Archive for the ‘hope’ category

Silver Linings and Rays of Hope: A COVID Reflection of Hope

May 23, 2020

This Shabbat, when we read Torah, we began our journey through its fourth book; the Book of NUMBERS.  As you may or may not know, the meaning of the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah do not necessarily match their English names.  The Book of NUMBERS is a perfect example.  In English, it is called “NUMBERS” because in its beginning, it does a deep dive into the taking of a census of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.  Its Hebrew name – BEMIDBAR – delivers quite a different message.  BEMIDBAR means “In the Wilderness.”

As I contemplated our entering the text of BEMIDBAR, I could not help but grasp the parallel with our own lives at this juncture of history.  For, like the newly liberated Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.  Just like our ancestors who were faced with the challenges of needing to traverse their wilderness, with all its difficulties and dangers, we, too, find ourselves faced with the challenges of needing to traverse a wilderness all our own.

Our wilderness is not like theirs.  It is not a wilderness which stretches across miles.  Its difficulties are not the burning desert sun, rough roads to travel, thirst and hunger.  Its dangers are not the fear of attacks from wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, and marauding tribes.  The difficulties and dangers of our wilderness come from this highly contagious and lethal disease which afflicts us today.  They are the difficulties embedded in our need to change our lives so dramatically in order to protect our lives; masks, physical distancing, sheltering at home, shortages at the grocery store, massive unemployment and the poverty and deprivations it entails, the upending of our world economy, the severely diminished education of our children, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones and friends, and, of course, the uncertainty of what the future holds for us – the new normal – and when that future will arrive.  As for the dangers, they are self-explanatory, or at least they should be, but for some inexplicable reason there are too many in our society who refuse to acknowledge them.  They are the dangers of our enormous vulnerability to a horrible disease which has the power to inflict unbelievable and prolonged suffering, and possible death, not to mention that unless we behave carefully and responsibly, we could bear the guilt of inflicting all of this upon others, including the people we love.  This is our wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness can be dark and dangerous, whether it be the wilderness of our ancestors or our own.  But even in its midst, there are silver linings and rays of hope which can be found.  Next Thursday evening, we as Jews will commence the celebration of one major silver lining, one major ray of hope, which our ancestors encountered in their wilderness. That silver lining, that ray of hope, changed the world and the history of humanity for all time, and changed it for the better.  The celebration I speak of, of course, is Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Ten Commandments.  It was in the wilderness, with all its hardships, pain, and suffering, that our ancestors found themselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there, receiving directly from God, the ten most important rules which would, from that time forth, serve as the guiding principles for the advancement of humanity.

Like our ancestors, as we traverse our wilderness of COVID, there are silver linings and rays of hope to be found.  They do not diminish the hardships we must endure, just as the Ten Commandments did not diminish the hardships endured by our ancestors, but they can redeem our wilderness sojourn from being bereft of any meaning whatsoever, just as, in the same way, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments redeemed the wilderness sojourn of our ancestors.

Some may wonder:  What are these silver linings and these rays of hope which manifest themselves now, in our darkest hours?  They are rays of hope which have the potential to light the path to a better future in what eventually will be a post-COVID world.  But what are they?

One of them is that it has been determined that as a result of the pandemic and the restrictive changes in behavior that it has required of us, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has been reduced by 17%, dropping to the levels of 2006.  This is but one of several positive impacts our lockdown has had on the environment, as we have been allowing nature to heal itself.  It shows us that if we can choose to change our behaviors, we can begin to ecologically repair our planet.  While it should go without saying that we cannot maintain lockdown protocols forever in order to save our planet, still we can change our attitude of “business as usual” and seriously engage in environmentally responsible behaviors, such as truly committing to the pursuit of alternative clean energy sources.  We have it within our ability to turn back the doomsday clock.

Another ray of hope found in our wilderness is that after 72-years of an ongoing Middle East conflict, it has taken this pandemic, with all its pain and suffering, to start to open a door for, at least a new beginning of Arab-Israeli cooperation.  Three Arab states – states that for all these years have been sworn enemies of Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have turned to Israel for assistance in their struggles against the COVID-19 virus.  This is in no way a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is a glimmer of a recognition of how the countries of the Middle East need each other in order to survive and prosper.  It is but one step toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.  As we march into the future, this moment should not be lost or forgotten by its players, Hopefully it will serve as a building block toward a kinder, gentler Middle East.

Still another ray of hope is born out of the very anguish of our wilderness.  This public health crisis has only accentuated some of the social problems that long existed before the world ever heard of the Coronavirus.  Specifically, the fundamental injustices inherent in the vast socio-economic divide which exists in our nation and the dire consequences of our failure to humanely address that divide.  As we watch how this virus has devasted members of our economically disadvantaged community, way out of proportion to their numbers in our society, we can no longer ignore or turn a blind eye to the evils of runaway, abusive capitalism, the maintenance by way of neglect of a permanent underclass, and the innate evil of systemic racism.  These are intolerable conditions in a society which claims to be great, enlightened, and just. – “With Liberty and Justice for ALL.  If, after the nightmare of witnessing what this pandemic has done to the disadvantaged of our society, we do not commit ourselves to closing the socio-economic divide, then the guilt rests on our shoulders.  If nothing else, this crisis has shown us the necessity of our building a more just society, but we need to choose to act on it.

Still another ray of hope coming out of our current dilemma is that we can no longer afford to think in nationalistic terms.  Yes, we can be patriotically proud of our nation, but we cannot continue to view our nation as being superior or separate from the community of nations.  Last week, I watched Rachel Maddow interview Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.  She asked an interesting and insightful question – “If you could turn back the clock to a time when you could have done something different in your response to the virus, when would that be and what would you have done differently?” His response was even more insightful. He said that while he was tempted to say March or February, actually he would have turned that clock back even earlier, to when we first were hearing about the outbreak in China.  With the wisdom of hindsight, he continued, saying that as soon as he heard of the Corona Virus outbreak in China, he would have started to prepare for its coming to New York. For, as he pointed out, in today’s world, when a virus strikes anywhere in the world, it can strike here tomorrow. All that is necessary is for one infected person to board a plane.  This pandemic should have taught us that we can no longer afford the foolishness of naively ignoring that we live in a global society.  Like it or not, we are intimately and inextricably bound to each other. Indeed, this is not new wisdom. As far back as 1624, the poet John Donne spoke of this reality when he penned his famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” If, as a result of this pandemic, we can embrace this sense of international interdependence – that as a human race, we are at our best when our nations work together to build a better world – then the future we will build will be brighter and better than we ever dreamt.

Even in these dark hours, let us come to recognize and work to realize the lessons to be found in the silver linings and the rays of hope that, too, are products of this tragedy.  They cannot compensate for the suffering and the loss of life we have and we will endure, but they can show us the way to build a better world for tomorrow.  They redeem these days from the cruel fate of being totally meaningless blips of horror on the timeline of history.

Miracles: A Reflection

November 9, 2019

Lately, I have been giving a lot more thought to the subject of miracles. Considering what I so recently went through, I don’t think many of you will find that surprising. Having a stroke, and surviving it, and having all my faculties returned to me in a matter of hours rather than months or years, can certainly focus one’s thoughts toward the miraculous.
How much the more so with my being a rabbi – a member of the clergy who has spent many years serving congregations – and as such, has accompanied many a congregant along the long and arduous road of return that typically follows falling victim to a stroke. Indeed, providing comfort and solace to stroke victims has been one of the more difficult tasks in my rabbinate, and I expect that is just as true for other clergy, regardless of their faith identities. After all, when people have lost in an instant so many physical abilities that we tend to take for granted, and then are faced with the grueling task of recapturing those abilities, in the smallest of incremental achievements over the longest periods of time, it doesn’t take long for them to view a faith leader’s words of encouragement, and hope as sounding shallow as their own efforts to recover seem increasingly futile. And who can blame them? As clergy, we not only observe the growing frustration and the spiritual and emotional agony of congregants who have fallen victim to strokes, but we, in our own sense of powerlessness – in our inability to do much more than offer words of encouragement which seem empty in the face of their painfully slow and miniscule progress – feel their pain and frustration as well.
Having accompanied so many others along that excruciating journey, how could I not but recognize the miraculous when I found myself one morning in the grips of a stroke, yet a day and a half later I was able to leave the hospital with all, or most, of my abilities restored? I tell you, that morning, when the stroke hit, and I was holding myself up over the bathroom sink by my arms, for my legs had failed me, and I was waiting for my wife to come home and the ambulance to arrive, I truly felt that this was the end; that I would not see the light at the end of that tunnel. At that moment, I was the embodiment of the prayer from the morning service which states: “Praise to You, Adonai our God, who formed the human body with skill, creating the bodies many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before you.” Yet here, this Shabbat, I stand before you. I have not the slightest doubt but that it was a miracle.
Now one can easily argue that it wasn’t a miracle. That it was science; medical science. The drug that was responsible for my recovery – the tPA Drip – was first introduced in 1996. If it is administered within 3 hours after the onset of a stroke, it can quickly work to dissolve the blood clot which caused the stroke, eliminating it before there is permanent damage to the brain. But when you think about, if you are not already a patient in a hospital, 3 hours is not a lot of time to work with. A lot has to happen before the drug is administered. In my own case, the diagnosis was that the stroke hit the back of my brain. But if they were to administer the drug in time, they did not have the time to do the testing necessary to determine whether or not there was any bleeding in my brain. For if there was bleeding, the drug would only make the situation worse, perhaps kill me. My wife and I decided that in spite of the risks, they should administer the drug and leave the rest to God. Considering how dire the result could have been, that I not only survived but recovered was but another miracle. Going in, no doctor could guarantee that outcome. It wasn’t just science. It was a miracle.
But if any doubt of the miraculous still lingered. That doubt was about to be washed away. After my release from the hospital, though most of my faculties had been restored, there were some lingering effects. The top of my head always felt numb. I continually had 3 separate headaches, simultaneously; one in the back of my head, around where the clot had been, another along the carotid artery in my neck, where an ultrasound had been conducted to determine any blockage, and one in the front of head, in the area of my forehead. All hurting at the same time and never going away. It was strange, since from childhood I used to have headaches regularly, but sometime in the late 80’s they just stopped and never returned. Now I had 3 of them all at one time. It was Yom Kippur afternoon – 19 days since the onset of the stroke. I was worshipping at the synagogue in Davenport. It was time for silent prayer, and I silently prayed in earnest, thanking God for my salvation, and asking God for strength. For if the way I had been feeling, with the numbness and the headaches, was to be my new normal, considering what the outcome could have been, I was more than ready to accept it. I only wanted God to give me the strength to live with it. It was while I was deep into that prayer that my prayer was suddenly interrupted by what I can only describe as a strong pop that I felt in my head. It was as if I could actually hear it as well as feel it. No sooner did it occur than the numbness and the headaches started to quickly fade. By the end of the service, they were completely gone. Now there could be other explanations for what I experienced. In fact, I shared the experience with my doctor, who had nothing to say in explanation of it. Still there could be other explanations, but I am convinced that the pop I experienced, and the relief I felt, were in answer to my prayer. Miracle number 3.
One can ask: Were any of these experiences really miracles or are there rational explanations for each and every one of them? It’s a fair question. But there is a fundamental problem with the question itself. It operates under the premise that reason and miracles must exist on two separate plains. That they cannot exist side-by-side. And that is not necessarily true. Something can be both miraculous and rational at the very same time. Being able to explain how a miracle occurred does not make it any less of a miracle. For what makes a miracle a miracle is not that it defies explanation but rather that how it occurs, when it occurs, and the circumstances in which it occurs produces a sense of awe and wonder. For this one moment, the forces of the universe came together in such a way as to produce a result which was unexpected, surprising, and in its own way, a very special gift. The fact that we can parse it and explain how it happened is besides the point. The fact that it did happen, in the way that it happened is the essence of the miracle itself.
When I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was this elderly couple who belonged to my congregation – Paula & George. One day George collapsed and was taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital. He lay there in a coma, with the monitors showing very little brain function. He lay in that bed in the fetal position. I sat with Paula as she met with the team of doctors who explained to her that he lay there in the fetal position because his brain was not getting enough oxygen to function, and that the monitor was showing that he was basically brain dead. Therefore they counseled her to allow him to pass away naturally by giving the order not to resuscitate him should he go into cardiac arrest. To my surprised, she refused. All of us in the room, with the exception of Paula, were convinced that he would linger until he died. We were wrong. Several days later, he awoke, eventually left the hospital, and lived for another two years. While his recovery can be explained medically, it was against all the odds. It was a miracle.
It was but a month or two after I arrived in Iowa that on one Summer Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of the local hospitals, telling me that a congregant was very close to death and they thought I should come as soon as possible. So I did. I had been doing yard work but I didn’t take the time to change my clothes, lest she pass before I arrived. I walked into her room and there she was, laying still on the bed. Suddenly, to my surprise and the surprise of the nurse, she sat up, looked at me and said, “Hello Rabbi. I am so glad to see you.” She, too, recovered and left the hospital. A miracle.
In 1948, the United Nations passed its Partition Plan, dividing Palestine into 2 states; one Jewish and the other Arab. The entire Arab world rejected the plan and mustered its forces to invade the fledgling State of Israel, promising to drive all its Jews into the sea. The army of the newborn Jewish State was greatly outnumbered and outgunned by the combined armies of the Arab world. The rest of the world sat back, expecting to swoop up whatever Jews survived the Arab onslaught. But when the smoke cleared, the State of Israel not only survived but was victorious. A miracle. As did the Maccabees 2100 years earlier, they, too, evoked of us the proclamation, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham – A great miracle happened there!”
Miracles occur all the time, and they don’t need to be on as grand a scale as any of these. But we miss them. We miss them because our eyes and our ears and our minds are closed to them. There is a story about two old friends meeting on 5th Avenue in New York City, just as all the business offices were letting out. The sidewalks were filled with people and street was fill with cars, and the racket they produce was intense. Now these two friends hadn’t seen each other in many years. So they fought the crowd in order to embrace each other in the moment. Just as they were embracing, one friend said to the other, “Don’t you hear it?” “Hear what?” the other replied. “Don’t you hear that little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?” Well, the other friend looked and that window box was a good 15 to 20 yards away. “How can you hear a little bird that far away in all this noise?” he asked. “I’ll show you,” his friend replied. They walked to the window box and the one friend pushed aside the branches and low and behold, a little bird flew out. In astonishment, the other friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you heard that bird! You must have Superman hearing.” “Not really,” the first friend replied. “Let me show you.” With that, he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. He then dropped it on the sidewalk and no sooner did it hit the ground then a whole group of people just stopped in their tracks, turned around and looked. “You see,” said the friend, “it all depends upon what you are listening for.”
It all depends upon what we are listening for and what we are looking for. As long as we close our minds to the possibility of the miraculous, we will never witness it. But once we open our minds to that possibility, our world will abound with miracles. And we will be the better for it. Our lives will be so enriched by the miracles we encounter, for with them comes hope rather than despair. For in them we will experience a God who cares and is actively involved in our lives. It is Jewish tradition, that immediately upon waking up in the morning, we say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for granting us the miracle of another day of life. We begin each day by acknowledging the many miracles that surround us. In so doing God becomes all the more real to us, and not just some three-letter theoretical word we invoke in ritual moments but ignore in the course of daily living.
We should not require a moment of dire crisis to encounter the miraculous in our lives, but rather we can actively seek it out.

Standing On the Border of Tragedy and Hope

December 9, 2015

It was a remarkably beautiful day for December. The sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. I arrived at the Waterfront Convention Center at just about 7:30 in the morning, looking ahead with both anticipation and anxiety about the day which was yet to unfold. Our own LINDA GOLDEN, LISA KILLINGER of the Islamic community, and I had been spearheading an effort to encourage Quad Citians to join in assembling meal packs to be sent to Jordan to feed the Syrian refugees in camps there. The actual assembling of these meal packs would be taking place for much of the day, with teams of 10 working in 1-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. At any given time, we had set ups for up to 16 teams working at once. Going into the morning, we were thrilled by the numbers of Quad Citians who had already stepped forward to help in this humanitarian effort. We had slots for 1,600 people to assemble meal packs and we already had 1,550 people sign up to do so! As the day progressed many more volunteers walked through the door. We enlisted the organization, KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, to do their magic in setting up and administering the project. In the past, Linda, Lisa, and I had wonderful experiences working with them as they put on their program in our religious schools. We were fully confident that they would do a great job. However, they had never put together a program this large or complex. So, as confident as we were, we still prayed that it would all come together smoothly, and it did.

We publicized the event as an interfaith effort and it was shaping up to be true to that name. We had Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Jews and Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists, people of all sorts of religions and people of no religious affiliation, all having signed up to do their part to feed starving Syrian refugees. It was wondrous to see these various faith groups working side-by-side. At one point I had to chuckle for there was a group from the Jewish community that was awaiting the group ahead of them to finish working at their assigned table. The group that kept them waiting were the Buddhists. How often do you see something like that?

At the end of each hour, as the shift was ending, the energy level of the people finishing their shift was high for the very act of helping others increased their energy and lifted their souls. Sitting as I was at the donation table, each shift ended with people crowding the table, wanted to extend their good feelings by giving cash or writing checks to further help the cause. So many of them were so grateful for our having provided them with the opportunity to do this act if kindness. So many of them commented on how bereft they felt in the wake of the violence of the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino; how hopeless they felt coming into the Convention Center, but how filled with hope they felt as they left.

Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, ISIS, Syria, terrorist violence around the world, including the knife intifada in Israel, all have served to cast the dark shadows of tragedy and hopelessness over our little planet. Yet for that one Saturday, at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf, Iowa it seemed that a bright light had pierced through that darkness and filled our space and our lives with brilliant rays of hope. How could it be otherwise when people of such diverse backgrounds, theologies, and ideologies come together in order to serve a greater good; in order to further the wellbeing of total strangers, people they may even disagree with on political issues? In a world filled with hatred and violence, pettiness and strife, even if just for a moment, there were all these people who gathered to live up to the best of human potential and to create an oasis of caring, respect, and fundamental human decency. There is hope for our future!

Endangered Childen and Community Conscience

July 27, 2014

There has been great debate throughout our nation concerning what shall be done with the hundreds of unaccompanied children who have in recent weeks crossed our border, seeking a refuge from the chaos and violence to which they were subjected in the homes in Central America.  Their parents sent them on that dangerous trek to the United States because they knew that if their children did not flee, more than likely, their children would wind up the victims of brutality, rape, and murder.  Today our country is divided between those who wish to welcome and protect these children and those who see them an placing an unacceptable burden upon our country’s resources and wish to send them back to from whence they came.

About two weeks ago, Bill Gluba, the Mayor of Davenport, Iowa – my community – put forth a proposal to  bring some of these children to our city.  Not surprisingly, the response to that proposal was mixed, marking us as a microcosm of the national debate.  There were those who gathered to plan on how we could best welcome these children, while there were those, including some alderman of our city council, who expressed there determination to keep them out of our town.  One alderman, on national TV, proclaimed his intention to stand in the middle of the street, blocking any bus carrying such children from entering within our city limits.

As those who know me can well imagine, I stand on the side of welcoming the children.  To that end, I have joined with other community clergy who are planning an event meant to declare an interfaith message of support for opening our doors to these young refugees.

Five days ago, I submitted an Opinion Page letter to the Quad City Times, expressing my particular perspective and feelings on the matter.  So far, my letter has not appeared in print or on their website.  They may yet publish it or they may never publish it.  I suspect that they have received many letters and cannot begin to publish them all.  Still, I want my voice to be heard, even if the audience is not nearly as large or as locally focused as it would be in our local paper.  Therefore, I have decided to share the text of this letter here in my blog.  While it speaks specifically to the question of whether or not the Quad Cities should open its doors and welcome these children, it also can be understood to address whether our nation itself should open its doors and welcome these children, declaring them “official” refugees from grave danger and persecution.  Here is what I wrote:

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, when the specter of the Holocaust loomed ever greater in Europe, and the borders of the free world were generally closed to Jews seeking to flee the coming destruction, there was one small ray of hope. That ray radiated out of England. While England, like the United States, would not open its doors to the endangered Jews, it did decide to open its doors to Jewish children. Boatload after boatload of Jewish children landed on British shores. With many tears and great anguish, their parents sent them away, knowing that they might never see them again, so that these children might not die at the hands of the Nazis. This valiant effort to save the children was called “Kindertransport” and it came to an abrupt end when England entered the war.

Holocaust analogies can easily be overplayed but sometimes they are truly appropriate. This is such an occasion. Today on our southern border there are amassed a large number of unaccompanied children from Central America who have been sent to our country by their parents, seeking asylum. Their parents, with broken hearts, sent them away because could not stand idly by while their children would have been beaten, raped, and killed. Like with the Kindertransport, these parents made an extremely hard choice in order to save their children’s lives.

Today, we in the Quad Cities are faced with a choice as well. Will we, like the people of England, open our doors and our hearts to these refugee children, or will we, like so many other nations back in the ‘30’s, choose to slam our doors shut on them and in so doing, condemn them to cruel suffering and death? In the years to come, which choice will we be better able to live with?

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

The Gift of Elul

August 15, 2010

I write this on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Now to far too many American Jews, that statement is practically meaningless.  And that is a source of great sadness for me.  For the month of Elul offers us Jews a very special gift; the gift of spiritual self examination and preparedness.  Yet too many of us are either unaware of the gift, choose to ignore it, or intentionally cast it aside.

Elul is the month which precedes our High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.  For we Jews, these holy days are supposed to be dedicated to profound introspection and personal redirection.  They are a time to consider our lives as we have lived them so far – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and to honestly challenge ourselves as to how we can choose to change for the better.  How can we make of ourselves better Jews, better parents, better children, better siblings, better relatives, better friends, better neighbors, better co-workers, better organization members, better citizens in our local communities, our states, our nation, and our world, better human beings in the eyes of our fellow human beings and God.

Such a serious task cannot begin to take place overnight, or even in the course of the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Putting aside the actualization of those necessary changes, even the task of serious self-examination requires more time than the holy days permit.  And this is where the month of Elul comes in.  For this entire month we should be honestly thinking about ourselves, the people we are and the people we aspire to become.  This is the month of introspection, so that when the Holy Days themselves arrive, we can focus our attention not so much on what changes are needed in our lives but rather how can we best go about successfully making those changes.

A long time ago someone correctly pointed out to me that while we think of ourselves as one, we are really three.  There is the person who we actually are, the person who others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be.  As long as those three are separate and apart from each other, we can never truly find happiness or satisfaction in our lives.  It is only when we successfully bring the three into alignment – so that the person we are and the person others perceive us to be, are identical to the person we aspire to be – that we can truly be happy with ourselves and satisfied with our lives.  It is this process which is the heart and soul of the true High Holy Day experience.  But in order to successfully achieve it, we cannot begin this quest on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  We must begin in the month of Elul, as early as possible.

Yet I am saddened by the fact that so many of my fellow Jews are so far removed from any of this.  They choose to ignore the gift of Elul, and many of them reject the meaning and purpose of the High Holy Days themselves.  So many of these Jews see the High Holy Days as little more than an annual gathering of the clan; as an annual Jewish check-in time.  They go to synagogue, they greet old friends and acquaintances, many of whom they may not have seen in a year, and they leave satisfied that they have fulfilled their Jewish duty for yet another year.  They have done their ethnic thing, for that is what Judaism has become to them; some sort of vague ethnic identity and nothing more.

I have to admit that as a rabbi I am stymied as to how I can help reawaken in such Jews a spiritual awareness, nevertheless a spiritual hunger.  The whole purpose of the Jewish religion, and especially the High Holy Days, is to strengthen our connections with God and with others.  What these people seem to be missing is the fact that the spiritual aspect of our lives is not mere mythology but concrete reality.  Spiritual health is just as essential to our well being as physical health.  One can maintain a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, and run marathons.  But even as their bodies are in excellent physical condition, if these individuals insist upon leaving the life of their souls untended, they will forever remain spiritual invalids.  True, they may not perceive of themselves as invalids, but they are like a person with a born physical or mental disability who, having known nothing else in their life, they have no appreciation for what they are missing.  Spiritually, they are like my son Joshua – a 27 year old man with autism – who has not got the foggiest idea of what it means to live an adult’s life with adult pleasures; who lives in his closed off world of children’s videos and the fulfillment of his basic physical needs.  Like Joshua, who is unaware of what it means to live an adult life, such people are unaware of what it means to live a true spiritual life.  While many of them claim that they believe in God, none of them have ever really let God into their lives.  They have no idea of what it means to live with God as a true companion; as a real presence in their life.  This is because the God they claim to believe in is an abstract rather than a reality.  We do not walk with abstracts.  We do not talk with abstracts.  And abstracts most certainly neither walk nor talk with us.

Now you may consider me a freak or a weirdo but I openly admit that I talk with God, and more importantly, God talks with me.  Indeed, without question, these are the most important and meaningful conversations that I hold in my life.  When God and I do not talk, that is when I am at my loneliest.

When do we talk the most?  During the month of Elul.  This is the greatest gift of Elul.  Conversing with God.  As I consider my life – my strengths and my weaknesses, my successes and my failures – God is my closest adviser, serving as both fan and critic.  It is God more than anyone else who helps me to grasp where I have gone wrong and where I can do better, as well as how I can preserve the best parts of who I am.  Now this is the same God who is available to each and every one of us for consultation.  As God helps me, God can help you.  All you need to do is believe – truly believe – and reach out; open the conversation.  God will talk with those who talk with God.

Once you permit yourself to connect with God in such a way, while you will find that there is still a pleasant ethnic aspect to the High Holy Days, it will be their spiritual aspect which will move you and shape you.  You will sense the hunger for personal change and you will understand that in sincerely seeking such change, you are never alone in the task.  You have a companion and co-worker, counselor and adviser, role model and friend; the truest of all.  The One who will never desert you.

Good Out of Gaza

June 6, 2010

Ever since the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara turned tragically violent, accusations and counter accusations have filled the air like the shells of an artillery engagement.  Who was is in the right?  Who was in the wrong?  Who were the villains?  Who the heroes?  Who the perpetrators?  Who the victims?  As some commentators have correctly pointed out – painfully so – there has been so much debate over issues of responsibility that no one, on either side, has taken the time to honestly lament for those who were killed or injured.  Yes, both sides have decried the bloodshed, but to be truthful, their outrage has been far more politically motivated than humanely so.  The dead and injured on both sides quickly ceased to be human beings, having been transformed into political pawns.  Sounds harsh?  Then consider this.  How many articles and news reports or releases have you seen that actually have mentioned these individuals by name?  Names do not seem to be important here; just numbers, as though we have been keeping some sort of macabre score card.

With all the heated rhetoric of the moment, it might appear as though the world is falling apart.  Maybe it is.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe the Arab world will unite under the leadership of the extremists in Iran and make one more attempt to annihilate the “Zionist entity.”  But then again, after all the shouting dies down, few Arab nations will really be interested in aligning themselves with Iran and fewer still will be willing to actually go to war with Israel.  And all this will turn out to be just another one of those earth shattering momentary crises, as the world, and especially the Middle East, returns to the status quo.

But then again, maybe out of this painful tragedy some light might be shed.  Maybe what today may be perceived as possibly “the end of the world” may actually wind up turning out to be the birthing of a new future.

Let’s admit it!  The naval and land blockade of Gaza is not exactly new news.  Yes, pro-Palestinian supporters and sincere human rights activists have voiced their protests over the suffering of the residents of that besieged strip of land for some time now.  Israelis themselves have expressed their deep regret – indeed anguish – over what they have perceived as their need to impose such a stranglehold on Gaza and the suffering which it causes.  Yes, Israel has presented massive amounts of compelling evidence as to why they must control Gaza’s borders so diligently in order to prevent a steady influx of weaponry which would be directed against Israelis, and especially against Israeli civilian population centers.  The thousands upon thousands of rockets and mortar shells which have rained down upon communities such as Sderot, launched by Hamas from Gaza, have been pointed out to the world as proof positive of the very real dangers that the Israelis are attempting to address.  Yet, while everyone in the world has made note of this situation, expressed their concerns and regrets, still, at the end of the day, no one has really stepped forward with any real energy or creativity in an attempt to resolve it.  While everyone had an opinion, and many expressed their opinions, still beyond the talk, people just seemed willing to let the matter stand as it, accepting the simple alternatives of blockade or no blockade, with nothing in between.

But not any longer.  Now, as a result of this tragedy, everyone, including the Israelis, are looking at the blockade of Gaza with new eyes.  Everyone, including Israel, have come to the conclusion that the status quo simply will not continue to work.  Change is in the air.  Change is inevitable.  Maybe.

Today, outside of the Arab world, the critics of the blockade are no longer simply staying, :Lift It!”  They are recognizing that raw pressure will never succeed in budging Israel.  Indeed, seeing how serious Israel is about maintaining this blockade – even at the high cost we have witnessed – they are coming around to recognizing that there can be no change in this situation without seriously addressing Israeli security concerns as well as of the humanitarian needs of the residents of Gaza.  One need look no further than at the Obama administration, which has been coming down heavily on Israel as of late and has been talking more and more about Israel being a strategic liability rather than an asset to witness such a broadening view.  When the 7th vessel set off on its journey, the United States chose to join Israel in encouraging them NOT to attempt to run the blockade but rather to allow themselves to be escorted into the port of Ashdod, where their cargo could be inspected, off-loaded, and then sent via land to Gaza.  The Israelis even agreed to permit the transport into Gaza of concrete, which the humanitarian activists claim is for building homes but which Israel has seen Hamas sidetrack in the past to be used in the building of bunkers.

Perhaps the day is not to far off when such cargo ships can be inspected at sea; when the nations of the world will respect Israel’s responsibility to protect its citizens from the import into Gaza – into the hands of Hamas – of weapons intended to be used against Israel.  Perhaps the nations of the world will cooperate with Israel in the thorough conduct of such inspections.  Perhaps, if Israel could be convinced that by such inspections, Hamas could effectively be denied the receipt of more arms, then once inspected, she will permit these ships to continue on their journey and reach the Gaza shores, where the humanitarian aid could be delivered direct.

Of course, the wild card in all this is Hamas.  So far, Hamas has claimed that they will not permit the humanitarian supplied, off loaded in Ashdod, to enter Gaza.  It is obvious that the “breaking” of the blockade is a far higher priority for them than alleviating the suffering of their people.  But can they sustain that posture?  Any gains which they have made as a result of the recent events can easily slip from their fingers if they expose themselves to the eyes of the world as the true barrier denying the people of Gaza the help they need.  But, of course, that would only happen if the nations of the world would open themselves to admitting that in this situation, Israel may not be the only villain, nevertheless the primary villain.

Violence and bloodshed are essentially meaningless.  Lives lost in this way are certainly lost in vain.  They are lost due to the failure of reason.  But if the suffering born of these recent events results in laying the foundations for a more effective, humane, and mutually workable resolution to the challenge of getting humanitarian supplies to the people of Gaza without arming Hamas at the same time, then perhaps the suffering born of this tragedy might result in having served some higher purpose.  Only time will tell.

Wrestling With Immigration Reform

May 14, 2010

With Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, recently signing into law a very restrictive and controversial bill addressing the issue of illegal immigration in that state, the opening shot has been fired on our next major political battlefield – immigration reform.

At first blush, it would appear that the issue of immigration reform is one of those topics around which Americans are united, with the overwhelming majority agreeing across party lines that massive federal immigration reform is both necessary and long overdue.  However, appearances can be deceiving, for such agreement ends right there; with the belief that immigration reform is sorely needed.  Beyond that point, our nation is truly fractured between those who feel that our immigration policies must be liberalized and those who feel that they must be made more severe and be more diligently enforce.  A recent New York Times / CBS News Poll on reactions to the Arizona law indicate that 51% of those polled feel that the law is about right, with 9% saying that it does not go far enough, while 36% feel that it has gone too far and 4% having no opinion.

The new Arizona law obviously is a manifestation of the point of view of those who wish to see more restrictive immigration laws.  No sooner did Governor Brewer sign it into law than we started hearing from several political hopefuls across the land, seeking to gain mileage for their own campaigns by calling for their states to follow Arizona’s example.  Here in Iowa, two of the three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination immediately jumped on that bandwagon.  The third – former governor, Terry Branstad – was not far behind, supporting the concept of sterner immigration laws but cautioning that since we are not a “border” state, we should not try to duplicate the Arizona law but rather tailor one to better meet our state’s particular needs.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that regarding immigration reform, I fall on the liberal side of this issue.  However, what may come as a surprise to all is that as liberal as I am on this topic, I am not nearly as liberal as many of my fellow liberal allies would like me to be.  I find myself standing in an uncomfortable no man’s land; too liberal for the conservatives among us, and too conservative for the liberals.

So where do I stand?

First of all, I am distressed by the new Arizona law.  I, like all of its critics, fear that in spite of whatever assurances Governor Brewer may offer, still fundamentally, it is a racist law.  No matter how well trained the Arizona police may be, they still will not be able to avoid falling into the trap of racial profiling.  Indeed, the only way that they could avoid such profiling is by stopping and checking everyone’s citizenship credentials – and we all know that is never going to happen.  At the end of the day, the only individuals who they will stop and request documentation from will be Latinos.  That, in and of itself, is a litmus test to the law’s racial bias.  After all, here we see the underlying assumption that the only illegal aliens in our midst are Hispanic.  Could it not be possible that there might also be illegal aliens from Norway or Denmark or England or Italy, or dare I say, that threatening national entity on our northern border – Canada?  Of course there could be!  If there are people from those nations, and others like them, living in our country, it is only logical to assume that some of those people are living here illegally.  Yet to focus these stop-&-searches exclusively on Latinos is just as unjust and racially prejudice as when our nation, during World War II, chose to intern as enemy aliens only those of Japanese descent, and never even considered doing likewise to those of German or Italian descent.

“Absurd!” you may think.  But I turn your attention to a recent movie; “The Proposal.”  Of course this was a romantic comedy, but it did carry a sharp edged message, that message being that not all illegal immigrants need to come from south of the border.  Some can even come from Canada.  Yet when we identify the problems associated with illegal immigration as being solely Latino problems, whether we like to admit it or not, that is racism, pure and simple.

When I consider our current immigration laws, I cannot help but be troubled by how restrictive they are.  Somehow, we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants.  All those people who flocked to our shores in the 17th, 18th, 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, who settled this land, founded this nation, and built it to be the world power it is today, were all immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.  The Puritans at Plymouth Rock were immigrants.  The English in Jamestown and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were all immigrants.  Most Americans today do not have to search far on our family trees to find our immigrant ancestors.  My grandparents came to this country from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the 20th century.  I expect that most of the readers of this blog can claim similar immigrant roots, going back to their great grandparents if not their grandparents.  Today, each and every one of us enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of living in America because at one time, this country opened its doors to our immigrant ancestors.  In those days, it truly was the land of opportunity; what my Jewish ancestors referred to as Die Goldene Medina, “The Golden Land.”  They came here with nothing or next to nothing, started at the bottom of the social ladder and worked their way up.  It was hard going, but they did it.  They did it, primarily because they were permitted to do it.

But all that changed in the 1920’s.  Many forces coalesced to re-frame American immigration policies and attitudes.  Following World War I there was a renewed interest in isolationism; the desire to cut off America from involvement with the outside world.  As a result, in spite of the fact that President Woodrow Wilson was the primary architect of the League of Nations, our nation chose not to join it.  Then there was the Communist scare.  After the Russian Revolution, there was great fear in this country that the overthrow of America was next on the Communists’ agenda.  That fear was translated into a fear of immigrants being potential Communist agents.  There was even the growing popularity of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics.  In 1916, a man by the name of Madison Grant published a book entitled THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE which became  a very popular read in our nation.  This book went through many printings and by 1937 had sold over 1,600,000 copies in our country.  This book espoused the  eugenics racial hygiene theory, as it  proclaimed the superiority of the Northern European races, and warned of the racial threat posed by the admission to our country of people of inferior races.  Then, of course, there was the eternal concern about immigrant workers competing for jobs against “real Americans.”  As a result of these factors and others, in 1921, Congress passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, the goal of which was to maintain the racial balance of our country.  It intended to achieve this by limiting future immigration to a quota of a nation-by-nation maximum of 3% of the number of people from that nation who were living in this country in 1890.  This law was superseded by the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the quota to 2% and also prohibited the immigration of East Asians.  In 1952, while the Immigration and Nationality Act did abolish the racial restrictions applying to immigration from East Asia, it did affirm the quota system in its 1924 form.  It should be noted that President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, speaking in his veto message of “the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of the 1924 bill.”  He further went on to say, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”  As a Jew, it does not go unnoticed that Truman’s objections to this bill were in good part based upon the understanding that its retention of the quota system was in fact an intentional continued refusal to open America’s doors to so many Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust.  Unfortunately, Truman’s veto was overridden by a vote of  278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.

I suspect that rarely has there been a time in our nation’s history when immigrant groups did not have to confront some sort of prejudice when coming to, or trying to come to our country.  There seems always to have been those Americans who have treated newcomers with fear and hatred.  It is  ironic that of all people, it was the Native Americans who served as a major exception to this rule. for they graciously welcomed the Pilgrim immigrants to their shores and aided them in their time of need.  Probably no groups in our society know of this hostility to newcomers to America better than the Jews and the Catholics.  It was home grown antisemitism which kept the immigration doors locked to all those European Jews who unsuccessfully sought an American refuge from Nazi persecution.  And as for the Catholics, starting in the 1850’s they suffered at the hands of the members of the Know Nothing Party, whose goal it was to put an end to immigration, particularly targeting Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigration.  Such opposition to immigration and hatred of immigrants is nothing new in our country.  It is a challenge which we faced in the past, just as we must face it now.

Yet in spite of our nation’s disturbing history of resistance to newly arrived immigrant groups, I do not believe that such hostility is an accurate reflection of the American spirit.  Rather, I believe that while there have been those among us who have actively rejected and discriminated against the immigrants of their day, still the American ideal remained, and I pray still remains, that our land should be a safe haven and a land of opportunity for all newcomers.  As a Jew, I am profoundly proud of the fact that emblazoned on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are words of welcome, penned by a fellow Jew, the poetess Emma Lazarus.  I choose to believe that the words of her poem – “The New Colossus” – still remain America’s ultimate values statement on immigration to our shores:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.  From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.  “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”   It was in this spirit that my grandparents were welcomed to this land.  This was and should remain truly one of the most important of American values, fundamental to American life ever since the very first settlers crossed the Atlantic and set foot on our shores.  But somewhere along the way, there are those Americans  who seem to have forgotten this.  If the poll on the public response to the Arizona immigration law is correct, then somewhere along the way, not only has the flame on that famous lamp gone out, but the arm which proudly raised that lamp has been lowered and the lamp itself has been dropped.  Perhaps nothing has brought this sad fact into sharper relief for me than an experience I had while on the way to Postville, Iowa, to participate in a rally in support of the immigrant workers who were caught up in that now famous raid.  My wife, a friend, and I were just outside of Postville when we stopped at a gas station convenience store for a break.  Parked next to us were a carload of Chicagoans, one of whom was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, complete with body makeup.  Seeing the “Statue” we assumed both that they were heading toward the rally and were coming as supporters.  However, as we approached them and engaged in conversation, while we learned that they indeed were heading to Postville, their purpose was to participate in a counter-rally.  It would seem that for them, the Statue of Liberty had somehow been transformed from its original symbol of welcome to immigrants to one which was intended to guard our shores against the invasion of immigrants.  When we Americans choose to forget our own immigrant roots and how we are the direct beneficiaries of our nation’s earlier open immigration policy, xenophobia – fear of strangers – becomes the order of the day.  While there are those today who try to crown it as a virtue, I cannot help but reflect upon the fact that in the Reform Jewish prayerbook for the High Holy Days, xenophobia is mentioned as one of the sins for which we are instructed to communally confess.

All of this particularly disturbs me as a Jew.  For Jewish tradition is very clear on this matter.  The Torah repeatedly charges us to treat the “stranger” in our midst as the “home-born”, with dignity, compassion, and justice.  It repeatedly reminds us to recall “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  As we once suffered under the mistreatment of the Egyptians because we were strangers, we need to resolve to be better than that when we deal with the strangers in our midst.  There is no quota system in the Torah, nor is there a call for racial profiling to be found there.

Considering all these factors, I firmly believe that we need to pry open our nation’s  doors to immigration.  We need to return to a time when we were welcoming of newcomers and willing to share the American dream and hope with those so desperately in need of both.

Obviously, today is not the 19th century nor the very beginnings of the 20th.  Times have changed and situations have changed, and therefore, so must our approach to immigration.  We cannot simply re-open Ellis Island and hang out a generic welcome sign.  This, being the 21st century, we need to establish a 21st century response to our immigration challenges.

Of course, the first challenge we face today is the presence of so many illegal immigrants/undocumented workers residing within our borders.  The approach taken by the state of Arizona basically has been to round them all up and ship them all out.

I would take another approach.  I would like to see our nation offer each and every one of these illegal aliens an amnesty.  I say amnesty rather than citizenship because I believe that American citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and therefore should neither be treated lightly or merely given away in the manner of a supermarket promotional.  While I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it, still that citizenship should be earned.  Ergo, I would offer amnesty, not citizenship.

I envision such amnesty as an opening of the path to citizenship.  While the amnesty would be open to all, yet if one accepts the amnesty, then they also must accept the responsibility to enter into the established process of naturalization.  Like all other immigrants, they must take the classes which teach about what it means to be an American, they must take and pass the tests, and of course, if they are successful in the process, they must take the oath of loyal citizenship to our nation.

Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it.”  By making that possibility available, I am not just talking about offering classes.  I am also talking about offering whatever social supports are necessary to enable these individuals to be able to maintain their lives and their families while they are going through the naturalization process.  We need to do whatever is necessary to make this opportunity for these people a realistic opportunity and not just a symbolic one.

If there are those who refuse the amnesty, or who accept the amnesty but refuse to go through the naturalization process, then these individuals are truly illegal aliens, for they have been given the opportunity to become American citizens but have actively chosen to reject it.  It would appear to be their desire to reside in our nation, to take advantage of all the benefits offered by our nation, but not to become at one with our nation.  This is simply unacceptable.  If a person wants to enjoy the benefits of America, then that person has to accept the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being an American.  If they are unwilling to accept those responsibilities then they have no place in America.  While the opportunity to become an American should be open to as many as possible, still one must be an American, or an aspiring American, in order to enjoy the benefits of our country and reside within our midst.  For those who choose otherwise, then the door swings both ways.  Not only are they welcomed to leave but it is appropriate to usher them out.

Addressing the issue of the illegal aliens in our midst is only one of our challenges.  For there are plenty more potential illegal aliens where they came from; there are plenty of others who are and will be seeking entry into our country but who at this time still reside outside of our borders.   They are the potential illegal aliens of the future.  Well, the future begins now.  As we address the issue of dealing with the illegal aliens in our midst, we also have to address the issue of how to we prevent massive illegal immigration into our country in the future.

My response is not by building higher walls to keep them out but rather by establishing a better and more open and just system to responsibly welcome them in.  The first thing that must go is the quota system.  America should not be about trying to maintain some sort of ethnic balance from the past.  We should be about making America available to all those who desire and deserve to be Americans.

We need to develop a system which effectively screens potential immigrants.  It needs to be an accessible system so that it is very clear that legal immigration to America is indeed a very real possibility.  Yet at the same time it needs to be a system which does protect America.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who may pose a threat to our people, such as convicted felons (as defined by American law and not the perversion of law promulgated by some dictatorships) and those who carry contagious diseases.  It needs to be a system which screens out those who are unwilling to invest themselves in the process of obtaining American citizenship.   Such screening is not discrimination.  It is wisdom.  For while welcoming as many aspiring Americans as possible is the right thing to do to,  still it is the wise thing to try to assure that those whom we welcome will add to the strength and the character of our nation, and not detract from it.

Intimately tied to the issue of immigration has been the struggle over language.  For years now, “English Only” laws have been a center of much debate in our nation.  There are those who hold that such laws protect the very fabric of American culture, and there are those who hold that such laws are the essence of racism.  Personally, I have been torn by this debate.  I see both sides and stand uncomfortably in the middle.  English is our national language.  As such, I firmly believe that all those who aspire to American citizenship must learn to speak the language.  It is probably the most important key that opens the door to the fullness of American life.  To make believe that it is unnecessary for our aspiring immigrants to learn our language is pure folly.  Indeed, to minimize or deny our immigrants’ need of English skills is to condemn them to remaining on the lowest rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder.  Now that is discrimination!  I find it ironic that those who would work hardest to protect our immigrant population would at the same time promote an anti-English ideology which would in the end only hurt those they wish to protect.

That being said, I am not completely in favor of English Only laws.  I do suspect that those who promote them are doing so for less than idealistic reasons; that there is an underlying prejudice embedded within them.  While I do believe, for example, that an electoral ballot should only be published in English, for English skills should be a prerequisite for American citizenship, while voting is a privilege of citizenship, I do not believe that such things as exams for a drivers license should be only published in English.  These people are going to drive on our streets, and they are not necessarily going to wait until they pass their citizenship exam to do so.  Indeed, if they are living in a community like mine, they need to drive to survive, for in such communities one cannot depend upon public transportation.  Simply as a matter of public safety, I would prefer that they be permitted to take their driving exams in whatever language they speak so that they can become licensed drivers, and hopefully safe drivers.  The same would go for access to medical care.  Regardless of language, people get sick.  Everyone deserves to be able to communicate what ails them to medical professionals.  Therefore, when it comes to the question of English and immigration, while we need to be assertive about the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of our national language, we should not be absolute.  We need to seek out the appropriate middle ground; something the advocates on both sides of this issue have refused to do.

No presentation on immigration would be complete if it did not address the issue of employment.  For almost as long as immigrants have flocked to America, there have been those Americans who have opposed immigration on the grounds that the new immigrants would be taking away their jobs.  Yet when we look at the history of American immigration, and when we look at the immigrant situation in our nation today, we can clearly see that such a charge is patently false.  It is rare indeed when new immigrants enter our society and find themselves somewhere in the middle or top of the employment food chain.  Far more often than not, they are on the bottom of that chain, doing work that other Americans prefer not to do.  So it is today.  Our immigrant, and particularly our illegal immigrant population are deeply involved in what might be called menial labor.  They are janitors.  They are dishwashers.  They are maids.  They work in such difficult industries as meat packing.  Theirs are jobs that the overwhelming majority of Americans would never consider doing unless their situation was absolutely desperate.  Rather than “stealing” jobs in our society, they are filling a very real need.  This has been the way with all American immigrants.  The first generation does whatever needs to be done in order to keep their family fed.  They send their children to school and it is that next generation that starts to take their group up the socioeconomic ladder.

In successfully addressing the issue of immigration reform, when it comes to jobs, we also address another serious flaw in our current system.  That flaw is the abuse of illegal immigrants by unscrupulous employers.  There are those who enjoy the financial benefits of maintaining a significant population of illegal immigrants in our nation.  These illegal immigrants are nothing more than the victims of such employers.  These employers pay them substandard wages and provide them with little or no benefits.  Worse yet, they hold them captive, enslaving them with the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities.  As the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa revealed, this system subjects these illegal immigrants to all sorts of collateral abuses, including sexual abuse and the flagrant violation of child labor laws.  All this would be brought to a grinding halt if these people were not forced to live under the radar in our country.  If they could be granted official status and with that, official protection.  Indeed, such an elimination of an illegal immigration work force would force such employers to offer legitimate wages, benefits, and working conditions.  It would create a more open and competitive jobs market.  Yes, prices would go up, but is it not about time that the money we Americans save due to lower prices stop being blood money?

Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty poetess, is one of my American Jewish heroes.  Part of me is happy that she is not around today to see what our country has done to its immigrants.  It would break her heart!  Yet another part of me wishes that she was among us still for she would not be one to stand idly by on this issue.  She would be a strong voice reminding us of our immigrant heritage and of our responsibility to offer to others today the blessing which our ancestors received when they arrived on these shores.

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!

Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

February 11, 2010

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…