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”.

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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….

Fire – I’ll Take You to Burn

`It is 3:30 AM and I am standing on the sidewalk in front of my home.  It is just 18 degrees outside but I am very warm. The house next door is fully engulfed in flames.  That house in only about nine feet from my house.

I am vaguely aware of my neighbors gathering near me on the sidewalk. They are all there. “R” asks me if I want to use his cell phone to call Michelle who is stuck in Atlanta because of the unexpected snow. I take him up on the offer. She does not answer.  Some of the others ask if I want to come inside from the cold. I wave them off. My feet are getting cold but I barely move from my spot on the sidewalk. I don’t really believe it but stand there as if my staring at the fire will keep it on the other side of the property line.

I am not sure how long I have been standing here. I awoke to a police officer banging on my door. The room as I awaken is a weird orange color. I look out one window and see nothing, but a glance out the other window shows the house there fully ablaze. I run to the door where the officer yells, “There is a fire get your stuff and get out.” I run back to my room and begin to get dressed. I am fully aware that people die of smoke inhalation when they stop to get dressed before leaving a burning room but I dare not go out into the hard cold night in pajamas. I pull on my jeans and a warm shirt, tie my sneakers and run from the room. The officer is back and he is screaming, “Get out now, now, NOW!” I grab my warm coat from the chair where I left it when I last came in from the snow and I am out the door. Is MY house on fire?

I take my spot across the street. There are flames from every window of the building next door. It is burning really hot. I look at my small house next to the flames as they light up the night sky. There is no way my house will not burn. I don’t have my wallet, keys, cellphone, nothing. There are two firefighters on my front lawn with a single hose. They are doing what they can to keep the flames away from my house. There is no way my house will not burn.

The house that is downhill from the burning building is now ablaze. I am told that the residents have gotten out. They called in the fire when it woke them up. I dimly remember that they were on the porch of the house across the street from their home watching the flames eat through their roof. Their shingles are older than my shingles. Will mine hold the fire back or will my roof catch next? I am also aware that the woman who was the last resident living in the building next door is not on the sidewalk. I pray that she is safe even though I know that if she is not…..

The hose that is saving my house goes dead. No more water. The firefighters back away from the blaze. I am sure my house is doomed. I think of all the things that are inside. They are only things but they are “my” things. They are the evidence that I have lived, loved, had children and accomplished some things. It will soon all be gone. The flames edge closer but suddenly the water cannon on the fire engine comes alive and there is water sprayed on my home.  It is safe for a few minutes more.

Another fire engine arrives, with a “cherry picker bucket” on the back. It moves into place behind the first engine. The street is filled with water that has frozen into a sheet of ice. The firefighters have a hard time walking in the street.

There is a large pine tree that reaches out over the burning building and over my roof.  If the tree catches my roof will probably burn. The flames are right under it now and it is starting to smoke. My home, I am sure, will be destroyed. Just as the tree starts to catch fire a second water cannon, mounted on the bucket has been raised into place and it is turned on the tree.  The tree does not catch fire; my home is saved for a second time.

I am so glad that Michelle is not here to see this. I picture her in my mind sitting on the sidewalk and crying. I feel like sitting and crying myself.  My neighbor from down the street, an Episcopal priest offers me a cup of hot tea.  I begin to realize how cold I am.  He asks if I want to warm up inside his home. I still will not move from my place. I call Michelle again and this time she answers. I fill her in on what is going on. I know she feels helpless being so far away but I tell her I am glad she is not here. It is very frightening and I am really afraid.

The two water cannons beat back the flames. We now see a bright ball of fire rising in the middle of the building. The gas line has broken and natural gas is now feeding the blaze.  From above the canon tries to put out the blaze. Finally they turn from saving my house to putting out the fallen parts of the building next door. I can see from my vantage point, however that the fire is spreading from the back of the building toward my house again. The firefighters can’t see it from my front yard. I want to yell to them, to run across the street to point it out to them but they are following the orders of the captain who is standing where he can’t see what is happening in the back. For a third time I believe that my house will be lost.

Water appears from nowhere against the flames. A third fire engine has taken its place in the alley behind my home and we have a three alarm fire. The fire is beaten back and for a third time my house is saved.

My feet are now painfully cold. The priest tells me he is going home. I take him up on his offer of a warm place to sit. His home is warm and pleasant. His son has taken some video from his phone and sent it to one of the early morning local news programs. They just showed it on air. There are news crews arriving to cover the fire. They seem to be set up in the back because the fire department has closed most of the roads. The ice on my street downhill from me is very slippery. They can’t get another truck up the street.

Some men in different uniforms start to dig a hole in the yard in front of the burning building. They are from the gas company. The shutoff valve for the building is in the basement and nobody can go there to shut the gas off. The men shut the gas off where it branches off the main line.  Finally the fire begins to go out. My home is safe. I return to the street. The cannons are shut off and the hoses are used to put out hot spots.  The sky is getting lighter. The news crews reset themselves on my street. They ask me if I would speak on camera. I do, knowing that the early risers in my congregation will see me on the news. At least they will know I am safe. (Actually, a congregant will only see a fraction of the interview and post of Facebook that I “lost everything” in the fire.  In a short time my friend, the synagogue Executive Director will call, get the whole story and then put the rumors down)

As the dawn breaks and we can see better, I am finally allowed to go into my house. I grab my wallet, keys and phone and leave again. I can now sit in my car and be warm. I turn it around so I can face the fire and wait. An hour later the fire is out. The building next door is all but gone, just two stone chimneys standing in the rubble. The house downhill has lost its roof and the back half of the house. I am sure it is total loss.  A fireman grabs a ladder and climbs up to the window in the upstairs unit where my neighbor, the only tenant in the building lived. She has died in the fire.  The police come to investigate; screens are put up to protect the site from sight seers. I start to take pictures of the damage to my house but the police think I am looking for a picture to send to the tabloids and demand I stop. I tell them I am only taking pictures of my home but I don’t want to make them angry. I put the camera away.

Six of my windows are broken. The blinds melted in the heat. Most of the water damage is minor, a few puddles on my floor to wipe up with a towel. The firefighters are really amazed that there is no more damage. I am so grateful that I shake everyone’s hand for the extraordinary job they did to save my home. They have sent for someone to come and board up my windows so the cold will not enter my house. I reenter the house say a prayer of thanks and find the number to call my insurance agent.

The firefighters of the Highland Fire Station, together with God saved my house.  My phone starts to ring with friends worried about my safety. I finally daven Shacharit at home, pausing to add a few psalms of Hallel that seem to reflect the gratitude in my heart. My insurance agent sends someone from a restoration company to help dry me out. He is amazed that there is so little for him to do. There is no smoke damage, no smell, almost no water damage. He just can’t believe it. I don’t believe it myself.

I call my children and the “moms” to tell them I am OK.

Michelle arrives back home just as the last of the fire engines pulls away.

A large backhoe arrives to knock down the stone chimneys so they will not blow over in a storm (and wreck my house if they did.)

On Friday night, we have a dinner at the synagogue. Michelle lights electric candles for Shabbat. She feels funny lighting candles and not being home to make sure everything is alright.

I agree.

Hodu LH’ Ki Tov – Ki L’olam Chasdo – Praise to God for God is good – God’s kindness is eternal.

Like a Prayer

In the Movie “Gravity” (no spoiler alert. Just one thought while watching the movie) Sandra Bullock asks someone to pray for her. She claims she does not know how to pray, that no one ever taught her.  There are many good lines in the movie but, when you are a Rabbi that is the one line of dialogue that jumps out at you.

We get that kind of a question/statement all the time. How can I pray if I don’t know how? How can I pray when I am not feeling prayerful? How can I pray if nobody ever showed me how to pray? Can I pray when I am not in synagogue? Can I pray if I have not been in synagogue for many years?

I have to thank my colleague, the famous Rabbi Harold Kushner for first showing me how to properly answer questions like these.  Until his lecture, I honestly didn’t know how to answer the questions. I know how to pray. I have studied prayer in school for almost ten years. I have been praying since I was a small child. I was taught to pray. I was trained by my teachers to pray and I have a very active prayer life. I had almost no conception about what it would be like to live a life without prayer.

Rabbi Kushner understood the question behind the question. He taught that asking how to pray is like asking how do I eat? Or how do I learn? Or how do I breathe? Everyone prays. It is a natural part of living.

Like everything else in life we assume that there are others who must be better at prayer than we are. Others who are more practiced, who are more religious, who are more spiritual, who can do prayer better than we can. But nobody can pray the prayers that are in our own hearts and only we have the needs that drive us to pray.

There is a story of a man who is preparing to serve as Shaliach Tzibor, as the prayer leader for Yom Kippur. This is the day when the prayers are so intricate and complicated that one must prepare carefully in order not to confuse yourself or the congregation. The man prepared meticulously, learning not only the words of the liturgy but the mystical meanings behind each prayer. Just before the service of Yom Kippur started, the Rabbi found the man in tears behind the synagogue.

“What is wrong?” asked the Rabbi. “Are you sick?, Are you hurt?” “No” said the man, “I prepared so hard for this service and I can’t remember a thing about the prayers or the mystical meanings behind them. I even wrote them down on a piece of paper so I would not forget and I lost the paper!”

The rabbi replied, “Where there is a fire in a house, the firefighters need to have the keys to the house, in order to open all the doors so they can rescue those inside and put out the flames. But there is one key that opens all doors, it is the ax. With an ax, they can open every door without waiting for the key. So it is with prayer. The mystical meanings are the keys that unlock the secrets of each prayer. But tears are the ax that can open every door. Your tears will assure this community of forgiveness and of the acceptance of our prayers.”

When our prayers are spoken with sincerity, humility and need, we can expect the pain in our heart to break through any door that would block our prayers from Heaven and it bring it right to the place where God can be found. It will bring is hope, courage and faith to help us find our way out of the darkness into the light.

Don’t say that you need someone else to pray for you. It is your own needs that make you an instant Baal Tephilla – a Master of Prayer.