Sep 29 2016

Selichot Reflection

So, I almost died this year. It happened in June, on vacation in Florida.  I borrowed my Aunt Faith’s bicycle, which had canvas toe cages affixed to the pedals.  Never having used these before, I came to a stop, couldn’t extricate my foot in time, and keeled over.  No big deal, as I was wearing a helmet.  Yet, I fell in such a way that a 2-inch stick lodged itself under my scalp.  A trip to the ER, one night in the hospital, and I was on the mend.  And painfully and powerfully reminded of the truth that Unetaneh Tokef wants us to absorb into our deepest souls- life is completely and totally uncertain and anything and everything can change in one minute.  In seconds.

Unetaneh tokef k’dushat ha-yom, ki hu norah v’ayom- Let us proclaim the power of this day, because it is awesome and terrible.  “We are forced to admit,” writes Rabbi David Teutsch, “how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control.”  Or, as Rabbi Richard Marmur puts it, “Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.”

Confronted with the non-negotiable reality of our own mortality, we have 2 clear choices. We can retreat into fear and depression, afraid to live lest we risk dying.  Or, embracing the richness in every last moment and wresting the maximum life out of each and every day.  Which will it be?

Rabbi Margaret Wenig tells the story (Mishkan Hanefesh, RH, p. 172) of Olga Blum, an 80 year old violinist, founder of Barge Music in Brooklyn.  When the mayor of NY asked why she didn’t put the piano on pilings so that it wouldn’t slide during performances, she replied that, “I will never put the barge on pilings because all beauty, all art, is in some way a wrestling with impermanence and death.”  So, too, for us- as we enter our High Holiday season, Unetaneh Tokef speaks to our own wrestling with impermanence and death.   May we be blessed to enter into this wrestling in the deepest way, yet not from a place of illness or loss but rather from a place of gratitude and joy in each and every day.

Aug 29 2016

Comfort

I must admit that until the ads for “My Pillow,”  I did not know that there was such a thing as “The National Sleep Foundation.”  Did you?  When I was a kid, Serta made mattresses and I really have no clue where pillows came from, and that was pretty much it.  Now, mattresses cost more than cars did back then, and everyone has an opinion about which is the best one.  I guess we want to be comfortable and are willing to spend big bucks to achieve that level of comfort.   I’ve been traveling a bit this month, and, I must say, it is certainly comforting to come home and crawl into my own bed..

It’s made me think about comfort and what we find comforting and how much we long for comfort in our troubled world and the challenges of our lives.  In the Jewish calendar, we have transited from the 3 weeks of rebuke which precede Tisha B’Av, to the 7 weeks of comfort and consolation which follow.  I’m intrigued by the fact that there are twice as many weeks devoted to comfort as there were to rebuke, and I think that speaks profoundly of the human condition.  It is so easy to get wrapped up in judgment- judgment of ourselves, judgment of each other.  It is so hard to assert kindness and gentleness, and yet that is what we crave the most.  Where do you need comfort in your life right now?  Can we find comfort in the fact that we have food and clothing, that we can, in the words of this week’s parsha, “Eat, be satisfied, and offer blessings of thanks?”  What else do we find comforting?

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.  The Temple was destroyed, according to the rabbis, because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  We mourned the loss of connection to our spiritual home, the place that exemplified the comfort that comes from connection to God, to holiness, to each other.  Rabbi Brad Artson writes that, “For our ancestors the Temple was not merely a place of worship and pomp, it was a symbol of wholeness. There it was possible to fulfill the desire of our Creator completely, to become one with God. . .By its very structure the Temple stood beyond time, offering the iron-clad assurances that God dwelt there, that all was well.”

After the humbling challenge of confronting our failings, it’s no wonder that we need a number of weeks to focus on comfort, to acknowledge that, despite the reality of our imperfections, we can continue to grow and we are worthy of love. Have you heard of Amma, the Indian spiritual leader known as “the hugging saint?”  She has spent a lifetime hugging people, who will wait in line for hours to experience her embrace.  Sometimes that’s what we most want and need- a loving hug from someone who wants nothing from us but only to offer the comfort of resting in the arms of someone who offers love without expectations or judgment.

We have experienced the lowest point- destruction and loss of our hopes and dreams, our vision of perfection, as experienced in the loss of the Holy Temple. And we learn that, nevertheless, we can do teshuvah- no wonder many people consider Tisha B’Av to be the beginning of the High Holiday season.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, accompanied by R. Joshua, once passed Jerusalem [after its fall]. While looking upon the city and the ruins of the Temple, R. Joshua exclaimed, ‘Woe unto us, that the holy place is destroyed which atoned for our sins!’ R. Yochanan replied, ‘My son, do not grieve on this account, for we have another atonement for our sins; it is chesed, loving acts of kindness.”[1]  Parshat Ekev offers this guide  (Dt. 10:12)- “Be in awe, walk in God’s ways, love and serve God, do mitzvot- and love the stranger.”  The Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred.  Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, suggested that it will be rebuilt when we offer each other ahavat chinam- generous love.

Take comfort. Yes, we suffer. Yes, our bodies and minds break down now and then. Yes, we age and it gets harder to move and to remember things that once seemed so important. Yes, we don’t live up to our own highest ideals, and, yes, we are disappointed when others fail us as well.

But understanding that life itself is a great gift and that even death is simply a part of life, we can cultivate gratitude. We can recognize the Source of all Being as our God. We can find strength in our camaraderie and the sharing of our challenges and pains along the journey of our lives. We can come to understand that the very fact that we are unites us to one another and to the eternal source of all being. And all of this is, indeed, comforting.

 

 

[1] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 4

Jul 22 2016

Google, Unitasking, and Shabbat

For the last year or so, I have been working out at “Orange Theory” at Tatum and Shea, though there are Orange Theory franchises all over.  I like the 1-hour interval concept, and I love not having to think about my exercise routine.  Walk in, one hour later, walk out- done for the day.  Sometimes I run into congregants there, I’ve crossed paths with Rabbi Rony Keller, and even our own senior rabbi, Mari Chernow, is a fan.

You come in, get on a treadmill, and start walking or jogging, warming up for the cardio section. The thing I DON’T like is when the instructor says, “Turn off your machine and give me your full attention while I tell you what we are going to do today.”  What?  Like I can’t listen and walk/run at the same time?  Why don’t they understand my exceptional talent at multi-tasking?  I am SO good at multi-tasking that it is a challenge to do just one thing.

How does this translate into life outside the gym? Well, without a show of hands, how many of you have looked at your cellphones at least once during this service?  It’s okay- a 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 80% of cell phone users had used their cell phones during the last social gathering they attended.[1]  82% of them felt that using their phones in social situations hurt the conversation.

Check out this Dilbert cartoon from today’s paper- Dilbert is walking with a young woman who says, looking at her phone, “I’d better check this.” She continues, “It’s just what I thought.”  Dilbert inquires, “What did you think?”  Her reply, “I thought I would enjoy my phone more than talking to you.”  And this alarming statistic, also from the USA Today- 81% of people would rather travel with their mobile device than a loved one!

In a NY Times article entitled, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.,” Sherry Turkle reported on what some refer to as “the rule of three.”  If there are 5-6 people at a dinner, you have to check that at least 3 people have their heads up, that is, they are connected to the conversation, before you give yourself permission to look at your phone.  Yet, even while presumably connected to the conversation, people unconsciously keep the topics light, in order to make it easier to disconnect.

Studies show that even if you are not looking at your phone, “the mere presence of a phone on the table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted.  They don’t feel as invested in each other.  Even a silent phone disconnects us.”[2]

This lack of ability to connect has led to a measureable decrease in empathy. In several instances, the Torah uses the beautiful phrase, “shma b’kol,” literally, to hear IN someone’s voice.  That is, to listen beyond the words to sense what they are feeling.  This requires a whole host of skills, including appropriate body language, that are becoming a lost art.

Things like: looking the other person in the eye, leaning forward to indicate interest, mirroring the other person’s posture and avoiding crossed arms and legs, smiling, nodding.  We are losing the art of conversation.

Turkle suggests that part of reclaiming conversation involves reclaiming solitude. She writes that, “Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself.  Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time.  Think of unitasking as the next big thing.  In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.”[3]

Shabbat is the perfect opportunity to put down our phones and enjoy the lost art of leisurely conversation with friends and loved ones, and with ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi was once approached by a woman who asked him to counsel her son regarding the virtues of not eating sugar.  “Come back in a week,” he responded.  A week later, the curious mother returned, and inquired why the sage had asked her to wait a week.  “First I needed to give up sugar,” Gandhi replied.  It’s always easier to ask someone else to do it.  We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, yet judge others harshly.  USA Today reported that 17% of those surveyed say that they are on their smartphones too much, yet 56% state that OTHERS are on THEIR smartphones too much![4]

I can’t ask you to give up your cell phones for the entirety of Shabbat. I have not been able to do so myself.  Yet, I would encourage you to somehow make your Shabbat cell phone practice holy.  Perhaps banish the phone from your Shabbat dinner table?  Perhaps leave it in another room and check it at only predetermined intervals?  Or perhaps you will really succeed at disconnecting while you focus on the sacred aspects of living?

In any event, we can all benefit by Turkle’s advice to stop Googling and start talking. I want to challenge you tonight, over dinner or when you get home, to put away the smartphone and unitask for 1 hour.  And I WILL try not to be impatient when my Orange Theory instructor tells me to turn the treadmill completely off and focus on him or her.

[1] Turkle, Sherry, “Stop Googling.  Let’s Talk.,” NY Times, Sept. 27,  2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report of 1,004 U.S. adults

Jul 10 2016

The Rabbi Has a Hole in Her Head

It is wonderful to be back after several weeks of vacation that included meeting Ron’s sister, a sunset cruise in Key West, a visit with my aunt and uncle, a big family wedding, and, a close brush with death. I didn’t realize immediately exactly how close, but in retrospect it is nothing short of miraculous that I am standing here virtually unscathed, if you don’t count the hole in my head!

It was our last day in Miami and a beautiful day for a bike ride. Wearing a helmet. I borrowed my aunt’s bicycle, and, being unfamiliar with toe cages, I practiced getting my foot in and out. However, I didn’t have the muscle memory to do so when I came to a stop. And thus fell over. So far just a routine bicycle mishap. Going zero miles per hour.

When I stood up, I felt a lump in my head, and figured that ice and Ibuprofen would resolve that issue. A few moments later, Ron had the terrible realization that, no, we were not feeling a bump, but, rather, a stick that had impaled itself through my ear and lodged under the scalp. A two+ inch stick, ¼ inch in diameter, was now in my head! In fact, this precise stick!

We quickly got to the emergency room, where, after a number of hours, the stick was surgically removed. Following an overnight stay and IV antibiotics, I was discharged, and we made our way back to Phoenix. It was only on reflection that we began to understand the enormity of what had occurred. My incredible good fortune that the stick traveled vertically rather than horizontally, sparing my life and brain function.

As a rabbi, I am hyper-aware of the fragility of life. I am moved by the words of the Psalm- teach us to number our days that we may gain wise hearts. Now, though, I think that it is not enough to number our days. We need to be aware of every moment. Aware how in one second everything that we hold precious can change. In a heartbeat. We can’t and shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but, oh, we certainly can and should live them with gratitude and appreciation. Earlier this week, I was speaking with a member of our community whose husband is very ill. Her comment was apropos this point. She said, “Forget taking it day by day, I’m taking it hour by hour.”

I re-read the moving words of Jonathan Stern, may his memory be for blessing, son of Larry and Sheri Etkin who died from a brain tumor on June 18th. He wrote in the Washington Post that, “I am a naturally optimistic person, but I constantly wonder when my death will arrive. Yet in several ways I count myself lucky because of what I like to think of as miracles, or fortuitous occurrences, that have given me the luxury- which many with brain cancer don’t get- of choosing how to spend these last months.” Imagine seeing yourself as fortunate while living with a debilitating terminal diagnosis?

None of us know when death will come. How would our lives be different if we had that consciousness to really choose how we spend our days? What pettiness would we abandon? What relationships would we treasure? How would we spend our precious time? Life is dangerous, accidents happen. Another one of our members recently fell while holding a glass which severed an artery. We imagine that we have the luxury of time, yet, it may not be so.

There is nothing new or profound about this realization. But finding yourself lying on the ground, with a stick impaled in your head, is an attention getting moment. Words cannot express my gratitude to have this potentially tragic event end on such a miraculous note.

Our tradition mandates that one who experiences something life-threatening should “bensch gomel,” that is, offer a prayer of thanksgiving. The 4 classic categories for the gomel prayer are:

  1. a) One who has crossed the ocean(an overseas flight travel, etc.)
  2. b) One who has crossed the desert
  3. c) One who recovered from a very serious illness
  4. d) One who was released from

Included in the category of desert are all other life threatening situations from which one is saved such as a wall collapsing upon him, a goring ox, robbers, car accidents, etc. As I open the ark, please rise as you are able and join me in a contemporary version of this prayer that you will find in your Shabbat bulletin. I’m sure that many of us can relate to these profound sentiments:

 

Preparing for Birkat Ha Gomeil- from Mishkan HaNefesh

 

A teaching of our Sages:

in the presence of the sacred scroll,

we give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

 

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav:

“Who should offer thanksgiving?

Those who have completed an arduous voyage,

those who have recovered from an illness or injury,

and prisoners who have been set free.”

 

In the midst of the congregation,

we honor those who have come through

times of challenge, difficulty, or danger.

 

Today we celebrate their survival.

Together we give thanks:

for the resilience of the body,

for the strength of the human spirit;

for the precious gift of life,

experienced with new intensity

when life has been at risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 27 2016

Leo Saul Koppell- 3/30/33-4/24/2016

Simcha Lev ben Tzvi v’Channah

 

Leo Saul Koppell- 174. Born in Brooklyn, NY- 3/30/33, the eldest of Harold and Jessie’s two boys. When I was little, for the longest time I thought that his middle name was “Salt.” Leo survived his brother Eddie by almost 10 years, and he lived to his 2d Bar Mitzvah age of 83. Harold worked as a dentist and Jessie was a schoolteacher. They raised their family in the tight-knit Jewish community in Manhattan Beach. My dad was, quite simply, one of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet. He was just so sweet and never really wanted anything for himself. He was the quintessential mensch.

My mother, of course, was the love of his life. They grew up across the street from each other on Amherst St., he was #12 and she was #9. For Leo’s Bar Mitzvah, my grandparents, Hyman and Ruth, gave him a pair of binoculars as a gift, the better to facilitate the shidduch. It worked! Leo felt that he had to sneak out if he dated another girl, and mom felt guilty when she was caught necking another boy on the front stoop. She went off to college at Brandeis University, but returned home to finish her education at Brooklyn College in order to be closer to her beloved Leo. My dad still had to pass the steak test. Ruth and Hyman took Leo and Sandy away for the weekend to Lakewood. For the record she wants you to know that they had separate rooms. Leo legendarily consumed 5 steaks in one meal and the deal was sealed.

The couple were married in an incredibly elegant wedding ceremony at Brooklyn Jewish Center on April 2, 1955. They enjoyed an amazing 61 years as husband and wife.

Growing up with two brothers, Michael and Philip, mom and I were completely outnumbered. The hockey season followed the baseball season which followed the football season, or something like that, and the dinner conversation every night was more of a statistical exchange and less of an actual conversation. Dad was the master of every statistic, and baseball reigned supreme. I had the occasion of traveling with him in Europe and observing dad introduce himself as follows: “I’m Leo Koppell, I’m from NY, and I’m a Yankee fan.” It was such an important part of his life; I do believe that the game was on on Sunday in his hospital room and I’m told by people who know that it was probably better that he was not consciously able to absorb whatever the score was.

He was a numbers guy and being on time was critical. I remember as a child pulling up in front of someone’s home at 7:25 and waiting until 7:30 so that we could be precisely on time.

Our family grew to embrace David, Fran, and Laura; Harrison and Leanne, Daniel and Valerie; Jonathan, Steven and Stacey, Arielle and Dahlia; Jessie and Xan, Sarah and Tim, and, of course, Emily and Helena. I take great comfort in knowing that dad got to meet Ron before he died, and to know that I had love and support in my life.

When we were little, Leo used to sneak M&Ms to us in bed before we went to sleep, and he would always say hi to all of the kids in the park next to the NY apartment. When we were growing up, he would often take me and Michael and Philip to the park while mom enjoyed some R&R.

My dad loved his kids and, oh!, did he love his grandkids. Even in his recent years, when it was challenging for him to interact, he still lit up and became the most engaged in the presence of his beloved grandchildren. Casino with grandpa was always fun! I know that we will all treasure the memory of our recent cruise in honor of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Just 10 days ago, Leo delighted in singing, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” with Emily. Leo Koppell was happy, and he knew it!

When you think about my dad, you think about family, first and foremost. He was not defined by his job. He had a Bachelor’s degree from NYU in Accounting and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and yet, when you think about my dad, it’s all about who he was as a person. I remember when I was in 3d grade and the teacher gave us an in-class assignment to write about what our dad did for a living. I handed in a note saying that I didn’t know and would find out and complete the assignment as homework. Ultimately he founded a dynasty of accountants!

My father was a devoted and loyal friend; it was one of his top, priority values. He and mom had many lifetime friends, and Leo would always make sure that the conclusion of any date was the setting of the next date. He would bend over backwards to maintain relationships and was completely conflict averse. This did mean, however, that on the very few occasions when my dad got angry, boy did it get your attention!

Bridge was the big focal point of their social life and dad not only accumulated many Master’s points throughout his lifetime, but he made two slams in his final week of life. He ran a bridge club and enjoyed many bridge cruises. If Leo won at bridge, it was a good day! As the child of bridge players, I had to know enough to hold the cards if they were short a 4th. When I was in rabbinical school I called my father proudly one time to tell him that I had seen a note in the mailroom advertising for a 4th in bridge. “Dad,” I told him, “I’m going to call them.” His reply- “You can’t play bridge!” I guess he was the one to know!

The Pollacks, Anita and Bernie, have been special life-long friends. They have shared every joy and sorrow and so many amazing trips; mom says they were the perfect traveling companions. The Crystal cruises were a highlight, but it was the companionship every step of the way that was most meaningful. In recent years, trips to the Norwich Spa with the Audrey and Burt Citak have also brought both mom and dad great joy.

My brothers and I recall many awesome family vacations, especially our 3-week trip out west. My parents fondly remember a vacation in Vancouver, Banff, and Lake Louise, which was beautiful and wonderful except for the time that my father abandoned them all when he could no longer endure high tea. My parents loved theatre and my dad particularly enjoyed music. A musical Shabbat would even bring him to shul.

Here’s a little known fact about my dad—- back when he used to enjoy reading, he not only enjoyed Robert Ludlum but he was a closet fan of Danielle Steele. He LOVED his TV shows and watched them like it was his job! My mom was the one who was Jewishly connected; dad was clearly along for the ride. He did serve on the synagogue board and used his accounting skills in service to the community as treasurer of the congregation. His greatest contribution to the Jewish people was running the temple bowling league, and, of course, supporting my mom in all of her endeavors.

My mom’s devotion to her husband has been nothing short of epic. We all recognize that there is no way he would have lived as long and as well without her tender loving care.  On Thursday they took a walk to the park next door and it was so beautiful that mom felt moved to take a photo and email it to me. It was that night that he choked and lost consciousness, never really recovering.

Sandy was the force behind PT and OT and keeping him moving and engaged. Even at the very end of his life, on Sunday afternoon, as he lay dying, she found a warm cloth to wipe his face and some intensive lotion to rub into his feet. When Rabbi Wernick heard of my dad’s death, his comment to my mom was, “Every man should have a wife like you.” Mom- you have set a very high standard. We know it is going to be so hard for you to be alone, and please know that we are here for you. Mom and dad would always call us and sing a full chorus of “Happy Birthday.” She said she doesn’t know if she can continue that tradition, noting that, “I only sing duets.” And when it was his birthday- oh!- you’d better call him. He had a list and he would check off the names of who called. Mom said he would have loved to have kept a list of all the people who have reached out to the family this week to remember him. It would have been quite a long list!

My dad has been ill for quite some time. Parkinson’s kind of sneaks up on you and it’s hard to know exactly when it began its ugly march- maybe 10 or 15 years. How ironic that when mom and I made our way to the mortuary on Sunday, the entrance to Central Park was closed for a Parkinson’s walk. For many years he has been saying, “I’m ready for heaven,” but we just kept him alive for one more simcha, one more simcha, one more simcha. Heaven, as Steven pointed out- 55.

Leo’s life has been more and more constrained by Parkinson’s. Though we are so sad to lose him, we all take comfort in knowing that just as he has a good life he had a relatively good death. We weren’t quite ready to lose him; his death comes as somewhat of a shock. Yet we are glad to know that he did not suffer. As he lay dying, my mom began to sing to him, in his final moments of life, these words from his beloved Frank Sinatra:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

Leo Saul Koppell did it his way, and we are all so blessed by his memory and his legacy. We can best honor his memory by renewing our own devotion to the values that he held dear—- family, first and foremost; loyalty to friends, sincere kindness, and genuine concern for others. Zecher tzaddik livracha- may the memory of the righteous be for blessing.

 

 

Apr 08 2016

On Retiring From the Army

When I first raised my hand 37 years ago and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was doing. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY. Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls. So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service. No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.

That was 1978. When I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, my endorsing agency was thrown into turmoil trying to figure out how to endorse a woman. It took years before I was finally endorsed as a chaplain. It has been an amazing journey ever since then, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College. I was mobilized in support of Operation Desert Storm and spent a year as an MI BDE Chaplain following Sept. 11th for Operation Noble Eagle.

The lives of Soldiers are challenging. Too much work and too little appreciation, following orders with little explanation, sacrificing time with family. What an incredible privilege to be the one person who sees each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. I recall flying in a C-130 into Afghanistan with a Soldier who confided that in 7 years of marriage he and his officer/wife had been together in the same household for only 2 ½ years. Strive to see the holiness in each person you meet and never lose your sense of compassion. MG Lennon shared an incredibly moving story yesterday about literally going the extra mile to reach out to a Soldier who “just didn’t seem right.” He concluded with the words, “We care 24/7.” That could and should be our motto.

CH Fisher spoke yesterday about the challenges of our hyper-connectedness, and the need to blend work and family life rather than trying to achieve a balance the two. I want to underline the importance of remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy, however you define Sabbath and however you define holy. The more connected we become, the more vital it becomes that we take some time to disconnect. Creation was not complete until the concept of NOT creating entered creation. Ahad haAm said that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Give yourself and your family the gift of, if not an entire day, some time for spiritual reflection and restoration away from the almighty screen.

I came to the 807th from the 63D RSC, where I had the opportunity to serve as the first Command Chaplain. In that assignment I had responsibility for the regional Strong Bonds program, where I worked with couples and families to strengthen relationships through better communication and problem solving. I was able to bring those skills to bear assisting a deployed unit in Kuwait who were experiencing too much togetherness and requested assistance in overcoming an environment of “hostile mistrust, hatred, fear and discontent”. I was incredibly grateful for the Strong Bonds training in my tool box, and I truly hope, with all due respect to CH Fisher that the Army continues to fund this vital program even in the face of contemporary fiscal restraints and that UMTs continue to play a vital role.

We use the term “ministry of presence,” meaning that if we show up where Solders are- in training, putting up tents, in a foxhole, we build that trust which is the foundation of relationships, as MG Tatu noted in her comments. Irwin Federman said it so well- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”  Ante up, lead by example. Be ahead of the curve on your own military education, don’t be on your company commander’s hit list for deficiencies, find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no. And while I have your attention, let me say this one more time- Spelling counts! Don’t sign an OER or NCOER with spelling or grammatical errors. Undoubtedly someone like me will serve on your promotion board and wonder about your attention to detail.

I am also a huge advocate of written, quarterly counseling. We give lip service to this requirement, but rarely, if ever, do we make the time to have these sometimes challenging conversations. There is a saying, “What you don’t INspect, don’t EXpect.” As UMTs, we know the fundamental importance of communication. Don’t let more than 3 months go by without thanking your subordinates for their support and acknowledging their great accomplishments, establishing goals for the coming quarter, and gently yet firmly addressing any concerns that may have emerged. CH Boggess was wont to say that quarterly counseling is a moral responsibility, to which I say, “Amen!”

Never forget your calling as a spiritual leader- always have a verse or teaching at your fingertips. Here’s one of mine-

A famous rabbi once suggested that we each need two slips of paper in our pockets. On one is written, “The whole world was made for my sake,” on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret of wisdom lies in knowing when we need to read each message. It is tempting as we rise in rank to focus only on the former- “The whole world was made for my sake.” Yes, it is important to be confident and decisive. Yet, we should never lose our sense of humility. One of the things the Army taught me was how to say the words, “I don’t know, let me find out and get back to you.” We need to forgive ourselves for our own imperfections and treat each other with kindness and understanding. Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.” No matter who we are, we should never imagine that we are too important to apologize when necessary- it is vital to our own spiritual well-being.

When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond. No one knows what to say, what to do. It is the Army chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command in being that first line of defense. We need to be prepared emotionally and spiritually for our core roles of nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring the dead.

Serving in CONUS has provided me with many opportunities to grow as a leader, yet it is the OCONUS deployments that are the most poignant. I recall a Passover seder at FOB Sykes, where one participant began by saying, “I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.”  When the moment came to open the door and invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath.  There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly raised our voices in song. It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place.  Anyone who has been present at a ramp ceremony will never forget the cost of that freedom.

Then there was one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A SGT who attended each night told us that his Soldiers inquired, “What exactly goes on at these Chanukkah gatherings and why is it so important for you to be there?”   The Soldier replied, “We sing some songs, tell some stories, play some games, then sit around for 3 hours and talk”.  “Well,” they answered, “you do that here with us.  Why do you need to go there?”  “Because there”, he answered, “they get my jokes!” Then, he added, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.” Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.” These moments encapsulate what it has meant to me to serve in the chaplain corps for 37 years.

To be a religious person is to be a grateful person. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin challenges us, “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” There are always things to complain about. In April 2005 I was in Abu Ghraib visiting Jewish Soldiers. A very grim place- muddy, dangerous, and demoralized. I flew from there to the palace in the International Zone. Thirty minutes later, Soldiers were complaining about how hard it was on their feet to walk in boots on the marble floors- no traction! Focus on the positive; appreciate the many blessings in your life that allow you to experience this very moment.

I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve. I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.

 

Feb 29 2016

Ki Tissa- What Energy Are We Giving to Our Communities?

Would you like to save your soul? Not a question we Jews normally ask, yet, this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, comes to teach us precisely that- how to save our souls. The answer can be summarized in one word- giving. As the portion opens, Moses is taking a census of the people. Our tradition is sensitive about counting people directly. There is a practice, for example, that, rather than counting people for a minyan directly- one, two, three, one recites a verse with ten words and assigns each word to one individual- “Hoshia et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha. . .” There is something about counting that creates a sense of finitude, of limitation. No further growth is possible- the number is complete.

So instead, Moses asks each person to contribute a half-shekel towards the work of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. When the half-shekalim are counted, they will indirectly yield the number of members of the community. As any fundraiser will tell you, there are community needs that require big dollars, big donations. And it is also the case that it is vital that every single person feel, KNOW, that they have a role to play in supporting the community. The message of the half-shekel is one of unity- fundamentally, each person has the capacity to give, and, through their giving, to create a mishkan, a place of holiness.

Today we no longer collect this half-shekel. But we each continue to play a role in creating a holy place within our community by our tzedakah, and also by the energy and love that we give to each other. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we have replaced a sanctuary in space with a sanctuary in time.

Through our acts of kindness and forgiveness, we add to the kedusha, the fundamental holiness, of the world in which we live. Conversely, our negative energy is like air pollution, creating an environment that is toxic to all. I thought of this last week, when I had lunch at a place called “Tubac Jack’s,” located, ironically enough, in the adorable little town of Tubac. Apparently there had been a 5-day festival of some sort that had just concluded the previous day. As we sat down to order, the waitress, to her great embarrassment, replied to each item we tried to order with the words, “We’re out of that. I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I can’t believe we’re out of that too!”

We had a choice. We could rant and rave about the incredibly poor service, or we could just laugh with her about the ridiculousness of the situation. Which attitude would we give to that situation, which energy, anger or kindness, would be put into the world? We chose the latter route, and had a wonderful time.  And, I might add, we were rewarded, because she recommended a phenomenal hike in Madera Canyon that we never would have found without her suggestion. Between the three of us we turned a potentially negative and volatile situation into such a joyous moment that we went back the next day, and, lo and behold, they actually had walnuts for their raspberry walnut salad. We had the choice between anger and blame, kindness and forgiveness. We chose kindness and forgiveness. What are we giving in order to create holiness in our community, to build the mishkan in time as we once built a mishkan in space?

The kabbalists say that for each action we take in the world we create either a good angel or an evil angel. I think that for each action we take we create holiness or the lack thereof in the world. The half-shekel teaches us that we each have something to give, something to contribute, and the choice is in our hands. Which choice will create holiness in our world?

The mishkan is both a physical structure as well as the space between us. We learned that in last week’s parsha, as we read in Exodus 25:8- “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. The presence of God dwells in our connections with each other, in our kindness and forgiveness, the gentle ways that we work together to create holiness. And in this capacity we are all equal- whoever we are, rich or poor, our half-shekel is of ultimate value.

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that “this half-shekel is called “a ransom for your soul,” for your soul is truly in danger if you do not consciously contribute to this Mishkan of community and acknowledge the equal value of each and every one of us. We can only build this holy place together. And we cannot sustain a spiritual practice that is blind to our interdependency with all of life.

The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of (the) . . . community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and self-importance… after all it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth… after all my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held together without it.”

The parsha then describes another threat to the soul of the community, as the people join together to build a golden calf. As Moses descends the mountain, he is so enraged that he destroys the two tablets of the covenant which he has just spent 40 days preparing. And then, a remarkable thing happens. God threatens to destroy the Israelites, and Moses heart turns and opens. In chapter 32:30 he begs God for forgiveness, and God replies, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will erase it from my book.”

In Ki Tissa, God is revealed as:

El rachum v’chanun- compassionate and loving

Erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet- Slow to anger and filled with kindess and truth

Notzer chesed l’alafim- kind to the thousands

Nosay avon v’fesha v’chatah v’nakey- forgiving wrong and sin and error

These qualities are what each of us can bring to the world and create a beautiful mishkan in which we can all dwell.

 

 

Feb 15 2016

Mishpatim- On Parents and Children

Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18

Immediately after my daughter delivered a healthy and beautiful baby girl, I was privileged to enter the recovery room, where the newborn lay snuggled on her chest, covered by a thin sheet. As we pulled back the sheet to get a closer look, the baby startled. My daughter looked down at her daughter and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you, I’ll keep you warm, I love you.” What an amazing moment to witness the deep, instantaneous bond between mother and child. (My son-in-law is staying at home with Helena and he is totally in love and totally subsumed with caring for his child.)

We take this incredible love for granted – which is what makes it so profoundly painful when children grow up and the bond between parents and children is severed. How often, way too often, I hear this terrible tale of parents and children who no longer speak to each other. I recently delivered a eulogy for a man who had not been in communication with his son for the final seven years of his life. His beloved life partner noted that this estrangement deeply affected his happiness in his final years.

 

In cases of serious emotional and physical abuse, yes, it is healthy to create distance. Yet, we see so often in families that children sever their relationship with parents over issues that could and should be overcome. Are your parents overbearing? Annoying? Manipulative? Perhaps creating some distance is a good idea, but these are insufficient grounds for cutting them off entirely.

 

This week’s Torah portion suggests that striking or insulting parents is a capital offense (Exodus 21:15, 17). This penalty was never actually implemented. The death penalty is extreme. The Torah uses it to emphasize the uniqueness of the parent/child relationship and the responsibility of children to protect that relationship by behaving in certain, specific ways toward their parents.

 

The 10 commandments teach us: Kabed et aveecha v’et eemecha, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). The Torah does not say, “Love your father and mother.” Sometimes, our parents are not lovable. So what? Simply by virtue of having given us life, we are required to treat them with a certain sense of gravitas. Rabbi David Teutsch writes that “merely the gift of life – the minimum the parent gives – creates a debt with a magnitude beyond measure, for we could not exist without it.” This is one of only two mitzvot in the Torah for which we are promised long life. The family is the foundational element of society. Lack of respect in the family is a warning sign with regard to all other relationships.

 

Adult children need to take the initiative to maintain contact with their parents and look for opportunities to spend time with and care for them. Find ways to include them in family activities and listen when they talk, even when they repeat themselves. You don’t have to take their advice, but you ought to listen with respect. Forgive their imperfections. Are you estranged from your parents? Think about building a bridge. Healing may be slow and it may be painful, but it is possible. Don’t let shame or insecurity keep you from reaching out to repair this essential relationship.

 

Parents also have a responsibility to be worthy of respect. They must model the values that they support, teaching children how to deal with the inevitable tension that arises in family life and how conflict can be a source of growth leading to even stronger bonds. They must walk that delicate line between offering support and guidance while creating space for their children to become independent adults. “The best security for old age:” writes Sholem Asch, “Respect your children.”

Nov 25 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

Gratitude is the foundation of a religious life. To be a religious person means to be a grateful person. The quote in my signature block comes from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, who invites us to consider, “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” We can go through life two ways- one is by saying, “Please,” and the other is by saying, “Thank You.” If we learn to say thank you more and please less, we will have a much happier life. Gratitude is the foundation of happiness, important enough that we dedicate a national holiday this month to reminding ourselves, as a society, to pause in our routines and say thank you. Giving thanks is not a luxury, it is a necessity for our spiritual well-being.

It was President Abraham Lincoln on 3 Oct., 1863 established this observance with the following words:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In ancient Israel the priests offered a number of sacrificial offerings. The rabbis said that in the messianic era, all of those sacrifices would be eliminated. All, that is, except one – the thanksgiving offering. Giving thanks, they understood will be important for humanity throughout time. Psalm 92 begins with the words, “It is good to give thanks to God.” Yes, it is, indeed, good to give thanks.

Imagine for a moment what life would be like if we could massively shift the balance of our conversation from whining, however innocuous, to reminding ourselves of the pervasive blessings we enjoy with no acknowledgement and which we totally take for granted. Imagine if we stopped to notice all the gifts showered on us, morning, noon, and night. It sometimes happens that November has 5 Thursdays, which can be confusing. In the early ‘70’s, the government accidentally printed a calendar with the wrong date for the holiday. Rather than going to the expense of re-printing the entire run, they simply included a note that said, “Note that we are giving thanks on the wrong day.” As if such a thing were possible. As if there is ever a wrong day on which to give thanks. What an absurd notion! Every day should be thanksgiving!

I read a fascinating article on needs and greeds, in which Prof. George Schlessinger reported on a psychology class in which the teacher asked each of 250 participants to write down what the regarded to be the minimum they would need in addition to what they already had so that for the next two months they would be contented, wanting nothing and asking for nothing. The

experiment yielded a great variety of answers, all of which had one significant feature in common: every student had SOMETHING that they needed. There was not one person who was ready to concede that they were satisfied and needed nothing more.

It is so easy to take the blessings of our lives for granted. Listen to this exercise which might open your eyes to the need to deepen you sense of appreciation:

 

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes of his friend Rabbi Leibel Benjaminson’s mussar (character development) group.  They were encouraged to write for 10 minutes about something that they usually do or have and to consider its ramifications.  He wrote about his morning cup of coffee.  He considered how the coffee was grown and harvested in Brazil, how the trees were planted and tended.  Then the beans were harvested, roasted, and packed for shipping.  Hundreds of people were involved in shipping that coffee until it arrived at his corner grocery store.  Then there was the gas range he used to boil water and the match he used to light the range.  There was the range itself, the tea kettle, the table and chair at which he sat, the mug, the milk.  He became aware of the thousands of people whose work was necessary for him to enjoy that cup of coffee, and his heart was filled with gratitude.

 

 

  • Instead of complaining about the sink of dirty dishes, we should be thankful that we have plenty of food to eat.
  • Instead of complaining about the piles of laundry that need to be washed, folded and put away, we should be thankful that we have clothing to wear.
  • Instead of complaining about making beds, we should be thankful that we are warm and comfortable at night.
  • Instead of complaining about the kids’ bathroom – with its mess, towels all over the place and toothpaste on the mirror – we should be thankful for the conveniences of bathrooms.
  • Instead of complaining about finger smudges all over the refrigerator, we should be thankful that we can afford to fill it with food.
  • Instead of complaining about the ever-slamming screen door we should be thankful that we have children who are healthy and able to run and play.

We have so many things to be grateful for. We give thanks for the abundance of food we enjoy, and for those who grow it. We give thanks for the health of our bodies, which enable us to be here this morning to participate in this service, for our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual well-being.   We gives thanks for the undeserved gift of being born in these United States of America, for the many freedoms we enjoy and especially for those who stand guard to protect those freedoms. We give thanks to our employers who provide us with sustenance and meaning in our lives. We give thanks to God for the blessing of our religious communities which sustain us through times both good and bad, and for our religious teachings that inspire us to live righteous and worthy lives.

And we give thanks for our families and those with whom we share this sacred occasion. The commentator Ellen Goodman reminds us as follows:   “. . . as I survey the future foodscape, it isn’t the feast that impresses me.  A middle-class child of 20th century America, I am no longer amazed by a 25-pound turkey.  What seems more rare is the family that will come to share it.  After all, this is what we have learned about our country, isn’t it?  That in America, food is plentiful but family is scarce.  That in America, Thanksgiving was once a day to be grateful for the good luck of the land.  That now we celebrate something that seems every bit as subject to weather patterns and disasters:  our endangered families.  That the holiday is less about food and more about that scarcer source of human sustenance.”

May we be blessed each day to find something for which we can be thankful, and in this way every day can be for us a day of Thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 27 2015

Sukkot- Embracing Imperfection

 

 

I hate not being perfect. When I discover a typo in an email that I’ve sent, it’s painful. If I forget to call someone, I beat myself up. I know- it’s an impossible standard. And it’s not so healthy, because I sometimes, then, kind of, sort of, also expect other people to be perfect. That is a recipe for frustration and disappointment and alienation in the relationships that matter the most.

Which brings us to the sukkah, that most imperfect of structures. Each year, right after Yom Kippur, right after we’ve spent 10 days reminding ourselves of our own imperfection, we move into this imperfect little structure and call it home for a week. The sukkah needs only 2.5 walls to be kosher, and the roof must be more open than closed. The most imperfect of shelters, fragile and transient.

The mitzvah of the sukkah is just to sit there, to sit there and take it in. To sit there and realize that the sukkah is no home that we would want to live in on a permanent basis, yet, for one week, we call it good enough. Directly following all that effort during the Days of Awe focusing on the perfection of our souls, we are forced to contemplate, to surround ourselves, to just sit with imperfection.

Good enough is a hard concept. Sukkot is a celebration of nature, yet as we shake the lulav and etrog during the week they inevitably become dried out and wither, as does the schach that forms our semblance of a roof.  Everything eventually fades, and while we try to keep these things alive and beautiful as long as possible, we recognize that nothing in life lasts forever. Not everything broken can be fixed and sometimes we have to live with “good enough.” Michael J. Fox once said that, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; Perfection is God’s business.” No matter how beautiful and perfect our etrog is, it will wither and lose its fragrance.

The embrace of imperfection is counter-cultural. Writing in the NY Times, Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, points out the stated intention of Silicon Valley to destroy, “with particular gusto”, “barriers and constraints- anything that imposes artificial limits on the human condition.”[1] He calls this trend “solutionism,” the notion that technology can eliminate every individual foible and imperfection “with a nice and clean. . . solution.” He labels it a “pervasive and dangerous. . . intellectually (pathological) ideology.” Learning to appreciate imperfection in ourselves and in our world, is increasingly important. A lulav and etrog could be constructed on a 3-D printer, never to fade or die. Yet, they would not be kosher. For this particular mitzvah, we need the imperfect, organic model.

The desire for perfection can deter us from even getting started towards a goal. We may surrender to defeat, preferring to accomplish nothing if we know that the end result will be less than perfect. We may have trouble acknowledging our own humanity and accepting that of others. As we move into our Sukkot this week, let’s enjoy the beauty of this imperfect little structure, our beautiful lulav and etrog that will begin to crumble the moment we unwrap them, and embrace the counter-cultural idea that we should seek continual self-improvement and social well-being in a relaxed and healthy fashion, without the judgment that comes from perfectionism.

Morozov quotes a headline on the website of the British edition of Wired- “Africa? There’s an app for that.” Nooooo! No app for that. No app for Sukkot. I love Google Maps, I love Uber, and, with apologies to the cantor, I love Pocket Torah. But there’s no app for Sukkot and I’m just fine with that.

 

 

 

 

[1] Morozov, Evgeny, “The Perils of Perfection,” NY Times, Sunday March 2, 2013

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