Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Five.

How is it that books, especially good ones, wind up in stacks, piles, and shelves without ever having been read? There are a number of avenues, of course, but as good a bet as any for me is length. How can I commit to a book that will clearly take weeks, if not months, to read when my ever expanding “To Read” list grows at a much faster clip than that?

That is precisely why Herman Wouk’s classic, The Winds of War, found its way to my bookshelf and remained there for years after I received it (a hand-me-down from someone else’s shelf, in fact). Yep, its 885 pages got it benched — and this: Winds of War, along with its even heftier sequel, War and Remembrance, have been included among the greatest American war novels of all times, and that’s all well and good, but I’m just not a war novel (much less a WWII novel) person.

Except that now I don’t know… maybe I am.

What I certainly have tired of are the books in which WWII or the Holocaust serve as the background. I know this puts me a bit outside the pale as so many — so many — of the generous book recommendations I have received over the years take place during that time period. And yes, there are some wonderfully character-driven, plot-driven, prose-driven novels written against the backdrop of the 1940’s, but that’s just it. The background becomes so common, so familiar, that it threatens to dwarf the action in the foreground, and, for me, often does.

Wouk’s Winds of War is different. This 2015 piece by David Frum in The Atlantic captures it better than I can, especially when he quotes Henry Kissenger’s praise for Wouk’s writing: “It is the war itself.” Wouk takes you across the globe into all of the arenas of action, and into the confidence of the most renowned (and infamous) world leaders; into the nitty-gritty details of military planning aboard a battleship, and then up above it all to the eagle eye perspective of a fighter pilot. “Wouk never lets the reader forget that the Second World War was the biggest collective undertaking in the history of the human race,” writes Frum. “No movie could ever depict it, because no movie could ever have the budget.” Instead, Wouk gives us the details that allow us, the reader, to imagine it all for ourselves; to place ourselves in its midst.

With the war in the foreground, each generation, since the novel’s publication in 1971, is free to see its own context as the backdrop. Of course, my context was the current pandemic, and against that backdrop, a number of themes felt tremendously relevant: How much luxury and comfort are Americans willing to sacrifice for a greater good? Is unrestricted admittance and aid of “others” a threat to the American ideal or the realization of it? Leaving aside for the moment legitimate questions about calling this pandemic “a war,” how can we harness the competence of America’s military to identify needs, craft clear missions, and — more often than not — get the job done?

Then there were passages like this:

The mark of the amateur in any field is to lose one’s head when the going gets hard. What marks the professional is his competence in an emergency, and almost the whole art of the soldier is to make sound judgments in the fog of war. Hitler’s propensity to lose his head took two forms: calling a panicky halt to operations when they were gathering momentum, and changing the objective in mid-campaign. … But Hitler was incapable of listening to anybody. This undid him and ruined Germany.

I’ll let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions about the relevance of that one.

There was this, which in a sweeping novel that seems to accept war as necessary, even at times noble, made me pause and also consider its absurdities:

Gliding across an imaginary line that splits the Pacific Ocean from the north to the south polar caps, the sunrise acquired a new label, June 23 [1941]. Behind that line, June 22 had just dawned. This murky international convention, amid world chaos, still stood. For the globe still turned as always in the light of the sun, ninety million miles away in black space, and the tiny dwellers on the globe still had to agree, as they went about their mutual butcheries, on a way to tell the time.

Wouk is better known for the stories he tells than the turn-of-phrase with which he tells them. Nevertheless, there are now a few post-its in my copy marking passages like the above, and this one from his foreword:

Peace, if it ever exists, will not be based on the fear of war, but on the love of peace. It will not be the abstaining from an act, but the coming of a state of mind. In this sense the most insignificant writer can serve peace, where the most powerful tribunals can do nothing.

So when all is said and done (all 885 pages), how did I feel about this book? Well, let’s just put it this way: Blue Bicycle Books (who is offering free home delivery during this pandemic — buy local!) expects to have War and Remembrance on my doorstep in the next couple of weeks. I have to see what happens to the Henry and Jastrow families next!

Yeah, it was that good.

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Four.

Since this week’s book weighs in at over 800 pages (!) — well, I’m going to have to ask for an extension. Avid reader though I am, speedy I am unfortunately not. So this week I offer this special Yom Tov gift to those who might be looking for more suggestions for this worldwide go-to-your-room-and-read quarantine. Here are my top selections with a Jewish connection from those I’ve read over the past twelve years. Why twelve? That’s when I started keeping a written record, so it’s how far back I can reliably remember (a) if I read a book, and, more importantly, (b) if I liked it. These selections are listed in no particular order of preference, just the order in which I read them.

So take a look — and, please, share your own favorites with me and others in the comments below!

Fiction

  • All of the Rashi’s Daughters and Rav Hisda’s Daughter books by Maggie Anton
  • I Am Forbidden (Anouk Markovits)
  • The Dovekeepers (Alice Hoffman)
  • Home in the Morning (Mary Glickman)
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein)
  • Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
  • This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper)
  • People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)
  • Homesick (Eshkol Nevo)
  • Second Person Singular (Sayed Kashua)
  • The Liars’ Gospel (Naomi Alderman)
  • The Boston Girl (Anita Diamant)
  • The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Laurel Corona)
  • Mrs. Everything (Jennifer Weiner)

Non-Fiction

  • The Soup Has Many Eyes: From Shtetl to Chicago – A Memoir of One Family’s Journey Through History (Joann Rose Leonard)
  • My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (Benyamin Cohen)
  • Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (Yossi Klein Halevi)
  • My Promsied Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Ari Shavit)
  • Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Deborah Feldman)
  • Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Irin Carmen & Shana Knizhnik)
  • The Jew Store (Stella Suberman)
  • Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb (David Kushner)
  • Antisemitism: Here and Now (Deborah E. Lipstadt)
  • The Color of Love (Marra Gad)

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Three.

Since a week already feels like a year, I figured I might as well cover a whole year in this week’s read.

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Abigail Pogrebin is a writer, former producer, and recovering temple president. (She doesn’t actually describe herself as recovering — and, in fact, her synagogue presidency at Central Synagogue in New York City began after the events described in this book — but I assume all temple presidents are, and ever will be, in recovery. I say this with deep gratitude to all of our past, present, and future KKBE presidents who I hope derive even a fraction of the inspiration their years of service bring to so many others.) She is also the daughter of Letty Cottin Pogrebin, whose Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America would be another wonderful reading choice for this, or any other, time.

The premise of this book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jewis this: Pogrebin, a modestly-observant lifelong Reform Jew, decided to spend a year “researching, observing, and writing about every single Jewish holiday on the calendar.” This would include the well known holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; but also the lesser known (or at least observed) ones, like The Fast of Gedaliah, Hoshana Rabba, and Lag B’Omer. And the entirety of New York City — and occasionally well beyond — would serve as her laboratory.

An immersive experience… a quest… I’m a sucker for books like these. One of the more interesting I remember was My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt In Search of His Own Faithby Benyamin Cohen, which I also recommend. And A.J. Jacobs, the king of immersive nonfiction — see The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, among others — happens to be a longtime friend of Pogrebin and writes the foreword to this book. One of my personal goals is to write a book about the experience of fulfilling a quest. Seeing as I have yet to figure out what my quest would be, it might have to be about the quest for a quest. But I digress…

Pogrebin’s quest does produce insights for all of us, even those for whom the Jewish calendar already provides rhythm and structure to our year. For instance, who knew that Shemini Atzeret could be so poignant? “Shemini Atzeret,” as she writes. “What’s the easiest way to stump a Reform Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. What’s the easiest way to stump an Orthodox Jew? Ask him to explain Shemini Atzeret. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it gets at something true: everybody is a little fuzzy on Shemini Atzeret.” On the Reform calendar, Shemini Atzeret gets rolled up into Simchat Torah, with the latter receiving all of the focus and love. But Rabbi Dov Linzer — one of the over 70 Jewish teachers Pogrebin cites in the book — makes a compelling case for Shemini Atzeret to get some attention of its own:

“Shemini Atzeret is for me a day devoted to transition. It’s the day we come in from the sukkah—from feeling our vulnerability and our need for God’s protection—to live in our firm, sturdy house. Finally, no more holidays and we can get on with our lives. But then, what was the point of it all? Shemini Atzeret tells us—give yourself a day to transition back, to ask yourself: How am I going to integrate what I’ve learned and experienced this High Holiday season? It is a day that says: don’t let this be like coming home from a conference all fired up with new ideas, only to forget them the minute you step off the plane. It is a day that says: make sure that something gets brought back home.”

Considered this way, I can think of more holidays and experiences than just Sukkot that could use a Shemini Atzeret.

There was one moment in reading this book where my jaw literally dropped. The Tenth of Tevet — one of the six fast days which were, safe to say, not Pogrebin’s favorite part of the Jewish year — commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege of the First Temple in Jerusalem, whose destruction, along with that of the Second Temple, is memorialized on Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Yosef Blau, she writes, “believes there is a powerful lesson in marking the start of this devastation. We should notice the clouds; they could warn of an approaching tornado.”

“‘There’s a sense on the Tenth of Tevet that we should always be concerned about what things may lead to, instead of waiting for some tragedy to happen,’ Blau says. ‘We should be alert to the early stages of the process. The fact that we fast even for the beginning of the destruction, not just for the destruction itself, is probably a reminder that we should be sensitive to dangers even early in the game.’”

Reading this I was curious: When did the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet fall this year (5780)? Hebcal.com (whose Hebrew/Gregorian date converter is a tool with which we should all be familiar) told me it was on January 7, 2020.

Even more curious now, I googled “CORONAVIRUS” and “JANUARY 7” and found this from the World Health Organization: “The Chinese authorities identified a new type of coronavirus (novel coronovirus, nCoV), which was isolated on 7 January 2020.”

Like I said: Jaw. Dropped. We should notice clouds and be alert to early stages of destruction. Indeed.

Yet regardless of the year, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of one’s depth of knowledge of the Jewish holidays, I do believe every reader will find something new in Pogrebin’s text. I admit I had been wary of this book. I thought the rabbi-name-dropping and famous-shul-shopping would potentially become, well, tiresome. But I found the former yields sort of a “greatest hits” of reflection on the themes of the holiday that I enjoyed and often flagged for future use. And the latter, though interesting and sometimes eye-opening, ultimately led Pogrebin to appreciate that, at the end of the day, it’s the special warmth and sense of belonging she finds in her own congregation that she values most.

And with that I wholeheartedly agree.

 

[Note: The book links I have included here will take you to Amazon, where we encourage you to use smile.amazon.com and choose Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim as the beneficiary. However, I’d also invite you to look for these or any other books on the websites of your favorite Independent Bookstore. Many are shipping anywhere in the country right now and, like so many small businesses, can desperately use our support.]

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Two.

Well, now, this doesn’t seem fair. This time last week I was reveling in the possibilities of seemingly endless time to read. Now, this week, I find (a) there hasn’t been nearly as much time as I thought, and (b) more than time, I lack all ability to focus. I read a paragraph, then check Facebook. Read a paragraph, then get distracted by the news. Read a paragraph, and realize my mind was somewhere else entirely and I didn’t actually read the paragraph at all. Anyone else find themselves in the same boat?

So, thank goodness for the suggestion made by Alison, Rosalyn, and others that the first book I pick up during this time of isolation be Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Not because it’s a profound book (which it certainly is). Or because it’s incredibly relevant for our current predicament (and it is that, as well). But because it’s short! And because it’s short, I was able to persevere — paragraph by paragraph — grateful for the chance to reacquaint myself with both its relevance and depth.

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Pretty sure this copy dates back to college.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was a renowned Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of more than 30 books, none more impactful in its reach than Man’s Search for Meaning. (For more on the life and legacy of Frankl, see his obituary in the New York Times here.) Written in nine successive days shortly after his liberation from Nazi death camps in 1945, and first published in Austria in 1946, Frankl described his motivation for sharing the insights he gleaned from his experiences: “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. … I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”

From page one, Man’s Search for Meaning radiates with relevance for our own difficult time of uncertainty. Not because there are direct parallels between this moment of social distancing during a viral pandemic and the levels of suffering inflicted upon the innocent during the Holocaust. Hardly. Nor because reading of the extreme suffering those in Nazi death camps experienced yields a deep appreciation for the relative ease with which we have it, even under present circumstances. (Though that is a definite byproduct.) Frankl was not a relativist and his purpose in writing the book wasn’t to tell us all in the midst of our own life’s experiences to buck up; it could be so much worse.

Rather Frankl understood that all suffering is of one cloth. Circumstances change; trials and tribulations come in all shapes and sizes. But, no matter the suffering, its difficulties are lessened — or at least made bearable — when we can assign to them meaning. As he quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Humor, curiosity, art, intensification of inner life, surprise when the common wisdom re: what we think we need to survive is proven wrong — these were all tools and strategies Frankl saw those in the camps around him use, consciously or unconsciously, to survive to see another day. But discovering meaning in one’s life — meaning specific to oneself in a specific moment — was the most powerful agent of all.

Frankl describes three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives, and I suggest that these three pathways are available to each one of us right now:

  1. “By creating a work or doing a deed.” This is the roll-up-one’s-sleeves-and-get-cranking approach. Make that gourmet meal. Work that 1,000 piece puzzle. Sculpt that topiary in your garden. (Hey, no one’s judging your hobby or bucket list!) Whatever your passion, your talent, your interest — use this time and opportunity to create or do something new and special, something done just by you.
  2. “By experiencing something or encountering someone.” Here Frankl lists “goodness, truth and beauty,” “experiencing nature and culture,” “or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness.” I think of all those who are using this time to do for others: to shop and bring groceries to those who are shut-in; to give and raise funds for those whose personal or business resources are in dire need; to just pick up the phone and check in, whether you know someone to be in need, or they’re just on your mind. I think of the bike rides, the walks, or even just sitting in nature, tuning into something bigger than, and greater than, ourselves. Every act taken beyond ourselves expands our perspective and lightens our load.
  3. “By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” Yet, for some, this moment of isolation truly is a moment of inescapable suffering. Deep concern for our own health, or that of our loved ones, due to underlying medical conditions or compromised immunity; the effects of physical illness, or the struggle to preserve mental health, or the unraveling of our economic safety net — this is suffering that one can’t just “create” or “experience” their way out of. Here, Frankl teaches, perspective makes all the difference. For whom do we suffer? he might ask. Instead of a moment of suffering, can we see this as a moment of sacrifice? Think of all of those we are striving to protect by our actions. Replace statistics (staggering numbers) with faces and names of those in danger. I isolate for my friend and colleague, who lives with a medical condition that would quite likely render COVID-19 a death sentence. I isolate for my grandmother, and the grandmothers and grandfathers in my congregation, and all the grandparents and great-grandparents for whom this disease seems to be mercilessly unsparing. I isolate for a global humanity that may very well be saved, in part, by one person, me, staying 6 feet away from everyone else. I isolate because, despite all of the powerlessness this moment engenders, our individual choices, in reality, have rarely held such power.

I’ll give the last word to Dr. Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

What are you choosing today?

Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week One.

In this time of uncertainty, the best advice I have heard is to lean in to the possibilities. Wanted or not, we have each been granted newly found time and a little bit of breathing room to make the most of it. So… nu, what to do?

[Before we go any further, a very important disclaimer: Breathing room, maybe, but we most certainly do *NOT* find ourselves right now with nothing to do. We are actively and rapidly reinventing nearly every aspect of our lives. Couples are reconfiguring the parameters of marriage; every routine and practice associated with work is being reimagined; parents are — oh my goodness, parents are wearing gauze mittens to keep from pulling our hair out. And those who are truly physically isolated, with neither companionship nor work in the home, face their own daunting sets of challenges. So, yes, by all means, let’s lean into the opportunities of this challenging moment with all that we have — but let’s also be gentle with ourselves and cut ourselves some slack. The garage and that pantry didn’t get cleaned out under the best of circumstances — is it really fair to face up to them now?]

If I were the superstitious sort, I would offer my apologies. I can recall several times I have faced the many (many) books on my shelves at home and at work, in piles on my desk, in stacks by my bed, and thought to myself: You know, it might be nice to be home-bound for a bit, with nothing to do (see the naïveté there?) but read through what I’ve been collecting over the past several months; catch up a bit.

Actually I am the superstitious sort — and I am very, very, very sorry.

Very.

And yet, here we are… So! For as long as this reality is with us, I am committing to reading at least one of those books each week, and sharing some insights and reflections with you. I’m focusing on the Jewish books I’ve accumulated, but scanning the options, they’re fairly diverse — new titles and old, fiction and nonfiction, long and not so long. (I am not committing to reading The Source, however — which, no, I have never read; and, yes, I know is beloved by many. At least not yet; we’ll see how long this goes.)

I am sharing these reflections on my blog with the hope that they might become interactive. This platform allows for comments at the end — so a few questions for you, dear readers:

  1. How are you leaning into this unstructured time? Have you set any goals? Begun any projects? Renewed any old hobbies? Found any unexpected silver linings that are brightening your spirit?
  2. Any books calling to you from your own shelves, piles, and stacks? Just a few weeks ago, my son discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen sitting on our shelves. When, after two nights of reading, he (a) quoted the Baal Shem Tov, and (b) called me an “apikoros,” I decided I had to reread it myself. That one book sparked me to track down others, and I followed with The Promise and My Name Is Asher Lev… There really is magic in rereading old books, not just new ones. A classic like The Chosen helps us tap into, not only its own narrative, but the Jewish community (and beyond) of the time that embraced the story of these two boys and their divergent worlds. It also gives us a glimpse into one of our own personal formative experiences — like opening up a diary or journal. If we remember a book fondly (and if it’s still sitting on our shelves, there’s a good chance that we do), then it probably helped shaped us, at least in some small part, into the person we are today. So scan the books around you… What might you like to pick up and revisit in the days and weeks ahead?

I invite you to answer any of those questions below, and respond to the answers and comments of others (at the very end of all of the comments, where it says “Leave a Reply” and in the box below that: “Enter your comment here…”).

Also, looking for a new book not on your shelf? The Jewish Book Council has a host of wonderful reading lists, like American Jewish Southern Experiences, or Bible & Biblically Inspired Stories, or even Jewish Banned Books. And if you don’t want to go the Amazon route (though if you do, please go to smile.amazon.com and select KKBE to receive the proceeds — we would be deeply grateful), check out the online holdings in our Charleston County Public Library, or even the New York Public Library.

This meme popped up nearly as soon as coronavirus-related restrictions were promulgated:Not all of us are introverts, and even those of us who are find ourselves wholly unprepared for this unparalleled moment. Nevertheless, here we are. So….. will you join me? Into the shelves, piles, and stacks we go!

My Year in Books – 2019

All in all, this was a good year in books. I completed more books than I have in any previous year, and greatly improved my ability to put a book down, no matter how good I thought it might become, if it just wasn’t doing it for me. There are simply too many interesting books out there and too little time! My overall list was just about 50-50 this year between fiction and nonfiction, including some really exceptional graphic novels and memoirs. As in previous years, this list reflects my choices from what I read this year, not necessarily what was published in 2019; though I was #1 in line for a lot of new books at the library. (Note: If you were waiting for something I was hoarding in the tall stacks on my nightstand, my apologies. Even though the library eliminated late fees, I promise I still felt guilty.)

So here’s my list — would love to hear your comments and favorites, too!

Narrative Nonfiction (as compelling as any fiction, with the added bonus of being real) — Best: The Library Book, Susan Orlean; Runner-up: Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waites Waring, Richard Gergel

Regular Nonfiction (less enjoyable, but still eye-opening and important) — Best: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, Mona Hanna Attisha; Runner-up: Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas

Concept Book (I’m a sucker for a good gimmicky premise… still waiting for my own) — Best: One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America, Gene Weingarten (such a good concept that I want him to write this book for every other day, too, all of them); Runner-up: Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting, Jennifer Traig; Also notable: Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, by A.J. Jacobs, because (a) he kind of rocks the world of concept books, in general; and (b) who knew Ted Talks published books — a wonderful sermonic resource for any clergy friends who may be reading this

Memoir — Best: Shortest Way Home, Pete Buttigieg (if we judged candidates by their books only, he’d definitely have my vote — unless Bryan Stevenson declares his candidacy); Runners-up: Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, Megan Phelps-Roper; and The Color of Love, Marra Gad — because it’s my list, and I don’t have to choose

Graphic Memoir — Best: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, Mira Jacob (I’ve never seen another book like this — really stunning); Runner-up: They Called Us Enemy, George Takei 

Fiction — I don’t know that there is such a thing as “best fiction;” so much depends on the time and place you read it, the mood you’re in, what you need the book to do. So here’s a list of the works of fiction I simply enjoyed reading the most this year in no particular order except the chronology of my own reading list:

  • We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin 
  • The Girl He Used to Know, Tracey Garvis Graves
  • Mrs. Everything, Jennifer Weiner
  • Ask Again, Yes, Mary Beth Keane 
  • The Stationery Shop, Marian Kamali
  • City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, Robert Dugoni
  • Normal People, Sally Rooney
  • Where the Crawdads Sing, Della Owens (don’t judge; I didn’t want to like it either)
  • We Are All Good People Here, Susan Rebecca White
  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson

Best Young Adult: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alice Sáenz (I loved this book so much)

Best Middle Grade, fiction: The Benefits of Being an Octopus, Ann Braden

Best Middle Grade, nonfiction: We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls around the World, Malala Yousafzai

Best Middle Grade, graphic novel: White Bird, R.J. Palacio (yes, that R.J. Palacio — who knew she was a visual artist, too; this is a wonderful Holocaust alternative for readers too young for Maus)

Collection — Best: Inbetweenism, Adam Krasnoff — Adam, I will read anything you write, anytime, anywhere, and at full cover price; Runner-up: The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: True Stories about Defying the Impossible, Catherine Burns, ed.

Thank God a Person Can Grow

Yizkor, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Much has been written about the meaning of Yom Kippur and the important themes of this holiest day of the Jewish year. But of all that’s been said, and of all the people to have said it, Congressman Jim Clyburn may have summarized Yom Kippur best with these six words: “Thank God a man can grow.”

Of course, Yom Kippur wasn’t anywhere on the Congressman’s radar when he quoted poet, Florence Earl Coates. It was this past April, and he was eulogizing his colleague, Senator Fritz Hollings, someone with whom he had been intertwined virtually his entire political career. 

Clyburn first met Hollings in February 1960. At that time, Clyburn was one of the students leaders organizing pro-integration sit-ins at South Carolina State, and Hollings was a second year governor who had run for office as a segregationist. Nevertheless, Hollings received the students who met with him graciously. “He opened up to us,” Clyburn said, “and we opened to him.” 

“Thank God a man can grow.” 

Two years later, no doubt influenced in part by his meetings with Clyburn and the other student leaders, Hollings encouraged the South Carolina state legislature to peacefully receive Harvey Gantt, the first African American student admitted to Clemson University. 

“Thank God a man can grow.” 

And then, much more recently, Clyburn received a call from Hollings regarding the federal courthouse that sits here in downtown Charleston. The building had been named for Hollings — a tremendous honor, to be sure, and Hollings was never one to shy away from honors. But he wanted Clyburn to sponsor legislation to change the name to honor U.S. District Judge Waties Waring instead, the justice whose dissent paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education and the ultimate undoing of legalized school segregation. “I was moved to tears,” said Clyburn, with obvious emotion in his voice on that day, too, “because I know South Carolina well, and I thought I knew Fritz Hollings well. [But] there was much more to him. Thank God a man can grow. Fritz grew, and I grew along with him.” [1]

This afternoon, our worship space is filled to overflowing with memories of those who came before us — those who passed away years, or even generations, ago; those who we lost in more recent years and days. Some were gentle and kind; some could be critical and harsh. Some were generous and giving; some kept their resources, their praise, maybe even their love, close to their chest. Some were a product of their time; some were far ahead of theirs. Most were probably a mix of all of these and more. What they certainly all share in common is that not a single one was perfect. So we each have a choice: How will we remember our loved ones and those who came before us? May we take our cue from this Yom Kippur day that champions change and growth. 

Judaism teaches that when we come to the end of our days, our deeds will be weighed on a great cosmic scale. All of the mitzvot and g’milut chasadim we have performed in our lives — all of the ways in which we have lived God’s command and extended God’s loving kindness to others — will be measured on one side of the scale: One weight for each good deed to our merit. On the other side of the scale, all of our sins and the ways in which we have come up short will be measured: One weight for each demerit. So far, a simple reckoning even a young child would note seems fair. But in Judaism there’s an all-important variable: When we recognize we’ve gone astray — when we stop, reflect, and ultimately change our ways — repentance and atonement don’t just cancel out or remove a demerit; they move it to the other side of the scale in our favor! At the end of the day, at the end of our days, God is willing to consider the best possible accounting of our lives we can put forward, and reward us for the work it took to get there. Let us too consider not only where a person started from, but look with favor on where they ultimately came to. 

“Thank God a person can grow.”

Yet, what if our loved ones didn’t grow, or didn’t grow enough? What if — whether their years were few or many — they never quite saw their way to the spiritual improvements we wish we could recount to their credit? In these instances, I find Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s framing very meaningful: 

Each lifetime, [he writes], is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

For some there are more pieces.

For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.

Some seem to be born with nearly a completed puzzle.

And so it goes.

Souls going this way and that

Trying to assemble their myriad parts.

But know this.

No one has within themselves

All of the pieces to their puzzle,

Like before the days when they used to seal

Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane,

Insuring that all the pieces were there.

Rather everyone carries with them at least one 

And probably many pieces 

To someone else’s puzzle.

Sometimes they know it.

Sometimes they don’t.

But when you present your piece,

Which is worthless to you, 

To another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are a messenger from the Most High —

Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes. [2]

When a loved one dies — beyond the physical absence of their presence; beyond the loss of their voice, their touch — one of the most difficult parts of loss is the way in which they suddenly become fixed. While they had breath, our relationship with them was dynamic. But now they can no longer grow, no longer change; and we can no longer hope to talk with them, even argue with them, in an effort to help both of us grow. It seems all we can do is pray: “May they forgive us for falling short of what, in their best moments, they had taught us. May we forgive them for falling short of what we wished they could be.” [3]

Yet Judaism teaches us that it is possible, with our lives, to continue to redeem the lives of those who came before us. And that such redemption can even extend over several lifetimes. Consider the ritual of reciting Kaddish. Traditionally, it is understood to be a father’s failing if he passes away and his son does not know how to recite Kaddish in his memory and honor. In fact, that failing alone would be enough to keep the father from ascending to heaven. But if another person were to come along, after the father’s passing, and teach his son to recite Kaddish, or if the son were to take it upon himself to learn, this growth would be accounted to the father’s credit. As the son recites Kaddish, his father’s failing would be redeemed; his soul would ascend to heaven.

“Thank God a person can grow.”

And so, for so long as we are here — so long as our own names are written and, we pray, sealed in the Book of Life — may we never squander this gift.

Rabbi Israel Salanter once spent the night at a shoemaker’s home. Late at night, he saw the man working by the light of a flickering candle. “Look how late it is,” the rabbi said. “Your candle is about to go out. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker replied, “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.”

For weeks afterward, Rabbi Salanter was heard repeating the shoemaker’s words to himself: “As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to mend.”

As long as the candle burns — as long as the spark of life still shines — we can mend and heal, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, begin again. [4]

“Thank God a person can grow.”

 

 

[1] “Emotional Eulogies Highlight Funeral of South Carolina’s Fritz Hollings,” Meg Kinnard, AP, April 17, 2019.

[2] Adapted from Honey from the Rock, with last line emended from Mishkan T’filah.

[3] On Wings of Awe, p. 468.

[4] Mishkan Hanefesh, Rosh Hashanah, p. 81.

I Am a Zionist

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Those of you who know my son at all, know he’s a huge Duke basketball fan. (And that I need to have his permission to share this — which I do.) So he looked forward to this year’s NBA draft like it was a holiday. Three Duke players were taken in the Top Ten, but all eyes were on mega-superstar Zion Williamson. Zion was selected number one overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, and Eli immediately declared he wanted to go to a game. “I want to make a big sign,” he said, and he held his hands up over his head. “I Am a Zionist.’”

Clever pun — he’s a clever boy. But, oh, that term: Zionist. That complicated, fraught, magnet of a term. Just imagine the reactions that sign would attract. Imagine standing on a street corner holding a sign, publicly proclaiming to the world, in this day and age, that you are a Zionist. How would it feel? What might happen?

Some people would surely come up to encourage you, pat you on the back, or honk and shout their approval as they drove by. Yet some of those, maybe many, would be people with whom you haven’t agreed, have even vehemently disagreed, about virtually everything else happening in the world as of late.

Other passersby would shun you, yell at you, vilify both you and Israel. And some of those would be people with whom you have felt quite close, people with whom you’ve stood side by side on so many other important issues and causes. 

Still others would call your sign a lie. You’re not a Zionist, they would say. Why do you love Israel? How do you love Israel? They might question your loyalty to Israeli leadership — never mind that Israelis, of course, support an array of leaders themselves. Why else are there so many elections? “It is a great folly of American Judaism,” Yehuda Kurtzer writes, “that ideas and beliefs that constitute legitimate participation within Israeli political discourse can be considered illegitimate and treasonous in American Jewish institutions. There is greater freedom of expression and ideology in Israel’s Knesset than in the mainstream American synagogue pulpit.” [1] More baffling still, these individuals might question your Zionist loyalty based on who you support in American leadership. So — even as you stand there, holding your sign, proclaiming your commitment to, and love of, Israel — they would apply the label “pro-Israel” to other people, some elusive group whose identity is difficult to pin down, but clearly does not include you.

It would all be enough to make your head spin and your heart hurt. Maybe enough to declare it just isn’t worth it. So you might, understandably, leave that sign at home, push it to the back of the closet. In this sea of confusion and frustration, disillusionment and anger, you might even be tempted to throw it away — not just the sign, but the identity it affirms. 

When it comes to Israel, so many of us have turned aside, tuned out, or walked away altogether.

And yet… 

Israel is in our souls. 

On virtually every page of our liturgy. 

Woven throughout our collective historical memory. 

On Yom Kippur, among our many sins, we atone for the sin we have committed by too easily forgetting Zion; the wrong we have done by not working at the relationship. We acknowledge that turning in love toward Zion is an act of healing; that supporting the State of Israel is an act of repair. And we pray for a year of Zion aglow with light for us and all the world. [2]

Despite it all, we need Israel and Israel needs us. If we take this particular piece of atonement seriously, we can struggle, we can challenge, we can wrestle, and we can debate — but we cannot afford to walk away.

Late one evening this summer, at nearly 1:00 in the morning, Hurricane Dorian was plodding toward us here in Charleston. I was hoping for one more update on the storm, one more favorable spray of spaghetti (a turn of phrase that only makes sense in this quirky corner of the globe). So, before I turned in for the night, I scrolled through Facebook, scanning updates — birthdays, articles, a few clever (and not so clever) memes — when I saw a link to a live feed from Women of the Wall. The group had gathered, as they do every Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of a new Hebrew month), for prayer and Torah at the Kotel, the Western Wall. 

I have to admit, this is the type of post I usually skip. Tuning in via Facebook just doesn’t do much for me, and what Women of the Wall experiences can be upsetting. But something resonated this particular late night/very early morning — the first day of September, and, as it happened, the very first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. On my screen, I saw that Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, held a long, spiraling shofar under her arm, and I recognized this would be my first opportunity to hear that quintessential sound, the sound that calls us to reflection, introspection, and repentance throughout the month of Elul. The sound that encourages us: The gates are open! The book is open! Your future is in your hands! And to hear that call from Jerusalem…

So I tuned in for the sole purpose of hearing that sound. I listened, I watched, and I recalled the time I joined Women of the Wall in person, some 15 years ago now. Women of the Wall is a traditional Jewish women’s group and, once again, I felt the discomfort of participating in rituals with which I was then, and am still, though to a lesser degree, unfamiliar. I struggled to follow along with the rapid Hebrew. And I felt the same anxiousness and anger, as Haredi women kept up a constant barrage in Hebrew: This is a disgrace! You are a disgrace! Disrespectful! Shonda (shame)! Nothing had changed in 15 years.

Nevertheless, I stayed on the feed, basking in the golden early morning light that sets Jerusalem stone ablaze. Even 6,000 miles away, I felt sheltered underneath the canopy they created with a raised tallit; was transfixed as a woman unrolled a klaf — a single, contraband sheet of parchment — since the police would not allow women to bring a Torah scroll to the Kotel. I kvelled with the group as the aliyot were called: Those celebrating birthdays and commemorating yahrtzeits, those honored for their dedication that enabled this special congregation, this kahal, to gather in this sacred place. I stayed on the feed and, at some point, ceased merely to watch. I began to participate — typing “Amen” after the blessing for reading Torah, joining the wishes typed to one another for a chodesh tov, a good month. I had even changed my iPhone keypad over to Hebrew.

And then, finally, came the sound I had been waiting for, the notes of the Shofar: T’kiah, sh’varim, t’ruah. The most ancient sound we have in our tradition literally called to me that morning from the remains of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. And, just like that, my spirit soared, I was covered in goosebumps, and my heart was in the East.

In many ways those thirty or forty minutes — I lost track of time — perfectly encapsulate my relationship with Israel. There are many things that leave me uncomfortable, angry, frustrated, and pained: The treatment of women, and the subjugation of progressive Jews, as though we practice a second-class Judaism. The devastation inflicted upon both Israelis and Palestinians in unceasing cycles of violence. Leaders who lack the moral clarity and political creativity to realize their citizens’ strong desire for peace; to represent the 84% of Israeli Jews who support religious freedom. [3] The occupation of a people, no matter how one one understands the status of the land, which is eroding Israel’s soul. And so I have a tendency — sometimes it even feels like a need — to distance myself, step aside, just scroll by. But when I stop, when I do engage, when I am willing to invest myself in the struggle, I invariably find that I am so much richer for it. And look what was happening in Israel that particular morning: Religious Israeli women were asserting their rightful ownership of Jewish tradition and claiming their place at Judaism’s most sacred site. Their activism for equality and justice is making Israel better — and because I had joined them that morning, these women, and Israel itself, were one soul stronger.

Friends, the sign grows heavy; the criticisms, borne from so many directions, are exhausting. Nevertheless, I stand, not on a street corner, but on this bimah, and declare with pride: I am a Zionist.

And so let me respond to some of those reactions such a statement, uttered by any of us, in any location, is sure to attract. 

To those who would deny us our Zionist identity because we are critical of Israel’s moral failings, I note that criticism of Israel is as ancient as it is current — and it’s also homegrown.

“Learn to be better, seek justice, support the oppressed, bring justice to the fatherless, argue the case of the widow,” implored the prophet Isaiah to the ancient Israelites in Jerusalem. (1:17)

“He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk faithfully with your God,” exhorted Micah, as he traveled between rural Judah and the bigger cities of the Promised Land. (6:8)

And, of course, the powerful charge we will hear in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah:

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.” (58:6-7)

This conscience-raising chastisement, too, was born in ancient Israel.

There are moments, like those first notes of the shofar heard from Jerusalem, in which our hearts might turn to the East. But our moral compass always points there. The teachings that ground our ethics, the roots of our most enduring values — they all began there. What could better demonstrate genuine love for Israel than to challenge her to rise to her own highest call?

To those who would shun us for declaring ourselves Zionists — who bristle at the very term Zionism, and unilaterally equate Israel with oppression and injustice — to these individuals I urge caution. Too easily, anti-Zionism slips into antisemitism. As Natan Sharansky has summarized: When Israel is demonized, delegitimized, or held to a double standard, the bounds of acceptable criticism have been crossed. Yes, Israel can and should be held accountable for her actions. Absolutely. But the need to be better does not obviate her right to exist, nor does it account for the disproportionate scrutiny placed upon her relative to other erring nations around world, and within the Middle East itself.

And an entire country is never only one thing. Beyond the realm of Israel’s government and its policies, just like here, citizens are realizing the vision of Isaiah and Micah in so many ways, big and small. We often hear about Israel as a Start Up Nation. But do we realize how many young Israeli companies and nonprofits are involved in the work of Tikkun Olam — bringing “repair” not only to Israel, but throughout the region and the world? 

Road to Recovery organizes thousands of Israeli volunteers to drive Palestinians in need of medical treatment — mostly children — from checkpoints between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to hospitals in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In 2018 alone, they organized over 10,000 trips for over 20,000 patients, covering 800,000 miles of travel by close to 2,000 volunteers. Kayla Ship, the Israel-based guide who will lead KKBE’s upcoming trip to Spain, is a regular volunteer with Road to Recovery. Even though it requires her to miss several hours of work, one day every two weeks, it’s a commitment her employer has not only allowed, but encouraged, her to make.

Save A Child’s Heart is an Israeli-based international humanitarian charity whose mission is: “To improve the level of pediatric cardiac care throughout the world.” Their staff, and the over 120 medical team members they have trained, have saved the lives of 5,000 children from 61 countries around the globe. The organization’s logo was taken from a drawing by an early patient:

Four year old Katya arrived from Moldova with very serious heart defects. She was near death and her body was deep blue due to the lack of oxygen. Some five months and four highly complicated surgeries later, Katya was ready to go home. Before she left, she drew a picture of a hand holding a little girl with a heart. When asked to explain, she told her doctor: “I had a dream, there were many colors over my bed, then a very big hand came in the middle of the night. We flew to a far-off country and they gave me a new heart, and I could run and dance.” [4]

Tikkun Olam Makers, another organization, seeks to improve the lives of people living with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor. They’ve launched dozens and dozens of groups working to bring accessible, affordable solutions to those who need them most. Extra Set of Hands incorporates a grabber into a cane, pulling an object up its length, so that someone with Parkinson’s can pick it up without losing the balance the cane provides. Aut2Talk is an app through which you can record videos of yourself performing tasks to help nonverbal autistic individuals better understand and communicate feelings and needs. Countless groups are working on innovations to help paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals overcome impaired mobility, including equipment and devices that actually restore the ability to walk. The goal of Tikkun Olam Makers is to improve the lives of 250,000,000 people — and, seeing their successes, one can’t help but feel that their moonshot objective is in reach.

These are only a few of the many inspiring ways in which Israelis, and Israel itself, are making the world a better place. But let me be very clear: None of them excuse Israel’s shortcomings. It’s not my intention or goal to whitewash the difficulties and challenges Israel’s actions often present. Far from it. Yet these kinds of stories — Israeli companies and citizens engaged in Tikkun Olam — do encourage me to invest in deepening my relationship with Israel. 

I want to support a country whose creative and technological advances are promoting greater accessibility and justice. I want to support a nation that is improving the lives of not only its own citizens, but those living throughout the region and around the world. And I want to connect with a nation that can, at the highest levels, engage in deep soul searching and accountability.

I support a nation where, every year, Rabbis for Human Rights publishes an expanded Vidui, the Yom Kippur confessional. They’ve been doing this for over fifteen years, “condemning the treatment of the poor and the sick, the Palestinians, and people seeking refuge in Israel … [as well as demanding] justice for the Jewish settlers who lost their homes in the Gaza Strip during the disengagement process in 2005.” [5]

For the sin we have committed before You by discrimination and exclusion.

For the sin we have committed before You by putting faith in unworthy leaders, those who stoked the public with fear and despair.

For the sin we have committed before You by smugly disparaging those whose concept of justice is different than our [own]. [6]

I support a nation where a former education minister encouraged citizens to vote with democratic ideals in mind. Three days before the most recent Israeli election, Shay Piron, who is also an orthodox rabbi, posted the following on Facebook:

Just before entering the voting booth, everyone should say to themselves:

I don’t hate.

I don’t hate Haredim.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate leftists.

They were a major factor in establishing the State of Israel.

They built communities and kibbutzim.

They are seekers of peace, even if I believe it endangers us.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate right-wingers.

Even those who are on the economic right, which, to me, seems destructive.

And even those who want to hold on to the entire Land of Israel,

I know how precious all of Israel is to them.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I don’t hate the Arab citizens of Israel.

Their fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers were born here.

I am part of a people that knows what it means to be a minority and to yearn.

I will not give up my state. But I understand and feel their pain.

We disagree with each other — but I don’t hate.

I want to do good.

I want to make Israel a model society.

I don’t want to give in to everyone. I don’t want to give up on anyone.

May it be Your will

That I won’t hate.

That I won’t make myself hated.

That I will know how to say what is in my heart

Straightforwardly

Decently

Deeply.

That I will contribute in some way to the good life in the good land

Of all of us. [7]

And I support a nation where one of her most prolific songwriters, Ehud Manor, captured the pain of his country with these lyrics, found in our High Holy Day prayer books:

I will not be silent when my country has changed her face

I will not give in to her, I will remind her

and I will sing here in her ears

until she has opened her eyes. [8]

It is not easy to be a Zionist, it never has been, and that today’s reasons feel unnecessarily challenging makes it that much more difficult. Nevertheless: Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha… For the sin we have committed before You by too easily forgetting Zion — by being silent; by giving in; by turning aside, tuning out, walking away — forgive us. O God, turn our hearts toward the east, even as our moral compass always points there. Hear the prayer we offer in love for the Israel that we love:

Eternal God,

give us hope for Israel and for her future.

Renew our wonder at the miracle of the Jewish State.

In the name of the pioneers who made the deserts bloom,

give us the tools to cultivate diversity of Jewish expression.

In the name of her fallen soldiers, 

give us courage to stand up to zealots,

those among her neighbors and in her midst.

In the name of the inventors who have amazed the world with their innovations,

help us apply the same ingenuity to finding a path to peace.

In the name of them all, for the sake of us all — 

grant us the strength to conquer doubt and despair.

Replace doubt with action.

Replace despair with hope.

And let us say: Amen. [9]

 

 

[1] “Why the Witch Hunts?” Yehuda Kurtzer, The Times of Israel, September 6, 2016.

[2] Compiled from Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur.

[3] “2019 Israel Religion & State Index and Post-Election Survey,” September 26, 2019, hiddush.org.

[4] Saveachildsheart.org.

[5] “Al Chet in Israeli Culture,” Dalia Marx, We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism: Ashamnu and Al Chet, Lawrence Hoffman (ed.), p. 71.

[6] Compiled from various compositions by Rabbis Yehoyada Amir, Levi Weiman-Kasman, and Arik Asherman.

[7] “A Prayer for the Israeli Elections,” Times of Israel, September 16, 2019, adapted.

[8] “I Have No Other Country,” (Ein Li Eretz Aheret), Ehud Manor (1982).

[9] Anat Hoffman, adapted.

From Fear to Faith

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Shanah Tovah. What a beautiful sight this gathering is, as always, as we enter the New Year together — the tenth New Year I have the honor to celebrate with you, my KKBE family; a blessing that means more to me than I can possibly put into words.

As we look back on the past year, 5779 was difficult to be sure. A year characterized by angry rhetoric and bitter divides. By devastating gun violence and shocking acts of domestic terrorism. A little less than a year ago, “the single deadliest attack against the Jewish community in American history” rocked Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, sending reverberations felt around the country and the world. [1] Six months later, another shooter devastated the worshipping community gathered for the last day of Passover in Poway, CA. When I take stock of the past year, the theme that stands out more than anything is fear. 

And far be it from me to stand up here and tell you not to be afraid. I’m scared, too.

An article published just after the attack in Poway stated what many had been feeling at the time: That synagogues can no longer have open door policies. That the world is an inherently dangerous place. Caution, vigilance, and security are the watchwords of the day in nearly every circle now. “If you see something, say something,” our collective mantra. “Better safe than sorry,” we tell each other, and ourselves. Fear has made so many of us in this country reticent to take risks, especially when it comes to people.

Yet, friends, this too we must acknowledge: Fear is also tearing us apart. I don’t just mean in the polarization of our society, where politicians persist in playing upon our deepest anxieties: That because of certain people, or a certain group of people, our lives will be endangered. Our freedoms will be compromised. That — whether its money or land or jobs — there’s just not enough to go around. Beyond this stoking of fear that continues to split our communities, we feel fear creating fissures and tension at the very core of our beings. Especially in that part of our souls that finds its home here, in the Jewish community. 

Because, while fear is leading us to distrust the stranger, we know from Jewish tradition: That Abraham is venerated for not just welcoming unknown visitors, but running to do so. That every Passover Seder begins by inviting all who are hungry, all who are in need, to come and take a seat at our tables. That we have worked for generations to try to ensure our synagogues, our schools, our homes, and our nation are open, welcome, inclusive tents.

The tension these values cause, like our fear, is real. Some say that times are simply different. The nature of the threats we face today suggests that, at least temporarily, we must err on the side of an abundance of caution. Yet are these times truly exceptional? It’s not as though our values of inclusivity and openness developed during some ideal heyday in Jewish history. When were our wellbeing and safety so secure? When didn’t we have good reason to be fearful of others? There has always been at least some measure of risk for Jews and the Jewish community — in our public gatherings; in our private gatherings; even, at times, in the simple fact of being a Jew. And yet welcoming the stranger; opening our doors; loving our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves — this is what we have been taught and upheld, davka, in the very worst of times. These values weren’t “pipe dream” mitzvot for “someday,” some idealized time and place when we finally reach the Promised Land, every man and woman under their vine and fig tree. No, these values were born in the wilderness, with attackers at the rear, doubt surrounding us on all sides, and the unknown stretching as far as the eye could see.

So, yes, the fear we feel today is credible and real. And, as a result, it’s potentially all-consuming. Our challenge is how to live with fear, fight through it, and take a chance on humanity despite it. 

But how?

There’s a popular song based on a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov: 

Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal.

[When you need to cross a very narrow bridge, and] the whole world is a very narrow bridge, the important thing is not to be afraid at all.

At least that’s how the song is sung, but it turns out the original Hebrew written by Rebbe Nachman is slightly different. Instead of “lo l’fached klal — do not be afraid at all,” he wrote “lo yitpacheid klal — do not frighten yourself at all.” [2]

We cannot, nor should we, stick our heads in the sand and pretend everything is all rosy and good. Not everyone we meet or who crosses our paths has good intentions, and it is important to be aware and alert. But when we feel fear in the presence of a person we don’t know, a stranger, it’s also worth asking ourselves: Where is my fear coming from? Is it possibly from a story I’m telling myself? If so, then might we be making ourselves afraid?

This summer, my family was walking through downtown Asheville at 9:30 on a weeknight. If you’ve spent time in Asheville, then you know there can sometimes be an uncomfortable, edgy vibe downtown. This particular evening, there were a number of people out and about, and more than a few were disheveled, mumbling to themselves, or saying things to no one in particular much more loudly than that. I could see the fear in my son’s eyes and was keenly aware of the story he was telling himself — that these people were drunk, on drugs, mentally ill. I was thinking the same thoughts myself, and held his hand, tightly. But this story we were telling ourselves was just a story. And stories, like people, can be dangerous, too. As the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so critically teaches: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” And there was more than one story to tell ourselves this night, too. More to notice. More of which to be aware. There were many people out and about that evening, including families wheeling strollers. Restaurants were open with wait staff and patrons entering and leaving. A police officer was patrolling the block, telling individuals they could not sit or lie on the ground, but he didn’t detain anyone. These people were not a threat.

I remembered that night the lesson Kio Stark, author of When Strangers Meet, wanted to teach her daughter: “I want her to understand an essential distinction in a world of strangers,” she wrote, “unpredictable and unpleasant are not by definition dangerous.” There is always more than one story to know about people. Appreciating nuance helps to quell fear. 

“Fear is easier than risk,” she continues. “There’s no question: We have to choose whom to trust. The world is full of dangers, and a few of them arrive in the form of an unfamiliar face. We have to navigate that world safely somehow.” But here’s the thing: “We can make these choices with attention and grace. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves in a one-dimensional world, deprived of honest human connections and [the surprising] interruptions that awaken us.” [3]

I’ve done that plenty this past year. My personal confessions on Yom Kippur will begin with the conversations I didn’t have, the interactions I wasn’t willing to venture, because it felt easier and safer to let a stranger remain a stranger. And I regret them as much for what I lost as for how my actions might have made someone else feel. Because you know what were some of the greatest highlights for me in 5779? 

The total stranger at Vickery’s with whom we had some conversation, and then, after he saw us blowing out candles for my son’s birthday, spontaneously bought our entire dinner. 

I think of the tall, tattoo-covered man at a candidate’s town hall who graciously gave me the precious front-row space up against the railing he had gotten there early to snag. Half an hour of conversation later revealed he was the absolute gentlest of souls and, as it turns out, Jewish, as well. In fact, if he’s here this morning — thank you for that incredible act of kindness. 

I think of the cashier at Trader Joe’s one day who, when he saw my husband, a total stranger, wearing a suit, asked why he was all dressed up. Aaron told him he was coming from a funeral. The young man looked at him and said: “I’m so sorry. Do you want talk about it?” “It’s OK,” Aaron said. “I was the officiant; the man was old. It was sad, but not tragic.” But how sweet is that — that this young man really noticed a stranger and cared? 

And I think of the many stories I’ve heard — in hospitals, over coffee, sitting in people’s homes — stories that have surprised me, uplifted me, but most importantly connected me with someone previously a stranger. Stories that have taught me how great the rewards can be when we risk reaching out to others.

The entire city of Hendersonville took a risk on reaching out to others this summer — and quite a considerable risk at that. [4] The Western North Carolina city of 14,000 residents decided to plan their first Pride event this past June. Due to concerns of how it would be received by the community, questions of how many would or wouldn’t show up, and especially out of a legitimate fear of drawing attention from the Klan, the event they planned wasn’t a big parade or festival — they planned a simple potluck picnic.

The week before the event, Mayor Barbara Volk proclaimed June 15th Pride Day in Hendersonville. When she did, dozens of protestors showed up to City Hall and every member of the City Council publicly opposed the proclamation. But organizer Laura Bannister pushed ahead. When a group gathered to pray the devil away from the picnic space where the event would take place and they received their first death threat, someone was dispatched to check the trash cans for bombs, but they didn’t cancel. “I just hope no one brings guns,” said Ms. Bannister. “That worries me the most.” “How often do you think about that?” asked an interviewer. Ms. Bannister chuckled as she responded: “About ten times an hour.”

No guns showed up on June 15th. Nor did a single protestor. Instead, 500 people came and kept coming, as did the food and every variety of rainbow, all day long. Several people who were interviewed were in tears. Far from the realization of their greatest fears, the sense of hope and love they discovered that day was palpable as people talked with one another, sat down together, and openly discussed the most important issues in their lives.

Jerry Miller, an elderly gentleman, was there as an ally: “We found out our son was gay,” he said, “and my wife and I basically went in the closet ’cause I was the pastor of a Baptist church at that time. We didn’t feel safe letting anyone know we had a gay son. I myself struggled with the religious issue, and I prayed that God would change my son someday. And I was doing that one day when I heard this voice say: ‘Jerry, you know I don’t work that way.’ God didn’t change him, he changed me.”

Imagine what meeting people like Jerry meant to Hector Trejo. Hector is a bakery clerk at Publix, who brought a beautiful cake he had decorated all over with different multi-colored Pride flags and song lyrics. “I was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago for trying to overdose,” he said, when interviewed. “I was there for six days. And, to me, seeing all of this right now, just seeing everyone so happy, is amazing.”

Friends, we cannot let our fears get the best of us, immobilize us, impede us from reaching out to others. Of course, we should remain aware and alert to the dangers people can present — but we have to allow space for the goodness of humanity to shine, too. And sometimes we just have to take a leap of faith.

Wanda Bullard, one of the founders of The Moth podcast, told a story about her father who had served his small town as alderman and fire commissioner for many years. When his family and loved ones finally convinced him to retire, the police department, in an act of good will, cobbled together some small roles to keep him occupied and engaged. 

One day he got to his job down at the police department, and discovered, to his amazement, they had a prisoner! It was a small town; this was most unusual. And that morning her father really didn’t have much to do. He’d wander back and talk to this young man, and when he went out for lunch he brought a couple hamburgers back for him. Well, by one or two o’clock, he had made a decision about this young man, and he always trusted his instincts when it came to people. He had decided that in spite of being long-haired—way down to here, which her father hated—that this was a decent young man, so he’d see if he could help him.

“Why are you still here?” he asked. “You seem like a nice young man. Won’t anybody come get you out of jail?” And the young man told him: “Well, I had a little too much to drink last night. They arrested me for drunken disorder and here I am.” 

“Well, what would it take to get you out?” 

“I have to pay a $200 fine,” he answered. 

“Can’t your family pay the $200?” 

The young man said: “Well, I think if I could talk to my father face-to-face I could get the $200 from him, but I don’t know how he’s going to react to a collect call from the Boonville jail.”

Well, her dad mulled this over a little while, and then asked: “Do you think if I turned you loose, you could go find your father, get $200, and come back?” 

Now remember: Her father’s only duty that afternoon was operating the police radio that talked back and forth with the cars. That’s it! 

So the young man said: “Well, see, I’m from Corinth, Mississippi, and that’s about twenty miles north of Boonville. You know they impounded my car. I think I could get the money from my dad, but I’ve got no way to get up there.” 

Her dad said: “What would you say if I gave you your car?” And he scrounged around in the desk drawers, found the key, and not only did he release the prisoner, over whom he had no authority whatsoever, he gave him a getaway car. And, as the kid left, her father said: “Now, son, I believe if I could borrow $200 from my daddy, I’d borrow another five to get me a darn haircut.”

At about four o’clock the policemen started coming back to change shifts, and when they went to the back to check on the prisoner, they discovered, to their dismay, that they didn’t have one. “Mr. George,” they asked, “what happened to the prisoner?” Her father looked up from his little bit of paperwork, and said, “Oh yeah. I turned him loose.”

“You did what?” they asked.

“Turned him loose.”

“Mr. George, why did you do that?”

“Well, he just seemed like a nice young man, and he’ll be back in a little while with his $200.”

They waited around, and 4:30 came and went, 5:00, and of course no young man returned. At about 5:15, they tried to get her dad to go home because his shift ended at five. But he was kind of stoic, and said: “No, I’m gonna wait around until he comes back.” 

“Might be kind of a long wait,” one of them mumbled. But her dad didn’t get discouraged.

Then, all of a sudden, the door opened, and a young man walked in—plain cut, shaven, short hair—walked up to the counter, and said: “Excuse me, I’d like to pay my fine.” They didn’t recognize him, so one of the officers walked to the counter and said: “What fine is that you’re talking about?”

He said: “Well, you guys arrested me last night—locked me up. I owe $200, and I’m here to pay it,” and he started counting out $20 bills. When he got to two hundred, the police didn’t say a word. They took out the book, wrote him a receipt, thanked him. And the young man started to leave. 

When he got to the door to go out, he turned around and—almost as if he knew what the situation was like there in that office—said, “Oh, by the way, Mr. Bullard, I’m sorry I was late getting back, but I had to wait in line at the barbershop.” [5]

If, as Jewish tradition teaches, the sin of taking a life, one life, is tantamount to destroying the whole world, what are the consequences of dismissing a life, even just one? Could this young man be an exception? Of course. But, what if he’s not? What if this young man is the general rule of thumb, and the others — the ones who give humanity a bad rap — what if they’re the exceptions? What if, instead of being afraid of being taken or even harmed, we feared missing an opportunity to allow our optimism in humanity to be proven right? What would the world look like if this were the fear that guided our interactions, if this were the fear that kept us up at night?

That’s a tall order, and these are difficult times. And I don’t know of any sure way to walk what sometimes seems like a very narrow bridge. But I do know this: Hope, love, and faith must claim more space in our hearts than fear.

Nine out of ten Jewish services end with the singing of Adon Olam. We sang it last night; we’ll do so again this morning. Sometimes we include all of the stanzas, sometimes only a selection, but we always finish with the last lines: “B’yado afkid ruchi — My soul and body are entrusted to Your care, O God, both when I sleep and when I rise. God is mine; I have no fear — Adonai li, v’lo ira.” The last words we utter nearly every time we worship together — the message we carry with us for the next day, the next week, the next challenge, this coming year: “Have no fear.” 

When fears multiply and danger threatens,

may God’s blessing of shalom sustain and uphold us.

O Source of calm and comfort, 

lighten our burdens and quiet our worries.

As we enter the New Year may we do so 

with strength restored and hope renewed.

Revive our faith in humanity

even as we seek to revive our faith in You. [6]

 

 

[1] Anti-Defamation League (ADL), April 20, 2019.

[2] My gratitude to Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman for uncovering this teaching.

[3] When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, Kio Stark (2016).

[4] “Going Home for My Small Town’s First LGBTQ Pride,” Monique Laborde, Scalawag Magazine, July 1, 2019.

[5] “The Small Town Prisoner,” Wanda Bullard, The Moth, adapted.

[6] Inspired by Mishkan Hanefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 43.

Grate-Full.

Parashat Eikev

The blessing for lighting candles, Kiddush, reciting a memorial prayer on the Yahrtzeits of our loved ones — these prayers are fundamental to Jewish liturgy and Jewish ritual. Yet none of them are instructed by Torah. There’s only one blessing the Torah commands us to recite, and the instruction comes in Parashat Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ

עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God 

for the good land which God has given you.”

(Deuteronomy 8:10)

This line of Torah is the cornerstone of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. But, separate and apart from its mealtime context, in this passage we also hear the echoing voices of all the parents throughout the generations who have prompted their sons and daughters — at the end of a play date, when receiving a gift, after a lesson, a kind deed, a compliment. We hear that oh-so-familiar cue: “What do you saaaaay?” And the answer of every dutiful daughter and son who knows the routine and mumbles the expected response: “Thank you.”

But what exactly are we teaching with this routine? Or rather, we know what we’re trying to teach: Good manners and a sense of gratitude. But what are our children actually learning from it?

Two years ago, Larissa Kosmos wrote about these ubiquitous exchanges for The Washington Post. [1] The routine, she noted, felt just a little bit off. 

We’re coaching our kids to say thank you as merely a habit, akin to brushing teeth or clearing their dishes from the table, a behavior to be practiced at certain times. 

But saying thank you should involve more. Before our kids express appreciation, they should experience appreciation. The thank-you’s will always sound empty if they’re not weighted with gratitude. To that end, I, and it seems other parents, had been applying the wrong sort of effort: We were nudging our children to say words of thanks, but we weren’t nurturing feelings of thankfulness. It’s like sprinkling just the leaves of a plant when what’s needed is to water the roots.

When we return to this week’s Torah portion, we realize our tradition is sensitive to the need for gratitude beneath words of appreciation, as well. The Torah doesn’t say: “When you’ve eaten a sandwich, say a blessing.” Or, in more ancient parlance: “When you’ve eaten the equivalent of an olive or an egg…” — though the rabbis will develop Halacha in precisely this direction. But the Torah’s concern isn’t what we’ve eaten, or how much we’ve eaten, or even what specific words we say. What the text asks us to do is pay attention to how we feel. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai.” Are we satiated? Are we full? Then stop. Recognize all that allowed us to be so — the chefs, the farmers, the good land, and God who gave it to us. And when that feeling of fullness becomes a feeling of gratefulness, stop again, and express our thanks.

Realizing the importance of nurturing feelings over words, Kosmos changed her practice.

Expunging “What do you say?” from my parenting script years ago, I launched a new habit in situations when someone deserves thanks: I illuminate for my children what has just transpired. For example, I’ll say, “Dad spent time fixing your toy instead of relaxing” or “The librarian left the work at her desk to help you find that book.” Instead of cuing words to be spoken, I’m aiming to trigger something deeper and more meaningful — awareness.

To adults, these explanations amount to stating the obvious, but they are revelations to kids who take everything for granted, naturally, because everything is granted to them. Allowing my children a moment to process what they’ve just heard, to register that they’re the recipients of kindness, I follow with, “How does that make you feel?” My intention is to guide them from recognizing kindness to valuing it.

When they were younger, my kids usually responded to the question with a simple, if perfunctory, “Good.” From this humble seed, I tried to foster their appreciation. I’d suggest that they were lucky to have received that sticker from the pediatrician. Not every kid had just enjoyed a chocolate-chip-pancake breakfast at a restaurant with their grandpa. Whatever the circumstance, I’d point out that they had experienced special treatment, which was indeed something to feel good about — and thankful for. Then I encouraged them to share their thankfulness with the person who deserved to hear it.

I think we all share the author’s hope, that our children will develop into adults who don’t take others for granted; who recognize the kindnesses extended to them and take the time to articulate their appreciation. And it takes practice, intentional practice — not just for kids.

Author A.J. Jacobs set out on a gratitude journey, which he wrote about in the book Thanks a Thousand. It started when he paid attention to his cup of coffee one morning. Really paid attention. He really enjoyed that cup of coffee, and the local coffee shop in which he enjoyed it. He shuddered to think how his day might have gone without it. “How did I come to be able to enjoy this cup of coffee?” he wondered. He thanked his barista with kind words and a smile. And he thanked the proprietor of the shop, as well. And then he just kept going. He found the people who made the cup into which it had been poured, and that little protective cardboard sleeve that keeps us from burning ourselves — and he thanked them. He found the person who sourced and selected the types of coffee beans that would be used in his morning cup — and he thanked him. He went to the vast warehouse that stores the massive quantities of coffee beans imported into the country — and he thanked the workers there. He traveled to the coffee plantation in Colombia where the beans of the coffee he drinks are grown — and he thanked them. And the project just kept growing. “If something is done well for us,” he wrote, “the process behind it is largely invisible.” [2] So Jacobs sought to expose and recognize all that had been done to make this one, small, meaningful part of his day possible. “Gratitude is a discipline that needs to be practiced,” he says. “It doesn’t always come naturally, even to glass-half-full types.” [3]

But it is well worth practicing. Gratitude, thoughtfulness — it’s a gift to those we thank, and, sometimes, to ourselves, as well.

Rebecca Sabky was the director of international admissions for Dartmouth College. In her role, she would read applications from students all over the world — 2,000 applications, every year. The applicants, she notes, are always “intellectually curious and talented. They climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They’re the next generation’s leaders. Their accomplishments stack up quickly. The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit.” [4] But in all her years, one particular student stood out — because of a letter of recommendation.

Letters of recommendation are typically superfluous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. We regularly receive letters from former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes. But they generally fail to provide us with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of our community.

This letter was different. [It was from a school custodian.]

The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

This student was exactly who Dartmouth College wanted. And it’s who we want our children to be, as well. What we really want from our children is not, first and foremost, the proper pro forma responses. We want them to feel, be aware, notice what is happening around them with a sense of appreciation. And this is what Torah wants from us all.

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” And we are so filled with gratitude. In the words of our liturgy (Mishkan T’filah):

For the gift of life, wonder beyond words;

For the awareness of soul, our light within;

For the world around us, so filled with beauty;

For the richness of the earth, which day by day sustains us;

For all these and more, we offer thanks.

May words of thanks always flow from a grateful heart. And let us say: Amen.

 

[1] “I Stopped Forcing My Kids to Say Thank You, and They Learned True Gratitude,” Larissa Kosmos, The Washington Post, 9/29/17.

[2] A.J. Jacobs, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, p. 13.

[3] Ibid, p. 111.

[4] “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person,” Rebecca Sabky, The New York Times, 4/4/17.