Category Archives: Universe

Reveling in our Multi-vocality (Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

On Rosh Hashanah morning, I brought a text from the very first chapter of the Bible: “God saw all that God had made, and look! It was very good.” I told you then that we’d see the verse three different ways before the holidays were through.

We’ve already looked at it through the eyes of Rabbis Chaninah and Pinchas, Talmudic Sages who saw in the word “very,” m’od in Hebrew, an anagram for the Hebrew word adam, “human being.” For Chaninah and Pinchas, God’s assessment of Creation is positive, and we human beings are the reason why. In last week’s sermon on optimism, I suggested that we could read the verse as a reminder that the essential goodness of humanity — hineh tov “adam” — shines.

Tomorrow afternoon, we will see how Rabbi Meir, a contemporary of Chanina and Pinchas, plays with the sound of the word m’od, offering us a lesson fit for our Yizkor Service: that the “urgency of time” (to borrow a phrase from the prayer book) is a gift, and that immortality, if it existed, wouldn’t be much of a blessing.

Tonight, our lesson comes to us by way of sixteenth-century Italy, home to the brilliant biblical scholar Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno. Continue reading

Are We Trees? Yes, We’re Trees (Shofetim, 5774/2014)

 Delivered at Temple Mount Sinai, August 29, 2014

Preparing my thoughts for tonight I was reminded, again and again, of the deep connection between mind-states and physical sensations. You see, typing away on my laptop (or trying to), my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing at me. It wasn’t emails or texts. It was the “Red Alert” app announcing rocket fire from Gaza toward Israel. One after another, the warnings reached my phone, each one representing a neighborhood seeking shelter. And with each alert, I experienced a wave of sadness felt in my heart, and a corresponding kick to my kishkes. Continue reading

From Death, to Power and Love

How we live in light of suffering and pain matters. Given the inevitability of suffering, which eventually touches us all, how we live in its light may be all that matters.

Last week I had the privilege to witness a tremendous outpouring of love and power occasioned by deep suffering. I was part of an event called “Shave for The Brave,” in which people have their heads shaved to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer. This particular Shave for the Brave involved Reform Rabbis who were moved by the story of “Superman Sam” Sommer, his siblings, and his parents, Rabbis Michael and Phyllis. Continue reading

Blasting Redemption (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5772/2011)

The blasts of the shofar, which we’ll hear in just a few minutes, are a key element of the Rosh Hashanah service. To hear the sound of the shofar — lishmo’a kol shofar — is the central commandment of this holiday.

It’s worthwhile to reflect for a moment about just why we listen to the shofar blasts. One way of answering the question, “Why,” is with that time-honored response, “because God says so.” The Torah’s account of the festival calendar calls the first day of the month of Tishrei a yom teruah, a “day for blowing the horn.” If the Torah tells us so, perhaps that ought to be enough. it was certainly enough for a certain Rabbi Isaac whose words are remembered in the pages of the Talmud (BT RH 16a): “Why do we blow? God said, ‘Blow!’”

Or maybe it’s not enough. Some of you will remember that just shy of three weeks ago, Rabbi Bellush’s mentor and friend, Rabbi Sissy Coran, was our guest and teacher at Rabbi Bellush’s service of installation. In her remarks, she told how lucky were were to be getting in Rabbi Bellush a teacher who would not offer mere “because it says so” answers to our questions, but who would help us to explore the deeper meanings of why we do what we do. Rabbi Coran was right, both about the inadequacy of “because I said so” as an answer for today’s Jews, and about Rabbi Bellush’s gifts as a teacher. I thought about her observation as I prepared for this service, as I found myself learning from words written centuries ago by another Rabbi who wasn’t entirely content with “because it says so” as a reason for performing this particular commandment.

That Rabbi was Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, the great twelfth-century sage who seems to make an appearance in my divrei torah each holiday season. The passage is found in his “Laws of Repentance.” There (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4), he writes: “It’s true that we blow the shofar because the Torah tells us to do so. But the fact that ‘it says so’ is no reason to stop searching for deeper meanings, for the remez, the allusions present within the act.”  He then goes on to describe the sound of the shofar as a wake-up call, and a call to conscience. His words have become a part of our prayerbook, and they’re right before you on page 139. Let’s read the passage aloud together (even though they’re not italicized!):

Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Rouse yourselves, you slumberers, out of your slumber! Examine your deeds, and turn to God in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who are caught up in the daily round, losing sight of eternal truth; you who are wasting your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save. Look closely at yourselves; improve your ways and deeds. Abandon your evil ways, your unworthy schemes, every one of you.

We call these days Y’mei Teshuvah, the “Days of Repentance,” and there’s no doubt that repenting is a big part of what they’re about. Rabbi Bellush taught us beautifully last night about teshuvah, which is essentially the creation of new pathways in our own hearts and minds as we shed our old stories and embrace new possibilities. What I’d like to do this morning is to build upon her words in light of a teaching from the contemporary Israeli rabbi, Haim Sabato. (I must say, parenthetically, that the process of crafting this sermon in dialogue with Rabbi Bellush has been sheer delight, as she and I have sharpened our respective messages by sharing their development with one another. Thank you, chaverah!).

Sabato points out that there are other kinds of shofar blasts mentioned in the Torah, which don’t seem to have anything to do with calling people to account for their actions. As an example, he cites this verse, from the prophet Isaiah: “It will come to pass on that day that a great shofar will be sounded. The lost souls of Assyrian captivity will come home, and the exiles from Egypt too. They will all bow low to God at God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem (Is 27:13).  This sort of blast is not first and foremost about teshuvah, but rather about ge’ulah…that is, it’s not about Repentance, but about Redemption. Sabato also reminds us that when the Rabbis composed the weekday prayers, they placed the prayer for “repentance” and the one for “redemption” in sequence. Three times a day, six days a week, many Jews pray first for repentance, and then immediately for redemption. And so Sabato asks a reasonable question: what is the connection between these two important ideas, teshuvah and ge’ulah?

Here is his answer. He writes…

Both “repentance” and “redemption” imply a return to a former state of being. With regard to repentance, consider for example the verse from Lamentations (5:21): “Cause us to repent, O God, and we shall repent; restore our days as of old.” In other words, make us pure and whole once again.

And in the case of redemption, consider the Torah’s procedure for “redeeming” homes, fields, or slaves. In each case, the definition of “redemption” is: “restoring affairs to their prior state.” Homes and fields return to their original owners after the redemption of the Jubilee year; the slave becomes free, as is natural, and returns to his family. Even the “blood redemption” contemplated by the Torah, in which a family is obligated to extract the ultimate price from one who kills their kin, is grounded in the deep and strong desire to make things as they were (though this is, of course, not possible). There is the Redemption of the Jewish People, which really means the return of the exiled people to their land, and their former status. And there is the Redemption of the Land: the Land of Israel’s restoration as a place which flowers and feeds. Finally, there is the redemption of the world, which means, essentially, that everything will return to a pure, pristine state of being, uncorrupted by all of the mistakes we’ve made over all the generations…

Teshuvah, too, like Redemption, is the restoration of our natural state, a state of purity and love of God. Teshuvah restores us, renews us, revives us. It makes us as we once were, innocent and whole.

And so it is that the blast of the shofar, whether it be a blast of teshuvah or a blast of ge’ulah, is a call to renewal and return. This is why we use a simple ram’s horn, an instrument unadorned with mouthpieces, valves, and the like. The sound must be natural, simple, primal. The medium is the message.

Thus far, Sabato is interested in what unites teshuvah and ge’ulah. Both of them are ultimately about return and renewal to that which once was, but is at least temporarily no more.

Reading him, I am reminded of the very helpful definition of “redemption” offered by Rabbi Larry Kushner (The Book of Words): “the process of exchanging something for what it is really worth.” Kushner illustrates this by reminding his readers of the “S&H Green Stamp ‘Redemption’ Center,” of his own childhood, where stickers were redeemed for toasters. Today’s children live in a world without S&H, but the lesson lives on at the iTunes Store. My Afikomen gifts at recent congregational seders have been in the form of iTunes gift codes for songs. And as much as I love giving our Afikomen finders good Passover music, I think I love even more that those kids get to take a series of letters and numbers, type them into a box, and then click a button that says, simply, “Redeem.” And the code becomes what it really was all along: a song.

Back to Sabato, who now explores the essential difference between repentance and redemption. Again, I’ll paraphrase his words:

Where Repentance is about changing oneself, Redemption is effected by others. Relatives redeem the slave. A person redeems a field, or a home. God redeems the Jewish People. A person need not play any role in his own redemption, other than to wait expectantly for it. This is not the case with regard to repentance, which is essentially self-initiated. It is up to the penitent to effect the change, mend his ways, change her way of thinking. Therefore, the sort of redemption that flows from our teshuvah is of a higher order than the sort that comes about through good fortune or divine favor.

As Sabato has it, teshuvah is a superior starting point for redemptive work, since it gets the self involved. The sort of redemption he has in mind is not miraculous, sea-splitting, bear-you-on-eagle’s-wings stuff; it’s the long, hard work of transforming that which is into that which can and should be. It starts with a good look at oneself, a moment of teshuvah; it finds its fulfillment in the outward reach, in caring for others.

The famed Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement in Judaism, was known to say, “Spiritual life is superior to physical life. But the physical life of another is an obligation of my spiritual life.” Elsewhere, he said it slightly differently, and more memorably: “A good Jew doesn’t worry about his neighbor’s soul and his own stomach; he worries about his own soul and his neighbor’s stomach.”

To get this deep connection between teshuvah and ge’ulah is to know that one’s own spiritual work is inextricably bound up with the collective obligation to establish justice. Teshuvah precedes geulah. Repairing the self is a prerequisite for repairing the world.  

I believe that this is so because, at the very deepest level, “self” and “other,” “me” and “everything,” is quite simply a false distinction. It’s a useful falsehood, no doubt. Without it, we’d have no way of navigating in the world, distinguishing friend from foe, safety from danger, family from stranger. But those distinctions, useful as they are, ultimately melt away in the presence of God, the One who is both the Point of our Return and the Power that Makes for Redemption.

UC San Diego neuroscientist VS Ramachandran describes a particular type of brain activity carried out by what are called “mirror neurons.” These neurons fire not when we do something…but when we see someone else do something. In a fascinating TED talk (ask me later, or just go to the TMS website where you’ll find a helpful link) he explores the fact these neurons are the key to our ability to experience empathy the other, to experience the world through their eyes. He asks a provocative question: Why, then, do we not actually feel the physical pain of another when we see their bodies hurting? The answer has to do with the pain receptors that reside in our skin, which have veto power over the neurons in our brains, allowing us to empathize without actually feeling the pain. But take away those receptors — as is the case, for example, if someone has lost a limb to an accident, or even in experimental conditions with a local anesthetic — and a person can in fact feel actual, physical pain when they see someone else hurting in the same place on the body! The skin is no longer able to describe for the mind a distinction between “me” and “other,” and so the pain of the other is quite literally felt by me!

Ramachandran jokes with his audience that he calls these neurons “Ghandi Neurons.” He goes on, and is worthy quoting at some length:

All that’s separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person’s touch in your mind. You’ve dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings…there is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are in fact, connected not just via Facebook, and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons. And there is a whole chains of neurons around this room, talking to each other. And there is no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else’s consciousness.

The Persian poet Sa’adi was not a neuroscientist, but he hit upon the very same truth. At roughly the same time that Maimonides was writing the Laws of Repentance in Cairo, he was in Shiraz, giving the world this insight:

Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and one soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!

To work on our own teshuvah in isolation from our neighbors’ ge’ulah is not only wrong, it’s absurd, impossible. A Jew ought to know that the worldy needs of the other — a neighbor, a stranger, and in the most expansive way, even an enemy — are rightly his or her spiritual concern. Our journey Home goes through our neighbor’s stomach, as it were…a thought that I’ll leave for Rabbi Bellush to expand upon next Saturday. It goes through many, many uncomfortable places. Our journey home takes us through soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and orphanages. Our journey home takes us through nursing homes, hospital rooms, and houses of mourning. Our journey home takes us, if not in fact then at least in thought and prayer, to prisons, to  battlefields and to refugee camps. To the extent that we wish to be redeemed of our own broken pasts and made new and whole, we need to show up for those around us who are hurting. “Redemption is effected by others.” Who will redeem the other, if not you?

With all my heart, I hope that you’re not here this morning just because someone said so. I hope you are here to discover new meaning, to walk new paths, I hope you’re here with open hearts, open wide to the possibilities of teshuvah and geulah, repentance and redemption.

Home Again (Jewish Voice, August 2011)

Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever gonna make it home again.
It’s so far and out of sight.
I really need someone to talk to
And nobody else knows how to comfort me tonight.

Snow is cold; Rain is wet.
Chills my soul right to the marrow.
I won’t be happy ’til I see You alone again.
‘Til I’m home again and feelin’ right.

Carole King (née Klein, for those of us who play that favorite Jewish parlor game, “Is she or isn’t she?”) may have written these words with a friend or partner in mind. But hearing them now, as the month of Av turns into Elul and Rosh Hashanah approaches, I hear them differently. I can’t help but think about the challenging and important work of teshuvah (“repenting” or “turning”) that ought to be a part of our lives at this time of year.

Teshuvah as “repentance” is important. The month of Elul ought to be a time for examining our deeds, recommitting ourselves to excellence, and making amends where we’ve harmed ourselves or others. But the teshuvah that I have in mind as listen to “Home Again” is more the kind envisioned by the mystics. It is, in the largest sense, a return to the Source of All.

Rabbi Arthur Green has written movingly of teshuvah as “coming home,” teaching that “all things turn toward their center, as fully and naturally as plants grow in the direction of light, as roots reach toward their source of water.” We, too, have a natural home, in the deepest places within ourselves, and it is to there that we return in those perfect moments of teshuvah. The snow and rain (I know, we’re in El Paso and it’s August, but stay with the metaphor) can keep us away, make us forget; but with a bit of work, we can indeed be “home again and feelin’ right.”

Between Redemption…and Rest

One aspect of our services together over these last several years that’s engendered a good amount of positive feedback has been my habit of offering the sermon in a non-traditional slot. Ignoring the long-standing (but entirely arbitrary) practice of having the sermon come near the end of the service, I’ve moved it further up, even as far as the very beginning, and sometimes divided it up into shorter bite-sized pieces. You tell me that you enjoy hearing the sermon while you’re still fresh, and I must say that I like getting it out there early, so I can be somewhat less anxious as we pray. In case you’re wondering, tonight’s sermon is already one hundred sixteen words old, and it is being offered now because it is about this very moment in our liturgy: the space between Mi Chamocha and Hashkiveynu. Think of it as a meditation on page 257 and 1/2.

We are in the middle of a section of the service called sh’ma uvirchoteha, “the Sh’ma and its accompanying blessings.” It’s a section of the service whose undisputed highlight is the recitation of the sh’ma – here understood to mean not just Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is One” – but also the biblical passages which follow it. In this statement of faith, we acknowledge God’s Oneness and God’s role in the world and in our lives, and we pledge to make God’s presence central to our lives, morning and night.

Those biblical passages are framed by a set of blessings, the first three of which tell an important story about the world and our place in it. Those three blessings are on pages 253 through 256. Their themes are creation, revelation and redemption. In our prayer books, they are labeled “As Close to Us as Breathing,” “Your Goodness Enters our Lives,” and “The Help of Our People.” Very briefly, these blessings describe the world’s creation and continued existence as the result of God’s interest and action; Torah and morals as an expression of God’s love; and human progress as the result of God’s partnership with us in making our world more free, more fair, more just.  To put it another way: we become aware of God through the unfolding of the universe (what we call “creation”) and through our growing understanding of what is right and good (what we call “revelation”); we respond to that unfolding awareness with our commitment to make the world a better place, even a perfect place (what we call “redemption”).

This journey, from creation to redemption by way of revelation has been called “the Master Story of the Jewish People.” It is the way that Jews ought to make sense of their own lives and the world around them. It is the journey of our prayers, as we’re seeing tonight. It is the journey of our calendar as well, from the Creation of our People at Passover, to the Revelation Torah at Shavu’ot, to the Redemption of the Land at Sukkot. Jewish thought and practice seems to say to us, in many different ways: “Here we are; let’s grow wise; and let’s leave it better than we found it.” I think that the disproportionately high number of Jews in fields like medicine, education, and the non-profit sector is evidence of just how well we’ve internalized the message of this Master Story (even if many of us weren’t aware of the terms creation, revelation and redemption until a moment ago!). For many Jews, religiously observant or not, to be a Jew means above all, to work for the betterment, indeed for the perfection, of our world.

Taking nothing away from those blessings or from the story they tell, let me suggest that the fourth blessing and the short biblical declarations that follow it are no less important, and may even be more vital as we seek to navigate our way to survival as a species and as a planet. Let’s look at them, one at a time, illuminating each one before we circle back to think about how this story relates to the one which precedes it, that master story of creation, revelation, and redemption. We’ll find that the hashkiveynu prayer on page 258 (labeled in your prayer books, “The Sudden Light that Lifts the Heart”), and the declarations of Shabbat and Yom Kippur that follow (labeled “The Covenant of Shabbat” and “On this Day”) are, among other things, reminders of the value of slowing ourselves down from the busy-ness of life. They bring us into awareness of the cycles – daily, weekly, and yearly – that stretch backward and forward to eternity, but which are accessible in every moment, with every breath.

Let’s begin with hashkiveynu. This blessing, which appears only in the evening service, is first and foremost a prayer for protection from “things that go bump in the night.” Ellen Frankel has written eloquently of the fact that “[E]specially in earlier times, when a person lay down to sleep, it was often with a sense of dread, and it is still so in areas around the world where war is the normal state of things, and where one’s final thoughts before falling to sleep are likely to be, ‘What calamity will tomorrow bring? Will there even be a tomorrow?’”

But the hashkiveynu prayer is more than a prayer for protection; it is a declaration of awareness. We pause and take note: the sun is setting! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was fond of beginning evening lectures by declaring, with great enthusiasm, “I have just witnessed a miracle! The sun has set!” And his talmid muvhak, his disciple, Rabbi Arthur Green, writes:

Surely one of the great gifts of Creation is found in the two daily periods of the change of light, the hours of dawn and dusk…There is a quality of being in those moments when light changes, as day begins and day ends, that naturally leads to a deep inner silence.  It is the great wisdom of our tradition to have proclaimed these hours as the two daily prayer times, and their celebration as such ideally remains central to the religious life of the Jew.  Being awake and aware as the sun rises and the sun sets can make a difference in our religious lives that cannot be overestimated.

In recent years I have made it my practice, most days at least, to be awake and aware as the sun rises. Lucky to be an El Pasoan, I can count on a clear sky most mornings. I spend those minutes when the sky turns blue in quiet meditation and awareness, in the solitude of my back patio. Whether praying the morning prayers or sitting still and silent, I gain strength and energy for the day ahead. I feel grateful. And, like Heschel, I count the moment that the light changes as a miracle. Having been inspired to this practice by Rabbi Green’s words, I can concur with his estimation of its power. I recommend it wholeheartedly to you.

Most nights, hashkiveynu is the capstone to the blessings that accompany the sh’ma. But on the Sabbath and the Festivals, biblical declarations attune us to the weekly or yearly round. Tonight, as we celebrate Yom Kippur on the Sabbath, we are privileged to sing two of those declarations: veshamru, for the Sabbath, and ki vayom hazeh for Yom Kippur. Each one offers testimony to the power of the day, and to the power of the cycle whose fulfillment it marks.

The weekly round comes to fulfillment as we declare ourselves to be in covenant with the One who made heaven and earth, and as we emulate That One’s rest. Our labor for six days is set down and we leave the world alone, pausing to breathe – shavat vayinafash. Let’s stay with Heschel a little while longer:

A thought has blown the market place away. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day.

Those of us who’ve been lucky enough to experience a holistic Shabbat – at Jewish summer camp, on retreat, in Israel, or at home – know just what he’s talking about. And even if that sort of Sabbath has not been a part of our lives yet, perhaps we can conjure in our minds a timeless moment before the flickering candles, or a languid Saturday afternoon on which Friday and Sunday just melted away. “Eternity utters a day.” We need more of those moments in our lives.

And what of the yearly cycle? The seasons turn and we return. We declare the healing and atoning power of this day, a power not (in my opinion) inherent to the day, but rather a function of our coming together and making it so. Here we are, again. It’s Yom Kippur. But as Shlomo Ansky wrote so eloquently in his play The Dybbuk, “every day of our lives is a Day of Atonement.” That is to say, each moment is alive with the possibility of return and renewal.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav said it well in relation to his favorite holiday, Rosh Hashanah. “Time isn’t real. And so, as soon as Rosh Hashanah ends, I put my ear to the door. Is that a knock I hear? Is it time for selichot already? And the year passes, in the blink of an eye.”

So the turning of the day, the week, the year (and let’s not forget the month, though it’s outside of our purview tonight) – all of these turnings are signposts, pointing outward toward eternity on the one hand, and inward toward just this breath, on the other. Just this breath. How often do we take the time to notice just this breath? The story of the fourth blessing, and of the biblical declarations that follow, is “be aware of eternity, and of your place in it…and don’t forget to breathe.”

We’re wrapping up the teaching, and soon we’ll return to the prayers. Just a thought about the big picture, the relationship between the story on pages 258 and 259 and the one on the pages that precede it.

We Jews fancy ourselves fixers, world-repairers. We find it easy to rush headlong into action. Aware of our finitude in this world that was created in time and will end someday too, we are driven to achieve. Even in the service of the good, we sometimes overdo it, and all too often our lack of reflection and insight leaves us acting in ways that are not good at all. Our drive to act, to redeem, to perfect, to repair is innate and it is good…but it is not everything. Only in balance with our willingness to slow down, to step back, to come to awareness, to be deliberate, can it serve us well.

It seems to me that we live in a world that is out of balance. We hear about ever-shrinking product cycles, the drive to do things faster. News reporting is utterly non-reflective and mostly mindless. If someone had told us ten years ago that politicians would use a medium with a 140-character limit to shape public policy, we would have laughed them out of the room, but here we are, governing by Twitter. We are going to destroy ourselves – our society, maybe our civilization, and because we have the power, perhaps even our species and others– with a stunning lack of vision brought on by our inability to take a time out and breathe!

So let’s do that. At this confluence of turnings, as night falls, Sabbath comes in, and Yom Kippur arrives, let’s take time out and breathe. Right now.

This isn’t a “pray silently” moment. Don’t pray. Don’t think. Don’t contemplate anything. Just sit, and breathe, very naturally. Notice your chest rising and falling. Notice the air moving through your nostrils. Don’t make your breathing deeper or more shallow than it wants to be, naturally. Let your awareness settle on just this breath…

We continue with hashkiveynu on page 258, followed by Veshamru and Ki Vayom Hazeh. May our turnings, and our breathing, bring balance to our lives.

Hope Knows No Borders

Originally published in the El Paso Jewish Voice, August 2010…

On a cool and breezy summer night in Jerusalem, Alanna and I heard Israeli rock star Ehud Banai, accompanied by his long-time musical partner, Salaam Darwish, in concert. One of the highlights of the night for me was an inspired rendition of his 2004 hit, G’vulot  (“Frontiers/Borders/Boundaries”):

“He’s not a young man now, more than fifty years have passed.
He’s led a troubled life.
Fighting with an angry neighbor over how to share the yard.  
Everyone says, ‘I’d rather die than speak to you a word.’
Certainly not a calm man, living always on the edge.
You never know exactly what he wants.
He’ll curse then say he’s sorry, or go crazy and then fold.
And at night when no one watches him, he cries.

He wakes up in the morning, sees the darkness still around.
Can’t remember where he came from, no idea where he’s bound.
He tosses and he turns, he’s all torn up inside,
He’s confused and divided, taking pills just to get by.
He’s got no time to sit for food, like normal people eat.
He just stuffs it in a pita and goes racing down the street.
He lurches to the right, and then cuts hard to the left.
He wants straighten out, but he cant’ do it anymore.

Sometimes he remembers how it was when he was young:
There were dreams, there was hope, wide expanses, all was clear.
Now all he sees are clouds, stormy, covering the sun,
And he rushes to his home every day when work is done.
Sitting in a traffic jam, simply drained, drenched in sweat,
He turns on the radio, thinking, ‘Not again, please not again.’
Smoking like a chimney, worrying about the kids,
And the pathways to his heart are paved with bypasses.

Banai’s description of his homeland in the opening years of the twenty-first century is powerful and painful, and the driving percussion and staccato delivery of the lyrics that night made it even more so. But somehow, out of that pain, Banai imagines the possibility of something better. As the song continued, the hurried rap of the verses gave way to a chorus that sounded more like a prayer than a rock song. Banai and Darwish blended their voices together and offered up these words:

“Despair limits us; but hope knows no borders.
Hate limits us; but love knows no borders.
Reality limits us; but dreams know no borders.
War limits us; but peace knows no borders.”

As we listened to that open-air concert, clouds blew speedily past. An Israeli flag flapped loudly in the breeze. Montefiore’s Windmill stood, tall and grounded, fifty yards away. Individuals, couples, families of all sorts milled about, enjoying the rare cool evening, the great music, and the sense of peace. It was a moment of pure magic, in which there really were “no borders.”

Living for the past two months in Eretz Yisra’el, the interplay of “boundaries” and “boundlessness” is very much on my mind. Questions of boundaries, after all, are at the forefront of the continuing conflict between Israel and her neighbors. Where will the frontiers be drawn? What will remain a part of Israel, and what will become a part of a newly formed Palestinian state? What boundaries will be placed on Palestinian national aspirations? Will they have an army? A government seated in or near Jerusalem? A “Right of Return”?

And other boundaries occupied the Israeli headlines this summer as well. The boundaries between Ashkenazim and Sefardim and between Chasidim and non-Chasidim were a piece of the sad and troubling episode at the girls’ school in Immanuel. The boundary between Jew and Gentile stood at the heart of the latest “Who is a Jew” flare-up (and also played into the coverage of Chelsea and Marc’s wedding, which absolutely fascinated Israelis). And the boundary between Israel’s aspirations to be both a Jewish homeland and a center for humanistic, democratic life played out in the conflict over the legal status of the children of foreign workers.

In all these cases, talk of boundaries is in fact necessary. These are not simple challenges with simple answers, and it is naïve to think that merely “erasing the borders” is the wise course of action. In the world as it is, there are divisions, boundaries, “frontiers.”

But if it is wrong to ignore the boundaries and their complexity, it is just as wrong to ignore the aspiration, the dream, the hope, and the prayer. It is not Pollyannaish to speak of Israelis and Palestinians living side-by-side in a warm peace, sharing Jerusalem. It is no pipe dream to speak of Jews of all streams finding common ground to learn and celebrate. It is essential that we approach any given conflict open to the possibility that people of different faiths and nationalities can truly love and care for the other. Indeed, without those dreams and hopes, what’s the point?

Rosh Hashanah is coming, and soon the shofar will be heard. We might let our hearing of the blasts this year be accompanied by an intention drawn from the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Mohoran 60:9):

The Psalmist teaches (Ps 118:5), “From the narrow places, I called to God; God answered from divine expansiveness.” This refers to a shofar, which can only make sound if the mouthpiece is narrow enough, and the other end is wide enough. By starting in the narrow place and aspiring for openness, the shofar brings us to a place of awe and wonder. It adds years to our lives by adding life to our years.

Holding in mind the teachings of Rabbi Nachman and Ehud Banai, I offer this prayer for the coming holy days:

We call to You, O Holy One, from the narrowest of places:
From the despair of seemingly insoluble problems;
From the enmity that exists between peoples and even within our own people;
From our attachment to what is, which makes it hard to imagine something better;
And from the pain of too much war, too much conflict.

May we hear You calling back to us, from the other end of the shofar:
Sweeten our despair and turn it into hope;
Soothe our anger and turn it into love;
Open our hearts to the world of our dreams;
And most of all, O Source of Peace, bless us with peace.

“Dying Creek”

I tried my hand at translating a song from Chava Alberstein’s incredibly rich exploration of Israel beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict, “End of the Holiday.” Chava’s husband, screenwriter Nadav Levitan, is the lyricist. He calls out those who would say that “the Situation” means that Israelis don’t have the luxury of being concerned for the environment. And, he uses the Hebrew selektzia, evoking the Shoah. It’s raw, and powerful.

Belatedly, in honor of Earth Day…

Across from the petrochemical plants
which provide jobs for thousands,
it is hard to fight for the life of
one poisoned creek, suffering and dying.

In this Land, striving and advancing,
it is hard to explain just why it is important
to return the plants to the banks of the creek,
and the turtles, and the fish.

But in the Book of Beginnings it is told
how the species were created.
It is not ours to judge who is expendable,
and who should be written in the Book of Life.

If we begin with this selektion,
who will vouch for us,
insuring that our day won’t come,
that our turn won’t come as well?

And in a rhymed, singable translation, too…

In the presence of the plant that makes the chemicals
from whose sale thousands earn their daily bread,
it is hard to stand in defense of one creek —
poisoned, empty and left for dead.

In this Land, always searching for the next breath,
how could it be even worth the time
to restore the banks, return the reeds,
the fish who have fled, the turtles who have died?

On the first page of the Bible the story is told,
how the world came into being, kind after kind.
Ours is not to judge who gets to live.
We don’t decide who has to die.

If we start with this selektion
who’ll be left to defend us
so that we won’t share the same fate,
so extinction will not end us?

With gratitude for sixty-one years of Israel’s existence, and with hope that her next decades will be a time of healing.