Thursday, January 23, 2014

Being There

In the 1979 film, "Being There," Peter Sellers plays Chance the gardener, a simple, uneducated man who, through a series of misunderstandings, is transformed into Chauncey Gardener, who is invited into the inner circle of politicians and captains of industry.  Through it all, Chance continues to protest that all he wants to do is be left alone to enjoy television; his persistent protestation is "I like to watch."

In real life, though, sitting back and watching is not sufficient.  It is our imperative as moral creatures to get involved, to embrace and uplift the others in our community.

This week's Torah portion Parashat Mishpatim, drives home that expectation.  In the midst of the revelation of the Torah, God instructs Moses to "come up to the mountain v'heyeh sham- and be there."  This seems unusual; isn't Moses already on the mountain?  Isn't he already "there"?

Most commentators on this passage argue that the instruction isn't about physical presence, it's about intentionality.  We must be willing to put aside other distractions and really be in the moment.

A few friends of mine recently posted this article from Real Simple magazine.  For those who don't want to take the time to click over, I'll summarize: the author's son wanted a "complicated" breakfast (one that would take 4 steps and about 15 minutes to prepare); she wanted to make him something simpler (instant oatmeal, 2 steps).  When she took a step back, however, she recognized that there was an opportunity for doing more than merely making breakfast.  She decided to make the more complicated meal, and in so doing had a moment of pure focus on doing something for the delight and benefit of her son.

What will it be for us?  What will wake us up and inspire us to cast aside the outside worries and make an effort, like Moses, just to "be there."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stranger in a Familiar Land: The Legacy of MLK

As our nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., much will be written and said about his vision, his importance to the civil rights movement, and his most well-known oration, the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered during the March on Washington.  Certainly that is a pivotal text, ranked among the world's most influential speeches.  But we should not ignore Dr. King's other writings and homilies, particularly what would prove to be his final speech, the one delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

The full speech is lengthy, but worth listening to

Many have called Dr. King the Moses of the African-American people, as he helped shepherd them from being second-class citizens with limited freedoms into an age of improved civil rights.  This week's Torah portion, Yitro, gives us insight into the development of Moses' identity.  He names his eldest son Gershom, derived from the Hebrew for, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land."  In a similar vein, Dr, King understood that African Americans in the 1960s were experiencing a corollary struggle.  They were not strangers in a strange land; their plight was more serious.  They were forced to live as strangers in their own land.

We should remember what brought King to Memphis in the spring of 1968: a strike by 1,300 African-American sanitation workers that had been going on since February.  The strike was initially precipitated by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker; following city policy, they had sought shelter from the rain n the back of their trucks and had been crushed to death.  The lack of safe working conditions, coupled with poor treatment and unfair wages, led the garbage men to walk off the job.  Within a week of the strike's start, more than 10,000 tons of trash had piled up on the streets of Memphis.  Mayor Henry Loeb refused to negotiate (we should acknowledge, though it may be painful, that Loeb and others who opposed the strike had Jewish roots, though Loeb later converted to Episcopalianism).

King and other organizers appealed to community leaders to have reason, to understand that African-American's are also God's children and have a right to live with dignity.  He argued that no American, regardless of the color of his or her skin, should have to feel like a stranger, an outcast, in his or her own country.

And then King again compared himself to Moses, predicting that he would make it to the mountaintop but not have an opportunity to enter the promised land.  The next day, his premonition would sadly come true.

But have any of us actually entered the promised land?  Or do we still gaze out upon the landscape of unrealized possibilities?  Too many people remain strangers in their own land, told that they are second-class citizens- because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, their socio-economic status, their country of origin.  More than 45 years after Dr. King's death, have we really continued to carry forth his legacy?  Have we continued to fight for the disenfranchised?

The words of Gates of Prayer, a Reform Jewish prayerbook, could easily be the words of Moses, or the Hebrew prophets, or Dr. King:

God our Creator, teach us to love freedom as we love life.  Make us understand that only when all are free can we be free.  Let none be masters and none be slaves.  Then shall we sing as our people did when they were freed from Pharaoh's grip.
Only when all are free can we be free.  May the day come soon when all enjoy the sweetness of freedom.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Finding Dry Land in the Midst of Raging Waters

Chances are, if you ever spend any time studying Parashat Beshallach and the Song of the Sea, you'll hear the tale of Nachshon.  In the event you're not familiar with it, or need a refresher, here's the gist:

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt, they reached the shore of the Sea of Reeds.  Looking behind them, they saw the Egyptians were beginning their pursuit; looking in front of them, they saw the raging waters.  Moses stretched out his staff over the waters, as God had instructed him, yet nothing happened.  The scene quickly became chaotic, with everyone shouting at Moses, debating whether to turn back, and sobbing in fear.  Amid this tumult, Nachshon quietly waded into the the waters- first just dipping his toes into the sea, then going in up to his ankles, then his knees.  Gradually, people turned aside from their arguments to view this spectacle.  Nachshon was soon submerged up to his shoulders, then his nostrils.  People were concerned, and began to step into the sea themselves with the intent of rescuing their friend and neighbor.  And it was then, when the people came together as a community, spurred on by Nachshon's faith, that the sea finally parted.
It's a nice midrash about the power of community and the power of faith.  I've been thinking about it also as a metaphor for what some of my friends are experiencing.  Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, two dear friends and colleagues, are grieving (along with their extended network of family and friends) for their beloved son, Sam, who died in December after battling leukemia.  Sam was 8 years old, just a few weeks younger than my own son.

Phyllis and Michael have written beautiful, raw, honest posts about Sam's diagnosis, treatment, and death.  They share how Sam's illness and death have shaped their family's new reality.  In one of their most recent posts, Phyllis writes about returning to yoga, an activity that she had previously enjoyed, and that Sam had particularly loved.  She talks about the various "triggers" that remind her of Sam, and quotes fitting lyrics of a song that played on the soundtrack at the yoga studio- Sheryl Crow's "Every Day is a Winding Road."

Every day is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Every day is a faded sign
I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.
So many of us have been inspired by our love for Phyllis, Michael, Sam, and family.  So many of us have been touched by their story and have wanted to do something, anything.  I've chosen to join many of my colleagues in shaving my head at the end of March to raise funds and inspire advocacy for research into childhood cancer.  I've tried many times to sit down and write something to explain my reasoning for doing so.  I certainly understand that my baldness isn't, in and of itself, going to magically create a cure for cancer, and nothing we do will bring Sam back, despite all our fervent wishes that we could do so.

But when Phyllis wrote about Sheryl Crow's winding road, it brought me back to one of my favorite songs that also invokes that image.  Originally written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott, it was made famous by The Hollies, and later by Neil Diamond.  It's called, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."

When a friend is in pain or need, we embrace him, we lift him up, we strive to ensure that he understands that he's not alone (please read "he/she" and "him/her," of course).  This show of solidarity, even if it does not move the needle one iota in the world of scientific research is nevertheless, I believe, a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

What if we re-imagine the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the story of Nachshon?  What if the sea never actually parted?  What if, instead, the crush of bodies who swooped in to support Nachshon at that pivotal moment served to shield him from the onslaught of the raging waters, keeping him warm and safe and dry when he couldn't do so himself?  What if this worked for the Israelites because they were able to work together collaboratively and support one another as a community, while the mitzrim- the Egyptians, the people from a narrow place- drowned because they couldn't figure out how to work together as a team?

I wish with all my heart that I could heal the pain of people who are grieving; this is not a power that any of us have.  But I can help to surround them with love; I can help them to smile for a moment or two; I can give them room to laugh or cry or scream or reminisce about their loved one.  And maybe, for just a moment, this will provide them with some respite, helping them to find an island of dry land in the midst of the raging waters.

Angelo Bronzino, "Crossing of the Red Sea," 1541-42

Please consider contributing to my page at St. Baldrick's by clicking here.  Your support helps to provide funding for research on curing or preventing pediatric cancer.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

V'Higad'ta L'Vincha: What Will We Teach Our Children?

It's a New Year.  As we sit here early in January of 2014, the blank calendar pages point to a year of opportunities ahead of us.  At the same time, we can look back on the past year and marvel at what happened- what we were pleased with, what we wish we could have done differently.

And as the secular calendar gives us this opportunity, so, too, does our reading of Torah.  This week, as we considered Parashat Bo, we read of the preparations for the Exodus.  The Israelites are told that in future generations, they will continue to reenact the experience of departing Egypt.  And when their children inquire about their past, the Israelites are told, "V'higad'ta l'vincha bayom hahu: You shall teach it to your child on that day."  The Torah also is asking us to reflect on the past and to use it to help shape the future.

So what will we teach our children?  How will we learn from our past and impart lessons that will help create the mensches of the future?  In looking back on the past year, we have several examples- some positive, some negative- from whom to learn.

Will we teach our children to embrace our sacred scripture in a way that encourages them to seek and celebrate the best in each individual, and to look out for the less fortunate in our communities, or will we let them hide behind scripture as an excuse for bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and classism?

Will we teach our children to deal compassionately with those facing the challenges of mental illness, or will we sweep it under the rug, praying that it will have no impact on our lives?

Will we teach our children to recognize that too many people are dying as a result of preventable violence, or will we continue the fetishization of guns in our culture?

Will we teach our children that women and men have equal value in our society, or will we tacitly condone the continued objectification of females in American society?

Will wze and vilify any whose opinion differs from their own?

Will we teach our children to seek peace and pursue it  or will future generations continue to engage in meaningless warfare?

Will we teach our children the art of listening, negotiation, and compromise, or will we permit them to demonize and vilify any whose opinion differs from their own?

May we learn to teach our children well, and may they be inspired to heed our lessons.