Thursday, January 21, 2016

Where’s Rey!!!

Okay, I have confession that many people who know me already know… I love Star Wars.  But if you would please indulge me a moment to explain why this matters I feel we will have a great discussion.  I was born into a Star Wars world.  In 1977 when the first film came out the world was enthralled.  I was born in ‘78 and took to the entire series in little time.  But I am not obsessed with the series and my being a fan is just one facet of my life.  In fact in recent years I had really stopped watching the movies and had moved on.  Then one day my five year old daughter (she is now seven) asked me to see Star WarsIMG_2272.  I didn’t understand why she wanted to see live action movies and move on from Frozen and other great animated movies.  I brushed off the request and we didn’t hear about it for another few weeks.  Then she asked again and again and again.  It seems that at recess the kids were playing Star Wars and she loved it.  My wife and I looked at each other and said: well she wants to see them.  As the closing credits were rolling the look on Ayelet’s face was priceless.  She loved it.  She wanted to see the next one and the next.  She loved the ewoks and she loved the lightsabers.  But above all else she loved Princess Leia.  It was natural.  She already adored princess movies and now she had another princess to love and this one fought against evil and led a huge rebellion against evil. 

My wife and I searched high and low for clothing for her.  We looked for dolls and for toys.  There was nothing and she was quite unhappy.  So we bought her storm trooped pajamas and boys t-shirts.  We would search the Disney Store and Target for her and would find nothing.  Finally last year we found a dress up set with Leia and Queen Amidala in it.  Ayelet loved it and that was all we found.  Luke and Han and Chewbacca got all of the merchandise.  The females got nothing.  Clothing was impossible to find as well.  Ayelet fell in love with legos at this time and it was natural to have her love the Star Wars line of legos.  Guess what, Leia is in next to none of them and the ones she is in are the really big and expensive ones.  In fact, Amidala is also quite tough to find and is not in any sets made today.  The frustration was immense.  But our little trooper (not to be confused with a storm trooper) marched onward and found ways to love the male characters that were adequate.

Last year for the Jewish holiday of Purim (we wear costumes like at Halloween) Ayelet insisted that she was Leia, Carrie was Queen Amidala and I was to be Anakin Skywalker.  She is proud of who she is and she loves being that person. Her birthday party this year was a Star Wars Jedi Academy one.  She helped plan it and already wants to do the same thing again next year.  It was a blast and all of the kids, boys and girls loved it.

When The Force Awakens was being advertised all of us were trying to read between the lines and dissected the previews to ascertain what we IMG_2899thought the movie would be about.  After the initial disappointment of no Luke, no Leia and little Han wore off we all were excited by the new characters.  Ayelet fell in love with Rey right away.  She assumed that she would be Leia and Han’s daughter… sorry sweetheart.  When the first merchandise came out she made me wake up at 5:00am to take her to the Disney Store and to Target to get some items.  She purchased a large Rey figure the Rey lego set along with an R2-D2 sweatshirt and a Rey t-shirt.  She was a happy camper.  She desperately wanted the Rey costume and she would eventually get it for her birthday from someone else.

When the movie came out Carrie and I went to see it on opening night (yes I am now a Star Wars super fan again because of my daughter) and when the movie ended we looked at each other and said how excited we were because Ayelet was going to love Rey.  And so on Sunday morning when we took her and her friend’s family to see it the two girls sat glued to the screen and fell in love at first sight.  Rey was strong and Rey was good.  Rey did not wait for change she was the change.  Rey was the hero. In fact why is the movie titled The Force Awakens? What is the “awakening?”  It is the force awakening in Rey… The whole movie is actually about her (spoiler) and her search for Luke.  Finally a female character that didn’t need a man to do things for her.  A female lead that wasn’t overly sexualized and made to be “eye candy.”  Finally a female that is not being rescued but doing the rescuing herself. And also a sympathetic character that feels pain for others and optimism for the dark world in which she lived.  Thank you JJ Abrams and the folks and Lucas Film for giving us this great new role model and hero. 

But that is not where the story ends.  With this great new female lead character one would imagine that the merchandise issues for girls would be resolved… NOPE!!!  Go to Target and try to buy a Rey figure.  Or try to buy Rey pajamas or sweatshirt.  Try to buy basically anything Rey and you will almost always come up disappointed.  At some point in time we need to convey to the toy world and to the merchandising empires that gendered toys are not the only way to go.  That determining if boys or girls are the target of a certain product is outdated and also damaging to all of the great work we have done in empowering our kids.  Boys who want to play with kitchens and baby dolls should be embraced by society and our marketing machines just as girls who want to play with light sabers and action figures and legos should also be made to feel welcome.  Give our girls and our boys characters that they can relate to and that will make them feel hopeful and optimistic about our future.  Give our children toys and clothing that doesn’t pre-judge them when they are young enough to not be led down a road of judgment and bullying.  Give our children the positive self image that they deserve and that we as parents are working to develop every day.

This issue is not a new one.  History is always repeating itself in every generation.  Just as the Ecclesiastes says “There is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9).  Just as the First order builds another planet sized battle station with a vulnerability.  The world constantly plays the same stories over and over just with new characters and new capabilities.  In this week’s Torah Portion, B’Shalach, we learn of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea).  In that great story we are led to learn about the greatest unsung hero of the Jewish people and the Torah.  The text (Exodus 15:20) tells us that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron…” (led the women in song and dance). Why does the Torah call her a prophetess and why only the sister of Aaron and not Moses.  The answer that the Rabbis created was that she was a prophetess when she was the sister of only Aaron (before Moses was born).  What was her prophecy?  Her father, Amram, was a leader of the Jewish people and when the decree against male newborn Hebrews was made, he chose to divorce his wife and so did all of the other men.  Why continue to have babies that could be killed?  Why remain married? Miriam stood up and said that he was wrong.  For Pharaoh only decreed against males… he (her father) was decreeing against the girls as well.  Additionally, perhaps he was destined to be the father of the future redeemer of the Jewish people.  Immediately, he took back his wife and they had Moses.  When the text told us that Miriam stationed herself to watch the basket in the river the rabbis tell us it was to see what would happen to her prophecy.  All of this is from the Talmud Bavli in Tractate Sota 12a – 13a.  It is also found in the midrshic work of Exodus Rabah 1:19-22.  In reality, had it not been for Miriam, we would still be slaves in Egypt.  Had it not been for one young girl fighting back against authority we would never have had a crossing of the Red Sea to sing about.  But Miriam almost seems like a coda… like an addition at the end of the song.  She isn’t part of the initial song and dance of the Jewish people.  In reality Miriam, Aaron and Moses were all needed to get us out of Egypt.  In reality we as the Jewish people have been led for centuries by strong Jewish women who led often from behind the scenes.  We owe a debt of gratitude for her life and for her courage.  We owe it to our people and to our world to teach about the great things she did.  We owe it to our daughters to tell her story so that they can learn that long before Moses said “Let my people go” Miriam began the whole process by courageously standing up to her dad and making history. 

We have come so far in this world in terms of equality of the genders and the ways that we tech our children regardless if they are male or female.  But the journey is not over.  We must continue to push our society to empower all of our children and provide them with heroes to look up to and emulate so that they will be the Force that Awakens in our tomorrow and make our world all that much better.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Life in the Center is something to be proud of

I guarantee that the words of this blog post will upset people.  It is my sincere expectation and hope that one way that our country learn this important lesson.  The minute we are born we stop having a monopoly on our space.  The minute we are born we begin to live amongst others and so we no longer get to dictate that everything in the world go the way that we want them to go.  From an early age we learn the skill of negotiating and working things out with others.  This is a very important skill and one that we all need to work on from time to time.  But here in America we seem to live in a society where compromise is not a value… it is the antithesis of value.  We live in a society that sees everything is either black or white and no where in the middle.  It is a pity that that is the world we are building for our children.

Today we mourn nine lives that were stolen from us.  And we pray for another nine that are healing.  And rather than having a discussion about healing and helping curb our ills… we are too busy discussing why we cannot do anything to fix this stain on our society.  It is reprehensible.  Let me be very clear.  I do not like guns.  I do not support owning them.  And I do not agree that it is a sacred right.  BUT!!!!! I am one person with one opinion.  On the other side you have the polar opposite opinions and they are entitled to those ideas.  But that is not where we need to be.  We need to be in the middle… In the grey… Where we can work together to solve problems. 

The reality is that fixing our gun violence issue is not a simple task.  It is not something that background checks and limits on types of guns alone will repair. We need to recognize that the second amendment allows for gun ownership.  But we also need to see that no single amendment exists without limits on it.  The first amendment has limits and so do all of the others.  This is why I do not support the ACLU or the NRA or any body that sees the written word as more sacred than human life. 

It is time that more Americans make sacrifices to secure more of our population.  You can make believe all you want that owning a gun will make you safer but in reality it won’t.  We are not trained to shoot when we are being pursued… We are not trained how to shoot when innocent bystanders are near the culprit… We are not trained how to shoot from behind barricades and thus not be exposed to shots being fired back at us.  In fact unless we keep our gun out at all times and our finger is ready and on the trigger the reality is that the criminal will kill us before we get a shot off. 

I readily admit that we cannot take all of the guns away and that the majority of guns used in crimes are used by people who acquired them illegally.  But there are common sense options at our disposal:

1) Mandatory background checks for all guns sold in our country at the federal level so all states have the same info about all people.

2) Mandatory sale of gun safe sold with the gun. 

3) Informing the authorities if a gun is stolen from your house.  If you don’t inform the authorities you are held accountable for the use of that gun.  This is actually the way to get people to lock guns in safes and thus there will be no worries of theft and being held accountable for the use of the gun in a crime.

4) 100% parity of mental health coverage and a rapid destigmatization of mental health.

5) Media needs to be held accountable for the garbage that they manufacture and the violence that they encourage.

6) School based learning in elementary school about conflict resolution and also anti-violence education.  Schools should be zero-tolerance zones for violent behavior and talk.

There is so much more that we can do and we must do it because we are a society  that from 2004 to 2013 we have lost 316,545 lives to guns.  Some of those are suicides, some are accidents and most are violent.  And while there are other means of killing people that can be used… A gun makes it easy and makes it massive.  We have a war on terror and how many deaths have we had in our country during that same period from terrorism? 313.  For every American life lost to terror we have more than 1,000 lost to guns.  That isn’t just a problem… it is a tragedy.

Within the opening chapters of the Torah we learn of the first births followed very quickly with the first murder.  When God asked Cain where was Abel, He didn’t mean in a physical location sense… He meant where was Abel in Cain’s heart??? Why was he able to lack love or at least sympathy for his brother.  The Torah continues to speak to us today and so everyday God is asking us where are the other people in your heart and that you must make room in your heart for all of humanity.

We can do better and our souls and our God cry out to us to do better.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What is a Symbol?

What is a symbol? Why do they matter? Why do we rally around them? For years and years there has been a sort of division in the United States regarding an issue that might seem odd to some and sacred to others: flag burning. In particular we are discussing the burning of the stars and stripes… the American Flag. The amount of respect and care that is paid to our flag is enormous. As children we pledge allegiance to it and as adults we stand whenever we see it presented. Most Americans are aware that our flag has a special way in which it is to be folded. When we notice flags being flown at half-staff we recognize that something isn’t right and that we are saddened and/or in mourning.

Yes the flag matters an enormous amount to our country. I’ll be the first to admit that prior to this week I didn’t know we had a “flag issue” in our country. I didn’t know that it was still a practice in some areas of our country to display the flag of the confederate states from the Civil War. As a Jew I find this to be as insulting as a German institution flying the Nazi flag in Germany today. But what I find all the more remarkable is that for a number of years in this country… for generations… this flag was seen as an act of patriotism. Let me see if I have this correct: the crime is called treason??? Yeah that’s the one, you know the federal offense that carries the death penalty. Last time I checked the actions of the confederate states in the years leading up, during and after Civil War were treasonous ones. Abandoning our union and forming a new one and then taking up arms against our country… Abandoning the constitution and then creating a whole new rule of law for a “new country???” The confederate flag is a symbol of treason and should never be allowed to be flown in our country let alone by government institutions.

But it isn’t only a symbol of treason. It is a symbol of hate, oppression and of ugliness. Some in the South would like to believe it is a sign of pride in the south. What is that pride about? Is it about heat? Is it about peaches, oranges and cotton? Is the pride that they are espousing about the rich history of the south in terms of all that it achieved for humanity and for our country? No… it is not. It is a sense of pride in a legacy of standing up to the federal system. A legacy of free thinking and of marching to the beat of a different drummer. It is a pride in a legacy of self-improvement and of a historical connection to our countries past. I bet you all are thinking right now that that is what it is all about. You’re wrong. In the south they still from time to time refer to the Civil War as the “War against Northern Aggression.” In the south they still refer to us northerners as Yankees (and that isn’t said out of love).

I am penning these words from a camp in Northern Georgia. Just yesterday morning after we crossed into Georgia from Florida we saw an enormous Confederate Flag flying next to I-75. In the vicinity of where I am right now is a Mt. Rushmore-like monument to the leaders of the confederate states. By the way, a number of KKK members had a hand in its creation and used to hold rallies around it. And lastly, here in the south we do observe Memorial Day but we also observe Confederate Memorial Day. All of this is a long winded way of saying that you might very well want to whitewash (pardon the term) the pat and re- appropriate a symbol for good. But at the end of the day a flag is not just a flag and with it you have enormous baggage. In the south, where desegregation was fought to the bitter end. In the south where Jim Crowe was the law/practice of the land. In the south where voter registration laws have systematically disenfranchised African-Americans and other minorities… in that south the Confederate flag is not a source of pride so much as it is intimidation and insulting.

As I said from the outset: symbols matter. When the Torah is marched around the room we Jews reach out to touch it and offer a kiss. This act is one of faith and one of adoration. However, it is crucial that one understand the underlying reasons for this custom. If when one kisses the Torah they only think of the parchment on which it is written. If they only think of the wooden rollers on which it is held. If they only think of the clothing that covers it… Then they are simply practicing idolatry. When we kiss the Torah it is the message and the story that we are kissing. It is the history of our people. And that makes it a symbol that matters. That is why we fast for 40 days if it is dropped. Because the message behind it, the history behind it and the story behind it are central to who we were, are and will be. If the same is remotely true of that flag then it is worse than we thought at first. And if it isn’t than the argument is pointless from the outset.

The nazi flag has no place in Germany and the Confederate Flag has no place here. We believe in symbols and we protect symbols. But we only do this when the thing the symbol symbolizes is worth honoring. Fighting to keep a people enslaved and keeping them subservient is not noble it is a moral stain on our past. All of the confederate flags should go as that is not who we seek to be any longer.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mistaking the physical for the meaning

We are all hearing a great deal right now about ISIS or ISIL, you pick which you want to call it.  2015 has witnessed terror attacks in the name of Islam against those who defame the prophet and/or the religion.  We have witnessed and are witnessing intolerance and hatred against the values of the west and of enlightenment.  All of this is quite disturbing and scary.  All of this is not what we had hoped for when we looked forward at Rosh Hashana or the secular New Years.  All of this was what we prayed would not happen.  We are witnessing the debate about the Iranian nuclear program and the clear and present existential danger that it poses to Israel.  These are not easy times…

Last week we read about the building of the משכן, the traveling tabernacle.  This week we begin to read about the work that was done in it in regards to the service of God.  I am struck by the physicality of the Temple system and the sacrificial system.  I am struck by the great amount of literalism that was normative Judaism at that time.  I am struck because what I am about to write might at first glance seem heretical but I ask you to please hear me out.

When we march the Torah around the sanctuary Jews reach out to kiss it.  They go out of their way to make sure they don’t miss that sacred opportunity.  When Jews enter a building with a Mezuzah on the door some will reach out to kiss that as well.  If a Torah scroll is dropped and it hits the ground we fast for 40 days as Moses had to do for the 40 days and nights while receiving the Torah at Sinai.  But here is the problem I have with all of this.  Are we kissing the physical Torah and ascribing some supernatural power to it?  Are we kissing the Mezuzah and ascribing something miraculous to it?  Are we fasting because something hit the ground that is physically sacred and holy?  A mezuzah case (the pretty container on our doorposts) without a parchment is meaningless.  Two wooden rollers with blank parchment attached to them is nothing special at all.  Fasting for that would be pointless.  This is because we are not kissing the physical or fasting over earthly holy objects.  No it is the opposite.  It is the words on the parchment that are important.  It is the writing on the scroll in the Mezuzah that means something.  When the physical is divorced from its meaning it is nothing at all.  Just kissing the Torah is nothing but kissing its message is everything.   Seeing the physical as the essence and not the message is dangerous to say the least.

What happens when the message is lost and the physical is all that remains?  Those physical elements are deified and made to be so sacred that they can be protected at the risk of losing lives.  If some group of bad people (trying to think of a good word) gets a Torah scroll and sets it on fire on TV I am not going to become a terrorist.  The reason is that through me being a terrorist I would negate the sacred message of our Torah for the sake of the physical scroll it is written on.  Pictures of Mohamed are being used as a pretext to claim that the Muslim people have the right and/or duty to kill the infidels.  When they begin to elevate the spirit and message over the physical they will begin to see that in their murderous actions they are negating all that has been taught to humankind and all that is part of the message of religion.  By their inability to see nuance and their inability to look for the metaphor in the writing they are allowing themselves to commit idolatry and in that idolatry they justify murder.  I am scared because we seem to try to bend to their idolatry and we seem to try to explain it.  But the reality is that life is not as sacred to them as their concept of sacredness in the physical realm is.  Life is the ultimate in sanctity and we must affirm that.  May more of the world begin to see that as true.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Yin and Yang

I understand that the title of this week’s blog post might throw some of you off.  Yes I know that Yin and Yang is not a Jewish philosophy… it is Chinese.  But there is so much to be learned from it.  There so much that we can begin to discuss around this concept.  How something can be both good and bad, blessing and curse, life and death.  It is not a simple puzzle to decipher but is a reality.  The greatest single example I can think of comes from medicine.  Think of the life saving work of chemotherapy.  Chemo is poison… It’s task is to kill the bad cells.  But it is poison and has very specific target and purpose. So in effect chemo is a poison that is used to save and/or prolong lives every day.  The same is true of other medical treatments.  Immunizations are often created by taking a certain dose of the very disease that the patient is being protected from.  And so in that way it is clear as well that the poisons can be used to save lives as well.  Why am I going on and on about this seemingly non-Jewish business? Two words: פרשת שמות (This week’s Parsha)

In this week’s Torah portion we find a king that was very afraid of a very rapidly growing population of foreigners that was in his midst.  Who were these people?  The Hebrews.  He orders the midwives to kill all male infants when they are born and let the girls live (we’ll save that for another time).  The two midwives: שפרה and פועה/Shifra and Puah, who are actually believed to have been יוכבד and מרים/Yocheved and Miriam, משה/Moses’ mother and sister… The two midwives refused to do this out of fear of God.  When the Pharaoh asks them why they did not follow his law they respond that the Hebrew women were not like the Egyptian ones… They were so strong and so mighty that they would give birth before the midwives could get there. This probably was not what Pharaoh wanted to hear and so he gives up on שפרה and פועה and commands the Egyptian population to take all Hebrew baby males and throw them into the Nile River to kill them.  So that was the law and we must assume that the Egyptian people did as was demanded of them.  יוכבד gave birth to her third child and saw that he was a boy.  She hid him from the Egyptians for three months but was no longer able to as the infant משה was likely making more and more noise each day and also not sleeping as much as newborns do. She did what any rational thinking mother would do and put her infant son into a basket and places the basket in the waters of the Nile River.  His sister watched him from afar to see what would happen. What happens next is the crux of this discussion.  Pharaoh’s daughter, or her maidservant, caught a glimpse of the basket and baby and went out and brought the infant out of the waters of the Nile River.  The Pharaoh’s daughter even goes so far as to announce that this was a Hebrew Boy.  His name was eventually given, משה, drawn from the waters (a remembrance of his origin story).

Why is this intriguing?  Why does this scream out to be explored?  Lets begin by seeing the irony of the characters.  The midwives that were originally to be the instruments of the death sentence became the instruments of the beginning of the redemption.  The law that was enacted by the Pharaoh was openly and clearly violated by his own daughter.  The text does not hide any of this and it can easily be assumed that Pharaoh was aware of all of this as well.  But even more important is that the Nile River was supposed to be the death of the Hebrew people as the males babies were to be thrown in there by the hands of the Egyptians.  Instead the Nile River became our salvation by the hands of one of the highest ranking Egyptians in the kingdom.  The Nile River can be seen as evil and can be seen as good.  The Nile River can be seen as our end and as our beginning.  And in essence it is the yin and yang… it is both.  It is life and death… blessing and curse… destruction and salvation.  This is something that we need to see in our everyday lives.  We need to see the fine line that divides the blessing and the curse in relationships, items and events.  We must see the fine line that determines our successes and failures.  We need to see the the role that we play in that as well.  We need to recognize that each day we choose how to judge and proceed… We stand metaphorically at Robert Frost’s “Two Roads” and we decide which to take.  The fork in the road that Frost speaks of is the line we are speaking about.  The fork in the road is the line between the Yin and the Yang. 

When we combine Frost’s two roads and the concept of the Yin and Yang we find the most important lesson of this very great reading.  With every decision and with every action we have potential to do good and to do bad.  For the two opposites are two sides of the same coin,  (Think Two-Face from Batman) and we do not need to leave it all up to external  forces.  The dividing line is where we stand and look and decide what will make the world better and our lives as well.  That line is the place where the Nile was either death or life.  The place where the Egyptians were either murderers or life givers.  That line is where we stand every day making choices whose impacts are greater than we can ever know.

שבת שלום

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Miracle: Real or Fake… Does it really matter?

Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles-
I was afraid that God would frown,
But like he did so long ago, at Jericho,
God just made a wall fall down!
When Moses softened Pharaohs heart, that was a miracle.
When God made the waters of the red sea part, that was a miracle too!
But of all God's miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is that out of a worthless lump of clay,
God has made a man today.

Those are the words that are sang by the tailor in the movie Fiddler on the Roof.  The tailor is rejoicing over having been brought together with the woman he wanted to be his wife.  The word miracle here is being used to demonstrate a very human emotion and a very human action.  The tailor and Tevye’s daughter were responsible for their upcoming union.  The tailor and Tevye’s daughter worked very hard at becoming a couple and ultimately securing a future together.  They did not leave it in God’s hands… they made it happen.


But lets talk about another movie.  A movie with a one word simple title: Miracle.  In the late 1970s America was depressed. 

The 1970s began with our country still entrenched in the Vietnam War.  In 1970 we invaded Cambodia.  The protests that were happening all across our country were very anti-US policy and created a great divide between the members of our armed forces and our general population.  Members of the military were returning home, often times injured, and were being greeted by very angry civilians who did not cheer their return.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich witnessed the barbaric and tragic murder of innocent Israeli athletes.  But it all witnessed the United States basketball team being defeated by the Soviets.

Watergate took place in the early 70s and this triggered even greater disenchantment with the government. That same government was forced to scale back funding for NASA and thus ending a great source of pride for our country.

In 1975 the US loss the war in Vietnam and was forced to flee in retreat from the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese.

There were oil embargos and the price of gas was through the roof. This only added to the great struggle for the average American who was already contending with very high inflation. The energy industry was a further source of negativity when the Three Mile Island incident occurred and faith in Nuclear power along with faith in the authorities capabilities to keep us safe was greatly shaken.

The 1970s came to a close with the Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis involving the American Embassy.  To make matters worse the attempted rescue of the hostages resulted in a number of deaths and a failed mission. 

All of these events produced a very depressed United States of America as the 70s were closing.  The Cold War had been raging since the end of World War II and so while we were divided and suffering here in the US we had one common rallying point and that was the Soviet Union was the enemy.  That is the background that we need to understand the movie Miracle and why I am writing about it today.

As many of you know about me, I am a very serious hockey fan and live and breath it.  But I am in a minority in the US.  Sure in areas like Detroit (my hometown), New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago and other northern cities hockey is an enormous thing.  But the majority of the US is not in those places and thus hockey has not become as entrenched as some of us would like to see.  And yet on February 22nd in the evening our country suddenly was enthralled in this great sport.  The Soviet hockey team was made up of a great number of active military members and almost all played in very elite leagues in the Soviet Union that offered world class training facilities.  Since the 1960 Olympics the Soviet team had gone 27-1-1 and had outscored their opponents 175-44.  They were a force to be reckoned with and we were about to do just that.  To make matters worse at that time the NHL did not send players to play in the Olympics.  Instead our team was made up of great college hockey players.  All of these players played for rival teams and played under varying philosophies of play.  No betting person would have taken a bet that the Americans would win a game between the Soviet Union and ultimately clench the gold medal. 

In the season that this epic battle would take place the USSR team had gone 5-3-1 against NHL teams and had beaten the NHL all-stars 6 to 0.  Leading up to the Olympics the two teams had an exhibition at Madison Square Gardens and the Soviets won 10 to 3.  Certainly there was no way that the Americans would be successful. There was no chance.  All of the odds were stacked against them.  It is for this reason that as the game was coming to a close and Team USA was about to win Al Michaels, the TV announcer, said: “11 seconds, you've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!!”  Do you believe in miracles?  Do you believe in miracles?

We need miracles in our world.  But not the grandiose ones that we read of from the biblical times.  We need miracles but not the earth shattering ones that change our entire understanding of science and the laws of nature/physics.  In the past few days we have witnessed tragedies that no author could concoct in his or her head.  We have witnessed horrors that are unimaginable.  First the world was tied to their television sets as an Islamic extremist held hostages and terrorized many innocent people. He also claimed to have bombs planted in places and this added to the fear. Ultimately two innocent people would lose their lives in this incident. Second, as those events unfolded a small community in a suburb of Philadelphia was dealing with a rampage that had left six people dead and one teen in serious condition.  This man killed his ex-wife and killed many of her relatives before killing himself.  He also left his two young daughters orphans as he had murdered their mother and killed himself.  The residents of the area that this all unfolded in were on lockdown for hours and hours.  The terror must have been immense.  And third, as if this all could get worse.  In Pakistan yesterday members of the Taliban, terrorists, broke into a school and murdered 145 people, 132 of which were children.  This disgusting act was justified by the Taliban because these kids could have grown up and become soldiers for Pakistan and could have fought against Islam. 

All of this is against a backdrop of us having just commemorated the two year anniversary of the Newtown massacre where 20 children and 6 staff members were murdered at an elementary school.  So much pain… So much destruction… So much hatred… So much violence.  It is so tragic that God went to such great pains to create humans and this is what we have grown capable of doing.  Yes we need to not only believe in miracles but we need to pray for one. And as I said, not the enormous type but mundane ones.  We need a miracle because look at our world.  It is at this time of year that Jews all around the world spin tops with the Hebrew letters: נ . ג . ה . ש on them.  These letters stand for the the Hebrew words: נס גדול היה שם, a great miracle happened there.  It is at this time of the year that Jews celebrate a miracle that is believed to have happened in the year 165 BCE.  Traditionally we believe that once the Jewish soldiers managed to fight off the the Greek armies they cleansed the Temple and found enough oil to light the sacred menorah for one day and yet the oil lasted for eight days.  This was an enormous miracle and one that historically has a great number of issues.  But we will save that for another time.  For now let us understand the true miracle that our ancestors needed then and we need now.  That is the miracle of תקוה and of אמונה, hope and faith.  Those two values or tenants are constantly under attack from all circles.  In a world filled with sadness and horror it is easy to stop having hope.  In a world where religion is besieged and treated as simple naivety it is easy to succumb to pressure and to lose faith.  It is easy and that is the essence of what we need now.  We need the everyday miracles to be clearly evident.  We need the power of hope to not be lost.  We need to believe that in spite of the horrors we have been exposed to that hope is still there. 

A team of college hockey players ignited an entire country when they managed to triumph over the incredible talents of a well trained national team made up of army soldiers and semi-professional players.  That miracle did not involve God changing the laws of nature or science. It did not require God changing the stance that the goalies took in the goal.  It required humans believing that the cards are not stacked against them and that they could indeed prevail.  All of this is by way of explaining the ritual of lighting the Chanukiyah during these eight days of Chanukah.  We begin with one candle and build towards eight.  As the world is dark at this time of the year for a great deal of each day we do not dwell on the darkness… we gather and bring more light into the world.  That light that we are bringing into the world is the light of faith and the light of hope.  That light is something that we need because without it there will never be any miracles to believe in.  Miracles happen every day around us.  It is upon each and every one of us to open our eyes and see them and what they do for each of us.  The darkness is dense and it is great. But the light and the hope and faith is greater.  Let us work to push darkness away and bring more light out.


חג אורים שמח

Friday, October 31, 2014

Life’s a Journey

I do not think that Aerosmith can truly be considered one of the more quotable groups in the music world. Their songs are not so deep on the surface.  But when we look further we find a great deal.  “Dream On” is a great example of this.  But I would like to quote their song “Amazing.”  One of the verses goes:

Life's a journey not a destination
And I just can't tell just what tomorrow brings

The entire song is all about not giving up on life and getting through the difficult times.  It happens to be a very meaningful song.  But I think the aforementioned words tell us so much about the week’s Torah Portion.  פרשת לך לך begins with a journey, the journey of אברם and שרי (Avram and Sarai).  God tells them to leave their land, the place of their birth and the house their father and go to some new place that He will show them.  The most interesting thing about these opening words are the words לך לך which literally translate and mean Go to yourself.  How does one Go to his or herself? 

Well lets begin with a Hasidic story.

We have a tradition that Reb Zusia taught the following: "When I will face the heavenly court after my demise, I am not afraid that they are going to ask me, Why were you not Moses, or the other great ancestors? I have no such fear for I am sure that they will not ask me these questions. However, I am afraid that I will be asked, Why weren't you Zusia, the Zusia that you could have been, the Zusia that we had planned for you to be through the talents, abilities, time and opportunities that were granted to you. That is what scares me.”

Reb Zusia is explaining to us that we spend so much time worrying about being as great as somebody else.  We spend so much time fearing that we will never measure up to our ancestors… The reality is that we do not need to because all we need to be is ourselves. This is no easy task.  We spend our lives trying to fit in with other groups.  We spend so much time trying to conform to the standards of our people.  And then we step back and ask ourselves what we ourselves would like to have and like to be.  Then we truly find our journey worth going on.

We should never spend our lives looking to find ourselves, we should spend our lives being ourselves.  We should never spend our days obsessing about what we are not… We should spend our days happy with who we are.  This all seems to sound so simple… Be yourself.  But if it were that simple then we would never have teenage drama and never have these feelings of emptiness inside of our cores.  It is not easy to be ourselves.  It is not easy to embrace the person in the mirror because we are our own worst critics.  What is easy is to take steps.  To start the journey to finding who we are and then begin being who we are.

When I was in High School I made a decision to wear a kippah all of the time.  Now in High School where everything is always being judged and where everyone is always caring more about what others think than what they themselves feel, this was a very difficult decision to make.  But I made it because I wanted to be me.  I wanted to shout out to the world who I am and be proud of it.  Over the years I have been more than aware of the kippah that sits on my head.  When I was in college and in a fraternity for a year it was odd for me to be at parties, but taking the Kippah off would have changed who I was to myself.  When I worked in a coffee shop and people would give me strange looks, it would have been easy to have said forget it.  But that was not going to be me being me. It would be me being something other.

The chorus of the Aerosmith song goes “It’s amazing with a blink of an eye you finally see the light.”  There are always going to be those aha moments when we see the world more clearly.  There are always going to be the transforming times where we finally get it.  Those moments are inside of each of us.  We need to be willing to be ourselves.  We need to resist the pull of the other and embrace the pull of self.  God is calling on Abram to be himself in his journey.  Because on this journey of life we do best when we resist trying to be someone else and instead we are our best selves.  

In verses after this command God explains that Abram will be blessed and be a blessing.  Blessing is too often thought of being wealth a physical objects that we amass.  Being blessed is actually better understood of being happy with what we have.  Being blessed is being able to see that we are good enough the way that we are.  Being blessed means traveling through our lives content and seeing that we have everything within ourselves.  Just remember: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.”

Friday, December 28, 2012

Here are some more thoughts on the current Gun Debate

Last year after the events unfolded at Penn State I wrote a blog about the sacrifice of children. You see Judaism was in part a response to the pagan world and the story of the Binding of Isaac was a response to the practice of child sacrifice that was so prevalent in the ancient world. Those students who rioted in response to the firing of Joe Paterno placed an American cultural value before a sacred religious one… And now today I want to know if we are doing the same thing again. I keep on wanting to sing Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA… I keep on thinking of all of the eulogies that we offer for soldiers and people killed in the line of duty… What are they defending? I believe the constitution to be a holy document… But the problem is that we are allowing it to be used for unholy things. Can we really be proud to be Americans when we advocate for dangerous tools of murder to be readily available? Can we really be proud of a document that is used to advocate for unlimited numbers of bullets to be placed into guns at a time? Can we really be proud when our one singular basic duty of protecting children is second to the second amendment? When does the madness end? When can we be safe from the bullets flying about our world? Judaism destroyed child sacrifice and America seems to have resurrected it… We must not allow for their deaths to have occurred in vain. We must push for the children who are still here to be safe because of those who died. After all, isn’t that the constant refrain for soldiers: (he died so you could be alive).

We live in a world that continues to victimize children on a regular basis. We live in a world that witnesses child prostitution, child marriage, child slavery, child soldiers and so many more evils. Children should be playing with toys, not attending funerals. Children should be stopping our lust for evil and power not being victimized by it. Children should be laughing and not crying. Schools should be safe and not dangerous. But all of these clichés have come to a screeching halt. All of these clichés are no longer the case. We in America brag about the quality of life we enjoy here, and we brag about freedoms unlike anywhere else in the world, but what freedom is there when even a five year old is not entitled to life and safety in a classroom? We all have some deep soul searching to do right now. We all need to come together and agree that enough is enough. For me it was enough when gangs were killing each other in the cities. For me it was enough when police officers were being killing while on duty. For me it was enough when people watching a movie were slaughtered. But I am just one person, we must all work together to see that the unthinkable has happened and that our children demand and deserve better. Kids should be at birthday parties, not at funerals. But the funerals will continue so long as we do not put their safety and well-being ahead of some words on paper that have been abused and misinterpreted for countless generations.

There is a midrash about the binding of Isaac that he was blinded on that day by a tear drop from his father’s eye. Might we be doing the same thing? Might we be causing irreversible damage to our most precious assets because of our adherence to the second amendment? We as the adults are shedding tears, them as children are being permanently damaged. This is not right; it never was and never will be. Isaac survived with some scars. For all but 26 of us we are just as fortunate, but for the remaining 26 may we be wiser and move forward knowing that we have a responsibility to the dead to not have let them die in vain?

There are no answers, only questions. And right now we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to make fewer Isaacs and more children? What are we doing to regain our pride in being Americans? And lastly, at what cost does our freedom come? The answer can never be the lives of our young.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Where to Go From Here?

Okay, here goes nothing. I am not sure where this is going to go so hold on tight. Just the other day I threw out my nerf gun. I made a decision that I needed to be consistent, and I needed to accept that a gun was a gun. I cannot allow for a gun to be a toy... it is not okay. The last night of Hanukah, our synagogue had a great party at a family fun venue, which included laser tag. As I was suiting up, the person in charge was giving us instructions. Our guns had unlimited ammo; we could activate rapid fire. The whole thing was quite frightening to hear as we were all aware of the previous day’s events. I became very uncomfortable shooting a laser at these little kids and eventually left and did something else. It just felt wrong.

With regards to the plagues of our society we need to recognize that the problems lie all over the place. We are arguing over the first and the second amendments, and it appears as if most would rather be purists than have sensible legislation. The limit on the first amendment is accepted as being the idea that a person is free to swing his arms but that freedom ends where my nose begins. We also refer to the understanding that it is illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater. What is the limit on the second amendment? As it stands it is limitless. Might we suggest that the limit is your right to carry a gun ends where my right to safety begins? Might we argue that guns that can murder and maim mass numbers in a matter of seconds are the limit? If the first amendment has a limit, then certainly the second must as well. But we all seem to acknowledge that the problem is not only the actual guns. A major contributing factor is the glorification of guns and violence. I am a huge hockey fan... I actually have three religions: 1) Judaism, 2) Hockey and 3) Disney. With regards to hockey I love the sport, but Americans are destroying it. When I attend hockey games I am there to see skill and to see goals and stopped shots. I appreciate a good check and/or defensive play; I do not enjoy the fights. I am disgusted by the fan reaction to fights versus the fan reaction to goals. They cheer so much louder for fights. These players are on sharp skates and on slippery ice and they are boxing, it is dangerous and the fans cheer them on more than when they score a goal. We have some sort of obsession with blood and suffering. We have some sort of obsession with pain and agony. We have some sort of obsession with violence in general. I watched the first episode a few years ago of the show Boardwalk Empire. I never watched it again after the scene of the man beating the pregnant woman. It is all in the name of entertainment and I realize it is supposed to be make believe, but it is not entertainment to me. I have met too many battered women to know it is not make believe. When I wrote my paper on violent and misogynistic video games, I did so hoping to prove their legitimacy and innocence... I found quite the opposite. The paper is posted here: Just because the first amendment gives us the right to make such material, does not make it okay. Just because studies on the real dangers of such games are inconclusive, does not mean that they are okay. And just because it is fantasy does not make it okay. There is nothing entertaining about dehumanizing women. There is nothing entertaining about murdering innocent civilians on purpose. There is no value in degrading our God-made souls and inviting in such lewd and violent images. I do not blame the entertainment industry for what happened in Connecticut, but they are not allowed to get away free from all of this. I love the words from a great poet/singer - Jack Johnson: 
"Cookie Jar"
Jack Johnson
i would turn on the tv, but it’s so embarrassing
to see all the other people, i don’t know what they mean
it was magic at first, when they spoke without sound
but now this world is gonna hurt, you better turn that thing down
turn it around
“it wasn’t me,” says the boy with the gun
“sure i pulled the trigger, but it needed to be done
because life’s been killing me ever since it begun
you can’t blame me because i’m too young”
“you can’t blame me, sure the killer was my son
but i didn’t teach him to pull the trigger of the gun
it’s the killing on his tv screen
you can’t blame me, it’s those images he seen”
“you can’t blame me,” says the media man
“i wasn’t the one who came up with the plan
i just point my camera at what the people want to see
it’s a two way mirror and you can’t blame me”
“you can’t blame me,” says the singer of the song
or the maker of the movie which he based his life on
“it’s only entertainment, as anyone can see
it’s smoke machines and makeup, you can’t fool me”
it was you, it was me, it was every man
we’ve all got the blood on our hands
we only receive what we demand
and if we want hell then hell’s what we’ll have
i would turn on the tv, but it’s so embarrassing
to see all the other people, don’t know what they mean
it was magic at first, but let everyone down
and now this world is gonna hurt, you better turn it around
turn it around

You see the problem is all of our problems; we are all guilty and have blood on our hands. We all have so much to do to make this better. The violence in media is a problem. The stigma of mental health care and lack thereof is a problem. The lack of laws to police these issues is a problem. The availability of deadly weapons is a problem. Our lack of collective memory is a problem. We have so many issues that we must contend with and we must overcome. We have to make this world better for our children and we must be willing to sacrifice some things to achieve such a world. What we have right now is not the right answer. What we have right now is a freedom that is leading to mass chaos, no discussion of issues and sole focus on the rights of the individual as opposed to the good of society.

Friday, October 5, 2012

What we got right in the past year

This year I made a decision in preparing for Yom Kippur that I did not only want to remind God of the bad things I had done in the past year.  I did not want to portray myself as a sinner exclusively… And I felt that the people in the room would agree.  And so I set out to write an additional confessional prayer for our services that allow for us to confess the good things we have done.  I come from a point of view that we choose to do what we do.  We all have choices and make them on a regular basis.  We will, at times, make the wrong one… But often we make the right one and we need to be able to rejoice in that.  It was in this spirit that I wrote the following words and now pass them on to all of you for your reflection and use.

יום כיפור 5773

רבונו של עולם, Master of the World:

Today is יום כיפור, the day that the books are sealed. We call today יום הדין the Day of Judgment. Today our people gather around the world to confess the times that we missed the mark and we are fully aware that there are plenty of such occasions. But God, is this really a fair trial when we are only allowed to testify our guilt and not our merits??? We have enumerated the case against us, now we must enumerate the case in our favor:

For the times we have run to do a מצוה rather than run away…

And for the times we visited a sick person rather than ignoring their loneliness…

For the times we stood up for the innocent when we could have looked the other way…

And for the times we celebrated Shabbat in any way shape or form rather than treating it just as an ordinary day…

For the times we studied your תורה rather than play games…

And for the times we smiled at strangers rather than walking right by…

For the times we said thank you for things other people did rather than nodding in acknowledgement…

And for the times we did the work rather than taking the easy way…

For all of these actions, O God, acknowledge them, count them and help us to multiply them.

For the times we recycled rather than throwing something away…

And for the times when our neighbor needed our advice and we gave it rather than saying we had no time…

For the time we gave clothing away rather than keeping it for ourselves…

And for all of the money for צדקה that we gave rather than keeping it in our banks…

For all of the holidays we celebrated with intention rather than going through the motions…

And for the times we told the truth rather than telling a lie…

For the times we told others how we feel rather than holding it all inside…

And for the times we looked at Your world and said wow rather than not even noting its majesty…

For all of the art that we have created to beautify Your world rather than junk it up…

And for all of the children we have educated rather than turning them away from knowledge…

For the times we recognized we had enough rather than coveting…

And for the times we called our loved ones rather than waiting for them to call us

For all of these actions, O God, acknowledge them, count them and help us to multiply them.