics. Originally, his father would sit in a wheel chair on the floor of the basketball arena housing the ceremony. But when the day came, the father was adamant that he would walk and not sit in a wheelchair on the floor.

“I helped him to stand,” Gawande writes. “He took my arm. And he began walking. I’d not seen him make it farther than across a living room in half a year. But walking slowly, his feet shuffling, he went the length of a basketball floor and then up a flight of twenty concrete steps to join the families in the stands. I was almost overcome just witnessing it. Here is what a different kind of care—a different kind of medicine—makes possible, I thought to myself. Here is what having a hard conversation can do.”

A “hard conversation” is actually quite simple when we break it down to its component parts. We ask three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make, or not? Our challenge is to  discover within ourselves the courage, compassion and love to make these conversations possible. And then we must listen. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed. According to our prayer when we perform loving kindness God will be imanu, with us, right by our side.

As we prepare to remember departed loved ones in Yizkor, my hope is that we will tap into the best of their values for which we remember them. As they were there for us, let us be present for our dear ones who need us today. We may not know when cannons will fire that will shock us into our mortality. We can at least be better prepared for when they do. Let us have the courage to have hard conversations with our loved ones about our fears, our goals and the aspects of life we most cherish.

Avinu Malkeinu, give us the strength to be fully present for our dear ones who turn to us for purpose and hope. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed—we’re not going to sit by silently. We’re going to take action and have conversations of lasting importance. We invite You, God, to be with us when we perform this act of hesed. In our work together with You, God, we pray vhoshieinu, that you will save us through the power of Your presence in our sacred relationships.

Amen.

One People, One Heart

22 Sep

 

The America Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recents nuclear accords signed with Iran.

The American Jewish community has been deeply divided over the merits of the recent nuclear accords signed with Iran.

On the night of November 4th, 1995, I was walking through the streets of Jerusalem near the Mahane Yehudah market. I had spent that Saturday evening with many of my rabbinical school classmates in an exuberant Melave Malka, a festive celebration of the end of Shabbat with singing, dancing and Torah learning. In retrospect, I realized that during my walk home after the party the streets seemed eerily quiet. Finally, as I neared my apartment, a seemingly crazed man was staggering down the street toward me. As we passed on the sidewalk, he was not crazed at all, but his face was ashen. He said in Hebrew, “Someone shot Rabin.” That was how I learned the shocking news that was confirmed when I got home.

Earlier that evening in Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands gathered for a massive pro-peace rally.  “I was a soldier for 27 years,” Rabin called out. “I believe there is a chance for peace.  A great chance which must be seized.  Violence is undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy…it must be rejected and condemned, and it must be contained.  It is not the way of the State of Israel. Democracy is our way.  There may be differences but they will be resolved in democratic elections…”  (Horowitz, Shalom Friend, 16)  Unfortunately, Rabin’s final remarks became horrifically prophetic as he was assassinated minutes later by a Jewish terrorist.

I remember the atmosphere in Israel in the weeks before and after Rabin’s assassination. Posters were plastered around Jerusalem calling Rabin a traitor for signing the Oslo Accords with the PLO. Even worse were the posters depicting Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. Public criticism of Rabin did not come out of nowhere. Two years into the Oslo process, there had been an escalation of terrorism in Israel, including bus bombings, that raised public fear.  On the other hand, peace activists charged that opponents to the peace process were traitors to Israel. The nation had already witnessed the unthinkable when Baruch Goldstein of Kiryat Arba slaughtered Muslims at prayer in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron in 1994.  In the wake of Rabin’s assassination, religious Jews in Israel were publicly taunted and harassed by secular neighbors because Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was a product of the national-religious world. This was a dark time for the Jewish people. Fortunately, respected rabbinic leaders from the national-religious camp like the late Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,  z”l, who died earlier this year, led a communal heshbon hanefesh, examination of the soul, and many Israelis and Jews around the world took advantage of the “teachable moment” to learn from Judaism’s tarbut ha-makhloket, our culture of respectful disagreement. Indeed, every page of the Talmud is full of debate. Our tradition embraces debate. There is no one  legitimate Jewish opinion of anything. How we engage in debate is another matter.

The Torah offers a vision of what an ideal Jewish community looks like, and it’s worth reflecting on that. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites leave Egypt, throwing off the shackles of slavery and entering a new chapter as a free people. They wander in the desert for seven weeks, according to tradition, until they come to Mount Sinai where they receive the Torah. A key question that emerges from the text is why did God choose to give the Torah to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai? Why not give the Torah as the people left Egypt? Why not as they entered Israel? What was it about that particular moment when the Israelites were assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai?

In Exodus 19, the text tells us:

ב וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר:

“They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Sinai desert and made camp in the desert, and Israel encamped there near the mountain.” Rashi notes the verbs in this verse: vayisu, vayavo’u, vayahanu—they journeyed, they came, they encamped. These verbs are all plural. It is a collection of individuals. Then, the verb case changes: vayihan sham—It encamped there, that is, the people of Israel. Rashi says at that moment it was k’ish echad k’lev echad. as one man as one heart. In other words, what made it possible for us to receive the Torah was that we came together as a single, united entity. The message is that being one people enabled us to receive the Torah and encounter God. They had come together as throngs of individuals, each with different ideas, hopes and fears. Yet, when they came together, they received the Torah, a symbol  of their shared values and destiny.

Twenty years have passed since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by a Jew. Yet, I fear the division of the Jewish people as much as I ever have before. Reflecting on this past summer, I believe that we have reached a new low point in the history of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the United States. I fear the consequences of our division if we do not take swift action to overcome our current predicament.

This past summer, we witnessed two acts of horrific violence in Israel, one in which a Haredi man stabbed six participants in the Jerusalem gay pride parade, killing a teenage girl. That same day, a gang of radical settlers burned to the ground a home of a Palestinian family. At the time, and 18-month-old baby boy was killed, and in the weeks since both parents succumbed to burn wounds. These two acts of Jewish terror should shake us all, our entire people, to the core, just as the terror of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir did two decades ago.  It might be easy for us to dismiss these instances as extreme, isolated acts that happened far away in a democratic country that pursues and punishes the perpetrators.

When violence is carried out in the name of Judaism, it should raise red flags for us to be vigilant not to create an atmosphere that could incite such violence. My fear is that within the American Jewish community we are sinking to a dangerous level of irreparable fracture. Debate over the recent nuclear agreement with Iran divided our Jewish community and brought about the worst possible behavior from advocates for and against the agreement. Supporters of the deal charged Jewish members of Congress who opposed the agreement with the slur of dual loyalty, insidiously suggesting that these patriotic Americans put the interests of Israel ahead of the United States. Meanwhile opponents of the deal have called supporters kapos, suggesting they are two-faced Jews who put their own political survival ahead of their loyalty to the Jewish people. This rhetoric has pitted Jew versus Jew. It is not in keeping with ish echad klev echad, “one person, one heart.”

When I express concern about how we talk about key issues of the day, I am not saying let’s just stop talking about them. We have a right and duty to voice our concerns as active participants in democracy. We look at the world now, and we have good reason to fear. We see a strand of militant Islam in the form of ISIS and other terrorist groups on a violent march throughout much of the Middle East. We see a sharp increase of vicious attacks on Jews in European capitals. We see Israel increasingly isolated when it has become fashionable in some parts to question Israel’s right to exist. And, yes, on top of all this Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

We as Jews have good reason to feel threatened and scared and angry. At the same time, taking the broad view of history, we Jews have never had it so good. We have a strong democratic State of Israel, and we are active participants in our vibrant democracy of America. Particularly in times like this, when there is much uncertainty in the world, we as Jewish Americans dare not apologize for engaging in American democracy. We dare not apologize for supporting the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to a secure national homeland. And, like caring family members who share loving criticism from time to time, we dare not apologize for holding America and Israel to the highest standards of justice.

The United States and Israel are democracies that were each inspired in their founding by Biblical values. Our societies cherish open debate and have the innate ability to redeem themselves through democracy. We have good reason to mobilize and to muster all of our tools within our democracy to create a better world. Along the way, members of our community might have different approaches to achieving a safer and more peaceful world and more secure Israel. In a time like this when contentious issues are at stake, rabbis like me have the responsibility to raise the question: What are we doing to make it possible for our community to come together, kish echad klev echad, like one person with one heart?

The rancor in the American Jewish community that we experienced this summer fell far short of the “one person, one heart” vision. I believe our democracy is threatened if we turn arguments into witch hunts. Our democracy is threatened if we brand each other as illegitimate because some other person disagrees with a policy or politician whom we support. Our democracy is threatened if we only listen to those with whom we already agree rather than engage those who see things differently.

A teacher and colleague of mine, Rabbi Brad Artson, advises that in any disagreement it is best for each party to speak in a way that makes it possible for the relationship to continue after the disagreement. We need to speak in a way that allows us to have our say and allows us to come together afterwards. We must hold in our heart love for each other despite disagreements. Instead of demonizing, we need to ask questions, such as:

“I know you’re concerned about Israel’s security as much as I am—how are you able to support this?” Or “I know that you hate war and love democracy, why aren’t you bothered by this?” This more constructive approach is borne out of affection and respect for our fellow Jews.

Twenty years after Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew, we still have much work to do to heal the deep rifts within the Jewish community. On this Yom Kippur, I ask you to join with me to speak in pledging from this moment forward to speak to our fellow Jews who are sincerely engaged with respect and dignity. Let us also pledge to moderate our rhetoric and demand of politicians that they will speak of those with whom they differ with respect.

The future of democracy at stake both in America and Israel. Our blueprint for navigating present turbulent times is the notion kish echad klev ehad. If we can truly be as one person with one heart we will merit to receive our bountiful Torah that will empower us to bring about healing into our broken world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon

(Inspired in part by published sermons by colleagues Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

 

My piece of Koufaxabilia

16 Sep
This profile of this wondrous gift of a personalized autographed baseball from Sandy Koufax appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News JStyle Magazine, Novemeber, 2007.

This profile of my wondrous gift of a personalized autographed baseball from Sandy Koufax appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News JStyle Magazine, Nov., 2007.

Last week, September 9, marked 50 years since Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs, his fourth career no-hitter. On the Jewish calendar, next week’s observance of Yom Kippur marks the 50th anniversary since Koufax sat out Game 1 of the World Series in observance of the Jewish holy day. Koufax went on to lead the Dodgers to a seven-game Series victory over the Twins in which he was MVP.

I was not yet born in 1965, but Koufax has always been my hero for his excellence on the field and his historic decision to put his Jewish identity first at a critical moment. My admiration for Koufax was forever cemented when I was ten years old. Two of my great-aunts lived in the same San Mateo, CA, condominium as Evelyn Koufax, Sandy’s mother, and they were friendly with her. Imagine my joy when I opened a package from one of the aunts to find a baseball with the inscription: “To Eddy, Good luck and very best wishes. Sandy Koufax”! I forgive the Great One for not using the preferred spelling of my nickname, Eddie.

The story of this gift was profiled in 2007 in the Cleveland Jewish News JStyles magazine. I remain grateful for my piece of “Koufaxabilia.” It reminds me of my late aunts and the importance of family. It reminds me of  the prowess of Sandy Koufax, and it reminds me of his heroic gesture on Yom Kippur, 1965, that continues to inspire Jewish Americans.  Jewish and American values do not have to conflict. In fact, they complement each other. Making a choice as Koufax did is as authentically American as it is Jewish. His inspiring decision not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series is a gift that keeps on giving.

 

#WeAreToratEmet

16 Sep

In case you missed it before Rosh HaShanah, here is a video I produced for Temple Torat Emet, “We Are Torat Emet!”

#WeAreToratEmet

All Alone with one more chapter to write–Rosh HaShanah Day 2

13 Sep

"What Pet Should I Get?" by Dr. Seuss was just published this summer, nearly a quarter-century after the author's death. “What Pet Should I Get?” by Dr. Seuss was just published this summer, nearly a quarter-century after the author’s death.

Dr. Seuss. Marlon Brando. Harper Lee. What do these three people have in common? For one thing, it has been a while since we have seen their best work. After all, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel died in 1991. Marlon Brando died in 2004. Harper Lee is still alive at 89 years old but has not published anything since her Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960. To say the least, we have not heard from these three in a while. And yet, this past summer they have all burst into the national consciousness in all their glory.

 

Over the summer, Random House published Dr. Seuss’s book What Pet Should I Get? Theodore Geisel’s manuscript dates from about 1960. For whatever reason, he chose not to publish it at the time. Yet, he also chose not to discard it.  In late 2013 his widow found the manuscript in a box labeled “Noble Failures,” and now the world can enjoy a new Dr. Seuss book 24 years after the author’s death.

 

Marlon Brando, one of the greatest and most enigmatic screen actors of the twentieth century, also emerged from the dead this summer. He had made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself speaking into a tape recorder reflecting on his career. A British filmmaker named Stevan Riley was given access to these tapes by the Brando estate, and he made a documentary titled “Listen to Me, Marlo” that surveys Brando’s career through the filter of Brando’s own audio recollections. One poignant observation of Brando is when he says, “Acting is just making stuff up, but that’s OK. Life is a rehearsal. Life is an improvisation. I’m going to have a special microphone placed in my coffin so that when I wake up in there, 6 feet under the ground, I’m going to say, do it differently.”

 

Harper Lee is still alive, but frail. She has led a private life since Mockingbirds publication and has not even granted an interview since 1964. Now, her novel Go Set a Watchman

is number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. This novel was written first but set in the 1950s, about 20 years after Mockingbird. The manuscript was apparently discovered by her agent last year and its publication has been a blockbuster success. The main characters are the same, yet here we find a very different Atticus Finch. The hero of Mockingbird who successfully defended a black man accused of rape is at heart a racist who seeks to maintain segregation in the South. Lee paints a gripping portrait of the South about to explode into the Civil Rights era.

 

Each one of these recent discoveries merits analysis in its own right, and I hope to have opportunities to offer just that in coming weeks. However, in light of today, I’m struck by the pervasive metaphor during this season of the Book of Life. In reflecting on Dr. Seuss, Marlon Brando and Harper Lee, I offer this question: Is the Book of Life ever closed for us, or do we always have a chance to write another chapter?

 

The metaphor of the Book of Life appears prominently in Un’taneh Tokef. We sing BRosh HaShanah yikateivun u-vYom Tzom Kippur yehateimun, on Rosh HaShanah our fate is written; on Yom Kippur is sealed. This declaration rests at the fulcrum between the two main themes of the piyyut: 1) that the decrees are beyond our control and 2) that how we handle the decrees is very much within our control.

 

I stand by this interpretation of the piyyut, as the dichotomy between control and lack thereof is clear in the text. What occurred to me this summer was some further nuance in understanding the metaphor of the Book of Life. Certainly we have a measure of control in how we respond to a decree. It turns out, though, that we also have some control over the writing of the book and, as we saw this summer, sometimes we continue writing our book late in life or even after we die.

 

“The first section of Un’tane Tokef offers an image that merits further exploration. The text reads: A great shofar will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard. Angels will be alarmed, seized with fear and trembling, declaring, “This very day is the Day of Judgment”—for even the hosts of heaven are judged; no one is innocent in Your sight. All that lives on earth will pass before you like Bnei Maron.

 

The question is what does kivnei maron mean? The Talmud asks this very question in response to the statement: “On Rosh HaShanah all of the world’s inhabitants pass before God like bnei maron (TB RH 18a). What is the meaning of “like Bnei Maron”?

 

The Talmud then offers three interpretations. The first is that they are like lambs. This interpretation may have influenced the next sentence in Un’tane Tokef that reads: “As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff, so You will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny. If Bnei Maron are sheep, then you and I passing before God at a time of judgment are like sheep passing before a shepherd that are directed to walking single file in order to receive a brand.

 

The second interpretation suggests that Bnei Maron are people who live in a mountainous area, Maalot Beit Maron, in northern Israel where mountain passes are very narrow and safe passage along these paths can only be accomplished single file.

 

The third interpretation is that Bnei Maron are like the soldiers of the House of David. Further insights into this interpretation include the notion that the words Kivnei Maron are actually derived from a mix of Hebrew and Greek: ki bnumeron, referring to a military unit of many soldiers marching in single file.

 

The precise definition of Kivnei Maron is open to interpretation, yet the different interpretations in the Talmud all evoke the image of a single file line. Within this line, each individual is alone. There is no one to lean on as God inspects us one by one. We have nowhere to hide.  The metaphor suggests each one of us has to answer to God for ourselves; however, as the prayer continues, each one of us has the opportunity to write the next chapter of our book.

 

 

I wish to suggest that from each interpretation of Kivnei Maron we elicit a different image on how each of us can write our own next chapter.

 

If we appear to God as sheep, it’s worthy to note that we use the same word—sheep—to refer to both an individual animal as well as to a flock. The same is true in Hebrew with the word tzon.  Each one of us is an individual, and yet each one of us is part of the larger community. Any new chapter we write is a reflection not only on ourselves but on the community of which we are a part. Each of us carries the great responsibility to ask: How does the next chapter of my life fit into the story of the Jewish people? How have I helped to ensure Jewish continuity for the next generation?

 

If we appear to God as if we are walking on a narrow mountain pass, the message in this image is that we should never be satisfied with where we are. We always have the opportunity to push ourselves higher towards more hesed, loving kindness. We ask ourselves how the next chapter we write will reflect our efforts to heal our broken relationships and bring tikkun, repair, into our world.

 

Finally, if we appear to God as soldiers marching single-file off to battle, we must ask ourselves what is it that we are soldiers for? What are we willing to go to the mat for? When the history of the Jewish people in our era is written generations from now, what will our own chapters say about us?  My hope is that, each of us will contribute to this chapter in a way that demonstrates we stood proud as Jews and that we acted in a way that was a credit to the Jewish people.

 

Perhaps the Book of Life is never entirely closed. Whether or not we literally record our inner most thoughts in writing, each of us has the potential to influence others who will follow us in future generations. The book that we start now may well be continued or completed by those who follow us.  Let me close with a poem by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg that appears in Mahzor Hadash (p. 286) titled “Each of Us Is An Author”:

 

“You open the Book of Remembrance, and it speaks for itself.

For each of us has signed it with deeds.”

This is the sobering truth,

Which both frightens and consoles us:

 

Each of us is an author,

Writing, with deeds, in life’s Great Book.

And to each You have given the power

To write lines that will never be lost.
No song is so trivial,

No story is so commonplace,

No deed is so insignificant,

That You do not record it.

 

No kindness is ever done in vain;

Each mean act leaves its imprint;

All our deeds, the good and the bad,

Are noted and remembered by You.

So help us to remember always

That what we do will live forever;

That the echoes of the words we speak

Will resound until the end of time.
May our lives reflect this awareness;

May our deeds bring no shame or reproach.

May the entries we make in the Book of Remembrance

Be ever acceptable to You.

From Tears of Anguish to Tears of Joy (Rosh HaShanah Day 1)

13 Sep

Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share. Mets infielder Wilmer Flores wept publicly during a game upon hearing that he may have been traded. His emotion struck a chord for the common fear of vulnerability we all share.

Shanah Tovah!

It is a joy to see everyone, and I wish you all a joyous and healthy year. We all love heroes, and I would like to share a story of a baseball player who became a great hero this summer.  As the July trading deadline was approaching, it was announced on the news that New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores was going to be traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Mets were in the middle of a game against the Padres when the story broke. Flores came in from the infield in between innings as the Mets prepared to go to bat. Suddenly the fans were shouting to Flores the news that he would be traded. The shouts of the fans were the first that Flores heard about it. How did he react? He cried. TV cameras caught him shedding tears throughout the rest of the game. He was sad about leaving his teammates in the midst of a pennant race.  He was upset about the way he heard the news and his complete lack of control. In this raw moment of human vulnerability, Flores felt abandoned, flummoxed and shocked. I think this story shows that curve balls are often thrown at us. We know that often things happen that are beyond our control.

 

In another era, Wilmer Flores might have been ridiculed as a wimp or a sissy. Someone might have told him to suck it up like a man. Such a reaction might still occur in segments of our society. Wilmer Flores’s public weeping, however, struck a chord with many. His crying was a profound moment that resonated with the public for its genuine humanity. We all can identify with Wilmer Flores.  His tears remind us that no matter how much we try to order our lives, things unfold in ways beyond our control. In the end, the trade was called off, and Flores has been playing very well for the Mets. For one brief moment this summer, though, Flores reminded us that we are all vulnerable to fear and uncertainty when we lose our sense of control.

 

If we can empathize with Wilmer Flores over the mundane matter of playing baseball, then we also can and must empathize with those facing life and death decisions.  Imagine the the fear of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and north Africa who are seeking asylum in the West. Imagine the impossible choice faced by most of these people. They could stay in their homeland dominated by rampaging murderous thugs who enslave and rape children. They could also try to leave and risk the lives of their family on an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean bound for Europe. If the boat doesn’t sink, as many have, they then face great uncertainty as to what will happen to them in Europe. Will they be granted asylum or deported to their home countries?  The news media coverage of the plight of these refugees whose lives are in limbo underscores the fear of the unknown that these mothers, fathers and children must feel. The uncertainty of it all is enough to make any of us cry.

 

In today’s Torah reading, we read about Hagar, Abraham’s handmaiden and mother of Ishmael. After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Ishmael is seen as a threat, and Sarah prevails upon Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. It is a tragic tale of a mother and her son forced the leave their home with meager rations and left to face almost certain death in the wilderness. Our classical Jewish texts do not shy away from difficult situations in the lives of our ancestors that depict them as flawed human beings who don’t always make the best choices. Perhaps Abraham and Sarah might have found another solution to their household woes but the story that we have is that Hagar and Ishmael were banished into the desert. As Ishmael lay before his mother dying, the text describes Hagar’s moment of desperation: Va tisa et kolah va-tevk—she raised her voice and cried over the suffering of her son Ishmael. In the depths of her crisis, she is heard. God provides aide to Ishmael Baasher hu sham, right where he is.

 

In the other Torah and Haftarah readings during Rosh HaShanah we find other examples of our ancestors who out to God in anguish and are heard. God remembers those who cry out in despair and meets all of them Baasher hu sham—wherever they are. In case the selected Biblical texts are not clear enough that genuine cries of sadness and desperation are heard, the main ritual of this holiday hammers home the point. The sound of the shofar mimics different kinds of crying—cries of anguish, cries of brokenness and cries of hope. We blow the shofar to induce ourselves to awaken ourselves to be vulnerable and pour out that which troubles us. Our Biblical ancestors cried to God at their greatest vulnerability and were answered. In our moment of anguish and uncertainty we pray that God will be there for us.

 

Rosh HaShanah reminds us as we start the new year that so much in life is beyond our control. Our cries express that innate human acknowledgement of vulnerability.  We go through much of our lives thinking we’re in command of our own destiny. The truth is, we’re not. How can we function in this state of helplessness? Thankfully, we are able to turn once again to our High Holiday liturgy for some guidance.

 

Un’tane Tokef  is a climactic moment in the Musaf service in which we acknowledge our abject frailty in our world. In the coming year, we do not know who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. This first section of Un’tane Tokef  is the ultimate expression of humility and powerlessness in a vast and complex universe. Umalakhim yehapeizun, even the angels are trembling from their sense of powerlessness and uncertainty. Then, in a stroke of genius, the payytan, the poet, shifts gears and says: ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה, repentance, prayer and righteousness can help the pain of the decree pass. In other words, through our actions, we can reclaim a measure of control. We can’t always change the decree, but we can make its effects less harsh so that we can live with a new normal and help others do the same.

 

We feel the tension between helplessness and assertive action in all aspects of our lives from the global scale to the communal scale to our  personal tragedies. The essence of this season is to transform our sense of helplessness into hope. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done.

 

Let me return to the deep horrific refugee crisis that is gripping Europe as hundreds of thousands of people seek to rebuild their lives shattered by war, persecution and terror. The image of a toddler boy Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey has churned stomachs and galvanized attention to this harrowing situation. Hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean from overloaded capsized boats, scores of people found dead in a truck in Austria and the desperation in the Budapest train station compound the horror of this situation. The civil war in Syria and the savagery of ISIS have gone on for years. We’ve seen beheadings, chemical warfare, slaughter of Christians and Yazidis, and bloodshed of Muslim Shi’ites and Sunnis towards each other. All of this has gone on for at least four years, and the world has done virtually nothing. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Thousands of people are crying out in despair.  With desperate throngs of asylum seekers landing on the shores and in the train stations of Europe, the world is finally beginning to hear the desperate cries of the suffering. The question is will we be there—Baasher hu shamfor them. The development of this crisis wasn’t in our control, but our response to it is. We all know reasons cited for not turning away Syrians and others. There is fear of radical Islamic inspired terrorism spreading to the West. Many Jews fear rising anti-Semitism in a European environment already hostile to Jews. There is the valid critique that the US and Europe should have done more years ago to prevent the explosion of violence and anarchy in the refugees’ countries of origin. The renowned Holocaust scholar Dr. Deborah Lipstadt expressed these concerns, even as she said she is still writing a check to refugee relief. In times such as these, we help first and ask questions later. After all, we know what it’s like. It wasn’t so long ago that the Jewish people were shunned in Europe and the United States. In the 1938 Evian Conference, 32 European countries effectively slammed the door on the Jews, refusing to offer them refuge from Hitler. Remember the “Voyage of the Damned”? The SS St. Louis  carried nearly 1000 Jews from Germany across the Atlantic. They were denied entry into Cuba and the United States and forced to return to Europe. Many of those passengers died in the Holocaust. Before Hitler enacted the Final Solution, the Nazis were willing to let Jews emigrate to British Mandate Palestine, but the British enforced strict quotas and denied Jews entry to their own homeland as European Jewry was about to go up in flames. Of course, we know that even after the Holocaust, the British prevented desperate survivors from entering Israel. Our communal memory knows what it’s like to be refugees as our homes and families are burning.

 

England’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Then I realised that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers,’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

 

It is ironic that the destination of choice for many of the asylum seekers is Germany, 70 years after the world finally stopped the Nazi reign of terror. To its credit, Germany has welcomed close to a million refugees. Other nations have been less forthcoming. Rabbi Sacks has called on England to carry out the equivalent of the kindertransport that brought some 10,000 Jewish children to England and saved them from certain death in the Shoah. Rabbi Sacks notes that the Torah reminds us to love the stranger because we were once strangers. In this world gone mad, it is easy to feel helpless; yet, somewhere, there must be some measure of human decency that will bring shelter and peace to the asylum seekers. Other rabbis in England have organized efforts in their community to support refugees and aide their absorption. All of the major American-based or American supported Jewish defense organizations are leading the way in helping with resettlement of refugees in Europe. In particular, HIAS  and the JDC are working with Jewish communities throughout Europe to provide both financial and hands on support. These efforts are worthy of our support.

 

On the day that we read of the plight of Hagar and Ishamel, we note with pain and sorrow the anguish felt by many of the spiritual descendants of Hagar and Ishmael who are seeking lives of freedom and tranquility. Va-tisa et kolah va-tevk. Like Hagar, they are raising their voices and crying out in despair. God met them Baasher hu sham—right where they were and provided for them. The Jewish people, along with the entire Western world are pressed with the challenge to imitate God and be Baasher hu sham for these people. Furthermore, while the development of this crisis was beyond our control our response to it is not. We need to direct our teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah to respond to the harsh decrees of the past year. We’re called upon to stop the pain. This is our test of the moment.

 

The last year drew to a close with fear and cries of despair from across the ocean. My prayer is that this time next year that the tears we shed will be tears of joy as the children of Abraham come together to rejoice in a more peaceful world.

Amen