Take me out to the ballgame…

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TEam Israel in kippotThose who know me know that I have always been a big baseball fan. This past year has been very special for me – the Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 AND Israel entered into the World Baseball Classic.  A Team Israel baseball team?  It’s a gross understatement to say that baseball is not a big deal in Israel.  In a nation of around 8 million inhabitants, only about 1000 play baseball – even as recreation.   And baseball is clearly not part of the national culture.  I remember the time when I took a group of Israeli staff members at my Jewish summer camp to a professional baseball game.  They were ready to leave after the first inning, declaring the game too slow and boring and the intricacies that I tried to explain much too difficult and convoluted to understand.

There is only one full size baseball field in all of Israel, built by American Baptists in the early 2000’s. Several other smaller fields are said to be in the works. There has never been an Israeli-born major leaguer. A recent article in The Jewish Week newspaper described Israel’s early success in the World Baseball Classic Tournament as the quintessential Cinderella story. Team Israel defied heavy odds by winnings its first four games with a ragtag gang of mostly has-beens and minor leaguers.  Following their saga as it unfolded and as Israel advanced to being only one game away from the semi-finals in Los Angeles, I thought that perhaps this would be a new miracle story.  But alas, they lost to a very good Japanese team and their short season was over. Nevertheless, they represented themselves and the State of Israel with pride, even though, ironically, there was only one native Israeli on the team (who happens to live in Brooklyn).

The Jewish Week proposed that aside from providing much needed relief from the nerve-racking news of the day, Team Israel’s success offers up a vital message that transcends the boundaries of a baseball diamond. For almost an entire week this underdog team was the darling of the sports world.  Notably, its mascot is a five foot tall Mensch on the Bench, the popular toy modeled after the Elf on the Shelf. Baseball has plenty of actual menches on benches—including the great Sandy Koufax and the power-hitting Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, to mention just two.  The fact that Jews from so many strands of Jewish heritage made up Team Israel denotes far more about the miracle of how modern-day Zionism can unite the Jewish people than about merely fielding a baseball squad. And selecting Mensch on the Bench as the team’s mascot is a powerful reminder that ethics is at Judaism’s core, and that how you play the game (not just winning) is what counts in the game of baseball and the game of life.

What really touched me was seeing that when the Israeli team stood at attention for their national anthem (Hatikvah) before each game, they respectfully took off their baseball caps and donned yarmulkes. And on the eve of Purim, before taking to the field, they read the megillah (the scroll of Esther) in the dugout– another story of unimaginable triumph and Jewish pride.  Even though there is only one actual Israeli on the team, and even though the players are not necessarily observant, the one thing that they all share is their Jewish identity, pride and unity.

I would like to imagine that if Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary were alive today, he might send me a note after reading this blog. After all, he was the one who said that for a Rabbi to be successful in America, s/he must be able to talk baseball!

Teach us to Number our days

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For the past few months I have been doing chaplaincy work for a local hospice. Two gentlemen that I regularly visit stand out in particular because of their sharp minds, zest for living life, optimism, and yes, current age. One man, age 105 was pleased to show me the Happy Birthday letter that he received from President and Michelle Obama on the occasion of his 100th birthday.  Every time I visited he relished the opportunity to share fascinating vignettes from his life.

Just last week I visited another man who celebrated his 106th birthday a few days ago.  Each time I visit he recounts his life, always beginning with his childhood, his attaining American citizenship, his 50 year marriage to the love of his life, and his father’s somewhat strained relationship with Winston Churchill as well as his business association with none other than Mahatma Gandhi.  Although he has no biological children, his nephew and nieces have organized a dinner party in celebration of his birthday, which will include all his favorite foods. These days he suffers from a touch of arthritis and is admittedly hard of hearing, but whenever I see him he greets me with a broad smile and tells me how much he enjoys living each day to its fullest.  He remains interested in the arts, taking in line dancing, attending symphony concerts, and taking advantage of in-house lectures at the assisted living facility where he resides. Before the election, when I asked him if he planned to vote for the President of the United States, he responded enthusiastically that indeed he was.  He looked forward to taking the bus to the polling center so that he could cast his vote in person, rather than by mail.

Current longevity rates are unprecedented. Americans are living longer than ever before, with increasing numbers of people living into their eighties, nineties and even their hundreds. Active late adulthood offers abundant opportunities for discovery and creativity for those who are endowed with good health.  Jewish tradition has always emphasized that long healthy years are indeed a blessing granted by God. I have always been amazed that the Bible lists long life as the reward for fulfilling three of God’s commandments: honoring parents (Exodus 20:12), sending a mother bird away from the nest before capturing her young (Deuteronomy 22:7), and using honest weights in business dealings. (Deuteronomy 25:15).  What these injunctions have in common is that each highlights the importance of righteousness and compassion in all of our daily interactions – within our families, in commerce and even with regard to the nature and the environment.  The ancient rabbis expanded the criteria for attaining a long life to a far more demanding list of ethical behaviors including:  showing patience, never rejoicing in one’s neighbor’s shame, and never calling a person by a name that might embarrass him/her.

Attaining 120 years with undiminished abilities has come to be considered the ideal life span because according to the Torah Moses reached that age with “his eyes undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)  In Jewish tradition, the blessing of “120 years” is frequently offered to people on their birthdays.

Throughout history, the Jewish people have paid particular attention to the welfare of the aged. The book of Leviticus (19:32) commands, “You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old person.” The first words of this verse appear on signs at the front of Israeli buses to remind passengers to offer their seats to the elderly.  In numerous Biblical passages it is the elders who are the wise ones, repositories of knowledge and the judges of the people.  In biblical times, people turned to the elders for life advice.  Unfortunately, all-too-often, nowadays, old people are perceived as socially, psychologically and physically restricted and deteriorated. As a result, they are too often isolated and their skills and wisdom are devaluated.  In contrast, our High Holy Day liturgy enjoins “do not forsake me in old age,” and the Bratslaver Rebbe reminds us that “the prosperity of a country is in accordance with its treatment of the elderly.”  That is why it is so gratifying and important to see the development of programs such as Better Together, a national initiative that brings together teens and seniors to foster ongoing intergenerational relationships and to build concern for and appreciation of seniors in the teens.

Each visit with my amazing senior friends reinforces my appreciation for the vitality, wisdom and life lessons that elders can transmit. Like the 105- and 106-year-old men that I am so honored to visit, may we continue to learn to number our days, to remain optimistic and to live our lives to the fullest.   May we not only count our days, but may we make each day count.  And as the saying goes, “til 120.”

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him….”

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lady-liberty-cryingIt has been ten days since our 45th president has been sworn into office, and already he has enacted many executive orders. One of his first ones was his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. In another he ordered punishments for cities shielding illegal immigrants, and in a third an order to block entry of refugees from war-torn Syria and suspend the entry of any immigrants from Muslim-majority  Middle Eastern and African countries Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Yemen. These and other directives have led to mass protests, fear, and sleepless nights for many Americans.

Surely, the safety and security of our nation must be ensured. But what are our obligations to society’s most vulnerable members? The book of Exodus has this to say: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan. The Bible appreciates how common it is for people to take advantage of society’s weakest, most marginal members, and fears that an appeal to sympathy alone would be insufficient to motivate people to act sensitively. It thus adds a “kicker” to the second of these commandments, warning those who mistreat widows and orphans that “your own wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:23)  Concerning strangers, the Bible claims that they are the sole category of people whom God is identified as loving. “And God loves the stranger.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

Because Jews have historically been subjected to frequent expulsions, we are all too familiar with the need for help getting settled in a new community and with the reciprocal imperative to provide aid to others. Ample precedent in our historical experience make many Americans feel sympathetic to those in need of a new home due to persecution. We need to look no further than the tragedy of the Holocaust to understand that peoples’ lives are lost when refugees who are fleeing for their lives are refused sanctuary –and that every day counts. Who can remain silent at the images of Jewish and other men, women and children who were turned away while attempting to flee Nazi Germany?  Whose heart does not stir when we read or song Emma Lazarus’ poem affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” For us Americans, the sentiment in favor of immigration also grows from the undeniable fact that the United States, the greatest experiment in pluralism in history, has gained tremendously and continues to benefit from the economic and cultural contributions of immigrants from all over the world.

There are more than thirty references in the Bible related to loving the strangers. The frequency of the command suggests that strangers and foreigners must have had a difficult time finding acceptance in society, as is often the case today. The Bible gives an explicitly stated reason for the commandment to love the stranger, calling on the Israelite’s compassion: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). In this way, the Israelites are told to be empathetic to all strangers, since they themselves were strangers in Egypt for many centuries.

I am proud to be a member of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, an organization that has advocated that our government maintain its proud legacy of welcoming refugees and provide meaningful opportunity to all who seek asylum. In addition, it calls on our government to reject policy proposals that would halt or limit or curtail funding for refugee resettlement in the U.S or prioritize certain refugees over others.

One of the most eloquent statements about the value of human life comes from a very odd source: the admonition administered by ancient Jewish courts to witnesses testifying in capital cases. In addition to the expected warnings against perjury, the judges offered a commentary on why God originally populated the world with only one person, Adam. “To teach you,” the witnesses were warned, that “whoever destroys one life is considered by the Torah as if he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves one life is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Each human life has infinite value, and we cannot stand idly by when we see something that we know is just not right. The long and historical Jewish involvement in human rights and civil rights movements—even in those societies where Jews already have had equal rights—is an outgrowth of this 3000 year old reminder from the Bible, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We cannot stand idly by. We must lift our voices against injustice and in support of our core Jewish and American values.  We must financially support the organizations and individuals who stand up for these core values and for justice.  As Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

“REMEMBER THE PAST, LIVE THE PRESENT, TRUST THE FUTURE”

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As we approach the threshold of the New Year, I have been reading many predictions about what 2017 may have in store for us and the world. But is it really wise to try to predict the future?  The future has been defined as something that everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever one does, whoever one is. But there has always been a vast curiosity to know the future before we get there.

Every day millions of Americans read their astrological horoscopes in the newspaper to learn what the planets have in store for them. Astrology is a popular occupation in America today, in which thousands of people are employed full time. We consult the stars, palm readers and crystal balls in an effort to part the curtain that veils the future.  I once saw a cartoon in which a young girl was reading her diary to her friend.  The girl commented: “This is one book where I wish it were possible to peek in the back and see how it all comes out.”

Even Jacob in the Bible, third patriarch of the Jewish people, attempted for a fleeting moment to unravel the secrets that are hidden in the womb of time. As he lay on his deathbed, he gathered his children and said to them: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” (Genesis 49:1)

As we read further into the story, however, there are no predictions of things to come. And the rabbinic sages point out that although Jacob wanted to foretell the future, the Divine Presence departed from him. God apparently did not want the future to be revealed. But what was God’s reasoning?

If you and I knew what was going to happen tomorrow and the day after and on all the days to come, wouldn’t life lose much of its zest and excitement? A terrible boredom might even set in as we mechanically play out the roles that have been predetermined and foretold for us. And if we knew in advance the disappointments and broken dreams and sorrows that awaited us, could we find the courage to even venture into the future at all?

But the most compelling reason no one can predict the future is that the future does not actually exist. According to Judaism, we all have the freedom of will to determine the shape of tomorrow by what we do today.

The American historian James Truslow Adams put his finger on the truth when he said that while an astronomer can predict precisely where every star will be at 11:30 tonight, he can make no such predication about his young daughter.

What the future has in store for us depends largely on what we place in store for the future. Only our actions — not the stars nor the cards — will determine the shape of things to come.

Several years ago, I read a quote on a wall in the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv that has greatly influenced the way I live my life. The quote was attributed to an anonymous survivor of a World War II German concentration camp.

“REMEMBER THE PAST, LIVE THE PRESENT, TRUST THE FUTURE”

Our lives are enriched when we recall and honor the past and those who came before us, when we live each day to its fullest and do as much good as we can, and when we have faith in the future.

 May the coming year bring you happiness and fulfillment, health and well-being, tranquility and peace.

Nurturing dew

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leaf-with-dewdropsEmphasis on the importance of education dates back to Bible times. The Israelites were commanded again and again to study all of the laws and commandments, and by the rabbinic era learning and study had come to be regarded as so important that the injunction to study came be regarded as more important than all of the other commandments. Scholars were considered the elite of society, exercising authority in many community activities.

The teacher-student relationship always has been sacred. Students may bring out the best in teachers, just as teachers bring out the best in students. Each owes the other respect and loyalty. The ancient rabbis considered a teacher the most exalted person in a student’s life, worthy of even greater honor than a parent. The rabbis advised people that one of the most important life tasks is to acquire a master teacher (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6).

Teaching is central to my rabbinate. One of my major goals as a rabbi (the word actually means “my teacher” in Hebrew) is to seek and take advantage of “teachable moments” in all of my interactions – in all places and with all people. From preschoolers to seniors, from classroom to conversations at the supermarket, there are always opportunities for me to learn and to teach.

Learning together has resulted in strong enduring relationships with many of my students, which are among the most meaningful connections in my life.  This past weekend two women who had been my students since they were in preschool at our synagogue planned a vacation weekend down the Jersey shore in Wildwood, NJ where I now serve as part-time rabbi – just to spend time with me and my wife!  They joined us for worship services on Friday evening and Saturday morning and for Sabbath dinner at our house, where we reminisced about our nearly three decades of learning together.  They amazed and touched us with their many memories of shared learning experiences, specific exchanges in Hebrew High classes, and the impact of small interactions during class trips and other shared experiences.

There is a Yiddish song that I often sing with my music therapy patients at Stein Jewish Hospice. It is sometimes known as “Der Rebbe haute geheisen freilach zein.” The song prescribes the way to make a rabbi happy — including a recipe for the kind of beverage to serve him. This weekend our students offered us a different recipe for happiness – the gift of a very special Shabbat filled with joy, laughter, memories and new learning together!

A Talmudic rabbi and teacher once wrote that the teaching of a competent teacher is dispersed like the dew, nurturing and rejuvenating all that it touches. May you all experience the joy of special connections with your teachers and students – and thereby spreading mutual learning like the nourishing dew.

Go Cubs, Go!

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Although I am a long-time Yankee fan, I am very pleased the two teams in this year’s World Series are giving their fans something they have not seen in many decades. For the Cubs, it has been 108 years since they last won a World Series, and for Cleveland a mere 68 years.   Admittedly I am rooting for the Cubs for a number of personal reasons. My son-in-law’s dad was a successful congregational rabbi in a Chicago suburb for 25 years, and everyone in the family (including my two grandkids) are staunch Cubbie fans.  My son and daughter-in-law who now live in Chicago are surely fans.  In fact, they attended Game 5 of the series!

Two interesting newspaper articles about the Cubs recently caught my eye – because they put an interesting Jewish spin on the Cubs story and contained important life lessons.  In his New York Times article entitled “The Cubs Reach the Promised Land” Rich Cohen, who attended his first Cubs game in 1975, compared the Cubs to the Hebrews, wandering for decades in the wilderness. Moses understood that it would take a new generation to claim the Promised Land.  For the Cubs, that new generation has finally arrived with the team making its first World Series appearance in 71 years.

Ardent Cubs fans have continued to support their team year after year, even though it meant faithfully choosing a constant loser over a winner. Rich Cohen writes of a Cubs female fan as being Ecclesiastical.  “Among all other spectators, only she understood the truth: Life is vanity; Come October we’ll be watching the Bears.” Like Moses, Rich Cohen has waited 40 years, and is hoping not only to reach the Promised Land, but to enter into its holy space.

Just today, The Jewish Forward featured an article about the team’s theme song “Go Cubs Go,” which has been played at Wrigley Field after every home victory since 2007, as the grounds crew raises the white “W” (WIN!) flag. The song was composed by Steven Goodman, a Chicago singer and songwriter who died of leukemia in 1984 at age 36, just a few days before he was scheduled to sing the national anthem at the Cub’s first-ever appearance in the National League playoffs. Goodman grew up in Chicago and was a high school classmate of fellow Cubs fan Hillary Clinton.

Four years after Goodman’s death, his brother David and friend Harry Waller snuck into Wrigley Field (bribing a groundskeeper with a $20 bill) and scattered his ashes over left field, just as Goodman had written in the song: “Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow/From the prevailing 30-mile-an-hour southwest wind… and I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue.” Goodman’s wife Nancy and their three daughters scattered the rest of his ashes in Doubleday Field outside the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Cubs never made it to the World Series in Goodman’s lifetime, but he never lost faith that someday it would happen. In 1981 he wrote “A Dying Cub’s Fan’s last Request.” Ever optimistic, he always introduced the song by telling the audience: “The Cubs are liable to screw it up and win so I can’t sing this song anymore.”

My big take-away from these articles:  If not this year in the Promised Land, there’s always next year.  You’ve just gotta have faith!   Go Cubs!!!

May your merits be as numerous as the seeds of the pomegranate…

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pomegranateThe pomegranate, known for its health benefits, is one of my wife’s favorite fruits.  She not only enjoys eating them raw, but also has some amazing recipes for cooking with them, including pomegranate chicken, one of her signature dishes. Over the years we have amassed a collection of over 100 pomegranates and pomegranate-related objects, including framed Rosh Hashanah New Year’s cards, ceramics  and plaques, bowls of dried pomegranates,  and even U.S. stamps depicting pomegranates. My wife has pomegranate-shaped jewelry including a beautiful pomegranate necklace that I bought in Safed and a copper pomegranate bracelet from our children. Once, we came upon a pomegranate coffee table in a furniture store with unique items – but felt it might be “over the top” even for us!

One custom associated with the Jewish New Year is eating symbolic foods.  The most well-known custom is eating apples dipped in honey, demonstrating our wishes for a sweet new year.  Many practice the custom of eating foods that serve as good omens or hints of blessing as we end one year and enter into the next one. A Talmudic rabbi named Abaye suggested that serving these symbolic foods as we begin the new year will bring about a positive judgment in God’s court on high., Foods that either have a quick growth cycle or a particularly sweet taste (such as leeks, gourds, beets and dates) are particularly popular. The ancient rabbis added other symbols, including the head of an animal or a fish, implying that we should be at the head of the line for good merits, and sweet beverages. Some people eat carrots (mehren in Yiddish which is similar to the Yiddish word mehr or more) connoting that we hope to receive more blessings.

But for me, the most evocative symbol of the new year is the pomegranate, with its tough red outer skin and spongy web of inner pulp with many seeds. As a child in Religious School I was taught that each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — which just happens to be the exact number of mitzvot/commandments we count in the Torah.  [Surprisingly, there is actually scientific data supporting the finding that on average, pomegranates actually DO have 613 seeds.]

According to The Code of Jewish Law “we are accustomed to eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah and we recite: May our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate.”  Further, a verse in the Song of Songs (4:43) states “your cheek is like a pomegranate.” This is a play on words. The Hebrew word for cheek, rakateich has a root similar to the Hebrew word rake which means empty. The analogy implies that even empty ones (i.e. people who might otherwise be considered to have no merits at all) are truly filled with virtues, just as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, but those virtues are merely hidden behind a tough skin.  This reminds us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.  How often do we rush to judge others based on their outward appearance?  How often do we miss the opportunity to gain benefits from taking the time to get to know their inner nature?

As we enter the New Year of 5777, may our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate, and may we learn to focus on the sweetness and goodness that lies beneath the surface in every living being.  Wishing you a New Year of peace, prosperity and sweetness!