Thoughts for the 4th of July

I listened this morning as the announcers on NPR read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

I noticed something I’d never noticed before: Passover and the Fourth of July have a lot in common. Both celebrate the moment when a small group of people made the decision to take an enormous risk. In both cases, the leaders went out on a dangerous limb and miraculously, the people went with them. In both cases, they defied a government with overwhelming power and resources.

Moses had defied Pharaoh repeatedly and to his face, but while that was going on, the average Hebrew was still making straw bricks to build Pharaoh’s monuments. Only on the first night of Passover did that average man and woman throw down their burdens and walk away. Surely there were skeptics who grumbled over the first Passover meal that Moses was crazy and the whole bunch of them were doomed. Not until the reception of the Torah and the forty years in the wilderness did Israel become a nation, and even then, a work in progress.

And so it was on July 4, 1776: not everyone thought that it was a great idea to defy the British Parliament and Crown. But eventually  the cruelties of the War of Independence forged a new nation, a nation that continues, fitfully, to pursue the ideals articulated in the Declaration.

Both acts, while daring, were incomplete. Freedom alone is not enough to sustain a nation. Passover’s liberation requires Shavuot’s Torah to sustain and propel the nation forward. The Declaration of Independence similarly requires the Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Otherwise “freedom” would have disintegrated into chaos and there would be nothing to celebrate – in fact, nothing to remember.

The Declaration of Independence is a soaring document written by a flawed man, signed by similarly flawed men. The Hebrews who downed tools and followed Moses into the desert were imperfect, too. In both cases, the journey begun in daring led later to the acceptance of responsibility, and continues in an ongoing pursuit of the ideals articulated by limited human beings.

So as we grill our Hebrew National hot dogs, as we watch the fireworks, let us remember that 0ur work is incomplete. Until we build societies that live up to our fine words, we are not done.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

A Visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum

The_store_front,_Contemporary_Jewish_Museum

Today Linda and I had a business meeting over in San Francisco. I’ve been dithering forever about taking BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) on my scooter, and I figured today was a great opportunity, since we were going together.

BART is great for reading San Francisco without having to park or fight traffic on the Bay Bridge. It is less than lovely in some other ways, namely, the hard-to-find elevators and the sometimes-rude riders. I practically had to run over a guy to get him to allow me my wheelchair spot on the train.

After our business meeting, we stopped to get a sandwich and then traveled a few short blocks to the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I am embarrassed to say this was my first visit, since mobility fears had kept me away.

The facility is truly beautiful and wonderfully accessible. I never once had any problem accessing anything, and the security guard was extremely pleasant. Architecturally, the building is a fabulous mix of old and new, the old Pacific Gas & Electric Jessie Street Substation with a dynamic contemporary structure by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Exhibits at the CJM are staggered so that there’s always something interesting to see. We toured Bound to be Held: A Book Show by Josh Green. It was an intriguing combination of elements: a collection of books donated by famous and private individuals, with personalizations (“Read by Famous”) and The Library of Particular Significance, a lending-library of 1,000 books significant to the people who donated them, with which viewers could interact via post-its or by (imagine that!) reading them. It was both fun and thought-provoking.

The current work on view in In that Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art was somewhat less engaging for us. Bay Area visual artist Anthony Discenza collaborated with New York-based author of horror novels Peter Straub to present a piece on Das Beben, a nineteenth century artistic movement who apparently managed to have themselves and their work burnt up in not one but two catastrophic fires. None of their actual work survives; we were apparently supposed to imagine it from the descriptions. We were mystified and left feeling a bit stupid, but we tried!

We are now members of the museum and will return to see other exhibits soon. It’s a wonderful building and clearly the curators are looking to challenge visitors. If you are in the Bay Area or planning to visit, I recommend it!

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415.655.7800

Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.
Approaching the museum from Mission Street, with the old PG&E substation on view.

For the Mothers and the Fathers, the Sisters and the Brothers

It’s Memorial Day here in the USA, and I am cranky.

This is the day we remember our brothers and sisters who died in the wars. And I honor every one of them. I am grateful that of those I have loved who have served our country, all came home in one piece – well, in more or less one piece. As my better half, Linda, said this morning, no one who sees combat is ever really the same again.

She should know. She served in the Navy during Vietnam as a drug and alcohol counselor. She was a sailor on a landlocked base (how surreal is that?) trying to help those who returned stateside with a problem.

Our son joined the Navy on his 21st birthday. I was on the other side of the world, in Jerusalem, and called to wish him a happy birthday. He was all excited about his news, and I kept my voice as calm as I could. This was during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the writing was pretty much on the wall. The idea of my baby in a war, in a stupid, stupid war, was almost more than I could bear. As things worked out, he didn’t go to war, but as far as I knew that day, he was headed straight into it. I was proud of him and I was terrified.

All soldiers in every war are somebody’s baby. They might be big and strong and capable with weapons, but they are each beloved of someone. My heart today, Memorial Day, aches for the mamas and the fathers and the sisters and the brothers. I ache for the girlfriends and the boyfriends and the family pets. I ache for everyone who remembers someone they loved who will never grow older.

And I am angry – deeply angry – at anyone who dares to sell those precious lives  cheaply. Saying “I support the troops” is nothing; it’s lip service. Sending other people’s children into war when yours aren’t going is about as low a thing as anyone ever did. And yes, I know, great men have done it: Abraham Lincoln tried to keep his son out of the Civil War, to name just one. That doesn’t make it right.

I don’t want to hear about how “they are all volunteers, so it’s OK.” Aaron was, yes, but the vast majority of young men and women who go into the military in this country do so because it’s their best option, because college has been priced out of their means. The only way I will accept that our Congress and the Executive Branch can send our young people to war will be if all their kids have to go, too.

That was part of my experience in Israel: when I was completely shaken by Aaron’s news, Israeli parents would put an arm around me and hug me. They told me to be proud, that I had raised a good man. And I knew those weren’t cheap words, because they had served, and their children would serve. And I was consoled, not because some idiot in a suit “supported the troops” but because those men and women understood.

Today, Linda and I remembered those who died. It’s not a weekend for barbecues and celebration at our house; it’s quiet. It’s the day I count my blessings, because all my loved ones are home. It’s the day I think of all those who miss someone who will never come home again.

It’s the day I pray that Isaiah’s vision will someday come true:

[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:4

A King in the Rabbi’s Garden

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There is a miracle in this photo. Can you find it?

The photo above may look like a garden overgrown with milkweed. Look in the center of the photo, and you will see a tiny splash of orange. That little splash is a monarch butterfly, the third I have seen in my garden. I didn’t want to disturb him, and this is the best photo I could get. Still it is a miracle: this winter I’ve seen three monarchs in my garden!

Monarch butterflies used to be one of the great wonders of North America: clouds of them used to spend the winter on the California coast. There has been a dramatic decline in their numbers, because their larval food, Asclepias, or milkweed, is an unfashionable plant. Wild land is increasingly rare near the coast, and people are usually anxious to get milkweed out of their garden. The highway department has done its bit, too, with herbicides and plantings of prettier bushes near the freeways.

The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of www.monarchwatch.org
The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of http://www.monarchwatch.org

Now I’m part of a movement of people who are trying to restore the milkweed supply for the monarchs. My garden has several varieties of milkweed and no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. I haven’t seen the Monarch caterpillars, but now I’ve seen three butterflies. Other people in the San Francisco East Bay are also growing food for the monarchs. There’s hope.

There is a midrash that that when God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

It is up to us to look around our corner of the world and see what we can do to repair its wounds. For each of us, that effort may take a different path, but it is important that each of us perform this mitzvah in whatever means is available to us. As Rabbi Tarfon said, we don’t have to finish the job, but we do have to make an effort.

I planted milkweed, lots of rangy plants with little blossoms . What a blessing, right before Shabbat, to receive a little messenger to tell me that it’s working!

Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg
Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg

Sabbath Rain

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May God come down like rain upon the mown grass, Like showers that water the earth. – Psalm 72:6

The photo above may seem dreary, but it’s beautiful to me. Rain is falling in sheets here in the East Bay, where we desperately need it. I hear that we can look forward to a couple of days of it, which would be wonderful.

I wish you all a Shabbat shalom, a Sabbath of peace.

First Night of Chanukah: Not What I Planned

#ChanukahBlackLivesMatterI’ve been at my desk all day, ignoring the obvious: my body is especially gimpy today. Staying at my desk was tempting because:

  1. I have a lot of work to do, most of it desk-work.
  2. At my desk, I can pretend I’m not having an arthritis flare, even though sitting for long periods will absolutely make the flare worse.
  3. I had an investment in pretending, because I wanted to go to San Francisco tonight to be part of the #BlackLivesMatter march.

Fortunately for me, I have a wise spouse, who watched me get up from my chair and said, “I wish you were not going to that march tonight. You are in no shape for it.” After some hemming and hawing, I had to admit she was right. Even on the scooter, I was not in shape to be out in the rain, in a big crowd, far from home.

Inside my head, I feel fabulous, energized, full of love and Torah after the past week of retreats and travel. In the rest of my body, I feel about 100 years old. This is just a fact of living in a body with arthritis, old injuries and a bunch of other problems.

Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, and be grateful for what is possible, rather than grumpy about what isn’t. I’m grateful for the people who love me enough to tell me when I’m over-reaching, because I often fail to notice until it’s too late.

I remind myself what Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. However you are not free to desist from it.” We have to try, but we do not have to push past the limits of our ability. I can contribute more to #BlackLivesMatter right now by teaching and writing. That’s the fact of it.

Do you have limitations against which you chafe sometimes? How do you cope, and how do you comfort yourself?