Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the midst of winter, I discovered that there was in me an invincible summer

A few months ago, I wrote that I had started reading the blog of Rabbi Billy Dreskin. Almost a year ago, Rabbi Dreskin and his wife, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, lost their son, Jonah, in an accident. Rabbi Dreskin started his blog as a way to record some of his thoughts and feelings, as he tried to live in the wake of this terrible tragedy.

I knew of Rabbi Dreskin through his reputation, as well as some of his writing. He is a talented, sensitive, insightful writer. To have that talent applied to such a heart-wrenching topic has been extraordinary; his emotional honesty, his palpable grief, his faith in life - they all come together in a blog which makes me constantly want to read more, at the same time that it makes me dread the next entry, knowing how difficult it will be to read. I've rarely been so moved as I have been by these writings.

On Saturday night, the family, along with their synagogue, held the 1st Annual Jonah Maccabee Dreskin Memorial Concert. It was a way to honor the memory of their beloved son, and also to raise money for the Jonah Maccabee Fund, created in his memory. The concert began with Havdalah (the ceremony which ends Shabbat), and some words by the Dreskins:

“In the midst of winter, I discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.” These words, penned by French author and philosopher Albert Camus, touch upon two of the predominant roads our family has traveled since the death of our son and our brother, Jonah Maccabee.

On the one hand, our journeys have been plunged into a bitter, cold and dark winter as we’ve struggled to learn how to live without our sweet Jonah by our sides. His presence had been such a powerful and joyful one, and we continue to stagger beneath the simply unfathomable prospect of moving on without him.

At the same time, we have never been alone in our anguish. Each one of you has been with us, fearlessly taking our hands and helping us to negotiate the rocky path that leads toward well-being. Like Camus, we have found there is indeed, in the midst of our winter, a precious and invincible summer. We are blessed to have you with us. Tonight. Eleven months ago. And in the times ahead.

Our Havdalah this evening not only marks the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. It is also, we believe, a reminder of all the times we journey between two worlds. None of us escape all sorrow; the light and the dark envelop us all. Yet throughout, there is the choice, always the choice, of how to respond. Through wine and candle and spice, Jewish tradition chooses life.

When the day of rest is ended, choose sweetness, warmth and openness to all of life’s offerings. Do not settle for kodesh, for holiness, on holy days alone. But transform the ordinary, the khol, into holiness as well. Just as the ordinary memories of our beautiful son and brother have now become sacred memories, holy memories, let every page of our lives become sacred text. Let us not squander a single moment. Let us make a Havdalah, a separation, that pushes all of life into the realm of abundant blessing.

Reading an eloquent parent tracing the path of mourning doesn't make for easy reading. But, if you feel up to it, spend some time with Rabbi Dreskin's blog. And, as always, be so thankful for the blessings that you have. Every single day.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Programming Note: Joel Hoffman, Scholar in residence

Mark your calendars now, because we've got a fantastic Scholar-In-Residence coming to join us March 26-28!

Dr. Joel Hoffman is a scholar of Hebrew, translation, the Passover Haggadah, and much, much more. He's one of those teachers who manages to take topics which sound boring, but make them utterly fascinating. He's got a real talent for taking assumptions that we all make about the world around us, and revealing them to be flawed. Whenever I've heard him speak (and, since he was a Professor at my Rabbinical School while I was there, I've heard him speak often) it was a real joy - informative, challenging and entertaining.

Dr. Hoffman is coming down here in part to promote his new book, And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning. In it, he examines how mis-translations of the Bible have obscured our understanding and appreciation of this sacred text. I'll admit that I'm biased by both the topic and the author, but I can't wait to read it, or to hear him talking about it.

Dr. Hoffman will be delivering the sermon on Friday night, leading us in Torah study Saturday morning, and giving his book talk on Saturday night. He'll also be joining us for our Pesach program in the Religious School on Sunday. There are lots more details on their way, so keep your eyes on the Bulletin and our weekly e-mail!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is hypocrisy ever a value?

In the New York Times blogs, Robert Wright wrote an essay about the ever-decreasing sense of privacy which we have in our digital age, especially if we're famous. Not much new here, but towards the end, he discusses Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's concept of "Defining Deviancy Down." Basically, as people do bad things in public more often, we get numb to them, and they start to seem less bad. Wright mocks this as hypocrisy:
In this view, one ingredient of an effective moral system is hypocrisy. Everyone purports to support a rule that many of these people in fact violate, but so long as the violations are rarely publicized, the number of hypocrites doesn’t grow, and the rule — in this case the norm of monogamous fidelity — stays more or less intact; at least, it stays strong enough to keep the whole system of marriage from collapsing.

What I found interesting is that Judaism supports exactly the point of view that Wright dismisses. Basically, if I commit some sin in private, then I've sinned. But, if I commit that same sin in public (b'farhessia) then I've done two things: I've sinned, and I've also inherently announced that I'm not the least bit ashamed of that sin. That it isn't, in effect, a sin at all. I've set an example for others to follow, and made it, at least in theory, more likely that they'll sin, too.

[Let it be known that there is a counter discussion about how sinning in private, but not in public, means that we fear the opinions of our neighbors more than we fear God. That's not a good thing, in case you're wondering. So, the sages aren't saying that hypocrisy is good, just that it's more complicated than simply that.]

Let me give you an example: one year, I got very weak towards the end of Yom Kippur. I thought I was going to pass out. The next year, worried that it was going to happen again, I had some power-bars stashed away in my office, in case I needed them (luckily, I didn't). But, I never, for one second, thought about eating them in public. To do so would have been an insult to everyone else who was there, trying to make it through a fast day. As a Rabbi, it would also have been a powerful statement that fasting isn't really that big of a deal. No, I don't think that anyone would have seen me eating and said, "well, that's it. I'm going out for a burger." But, it would have been a small mark against observing a tradition, to some, at least.

Maybe the adultery issue is even more realistic. Is it so unbelievable to think that, the more people who commit adultery, the more likely some people are to do it? Again, not in a conscious, "well, that sure looks like fun" way, but in the more subtle way of adjusting our assumptions and expectations. And, if that does happen, then isn't there some merit in keeping our infidelities (and other sins) quiet? Let me be clear again - I'm not saying that adultery, or any sin, is ok, so long as you do it in private! I'm just wondering if, if you are going to sin, is there at least some merit in doing it quietly? Is that really hypocritical? If it is hypocritical, is that the worst thing?

Real questions - not sure I know exactly what I think, but I'd love to hear what you do...

The Uncertainty of Steroids

One of the major themes of my Rabbinate, and almost certainly the most common theme of this blog, is Uncertainty. I believe that the intellectual modesty of uncertainty is actually at the core of genuine religious faith - I've started to refer to myself, half-jokingly, as a radical anti-fundamentalist, because fundamentalism is really the opposite of uncertainty, and therefore, I believe, always wrong.

One of my biggest hobbies (read: time-wasters) is reading about baseball. My favorite baseball writer is Joe Posnanski (who can blog more in an afternoon than I can in a year).

Today, my worlds converge. Joe has written* about steroids in baseball, but not from the "oh my God, the sky is falling and all modern players are frauds and Mark McGuire is evil and dangerous to the children and things were better back in the days of pure baseball (when only whites were allowed to play and everyone did amphetamines and corked their bats and threw spitballs but let's not talk about that)" perspective.

* actually, he's written about this before, but this was just a wonderful example.

Rather, he writes about baseball and steroids in a thoughtful, nuanced way, which will make anyone who cares about these things acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, things aren't so cut-and-dried. Maybe we don't know everything we think we know, and maybe we should all just calm down.

I guess when it comes down to it, this is the thing that bothers me most about the steroid screaming: Why is it that people have to bring in all of these crazy exaggerations to the party? Why can’t we just talk about this stuff without getting livid? Why can’t we just do what Joe Paterno suggests we do about all of our problems, all of the mysteries, all of the disagreements: Just ask questions.
If you like thinking about intellectual modesty (and, who doesn't?), or if you care at all about the whole "Steroids in Baseball" thing, it's worth reading the whole article. Enjoy!

God Hates Shrimp

So, I still haven't been able to find the time to do any proper blogging, but this will do for now. As the battle over same-sex marriage once again rises to the surface, I ask you to all join me in helping to protect our society from the real sinners.

God protect us from the shameless consumers of abominations.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Happiness is waiting - in Central America

It's been a while since I posted anything - a little bit of vacation and a lot of thrown-out back have gotten in the way for a few weeks. I'm sure that everyone has gotten by relatively well during my absence!

I've got a lot of ideas that I'm hoping to blog about soon, but for now, I'll just point you to an Op Ed in yesterday's New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. It seems that, by many measures, Costa Rica is the happiest place on earth. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why that is, but Kristof points out that we can guess that part of it might be because they disbanded their army and used that money to heavily fund education, instead.

Obviously, America isn't in a position to shut down our military, but remember that old bumper sticker which asked, "what if school had all the money they needed, and the army had to hold bake sales to buy weapons?" Well, it's worth thinking about how much good could be gained if we took a tiny percentage of the money we're spending on military stuff, and instead used it to support our school. As Kristof says:

I'm not antimilitary. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.

Well. Yeah.

Shabbat Shalom!