Author Archives: Hazzan Jesse Holzer
Reflections from Uganda Part 1
The following were my remarks for our congregation’s Shabbat celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Boy Scout Troup 14. (Thanks to Cantor Jack Chomsky and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. for their background info/wording)
For a few minutes, I want to take us back 100 years to a far different place than Jacksonville Florida. It’s 1919. Religious conversion is a key component to the British colonization of Africa. Tribal chief and military leader Semei Kakungulu, who had founded the town of Mbale, Uganda, was evangelized by Anglican Church missionaries. He hoped to use his connections with the British so that he might be recognized as ruler of Uganda’s eastern region. When the British didn’t give Kakungulu what he desired, he returned to Mbale and rejected the Anglican church. He joined a group known as the Malakites who took a literal reading of the bible- Saturday was the Sabbath, they would eat no pork; eventually breaking from the group to follow an even stricter reading of the text, all while studying the Luganda translation of the Hebrew bible. In 1919, he and his followers embraced circumcision. Kakungulu created a Sabbath liturgy that included reading selections from the Hebrew bible in Luganda, chanting selections from the Song of Moses, the penultimate section of the Hebrew bible. The community, known as the Abayudaya, persisted for some years with little contact with the outside Jewish world, at first not even aware that there WAS such a world.
In time, though, they crossed paths with a few Jews who were living or working in Africa and shifted their practice to resemble the outside world. A quantum leap in their connection to the Jewish world came in the 1960’s when an Israeli graduate student named Arye Oded learned about the community and established connections with it. He later became Israeli ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, including Uganda. Oded died two weeks ago at age 89, a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University.
When Idi Amin outlawed other religions during the 1970s, the Abayudaya community suffered as most of its population converted out of Judaism. Beginning in the 1980s, the community revitalized under the leadership of one family in particular, brothers JJ, Aaron, Seth and Gershom, who infused new music and energy into the community. There were more connections with the rest of the Jewish world, especially through the Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) Movements, and the international Jewish organizations Kulanu and B’chol Lashon.
In recent years the community has been led by one of those brothers, now RABBI Gershom Sizomu, who trained for the rabbinate at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Rabbi Sizomu not only leads his congregation and the organized Jewish community of Uganda, he is also a member of the Ugandan Parliament, serving as a minister in the opposition party. Rabbi Gershom, a true mensch, gives much of his state salary to provide for his community. His brother Aaron Kintu Moses runs the Hadassah Primary School. Another brother JJ is leader of another community in the village of Putti. Brother Seth Jonadab runs the Semei Kokungulu High School and played in most of the services we attended.
Recently, the community has finally been recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, although there are those in Israel that questioned their Jewish identity because of their community’s conversion through Masorti/Conservative rabbis. And while most of the community do not speak about making aliyah, there are a number of individuals who have fought to obtain study VISAs in Israel.
Our Cantors Assembly mission began as two part solidarity and one part musicological: to record not only the music of the community, but to hear their story through personal interviews and recordings. We recorded these interviews under the framework of the Haggadah- a retelling of the journey from the slavery of Idi Amin to the modern freedoms they have to express their Judaism. This was a listening tour- a strange endeavour for cantors, similar to a silent retreat for rabbis. I also felt the need to follow what the series Star Trek referred to as the “prime directive”- to not disturb people in their element- to just listen and observe. Knowing full well that Rabbi Gershom and his family lived in the States for a few years, that visitors have brought in their own melodies, we had some idea that the music was already a hybrid of what came before western influence and the melodies that we hear each and every Shabbat here in the U.S.
As we prepared to board our 15 hr flight to Nairobi, each of us was interviewed about why we chose to come along for this journey. I spoke about this notion of about a miracle- how I was looking to figure out how this tiny group in the most remote of places is not just surviving but thriving. How 2500 Jews make a name for themselves amongst 40 million Ugandans. We think of ourselves as a minority at 2.5 percent in this country. Imagine being .00006% of the population.
Our time was spent meeting with many of the community leaders. I spent a few hours each day doing in depth interviews learning about the collective experience being Jewish in Uganda. We talked to the generation who had revitalized the community in the 1980s and the younger leaders who have a great thirst for knowledge. Uganda, and this community, are young. Very young. 77% of Uganda falls into the Generation Z range. Walking into services, the average age of the congregation may have hovered in the low 20s. For while the community is 100 years old, they have seen a rebirth in the last 10-15 years.
We found the answer to this miracle. We found it in the beaming joy of our hosts who wore large, beautiful, colorful kippot that community members had hand knitted.
While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, we were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver who wore their kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. As a heads up, I brought back a number of kippot that will soon be on sale in the Center gift shop, proceeds going to support the Abayudaya.
We found the miracle in the depth of the questions and answers of the Abayudayan youth. We interviewed a few 20somethings who are starting a community in the capital of Kampala. We asked each of them what questions they had about Judaism. One of 20somethings thought for a brief second and asked, “Why isn’t Tisha B’av, a day in which we mourn the loss of our temple, a more prominent holiday in the Jewish world?” I could ask any 20something from our community what questions they have about Judaism, and I’m fairly certain Tisha B’av would not crack the top 100 questions.
Life is hard for the Jews of Uganda. The only area schools in the early 20th century were started by Catholics and Protestants. They required conversion for entry. This meant that those who chose to keep their Judaism public, that entire community, lagged some 20 years behind the rest of their neighbors. Today, some 90% of the population is unemployed, making ends meet by selling crafts or produce. A teenager attending one of our morning learning sessions was asked why he wasn’t in a rush to get to school- he mentioned that his family couldn’t afford the fees.
Many do not have access to drinkable water, often making long treks to the local unclean water tap. You’re lucky if you have two meals a day. Most do not have access to electricity. Yet we saw an example of the extraordinary work of the Tobin Health clinic when we met a youth who attended Kabbalat Shabbat who had just received an IV for Malaria treatment who was up and around after just 24 hours. We visited with amazing NGOs connected to the United States and Israel who are slowly bringing access to clean water and electricity to communities one by one- and you can see the palpable difference it makes- you see it in the schools- in improved test scores, in enabling girls to continue schooling because they have private and clean bathrooms.
We found the miracle in the faith of the community. It didn’t matter if some of the synagogues lacked electricity. In one case, in the small village of Nalubembe, the synagogue, a brick structure with no roof, doesn’t survive from season to season. We asked what would it cost to build a synagogue- a brick building with a roof, no electricity: the equivalent of $2000. $2000 for a prayer space. In another synagogue in the village of Namatubma, as they await approval for a new clean water source, we asked the community’s spiritual leader, Shadrach, what his community needed most. Shadrach, for context, is studying to be a rabbi under the ALEPH program. He came to his role as leader when the elder of the community stood up one day and proclaimed that he was retiring- he looked to find a new leader who fit 3 criteria- someone who was engaged or married, over a certain age, and had a college degree. Shadrach was the only person in the community who checked all the boxes. So we asked him this question, what do they need?…and he replied “A Torah.” A community that does not have access to clean water, wants a Torah. Torah is water.
We found the miracle in the joy of a group of singers in the village of Nasenyi, home of the chairman of the Abayudaya. We were greeted by such beautiful music and dancing wherever we went, but the face of one of these singers stayed with me (show picture). The featured singer of their “choir” began losing her voice as the group sang Psalm after Psalm in their native Luganda, but as I filmed and photographed, I’ve never seen a more passionate singer in my life- it was a full body experience, and her full smile brought all of us to tears.
Most of our prayer experiences took place in the main village of Nabogoye Hill. Services were often co-led by Cantors and the local community. We heard familiar melodies, new melodies, and new languages. We listened to an entire congregation sing. Sing well. Sing in hebrew, in Luganda. We saw cultural differences, as most of the torah and many of the psalms were chanted in Luganda, shoes were removed outside the synagogue,
and women often chose to sit separately- however, this was a cultural difference, not a religious one, as each community is extremely egalitarian.
We found the miracle come full circle during a special ceremony on Super Bowl Sunday. Following a World Wide Wrap Shaharit service, our delegation assembled by the village guest house. One of our colleagues,Jerry Berkowitz, a cantor serving a congregation in Manitowic, Wisconsin, had procured one of his congregation’s five torahs to be donated as a gift to future generations of Abayudaya.
Jerry stood under a chuppah as we processed towards the synagogue singing and dancing with the Torah. From the other direction, members of the community processed towards our group singing their own songs of welcome and celebration. As two separate colleagues said, “it was right out of the musical Music Man.” A seemingly random reference, I’ll be performing as Salesman #5 in the Martin J Gottlieb Day School production of Music Man Jr during the first weekend of April.
As we came together, our voices joined in one song as we took the torah into the synagogue to be read. Rabbi Gershom chanted the penultimate chapter of the book of Devarim in Hebrew, the same chapter that Semei Kokungulu had memorized in his native Luganda (this had been memorized by the early Abayudaya as a song since the Torah says we are supposed to memorize it. Their minhag had been to recite it in Luganda by memory). The cantors shared an aliyah. Our hosts shared aliyot. It was a morning filled with expressions of pride, depth, faith, joy and passion.
And, as you might expect from a cantorial mission, they brought us the miracle of music. In between each aliyah, the Abayudayan congregations welcome the person taking the aliyah with a Halleluyah song. Not only does it celebrate the individual having an aliyah, it reminds those in the pews that they are very much a part of the torah service, when often it can seem like a very frontal portion of our worship. Throughout our time in Nabogoye, our hosts prayed, prayed well. They were insightful and inspiring. I’ll be speaking more about their music next Friday night.
All the Abayudaya are searching for is what any community or really any individual ever wants from others: acceptance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever questioned this group’s commitment to Jewish life and practice. As we taught them about Jewish practice and song, we learned ten fold on how to bring community to life. Abayudaya is Luganda for “Jew”. We are all Abayudaya. We all have the potential to bring these attributes into our own practice of Judaism. The torah portion during our visit was Mishpatim, a section in which we read the words, Naaseh V’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” This is the story of the Abayudaya. They created unbelievable traditions and are ready to listen, thirsting for a greater understanding of Judaism. And, in turn, by listening and learning from this remarkable community, I hope that I and we can do Judaism as well as they do.
Finding What Speaks to You This High Holiday Season
To my knowledge, I’ve only really butchered one interview question when applying for a job. It was my first phone interview for a cantorial position as a graduating cantorial student at JTS. Not having the aid of skype, I can only imagine the faces of those in the committee meeting who were on the other end of the phone line. I was asked the question, “What made you want to be a cantor?” You would think that after years of cantorial school, having this question asked at my own school audition for that matter, that this would be an easy one to answer.
I spoke about my journey to New York City as an aspiring sports journalism student, how 9/11 changed the trajectory of my life as it did for so many others. I continued on a tangent of how felt “disenfranchised” by the sports journalism world. I felt like I didn’t have a voice in sports journalism because writer after writer insisted that sports would bring us together. I searched for something deeper. A committee member pressured me on my use of the word “disenfranchised” (definitely a misuse of the word) and the interview felt forced and fell flat from that moment on. I hadn’t been able to articulate why I wanted to be a cantor because I had presumed that “the weight of 9/11” was a strong enough answer without having to unpack it; that my disdain for sports journalism at the time was a good reason to explain why I wanted to do something else, let alone a sacred calling. Over time, I’ve unpacked what that day meant for me as Jesse and me in my role as clergy.
When it seemed like the world insisted that sports would heal all wounds, I was still hurting. I was hurting from the loss of a cousin, Jeremy Glick z’l, who fought back on United 93. I was hurting from that feeling of uncertainty when I didn’t hear from my close friend working on the 100th floor (luckily he hadn’t gone in that morning because he was starting hebrew class that day). I was hurting from the craziness that was lower manhattan, our suite turned into refuge, the air quality below 14th street unbreathable. I was hurting from the months of struggling to attend classes, being in a funk, struggling to battle depression, struggling to make sense of my place in the world. And as I read articles and listened to newscasts, I would hear the voices suggesting either the perfect prescription to return us all to some normalcy, or the perfect escape to take us all away from this horror. Neither worked for me, and so I rejected both of them as being over simplified and meaningless. What I didn’t realize is that those suggestions that didn’t resonate with me, offered an antidote for someone else’s pain, to those directly affected by the events of 9/11 or to any of the ⅓ of the world’s population that saw the events of 9/11 unfold on television screens across the globe. We all experience grief differently, and the cocktail needed to address that grief is also concocted differently for each person.
“One size doesn’t fit all” is an important lesson as we encounter hardships in our own lives, and when we are called upon to console and comfort friends and family. While well intentioned, sharing a mantra or technique that works for you may not work for someone you try to comfort. Even something that has worked in the past may not work this time around. This often leaves us feeling like we have either all of the answers or no answers at all.
I share this as I’m returning from a rollercoaster family gathering over Labor Day. My cousin Jojo, the sister of Jeremy Glick z’l, got married over Labor Day weekend in New York City. That evening and into the next day began the 23rd of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, or as I know it, the Hebrew yahrzeit of September 11, 2001. In recognition of this juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, my sister and I visited the 9/11 memorial, which included my first visit to the 9/11 museum. What we didn’t realize when I booked the tour was that September 3, the day of our visit, would’ve been Jeremy’s 48th birthday.
The museum is currently housing a special exhibition entitled, “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11.” You can probably guess why I thought that wasn’t my cup of tea. The exhibition was small but powerful. It captured the mixed multitude of emotions that sports conjures up. It included a Sportscaster broadcast in which Bob Ley stated, “Sports is an afterthought,” as baseball player player Chipper Jones was quoted as saying that the games became “a very, very small blip on the screen.” Washington Post sportswriter Jennifer Frey wrote upon the return of baseball, “Tonight there will be reason to sit next to strangers and feel connected by something other than fear and horror and sadness.”
My sister and I had access to the Family Room, a collection of stories, letters, photographs, and messages of hope and love that were left at the World Trade Center viewing platform on West Street following 9/11. Eventually the tributes were moved indoors and eventually housed in a private viewing space for families. While the message writers once displayed these publicly, their tributes are deeply personal and no longer accessible to the general public. The tributes continue to pour in. Two letters caught my eye- from two children of 9/11 victims- one who was only a few years old when her mother passed away, the other never got a chance to meet his father. Their letters are gut wrenching- sure they are filled with words of teenage angst, but what they lack is a feeling of dispair; they are only filled with sadness that their parents can’t be there in person to watch them thrive, to answer life’s biggest questions.
Into the depths of the museum and into the depths of ground zero, you’ll see a quote from the Roman poet Virgil: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The quote, formed from the wounded remnant steel of the World Trade Center, is accompanied by an art installation composed of 2,983 individual watercolor drawings, each a distinct attempt to remember the color of the sky on the morning of September 11, 2001. Every square is unique. We are tasked to remember individuals- their stories written and unwritten, each never to be erased from our collective memory. Each is remembered differently, each is mourned differently, and each of us, the living, remnant steel, must find our own ways to remember and mourn.
The high holidays are a season of searching. Some may find answers in the modern poetry of our mahzor prayer book. Others may hear an answer in a musical piece in the sanctuary or in the teachings of the alternative service, in the powerful sermons of the sanctuary or while getting feet sandy at our tashlikh on the beach. Our hope is that we create as many pathways to searching for those answers here within our community. One such entrypoint is our healing service, which will take place on Yom Kippur afternoon at 4pm. We will offer new melodies (found here https://hazzanholzer.com/healing-service/ ) and an opportunity for those who are experiencing pain or loss to share in each other. If you know of someone who would benefit from this short and intimate service please share the information with them. May we all find healing and wholeness in the year ahead.
The Old Boys Club: Mens’ Club Shabbat and Shabbat Shira 2018
It was my first week on the job. As the list of yartzeits were called off, I did a double take. Hyman Schulman? THE Hyman Schulman? Well in fact it wasn’t THE Hyman Shulman, spelled S H U L M A N.
I glanced through the Center yearbook and did a double take again. Charles Moskovitz? THE Charles Moskowitz is a member here? No, not THE charles moskowitz, who spelled his name with a W” and who was born in the 1880s.
You see, I was looking for a connection- to family; to my brothers. Long before I worked alongside my sister-in law, I worked alongside two of my brothers, Brother Jesse Olitzky and Brother Howard Tilman. Brother Charles Moskowitz, along with Hyman Shulman and the rest of the “Immortal 11” founded Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity 115 years ago on the campus of New York University.
AEPI started as a fraternity based in Jewish values, as many of its early members were barred from joining other fraternal orders. Today, alumni total over 100,000. As a sophomore and junior, I held the position of Master, or President of the Alpha chapter at NYU. Some of my closest friends from college stem from this experience, and while we all attended different universities, the four clergy who share this brotherhood share both pride and fond memories of being a lifelong brother of AEPI. But the fraternity, as you may imagine, was not always all about the comroderary, fellowship, and call to improve our community. I entered as the second pledge class following a “reformation” of the chapter following a probationary period. National would God forbid cut ties all-together with its Alpha chapter. Our pledge period had what I’d call “hazing light” under tight scrutiny. Within a few years of graduating, the chapter had disbanded once again due to a number of issues and restarted once again. For while the vision of the Immortal 11 may have focused on togetherness and brotherhood, the modern chapters have been dealing with a pressing issue since the age of Animal house- “boys will be boys.” Even in our own pledge class, I remember the sense of acceptance because we thought to ourselves “well, compared to what we could have done…”
I’ve seen the acceptance of this world of the “old boys club” in other places. It’s taken over a decade to slowly change the culture of my own Cantors Assembly, where conventions used to be marred by inappropriate language or behavior. The back room, where colleagues share in a cigar, a drink, and conduct unfit for a person of the cloth, exists for many organizations. There are typically two reactions to this- You can be shocked, or not surprised all.
I say this in recognition of the sentencing this week of Dr. Larry Nassar. As Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins writes:
“It’s only the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports, and maybe in the history of this country. USA Gymnastics not only allowed serial pedophile Larry Nassar unsupervised access to the scores of girls in its charge over 30 years, it required them to submit to him and his utterly unjustifiable (vaginal) examinations. There was no saying, ‘I don’t like this doctor, I want my own.’ The organizations systematically deprived them of any right to say no, to ask for alternate treatment. It makes Hollywood rapes look principled.”
Charles Pierce of Sports Illustrated contends:
Burn it all down. That is the calm and reasoned conclusion to which I have come as one horror story after another unspooled in the courtroom. Nobody employed in the upper echelons at USA Gymnastics, or at the United States Olympic Committee, or at Michigan State University should still have a job. If accessorial or conspiracy charges plausibly can be lodged against those people, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those people should come out of civil courts wearing barrels. Their descendants should be answering motions in the 22nd Century.”
These fraternal orders have abused a power that should’ve been used for good. The relationships that could have improved this world are used to exploit not just those on the margins, but those taking center stage. In the Jewish world we’ve seen this abuse not just from the abusers themselves, but the communal space that allowed the inappropriate acts to continue. I’m not talking about Hollywood. I’m talking about the world of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the world that knew of his misconduct with underage girls and yet allowed it to continue under the guise of “its part of the times.” The same excuse would be made for those in leadership positions in our national youth movements in the 80s and 90s. “It was part of the times.” The dangerous excuses that have dangerous consequences.
So where is the model for leadership amidst the blindness and complacency?
Over the past few years, we have looked at Shirat Hayam through the scope of musi and of theatre, but the Song of the Sea, and song in general, has a power to strengthen us as a call to action. Through song, we have the strength to push on, to make our case known.
The Shorashim (roots) of song illustrate this power. Nigun- Nun, Gimel Nun translates to melody, but it is also the word for shield, or defense (Magein).
Rena means joyous song, but it is also a shout for joy, a wake up call. Zemer means “to prune.” Moses’ famous line “Ozi V’zimrat Ya” can be translated as either “God is my strength and song,” OR “God is my strength and my cutting force.’” Song is a cutting, loud and defiant call as our defense against the silence and dismissive language.
We can’t understand the magnitude of the moment without being witness to what happened in Egypt. So where were we before this jubilant song?
The 18th century Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 -1746) writes
“This is the advice of the wicked Pharaoh, who said: “Let heavier work be laud upon the men and let them keep it and not pay attention to false words” (Exodus 5:9). He intended not only to leave them no spirit whatsoever, so that they might not think or plan against him, but he attempted to deny them any opportunity for reflection through the constant and incessant burden of labor.”
In Egypt, we were denied the option of living without fear, of having the space to reflect. Freedom, at the other end of the sea, is the ability to sing our song, to shout our words, to reflect and praise. THIS is the message. To remember the exodus from egypt, the journey. The miracle that we could finally shout from the mountaintops in praise of being in that moment following the parting of the sea, when Pharaoh and all that he represented was behind us. This is the reminder for this shabbat and every shabbat in fact, zecher litziyat mitzraim, to appreciate what we have.
But our Shabbat is not just for the appreciation of our ability to relax and contemplate the world. In remembering the journey out of egypt, we have a constant reminder that we too must shout as witness to what is right in the world, and what is wrong; to find the enslavements of those around us and treat them as our own. No more dismissals.
This song, this wake up call, the putting of Pharaoh and his Egyptian fraternity on notice, was orchestrated by a team of leaders.
The Prophet Micah 6:4 states,
“ In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”
The three siblings are intertwined, but Moses and Aaron share a unique brotherhood given the political power both would acquire. Moses’ and Aaron’s uncomplicated reunion signals a vastly different relationship than the brothers of the book of Genesis. There is no sadness for what could have been; no long embrace. Rather, they are constant communicators, their relationship harmonious.
As for Miriam,
Exodus 15:20-21 states,
(20) And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. (21) And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He is highly exalted: The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.
Her line שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ parallels the earlier verse אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַֽה’ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃, where I sing to God about the handiwork God has done to place horse and rider in the sea. Now, through Miriam’s words, we all sing to God for the horse and his rider are in the sea. This isn’t the celebration of the Egpytian deaths. Think about that image- horse and rider; elevated, in power. Hone in on that image- in which the Egyptians thought that we were lower, treated us as lower beings.
With a timbrel in her hand, Miriam elevated all of us, as she stood and bore witness that moment. With a timbrel in her hand, the message was loud, portable and palpable. We are not lower, we will call you out for what you did. Even from a young age, Miriam beared witness to the world around her. Exodus 2:4: And his sister stood from a distance to know what would happen to him.
In the Talmud, Sota 11, we learn that Miriam and another character from our story, Puah, are one and the same. “Puah” refers to “cooing” and rocking a baby, perhaps a reference to her nuturing of young Israelites. But Shemot Rabah, the midrash of our Exodus story, cites another meaning of Puah as she was insolent (hofi’ah panim) toward Pharaoh and looked down her nose at him. This was Miriam standing up to Pharaoh by saying “no.” She looked down her nose at him long before she did the same at the horse and rider at the Sea of Reeds. She was a whistleblower protecting the most vulnerable Israelites, its children.
Through this narrative, we end up with a positive model for leadership fueled by brotherhood of all things. In Moses and Aaron we learn that in a society of questionable brotherhoods, groups of men can build healthy relationships, turning the old boys clubs on their head.
Most importantly, we end up with a prime example of being elevated by the women around us. Miriam stands up, calls out what is wrong, and the community and the rest of the leadership acknowledge the sacred words she proclaims as Miriam Hanivia, Miriam the prophet.
So let us be like our male leaders, Moses and Aaron, like the organization we honor this morning, our Men’s club, that uses their relationships to build bridges while also building sukkot, who brings men of all ages together to enhance their own lives as well as that of their own families; who on the national level teaches and engages our men in a series of workshops entitled “Hearing men’s voices”; a group that prepares its members to help facilitiate shiva minyanim during a family’s most trying hours; a group that is open to being real and raw, spiritual and religious, and above all else, the farthest from the old boys club.
Let us be like our timbral bearing leader, Miriam the prophet, who called a spade a spade and shouted that change was upon us. And when it isn’t our turn to be like her, allow those prophets amongst us to share their stories so that we ourselves will be elevated. May their stories enable us all to find holiness in the communities we are a part of, to repair and reclaim that which is broken, to not only act like but BE the brothers and sisters that we can and should be.
All Aboard the Musical Express
Printed in the January 2018 Jacksonville Jewish Center Centerpieces
Music transports us. We hear a musical “lick” and it takes us back to a place and time or removes us from our present reality and brings us to a dream world. We see this when a certain tune is played for a young child learning their first nursery rhymes or when someone suffering from dementia hears a standard from their youth.
Last November, the Jacksonville Symphony’s Chamber Orchestra performed Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, Op. 110, the composer’s biographical reaction to the regime change in his country, containing such specific imagery as his own initials, prison songs, and police in the dead of night. It’s a dreary piece as you can imagine. However, the conductor framed its motifs prior to the orchestral performance. We heard snippets as she explained why these “musical licks” would repeat themselves throughout the piece. In doing so, the audience experience was enhanced and each of us could be transported knowing the composers sensibilities whenever we heard those parts. It reminded me that it doesn’t need to be something from our youth to take us places.
We recently added in a few new melodies to our Shabbat in the Round Friday night experience. A Bat Mitzvah student had returned from a ruach filled summer at Camp Ramah Darom, asking if she could incorporate a new melody she had learned over the summer. After singing a few bars, I recognized the melody as something I had listened to on YouTube, this generation’s transmitter of music.
Playing the video for our instrumentalists, the melody quickly became a band favorite, with shades of Bob Dylan’s “Love Minus Zero.” For anyone who knows our band members, you can understand why a Dylanesque melody would be a big hit. Singing the melody brought Dylan and davening together as one.
This past December, I was asked to lead services over Shabbat as part of the United Synagogue’s Biennial Convention in Atlanta, GA. This was a powerful experience to have a few hundred in attendance who are all committed to a vibrant Jewish future for the Conservative movement. We had the pleasure of hearing rising stars in the Jewish music world, one of which is Joey Weisenberg. I’ve spoken about Joey and his book “Building Singing Communities” but it was great to learn from him again. Joey painted a beautiful tapestry of his family’s story in this country, with ancestry that predates the Civil War. He described how he came to write the melody “Yamin U’smol”, the text taken from one of the final paragraphs of Lecha Dodi. As he talked through his inspiration, I kept thinking of Ashokan Farewell, the theme from Ken Burn’s Civil War series. He entitled the melody “Lincoln’s Niggun” because there’s a second layer to why this was associated with a specific paragraph of the Friday night liturgy. When President Lincoln would walk through a crowd of soldiers, they would assemble in two parallel lines, one on the right and one on the left, or Yamin U’smol in hebrew.
One melody. The composer is transported to the place and time of his family’s origin. The instrumentalist is transported as if he is hearing the sounds of his favorite artist. The song leader is transported to a magical summer experience filled with spirit and new friendships. For those listening, it may take you to an entirely different place. We all have the potential to be transported. I hope you’ll take the journey with us for all of our musical offerings in the months ahead.
The Simplicities of Shabbat
Printed in the FALL 2017 Jacksonville Jewish Center Centerpieces
‘Twas the night before Pesach, with the oven on self clean
Turned on after saying “Shavua Tov’ to the Shabbat Queen
When it locked and blew a fuse without quite a care,
That our seder couldn’t go on without it’s repair.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While I envisioned a meal of maror and unleavened bread
61. Roger Maris’ home run record and the number of days it took to get our oven replaced. Thanks to a home warranty, after hours of time on the phone listening to Kenny G’s greatest hits and after more than a dozen home visits, I recited the Shehechiyanu blessing over our new oven a week after the festival of Shavuot. Through stove top cooking, the opening of a new kosher eatery, and help from family and friends, we made it through two months without missing a beat. Not surprisingly, since its repair, we haven’t used the oven as much as we used to.
We all have similar accessories in our lives that we might deem irreplaceable. What would we do without our electric toothbrush? Or our Alexa? Or, heaven forbid, our cellphone? Would we survive? After a few weeks of our oven ordeal, I could only smile at that the fact that life can go on without some things. Does it make life harder? It makes life different. You adapt and you appreciate other parts of your life. Maybe living under different circumstances can condition us to live a more fruitful tomorrow.
Being outside our normative practice allows us the room to relax and reflect. It’s the true essence of “Shabbat,” a sanctuary in time and space. It can vary from taking away the electronics, to attending a musically inspiring Friday night service. It can be a moment to catch up on a book, or play a board game, or get the ultimate shabbos shluf (nap).The holiest day of the year is Shabbat, not because of fixed liturgy or the added restrictions we place on ourselves. It is holy because it is different from our norm. For some it is a respite from the outside. For others it’s a challenge that can motivate the brain and stir the heart.
For all the email and calendar reminders we drill into our schedules, I hope that in the year ahead we all find that there are things we can live without. In turn, we can take those aspects of our lives that we may have gone without and reacquaint ourselves with them. We may find that we have added extra meaning not only to those sabbatical moments of serenity, but to the rest of our daily lives. For in essence, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we should aspire to make all of our days a sanctuary in time, for we dream of a period “when all will be shabbat.”
Stand, Kneel Together
Our lives are marred by inconsistencies. Some of us are formulaic, by-the-book people. Others, we march to the beat of our own drum. Neither type of person escapes the truth that we inhabit a world filled with both uncertainty and order. Life is complex. While I may not agree, I have still found common ground with those who think Israel is an apartheid state. I have found common ground with those who demonize liberals.
I am constantly uncomfortable. I resist posting responses or sharing articles out of fear. Sometimes I feel that liking a status is my form of silent rebellion. This isn’t a healthy way to live. And so today I’ll be as honest as I can be about the complexities and inconsistencies that I see layering on top of one another.
During the 10 days of repentance, I look to two distinct lessons of this season: God is ultimate judge; and the idea of cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul. We are reminded that we should not judge others, especially if we have not sat in their place. Maybe we can look inward before expressing outwardly. Maybe we can see that those who protest do so not out of hate. We have professional football players kneeling during the national anthem—intently, with purpose. Not lying down, or spitting on the ground, or burning a flag. Kneeling intently, with purpose; with deep love of this country. When you love someone, you expect more of them; you challenge them. Some will use this platform to expect more of our country.
We have the right to feel offended, and we have the right to feel proud. And we have right to be curious about motivations. There is nuance to this movement.
As Colin Kaepernick’s 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, put it: “What Colin and Eli [Harold] and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we’re doing is un-American. Because it’s not. It’s completely American.” (Update: Reid expands on his intentions here)
There is a debate about standing or sitting for the Shema prayer. Many Reform congregations stand for the Shema because standing signifies its importance. Most Conservative and Orthodox congregations sit because of a tradition that one sits as if in chevruta (study partnership) when reciting words of Torah. Nuance. There is meaning in both choreographies, but one has to ask the “why” to further your own informed perspective and create a layer of respect for the other practice.
And while we debate a choreographic move, Colin Kaepernick has followed up on his symbolic gesture with action—he’s done a lot of community outreach and philanthropic work in the past year, so much so that he was honored a few weeks ago by the NFL Players Association.
To those who wonder about the “right time and place” of the protest, I have begun my own research into the Star Spangled Banner, and would like to share a few thoughts. The anthem is a symbol of patriotism, of our love and respect for our military, and of those who have served our country. That’s what it means to many, but not all.
Francis Scott Key, the author of the anthem and District Attorney for the City of Washington from 1833–1840, defended slavery (as a slave owner) by attacking the abolitionist movement. A few highlighted articles:
The anthem’s third stanza (of four) speaks about slavery. And yet, during Civil War, the Star Spangled Banner was an anthem for Union troops. Talk about confusing. By the 1890s, the military had adopted the song for ceremonial purposes, requiring it to be played at the raising and lowering of the colors.
It’s hard to unpack the author from the message, even if the message became a rallying cry for the opposing team. The (first verse only of the) Star Spangled Banner became our national anthem in 1931. It has been standard to play the anthem before sporting events since World War II. Its original use at sporting events is undeniably bound to our honoring of the military.
And yet, Jackie Robinson spoke about playing in his first World Series game, “There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion…As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
It was only recently, in 2009, that NFL players came out to the field during the national anthem. Soon thereafter, the United States Department of Defense paid the National Football League $5.4 million between 2011 and 2014, and the National Guard [paid] $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment budget-line items.
The anthem protest controversy is what is making headlines in a sport plagued by issues regarding domestic violence and other criminal offences, a sport that has widespread concussion issues. Yet for all the claims that the players are entitled rich little kids, this is a sport in which many of its players would be otherwise unrecognizable without a jersey number, where players wear helmets covering their faces and who are looking for a time and space for introspection as well as action. This is a sport that since 2008, the average career across all positions is only 2.66 years, where bad financial advice often leads to bankruptcy. The lifespan of a playing career and a social impact career is shorter than most realize.
At the end of the day, the NFL is a private business. The owners have expressed their views just as owners of other enterprises share their own views on issues of the day. One can boycott Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby or Target or the NFL. Whatever path you do take, I hope it’s one filled with openness to learning and building together. That message was clear from owners and players alike this past weekend.
Praying to God is often in the polarities of life—in the comings and goings, at the rise of a new day and in the tucking in at night. We pray before games—for success in our craft, in triumphing over life’s challenges. We pray following games. “God is good,” the athlete proclaims after scoring the winning touchdown.
I pray for a time when I won’t open up my social media feeds to find friends judging others, friends combatting fear. I pray that I find this not out of a skewed friendship list or algorithm, but because I hope that the weight has been lifted by the many acts of kindness and moments of introspection. This won’t happen tomorrow, or the day after. Pain and fear will unfortunately always exist, but it is how we show support and love for one another and how we fight for positive change that lessens the hurt and the sorrow.
I am uncomfortable. I am searching for answers. When I prostrate to the floor during the apex of our Yom Kippur service, I will commit myself to being better in the year ahead. I will commit myself not to finding the answers, but to continuing the search for good throughout the world. And I commit to listening, being patient when patience is required, and acting when action is necessary. May we bring light and understanding in the year ahead.
A lesson of Sports and Torah: Making the ordinary extraordinary
We have a lot of sports metaphors in this week’s parsha. First and foremost we have the description of the Red Heifer, which happens to have been my high school mascot (going 20 years strong). We talk about animal sacrifice- one key animal is the GOAT, or for sports enthusiasts, the “Greatest of of All Time”; Moses “hitting the rock” sounds like either a curling play or something that happened in the WWE. Maybe the greatest sports pun of our torah portion is the story of those who have touched a dead body, aka those who have been “near death.” The torah states that these individuals are anointed with fresh water from a vessel” – Mayim chaim el kelly. This could be in reference to the “near death” experience the Buffalo Bills had 24 years ago, when second-string signal caller Frank Reich, subbing for an injured Jim Kelly, led The “Greatest Comeback in NFL History”, as the Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point deficit, near death, to defeat the Houston Oilers in their 1993 playoff matchup.
So sports, therefore, become a natural connector to the stories of the bible. For some, sports have a more accessible set of liturgy- the rules of the games are fairly straightforward (and we know why they exist), We are mesmerized by the individual feats. We kvell in success and are filled with tzuris in times of great angst. Above all, we are moved by the storylines that trascend the Xs and Os of a game.
I grew up hearing “Havlicek stealing the ball“, watching old footage of Flutie’s Hail Mary and Carlton Fisk willing the ball fair; seeing Bobby Ohr fly through the air. THat’s Boston for you. These were photographs on a wall that told a story of our people. But I didn’t live through them. I more vividly remember Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook’s Hail Mary connection propelling Colorado over Michigan, Joe Carter’s series clinching home run for the Toronto Blue Jays, Bryce Drew’s miracle shot versus Ole Miss, and Brett Hull’s controversial series clincher for the Dallas Stars. Removed from earlier great moments, The winning guarantee was not Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III decree but Mark Messier’s Stanley Cup finals pledge.
Each of these moments de-emphasize the journey, focusing on those final few seconds. How we perform in the clutch final two minutes is somehow more heroic than how we perform for the first 46. A horrific display of athletic talent can be redeemed through one magical moment that we lift up higher than the sum of the work. And vice versa, a glorious career may be clouded by not having won the big game.
This past Super Bowl, a tale of two halves, is a perfect example. A few weeks ago, my family visited Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios. While participating in the Frozen Sing-A-Long, one of the actors made an Atlanta Falcon’s joke, referencing “28-3”, the lead the Falcons had over the New England Patriots. For Patriots fans, the 28-3 stat line references the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, not how poorly they played for most of the game. For Falcons fans, it reflects a failure to close out the game rather than how they outperformed the Patriots in every way for the earlier parts of the game. How we do in the big moment seems to matter so much more.
Moses’ big moment comes in this torah portion. He’s almost at the finish line. After hearing the complaints of the Israelite people for yet another time, Moses proclaims
“Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (NUmbers 20:10-11)
The story focuses on disobeying God’s command to speak to the rock. But we’ve been here before. In Exodus 17, the people complain, and God instructs Moses to hit the rock; out came the water. Moses ignored God’s new decree because he knew what worked the first time. He took the shortcut. But something else changed between the two narratives. Moses rebukes the people- “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” reminds me of Russell Crowe’s line from the movie Gladiator:” Are you not entertained?”
Rashi and Ramban debate the sin of Moses. One says it was the act of striking the rock, the other saying it was this line, “Listen you rebels” Yet they are intertwined. The Kedushat Levi contends that it is a total lack of patience with the people that led Moses to sell them sort, rather than uplifting the people. He insists that ordinary people can and indeed must be raised to the highest rung.
For my own sensibilities, more than the clutch playoff performance, I am often moved by the mundane sports moment that suddenly becomes extraordinary. A preliminary race, a regular season game, takes on new meaning.
As the Baseball Hall of Fame puts it:
It was July 1, 1945 (72 years ago today) – less than eight weeks after Germany’s surrender ended the European war and a little more than two months until the end of the battle in the Pacific. Hank Greenberg, who entered the Army Air Corps four years earlier in May of 1941, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 1 of a Tigers vs. A’s doubleheader. It was his first game in the majors since his discharge two weeks prior, and Greenberg was already 0-for-3.
No one – not even the two-time American League MVP himself – knew for sure if a player could return from war and regain his previous form.
But with one swing – a blow that sailed into the left-field stands at Briggs Stadium and electrified the crowd of 47,729 fans – Greenberg answered the all the questions.
The heroes of baseball were on their way home.
An ordinary game, an ordinary moment, became extraordinary. Greenberg, not only as a baseball star, but a Jewish baseball star, returning from the atrocities of WWII to lift up an ordinary July 1 day.
Another favorite sports moment comes from Barcelona, 1992. Sprinter Derek Redmond blows out his hamstring in the semifinal heat of the 400meters. Grimacing from the pain, Redmond hobbles on one leg as he makes the turn around the track, determined to finish the race. His father jumps his way through security to the track, helping his son finish the race with arms draped around one another. It becomes a symbol of determination, of the love a father has for a son, of perseverance through adversity.
A few years ago, a number of high school and collegiate videos went viral for showcasing an opponent helping out the other side. These are the examples of greatness when you least expect it. A simple act of sportsmanship, like carrying your opponent around the base path after they’ve torn their ACL, carrying your teammate across the finish line, we remember those moments long after you remember the rest of the stat sheet. These sports moments are a manifestation of the credo to have faith in people.
The ordinary becoming the extraordinary combats our highlighting of the failures when we expect greatness. But for every Lance Armstrong or Ben Johnson, there is a Derek Redmond to lift us up. For every person who shaves points and cuts corners, we have teammates who carry their fallen friend on their backs.
We are people of the book- Am Hasefer. The book, the torah, is a collection of laws, of does and don’ts. But it is also a parable, a collection of stories. Even this week’s torah portion, Chukat, taken from the root “Khok” (meaning law), we are driven to the narrative rather than the list of instructions. And so if we are truly a people of the book, we are also bound by the stories we read, the insights gleaned. We learn from Moses not only from his great leadership, but from the times when he comes up short. We learn that Moses is punished not only for his lack of faith in God’s instruction, but more importantly, his lack of faith in his people. We glorify the greatest feats, but we must remind ourselves that the ordinary can become extraordinary through faith in another. In believing in one another, our moments on this earth become more memorable; our marks more indelible than we could have ever imagined.
Hazzan Holzer’s Top 10 Biblical Sports Comparisons
- Mr. October = Kohein Gadol, The high priest (High Holidays, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah)
- Kerri Strug (she scored a perfect 10) = Minyan of a routine
- Miracle on Ice = defeating the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds
- Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run = teaches that you can really learn all of Jewish thought and practice “on one foot”
- Tebow’s “The Promise” = Ruth’s “The Promise” to Naomi
- Buster Douglass vs. Mike Tyson = David vs. Goliath
- Broadway Joe’s Super Bowl III guarantee = God’s decree that Abraham’s decendants will be as numerous as the stars
- UCONN women’s basketball 111 game winning streak = “It rained for 40 days and 40 nights”
- Bill Buckner = the scapegoat (or the sacrificial lamb)
- Former Jaguars GM Gene Smith = one of the 10 scouts who described the land as being filled with giants while we were grasshoppers
We are all strange(rs)
Excerpts from sermon delivered June 17, 2017
Each of us is tasked to scout into the “Promised land” for all who make up our tribe. How we perceive of what we are seeing and the impactful words we use to describe these moments, shape our reality moving forward.
The scouts of Shelach Lecha were seeking out, exploring something new. They were in search of a way to access this new frontier. But they got scared. The 10 Spies weren’t lying- they reported an accurate depiction of the land, but they saw themselves as grasshoppers, the text states
“and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13;33)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk taught
‘You are certainly permitted to say that you feel like a grasshopper in your own eyes. But what right do you have to imagine how you appear to someone else? To them, you might have appeared as angels.”
Imagine you invite a friend to synagogue for the very first time. Or maybe someone visiting for a world religion class. If you had to pick one ritual experience that you might consider a “weird moment in judaism” to be their first exposure to Jewish communal practice, what would that be?
I distinctly remember a morning in high school when our interfaith encounter partners from a local catholic high school attended our chol hamoed succot service at school. Phylacteries, prayer shawls, chanting back and forth as we processed around in a circle with our lulavim and etrogim. The entire time I felt like the grasshopper, but afterwards I discovered that our visitors were fascinated by our rituals, and deeply respected our commitment to our faith. “But what right do we have to imagine how we appear to someone else? To them, we might have appeared as angels.”
In accepting his Tony for Best Actor in Musical, proud Camp Ramah alumnus Ben Platt stated the following as the music played him off stage:
“Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”
Don’t waste any time trying to be anyone but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.
We hear something might be “different” or “strange” and we interpret as dangerous or in the wrong. But what if what is different, what is challenging, what is strange, empowers us as individuals and community.
When we journey through the unknown, when we see something different, we should remind ourselves that we all connect to the world in different ways. We all have different points of access. It’s important to acknowledge that fact. We are stronger when don’t label ourselves or others. We are stronger when all have access. We are strong because, admit it, we are all a little strange. As we remind ourselves throughout our sacred texts, for we were “strangers” in the land of Egypt. Doubling down, our text this week states:
For the generations to come, whenever a stranger or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. The community is to have the same rules for you and for the stranger residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the stranger shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.’” (Numbers 15:14-16)
It is who we are. Let it strengthen each of us for generations to come.
New Year’s Resolution: Let your intentions be known!
Having just returned from a short time away, I’ve been thinking a lot about vacations. Vacations make no promises. What we immediately think of as periods of recreation, they commit to nothing more than the act of vacating one space for another. Yet to be away for even a short period of time can be therapeutic and refreshing, regardless of how many deep tissue massages or rounds of golf are on the docket. There can be fixed plans- meeting up with friends at a predetermined location, attending a sporting event at a fixed time. Even spontaneous road trips can be fixed when you plan even remotely ahead of time. On the other hand, preplanned road trips can be spontaneous, when the GPS malfunctions or someone has an allergic reaction to their veggie burger and requires Benadryl. No matter how much you plan ahead of time, life throws curveballs, fastballs and knuckeballs daring you to adjust the game plan.
Driving back from South Florida on Thursday night, I had a car full of Holzer ladies sleeping soundly through the second leg of a 5 hr journey home. Long drives remind me of when I ran cross country in high school- no walkmen to blast music, just time to think. While I was thinking about the sermon I had wanted to write a week ago, a car zoomed up beside me. Realizing that his lane, the right lane, was somehow moving under 90 mph, the driver decided to create a previously unopen space between my car and the car in front of us. I honked for a moment, proceeding to a take a look at the license plate of the car now nestled in front of me. H, U, T, Z, P, A, H. Hutzpah. I thought to myself, well he did warn me by clearly stating his intentions with a license plate like that!
Our sages teach of a balance between Keva, fixed, and Kavanah, the spontaneous. While we may focus on their relationship vis-à-vis prayer, that as 11th century moral philosopher Bahya Ibn Pakudah stated, “prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul,” the balance is vital to the fulfillment of mitzvot as well. To be so obsessed with process without allowing room for purpose, mitzvot will lack meaning and intention.
In this week’s torah portion, Joseph tests his brothers in an elaborate plan that our sages struggle to rationalize. Joseph makes the climb from “Hebrew youth” in an Egyptian jail cell to Vizier in charge of all the land of Egypt at the age of 30. He seems to have it all figured out. The text states,
“And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.” Genesis 41:41-2
Like the coat of many colors beforehand, or the robes that Mordechai wore around Shushan as reward from the King, Joseph looks the part of special individual amidst the unrobed masses. He looks like he has it all figured out. Yet there are allusions to where Joseph’s heart lies. As the text puts it:
“Joseph named the first born Menashe because, ‘G-d has made me forget all my troubles and even my father’s house'” (Genesis 41:51).
Has Joseph assimilated into Egypt? Yes. But son #1 is a constant reminder of what he’s supposedly forgotten.
“He named his second son Ephraim because “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering” (Genesis 41:52).
Assimilated into Egypt? Maybe not so much.
A somewhat spoiled, self-centered, pretentious young man is now the man honored by the king with the compassionate task of feeding others. Once again, the text is straightforward.
Now Joseph was the vizier of the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. (Genesis 42:6-7)
Joseph devises a plan to test his brothers, not out of bitterness, but hope. He needs to see if they are remorseful for their actions. Teshuva, repentance, comes when they show intent to do something different this time. Amidst this plan he listens to his brothers go back and forth:
They said to one another, “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them.
And how does Joseph respond?
He turned away from them and wept… But he came back to them and spoke to them; and he took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes.
Later, upon seeing his brother Benjamin for the first time, the text states:
With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Serve the meal.”
They had just left the city and had not gone far, when Joseph said to his steward, “
Up, go after the men! And when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why did you repay good with evil?’” (Genesis 44:4)
He’s almost there, allowing his private emotions to become public. This will be the key to his brothers opening up to him…but then we go back to this master plan. As a reader, I keep thinking, “he’s gonna blow this chance again.” Joseph hides behind the process, waiting for the plan to unfold rather than letting his intentions be known.
While we can ask why Joseph did not reveal himself earlier, it’s hard to ignore the power of his emotions at that moment. Whatever plan this is, whatever Joseph has built up in his mind, it almost destroys the potential for renewed relationships with his brothers. From every word and every action, the bitterness towards his brothers continues through the plan he has set out. Commentators explain that this was all a master plan to not embarrass his brothers. However, Joseph’s emotions speak volumes as to how he really wanted this all to go down.
We have to wait until next week’s parashah, when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. At that moment,
“his sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear…He embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.”
Joseph’s unadulterated tears break the curse. Moving forward, Joseph is able to provide for his family during the years of famine- food and land for his brothers, burial needs for his father. But the text never speaks of an embrace with his brothers again. There is reconciliation, just not the founding of a new healthy relationship. Joseph was too caught up in the fixed plan, the formality of Egyptian society, that he almost misses out on the much needed moment of healing.
We sit here on Erev-Rosh HaChanukkah, the eve of a new year. It’s a time in between last minute donations and those first minute resolutions. We look during these liminal times to recommit ourselves to causes, to lifestyle changes, to fostering friendships or a stronger work/life balance. We are all well-intentioned people, but life gets in the way and sometimes, we don’t hit a bullseye, or even the target itself.
These yearly markers are, in essence, no different than a random Tuesday in the middle of the summer. We can plan to make a call to an old friend for the next holiday or birthday, or we can make a call tonight. If you’ve been holding in, waiting to find a time to reconnect, connect and just spit it out already. We can plan to visit someone on the mi shebeirakh list when our “schedule allows,” or we can send a note to let them know we are thinking of them. Don’t wait for the perfect plan to take shape. Things will undoubtedly come up, but within the pockets of time filled with the mundane, fill those with intention.We have to learn to get over ourselves. Show our intent through our words, our gestures, and our actions. Intention is not everything, but it is vital to our relationships to share it with others. Be transparent. Be raw. Be real.
Tonight we finally end 2016. Scientist were even kind enough to add in a leap second to this tumultuous year. For many this was a, “ughh” year- we lost family, friends, sports icons, rock and movie stars; we lost our fantasy football championships thanks to Dez Bryant’s heroics. This was the year that lacked civility, the year plagued by hidden government plots and politic agendas- we continued to demand more transparency. And yet, for all the transparency we desire from our leaders, we should demand the same for ourselves, expecting nothing less from our own relationships. In this age of speaking you mind, really whatever is on your mind, it is imperative that we speak from the heart.
The modern miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasts for 8 days, but that there are Jews who continue to be committed to lighting it again each and every day. When the lights go out, we fill the chanukkiyah with new candles. We are partners in that miracle. We may usher in a new year amidst the mitzvah of Hanukkah- pirsumei nissa, the publicizing of the miracle. As Joseph gave in to his emotions, so too may we publicize our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for the coming year. Shana tova im kavana– a year of health, happiness, and intention for us all.
Home for the Holidays
Where do we find the pulse of a people? How do we engage and inspire those around us? We look to music; we look to art; we look to entertainment, as the outward manifestations of our own hopes and desires. In my case, you need only look at what’s on my DVR to see what’s going on in my head and in my life. Surely our TV shows have shifted over the years. What began as a series of Law and Order and crime shows has morphed into a collection of narratives that now parallel our own life experience (luckily the crime shows were not an outward manifestation of my own hopes or desires OR parallel to my own life experience). “New Girl,” the story of loft-mates trying to make it as young professionals, comes in third now behind two new shows. The first, “Life in Piece”s, has four interconnected storylines- one for each branch of the Short family. There is an older couple with three grown children, who have their own relationships that develop throughout the show. When the show debuted last year, I would often gravitate to the narrative of the couple with a young child. While the story takes place in Los Angeles, it is very Jacksonville- the intergenerational day-to-day involvement in each other’s lives; every day is like Thanksgiving.
To top our show list is a new drama, “This is Us.” It is the story about the family lives and connections of several people who all share the same birthday. A key birthday takes place during the fall of 1980, 36 years ago. Each week, I cry a little. Each week, I reminisce of what it meant to grow up in the 80s. Each week, I obsess with the historical inaccuracies of the storyline.Each week, I am reminded of how relationships are formed: where the notions of grudges and favorites are cultivated and how a moment in time can affect our future. The more we watch, the more we affirm that the story of This is Us is the story of “us.”
This week, we encounter another storyline spearheaded by another late-30something character experiencing a life change of his own. Medieval commentator Rashi estimates that Isaac was 37 years old when his mother passed away. At the age of 40, Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).
Three years after her death, Isaac brings his wife to his mother’s tent. Three years of mourning. Three years of not being able to talk about his feelings, of not being able to enter his mother’s tent- to be able to reflect upon his mother’s life as well as his own upbringing. Only through Rebekah is he finally able to come home.
Coming home- for holidays, for liminal moments both bitter and sweet, takes us to a familiar, albeit disorienting place. A Huffington Post article from last December entitled, “How to Avoid Reverting to your Teenage Self Over the Holidays” stated:
There’s a joke that captures the feeling of “regression” that many adults experience when they go home to spend the holidays with their families. It goes like this: For every day you’re home with your family, you lose five years. So you should keep your trip short enough that you’ll be old enough to drive away.
“It’s variable. At different stages of your life you might regress more or less,” Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Emory University and editor of the Journal of Family Psychology, told The Huffington Post. “Maybe you go back to your room, which may still be more decorated like a child’s room. You return to the patterns you had when you lived there. It’s challenging, especially early on, to find your way as an adult.”
We all fall into old habits. Grown adults talk to their parents with teenage drama, while parents treat grown up children like middle schoolers. We revert. We take steps back. We hold grudges from years long ago. And even when we are not attending a family gathering, we could easily be attending one of those gatherings where we pray none of our real feelings slip out at the dinner table.
Coming home means sometimes moving backwards- in time and in relationship building. As a recent S.C Johnson campaign put its it, “When families gather, things get messy.”
There is one tradition related to coming home that has changed my outlook. It is the nostalgic art of “going through stuff.”
Our family is currently undergoing a process of high level de-cluttering. I would characterize it as a “triangle of memory” in constant rotation. We inherit toys, books, and outfits from friends who are gracious to share so that our girls might enjoy what their children once enjoyed. As our own parents downsize, we inherit books, tchotchkes, art projects and more from our own childhoods, while simultaneously deciding what we should retain as keepsakes for our own daughters. It is a unique position to decide which of my own handprints to hold on to as I think about all of the take-home projects I continue to stockpile. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by watercolor and who by puff-paint?
One such heirloom in my possession is a time capsule from almost a quarter century ago, intended to be opened in the year 2000. Well I opened it up…two years ago. Most obvious was the folded up Worcester Telegram & Gazette sports section dated Wednesday, May 12, 1993. At first glance I noticed the 4-0 shutout pitched by Red Sox ace Roger Clemens, an article entitled, “Baseball Ignores Tradition,” chastising the creation of a wild card. The NBA and NHL playoffs were in high gear, with Michael Jordan once again wrecking the Cavs’ dreams. May 12,1993 was a week before one of the most highly anticipated series finales of all time. Sam Malone, played by actor Ted Danson, would finally close up the bar “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name.
My eye gravitated to the scoreboard and transactions section of the paper, a somewhat mundane and trivial section, yet an area I would routinely memorize each day as a child. Some notes elicited a smile:
“The Seattle Mariners optioned Mike Hampton, pitcher, to Jacksonville of the Southern League.”
That probably wouldn’t have meant much to me if I had opened the capsule back in 2000. Other notes elicited a sadder response:
Boston Celtics guard Reggie Lewis was cleared to resume his basketball career after doctors discounted an earlier diagnosis of a possibly life-threatening heart ailment. Doctors say Lewis suffers from a neural condition that can be treated with medication.
Two months later, Lewis collapsed at an off-season practice at Brandeis University and died at the age of 27.
We often look into the mirror to ask, “What if I could go back? What could I tell my younger self? How could I guide me through stages and events in my life differently?” Or, we look at childhood as an escape…a world oversimplified, naïve, pediatric, scheduled, ordered.
I realized I should look at this the other way around: how can my childhood, my view on life, my hopes and dreams, reenergize me to be a better father, a better husband, a better person?
And so the time capsule continued to convey messages in a series of letters to my future self:
“Favorite Superhero in my time”: Superman
It’s shifted to Batman, but a strong choice nonetheless.
My hobby: Politics
My future: Chief Rabbi and lawyer of the state of Israel
My family’s hobbies:
My father’s are going shopping at either BJs or Spags, making corny jokes, and acting like a very little kid. My sister doesn’t have any hobbies or interests now because she has a well organized social life and relationship. My mother’s hobbies are just being nice, helping others, and just being happy.
The letters go on and on. Much of the language of my messages to my future self revolve around peace, love, and harmony, reading very much like a personal prayer at a Bar Mitzvah. So…what would we think if we read our Bar or Bat Mitzvah speech? Would we find it trivial and over-simplistic? Or would we gravitate to its positivity, to the message of change and to the aspirations of a maturing young adult?
Our story, every story, has a beginning. As the animated film, “Inside out” envisioned, the core memories from our childhood power different aspects of our personality.
When we dismiss the frustations of our youth, when we dread turning back to our teenage self, we may inadvertently block the thoughts and dreams that make up our core self. We may be swift to dismiss or shove it all aside as being over idealistic, but I believe that kids have it right. While each of us may not have a physical time capsule, we all have windows into our childhood.
So when you do revert (we all do), when you step back in your relationships with old family and friends, when old grudges take center stage, take that step back as an opportunity to delve into your youth once again. What would it mean to thank God at night for your 3 closest friends rather than the 30th like from a friend on Facebook? What would it mean to sing loudly without inhibition because no one’s taught you yet that doing so would be embarrassing? What would it mean to take the stigma out of the word “juvenile” to appreciate the teachings that our childhood brings to the table?
Look back at your earliest aspirations. Transform that innocence, that hope into action; reaffirm who you want to be. And if we look back only to see pain and frustration, take the struggles of our youth as a guide through the pain that tomorrow may bring.
Every story has a beginning. It grabs our attention and brings the reader in. As we give thanks to all of the gifts in our lives over this holiday week, it seems most important to appreciate our own narrative. We look to other stories to inspire, when sometimes, we have to turn our own story on its head. In knowing ourselves, embracing our opening pages as much as the latest chapters, we allow a rich narrative to take shape.