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Audio / Video
Open to Hope - Click here to listen to a radio interview for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. .
A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.
Click here to watch the burial of ashes from Dachau in the Durham Hebrew Cemetery, Memorial Day 2014.
Clcik here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - February 4, 2014 - on Untimely Death.
Click here to for a podcast with Amy Ziettlow, Host of FamilyScholars Conversations.
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber and Rev Joe Harvard on Your Health Radio for their conversation on "Faith and Death" - August 2013
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber's conversation with NPR's Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Click here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - December 18, 2012 - on Holiday Loss.
Click here and listen in to minutes 10 to 31 for the conversation for a conversation about Faith & Healing with Drs. Adam Goldstein and Cristy Page on "Your Health Radio."
Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.

 

Thursday
Jan192017

On the Day Sheloshim Ended

December 23, 2016 / 23 Kislev, 5777

 

Sheloshim – the 30-day period following a funeral – ended yesterday. I woke up early, drove to Weaver Street Market and picked up some coffee and treats to thank our community for helping me say kaddish every morning since my father’s funeral. Of course, not everyone was there, so let me say here: thank you. I thought about mourning my father for many years, wondered what it would be like. Beth El’s is a community of such commitment and generosity of spirit that made me feel like I could ask us to make a minyan every morning. And when the request went out, the google sheet was filled within days. You lifted me up. Mourning is a time of darkness and our community shined light for me – as we do for each other – a gift for which I will forever be grateful. Our community was Hanukkah before the holiday started. Light in darkness. Hope to those in need.

After services and breakfast at UNC Hillel, I came home, showered and cut my fingernails and toenails. Why? According to Maimonides:

These are the practices forbidden to a mourner for the entire 30-day period. He is forbidden to cut his hair, to wear freshly ironed clothing, to marry, to enter a celebration of friends, and to go on a business trip to another city; five matters in all.

What does the prohibition against cutting one's hair involve? Just as it is forbidden to cut any of the hair of one's body, to shave one's mustache, or to cut one's nails with a utensil through the seven days of mourning; so, too, he is forbidden throughout these 30 days.

To whom does the above apply? To a man. A woman, by contrast, is permitted to remove hair after seven days although a man must wait 30. For one's father or mother, a man is obligated to let his hair grow until it becomes noticeably long or until his colleagues rebuke him for not attending to his appearance (Laws of Mourning, 6:2-4).

Grieving through hair and fingernails, the parts of our bodies on the border between life and death. My nails are short as I type today. Another step back into life. But my father died so my hair is still long. Nobody has rebuked me, yet.

Sheloshim for one’s parent is strange, blurry, unclear. I can cut my hair, but only if someone rebukes me. I can wear freshly laundered clothes (ibid, 6:4), but I cannot enter a celebration of friends (in modern terms: concerts, big celebrations) for a year (6:7) and I cannot go on a business trip to another city unless I am rebuked (again) and told, “Come with us!” (6:8). Maimonides says nothing about mourner’s kaddish – it was not part of Jewish life in his time and place – but I will continue to say kaddish for 11 months. And Facebook. I changed my profile and cover photos to pictures of me and my father when he died. Do I change them back now? Or keep them up for the year. Maimonides is silent on this question. Sheloshim for my father felt like a semi-transition; something ended, but much continues.

Before I showered, I went for a run. I had not really exercised since my father’s death. My run was life-affirming, a return to efforts against my body’s decay. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The beauty felt strange, inappropriate; my mourning aggrieved by the shining the sun of God’s world.

I woke up early yesterday morning. Got to Chapel Hill at 6:30am, a ½ hour before Weaver Street Market opens. So I got a cup of coffee at Starbucks and wrote in a little journal Rabbi Sager gave me to use for the year. Here is what I wrote:

30 days. שלושים יום. Not quite. It is 6:30am here, 3:30am on the west coast at his grave where I shoveled dirt. He wasn’t buried until 1:30pm there, 4:30pm here. I am 10 hours early. But Jewish tradition tells me I am not rushing by saying kaddish in a few minutes from now, and bringing 30 days to a close. Why not? יום שלושים מקצתו ככולו / Even a portion of the 30th day is considered as the entire day (6:12). Any moment of this day (and the day of the funeral and the 7th day of shiva) spreads outward and fills in the cracks of the rest of the day. We do not mourn the full measure of our allotment.

I thanked the man at the Starbucks counter before I left. “Before, when I bought my coffee, you asked me how my day was. I said “okay,” but truthfully, today is a hard day, but I want to thank you for asking. I appreciate it.” I picked up coffee and treats and drove to UNC Hillel. I said the memorial prayer – does one say it on sheloshim for one’s parents? I don’t know. I did. And then, I shared some Torah in my father’s memory.

“Jacob settled…” (Genesis 37:1) about which Rashi says, “Jacob requested to settle down in serenity [after the turmoil of the last 20 years of his life] but all the trouble with Joseph leapt upon him.” Jacob was tired, tired of being on the run from his brother Esau, from Laban, from the city of Shechem. He was finally home. Jacob wanted to finally relax, to look back upon his life rather than live it. One gets the sense from Rashi that to think about death too soon is dangerous. My father feared death. He didn’t want to talk about it. “You’ve got to keep me alive to 120,” he told his doctors, nurses, anyone who would listen. He preferred to rage against the dying of the light. “To live is to function,” he once said. What I think he meant is that at the heart of life is an impulse to move, to wriggle free, to struggle to understand and love, to think a new thought. 30 days, minus a few hours. We do not mourn the full measure allotted to us. We wriggle and struggle and return to life as soon as we can. Death will come soon enough.



Friday
Dec232016

On the Shloshim of My Father

Howard David Greyber (z”l)

Hershel David ben Avraham HaCohen u’Bella Miriam

Apirl 2, 1923 – November 22, 2016

16 Nisan, 5683 – 21 Mar Cheshvan, 5777

 

My dad loved rye bread toast. That was one of my jobs as a child, to make him tea with milk – he had learned to love that after living in London for a time – and toast with butter and jelly. Lots of butter and lots of jelly. There were years when my mom and later I and my brother and sister tried to convince him to eat better. I remember his round tummy as a child. He never exercised – he liked to quote Mark Twain who said something like, “The only exercise I ever get is being pallbearer for my exercise-minded friends” – and ate fatty foods with copious amounts of butter and fat and salt. He was a prime candidate for a heart attack, but the heart attack never came. He gulped down vitamins – convinced that he had found the secret to long life that the medical establishment in all their wisdom had missed. He sent me vitamins at college, offered to give me bottles and bottles each time I visited. His love had a blunt side – when my friends got cancer, he would keep suggesting vitamins, for him and them. In my pain it was hard not to hear his suggestions as implying that if only my friends had taken vitamins, this wouldn’t have happened to them – after all, he took vitamins and didn’t get cancer. What he meant was, “I love you. Your friends’ illness scares me because I don’t want you to get sick. I love you. So take vitamins.” But he couldn’t say that, I don’t think he understood where his need to tell me to take vitamins came from, and it was not always easy to interpret or translate then what I accept now. He just loved me.

I feel like I am a reasonably intelligent person, like I have a reasonable grasp of history and the world – but not compared to him. He was a theoretical astrophysicist. I like to say that he is one of a few people in the world who can give you a very accurate account of what happened in the first few seconds immediately following the Big Bang. Temperatures, particles, forces. He looked at the stars and was not merely overwhelmed by some general sense of “the vastness of it all.” He looked at the stars and felt awe at the grandeur of the universe enhanced by really knowing how very very far the stars stretch, and how infinitesimally small are the grandest things we see in the scope of the cosmos. I remember a story about his mom, Beatrice. She taught piano. It is said she used to have problems going to hear classical music performed because rather than be able to step back and listen to the sum-of-its-parts, to the whole music, she found herself listening and analyzing the themes and how they were developed and how they changed and remained the same. The performance, it seemed, was overwhelmed by her enormous knowledge of the complexity and technical expertise of the composer and conductor and symphony. I don’t think that happened with him and the stars and the natural world that he understood so much. He was constantly surprised, constantly full of energy, enthusiasm, exuberance – a youthful passion for science and the natural world. But it didn’t stop there.

12th century Chinese history – no problem. Shakespeare, check. Classical music – yep. Poetry, even poetry. He loved poetry. Some people’s parents have a song they just singing out of nowhere – there were certain poems my dad just loved to recite, or certain lines at least. L’allegro by Milton: “Hence loathed Melancholy Of Cerberus and blackest Midnight born…” he’d say, for no reason whatsoever.

 

There was another line: “Strive not earthen pot to break the awl.” We’d heard that line over and over, but none of us could ever found where it came from. My aunt has a doctorate in English Literature and was a professor at Tel Aviv University. My mom is a librarian, her friends are librarians, my brother a poet and a lover of poetry – they searched and searched to the point that we were all convinced – and told Rabbi Berkenwald last night around the table – that he’d made it up, made the line real with his conviction and passion and by sheer repetition. A Howard Greyber original. So much so, that a few years ago, my brother wrote a beautiful poem about that line, and about my father’s creative imaginative memory. But after we told this to my friend, Rabbi Josh Berkenwald, who performed the funeral, the next morning he sent us a link to “The Ballade of Good Counsel” by Geoffrey Chaucer, in which he writes, “Strive not, thou earthen pot, to break the wall;” – we thought he’d made it up, but he was just one word off! And the rhyming line before reads: “And war but kicks against a sharpened awl;” – there was the awl, not made up, but conflated with its rhyme – so he didn’t have it, but pretty close. Not bad for a physicist.

 

And politics. He loved politics. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history. For many years, he spent time with the Biddle family – Francis Biddle was the attorney General of the United States with FDR. Frannie Biddle (who he always called Francesca) and her husband Randi Biddle (son of Francis), were close friends in the 1950s and early 60s in the years of his bachelorhood before my dad met my mom. He used to vacation on the Cape and shoot the breeze with towering intellects of American political life. He ran for Congress in Massachusetts as a Republican against Tip O’Neil. He lost, badly, as any Republican did, but he did better than all the others before him. “Put a Scientist in Congress” was his campaign slogan.

 

He believed in education. I have dozens of letters that he wrote – and an Op-Ed – to members of Congress, Presidents – anyone who’d listen to his idea: 435 high schools of science and technology, one magnet school for the best and brightest science minded kids in each Congressional district. He’d gone to Stuyvesant High school. Before then, he was a wicked smart kid, but so wicked smart that other kids – some Irish and Italian - in his school chased him home and threw rocks at him and called him “Kike” on the streets of Queens, either because they didn’t like Jews or because he knew the answers too many times. So he learned to keep quiet, to read and keep to himself – until he got to Stuyvesant where they awoke a sleeping giant. He joined the math team where they made fun of him at first because he’d gotten a 99, not a 100, on the Math State regents exam. So he retook it and got a 100. He was 3rd in his class and went on to Cooper Union (he got admitted to Columbia but got a scholarship at Cooper Union and a $300 annual stipend and his parents forced him to take it – something he never really got over because he desperately wanted a liberal arts education at Columbia rather than straight engineering at Cooper Union). He worked on the Manhattan Project in Oakridge, Tennesse, was a radar officer on a ship in the South Pacific at the end of WWII and told us he believes that if Truman had not dropped the bomb – that he helped develop – he likely would have died as part of an invading force into Japan to end the war. He cared deeply about America, was part of the Greatest Generation, and was part of a grand story, growing up in the Depression in New York – watching his own father’s haberdashery store close but they still had enough and he watched his father give apples and cigarettes to men waiting on bread lines in Columbia Circle in Manhattan, an act of kindness that deeply moved him. He grew up in the Depression and his life stretched into the 21st century.

 

At his core, my father was a scientist.  That means many things, but perhaps most of all, it means that he believed in the infinite possibilities of finite human beings.  Not only did he possess an unending curiosity about God’s world, but also an unshakable faith in the capacity for human discovery.  In medicine.  In science.  In invention. The building of a Temaple is based on one fundamental idea: that God’s presence can indeed dwell upon the work of human hands. My father believed that to the end.

 

There was one other thing that characterized my dad: when the Tabernacle was constructed, Aaron was embarrassed on his big day – he hadn’t had such a good experience with the golden calf and Moses says to his brother, “Why are you embarrassed? This is the task for which you were chosen.” 

 

Hang around my father for 10 minutes and he will have a suggestion for you.  I wrote a book. “Why don’t you write another?” He asked. Here is an article to read.  Try this restaurant.  Visit this museum.  Why don’t you run for Congress?  Go teach at Duke - they’ll be happy to have you! This voice, this unending stream of suggestions was not always easy to hear as a son or daughter – to understand that it does not mean, “you are not enough,” but rather it is a source of unending of love meant to nourish confidence and hunger and energy all at once.

 

My sister is a physician and marathon runner; my brother a business man, poet and water polo player, I am a rabbi, a swimmer – much of these journeys were traveled long after we left home, but all of us were nourished in an environment where we were asked, “Why are you embarrassed?  Whatever this is, it is this for which you were chosen.”  Even if sometimes it was too much, to be asked over and over again, “why are you afraid” – do not be afraid, come forward, and do that which you were meant to do, to be given the gift of knowing that someone in the world believes there is nothing of which you are not capable, well, if I can give that gift to my own children, dayeinu.  It will be enough, more than enough.

 

That Chaucer poem is one of his last gifts. Here are a few more lines…

 

Torment thee not all crooked to redress,

Nor put thy trust in fortune’s turning ball;

Great peace is found in little busy-ness,

And war but kicks against a sharpened awl;

Strive not, thou earthen pot, to break the wall;

Subdue thyself, and others thee shall hear;

And Truth shall make thee free, there is no fear

 

These days it is easy to be afraid, but I will try to not be afraid – “the whole world is a very narrow bridge,” taught Rebbe Nachman, “but the main thing is not to be afraid.” I am a son whose father died. Gone are my eyes into the past that may guide my way forward into the future with greater experience than my own. I stand on the frontline, protecting my children and those who will come after. I think existentially. Though it’s been some time since I lived in his home or sought his advice for much, I feel more vulnerable without a father in the world.

 

My father was afraid of dying – he didn’t want to talk about it. He told his doctors – you’ve got to keep me alive til 120. “There is no fear” said Chaucer, and Rebbe Nachman too. I hope you remember that where you are going, dad. We will take care of mom. I will try to subdue myself so that “others [I] shall hear.” We will look to the stars and think of you. And your memory will be a blessing.

Friday
Dec022016

Grieve and Be Silent?

The Talmud (Moed Katan 15a) says, "A mourner is forbidden to greet others / אבל אסור בשאילת שלום" for the Merciful One said to Ezekiel [after telling him his beloved wife would fall victim to a plague and the Temple would be destroyed], "Grieve and be silent / האנק דם." The matter of how a mourner should greet others and be greeted is explored further on in the Talmud (MK 21b), "Rav Idi bar Avin said: [Once shivah has passed] one may greet others [literally: one may ask after the peace/shalom of another but] others may not ask after the peace of the mourner [until after sheloshim or, if one's parent died, until after 12 months] since [until then] the mourner is not at peace.
I admit: part of me finds such rules annoy-some. Life happens; it cannot be scripted, especially in life's most tender moments. I don't take the rules literally. I imagine the rules reflect what people did as much as they prescribed how people should behave. But I try to ask what wisdom is behind the rules and these practices. Why is a mourner told not to greet others? Why can a mourner ask about the peace of others after shivah but s/he must wait much longer (30 days or 12 months) until others should greet him/her?
Why is a mourner told not to greet others during the first seven days? During shivah, chit-chat is a burden. Social graces impose a painful obligation from which the halakhah hopes to free the mourner. Grieving needs the opportunity for silence. Only when it is quiet can I hear the echoes of dirt hitting the coffin or the sound of my father's voice the last time we spoke. Only absent the chatter of constant conversation can I remember the comfort I felt as my young nephew shoveled dirt. 
Why should others not greet a mourner for 30 days or, if a parent died, 12 months? Many authorities explain that this rule does not apply to greetings like, "Hello." It applies to the word, shalom. Shalom means "peace," "wholeness," "perfection." As Rav Idi explains, "the mourner is not at peace." Using the word shalom casually around a mourner is insensitive, even cruel. Like casually using the phrase, "ground zero," around someone who fled the World Trade Center on 9/11. The word shalom stings. Peace? Wholeness? My loved one is gone.
One other lesson (MK 21b). "One who meets her friend who is mourning during the 12 months offers her condolences but does not greet her. After 12 months, one greets her but does not offer condolences; rather, one may speak to her [about her loss] indirectly." We must acknowledge a person's loss while she mourns but we must also let her heal; she cannot be defined by her loss for the rest of her life. "To what can this be compared? To a person whose foot broke and then healed. A doctor met her and said to her, 'come to me for treatment; I can break it again and cure it, so you should know how fine my remedies are." One commentary explains: "[S]uch a "treatment" is of no value to the patient, who has already recovered; after a year has passed the mourner has recovered from the loss and someone who offers [her] condolences is needlessly reopening an old wound."
As for all these rules, I would only add: maybe. "After a year has passed the mourner has recovered from the loss" - maybe. Or maybe not. I have known people who remained in deep mourning for much longer. The rules don't apply in such a case. Perhaps speaking about the loss "indirectly" would be more painful, not less, because the wound is still fresh and continues to need the balm of acknowledgment and sympathy. But there are still lessons to be learned; tensions to be considered. Are there words that sting that we should avoid? Can we pay close enough attention to those we love so that we know if their wounds are still fresh and need to be acknowledged? Or if their wounds have healed and they want to move on?  

 

Thursday
Nov102016

Campaigns and Community

I gave the sermon below on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 2012, a few weeks prior to the election. Much of it holds true even more so today.

 

A story is told about a Jew in the 1920s who travels from his small Polish shtetl to Warsaw.  When he returns, he tells his friend of the wonders he has seen: “I met a Jew who had grown up in a yeshiva and knew large sections of the Talmud by heart. And I met a Jew who as an atheist.  I met a Jew who owned a clothing store with many employees and I met a Jew who was an ardent Communist.”

“So what’s so strange?” his friend asked him.  Warsaw is a big city – there must be a million Jews there.

“You don’t understand,” the man said to his friend.  “It was the same Jew.”

 ******************************

Part of what it means to be a Jew is to argue.  We don’t argue just with ourselves.  We love politics, and we really love Presidential campaigns.  Campaign discourse is rough; it always been.  I did some research - In 1828 the Presidential incumbent, John Quincy Adams, was literally called a pimp.  The challenger, Andrew Jackson, was accused of adultery and murder.  In the 1830s, Martin Van Buren was accused of wearing women’s corsets (by Davy Crockett, no less) and James Buchanan (who had a congential condition that caused his head to tilt to the left) was accused of having unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.

It’s comforting, in a strange sort of way, to read these examples, to know that a lot has been said, that a lot can be said, and the Republic still survives.  I wondered for a while, “Does it have to be this way?”  And the answer is, “Probably, yes.”  The fact that one candidate will win and one must lose means that the goal of all campaign rhetoric is victory, not truth. So all campaigns engage in a sort of warfare – and because we all vote, it means that we are all involved.  If you’re a guy in a house in the plains of North Dakota, you’re a small player; if you’re a precinct captain in Ohio, you’re a bigger player.  But we’re all a part of this war – note that campaign can be used to describe military campaigns as well as political campaigns – these campaigns have the capacity to add an element of warfare to all our discourse.

The debates we watch every four years are not a conversation between two candidates trying to understand each other; they are a contest, a drama not only to score points in front of people watching, but to deliver a sound bite or enact a lasting moment that will make the news and, by making the news, gain valuable free media time to get more votes.  We see two people on a stage talking with each other, but they are not talking with each other to explore each other’s opinions; they have a goal: to win votes by arguing well on national television.  They may listen to each other, but they only listen because not-listening risks being seen as unlikeable or rude by a huge television audience.  The debates of course, are only a miniature, though rather intense, enactment of a campaign drama in which we are all made both players and spectators.

Campaigns also involve canvasing, another type of non-conversation conversation which serve one of two utilitarian purposes: either to get people who agree with you to be sure to vote or to get people who disagree with you or who are on the fence about the election to vote for the candidate you support.

Why is canvasing a non-conversation conversation?  First, because before canvasing conversations begin, one thing must be clear in the mind of the person out seeking votes: under no circumstances should I enter into a conversation with someone who might change my mind and convince me to vote for someone else.  Second, once a canvasing conversation begins, it’s good to listen, but why? One reason is that, like in the debates, non-listening can appear rude – and that’s not effective for vote getting. We should practice “patient listening,” a type of listening which involves appearing like we are paying attention, even, if possible, agreeing with things the person is saying, but all the while waiting for the person to finish so that we can begin to speak.  We can also practice “strategic listening,” in which we listen in order to find areas of commonality or the best angle for convincing the person that they should vote with us.  Canvasing conversations are governed by one final rule: If it becomes apparent that the person cannot be persuaded, the conversation should end because the value of the conversation is determined by whether or not another vote can be secured for the campaign.  There is no reason for the conversation to continue if that goal can’t be achieved. Time is a valuable resource for the campaign that should be deployed as efficiently as possible for the purposes of winning.

Please don’t misunderstand me - I am not opposed to elections.  Quite the opposite – I am grateful for them.  First, as far as ways for determining who should be in power, elections are the civilized alternative to war.  So while it may be true that, as Churchill famously said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried,” that still makes elections a great way of figuring out who should have power.  Even more, when I was a swimmer, I never swam as fast when I tried to beat the clock as when I tried to beat the other guy. There is something is competition that raises us beyond what we can do alone, and there is something in political contests that has the capacity, at least, to clarify our thinking and to get us more involved in our democracy and public life.  But if we are honest, we can admit that whether it’s people working the “ground game” or ads flooding the airwaves, whether it is the candidates themselves or their surrogates or the Super Pacs, all of it is, at least in part if not mostly, discourse of a utilitarian nature.  It is about a very very high stakes race or contest, or game.  The problem is: life is not a game, and not everywhere should become a battlefield.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I am also not seeking a suffocating silence.  I was talking with a Professor at Duke the other day who remarked to me that today’s undergraduates have lost the art of disagreement.  What she meant is not that disagreements on campus turn into shouting matches and name calling, but rather, public conversations have dissolved into meaningless affirmations of what we all have in common rather than honest, articulate disagreement.  My suspicion is that students have very different viewpoints but instead of disagreeing with each other, they affirm each other in public and then each side retreats to the echo chambers of their particular communities where everyone agrees with them and then, safe from challenge and public scrutiny, they say what they really feel.

But it is not only the young who can’t disagree any more – it is all of us. Whether it’s Israel or health care or the economy, we either speak with, or listen to, or read those who make us feel safe or our conversations descend into shouting matches and personal attacks which, by the way, if you are Republican, are always what Democrats do, and if you are a Democrat, that is always what Republicans do.

Our bodies cannot survive if we are exposed to the tension and adrenaline of battle for too long.  We cannot constantly be at war or our bodies will simply collapse.  Campaigns too must have boundaries.  First, they have to have an ending.  Our politicians will tell us – though I recognize that, when they do, they will do so at least in part to get our votes – that on Wednesday, November 7th, we cannot simply start campaigning again to beat the other guy, but rather we need to return to being one country – not red or blue.  I think they are right.  But they will only do so if we demand of our leaders that the campaigns stop.

Until November 7th, even, and perhaps especially, while the campaigns are going on, I believe we also need to preserve certain places, times, and relationships where campaign discourse stops and a different kind of discourse begins. If campaigns seep too deeply into the life of our national and local communities, if life becomes one long campaign rather than a discreet period leading up to an election, our personal, and interpersonal, lives will be impoverished. Where and when might these places be?

A synagogue wouldn’t be a synagogue without politics :-) But I do think our conversations on Shabbat and at kiddush should be different.  Does that mean we shouldn’t talk about politics?  No – I do not believe that Judaism should wall itself off from the world.  You have heard me say before that if what we do in synagogue makes no difference to who we are when leave, then something has fundamentally failed in what we do.  But when we talk about politics, our conversations should not be of a utilitarian nature; they should embody the deepest notions of Jewish dialogue.

First – we must be willing to truly listen.  Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it is said, ‘From all who would teach me, I have gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).” (Mishnah Avot 4:1).  When we talk at kiddush, do we really believe we can learn from anyone?  Rob Eshman, the editor for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, recently wrote: “[N]o party, like no person, is invested with perfect insight and far-seeing wisdom. Fixing Medicare? Boosting unemployment? Defanging Iran? To quote Woody Allen, most of us don’t even know how a can opener works.  So why, come election season, do we pretend otherwise?” We must begin with a deep sense of the complexity of the problems we face and the possibility that Jewish values – such as compassion for the poor, education and equality, support of Israel, family and fidelity – these things are not the province of one party only.  The world is too vast; life is too complex – the wise person believes that she can learn from everyone, maybe even especially those who differ from us, and our conversations should reflect that humility and curiosity.

Second, we must be willing to embrace contradictory truths.  The 10 commandments begins, “vayidaber elohim et kol hadevarim haeleh lamor” - “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1).  Emphasizing that God’s revelation was words – in the plural - the Tosefta says, “One might say to oneself, “Since the House of Shammai says ‘impure’ and the House of Hillel says ‘pure,’ one prohibits and one permits, why should I continue to learn Torah?” Therefore the Torah says, “And God spoke all these words.” All these words were given by a single Shepherd…Therefore make your heart into a many-chambered room, and bring into it both the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel, both the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit. (Tosefta Sotah 7:12) Can we make of our heart a many chambered room? Is our heart open to contradictory judgments? As my teacher Rabbi Harold Shulweis once wrote, “The heart must be humble enough not to insulate itself in one room, locking out all others and maintaining that it alone possesses the heartbeat of God?  Inclusiveness and humility struggle against the hard disjunctive that would compel us to choose either/or. That hardness is the way of idolatry that deifies a part as if it were the whole.” Campaigns demand hardness; the synagogue demands humility.


And finally, the nature of our arguments must be such that we can hold each other in relationship until our love is restored?  In the Talmud, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said: “If a father and son or a teacher and a student who are studying Torah in one place become enemies to one another, they should not move from there until their love for one another is restored.” (Talmud Kiddushin 30b) And The Talmud in Yevamot says, “Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel were in disagreement - what the one forbade, the other permitted – nevertheless, the House of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the school of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. The Hebrew word for our arguing partner is chevruta – from which we get the same word chaver – friend. Can we remain one community?   Can we remain one people?  Can we remain one country?  Can we remain friends?  I believe that the answer to those questions will be seen in whether we can hold each other, stick with each other, not move from that place of argument until our love is restored.

Before I conclude, let me add one caveat.  It can fairly be asked, “How far do you push your listening?  True listening demands that I hold myself open to being changed by the wisdom of another, but must I really be completely open?  The answer is no.  Just as if I am talking with a Christian or a Muslim, I need not be open to being converted away from Judaism, if I am listening to or reading a viewpoint vastly different from my own there is a part of me that should remain core, untouchable – what the Hasidic tradition calls our “shoresh haneshama” – our soul root. But our souls are more complex; they are not one or the other, but rather mosaics.  And so we can engage with another and still know who we are.

Let me conclude with one of my favorite passages from Emerson and a prayer.  Emerson once wrote:

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had, in the dreary years of routine and sin, with souls that made our souls wiser: that spoke what we thought: that told us what we knew: that gave us leave to be what we inly were…”

May the conversations of our community make our souls wise, may they give us leave to be who we inly are.  This Rosh Hashanah, I pray for the world.  I pray this for the United States.  And this Rosh Hashanah, I pray for our community, and for all of us, that we might recover the lost art of disagreement.  I pray for the gratitude for being able to participate in a vibrant democracy that can withstand a war of words, and for the wisdom to hold each other until our love is restored. 

Friday
Oct282016

Yom Kippur Yizkor 2016 / 5777 - Nurse Logs and Memory  

I want to share with you two stories from the summer and a poem.

First, in August I flew up to Minneapolis to perform the wedding for a young couple that spent many years here in Durham and found a Jewish home here in Beth El. The bride’s family was Russian.  At the wedding reception, while people sang and danced, her father sat next to me and told me his family’s story.

The bride’s father was five years old in June 1941. They lived in Latvia and, when Germany started bombing the area on the first day of the war, his father’s family faced a decision: stay or leave. It might have made sense to stay. Many Jews in this area had served in the German army in World War I and some speculated that the Germans would treat them favorably as a reward for their service just twenty-five years before.

If not for a small bit of - one cannot call it luck, but circumstance - there would have been no choice whatsoever. The bride’s father’s elderly grandmother lived with her son and their family - they could never leave her behind. But one week before the war began, grandmother went to visit her other daughter in a nearby village, leaving them with an excruciating decision. Should they stay and risk being caught up in the impending chaos of war? Or should they depend on their relative’s family to care as best they could for their elderly grandmother and, now being able to move quickly, should they flee through the doorway that circumstance had opened for them? They decided to leave.

There were no vehicles. They let go of their possessions and clung to what is most important: each other. Mother and father walked, the kids took turns riding on bicycles - and they went east, 50 kilometers in the hot summer sun until they crossed the Russian border to relative safety. They would learn later that their village was taken by the Germans on the 2nd day of the war. His elderly grandmother, his aunt and the rest of their family were all killed.

As we sat at the wedding, the bride’s explained, every member of his known family could be traced to that one decision: to leave on the very first day of the war, and to that one shift of circumstance - that their elderly grandmother had gone to visit her daughter a week before the war. As he spoke, I remembered a prayer we sing at Tachanun: Shomer Yisrael, Shmor Sheirith Yisrael - “Guardian of Israel, Guard the remnant of Israel” and thought about how much we are all “Sheirith Yisrael” - the remnant of Israel, the product of accident after accident, the end of a long string of luck and circumstance through Jewish history that brought us alive as Jews to the beginning of the 21st century. Today I think about we are not here as products of our own design, but rather how lucky each and every one of us is to be here on Yom Kippur. It is fitting today to remember, to remember those who came before us.  

The second story is not from Minneapolis or Latvia, but from Olympic National Park in Washington where, as I mentioned on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Jennifer and I recently enjoyed a trip to celebrate our 20th anniversary. As part of our trip, we walked through the Hoh rainforest and the Park Ranger explained how these temperate rainforests are home to Sitka spruce, hemlock, and Douglas fir trees. Some of these trees grow to over two hundred feet high and produce so much foliage that they block out most of the light. The forest floor can sustain ferns and other shade loving plants but beneath the ferns, it is so dark that scientists noticed a problem: Even if seedlings were to germinate, how could they gather enough light for them to photosynthesize? Or, put more simply, how can these giant trees regenerate themselves?

And the answer, I learned, on my walk with the park ranger, and my wife, is something called a nurse log. When one of these huge trees falls, it clears a path of destruction, not only when it hits the ground, but clearing out part of the canopy over the forest and creating a place where more sunlight happens to get in. But it’s not only that.

In his book, The Private Life of Plants, David Attenborough explains that these giant trees reproduce themselves:

...with the aid of their own dead bodies. The girth of an adult tree is such that the upper side of a fallen trunk remains above the ferns. A seed from a neighboring tree that lands on it can thus get sufficient light to germinate. Being perched there brings another advantage: the bark of the prostrate tree is very fibrous and holds moisture like a sponge so the young plant does not lack for water. As the seedling sprouts, it sends down roots. They grow over the flank of the log and down into the rich soil beneath.

These stories - the story of a nurse log and the story of a Russian family wedding in Minneapolis - go together in my heart, not just because I encountered them both over the summer. They each made me think of Yizkor.

Today we remember those who came before us. We remember with gratitude both the miracles we received through no merit of our own and the decisions they made based on values - such as letting go of possessions and clinging to what’s most important - that made our lives possible. We remember how much our lives are like those of seedlings that grow on a nurse log, how we are nourished by the gifts of those who came before us, how our lives would not be the same were it not for the sacrifices they made.

We remember not merely to recall those who are gone, but to allow them to challenge us: can we make of ourselves a nurse log? Can we clear a path for the sun to shine? Can we gather water and food for the next generation to grow? Can we follow the example of those who came before us and gave us the forest floor?

Before our meditation, I want to conclude with a poem by Dana Gioia, not about trees, but about gardens and memories of times spent together with those we love. It is called: The Lost Garden.

If ever we see those gardens again,

The summer will be gone – at least our summer.

Some other mockingbird will concertize

Among the mulberries, and other vines

Will climb the high brick wall to disappear

 

How many footpaths crossed the old estate—

The gracious acreage of a grander age—

So many trees to kiss or argue under,

And greenery enough for any mood.

What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

 

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow

Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

And if we speak of private suffering,

The pain becomes part of a well-turned tale

Describing someone else who shares our name.

 

Still, thinking of you, I sometimes play a game.

What if we had walked a different path one day,

Would some small incident have nudged us elsewhere

The way a pebble tossed into a brook

Might change the course a hundred miles downstream?

The trick is making memory a blessing,

To learn by loss subtraction of desire,

Of wanting nothing more than what has been,

To know the past forever lost, yet seeing

Behind the wall a garden still in blossom

****

Can we make memory a blessing?  We feel loss. Can we still see in our lives that there is a garden in bloom?  I know the temptations of grief.  I know how hard it can feel to move on.  I know that sometimes we feel a desire to return to the way that thing were.  But the trick is to make memory a blessing, and to see a garden still in bloom. Amen.