Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Only in NFTY

Today I was reminded of how lax I was in writing about the eight miracles of Chanukah in our modern world. Tonight, however, I witnessed one that was worth all the others I skipped.
Tonight is the third night of NFTY-STR's Winter Regional convention. Every year teens from all over South Florida gather for four days of programming led by their regional board. Every year on the third night they run a program called "STR Search," which is basically a talent show. The first act tonight was a senior girl who I have seen sing four years in a row. She is a good singer who, bluntly put, thinks she's great. She gets a little too loud and a lot too close to the microphone. She also happens to be a high functioning autistic child, so nobody minds. As an adult, I think it is great to let her sing away. I know that she has issues but she loves to express herself in song, so I tolerate her. But here's the miracle: the high school kids to whom she sings. The self-focused, apathetic, materialistic kids who don't want to do anything but feed their desires, they don't just tolerate her. They love her.

When she sings, they sing along, they hoot encouragingly, and they cheer while she pushes through difficult parts of the song. When she finishes, they give her a standing ovation. It was so beautiful, I felt tears forming. But I wasn't alone. A quick glance around the advisors sitting in the back taught me that I was not alone by far.

These kids at NFTY-STR are an incredible miracle. They make me proud to work with them, proud to do what I do, and consistently impressed by the vast amounts of compassion they are capable of.

Thank you, NFTY-STR. You are the best gift I have gotten this Chanukah.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Third Day of Chanukah: The Miracle of Freedom

Today on Facebook I saw a picture.

It was a picture of Gilad Shalit celebrating Chanukah at home.  Gilad Shalit, for over 5 years, was held captive by Hamas militants.  From the time he was 19 to 25, he was imprisoned and deprived of many of the freedoms the rest of the world takes for granted.  On October 18, just over two months ago, he was released in exchange for over 1000 Palestinians who had been captured by Israel.

It is a simple picture but it expresses nothing less than a miracle.  Gilad Shalit looks great.  A bandaged hand and skinny frame, but smiling and standing on his own two feet.  He looks like he is celebrating with six other people (as evidenced by the six glasses on the table), and he is lighting the Chanukiah in his parents’ home.  The fact that he could even be photographed like this exemplifies the miracle of freedom. 
So often we sit in our homes and light our Chanukiot without even a thought to how lucky we are to be able to do so.  Gilad Shalit could not celebrate any holidays for over 5 years, and now because of the perseverance of his family and the willingness of the Israeli government to compromise, we are able to celebrate with him, and acknowledge our own freedom this Chanukah.
May we understand how blessed we are to be free to light our Chanukiot this Chanukah.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Second Chanukah MIracle

Today I noticed the miracle of sibling love.  Last night we lit candles and opened presents as Natalie ran out the door to a Chanukah party for work.  The kids and I had pizza and enjoyed a gift from the previous night: Spy Kids 4.  This is, I admit, an awful movie, but my children love it.

So as the movie was coming to an end I decided to play parent.  I paused the DVD and told them the movie would be continued when teeth were brushed and pajamas were on.  Without so much as a complaint the boys sprang into action as I grabbed Isabella.  Bella loves to brush her teeth, so she takes a bit longer than the boys.  As she finished I noticed her need for a change, so before going up to get her pajamas I stopped at the diaper station.

Here is where the miracle happened.  I heard the boys finishing upstairs, and I thought maybe I would just put Bella to bed when we got up there.  Instead of just coming down, however, Alexander came bearing Bella’s pajamas.  He told me he wanted to make sure she could get ready too.  So he watched as I put her in her pajamas, then asked if he could sit with her through the end of the movie.  The two of them sat snuggling, stroking each others hair, and Alex cooed softly to her, “I love you, Bella!”

Watching a 4-year-old be so tender with his baby sister was truly a miracle.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ma'i Chanukah?

Why is Chanukah celebrated for eight nights?

Why do we light eight-branch candelabra?

In looking at three different texts about the “history” of Chanukah, we can read three different answers.

First, from the book of II Maccabees, the Chanukah celebration is described as being modeled after Sukkot:

They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.  7 Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.  8 They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year (2 Maccabees 10:6-8).

When I read this I picture the exhausted Jewish troops discussing their need for a victory party and debating how they would celebrate.  The most recent holiday before the dedication would have been Sukkot, the “festival of booths.”  So they would have been disappointed in how they had to celebrate two months prior.  Still reminiscing about how Sukkot could have been or would have been if the Temple was under their control, they decided to model their rededication festivities after Sukkot.  Makes a lot of sense!

About 100 years later or more, the Jewish historian Josephus explains the same phenomenon.  He explains that when the Maccabees were surveying the damage done to the Temple after the war, they found eight spears sticking out of the ground, four on either side of the entrance to the Holy of Holies.  That was clearly a sign that they should celebrate their dedication for eight days.

Another 400 years or so later, the Talmud explains that

When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean Dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, which they lay with the seal of the High Priest, which contained sufficient oil for one day’s lighting only. Yet a miracle occurred, and they lit the lamp for eight days (Shabbat 21b).

This is the answer we all come up with when we think about the miracle of Chanukah, but it wasn’t written about until several hundred years after the Maccabean revolt!  According to the principal of Ockham’s razor, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be true.  So which is simpler: that a one-day cruse of oil lasted eight days or that a group of people wanted to relive a holiday they enjoyed a lot?  Probably the latter.

But more important than trying to figure out what really happened over 2000 years ago is the realization what the development of our ancient texts teaches us.  The ragtag group of warrior priests winning the battles over the Syrian Greeks was a miracle.  It was amazing that they were able to come to some sort of victory against all odds.  That was truly something to celebrate.  Perhaps as the years went on they wanted to attribute the victory more to God and less to the guerrilla warriors.  That’s terrific, and makes for a great story.  So they changed the miracle from the battlefield to the candle light.  That’s ok, because Judaism is all about taking the needs of the day and reacting to them as a people.  The rabbis of the Talmud created such a powerful story that we still teach it to our children today. 

But no matter how amazing their stories are, the rabbis never teach us that their way is the final word.  They instead teach us that it is the responsibility of learned Jews to notice the miracles of our day.  We might not see a pillar of smoke and fire or a flaming chariot with fiery horses, but we will see a flower blooming.  We will connect with a friend, and notice the beauty in the world around us.  These are all miracles, and they should be noted as nothing less.  It is up to us to tell the stories of the miracles we see every day.

So this week I will try to point out one miracle for each of the eight days of Chanukah.  As the first day draws to a close, I remember the latkes my family and I ate last night.  To me it was nothing short of a miracle that my wife (very afraid of trying new things) thought the latkes with beets in them were amazing.  (She supposedly doesn’t even like beets!)  So today’s miracle is for new things: may we all enjoy them this Chanukah!

Chag Urim Sameach!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fighting Against Jack-O-Lanterns

For the fourth year in a row, I have gone to rebuild New Orleans with a group of high school students.  It has been six years since Hurricane Katrina blew past New Orleans, six years since the devastation wrought by the flooding took place.  Each year brings a different experience, a different group of teens, a different perspective.  Yet each year has a stronger impact on me than the year before.

The first time I went was 2007.  Rabbi Andy Koren and I had been chatting that summer, and he brought up the idea that he wanted to bring a group of teens to clean up New Orleans.  He asked if I had any interest in a trip like that, and I responded resounding in the positive.  That was all we spoke of it until just after the school year started.  He called me and asked if I was still interested, because he needed a few more teens to make the trip viable.  If I could bring a few and he brought a few we could make it work together.  So we met in New Orleans that winter: 8 from Temple Sinai in Miami, FL, and 15 from Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.  That was the foundation on which we have tried to build each consecutive year, and this year was our best trip yet with the highest number of teens participating: 11 from Miami, 15 from Greensboro, and 5 from Roanoke, VA (their first time).

It is an exhausting whirlwind adventure for teens and chaperones alike. We go on a tour of New Orleans.  We visit Tulane University. We work in a soup kitchen. We build homes. We do environmental repair. We join Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie for Kabbalat Shabbat. We go to Rock and Bowl on Saturday night.  We come home physically exhausted and spiritually inspired.

This year our first day was touring and touring.  We met our tour guide Julie for burgers, then toured through the streets of New Orleans.  Those of us who were veterans on the trip (three of the adults, four of the kids) recognized the flood sites, levies, and pumping stations.  We remembered the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, so beautiful and calm, and the stories about how high the waters get on a windy day, not to mention during a hurricane of any magnitude.  We also noticed how clean and pretty the city looks on the surface.  There are new houses, new businesses, new street signs, and many of the lots are cleaned out and ready for sale.  The problem is under the surface.  The locals call it the “Jack-O-Lantern Effect.”  It looks shiny at first glance, then you notice the holes.

A deeper look under the surface reveals the hollow insides from Katrina’s wrath that have not yet been healed.  The 9th Ward has yet to have significant repair, save the homes Brad Pitt’s foundation “Make It Right,” and the tell-tale pastel painted homes built by Habitat for Humanity.  On the outside of broken-down buildings you can see spray-painted X’s with notes left by search crews numbering the survivors and bodies found after Katrina.  A large barn we saw was painted with the note, “We’ll be back. Do not tear down.” But 6 years later it looks like they’re still not back.  Other homes have been completely razed and the owners have simply walked away from their property and relocated.  Others still didn’t even bother with tearing down their destroyed homes.  They simply took whatever they could salvage from their flooded homes and walked away.  That’s the Jack-O-Lantern Effect.  New homes and rebuilding on the surface while the inside decays, just praying for groups of people to descend and make their mark toward healing the Big Easy.

Whenever I look at the overgrown or cleaned bare lots of the 9th Ward, I wonder how much it would really take to rebuild this amazing city.  So I asked our tour guide, who told us that with the dwindling of tour groups over the last 6 years, if we keep coming in the same numbers as right now, we will be finished with the rebuild by the year 2036. 

One other site always stirs my emotions, no matter how many times I have seen it.  Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox synagogue on Canal Blvd. in Lakeview…or what’s left of it.  The doors are sealed, the disrepair is visible from the outside, and the letters above the sealed entrance doors are barely legible.  They say, va’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them” (Exod. 25:8).  The “them” referred to in the book of Exodus is the Israelites, and when we look at this sanctuary that was destroyed by an act of God, it begs the question: “Where was God dwelling during Hurricane Katrina?”  It is the answer to this question that makes me emotional.  You see, God was in the people of another congregation across the city.  Congregation Gates of Prayer, led by Rabbi Robert Loewy, one of the unsung heroes of the flood’s aftermath, opened its doors and hearts to Beth Israel.  This Reform congregation in Metairie invited their displaced brethren in, kashered their kitchen so it could be used by both communities, gave them a place to hold services, and even gave them a piece of land on which they would build their new building.  Rabbi Loewy has been a model of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) and continues to be an exemplar of the Talmudic dictum, “all [Jews are] responsible for one another” (B. Shavuot 39a).  In the words of Rabbi Koren, “None of those lists of great rabbis are worth a thing until Rabbi Loewy tops them all.”

New Orleans is truly an amazing city.  The music is infectious, the food is incredible, and the people are the salt of the earth.  The Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico make for two gorgeous coasts, and even the swampy marshlands are beautiful and serene.  It’s hard to describe, but something about the Big Easy seeps into my soul and keeps me wanting to go back as soon as I leave.  After four years of running this trip, we have our habits and our favorite places to go.  Rabbi Koren and I are getting to know the area and some of the people.  We know the story of the weeks and months that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet something struck me this time that has never happened before.  Or perhaps the reverse of that is true—something did not happen that has happened I the past.

This year there was a palpable lack of locals thanking us for being there.  Of course people thanked us.  The organizations we worked with (The New Orleans Mission, Common Ground, and Habitat for Humanity) clearly appreciate the work we do.  But they are immersed in the effort to rebuild New Orleans.  They are reminded every day of how important it is to be there building, cleaning, planting, and feeding those in need. 

The difference came from the people at restaurants, on the street, and in the hotel who ask what we are doing with all these teens.  In the past when we have explained what we are doing there with all those kids, the response has been effusive gratitude.  “Thank you so much for coming here to help our city.” “New Orleans really appreciates your help.” “The work y’all are doing is so important to us.” The comments from the typical native helped to drive home to our teenagers exactly what they were doing.  They weren’t just there to buy trinkets and t-shirts or ogle the drunken revelers (from whom we keep them away).  They were there to do something incredibly important to every person they passed on the street, and just about every person made a point to stop and tell us.

This year they didn’t do that.  When people asked what our trip was for and I explained, “We’re here to help with the post-Katrina rebuilding effort,” one person (with a New Orleans accent) actually asked me why!  I told him there is still a lot of damage that needs to be repaired, and he cocked his head and said, “Well, have fun, y’all!”

The first time someone genuinely thanked us was Saturday night, and I was the only person who heard it.  I explained to a woman why we were here, and she thanked us and explained to me that she runs a hotel downtown.  I asked where she was in 2005, and she said she got out and went to a cousin in Alabama.  She shouted a little of her story to me over the Beatles’ music at Rock N’ Bowl, then she went to her friends and I went back to the teens.

Once again the Jack-O-Lantern Effect was in action.  So much of the surface has been cleaned up that people don’t remember how important it is to fix the damage that is still left over.  The travel groups have slowed down—maybe they are helping in other places in the world in need of attention, but New Orleans still needs us.  That’s why Rabbi Koren and I try to bring so many kids year after year.  If they are aware for just a moment of how important it is to look beneath the surface, they will continue to strive to rebuild the world, to do acts of Tikkun Olam in New Orleans, wherever they live, whatever cities need them.

You can’t spell Tikkun Olam without “NOLA,” and when NOLA gets rebuilt, the good times will surely roll again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Struggles, Problems, and Mistakes

           This week I have watched two on-line videos about the same thing, but expressed in different ways.  The first was from a company called Pinkbat on a web site called simple truths.  In it, Michael McMillan explains that a pink baseball bat from his youth changed his entire perception of reality.  He doesn’t tell the story, but through a series of eye-tricking pictures, he explains that any problem we have is simply an opportunity.  He gives the example of Alexander Fleming, a scientist who found his Petri dishes covered with mold after some time away.  Instead of trashing his data and viewing the mold as a problem, he instead studies it and discovers penicillin.
McMillan explains the concept of perceptual blindness.  This is the idea that allows us to be confused by the picture of the candlestick that looks like silhouettes or the picture that might be and old woman looking forward or a young woman looking away.  We all have the tendency to filter out images and information that we do not want in our brains.  Once we realize the many different ways there are to distinguish things in this world, we become aware of the opportunities that exist if we could open up to them.
Watching videos on line and learning things from the internet can be an amazing experience.  We can learn new ideas and innovative thoughts that nobody has ever thought of before.  Or we can simply learn the lessons from Genesis in a new format. 
In the Torah portion we are reading this week, Jacob is confronted with a perceived problem.  He is on his way to meet his brother Esau.  The last time they saw each other was when Esau promised to kill Jacob, so you could say Jacob isn’t too thrilled about the upcoming meeting.  On the way to meet Esau, he spends the night alone on the bank of the Jabbok River.  He sends his family and servants and flocks and everything on ahead, and he is confronted by a “man,” with whom he wrestles for the entire night.  Now this seems like a big problem, but Jacob uses it as an opportunity.  They wrestle to a standstill, even after the man (who we know is an angel) wrenches Jacob’s hip at the thigh.
Jacob sees a problem, and he wrestles with it.  The word the Torah uses for wrestling is vaye’avek.  It is related to the very word for where he stands, Yabok, the Jabbok River.  He struggles all night, until he comes to a realization.  The angel asks to be let go, and Jacob asks for a blessing.  This is one of those strange moments in the Torah where it doesn’t seem to make sense.  When Jacob asks for a blessing, what should we expect the next words to be? Baruch atah, or may you be granted, something blessing-like.  Instead the angel says, “You will no longer be called jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with beings divine and human and have prevailed.”
The angel teaches Jacob that in order to solve whatever he is struggling with, he needs a new perspective.  The angel lets him know that his struggle is actually a blessing.  It is a blessing that must be acknowledged with a change of name that embodies his new outlook.  Jacob, now Israel, takes this lesson and uses it on the Jabbok as well.  He changes the name from Yabok to Peniel.  Even the place of struggle becomes a place where God’s face can be seen.
The second video I saw was from the TED web site.  If you have never seen a TED video, they are absolutely worth your ten to fifteen minutes per viewing.  They are referred to as “riveting talks by remarkable people,” and there are over 1000 brief videos available for perusing for free.  One of the more recent conversations is by Stefon Harris, who plays a piece with his jazz quartet on the TED stage to prove a point. His thesis is, “There are no mistakes on the bandstand.”  He explains that the way jazz works is through syncopation and improvisation—the sense of rhythm that is unique to jazz, and the ability of the musicians to play off of one another.  It is the second aspect that allows for the idea that there are no mistakes on the bandstand.  If one of the musicians were to play a dissonant note, it could sound awkward and out of place, but only if the other musicians ignore it and play over it.  If instead the others pay attention to it and incorporate it into their own notes, they are turning a potential mistake into beautiful music.
He tells the TED audience that when, as a jazz musician, he hears someone play something different, his job is to “be patient, listen to what is going on, and pull from what is going on around me.  When you do that you inspire the other musicians and they give you more, and gradually it builds.”  In other words, allowing ourselves to work with the challenges life presents us is how we create something bigger than we originally intended.  We are all experts in our own fields.  We think we know everything about whatever it is that we do, and yet there is always someone from whom we can learn.  All we have to do is be in the moment, accept from one another, and let creativity flow.
Back to Jacob.  After his encounter with the angel he does meet his brother.  At first it looks like he is in for another wrestling match.  Esau runs at him, grabs him, falls on his neck and….kisses him, and they both cry.  I don’t believe Jacob could have allowed for his brother’s kiss if he had not encountered the angel first.  Imagine Jacob’s perspective.  He thought Esau wanted to kill him.  He sees Esau running, feels his brother grab hold of him and fall on his neck.  If he was not open to using his brother’s dissonance, he might only be willing to fight.  Instead Jacob and Esau cry in each other’s arms, apparently at peace with one another.  They later are able to bury their father Isaac together.
So whether we learn from Genesis or from the internet, the message still holds.  Throughout life we are presented with struggles.  When we encounter something difficult we have two choices.  We can see it as a problem, as a mistake, and fight against it, or we can pay attention to the possibilities it presents.  We can open ourselves up to new possibilities, and make beautiful music and engender strong connections with others.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


New app available from the Apple App Store: Chai On Chanukah.  It's an interactive holiday app for kids (with some fun stuff for parents looking over the shoulders of their children).

Check it out, and write good reviews, because Martha Stewart's people are reviewing it too, and the more reviews it gets the more likely she will mention it on her site! Boo yah!!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Very excited to announce that an app I helped with is now out.  The info is here: and the app (Shofar 4 Kidz) is download-able at the App Store for your iPhone or iPad.

Have fun!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Conflict in Israel According to Peter Griffin

In an episode of “The Family Guy,” called “E. Peterbus Unum,” Peter is frustrated about not getting a tax refund.  So he declares his home and property a sovereign nation: Petoria.  In reaction, the US government surrounds his home with military forces and cuts off the power to Peter’s home.  His children can’t go to school, his wife can’t leave to buy groceries, and eventually he asks permission to return to the United States.

This Tuesday, September 20, the UN General Assembly will meet in New York City.  The General Assembly was established in 1945 and serves as the main deliberative, policy-making, and representative arm of the United Nations.  All 193 member countries of the UN are represented in the GA, and whenever a decision is to be made, each country gets one vote.  This coming Tuesday, the world expects at least 140 of these nations to approve a resolution put forward by the Palestinian Authority in which it will ask for the UN to recognize its sovereignty.

As far as I know, there are limited ways to become a recognized nation.  A sovereign state must have defined borders with a permanent population and government.  It must also be recognized by other autonomous nations.  To be granted independence, there cannot be any dependence on other nations for power or support.

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority intends to skip all the diplomatic hassle of coming to agreements with other nations.  They plan on subverting the normal order and seeking independence through the United Nations.  To be clear, the actual language of this resolution has not been made public.  We do not know what exactly they will ask for.  Common wisdom suggests that the PA will seek statehood within the pre-1967 borders with Fatah and Hamas as partners controlling the government.

This resolution is problematic on several levels.  First, it contradicts previous agreements between the Israeli and Palestinian governments that reject unilateral action by either party.  Second, in Oslo in 1993 both sides agreed that solutions to the conflict would only be determined through face-to-face bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.  Third, it does not address the four main issues of the peace process up to this point—Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and settlements.    In other words, the idea of submitting a resolution to the United Nations for a sovereign Palestinian Authority is about as well thought out as the nation of Petoria.

Furthermore, there are several potential problems this resolution, should it pass, could create.  UN Resolution  #181 and others like it, calling for peaceful resolution to the dispute in Israel, might be abrogated under this new resolution.  Members of the US Congress have put forth legislation that would cancel funds to the PA as a result of this resolution passing.  As an Observer State, a non-voting UN member with certain special privileges, the Palestinian Authority could have access to the international court system to attempt to bring Israel to trial.  Israel as a sovereign nation could be delegitimized by the passage of this bill.

So why would the Palestinian Authority want to make such a foolish move?  PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said that any form of UN recognition, however symbolic, will increase their leverage over Israel.  He is treating this as a game in which he plays the United Nations against the peace process.  The United Nations, whose goals include international law, security, and peace, will be used to subvert the very peace it was founded to uphold.

Isaac Herzog, a former Israeli cabinet minister, and member of the Foreign and Defense Committee, wrote a pretty amazing article in which he suggests that Israel—a valid and recognized member of the United Nations—actually vote for Palestinian Autonomy on conditions.  In his words:

Israel should announce its support for the UN resolution on the condition that the Palestinians agree to return to the table as soon as possible and without preconditions, fully backed and supported by the international community, and to determine the final settlement through bilateral negotiations. The UN resolution must reflect this aspiration and include Israel’s perspective as well. In addition, the two parties must agree to a framework for an interim process that will allow for negotiations based on Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state.

Herzog suggests that such a proposal would prevent a violent confrontation, give the Palestinians the dignity they seek, allow the parties to relaunch negotiations, and win Israel international favor while preserving its security needs.

The Reform Movement has long supported a two-state solution, and so do most Israelis.  The solution we envision, however, is one where both parties agree to the terms, rather than slamming the doors shut on the peace process just to sneak in through a window.  The Israeli government has repeatedly called on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table with no preconditions, and allow this process to continue toward peace.

For now, American Jews must remain vigilant.  There are petitions going around on the internet for us to sign through ARZA, the URJ, JCRC, and more.  Google "Palestinian Authority UN Resolution" and you will probably find one.  Sign as many as you can.  As I have said before, call your government representatives: If you want their phone numbers, just ask.  I have them programmed in my cell phone, and you should too.

Most importantly, we must continue to pray for the day when all nations will be one and at peace.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Four Hour Funeral

It all started after the food trucks.

On the way home, I notice what I thought was smoke pouring out of the side of my hood. I pull over and call AAA. Then I open my hood to see tons of steam, and what looks like melted plastic. So I wait for the tow truck to take me home, and as we drive I call for a rental car to be ready at 8am so I can get the car and be at work on time for the 10am meeting I have scheduled. Seems like it will be an expensive but uneventful morning.

Then morning came.

It was a pretty typical beginning, which means absolutely insane. The boys are getting ready at a snail's pace, they don't like breakfast (even though I made what they asked for), they don't want to brush their teeth, they don't want to wear swimsuits because they're not going swimming (even though they go swimming every day and love it), and Natalie is sleeping through most of this because they kept her up at all hours the night before. Finally it's my turn to get ready, and I ask Natalie if she can drop me off at the rental place as soon as the kids get picked up at 8. She says yes, then 8 comes and goes. The kids leave with their nanny, I'm ready to go, but she wants another cup of coffee. Then she wants breakfast. Next thing I know it's 8:50. I call the rental place and ask if they have my car and if they can pick me up.

"Sure," the guy assures me. "I will leave in a minute, as soon as I Mapquest your address. I'll call before I leave."

So I do a mad dash for the shower, shave, dress, and grab my phone. At 9:05 I call the place again.

"Hi, just wondering if you're on your way, it has been 15 minutes since he said he would Mapquest and leave, and I live 2 minutes from you."

"Oh, I'm sorry, we're waiting for more cars. We'll call you when we get one."

"Let me understand. You're waiting for more cars to come get me or more cars to rent?"

"To rent. We're out of cars. We'll call you when someone turns one in. It won't be more than an hour."

I look at the clock. It's 9:20. If I leave in 10 minutes I'll barely make it to work on time. Just then, the nanny comes back and says I can use her car for the day, as long as I get it back on time for her to pick up the kids at camp by 3:45. No problem, I think. I have a funeral that starts at 11:30, and I should be done by 1:30, home by 2:15. Piece of cake.

Famous last thoughts, but I did make it to my 10am meeting on time.

The family had asked that I show up to the funeral home at 11:00 in case anybody wanted to share any last minute thoughts. I told them that was a little early, but they seemed to need it. So I left the synagogue at 11--the funeral home is two minutes away. I sauntered in a little after 11, to warm greetings by the mourners. The entire funeral attendance consisted of the deceased woman's son and daughter-in-law, two of the three granddaughters with their husbands, and all three great-grandchildren, age 6 and below. The 99-year-old deceased woman lived a great life and enjoyed time with her three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her death was sad but not tragic. I had explained to them several time that the service would be very brief. A few psalms, some words of memory, some words of blessing, then we would head to the cemetery. At this point, I was right. We left the funeral home in North Miami Beach at about noon for the hour-long slow drive to Doral.

I made phone calls and marveled at how much nicer the nanny's car is than mine. One of the calls was to the rental place. They still did not have a car for me and would call when they got one. Hopefully within the next hour.

When we got to the graveside, we all pulled over and I got the family settled under the shelter they set up. The funeral director was helping the grave diggers pull the casket out of the hearse, and I walked over to let them know that we would be lowering the casket immediately. I wanted to save a little time and get out of there as fast as I could. After all, I had to return the nanny's car and try to get my rental (even thought the rental place still had not called) or try to get my car fixed.

As I approach the funeral director says, "Did they tell you about our little snag?"

"No," I say as the first drops of worry enter my mind, "what little snag?"

"Well, it seems we have the wrong size casket to fit in the vault."

(A vault is a concrete box that they put at the bottom of a grave to weigh down the casket if the water level rises too much. It is a state law that graves have these vaults. This particular vault is 26 1/2" wide. The casket is 28" wide, plus it had handles.)

Trying not to panic, I ask, "What do we do?"

So the funeral director, the grave diggers, the cemetery director, and I sort of huddle around the grave, looking down at the vault with our backs to the mourners. Occasionally we turn around and smile at them to assure them that everything is going to be all right. There is a great deal of finger-pointing at our huddle between the two directors, and finally they get on the phone to their managers. It turns out that the cemetery only has this size vault, and they tell all the funeral homes that they cannot bury larger caskets in the ground. So the body has to be brought back to North Miami Beach, transferred to another casket, and returned again to Doral. The drive alone should take 90 minutes. I look at a clock. It's already 1:30. I am not going to get home on time.

After frantic calls and texts to my wife and to my assistant, I get all my appointments cancelled, we find a way to get the kids, and I sit down with the mourners. There is no way I am going to get anywhere on time, so I might as well just focus on them. As it turns out, they are really fascinating people. The son is a Hollywood producer. Nothing huge, no blockbusters, but a lot of films I've seen. Very cool stuff. The granddaughters are lawyers, and they do a lot of work for disadvantaged clients on behalf of the state. Even the great-granddaughter had a cool story about her first few days at "clown camp" in the Boston area. We chatted about movies, horses and donkeys, Florida versus Jewish burial law, and the weather (which had gone from thunderstorm to bright shiny day in a matter of minutes--it's Florida). We repeatedly commented that we had never experienced nor heard of anything like this happening before. Oh, and the rental place called to tell me they had a car, but I had to get there fast because there was a line. I asked if they would hold it for me until 4.

At 3:04 the hearse returns with the new casket (a very nice one, I might add). The burial ceremony continues, and by 3:15 we are shoveling dirt graveside. We all waited as the lid was placed on the vault, and then the mourners left. So I followed suit. I went to shake hands with the son, the new eldest of the family. He ignored my hand, opened his arms, and took me in to a huge hug. Not a slap-the-back hug either, but a real, warm hug. It spoke greater volumes to me than the conversations we had as we waited, and meant much more.

I got in the nanny's car at 3:35, after four and a half hours with this family. I was tired and hungry, but at the same time felt like I had made a connection with nine really cool people. It was an interesting afternoon, to say the least.

As for my car, it needs a new engine. The melted plastic apparently used to be something pretty important. As important as the indicator that tells you if your engine is heating up, it would seem.

Friday, May 6, 2011

One of our fourth grade students here at Temple Sinai said last weekend was like a fairy tale. The prince and the princess were married, and the good guys got the bad guy…and I hear that a mega-wealthy Duke who wants to be king has requested to see the death certificate.

It certainly felt like I was living in a fairy tale when I heard that Rush Limbaugh even uttered the phrase, “God bless President Obama.” Of course, it turns out that he was being sarcastic, criticizing the president for taking too much credit for the raid he directed. But at least partisan pot-shots bring us back to reality. The reality is that on Sunday evening in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a team of Navy Seals found Osama Bin Laden. After being dropped by helicopter into his compound and enduring a 40-minute fire fight, Bin Laden was identified, shot, and killed.

For some of us it feels like the dragon that has been terrorizing our village for the past decade will never again harm us. For others it opens a dialogue of doubt and mistrust. For others it is an opportunity to forward internet memes.

I was in Israel 10 years ago on September 11, and I vividly remember watching the television for three days straight as we wondered what was going to happen to us as Americans in the Middle East. I remember the moment in time when many of us thought that retaliation was the only possible solution. I remember watching news clip after news clip of Al-Qaida supporters dancing in the streets and celebrating at our loss. It made us angry. So angry their leaders told them to stop for fear of what Americans might do.

When I first learned that Bin Laden had been killed, my initial reaction was relief—even joy. I was glad he was gone, and relieved that the head of the beast had been cut off. Then the tweets and texts started pouring in. People were rejoicing in a way that reminded me of those clips 10 years ago.

Looking at our sacred texts, however, teaches us a different message. The book of Proverbs says, “When your enemy falls do not celebrate, and when he stumbles do not rejoice” (24:17). This line comes right after the Proverb tells us that those who do not follow God’s ways are guaranteed to fall. Yet we are not supposed to rejoice when they do. When they die, all opportunity is lost. What miniscule chance there may have been for them to repent is gone. As the book of Ezekiel teaches us, God does not desire the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live (18:23).

A 13th century collection of Midrash called Yalkut Shimoni comments on the song at the sea, the poem the Israelites sing after they are saved from the Egyptian Army. God makes the Red Sea part for the Israelites, and they cross on dry land. The Egyptians follow close behind, but as soon as the Israelites are safely across, the sea closes and the Egyptians drown. Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in song praising God, and up above the angels are watching. When the angels begin to sing, God scolds them, “You want to sing while my children are drowning?” We are reminded that all human beings are created in the image of God. Not all the good ones or all with exception. Every human being is in the image of God. Even those who might do us harm.

There are teachings in our tradition that seem to contradict this notion. The Parashah we read this week gives us a review of the law of retaliation. Near the end of Parashat Emor, we read:

If a man maims another, as he has done so shall it be done to him: break for break, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I Adonai am your God.
The rabbis jump all over this verse. 11th century French commentator Rashi says that it should not be translated as inflicted, but as rendered, which implies commerce. Therefore, the comparison is not a physical one but a financial one. A man who loses an eye must be paid restitution for that eye, for example. In the early 12th century, Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra points out that there is no way to possible exact such a punishment physically. In the case of a break for a break, how could the break be made in exactly the same location? Even more so for an eye. Say a one-eyed man causes another man’s eye to be lost. Is it fair, ibn Ezra asks, to make one man go blind in exchange for taking half of the vision of another? So even in the case of lex talionis, we are not commanded to literally injure someone who injures us or even murder a murderer. Instead we are to seek justice. Punish them, but do not allow violence to beget violence.

Simply striking back when our enemies strike us would be giving in to our animal instincts. When the Israelites are saved at the Red Sea at the expense of the Egyptians, God lets them sing. They have just been freed from Egypt. They are confused, tired, and scared. They know they are no longer slaves to Egyptian rule, but they do not know what lies ahead of them. They are in limbo, in between freedom and redemption. When they leave Egypt their bodies are saved, but when they receive Torah they have the ability to free their minds.

The same is true for America. For the past decade we have focused on a scary monster dubbed “Terror.” We have been afraid for ten years to travel; we have allowed prejudice and bigotry to take over our political discourse; we have looked into the eyes of God’s creations and seen only that which is, “other.” Last weekend our Navy Seals took down a symbol of that monster’s power. Our struggle is not over. We will have more monsters to fight, more dragons to slay. We are free but not yet redeemed. We still have to free our minds. As a nation we must come to the realization that we must treat all human beings—even those who would do us harm—as they are: created in the image of God. Then we will be working toward the day when God will be one and God’s name will be one.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Yizkor Pesach

Salmon spend half of the year swimming with the current or gathering in ponds and inlets. When salmon reach sexual maturity sometime between ages 3 and 5, they fight to swim upstream, back to the location of their birth where they mate and return downstream. They find the spot where they were born to lay their eggs. Amazing! I can’t find my car in a parking lot. After 20 minutes in a store, I spend another 10 minutes wandering around trying to “channel my inner salmon.” I’m the guy setting off my car alarm so I can walk toward the honking after any concert I go to. I even downloaded an app called “Carrr Matey,” which allows me to “drop anchor” when I park, like a beacon that the GPS can find when I go back. This is a terrific app—when I remember to use it before I need it. That’s the tricky thing about memory. No matter what we do to trigger our memory, we need to remember to set the trigger so that our memory can be sparked when we need it.

No matter how our individual short term memory might fall short, our memory as a Jewish people is strong and will not fail us.

Passover is all about memory. The holiday is full of these triggers that help us remember our past and look forward to our future. We herald its beginning with a festive meal, during which we hold a Seder, a structured service. This service reminds us of the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt, being freed from the slavery and oppression of the Pharaoh and his taskmasters. There are symbolic foods served during the meal. These serve either as reminders of the Israelite slavery, or as reminders of the spring that is beginning, and the new life that sprouts every year at this time.

Throughout the week of Passover we avoid chametz and kitniyot, leavened products, and eat only matzah. This is also a dual reminder. Eating ha lachma anya, the poor bread, reminds us that we were destitute. We could not eat the fancy breads that had flavor and nourishment. Only the flat, dry, and tasteless bread was available for the slaves of Egypt. It also reminds us of the exodus; how we had to leave Egypt so quickly that the bread was not given sufficient time to rise. Matzah is a reminder of our freedom at the moment of our escape.

Now that we are approaching the end of Passover, we read about the end of our deliverance from Egypt. This morning we heard the cantor chant shirat hayam, the Song at the Sea. This was the moment our freedom was sealed. As the sea parted and allowed the Israelites to cross on dry land, God frees us from the Egyptians and points us toward Sinai. You see, our freedom is not complete just because we are out of Egypt. We have a lot of work to do, and the mountain that looms ahead of us is the reminder that keeping our freedom in tact is only viable if we remain faithful to God. We sing shirat hayam, a song of praise to God, but our journey is only beginning.

Our Haftarah this morning was read from the book of II Samuel. Its theme is also freedom from enemies. After winning battle after battle against the Philistines, David composes a song of praise to God, not too dissimilar from the Song at the Sea. He ends with these two verses:
For this I sing Your praise among the nations And hymn Your name: Tower of victory to God’s king, Who deals graciously with God’s anointed,With David and his offspring evermore
(2 Sam. 22:50-51).
Here his theme shifts. He is no longer singing about freedom, but of redemption. Migdol yeshu’ot malko, A tower of salvation is built to God’s sovereignty. A symbol of the permanence of freedom from our enemies. There is no more to fear because God is with us. All future generations of David will receive God’s grace. Every generation goes through hardships, but we persevere for the sake of future generation. Like a tower standing secure, we will be a beacon for future generations from now until the end of time.

As we move into Yizkor at the end of our Passover observance, we again evoke our sacred memory. We remember our loved ones who served as a beacon for us, and whose memory serves as an enduring blessing. Though we may not be able to see them or touch them, the memory of those who influenced our lives is a real and palpable thing. As a people we trigger our collective memory so that the lessons from our journey to freedom will not be lost on us. We look back to those who accompanied us on our way so that we can teach their lessons to today’s companions. We look back so that we can move forward in a way that will honor their memory and the freedom they have helped us attain. We sing songs of praise to God for the blessings of our loved ones who continue to bless us through the power of memory.

May the memories they leave with us help us to mold our lives into the models they would wish us to be.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Flipping Purim On Its Head

A Midrash teaches us that when the Messianic Age finally arrives and the world is perfected, there will be no need for any holidays or celebrations, so they will almost all be abolished. There will only be one holiday that will be celebrated in Jewish practice. We might think that holiday would be Yom Kippur, the one time most of us are in the synagogue, or Passover because it celebrates our redemption, or even Shabbat because it is a taste of the world to come. But we would be wrong on all three counts. Yes, the only holiday we will keep on our calendar in a perfected world will be Purim.

Doesn’t it seem a little odd that a minor festival focused on kids’ celebrations and joviality would be described by the rabbis as the only one that will exist in the future? Purim is a time to let loose our inhibitions, dress in silly costumes, drink alcohol, eat sweets, and listen to a lewd and funny story read from a scroll that looks a lot like our Torah. Some of the traditions of Purim are wonderful, like giving mishloach manot, “gift baskets,” to friends or to the needy. Some are strange, like eating cookies named after the villain’s ear. Others are just not recommended, like drinking until we cannot discern two characters of the Purim Spiel. Is this really the type of celebration we want to remain in a perfect world?

Perhaps when we put together two themes of the Purim story we can understand the rabbis’ intent when they suggest Purim will be eternal.

First is the theme of reversals. In the Purim story everything gets flipped on its head. Near the end of the Megillah it even points out that everything Haman had planned had the opposite effect: “…the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, v’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1). Haman built a gallows for Mordechai and was instead impaled upon it. Haman planned to kill the Jews on the 13th of Adar, but that was the day he was killed. He had planned glory and honor for himself that was instead bestowed upon Mordechai. V’na’afoch hu, the opposite happened, and the story is flipped on its head.

Second is the theme of hidden-ness. Haman hides a plot to assassinate the king and take his power, which Mordechai discovers only by hiding while he discusses it. The hero of the Purim story, Esther, derives her name from the Hebrew root that means hidden. Esther hides her identity from the King, and not until the climax of the story does she reveal that she is Jewish, thereby initiating all of the flipping that is done to Haman. In our Purim celebrations, we hide our own identities under costumes.

Perhaps the most striking hidden thing in the story is God. God is never mentioned in Megillat Esther. No miracles happen, nobody says a prayer, not once do we read God’s name during the Purim story. So if God is hidden, when na’afoch hu, the opposite happens, we become completely aware of God’s presence. It is evident at all times. In a perfect world, when we are completely aware of God’s presence at all times, it only makes sense that Purim be our only holiday. Because then Purim itself will be reversed, v’na’afoch hu, and the opposite will happen.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Remembering Debbie Friedman

Today is Shabbat Shira, our Sabbath of song. It is named for the section of Parashat Beshallach known as Shirat Hayam, the song of the sea. 19 verses of Torah containing some of the most beautiful poetry in the Torah. Literary theorists in support of documentary hypothesis claim that Shirat Hayam, along with Devorah’s song and Moses’ blessing at the end of Deuteronomy, is one of the oldest bits of text redacted into the Bible. It contains the familiar words mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai, mi kamocha nedar bakodesh, which we sing every day to proclaim God’s role in our salvation. Even the layout of the text in the Torah scroll draws our eye to it, and makes it stand out as special and different. They are patterned to remind us either of the waves of the sea the Israelites have just walked through, or to remind us of the bricks they use in construction for the Egyptians.

The verses after Shirat Hayam are called Shirat Miriam, the Song of Miriam. This is a refrain of the first verse of Shirat Hayam, preceded by an introduction. (Plaut pg. 490) In English it says,

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea (Exodus 15:20-21).

That’s it. That’s all Miriam sings.

In our modern narrative we often think of Miriam leading the entire Israelite community in song, and many of us conflate Shirat Hayam with Shirat Miriam.

If you flip back just one page in the Plaut Commentary (pg. 489), you can see Moses’ song in its entirety. The two-page spread of Shirat Hayam almost makes Miriam’s song pale in comparison. But we don’t think of Moses as the great singer and dancer. We think of Miriam. And we’re not the only ones. The 10th Century French commentator Rashi even suggests that Miriam’s song was an entire repetition of Moses’ song, but truncated because the Torah does not waste words.

Today we still extol Miriam as one of the great prophets of the Bible. She gets her own cup at the Passover Seder. Timbrels are decorated in her honor. Some Modern Orthodox Jews even put a piece of fish on their Seder plate to represent Miriam. All because of how much it means to us as a people to be led in song.

Music is central to the Jewish people. When we hear a niggun, a wordless melody, it helps us focus on prayer or study. We write music to our liturgy. We even read our Torah by singing it—chanting it—to drive its words into our hearts.

Those who lead us in song are great among our people. The word for Cantor in Hebrew is chazzan, which does not mean singer. It means visionary. Someone who sees deep into the meaning of the text and makes that depth accessible to us with music. In NFTY, the Reform Movement’s youth group, there is a core of song leaders who are considered part of the regional board. Musicians bring meaning into Judaism and deserve a special place among us.
One musician in particular has had a long-lasting impact on the Jewish community. Sadly, we lost her this week, and communities all over the world are using this Shabbat, Shabbat Shira, to honor her memory and use her music for worship.

Deborah Lynn Friedman grew up in St. Paul, MN. She was active in her NFTY chapter, and started writing songs to the liturgy and to themes of social action, often using rabbinic and biblical texts. For almost 40 years she brought her music to Jews of all ages, all over the world.
Debbie Friedman’s music taught me the Alef-Bet. We used her version of the Ve’ahavta at the summer camp I went to. Religious school teachers used her songs to teach us about Chanukah and Tu B’shevat.

When Natalie and I were in Moscow, we went to Shabbat morning services at a tiny synagogue celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. Even there, they used Debbie Friedman’s setting to Shema, Mi Chamocha, and Mi Shebeirach. That’s what they knew.

In Fairbanks Alaska, one of the congregants asked me if I could use the traditional Mi Shebeirach for services instead of the new ones we were learning. I asked what was traditional to him, and he began humming Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach.

Her music is deeply ingrained in modern Jewish practice, and on the hearts of Modern Jews. Like Miriam, she led all the Israelites in song. Her music is our music, and our music is her legacy.