To Electrify or Not?

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When I was growing up, my family and I would light the Hanukah menorah every night in the kitchen.  We had one for the family.  It would sit on the counter and we would light together and then sing Maoz Tzur in an English translation that I never understood.  My brothers or I would run our fingers quickly the flames as my mother would tell us to stop it.  We rarely had presents.  I remember wondering why we didn’t have an electric menorah like so many of my friends.  My mother would say that it wasn’t a REAL menorah.

 

As I became an adult, I learned about the custom of “publicizing the miracle.”  We needed to show off our remembrance of the miracle of a little vial of purified oil lasting 8 days instead of 1.  So, I would light my candles in the  window, sing Maoz Tzur in Hebrew, and then turn my hanukiyah around so the entire world could see the “miracle.”  It didn’t matter that for most of my adult life, I’ve lived on a high floor in the city.

 

One year, a parent gave me an electric chanukiyah for a gift. It was beautiful dark mental with delicate lights.  This gift changed my entire Hanukah life!  While we still light candles every day, the electric hanukiyah would “burn” brightly from our 4th floor window.  And while I am not sure that it really was visible from the street, or the neighbors across the broad NYC avenue,  it changed our evening.  Now, instead of having the candle burns for just a 1/2 hour or maybe more, they would seem to be lit all night.  That hanukiyah with the delicate lights has been changed for one with larger lights.

When I was in Jerusalem, I remember coming home from school and being excited to see all the hanukiyot in the windows. I may not be in Jerusalem, but when I came home last night and saw our electric menorah shining from across the street, it was very exciting.
Happy Hanukah y’all

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I Make Jews

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At Thanksgiving dinner, someone I hadn’t seen for several years asked me what I was doing for a living and I replied, “I make Jews.” The person was a little startled by response, so I explained that I was a Jewish educator and a rabbi. That I work in a synagogue and supervise teachers of Hebrew and Jewish studies. That I marry people who want to have Jewish households and I bury people who lived their lives as Jews. I train students for the most important of Jewish rituals, their bar or bat mitzvah and I teach them lifelong rituals like lighting Shabbat and Hanukah candles and putting on a tallit.
Or I could have said:

I make Jews be Jews.
I make Jews whose parents want them to be Jews.
I make Jews who have no idea how to be Jews.
I make Jews who wonder.
I make Jews who question.
I make Jews who think.
I make Jews who pray.
I make Jews who sing.
I make Jews who dance.
I make Jews who struggle.
I make Jews who make other Jews.
I make Jews who are resilient.
I make Jews who make Jewish families.
I make Jews who learn how to do Jewish rituals
I make Jews who make Jewish rituals.
I make Jews read Hebrew.
I make Jews who kvetch.
I make Jews who laugh.
I make Jews who will go out into the world and do great things.
I make Jews who will just be Jews.

 

So perhaps it is just easier to say, “I make Jews.”

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Toldot, Can’t We Just All Get Along?

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A few years ago, I was at some sort of education workshop, and I was asked to illustrate this week’s parasha, Toldot. I am not a great drawer and I am especially bad at faces. I simply drew a belly (Rebecca’s womb) with two boxing gloves inside. I thought that even in the womb, these two brothers, Jacob and Esau, were battling it out.

Some may call this portion the sibling rivalry parasha. While it might be rivalry on Esau’s part, deception is what comes to mind when thinking about Jacob. First Esau comes to Jacob and says, “I’m hungry! I shall not live if I don’t eat something.” So Jacob trades a bowl of red soup (yes, folks, this is the red lentil soup Shabbat!) for Esau’s birthright. Is this the first documented case of really bad ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder)? And Jacob takes full advantage of it. And then, toward the end of the portion, Jacob is truly deceptive (with help from his mother) in dressing up as his brother to steal their father’s blessing. Poor Esau. Is he destined to be a shlimmazel or the leader of a great nation? Is he all brawn and no brains?

If I were asked to write a headline for this portion (as I often ask students to do), it might read:

Special Needs Student is Duped by Brother!

Mother Plays Favorites!

Birthright and Blessing Stolen: Perpetrator Escapes!

Cross-Dressing Leads to Theft!

Brother Threatens to Kill Brother

These could be right out of a tabloid newspaper or reality tv. Perhaps this is the precursor to reality tv?

And what is it about brothers in the Bible? Jacob and Esau? Cain and Abel? Issac and Ishmael? Joseph versus them all? No one seems to get along. And for the women, there aren’t many stories to examine. But I can’t help wondering what kind of relationship Rachel and Leah had after Leah married Jacob.

Sometimes, you just have to wonder why these are the ancestors that we look to as our leaders, reciting their names every day in the Amidah. (Or at least we recite the ones that we see as our ancestors.) It’s easy for some commentators to lean on the “God had a plan” angle or to portray Esau as evil and not a dupe. I always wonder if the entire point is that our ancestors were human, and flawed, and still led us to be a great nation. So while we are b’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image, maybe we are also created in our ancestors’ image. And even though we are flawed, we can also do great things.

Next week, many of us will sit down together with our families to share food, stories, and history. Will we be Godlike in our dealings with our siblings, cousins, or parents, or maybe a bit more human, like our ancestors? Will we renew old feuds or just move on? Will we bring our best food to get a blessing? Or perhaps, will we realize that the blessing will be that we are all together and it is not something to be stolen, but shared?

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Blogging the Torah: Parashat Chayei Sarah, Ulai

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On most days, I usually think that it must be a good day if I do not say, “mah la-asot?” (what can you do?) or “yiyeh-tov” (it will be all right) too early in the day.  On some days I say both. On Thursday, I was delighted to hear an alternative from my friend and colleague Daniel Reiser, in his senior sermon presented at HUC-JIR in New York.  “Ulai– what if!”  What if we are open to new possibilities?  What if we see ourselves and others through the lens of the future and not the past?  What if we are willing to take risks instead of following the certain path?

Ulai?  What if?

 

Ulai

Posted by Daniel Reiser

The following was delivered as my senior sermon at HUC-JIR.

In the spring of 1940, as a war was raging in Europe, Harry Reiser, a postal worker from Brooklyn, met a young woman in his neighborhood named Sally Finkelstein. He thought she was sweet; she thought he was funny. They started dating that summer.

On December 7th the following year, “a date that will live in infamy,” Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. America was at war. Troops were needed for the front. Nurses were needed for the wounded. And postal workers, like Harry, were needed to circulate messages between battalions. And so, at the risk of his life, funny Harry Reiser shipped off to the Philippines, leaving sweet Sally Finkelstein behind in Brooklyn.

This is the story of my grandparents. This is the story of “when Harry met Sally.” And like that romantic comedy, my grandparents’ story is a tale of risk and uncertainty. Although he promised to return, and although she promised to wait,  certainly, both of them endured many sleepless nights wondering: “What if…?”

Similarly, “when Isaac met Rebekah” is a story of risk and uncertainty. Abraham sends the chief of his household, an unnamed servant, to find a wife for his son, Isaac. It is a critical task. The future of the covenant is at stake. Isaac’s young life—already torn by an estrangement from his half-brother, the trauma of Mount Moriah, and most recently, the death of his mother—Isaac’s very personhood is at stake. Recognizing the weight of his task, Abraham’s servant asks: “Ulai lo toveh ha-ishah la-lechet acharai / What if the woman isn’t willing to follow me?”

Ulai. “What if…?” Our whole lives are staked on the uncertainty of “What if?” Ulai the woman won’t follow me? Ulai a war breaks out and someone that I love is shipped off to the Philippines? Ulai an unexpected illness, or a hurricane, or a car crash suddenly alters the course of my life forever? Ulai today is the day I loose someone that I love?

Where do we find the courage each day to endure the uncertainty of ulai—the uncertainty of being alive? Our parashah presents three possible responses: the response of Abraham’s servant, of Rebekah, and of Isaac.

***

Abraham’s servant is charged with the task of finding a wife for Isaac. But ulai—what if he can’t find the right woman? How will he know which one is “the one”?

Our Torah text doesn’t give Abraham’s servant a name, but the midrash calls him Eliezer. El-i ezer—“my God is a helper.” And indeed, Eliezer does ask for God’s help. But the kind of help he requests is not the kind of help that God can give. Eliezer doesn’t ask for courage, or strength, or focus, or wisdom. Rather, Eliezer asks for God’s help in the form of a sign: “Let the woman who waters both me and my camels be the one that You, oh God, have designated for Isaac.” Eliezer asks that God intervene with a shooting star or a bolt of lightening. When the highway of life threatens with the intimidating words “What if…?” Eliezer asks for a flashing billboard that says: “Here! Turn here!”

Looking for a sign is not as strange as it sounds. While few of us expect that the faces on TV will turn and address us personally, many of us, at least sometimes, believe the fortune cookie or the horoscope when they tell us that good things await. I remember standing in my driveway as a third grader and wondering whether I would get a certain part in the school play. “If I can just make this basketball shot,” I thought to myself, “then I’ll know that the part is mine.” But this is a child’s prayer, an attempt to know the future, a hope to build an impossible bridge between two unrelated events.

Eliezer is playing a game of “She’ll love him; she’ll love him not,” imagining that by plucking petals off of a flower, he might avoid the risk inherent in looking for love.

It’s no wonder, then, that a midrash imagines that Eliezer arrived at Rebekah’s well on the very same day that he left Canaan. According to the midrash, the road contracted before him, and in just one step, Eliezer traveled a distance that should have taken him several days.

But there are no shortcuts from here to there, no contracting roads, no magic, no fortune cookies. When the universe says ulai, there’s no use in waiting for God to intervene with a miracle. And so we must seek a different model of enduring the challenge of ulai. And this is where we meet Rebekah: at the well.

Our tradition praises Rebekah for being generous, kind, and industrious. When a stranger asks her for a sip of water, she helps him. When his camels are thirsty, she draws water, unprompted, for them all. When he needs a place to rest for the night, she offers her house. The Kli Yakar calls her “the bride with the beautiful eyes,” because she was both a beauty to behold, and because she saw the world through a lens of beauty. Where others might have seen a foreign beggar, Rebekah saw a traveller in need.

But Rebekah’s well is much deeper than this. More astounding even than her generosity is her courage. When she’s asked whether or not she will follow this strange man and his invisible God to a foreign land in order to marry a man she’s never met, Rebekah gives an elegant, bold, two-syllable reply: “eileich / I’ll go.”

By saying “I’ll go,” Rebekah sets herself apart even from Moses, who asks hesitantly: “Mi anochi ki eileich el Paraoh? / Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Rebekah more closely resembles Abraham, who was willing to leave behind his home and family in order to lech lecha to a land that God would show him. Avraham, Ha-Ivri / Abraham, the one who crosses from there to here. Abraham, of radical departure. Rebekah will be a natural fit as his daughter-in-law. Rivkah, eileich / Rebekah, who dares to go. Rebekah, who has the courage to set out on a journey even before she knows the destination.

To say eileich in the face of ulai requires a well-spring of courage. It is therefore appropriate that a midrash imagines that—unlike the other women at the well, who had to dip their buckets into it—for Rebekah, the water rose up to meet her, overflowing the mouth of the well. Like the well, Rebekah overflows with bravery—a spring of courage. Her name, Rivkah—Avivah Zornberg points out—is an anagram of kirbah, inside. As with an overflowing well, the courage that is kirbah Rivkah cannot be contained. When life says ulai, the waters of courage rise up to meet her, and out of her mouth pours the wordeileich.

And while Rebekah’s bravery is impressive, it may be too high an expectation to set for ourselves. For most of us, when the universe says ulai, our waters of courage don’t rise, but rather, recede. And so we must seek yet another model of enduring the challenge ofulai—a model somewhere in between Eliezer’s and Rebekah’s, a model that is at once braver than looking for a miraculous contracting road, and yet more realistic than expecting that our well of courage will miraculously overflow. And this is where we meet Isaac: standing in a windy field at dusk.

Throughout his young life, Isaac had learned to guard himself against the messiness ofulai. When his only friend—his half-brother, Ishmael—was banished from the family, leaving Isaac alone and friendless, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. When the neighbors would mock him with the thought that Abraham and Sarah were far too old to be his real parents, Isaac would hide safely in his tent. For months, after his father had stolen him away early one morning to do unspeakable things to him on the top of Mount Moriah, all Isaac could do to hold back his tears—to wall himself in, to keep people out—was hide safely in his tent.

But for all of us, there comes a time when the cold desert wind of ulai rips through the flap of the tent, reminding us that these walls that we build to guard ourselves are made only of burlap. Isaac’s mother—who unguardedly loved her guarded son—dies, unexpectedly. Isaac, who didn’t like to show his feelings—Isaac, who’d been hiding out, safely in his tent—never got to say goodbye.

The tent that had once kept him safe now only reminds him of all that he didn’t let in. And so Isaac runs away, in search of a new safe-haven—somewhere in which he can try to put the pieces of his broken life back together. He goes out looking for the only other home he’s ever known. As a midrash has it, Isaac goes looking for Hagar.

He finds her out in the desert, by a well called Be’er Lachai Roi—the Well of Living and Seeing. The minute Hagar sees his face, she knows all that has happened. She opens her arms to him, and he cries—sobs—letting out all of the tears that he had held in for so long.

Isaac stays with Hagar for many weeks at Be’er Lachai Roi. One afternoon, as they’re drawing from the well, he notices Hagar’s reflection in the water. In the reflection, Isaac sees Hagar not as she looks today, but rather as she once looked, many years ago. Can it be? Isaac looks a little closer.

He peers into the Well of Living of Seeing, and he sees Hagar. Her face is younger, less wrinkled. She is clutching young Ishmael—a morsel of bread in one hand, a skin of water of in the other—as they set off, forever, into the wilderness. He sees himself tied to a bundle of wood on Mount Moriah, his hands and feet bound, a ram caught in the thicket, the glint of the knife. He sees his mother’s empty tent, his father sobbing, the wet, bleak Cave of Machpelah, the Hittites watching as they bury her body. Isaac peers into the Well of Living and Seeing, and for the first time, he sees the life that he had been hiding from—all the mess, all the uncertainty, all the pain of being alive.

Before Hagar even realizes what has happened, Isaac plants a kiss goodbye on her wrinkled cheek. He’s headed home.

As Isaac approaches the field outside his home, and dusk is rolling in, a caravan of camels appears on the horizon. Isaac instinctively begins to turn towards his tent, to protect himself from the approaching ulai. But then he stops. His whole life he’d been in hiding. But hiding hadn’t kept him safe. And so, Isaac tries something he’s never tried before: vayisa einav, vayar—Isaac lifts his eyes, and faces the unknown.

When we allow ourselves to see our own mess and uncertainty—when we peer into the Well of Living and Seeing—that’s when we become fully human. Because the goal isn’t to overcome the uncertainty, but rather, to have compassion for ourselves as we mess our way through. And with compassion for our own beautiful mess, we may find ourselves willing to take the greatest risk of all: “Va-t’hi lo l’ishah, vaye’ehave-ha. And Isaac took Rebekah as his wife. And he loved her.”

***

On August 26th, 1945—just two weeks after World War II ended in Japan—funny Harry Reiser, dressed in his army uniform, married sweet Sally Finkelstein. The world had saidulai—he had gone to war; she had waited in Brooklyn. But unlike Eliezer, they didn’t pray for God to miraculously intervene. And unlike Rebekah, they didn’t imagine that there was no risk at all.

Harry and Sally—like all of us—most closely resembled Isaac. Of course, they were afraid. Of course, they were uncertain. But they did they only thing that any of us can do: they lifted their eyes, and faced the risk of being alive.

If, by some triumph of the imagination, I could have been at their wedding, I would have liked to have lifted a glass and toasted: “L’chaim!” Not “To the good life!” or “To the sweet life!” Not “To the easy life!” or “To the certain life!” Just “To life,” with all its mess and uncertainty. To living. To seeing. We’d lift a glass. We’d lift our eyes. And together, we’d say: L’chaim!

————–

Re- posted with permission of the author: http://thegreatschnoz.blogspot.com/2014/11/ulai-senior-sermon.html

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Thine Alabaster Cities Gleam. And We Weep.

September 11, 2014, New York City

It has become an annual ritual. I turn on the t.v. early in the morning.

I listen to the names representing every ethnic and religious group. Names of those brutally murdered on this date thirteen years ago. Names of those who just went to work, as they did every day. Names of those who went to work to try to save others.

I listen to the bells. The bells that tell me a plane crashed, a tower fell. I stop everything for the moments of silence.

I listen to the stories of loss and I cry. Children, spouses, cousins, friends. I am stunned by how many say that they will see their loved one again, one day.  It’s over 3 hours and the names keep coming.

And I wait for the name of my friend Steven Jacobson. I see his picture on the screen with his age, 53 years old.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It still seems unreal.

I wonder why. I wonder what was accomplished. Death and destruction here, Shanksville, PA, the Pentagon, has led to death and destruction in so many towns, cities, countries. Has anyone won anything? Was there any higher purpose found? Is the world a better place for all of this loss? I fear it may be worse.

We cried. We prayed. We buried the dead that we could. We fought over how to move forward. We sang, “America the Beautiful.” We learned the last stanza which we rarely sang before:

O Beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

I look out my kitchen window and I see the space where the towers stood, framing the Jefferson Market Library. I see the new tower and wonder why it needed to be built. I wonder why it could not have been a memorial space. And I wonder what the New Year will bring. The President announces new troops being sent to far away lands. New horrors to face. There are real enemies. Ultimately, new names to add to this never ending list of war and death.

Many times a day we pray:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ta-aseh shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Yisrael, ve-al kol yoshvey teivel, v’imru, amen.

May the one who makes peace in the high places make peace for all of Israel and all of us. And let us say: Amen.

I’m not sure it’s enough. I’m not sure what else to do.

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My Big, Fat Angry Summer

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For educators, summertime is supposed to be a great time. Many of us have large swaths of time off, even if for most of us it is unpaid. One would think that that this great, especially during a summer like this one where the weather has been most cooperative. Usually, any summer without major schvitz is a good one in my book! But this summer has been different. Personally, I have been hampered by a bad ankle, which was re-injured in June. Wearing an ankle brace does not go well with sandals and pedicures. (I was tempted to call this “My Left Foot,” but you have to be old to know that movie.) I’ve been pretty angry about my ankle (I’m finally feeling some progress just in time for school to begin) and my lack of mobility has let to way too much news watching. And what I have seen has made me angry.

When we began the summer, three teens in Israel went missing. I was fearful for them and I knew, in my gut, that this was not going to end well. And it still hasn’t ended.

I’m angry that Israelis have been dodging missile strikes for longer than any of us in the West realized.

I’m angry that just because Israelis aren’t dying from the strikes, the world acts as if they don’t matter.

I’m angry that Israelis have died, soldiers and civilians.

I’m angry Israeli children are sleeping in safe rooms and stairwells during nap time. I’m angry that in many Israeli towns, the sound of the siren is a call for fear and not just an alert that Shabbat is about to begin.

I’m angry that Hamas has built no such safe rooms for its own children.

I’m angry that the Gazans elected terrorists as their leaders.

I’m angry that Hamas sees such little value for the lives of their people that they put them at risk.

I’m angry that Hamas has turned Israelis into murders by their use of human shields.

I’m angry that instead of building schools and hospitals to help Gazans, Hamas built tunnels to destroy Israel.

I’m angry that Hamas dares to break every convention of decency by placing bombs and other weapons in schools, hospitals, and residential neighborhoods.

0f714587ae68491d0665458af4a5f74bI’m angry that Hamas hates Israel so much that they are willing to destroy their own in an effort to destroy Israel. Golda Meir’s words still stand: Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.

I’m angry that this has led to anti-Semitic violence around the world.

I’m angry that whatever lesson plans and curriculum we have for teaching Israel will have to be tossed and rewritten, even though most of us have no clue what to say and many of us will continue to teach the happy, conflict-free version of Israel.

I’m angry that it seemed sometimes as if the world were falling apart.

I’m angry that airplanes fell from the sky, some by bombs, some by weather, some by who-knows?

I’m angry that American troops are back in Iraq.

I’m angry that Facebook is no longer fun. It is the place to find news that I don’t find elsewhere. It is now the first place to hear about death and destruction.

I’m angry that “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, imagesyearning to be free,” doesn’t seem to apply if you come to America from the south. The government who welcomed my ancestors from the hands of oppressors are so mean-spirited and ungenerous when it comes to children fleeing gangs and harm.

I’m angry that there are those who think their interpretation of the Second Amendment trumps all others. I’m angry that they forget about the other rules of law and don’t want the government to interfere with their lives, except for their own entitlements.

images-1I’m angry that Robin Williams killed himself. First I was really angry at him. How dare he do something so narcissistic! You have three children. Suck it up! Life is hard. How dare you! As word has surfaced, who knows what is true, that he was ill and clinically depressed, I was angry at myself for being such an idiot and I became angry that he felt that he had no choice.

I’m angry that police seem to think that their power is in their guns. That their power is in their force. That they kill over such crap as who is selling cigarettes on the street in Staten Island. That they kill over who is walking on the sidewalk and who isn’t. That one shot isn’t enough. That they kill black men, black boys, without a thought. That the value of the lives of Eric Garner and Mike Brown are up for debate. I’m angry that the story never changes whether it is Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. I’m angry that there are those who see this as an excuse to steal and destroy.

I’m angry that there are ugly, prejudiced people in this country who are celebrating and glorifying the officer who shot Mike Brown.

So what do I do with all this anger? Some would say that I have to stop watching tv or looking at the news. With Rosh Hodesh Elul just around the corner, it seems that I must find a better way. Even though it is a struggle, I am going to follow some of my Facebook friends who search daily for something to be grateful for. Here goes:

I’m grateful that Israel still stands, and always will, as a free nation.

I’m grateful that I live in a nation where I will have Jewish students to teach Judaism to, even if I have no idea what to say.

I’m grateful that my great grandparents were able to come to America and escape whatever horrors followed.

I’m grateful that my five beautiful nieces are successfully finding their way. Their world may not be 100% perfect, but because they’re white, they don’t have to worry about being shot on the streets by police, at least not on purpose.

I’m grateful that I have a home that has little chance of being bombed along with a loving spouse and the most spectacular kitties that ever existed.

I’m grateful that in front of the makeshift memorial where Mike Brown was killed, someone has set up a voter registration table.

I’m grateful that Robin Williams’ death is leading to a discussion on mental health in this country. Since it is not related to the Second Amendment, maybe it will even go somewhere.

I’m grateful to have wonderful children in my life who will have the opportunity to explore the world as they grow.

I’m grateful to have a diverse group of friends who I can discuss the hard issues with.

I’m grateful that I can have a list of things I’m grateful about, even if it shorter than the list of things that I am angry about.

The Torah tells us that there are blessings and curses and we should find the blessings. The Torah tells us to choose life.

My_Left_FootAnd I’m grateful for my good health. Except of course for my left foot!

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You Win Some, You Lose Some. Sometimes You Do Both

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     What does it mean to win? When kids are little, we like to give everyone a medal whether they are first or last in the race. It builds confidence and encourages kids to do more. Kids play games all the time where they win. Most of the time, they get to go out for ice cream after their baseball or soccer game whether they win or lose. As adults, we have different standards of winning. We win a contract. We lose a client. Although even now, some of those standards seem to be muddied. What does it mean to win the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Can we really win an election if manipulation or cheating is involved?

     The United States Soccer (or is it Football) team is changing the meaning for us through their World Cup play. On Friday, headlines across the country and internet shouted: US Loses – Advances to Next Round. How could that be? We tell kids all the time (or at least we used to): It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. And in this case, that seems to be true. Although I’m not a big follower of the game, and I don’t pretend to really understand the process, it seems that the cumulative effort of the team’s scoring throughout the round helped advance the team to the single-elimination segment of the tournament when winning is indeed everything.

     Let’s think about this for a minute. What can this concept mean in our world? Although in the end one must perform, there are second chances. One game, one test, does not determine the totality of your abilities. We can be forgiven for a bad catch, a bad play, a miss, and still move on. Those of us who, like me, do poorly on tests might appreciate this kind of scoring. In this world of high stakes (and high revenue) testing, winner-take-all can have some very bad consequences. And maybe we can bring home our troops without wondering whether we’ve won or lost and just reflect on what we’ve accomplished.

     What we can learn from our national team? Perhaps we should measure success by the standards of Pirkei Avot 4:1)

Who is wise? The one who learns from others…
Who is strong? The one who controls his emotions…
Who is rich? The one who is happy with his share…
Who is honored? The one who honors others.

 

     Or we should look to what the Torah says about how you play the game, whatever your game may be. In Leviticus 19:14, we are told to not put a stumbling block before the blind. Everyone deserves a fair shot. Sometimes, even two!

GO USA!!!!!!

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So Nu? Who Doesn’t Want to be Happy?

imagesOne of my all-time favorite movie lines comes from the 1970 Lovers and Other Strangers. The movie is set around an upcoming wedding, blending a stereotypical Italian family with a WASPY family. Bea Arthur, with shoe-polish black hair high on her head, plays an Italian mother, constantly feeding everyone around her. Just as her younger son is getting married, her older son’s marriage is disintegrating. Why? Because they are not happy. When asked by her son if she is happy, her response is, “Don’t look for happiness, it will only make you miserable.”

     I just love that line and I think about it from time to time. And it came to mind when Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” burst into our consciousness. (I suspect it was a bit slower to reach my consciousness than those of the rest of the world.) It’s a catchy tune. Some say it’s the song of the summer, even though the thermometer is nowhere near summer yet, at least in NYC.

     When I first heard the lyrics (they are all below), I was really struck by one line: “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” As a rabbi knee deep into wedding season, I made an immediate comparison to the chuppah. I talk about the chuppah as a fragile home, that needs constant tending. Its open sides represent a home that is welcoming to others. I suppose “a room without a roof” represents limitless possibilities. But it seems fairly singular to me. Where is the interaction with others?

     I admit, as I parse the text of the song, there is so much that I don’t understand. What does it mean that “happiness is the truth?” In Verse 2, the singer tells us not to tell him about bad news, he’s not going to listen. Is this someone that I would want to talk to?

    Perhaps I should just skip the lyrics. There is no doubt that just listening to the song, “Happy” makes me happy. My body starts moving and my mood sings. I have often wondered when the actual act of singing “Oseh Shalom,” a prayer asking God for peace, can create peace, if only for the moment that we are singing it. Is that enough?

       Maya Angelou, the great poet and speaker who died this week said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

     And clearly, people feel happy singing, “Happy,” even in Jersusalem. What could be bad about that?

 

“Happy”

by Pharrell Williams

[Verse 1:]
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

[Chorus:]
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

[Verse 2:]
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why

[Chorus]

Hey, come on

[Bridge:]
(happy)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said

[Chorus 2x]

Hey, come on

(happy)
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down… my level’s too high…
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down, I said (let me tell you now)

[Chorus 2x]

Come on

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For Better or For Worse

I have a confession to make. I grew up a Mets fan, and while I don’t currently watch much baseball, if you asked me what my favorite team is, I would still say the Mets. Although I often say, “Iimages grew up in Flushing and I’m used to disappointment.” Over the years, I often passed Shea Stadium either on the highway or subway. During lean times, I would notice few fans in the stands. In winning years, even the outfield seats by Mr. Met were filled. In 1986 when they won the championship, I attended many games. That was when I became a fan of listening to sports on the radio. Bob Murphy would call the games as I spent a lazy day in Prospect Park. The high of the series carried over to the next years. I will always remember the standing ovationFinal-Season-at-Shea-0112-1024x768s that we gave Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter at their last game on a chilly night in September ’89.

     And in the winter, the other team would play. The New York Jets. I didn’t really understand football too much, but I did understand that it was a big deal when my grandmother wangled my big brothers and me seats to see Joe Namath and the Jets play.

     As I took the Number 7 train out to my parents’ house the other day for a pre-Mother’s-Day lunch, I look up at the Willets Point stop and thought of Shea. Finally, after nearly 5 years, I will be attending my first game at CitiField on Memorial Day weekend, with my old light-blue Mets cap on my head.

     It was my during that trip to Flushing that I was listening to urlpodcasts, as usual, and I heard a NPR Story of The Day interview with Mariano Rivera. Even a Mets fan like me knows that Manny Rivera was the incredible closer for the Yankees who just retired last season. In all the years Rivera was in NY, his picture was never splattered across the tabloids for anything but his amazing arm.

     In the interview with NPR’s Scott Simon about Rivera’s new book, I learned that Rivera is a religious Christian. He lives in the Bronx now and is active in his church. The interview wound its way to religion and baseball. “My faith in the Lord is everything,” Rivera said. “I’m not going to second guess my faith.” He explained that this was how he was able to walk away from losing game game 7 of the World Series. Because he “gave all that he had.”

     Simon asked about the habit that many players have of pointing to the heavens when they make a good play. “I don’t know who they are acknowledging…I never have done it…If you point to the sky when you did something good, then when you did something bad or you strike out, you are cursing … What are you doing? You are only taking the good times, but the bad times you won’t….That’s where you have to shine. In the middle of the adversity you still have to point to the sky and say, you know what Lord, thank you for the moment, because you permitted it.”

     The thing about listening to podcasts is that you might be on the train or walking down the street and sometimes you hear something stunning. I have even been brought to tears by the stories coming through my headphones, a weird occurrence when on the subway. But now, while just going through some ordinary activity, I heard something extraordinary. While Rivera’s viewpoint of God is different from mine, we agree on one thing. We can’t just look to God in thanks or in pain, but we need to remember God in just the regular times. Some Jews have this habit of saying “Baruch HaShem – Blessed is the Name” in response to “how are things?” or even when the bus arrives when you need it to. But what do you say when it’s a cold night and the bus is really late? Do you blame God or take a taxi? Or say “Baruch HaShem?”

     Today I was talking about God with fifth graders. One student asked why there are no miracles any more. He said, “There are lots of miracles in the Bible.” Why aren’t there miracles now? First I told him that I wondered whether there really are that many miracles in the Bible considering the span of time that the text covers. Also, I reminded him that there was a miracle every day that we all experienced. The earth turned on its axis and the sun came out every day. So I asked the questions, “Is it possible that God and science can work together?” One student said, “Maybe science is God’s assistant.”

     So now I am a Mariano Rivera fan. Just don’t ask me to wear a Yankees cap.

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Life, Death, and the Address Book

address-book-15x21cmMy mother always kept the family address book in the little drawer near the kitchen. I have always been drawn to little notebooks and diaries, so of course I loved to look through this. When someone moved, the old address would be crossed out and the new one put in below or above. My mom did not use correction fluid. The record would stand. As we started to go to college, I think there must have been many crossed out addresses for my brothers and me. One day, I remember it distinctly, I was looking for someone’s address, probably for a birthday card, and I found the address of a favorite aunt who had died years before. Her address was not x’d-out. She was still there.

I was reminded of my mother’s address book a few months ago as I saw a Facebook birthday reminder for someone who had died. While they were no longer with us, their Facebook page lived on. (Unfortunately, this has actually happened more than once in my Facebook universe.) At first I was startled. It was jarring to see their picture come up as someone with a birthday that week. Then I was truly moved by the outpouring of feelings for my friend. They were truly missed.

Truly I am torn by seeing a birthday announcement for someone who will no longer have birthdays. So many questions. How can they be listed next to all those who are alive and well? Why hasn’t Facebook taken their page down? Don’t they know intuitively that a person has died? Can’t Facebook feel it like I do? Why don’t they have a place for the “Date of Death” on the “About Me” page? Who would fill it in? But in the end I am glad to see their smiling faces and be reminded of the joy that they brought to me and to so many others.

As I have come to believe, social networks, used for good and not for evil, can help broaden our lives. We learn about events that we may have missed. We can share happy or sad occasions with others. And here, we can have a public Yarzheit, an annual remembrance of the person who has died. In the Amida, the standing prayer that we recite three times a day, we refer to God as “m’chayei ha-meitim – Who brings life to the dead.” It’s easy to want to think about this literally and there are those who believe that when the Messiah comes, everyone will rise up. I like to think of this as a reminder that I must teach something that someone who has died has taught me. When I tell people about a recipe that my grandmother taught me, she is here. And if someone that I teach it to passes it on, then her legacy continues. Through the teaching of someone’s work, we will bring life to them.

My mother still has the same address book. Last I saw, it had rubberbands around it with cards and address corners torn off envelopes.

Note: How do we talk about death? You’ll notice that I use the word “died” or “dead” more than one may normally see it. I find it disconcerting the hear the word “passed,” especially for someone who did not die of natural causes. Where did they pass too? And when a person is killed, especially by someone else, using phrases like “passed on” may allow us comfort if the death was violent, but also allow us to smooth it over a bit. Soldiers who die in battle do not “pass on.” Kids who die by gunshot do not “pass on.” Perhaps if we use some stronger terminology, we will stand up a bit more against killing and murder and death.

 

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