Come on People Now, Smile on Your Brother, Everybody Come Together Try to Love One Another Right Now

(title from song by the Youngbloods)

 

While the Jewish community observed Shabbat, our day of rest and our day of peace, there was no peace in Charlottesville. VA; an assortment of bigots gathered to spread their vile mission of hate and their claims of racial superiority. According to the law enforcement officers on the scene, they came armed with semi-automatic weapons just waiting for someone to throw the first punch to show the world that they are not afraid.

Fear is the weapon of choice for those who hate. They only know how to hurt others and they expect that others only want to hurt them. It is a battle that they feel is their destiny and they are always locked and loaded and ready to destroy all who get in their way. They may claim that whites are superior to other races and religions but even Caucasians that stand by the side of the “others” will feel their wrath.

I am sure that Law Enforcement in the area was dedicated to keeping the peace. Yet the amount of hate and prejudice was so great that it would take a miracle to prevent bloodshed. We did not get our miracle. A bigot got to show how brave and fearless he is by running down an unarmed white woman who was only concerned that all people be treated fairly. Seeing the “bad optics” of the situation, the official spokesmen for the bigots immediately disavowed all responsibility for his actions and refused to claim him as their own.

Would their hero, General Robert E. Lee, whose statue they gathered to “protect” have been proud of their actions on Saturday? I am sure that he, as a gentleman and a soldier, would have been appalled. There was no honor in the crowd of bigots, only a collection of people spoiling for a fight, extremists unable to accept that the Civil War is over, and the Confederate States lost. Humanity has come to understand that not only is slavery wrong, but that the world is a better place without the bigotry, the injustice, the hatred, the incitement and the prejudice that was packed slavery’s box.

Since the Confederate cause surrendered at Appomattox, VA many other oppressed human beings have been able to emerge from the shadows. It has not been easy nor always safe, but slowly the diversity of humanity has come forward. While the fight for justice and equality goes on, human beings with different skin tones have come to expect a fair chance in life. Human beings of different genders and sexual orientations have taken their place in the sun, in business and in the armed forces defending our country. We as a nation are wiser, more understanding and more accepting because of their presence in our midst. We are becoming a nation that loves others, and refuses to give in to hate. It is true, our society is not perfect and there are still many stones in the road. But slowly, lions are lying down with lambs, the call to love one another is being heard, dreams of unity are a reality and the words of our first President, George Washington, that we will be a nation “that gives bigotry no sanction, persecution no assistance”, are slowly coming true.

In the end, we will not defeat bigotry and persecution with laws or armed force, it will be achieved through love. Anger and hatred can only exist in the dark. Haters may walk in the daylight and speak loud and strong but wherever they go, they bring their darkness with them, attempting to eclipse the light of love and acceptance. Bigotry grows when we are surrounded only with others who hate as well. When bigots are with people who care, when a bigot is surrounded with those who preach and teach a more loving and forgiving attitude, then hearts can be opened and bigotry is then exposed as an evil demon that must be banned. Good people can and often are murdered despite their goodness, but the love and hope they represent always lives on. That is why the statue of Robert E. Lee must come down, to make way for statues of those who gave their lives for freedom, equality and diversity; for statues of people who love rather than those who hate.

We have come too far in our quest to make true our dream that “All people are created equal” (yes, I know that this is not quite what was written down but I do believe that this is what our founders meant). We have made great progress toward our promise of “liberty and justice for all”; we can’t let a few hundred individuals in a country of 323 million people stop our advance into the future. I mourn deeply the loss of Heather Heyer who believed in justice, peace and love. I mourn the loss of the law enforcement officers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates who died in an accident while trying to insure that our streets are safe for everyone.

Let us pray for the souls of Heather Heyer, for Lt. Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Bates and for all the injured. Let us not pray for the death of the bigots, but for the death of their bigotry so all may “dwell in the shade of their vine and their fig tree with no one to make them afraid.”    And may we all say, “Amen”.

Que Sera Sera

Que Sera Sera

The book of Exodus has many lessons to teach us. Some are obvious, like the Ten Commandments, but others appear only as we reflect on the stories that make up the contents of this second book of the Bible.

Moses is undisputed as a great leader of the Israelites. Moses inspires his people when they are slaves in Egypt. Moses speaks up on their behalf (and on God’s behalf) to Pharaoh demanding the liberation of his people. He leads them not only in a political sense, out of Egypt, but in a religious sense, taking them from the slavery they have known for generations to a free and independent nation ready to enter the land promised to their ancestors by God. This is the journey that takes the people to their land via a prolonged and spiritual stop at Mt. Sinai.

What is also undisputed is the enemy that they face on this religious/political journey. Sure, there are outside nations who hinder their progress, but the most persistent danger comes from those who insist that the best course for the nation is to return to Egypt. The food was better there, the way of life was better there and life was filled with certainty, rather than the unknowns they face in the wilderness.

The Torah calls those who want to return a “mixed multitude”. Commentators usually teach that this was a group of Egyptians who used the chaos of the Exodus to leave Egypt to escape their own political troubles and now found themselves on a spiritual journey they never really wanted to embark on. I tend to look at this “mixed” group a bit more historically. In every age of great change, there are always those who have different opinions, those who want to go back to what is sure rather than look ahead to what is uncertain.img_7280

It would be easy for me to take a cheap shot at the supporters of Donald Trump here who are looking to “Make America Great Again” by wanting to go back to the way things were in the good old days. Those days when everyone had a good job, everyone made good money and the good things is life were inexpensive and readily available.  But to be fair, I see a lot of Clinton supporters who are already fondly remembering the good old days when Obama was elected and everything was going right with our country. To these Democrats the future is bleak and they want to go back to when things were better.

This is “mixed multitude” talk.  It takes us nowhere we would ever want to go. Just as those who wanted to go back the Egypt forgot the slavery and the taskmasters’ whips, those who fondly remember the good old days forget that those days were also the time of Jim Crow, misogyny, bigotry and inequality. I don’t know if anyone remembers the theme song of the television sitcom of the 1970’s “All in the Family”:

Boy the way Glen Miller played

Songs that made the Hit Parade

Guys like us we had it made

Those were the days

And you knew who you were then

Boys were boys and men were men

Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again

Didn’t need no welfare state

Everybody pulled his weight

Gee our old LaSalle ran great

Those were the days

 

For those who find history a challenge, “Guys like us” did indeed have it made, but anyone who was not like us, well that was a different story. “Boy were boys and men were men” which left women out in the cold both at home and in the workplace. “Herbert Hoover” was the president who is considered responsible for the great depression. If you couldn’t “pull your weight” because of age or health, you lived in abject poverty no matter what you did in life and the “LaSalle” was discontinued in 1940. When people began to buy other cars.  Yes, “Those were the days” alright, but I don’t think we would want to live there anymore.

Leaders need to have a vision of the future. They need to lead us to a “promised land” a land of “milk and honey”. The future belongs not to those looking backwards, but to those looking forward. I once heard a speaker say something that has stayed with me for many years, “There is a reason why cars have such a big windshield and such a small rear view mirror.” Life too requires a big windshield to see where we are going and a small rear view mirror so that we can see what is in our past and what is coming from behind, but we can’t spend too much time gazing into it or else we will run off the road and crash.

An army can lose if it only knows how to fight the last war, and does not prepare for the future. The late Alvin Toffler once wrote about “future shock” when we suddenly encounter a future we were not prepared for. He advocated preparing for the future and not living in the past. I find his predictions spot on, that the people clambering for a return to the past just can’t face the unknowns of the future.

But we can anticipate the future. As one secular year turns to the next, there are no end to those who make predictions about what the future may bring. There will be artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, automated factories, smaller bands of terrorists who still can cause a lot of damage, leaders who will promise us security if we give up our freedom, people on social media feeding us fake news and people on social media telling us that real news is actually fake. We are facing a world where the line between lies and truth becomes more blurred each day and we are facing a world where people will fight hard to be given the human rights that others take for granted.

This is not to make us feel depressed, nor to make us look back to the “good old days”. It is a reminder that these are problems that will need solutions. We can’t run away from them. We can’t close our eyes to them. They are problems if we refuse to face the issues they raise and do our best to resolve them. We will never be perfect and get it right the first time. But that does not give us the right to give up and go back.  The promised land is out there.  Myron Cohn, the comedian used to say, “My father in Eastern Europe was told that in America the streets were paved with gold. When he got here he discovered three things; the streets were not paved with gold, the streets were not paved and he was expected to do the paving”

The promised land of the future is out there. Milk and honey do not grow on trees. We are expected to go out and do the work to reap the rewards. The past is filled with dust and ashes. Only in the future can we seek out great promises. That will be our future if we work toward it and keep our eyes on where we are going.

Anyone who tells you something different is lying.

Come On People Now, Smile On Your Brother…

 

 

In the Book of Genesis, Chapter 44, Judah speaks out to save Benjamin from slavery. He puts his life on the line to protect his step-brother in a way that Judah never did for his other step-brother Joseph. After years of lies, Judah finally stakes his life on telling the truth.

In my synagogue bulletin article for December 2016 I quoted Susan Talve, the founding Rabbi of Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis, who wrote in the September issue of Shema Now Magazine (Vol. 47 no. 719) the following sentence, “I found that we must all sacrifice self-interest for the common good while growing opportunities for dialog and the possibility for change.” I find myself drawn back to her statement time after time, because of the implications of her observation to all of our discourse in the United States today.

Rabbis have been preaching about the difficulties of dialogue for the last ten years. As our country polarized between points of view and because the internet made it possible for words we spoke years ago, to never really disappear, people began to speak out on topics of importance; but the possibility of dialogue, the ability to grow and change positions, the art of nuance in our speech and the quest for understanding, all began to disappear. It became more important to shout down an “opponent” rather than hear what they were trying to say. It was more important to silence opposition rather than admit that there might be a point in something they said. Those who took a middle position, refusing to engage in hyper-partisanism, were accused by partisans on both sides of being wishy-washy or secret members of the “other side”.

first-pics-057

It is in the political arena where this is most obvious. Political parties often would change positions as public opinion changed. What was a core value one year was off the table the next. Politicians at all levels of government would do a sidestep dance while waiting to hear what the public wanted. Over time, because of the instant communication possible, there were many who were looking for any sign of wavering among elected officials so that they could immediately show these officials that there was a price if they did not strictly adhere to the party line. The rise of the “Tea Party” is just one example of how wavering politicians found themselves losing to the rise of those who were considered “pure” when it came to hot button issues. Shutting down the government was more important than compromise.

Today the situation is getting dire. Politicians are all about getting elected and not about what their position is on important issues. There is no longer any talk about bipartisan agendas. Candidates are stressing their ability to hold fast to a position no matter what the other side tries to say. Today leadership means finding ways to work around legislatures unwilling or unable to do their job of creating laws that reflect the wide range of ideas that exist in our population. This leaves the political class to promise the electorate anything they want to hear, knowing that the agenda they espouse has no chance in the legislature, while at the same time accepting money from the people they will need to regulate to pay for campaigns that grow ever more expensive.

Now being elected has become more important than anything. So, voting districts are gerrymandered to make sure that one party or the other can’t lose their seat. Voter ID laws are promulgated to “prevent voter fraud” when in reality they are to prevent people who don’t “vote for me” from voting. And now, in North Carolina, when the party does lose an office, the legislature moves to strip the power from the office they no longer control. This is the real “Voter Fraud” defrauding voters into believing that legislators are making these changes to “protect voter rights” while actually stripping voters of their right to vote.

Self-preservation has become more important than self-sacrifice. What is good for me is often more important than the common good. Making my point is more important than listening to others. My being right is more important than creating change for the better.

Others may speak out on the political side of these problems but the arguments here put us on solid religious ground. My faith teaches: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone.” My faith teaches that we have responsibilities, no matter who we are, to the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. My faith teaches that the greatest sage taught his students to give the opinion of your opponent before expressing your own opinion.  My faith teaches that we should be flexible like a reed and not rigid like the cedar lest the wind come and shatter us. My faith teaches that while a majority rules we must also take into account the opinions of the minority.  I teach couples getting married that “What is more important than what you give, is what you forgive and what is more important than what you get is what you can forget.” What applies in the microcosm of marriage applies even more in the macrocosm of society.

I keep hearing in my head, the probably apocryphal story of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan who taught homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary for many years. It is said that he would give a sermon in class on Tuesday and then challenge the students to give a sermon on the same topic in Thursday’s class. He was known for being very critical of the students’ efforts on Thursday. One week a student took copious notes on Tuesday and then on Thursday repeated back to Rabbi Kaplan the exact words he spoke on Tuesday. Rabbi Kaplan said “That was a terrible sermon”. That student said, “But Rabbi Kaplan, those were your exact words on Tuesday!” Rabbi Kaplan replied, “Young man, I have GROWN since then!”

I am looking for leaders who can grow into the positions of leadership to which they aspire. I am looking for leaders who are not afraid to say to an opponent, “You are right.” (and not just because the leader is on the left.) My faith defines that the best leaders are the ones who speak up for those who have no voice. My faith despises Lashon HaRa (hurtful speech) and Rechilut (lies) that defraud and delude those who are listening. My faith would change Sinat Hinam – causeless hatred, hatred only because you are different than me, it would change it into Hesed, acts of kindness, even if the kindness is to someone who would have no way to repay the favor.

I teach the story of George Washington and the cherry tree to children, not because I believe the story to be true; (I have no way of knowing either way if it is true or not) but because it teaches that great leaders don’t lie. George Washington imposed term limits on himself because he did not believe that leaders should rule forever. American politics need more leaders who are humble and caring about those they represent. No one person should think that they have to be right at any cost.

We need politicians who are more moral in their personal and professional lives. Not public figures who insist that their moral opinions should be practiced by everyone. That would be a violation of the First Amendment, the amendment that separates church and state. I want to see leaders who do what is right because it is right for all Americans. Who compromise because that is what will move our country forward. Who are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the common good. We need leaders who are not afraid to say, “I have grown since then”.

What will it take to have leaders like these? It will take a concentrated effort from those in this country who hold these values to be the true test of leadership. Yes, my friends, we will always get the leaders we deserve. We will get self-serving leaders if we are only interested in what serves our self-interest. We will get leaders who don’t listen if we don’t listen to others about what is important to society. We will get politicians who lie if we reward them with election victories. But if we look for the real values for our country. If we elect leaders and legislators who would do what is best for our country, ones that speak out about fairness, understanding, cooperation and compromise, we will get leaders who will take our country not back to some past era of prosperity, but forward to a new era of peace, prosperity and hope.

Talkin’ About My Generation

Talkin’ About My Generation

(With thanks to my cousin Jody Wentico who convinced me to watch the Super Bowl this year)

I really didn’t have any “skin” in the game when it came to Super Bowl 50. I have friends in Denver, Colorado and in Charlotte, North Carolina so either way someone was going to be happy. Still, in the fourth quarter, I found myself rooting for the Broncos, or rather for Payton Manning.

As I watched the game, I realized that the Panther’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was really struggling. He was angry, frustrated and not playing up to his potential. As the television cameras focused on his face, I began to see something I have seen many times before, the look of a young, smart and talented person who was suffering from a lack of experience. Faced with a defense that just kept coming at him, his composure was cracking under the strain of what he knew would be the harsh judgment of him after the game if he lost; and clearly he was losing.

After the game, I found myself thinking about an article I read on EJewishPhilantropy, “Raw Talent vs. Experience: What Are You Really Looking For?” The author, Elliot Cowan, coming from the design world, speaks about how talent is worth more than experience. He makes the point that he would rather work with someone with a great deal of talent and give him more experience than work with someone experienced but without any real talent. Mr. Cowan writes, “But if we look through history it wasn’t the people with only experience that propelled us forward, and even if you would like to suggest an example of this in the comments below, the chances are that it was their talent that ultimately made the difference, not their experience. They all gained experience and knowledge as they got older and they would not have been the successes they were without it, but it was the talent that got them there in the first place.

Talent got Cam Newton into the Super Bowl but it was talent and experience that made Payton Manning the winner.

I am not a football player. I am a Rabbi. Part of what I do is act as a lawyer for Jewish Law. Part of what I do is advise lay leadership as they steer a course for a synagogue and part of what I do is try and help those in my community find their way when they are lost and feeling alone. In this last role, I have been blessed with an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives. I can give hope and encouragement in some people’s most desperate times.

When I was a young Rabbi, people came to me for advice and I found often that they were teaching me more than I was teaching them. My senior Rabbi at the time worked with me patiently so I could learn to see what he could see and hear in the voices what he could hear. I would see and hear exactly the same things as he did, but his experience gave him, and ultimately me, a greater depth of understanding.

I now find myself in a generation locked in a battle between talent and experience. Experienced Baby Boomers (full disclosure, I am of this generation) are not yet ready to retire and let a younger generation take over. Millennials with great talent and energy are struggling to find a place in leadership because the Boomers won’t let go. We live in a culture that values youth and talent. Ageism is rampant in the world of job searches and employment. Advertising reaches out to the younger generations, leaving the 55 and older generation to contemplate retirement accounts and Medicare Supplement Plans. Even among Rabbis searching for new positions, it seems as if everyone is looking for a 35 year old Rabbi with 40 years of experience. Search committees don’t speak this out loud but silently they opine; “Only a young rabbi will do since he or she will speak to the new generation to get them involved. The future of the synagogue is in how we attract younger Jews.”

But talent and creativity is not the sole domain of the young. Talent and creativity do not discriminate between the old and the young. There is a Talmudic story of four Rabbis who attempted to enter paradise. Usually this is interpreted to mean they delved into esoteric and mystical texts. One of the four died, another went insane, one became an apostate, only Rabbi Akiva entered and departed unharmed. What enabled Rabbi Akiva to avoid the dangers of ancient mysticism? Perhaps it was because he had started his studies twenty years later than his colleagues and was near 50 when he was ordained. All four Sages were talented, but only one had the experience to emerge unscathed.

At a recent board meeting at my synagogue, one of the youngest members of my board, a woman with young children, stood up and said, “I don’t want a young rabbi with young children advising me; I want one that has experience, who has raised his [or her] children and can teach me and show me how to be a better parent.” Why do we so often turn to our parents for advice and guidance? I think it is because they have years of experience in living that we just can’t find anywhere else.

Not everyone who is older is wiser. Not everyone who is young is talented. Some people never learn from their mistakes. Some people never realize their talents. Some people are wise beyond their years and others never really grow up at all. This is why discrimination by age, or any discrimination for that matter, is bad policy. No good will come if we refuse to find wisdom wherever it may be found.

The talent vs. experience debate, the young vs. old debate is a false choice. What we should be looking for is wisdom, that elusive blend of both talent and experience that can come at any age and at any stage of a person’s life. We like to think the world is changing rapidly, and in many ways it is changing faster than ever before. But in many ways the world has not changed at all. The workplace is still filled with stress and pressure. Children still do crazy things that endanger their life and limb. Women are still trying to figure out how to balance raising children and career. Young couples still are trying to provide for their families in the face of great debt and financial insecurity. We all still fear illness and accidents, and we all wonder what the future will bring. Wisdom is what we need to navigate all these struggles without letting ourselves slide into despair, depression or insecurity. But wisdom can’t be bought nor does it come in pill form. It only is acquired by time and patience. It comes from sitting and learning from someone older and wiser. Wisdom is not about working faster; it is about working smarter.

Different generations have different things to teach each other. The best course is to combine talent with experience, wisdom with understanding, and gumption with patience.

I wouldn’t want to be the young quarterback next year who has to face an experienced Cam Newton.

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked by a student, “Who is a good Jew?” The Rebbe replied, “Anyone who wants to be a good Jew.” The student look puzzled and asked, “Who wouldn’t want to be a good Jew?” The Rebbe replied, “That’s easy, someone who thinks he is a good Jew already.”

In the Haftara for Parshat Balak, the prophet Micha, like prophets often do, blasts the Jewish people for not obeying God’s laws. Instead of insisting that they are innocent of all charges (as modern people are wont to do) they agree that they have sinned and ask about what they can do to get back in God’s good graces. They ask, and you can hear the panic in their voices, “With what shall I approach the Lord?” they ask; “with what shall I pay homage to God on high?  Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?” (6:6-7).

Rabbi Shai Held notes in his weekly Torah lesson (6/30/2015) that with this declaration, the people show that they have entirely missed the point of what God wants. God does not want any of those things. God doesn’t need them at all. According to Micha, “You know what God wants and what God desires from you, Only to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”(6:8).

We go to doctors and ask them about which pill we can take to lose weight, to end our bad habits. Sometimes the doctor gives us something; sometimes there is nothing to give. We go to a gym or a sports equipment store and ask how much it will cost to get us in shape and to be healthy. We go to synagogue and ask the Rabbi,” what do we have to do to be good Jews? How long do we have to sit in shul? What words do we have to pray? How much will it cost us to be a good Jew?”

We already know the answer. We have always known the answer. If we want to feel better we need to watch what we eat and be mindful of the foods we consume. If we want to be fit, we need to make exercise a regular part of our lives; fancy equipment will only work if we use it regularly. If we want to feel spiritually closer to God, the answer is not found outside of ourselves. We already have what we need. We are looking for easy answers but there are no easy answers. Our ancestors already searched those roads and found only meaningless lives and useless deaths.

If we aspire to be more than we are now, we have to make the changes in lifestyle that will bring to our lives all that we desire. Good health does not come from a pill; fitness cannot be bought with money. Spirituality will not come if we are trying to “do” something. What we need is a change in attitude. We already know how to find everything we need to know about God so that God will be a personal part of our lives. All we need to do (all we need to try and do) is to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. The Kotzker Rebbe says all we need to do is want to be a good Jew. Rabbi Held says that we are just looking for God in all the wrong places.

And I am always here to assist good Jews in process.

The Times They are A’Changin

Bandlands 1I spent last week at a conference for rabbis on communication skills. On the one hand it seems like this should be pretty standard stuff for rabbis and since I have been a Rabbi for over 30 years, why would I need a conference on Communication?

This post is part of the reason. Once I was pretty regular about posting to my blog. Over the past few years, I got away from it. I have Facebook and Twitter accounts that I barely use. It just seemed to me to be time to upgrade my skills and take on a role in social media.

I will take a short moment of pride: One of the presenters was my daughter, Ashira. She did her usual excellent job of teaching and explaining the uses and abuses of Social Media. For rabbis who don’t fully understand Social Media, she held their hands and helped them find a role for themselves. It is really wonderful to see others appreciating my daughter for the special skills she has and she even inspired me to get back to posting. I am hoping that this will be the beginning of getting myself back online.

There was also a great deal of time given over to honing our speaking skills. A team from Broden Consulting came to work with all of us. We covered everything from speech writing skills to speaking to the media. For some of the rabbis, the workshops brought out their insecurities about public speaking but even old hands like me learned a lot about how to strengthen our skills.

There are many Jewish organizations that have a strong presence on Social Media. In many ways, Conservative rabbis have been slow to take on the challenges. I can’t speak for every rabbi but for many, the technology is changing so quickly that it is hard to keep up. I realized that I am going to have to deal with video and audio recordings and not just print media. For some rabbis, the privacy and public face of Social Media is frightening. What we say is out there forever, and mistakes never go away. Social Media only amplifies mistakes that we make so some feel it is “safer” just to stay away. I have always felt that while there are lots of things to fear in life, you can’t live your life afraid. I have always believed in being careful, learning from others and then taking on the challenges directly. That is why I have been writing online for many years. Now I have to find a way to switch over to other media. I am very happy to be living in times that are changing in so many ways.

I am now part of the largest Conservative congregation in Alabama. We live stream our Shabbat and daily services to the entire state. We are the only daily minyan in Alabama so we try to connect with other Jews in smaller towns all over the state. It is time now for me to reach out to them in new ways. Birmingham is also home to one of the best teaching hospitals in the country. It is time I reach out to the Graduate Students, Research Fellows, Professors and Researchers who are part of the University of Alabama, Birmingham. These are not “old media” Jews. They deserve to find Judaism through the media that is so much a part of their lives.

We have classes that we can record and post. We have presentations about life cycle events and holidays that we can use to teach those who are far from our city. There is so much we can do if we are ready to enter Web 2.0.

Look for more from me. I am excited to be expanding my world.

The Chocolate Drop

I am not exactly sure whsingle-chocolate-chip-cookie-w-path-487475en I decided to give up chocolate for the year. It was an idea that came to me while I was on a meditation retreat and I offered a chocolate chip cookie to another rabbi who informed me that he had taken a vow not to eat chocolate and now, when faced with my offer of a cookie, he was thinking of breaking his vow. The other rabbis who were standing there encouraged him to keep his vow and I don’t remember if he ate the cookie or not, only that I felt bad that I didn’t know about his vow when I offered the cookie.

Over the next six months the idea of going a year without chocolate began to sound good to me. I was not a serious chocoholic, just a rather ordinary one. I was not fussy about my chocolate. I used to say that I had a “blue collar” addiction. I ate any chocolate that came my way. I would tell people not to waste the really good chocolate on me since it really didn’t matter. I was just as happy with M&Ms or a Hershey Bar. I would tell people that I never met a chocolate chip cookie that did not know my name. I would walk into a room and complain that the chocolate on the dessert table was calling my name so loudly that it was hard to hear anyone else. I could even smell hidden chocolate.

Each year for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, I would write a very personal sermon about the past year to put my own Heshbone HaNefesh, the accounting of my own soul, out in public so that my congregation would have a very clear idea of what was required during the Holy Days, to assess their lives and determine how to live better in the year ahead. Last year, as I sat to write this very personal and emotional speech, the chocolate vow was still in my mind. So I added it to the sermon. I would promise God that I would not eat chocolate for a year. It was not a formal vow that would involve invoking the name of God and would leave little room for mistakes. I figured that it was very possible that I could make a mistake or just give up on the whole thing and I didn’t want to have to go through the formal process to get a vow annulled. I just promised to do my best to not each chocolate for the year.

At first my congregation thought I was kidding. When I announced it they laughed. My friend, the woman who arranges the food for my synagogue, even thought I was kidding. This was a big problem. If you hang around a synagogue long enough there is enough food there to kill any diet. I told her that I was very serious and would need her help. She looked at me like I was insane. “Is this some kind of “Lent” thing?”, she asked. I assured her that I was taking my promise seriously. Although she still thought I was crazy, to her credit, for the year she made sure there were some sweets without chocolate for me to eat. If something did have chocolate in it, she would warn me away.

Out in the community it was more difficult. The very next day one of the Kosher bakers in town wanted me to taste her latest creation. She had heard that I was a chocoholic so she brought me a very large chocolate cake. She wanted my opinion on what I thought. I pondered that cake for most of the day and with my wife, we decided that I would take a small taste so I could give her the information that she wanted without finishing the cake all by myself, which would have been an easy task for me just a few days earlier.

The first month was the hardest. I could still hear the chocolate calling my name. I admit I stared longingly at it and more than a few times contemplated putting a bit of the icing on my finger just to taste it. But a promise is a promise. I would laugh and think of my predicament in terms of the Dr. Seuss book, “Horton Hatches an Egg” “I said what I meant and I meant what I said, an elephant is faithful one hundred percent”

I quickly learned that when I was invited to dinner an someone’s home, I would mention that not only do I keep Kosher but I am not eating chocolate this year. My wife, was always quick to remind people that SHE had not made any promises and was eating chocolate. I admit now, but I never said it to her, that I was disappointed she chose not to join me in my promise. I would have appreciated the companionship and not having chocolate around the house would have made things easier. All the way to the end of the year there was chocolate ice cream, chocolate covered almonds and cocoa roasted almonds in the house most days. Sometimes it was the only snack available and I would go to bed with a snack craving that was unanswered. Yes, I know I could have gone out and bought myself a non-chocolate snack, but I figured that nothing was better than going out of my way for sweets.

Candy completely stepped out of my life. I just had no taste for candy that was not chocolate. There were cakes and cookies that did not have chocolate in them and I did continue to eat them. In fact, I ate way too much of them. It was not the same as chocolate chip cookies, those I used to eat a whole bag of them all by myself in just a day or two. But I quickly came to understand a very sad truth. As much as I missed chocolate, I was making it up with other cakes and cookies. The chocolate was really just covering up a different addiction. I clearly was heavily addicted to sugar. During the year I saw a couple of articles about the addictive nature of sugar, a trait that goes back to our prehistoric ancestors who loved sugar when they could find it. Sometimes they discovered a honeycomb or some sweet fruit. But the sugar we eat today is now way out of balance in our diets. It certainly was in mine and my giving up chocolate was not doing anything to curb my desire for sugar.

There were some annoying moments. It was a cold winter and I had to endure it without hot chocolate. I don’t drink coffee (I never liked the taste) and was not a big tea person. Most of the time I decided to stay with water. My wife and I were, off and on, trying to lose weight and I discovered most of the diet bars were made from chocolate. The ones that were not did not really seem that appealing but I needed to kill the craving for sweets so I ate them anyway and dreamed about the day when I could diet and eat chocolate. I know it sounds weird but you go to the supermarket and see how many diet aids have chocolate in them.

The year had two events that were life changing for me. In January, the two houses next to mine burned to the ground and only through a miracle and the hard work of the Birmingham Fire Department, my home was saved with minimal damage. The Fire Captain and the Insurance Assessor were beyond amazed that there was so little damage to my house. Being woken up in the middle of the night by police and standing on the sidewalk watching the two houses burn was traumatic enough for me. I didn’t think of chocolate at all for two full months.

Next my wife went in for knee replacement surgery. My mother-in-law came to stay at the house and many members of the congregation provided us with meals during the days after the surgery and during the time my wife, Michelle, was in Rehab. Everyone knew not to make me chocolate so again for a few months, I didn’t have the time to think about it.

I have to admit that there were just two mistakes I made during the year. I ordered a cheesecake for dessert on day in a restaurant and found that there was chocolate at the bottom of the little cake dish it came in. In the other instance, I thought I was eating a raisin cookie and it had chocolate chips. It was only a bite sized cookie but I took to asking my wife about any sweets that may have been questionable. For the most part, however, I realized that if I had to ask what was in it, I probably could not eat it. It was just wishful thinking.

My children were very supportive. I think they considered it another diet I was on and was trying to lose weight. In some way I was hoping that I could lose weight too. Except for the cakes, I was eating better, more whole grains, more salad, less junk food. I did not lose weight however, and my weight stayed the same all year.

As the summer came, people began to start asking me when I was going to end my chocolate free year. I really didn’t have an idea how it would end so I told everyone that I would pick up chocolate again after the fast of Yom Kippur. People began to plan chocolate parties for me when I would be eating it again but in the end, the lady who arranges the food for the synagogue just planned to have chocolate desserts for the break the fast when Yom Kippur was over.

As I began to write my annual sermon for the New Year I decided not to make another promise. I still need to do something to end the grip that sugar has in my life. I just was not up to making any new promises. God knows that there are things I need to do in my life to make me more patient and to listen better, but those stay between me and God. The year would expire without any new promises.

When the fast was over, as usual, I was not in a hurry to eat. Officiating at a service that takes all day; going through the different parts of the service with its complicated liturgy and making a series of important sermons always leaves me, at the end of the day, in need of a bit of quiet before I am ready to eat. Our synagogue has a break the fast dinner for everyone who wishes to stay and before I would sit down to eat, I wanted to greet the people who stayed and wish them a happy and healthy New Year. I did not take any dessert at first, just a plate of food and then I went to get some water to drink. We don’t take food or water for the fast so I was first of all in need of both. The woman who takes care of the food for the synagogue brought me a plate of dessert with a selection of chocolate desserts on it. I am really grateful she looks after me with such dedication.

The strange thing was, that eating chocolate again turned out to be anti-climactic. So far, at least, I don’t have the cravings I once had. The desserts were good but the old enthusiasm was gone. It was a cold night and the next day, my wife made for me a hot chocolate and it did taste good, but I had no need to go back for seconds. My diet is a bit healthier now, and I want to keep it that way. I know that a number of people in the congregation have been waiting for me to go back to chocolate because they think I will love their brownies, cookies and cakes. I am sure that they are wonderful. They are wonderful people and I can easily assume they put the love in their baking as they put their love into their faith. I just don’t think I will be eating a whole pan of brownies anymore.

I am happy that my love of chocolate is not gone, but I am also happy that I don’t seem to have that craving anymore. I was never really proud of my multiple trips to the dessert table, my second, third, fourth and fifth servings of chocolate chip cookies and my immediate gravitation to anything chocolate. I don’t miss that at all. I seem to be a bit fussier about the chocolate I eat. All this is not bad. I am a bit in awe of the fact that I did it, I refrained from chocolate for the year and that it seems to have changed my life. I am also a bit annoyed that it took a public promise to achieve this result. Judaism says that at times we need our community and clearly I needed my community to accomplish this.

My doctor tells me that dieting is the hardest thing a person can do. After all, you just can’t stop eating. My next big issue will be to bring my weight down. Now I can’t blame chocolate for that. And I can’t blame other people. It will just have to be a commitment to another promise. And this time, my wife says she’ll join me. Just not right now. It is holiday time and the idea of not eating does not appeal to me right now. Maybe in another six months….