Play Ball! A Meditation

Image: A game at the Las Vegas Ballpark, 1/20/2019.

I’m writing tonight from the Las Vegas Ballpark, where the Sacramento River Cats are playing the Las Vegas Aviators.

Never heard of them? This is minor league baseball, AAA to be precise, the world of Bull Durham, if you’re a baseball movie aficionado. The Aviators are a farm team for the Oakland Athletics. The River Cats are affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. Subtext is strong here.

What does this have to do with Torah? Baseball, like Torah, contains worlds. It is a metaphor for everything. In baseball, the home team plays the outsiders – it’s deeply tribal – but everyone’s worst instincts are constrained by the Rulebook (mitzvot.) Bats are for hitting balls, not heads.

Baseball, well played, is a form of meditation. The more perfectly everyone does their job, the less happens. A completely perfect game would go on forever.

Fortunately it is also a deeply human game, and imperfections abound. They keep the crowd from falling asleep, but it is in the workings-out of imperfection that joy abounds.

I love baseball, especially minor league baseball. The ballparks are human size, and admission is cheap enough that whole families attend together. The lady sitting next to me might be 80, and if she had her way the Aviators would win. Alas, they seem to excel only in interesting imperfections tonight.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has implanted in human hearts the love of games!

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Climate Change and Torah

Image: A California poppy, in my yard.

Climate change is doing a number on my neighborhood. Today the temperature was over 100°F for sure. If WeatherUnderground.com can be believed, the high was 107°F. I decided not to believe it.

It is June in the SF Bay Area. June is legendarily chilly here. Mark Twain joked that the coldest winter he ever experienced was in June in San Francisco. No more, apparently.

What does this have to do with Judaism? several things:

1. We learn from a midrash that when the Creator entrusted the Earth to Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Take care of it. It’s the only one I’m going to give you.”

2. We are commanded, bal tashkeit, “do not waste.” The verse in question has to do with trees, but our sages expanded it to a commandment to be careful in our use of natural resources.

3. We are commanded to preserve life. The strictest form of that commandment has to do with responding to someone in immediate danger of death. In a heat wave, we are responsible as a community to make sure everyone has water and a cool place to go. Alameda County is doing its best but I am concerned about the huge number of homeless people, and elders.

I hear a lot on the media about why we can’t do anything about climate change. The Green New Deal was pooh-poohed by conservatives, and they talk about what other countries are or are not doing, or they say the whole thing is “fake news.” Environmental advocates have been less than diplomatic in their rhetoric, which I understand but “I told you so” never contributed to progress.

If you have personally never been affected by climate change, there are lots of places where you can see it in action: my house, most port cities, and the farms in the Midwest. Or you can take a cruise to the island nation of Kiribati, which is quickly submerging into the Pacific.

We have made a mess, folks. I’m as responsible as any individual. We need to change. We need to think in terms of what we CAN do. We need to quit using others’ behavior as an excuse. Because as the midrash teaches, this is the only world we’ve got.

Chernobyl: The Cost of Lies

Image: Scene from the HBO mini-series Chernobyl. (HBO)

I’ve been watching the HBO series Chernobyl. Critics have been very enthusiastic. The series tells the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, but the real story is the story of the thousands of Russians who worked to limit the devastation from the explosion and radiation.

One aspect of the story that has shaken me to my core is the role of truth and facts in the process of the disaster. Two scientists pursue the “why” of the disaster from Day One. One of them is an historical figure and the other an amalgam of several historical people, but they run headlong into a wall of propaganda. While they seek the truth of what is happening – the ongoing poisoning of earth, water, and air in Ukraine – the Russian leadership cranks out propaganda to save face and to keep itself in power. For the politicians, what matters is perception. For the scientists, what matters is the dangerous mess this has made, and the potential danger in other flawed reactors.

Again and again, the politicians stymie the scientists and laborers who are trying to get the murderous radiation under control. At one point, it becomes clear that the West German robot brought in to clear radioactive graphite from the roof of the reactor failed almost immediately because the politicians lied about the severity of the radiation. When the person in charge of the cleanup finds out, he wails, “They gave the Germans the propaganda number, not the real number! The propaganda number!”

Chernobyl is a series about the cost of lies, the cost of convenient and soothing “alternative facts.” Nature does not care what we believe. Gamma radiation does not confine itself to political needs.

I am also reminded that the people who actually pay the price for disasters are rarely the politicians or the wealthy. Here in California, fires are fought by young people, many of them prisoners from the state prison system. Homeowners may or may not be sufficiently insured, but many renters wind up homeless afterwards.

“Natural” disasters fall hardest on the working class and the poor: people who have to clean up the mess, or whose lives are irreparably damaged by it. Be it tornado or hurricane, fire or earthquake, the working class will clean up the mess, and the poor will suffer.

That, too, is what happened at Chernobyl. The politicians and apparatchiks of Moscow were not affected. They continued to issue their rosy predictions and denials. The scientists warned how bad it really was, and ran headlong into a wall of “alternative facts.” Meanwhile, working class people were quietly brought in to clean up lethal messes, messes that would significantly shorten their lives.

It didn’t have to be like that. The explosion itself was the result of a political covering-up of inconvenient facts, details about the reactor that didn’t suit the political narrative.

It didn’t have to be like that. Had Gorbatchev taken the disaster seriously from the first few moments and evacuated the region, many people would not have had radiation sickness.

It didn’t have to be like that. That is the story of Chernobyl, that and the absolute heroism of the ordinary workers: firefighters, coal miners, soldiers, and scientists. In its own way, it is a very good communist story, a story about the heroism of workers.

Emet, truth, is a Jewish value. We are allowed to tell a bride that she is beautiful, even if she is not. But we are forbidden to distort the truth when it comes to anything larger. “Alternative facts” are not a Jewish value.

We are living in a time of convenient lies. Chernobyl warns us that lies are dangerous.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: On three things does the world stand: On justice, and on truth, and on peace, As it is said: “Judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates.”

Pirkei Avot 1: 18

Memorial Day, 2019

Image: A military cemetery. Photo by Jackie Williamson /Pixabay.

I’m a citizen of the United States. Today, on the day when we remember those who have made a great sacrifice for this country – the loss of life itself – I have to ask myself: what sacrifices have I made for my country?

Have I ever made a sacrifice for my country?

I pay my taxes every year, and I don’t cheat on them or hide anything. But is that a sacrifice, or just paying my dues? Especially when I compare it to sailors and soldiers who have given their lives for this country, it seems pretty paltry.

I have done volunteer work in my community, but is that really much of a sacrifice? I don’t sign up to dig ditches, after all – I volunteer mostly for safe, relatively clean things, things where my life is never at risk.

When I have been overseas, I’ve done my best to represent the United States. As far as I know, I haven’t left anyone thinking worse of Americans than before they met me. Still, that consists of basic good manners and civil behavior, not exactly the stuff of sacrifice.

Our country has been at war since 2001, when President Bush ordered troops into Afghanistan. That war expanded into an invasion of Iraq, and it drags on without many Americans paying attention to it at all. But here is the sacrifice, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University:

The number of United States troops who have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had passed 6,900 at the end of 2018.

They died in a host of ways. The causes of death include rocket-propelled grenade fire and the improvised explosive devices that have been responsible for roughly half of all deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their deaths were also the result of vehicle crashes, electrocutions, heatstroke, friendly fire, and suicides in theater…

Official Pentagon numbers do not include the many troops who return home and kill themselves as a result of psychological wounds such as PTSD. The DOD does not report suicides among non-active duty reservists.

–“Costs of War

Let those numbers soak in. That is what we are remembering today. Those 6,900 deaths were sacrifices not only for the people who lost their lives, but for their families and friends. Those who died after they came home made no less of a sacrifice, dying of psychological wounds that tortured them and their families and friends for months or years, leaving scars that will never, ever heal.

I pray today for all the mourners who will never again see a beloved son or daughter, a wife or husband, a parent or friend. I pray for the decision makers who have the power to involve us in future wars, that the Holy One will visit them with the wisdom and strength to make war no more.

I have made no real sacrifices for my country. With our volunteer armed forces, that is true of most Americans. Let that fact keep us humble; let it make us willing to do whatever we can for those who make sacrifices for us. May the day soon come when such sacrifices will be rare, indeed, unknown.

Until then, let us be humble in our gratitude.

View from the Watershed

Image: Logan Pass in Montana, part of the North American Continental Divide, the great American watershed (skeeze/pixabay)

Certain experiences divide our lives into a clear Before and After. I can count those days on my fingers: the birth of my first child, my move to California, the day of my conversion, and rabbinic ordination. They are days when my identity shifted, even though the shift may have been a long time coming. Before Aaron was born, I was not a mother; afterwards, I would never describe myself without at least mentioning motherhood. I’m sure you have your own list of watershed events, those days after which you are never quite the same.

The funny thing about watersheds is that you cannot see past them. I thought I knew what my first marriage would be like – and what I thought was mostly a fantasy. I thought I knew what motherhood would be like – and some wonderful surprises lay ahead. Whether things went well or not, after each watershed, the common theme remained surprise. We set goals for ourselves based at least to some degree on fantasies and assumptions, and then we live our lives.

11 years ago today (May 18, 2008) I stood in Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, receiving semikhah (rabbinic ordination) from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I had worked hard for that day for eight years: two years of intense Hebrew study, and six years of rabbinical school. For those six years, I lived without my family in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. There were big sacrifices involved.

Now I’m on the other side of that watershed, eleven years past it. As with the other watersheds, it’s all been a surprise: I never became a full time congregational rabbi, which was what I wanted when I applied to HUC.

Instead, I’ve served primarily as a teacher since 2008: I teach classes on basic Judaism to newcomers to Jewish community. I’ve developed an online presence via this blog and social media, also primarily focused on educating beginners and newcomers. My “Intro” classes moved online, too. I stay in touch with many of my students for years and years — one of the great pleasures of my life is watching them live their Jewish lives. This year I’m moving into a new phase of teaching by writing. I’m moving slower, but I have no less energy for the work. I have reached an age when many people are thinking about retirement, but I cannot imagine stopping now.

I’m grateful for the ways in which I have been able to serve, and very grateful for all the learners: students, readers of this blog, people with whom I’ve chatted casually. I love being a rabbi, even though very little of it has gone to plan.

What are the watershed moments in your life? Were you surprised at what you found on the other side?

The Tale of the Sick Dog

Image: My favorite picture of Jojo, who loves to sunbathe.

First, Jojo got sick. She threw up all over everywhere again and again. I felt sorry for her, and concerned. Her breathing was labored and she crouched as if in pain. She cuddled against me between retches, as if to implore: Help! None of this was her usual self; I was worried.

In the morning, I called the vet. Yes, they could see her at 3pm. Normally this would not be a problem but Linda and Jessica were both out of town.

I had to teach a class in Berkeley. I couldn’t take a sick dog, and didn’t know how long we’d be tied up at the vet. Moreover, Linda usually takes the dogs to the vet, because their office is inaccessible, and I have trouble mixing my cane with dogs. Jojo is heavy and would need to be lifted into and out of the car.

So. Many. Problems. I called Linda to get help thinking it through. She said, “Call Dawn!”

Dawn’s our friend and a fellow Jewish professional – aha! She could help me figure it out. She reminded me that a retired rabbi friend had offered to help me with classes – Yes! Then she offered to call him, so that I could work out the puzzle of how to get Jojo to the doc.

I called my son, who has two jobs and whom I try not to ask for things too often because he is busy and I don’t want to impose but sure, he would help, glad to help.

So I picked him up, and he picked the dog up, and we all three went to the vet’s office. He dealt with sad little Jojo while I got myself into the building and we saw the vet.

Turns out, Jojo is OK. No obstructions, no fever, just a tummy ache, likely from eating something in the garden – a Jojo experiment gone wrong.

There is a moral to this story. When we feel stuck, it is tempting to throw our hands in the air and say, “I can’t deal with this!” That is the moment to call upon friends: friends who can help, or friends who are calm. Get help thinking it through. Get help assessing resources.

I knew Rabbi Chester had offered to teach for me, but I needed to be reminded of it when I was in a panic. I knew Jim would say yes to helping, but I needed time to remember. I needed my whole village to make it through this puzzling, upsetting day.

And at the end of the day, Jojo felt loved (except by the vet, maybe.) I felt loved and cherished by my wife, my friend, my rabbi, my son, and the dog. I touched base with a friend I don’t talk with often enough. I got a chance to visit with my son. My class got a treat: Rabbi Chester is a wonderful rabbi and teacher.

Everyone in that chain of connections is part of my Jewish community. This isn’t the first time that they’ve saved me, and it won’t be the last. My synagogue is my rock; there are people I love and people I don’t love, but that is where I met most of the people who will show up for me when things are a mess.

None of us are equipped to live our lives like the mythical Marlboro Man, stoic and alone. Secular culture often idealizes the capable loner, but that’s bunk. We are social creatures, we human beings, and even more so, we Jews.

If you are reading this bitterly, and thinking, “I have no connections,” I offer you this: reach out to one person. Someone you know, someone not too scary, and exchange names with them. Be willing to show up for them, and then – voila! you will have a connection. Community helps with that, but it all starts with a friend.

I know you can. Years ago, I felt that I had to do everything alone. I spent most of my time drowning in anxiety. I still wind up back in that state, and I have to be reminded. That’s OK. I’m human too.

The Torah of Dog Food

Image: Linda holding Princess, the poodle. (Photo: Ruth Adar)

My wife and I have three aging toy poodles. They all came from Poodle Rescue, and we have had almost ten happy years with them. Now we’re all getting older together: Linda and I are 70 and 64, and the poodles are 14, 15, and somewhere past 20. Their names are Jojo, Princess, and Gabi; we call them our Jewdles.

Princess is having the hardest time with aging. She’s Exhibit A for “Why Puppy Mills are Bad” – she has every kind of deformity or ailment associated with toy poodle inbreeding. She’s an affectionate little bundle of fluff, and when she stopped eating last year, we were distraught. She didn’t have extra weight to lose, and soon she was nothing but fluff and bones.

The vet looked at her sadly, and suggested that maybe if we offered her a bit of chicken and rice, it would tempt her. Sure enough, when I gave it to her, she showed the first interest in weeks. Apparently “people food” was the ticket. I got instructions from our vet, plus a cookbook by a vet in Hawaii, and went to work. Since the food I prepared started out with chicken as the protein, we called it “chickie.”

It was wonderful seeing Princess return to life. She gobbles chickie as fast as she can (not very fast, since she’s missing a lot of teeth.) But we were amazed at the changes in the other dogs, as well. Gabi (age 20+) had never seemed to care about food – until chickie. Now she is a chow hound, and her coat has returned to its original silky beauty. Jojo has always been a chow hound, but she’s looking good, too.

It has made me wonder what was really in the expensive commercial dog food we used to give them.

I’m committed to chickie-making now; there’s fresh in the fridge and frozen in the freezer. I make a couple of batches a week. As I said, it’s my new hobby. I thought that I’d write it up and add it to the blog, in case someone out there in Internet-land has an old dog that has quit eating.

The master recipe is simple:

  • 1/3 protein, usually meat or leftover meat.
  • If the meat is extremely lean, I add a bit of olive oil.
  • 1/3 pureed vegetables and fruit
  • 1/3 whole grain (brown rice, oats, or quinoa)
  • Plus enough water to cook that amount of grain.
  • A bit of sea salt, for the minerals. (The vet’s recommendation.)

I make chickie in an Instant Pot or a dutch oven in my oven. Cook the meat, add salt and olive oil, add the veggies, grain, water, and cook. In a pressure cooker, I cook it for 1 hour. Otherwise, I cooked it on low overnight in a Dutch oven in the oven.

For protein I’ve used turkey, chicken, beef, or eggs. Occasionally I’ll make “cold chickie” which includes some leftover yogurt, cottage cheese, and hardboiled eggs that have been sitting around in the fridge.

Leftovers are also great for the vegetables. I include produce that is past its prime. I puree all of it so that it mixes into the protein and the dogs don’t just pick out their favorites. I’ve thrown in everything from old lettuce to seaweed. If you decide to make chickie, please do check out this list of foods that are bad for dogs – don’t use those!

Grains were easy. I started with the rice, but then got close to the bottom of a box of quinoa, and thought, why not? They loved it. Same with oats. I buy the grains in bulk now, which cuts down on packaging.

The water is usually just water, but when I have cooked a whole chicken or something else that has bones, I boil the carcass to make a broth that I can put in the freezer to use for chickie. Bone broth has good stuff in it for arthritic joints – and everyone in our house has arthritic joints!

This has also cut down on waste at our house. I keep an eye on the produce in the fridge, and chickify anything that’s still healthy but past the point of us picky humans eating it. Proteins are often leftovers, too, although to keep up with the demand I’ve used ground meat from the store, too.

There’s one more thing: because our dogs are very old, and Princess is in the early stages of kidney failure, the vet suggested some powdered supplements that we sprinkle on top of their food. If you decide to go the Chickie route with your dog, check with your vet for breed-specific or dog-specific needs.

You might ask: why is it worth my time to cook food for three old dogs? And why is it worth space in this blog?

Torah is not limited to “holy things.” A life of Torah is one in which everything is made holy – even pet food. Here are some of the Jewish values I experience and act out in making chickie for the Jewdles:

Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is the Hebrew name for kindness to animals, an important Jewish value. For example,Rebekah extends hospitality to the camels as well as a human visitor in Genesis 24:19.

Hakarat tovah is gratitude. These little dogs have been our faithful companions and comforters for ten years. I express my gratitude by taking care of them now that they are old.

Bal tashkeet is the Torah commandment not to be wasteful. A lot of things I used to throw away now go into the chickie: faded produce, leftovers, and little bits of whole grain from the bottom of the package. I don’t buy packaged grain at all any more: rather than buy a plastic bag or box of grain, I buy in bulk, using reusable bags, and store the grain in permanent jars in the kitchen.

So there you are: the story of my peculiar new hobby. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see Princess gumming her little dish of chickie, while Jojo and Gabi gobble theirs up.

Gabi, Princess, and Jojo