Shabbat: After One of Those Weeks

Image: Pouring a cup of tea. (Photo: dungthuyvunguyen /Pixabay)

It’s been one of those weeks. My personal list of small woes includes a broken tooth, a twisted knee, a forgotten AC adapter for my computer (oops – no power,) and a blood pressure spike. These things are all related, and they are all manageable, but still, it’s been a week. It wasn’t the week I planned, that’s for sure.

Those are just my personal mishaps. The news feeds have been full of horrors: more people dying in the border camps, a crowd at the president’s rally shrieking racist chants, an Israeli government official telling us what he really thinks about diaspora Jews, a ghastly story about a pedophile who may be or have been buddies with the president, building tensions between the US and Iran. There’s more, but that’s enough!

Such weeks are not unusual any more. I spent some time this week on an effort to be empathetic, imagining what it would be like if I had different feelings about politics, and I think it’s probably been a crummy week for them, too. I take no joy in that.

So in a few hours it will be Shabbat. I’m going to turn off the news. The computer will turn itself off, until my replacement AC adapter comes, and I’m going to choose to see that as a good thing. I’m away from home, in a pretty comfy hotel, and I’m going to stay “home” this Shabbat. I will not try to navigate an unfamiliar synagogue.

For Refuah (Healing): to allow my knee to heal and my blood pressure to subside under my new meds. (Which is not a crisis – I’d been on the same old low dosage meds since 1997.)

For Anivah (Humility): I will let go of all things over which I have no control. Anivah, humility, is a valuable middah (virtue.)

For Tefilah (Prayer): I’m going to spend some serious time praying for the people trapped at our border, and for the souls of the people guarding them. I will listen for inspiration: what I could do that I’m not already doing?

For Menuchah (Rest): I’m going to let my body and soul breathe a bit. Sleep more, stress less.

For Ahavah (Love): I will call the ones I love and touch base, reassure them that I’m OK, listen to what’s happening with them, and tell them I love them.

An ideal Shabbat? Maybe not. But it’s the Shabbat I’ve got, and I’m going to make the most of it.

How was your week? How are your body and soul doing? What’s your plan, this Shabbat?

I wish you healing and prayer, rest and love. Shabbat shalom!


Korach LIVE: film at eleven!

Image: A red sign saying “Breaking News” (BestGraphics_Com / Pixabay)

Two massive earthquakes and a swarm of aftershocks tore at the soil of Southern California this week. Cracks gaped open in the earth, not just in asphalt but in the raw sod itself. Gas lines broke, houses burned, and it was pure luck that as far as we know, there have been no casualties.

The news this week was on-target for the Torah portion, that’s for sure. Surely I am not the only person who quailed at the thought of two major earthquakes on the week of Shabbat Korach?

Here is the story, straight out of the Torah:

Korah gathered the whole community against them at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Then the Presence of the LORD appeared to the whole community, and the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!”

But they fell on their faces and said, “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the community and say: Withdraw from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.”

Moses rose and went to Dathan and Abiram, the elders of Israel following him. He addressed the community, saying, “Move away from the tents of these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins.”

So they withdrew from about the abodes of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Now Dathan and Abiram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents, with their wives, their children, and their little ones.

And Moses said, “By this you shall know that it was the LORD who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was not the LORD who sent me.

But if the LORD brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned the LORD.”

Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.

All Israel around them fled at their shrieks, for they said, “The earth might swallow us!”

Parashat Korach, Numbers 16: 19-34

If you are unprepared for whatever kind of natural disaster your locale offers, take these quakes as a wake up call. Do you have water? Flashlights? Batteries? Etc? Once the shaking starts, it’s too late to go to the grocery store.

Shavua tov, everyone – have a good and safe week.

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!

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 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?