“We Deliver Love…” If Only!

The other day I was stopped at a traffic light behind a floral shop delivery van:

“We Deliver Love”

Their tag line (as seen on the photo above): “We Deliver Love.”

If only life were that simple. If only our world could be filled with love by receiving a delivery of flowers! No more hatred, no more violence, no more racism. Only flowers…lots and lots of flowers, and therefore, love!

Unfortunately, we know this isn’t the case. We know where hatred, violence and racism abide, love, flowers and beauty seem to disappear.

How can we “deliver love” to the world around us in the midst of violence, evil and hatred?

Perhaps we can learn something from what has come to be known as “The Golden Rule”, one of the most famous lines in the Hebrew Bible which teaches about “love:”

“V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha (Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Many other religions have their own version of this as well.

There is much discussion surrounding this: what does it mean to “Love one’s fellow”? WHO is one’s fellow? Is it only people just like ourselves? Or is it everyone? Do we love those people who don’t love us back? I was thinking about this last week because as we are well aware, last Wednesday and Thursday, on two different continents, racism and hatred motivated vicious attacks on religious institutions.

We all know of the horrific shootings on Wednesday, June 17, 2015 at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Nine people who were engaged in bible study were gunned down in cold blood by a young man steeped in hatred and racist ideas.  First, he sat alongside the pastor studying for awhile in this beautiful, historic church, before pulling out his gun. (For a thoughtful, cogent and articulate perspective, please read Rabbi Lucy Dinner’s “Response to the Massacre in Charleston”. Rabbi Dinner is a Reform rabbi and a southerner, with keen insight into the situation).

The very next day, Jewish extremists perpetrated a horrific arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha in Israel. This is one of the most famous Catholic churches in the Holy Land. They too, were steeped in hatred and racism.

And if we were to scour the news, we would find multiple other events happening across the globe on a daily basis, all motivated by those same ideologies: hatred and racism.

Racism and hatred are learned ideologies. Each of us is born innocent. Those who hate, are taught to hate by others around them, by their environment, by their cultural upbringing.

But there is hope that even those who grew up learning about violence, hatred and racism can change. For example, in Israel one NGO called: “Combatants for Peace” comprised of Israelis and Palestinians grew out of a desire of Palestinians and Israelis who were tired of fighting each other. They now work together to promote dialogue, understanding and harmony.

So what does “V’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha” have to teach us about this situation?  Dr. Jacob Milgrom, (in his book “Learn with Torah,” Vol. 5, number 30) teaches us three things about this verse:

  1. Loving to or for your neighbor implies action not just feeling. (Do for your neighbor as you would do for yourself) (both Hillel and Jesus taught what is hateful to you, do not do to others, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Hatred is a learned response and therefore, it can be unlearned as well. We need to take whatever actions are necessary to teach understanding, respect and tolerance.
  2. “Your neighbor” implies someone who is physically close to you. This is not a stranger, not an anonymous next door neighbor – but someone who shares your neighborhood with you, who shares the same fears, hopes and dreams as you. For example, this means we must help our friends in the South understand that the Confederate flag is hateful and hurtful to many.
  3. How can you love someone else if you don’t or can’t love yourself? If we can’t find a way to love ourselves, it’s difficult or impossible to love another. When one feels worthless, one can’t find those God-like qualities within – and can’t recognize that other’s are also made in the image of God. Therefore, it becomes much easier to treat others as “less than” or as value-less.

So let us ‘deliver love’ by learning how to love one another and ourselves in our actions and our deeds. And then maybe our world can be filled with flowers, beauty and love for all. 

Israel Pride

Sunday was a gorgeous summer day: sunny, hot, not a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect day for a parade.

Thousands of Jews from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut gathered in New York City to celebrate Israel.

We were young, we were old. We were religiously observant. We were secular. We were Jews of every age, shape, size, political and religious persuasion.

But we all shared one thing in common: Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel.

Teen draped in Israeli flag during the 2015 NYC Israel Day Parade
Teen draped in Israeli flag during the 2015 NYC Israel Day Parade
Each group gathered on the side streets along the Upper East Side, to feed into 5th Avenue for the start of the parade, shortly around noon. Each group wore their own colorful t-shirt, marching under their own banner. It was so joyous to see so many of us from all over the Tri-State area.

And who better to begin the Parade than the “YOWies?” – “Yids on Wheels” – a group of Jews who ride motorcycles, raise awareness and “community goodwill” as part of their mandate. Israel and their Jewish identity, along with a love of biking, brings these folk together. Having the “Yowies” begin the Parade was a demonstration that this parade was going to be FUN, it was meant to make us smile and bring joy.

There was no political agenda to the parade: no speeches, no rally “talks”, no fundraising. This was true “klal Yisrael – the community of Israel, the Jewish people, joining together as one united people. It was a beautiful site to see. It was a spectacular event in which to participate.

The only “small political element” that didn’t  dampen our spirits in the least, was a tiny group of Jewish protesters, who were limited to standing in a small cordoned-off area. But their voices were barely heard, their protests seemed…anachronistic, archaic, irrelevant. And they didn’t even cause a stir.

5th Avenue was closed to cars as we marched. All along the way, the NYC police were lined up on the side, not simply providing security, but smiling and cheering us on. It was a display of “NYPD Blue” at their finest! Behind the police stood our supporters, friends and everyone who loves watching a parade!

Israel Parade NYC 2015
Scenes from the Israel Day Parade, 2015
There was music and bands. Radio and TV stations broadcast the Parade so others could share our joy and celebrate Israel with us.

We want others to know that Israel is more than violence and struggle with her neighbors. Israel is more than the headlines we read about in the news.

Israel is a modern, hi-tech, country. The people who live there affirm life each and every day. Like those of us who marched in the parade, the people of Israel are young and old, they are Jews, Muslims and Christians. They are Arab, Druze and Bedouin. They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular. They are of every religious and political persuasion. And they have much to celebrate.

At the same time, Israel needs our support. We need to visit. Each of us – no matter if we are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, has roots in this special place. We need to discover our heritage. We need to discover with our own eyes the Israel of today and only then, can we truly make educated opinions and work to make peace a living, breathing reality for all who live there.

As Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism once said:

Im tirtzu, ayn zo agada, l’h’yot am chofshi, b’artzaynu, b’Eretz Zion, b’Y’ru’shalayim. – If you will it, it is no dream, to live as a free people, in the land of Zion, the land of Jerusalem.”

Tarnished Faith/Faith Restored

Yesterday I had the great luxury and pleasure of spending the day on an interfaith clergy retreat with my local colleagues. Our session was held at a beautiful retreat center and camp situated right on the Long Island Sound.

My view of the Long Island Sound during my interfaith clergy retreat
My view of the Long Island Sound during my interfaith clergy retreat
As we sat gazing at the water, the facilitator made a request: listen to the silence, the “sound” from the Sound, the words from your soul. What do you hear?

The day was powerful and rich. Filled with collegiality, friendship, learning and an openness of spirit that come only from spending time with one’s peers.

I felt God’s presence suffuse the space: from both the majestic view that surrounded us, as well as from the sharing of our hearts and souls with each other inside the meeting room.

But feeling God’s presence is not unusual for me. I have a deep and abiding faith. From the moment I was born, my mother sang the “bedtime Sh’ma” to me every single night before she put me to sleep:

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”

The Sh’ma is a simple text. It is a declaration of faith. It reminds us of our connection to the Divine.

It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God.  My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day. And from the time I was born to this very day, I cannot go to sleep at night until I recite those words.

So last year, when one of my congregants and dear friends in Highland Park, Illinois, gifted me with a beautiful, silver Sh’ma necklace, I was very moved. She didn’t know my connection to this prayer. Or how it represented a link to both God and to my mother. I put that necklace on and haven’t taken it off since. It symbolizes my unwavering faith.

At one point during yesterday’s clergy retreat, I happened to look down and saw that my beautiful Sh’ma necklace had suddenly turned BLACK with tarnish! In the morning, the necklace had been perfectly shiny silver – and it had never tarnished before.

Tarnished Sh'ma Necklace
Tarnished Sh’ma Necklace
I noticed this during a particularly important part of our day: we were discussing “crises of faith” in a manner of speaking. In our spirit of trust and love, we were talking about difficult topics, painful feelings and questions that made us wonder.

It was as if my necklace was suddenly mirroring the feelings reflected in that room. And, the calm waters of the Long Island Sound simultaneously developed white-capped waves.

Doesn’t each and every one of us sometimes have a feeling that our faith has become “tarnished” or “blackened” when we reach a challenging moment in our lives or enter “troubled waters”? That we find it difficult to reach God when our burdens seem overbearing? How do we find a way to restore that lustre to our faith? To refresh and renew our relationship with the Divine so that we can feel God’s presence shining brightly in our lives?

Just like we need to work on our relationships with those whom we love, our relationship with God also takes hard work. When we question and struggle with issues, we are engaging in dialogue with God. When we join with community in prayer, social action, study and celebration, we experience God’s presence. When we reach out to those in need: of healing, of support, of friendship, we are bringing God’s light into our lives as well as to the lives of others. As Jews, we believe that we will come to know God through our actions, through our behavior. 

And so, my colleagues/friends found our time together yesterday restorative and affirming. It renewed our faith in the work we do, in the friendships we share, in the trust we have built and in God who gives us life and strength.

And my necklace is now shiny and silver once again.

Sh'ma Necklace - Polished
Sh’ma Necklace – Polished

Picking Up the Pieces

On Sunday, the weather was so beautiful that I decided it would be a great day to clean all of my outdoor furniture and prepare my backyard  for the warm weather. My backyard is a very serene and tranquil setting. It’s a perfect place for entertaining guests,  sitting with my morning coffee, reading and writing, or simply relaxing. 

My backyard
My backyard
I put on rubber gloves, filled a bucket with Pine-Sol, pulled out a scrub brush and hose and got “down to business.”

I started to scrub the glass-topped patio table, when suddenly, without any warning, the top shattered into thousands of little pieces. Thankfully, the thick rubber gloves kept my hands from being cut by the shards of glass.

Shattered glass table top
Shattered glass table top
The shock of this unexpected “bang” momentarily stopped me stunned in my tracks. I stood there just staring at the table and the ground for a moment. And then I realized that the glass must have suffered a hairline crack from the harshness of the winter. Thankfully, it shattered while I was cleaning, and not when I had a houseful of guests sitting there eating.

The rest of my day was spent cleaning up the broken glass and trying to restore order to the patio.

None of this is tragic. It was simply a table-top that shattered. A table can be easily replaced.

But I realized that the unexpected way  the glass shattered – from right under my very hands – is a metaphor for the fragility of life.

Our lives can shatter in an instant, just as the glass shattered so quickly, without warning.

Over the past few weeks we have witnessed this with the terrible earthquakes in Nepal, the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia: life was normal one minute and irrevocably shattered the next.

Each of us has our own story: a spouse suddenly announces they want a divorce, or a loved one is diagnosed with some dreaded illness, or some devastating event shatters our world. One moment all seemed fine. And then, everything changed in an instant. Our world was turned upside down without any notice.

We might be paralyzed in our tracks by the shock of what just took place.

How do we continue? Where do we find the strength to pick up the pieces?

We gather strength from community, from the loving embrace of family and friends.

We can dull the sharp pain of the edges of broken shards when we reach out in love and support to those who are suffering, whether by word or deed, whether by offering a loving touch or just offering to sit in quiet companionship. We can be God’s hands, slowly but surely sweeping up the broken pieces and helping to restore life to a new sense of “normal.”

May we gain wisdom in our lives

overflowing like a river of understanding.

Loved, each of us, for the peace we bring to others.

May our deeds exceed our speech,

and may we never lift up our hand

but to conquer fear and doubt and despair.

Rise up like the sun, O God, over all humanity.

Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas.

And light up the universe with joy

of wholeness, of freedom. and of peace.”

(Mishkan T’filah, A Reform Siddur, pg. 287, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007, New York.)

An Open Letter to My Friends Who Survived – on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

To my dear friends Howard and Margot, Dow and Fredzia and so many others:

I think about you often, but my heart is with you especially today – on Yom Ha’shoah V’ha’gevurah,  Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day.

Each of you survived the Holocaust and made it through those terrible years. Each of you has your own unique story of war, struggle, anguish and survival.  And each of you has not merely “survived” – each has gone on to create lives of meaning and purpose, gratitude and love.

You are the epitome of the definition of ‘resilience’. You exemplify by how you live your lives that ‘good’ will triumph over ‘evil’ and that the human spirit cannot be broken. And you show us how an affirmation of God’s presence during difficult times brings us strength and courage to persevere.

You help us to understand that we must use our voices to speak out against racism and against evil. We must be the ones to ensure that ‘never again’ will the world experience such unspeakable heinous acts committed against our fellow human beings.

The world still has its share of hatred and violence and evil. There are those who exist who do not acknowledge that every human being is made “b’tzelem Elohim”  – in the image of God. And they choose to try to harm, hurt or destroy those they view as “less than human.” But you are the inspiration that we do have the ability to affect change. We have the power to use our voices, our deeds and actions to eradicate the evil in our midst. As Elie Wiesel said: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”

Tonight we will light candles in memory of those who perished. We will remember in silence, we will reflect, we will pray.

And then inspired by you – and in memory of those who perished, we will continue to work to change our world.

Zichronam livracha – may their memories be for a blessing.

Candle

Gratitude – A Lesson from Love and Loss

59 years of marriage.

Two children.

Three grandchildren.

A life filled with the blessings of love, friendship, joy, shared passions.

A life filled with meaning and purpose, community, Jewish living and serving others.

A few days ago, as we sat and ate lunch together, I listened to the beautiful story of my congregant and his wife. How he served in the Armed Forces, how they raised a family, worked hard in their professions and how they gave back to their community in so very many ways.

His wife died this past November after almost 59 years of marriage. He told me that at first, he would wake up in the morning and turn to her side of the bed, look for her…and realize that she wasn’t coming back.

She tried to prepare him for this moment when she first became ill. She taught him how to cook, how to cope on his own.

His children and grandchildren call him every day. And he realized that even though his beloved is gone, he is still alive.

His wife is still with him each and every day. She lives in his heart, his mind and his memory. Her presence reminds him that he must live his life to its fullest. So he is trying his best.

His overwhelming feeling now is a sense of GRATITUDE. Gratitude for the years they spent together, for the life they built, for the children they raised, for the works of their hands and the deeds of their hearts.

He puts one foot in front of the other. He finds fulfillment in his many friendships,  music and community. His children and grandchildren are great sources of pride and joy, who share some of his passions and sense of adventure. And now that he has time, he is volunteering again. For him, “gratitude” means opening your heart and hands to others.

Despite his sadness and pain at the death of his beloved wife, my beautiful congregant exemplifies our Jewish custom of reciting “modeh ani” – “I thank you” to the Eternal each and every morning. When we recite “modeh ani” each morning, we thank God for allowing us to awake once again to a new day, to live our lives with meaning and purpose, with joy and contentment, and to make a difference in this world.

May he have many more years of living life with gratitude, joy and meaning. May we be inspired to do the same.

 

Passover: Liberty and Freedom are the Inalienable Rights of Every Human Being

On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt.

We retell the story of the Exodus each year to remind ourselves that the gift of freedom comes with great responsibility: the responsibility to take care of others. Our freedom means we have the responsibility to work to free those who are still bound by the shackles of poverty, war, famine, hatred, racism…whatever issues are still plaguing our world.

 “Passover affirms the great truth that liberty is the inalienable right of every human being.” (Morris Joseph)

 During my 26 years in the rabbinate, I have been blessed with many different seder experiences that exemplify this notion of “liberty” and “freedom”.  Not long after Glasnost and Perestroika, I went to the Former Soviet Union for two years with congregants during Pesach. We brought in much needed medical supplies, taught about Pesach and led Pesach seders in Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and Mogilev (all in Belarus). After the first seder, one woman approached us with tears streaming down her face, “I am 40 years old and this is my first Pesach seder. Thank you!” Up until then, the Jewish community had not been allowed to celebrate, and there was no one who knew the rituals.

This year, on the eve of the first seder, I led a seder at an Assisted Living facility at noon for about 30 Jewish residents, their families and some of their non-Jewish residents who wanted to learn more about our holiday.

I met George, who moved into the facility two months ago. George is a Holocaust survivor, the only member of his family to be liberated from Auschwitz. He showed me his number tattooed on his forearm and briefly shared with me his story of captivity, liberation and survival.

He came to live in the Assisted Living facility two months ago because he outlived all his friends and was no longer able to get out and about. He stayed home by himself all day and all night. His children worried about him. He was isolated, lonely and depressed. So his children wanted to find a place for him where he would be safe, where he would be surrounded by other people and where he would find stimulation and activity.

Since moving into the facility, he feels a new sense of “liberation”. He told me he loves living there. He has made friends. He has a new lease on life, he has activities to keep him busy every day, people with whom to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves playing cards and bingo. He was smiling from ear-to-ear.

Sometimes LIBERATION and FREEDOM are “big concepts” – how to save the world from a nuclear Iran, how to stop human trafficking, how to end poverty and war.

But what I saw this afternoon, was that “liberation” and “freedom” are concepts that affect each and every one of us personally. George was enslaved in the shackles of loneliness and isolation. He had almost given up on life. After the Holocaust, he experienced LIBERATION and FREEDOM and was able to build a beautiful life in the United States.

And now, once again, he is experiencing a different kind of “liberation” and “freedom” – a personal sense of “joie de vivre” that enables him to live each day to its fullest with meaning and purpose. He told me that Pesach this year was particularly meaningful to him and he was so glad to celebrate it with his new friends.

 This Pesach, our “Festival of Freedom,” I hope we all can do our part to make “liberation” and “freedom” lasting realities, both on the larger scale world-wide and personally, for our friends and family.

I wish you and all your loved ones a sweet, wonderful and meaningful holiday. Next year, may we all celebrate in peace, liberty and freedom.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy  Pesach!

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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