Let’s Lyft the Conversation


I had a disconcerting Lyft experience the other day. It started off very pleasantly. As I was buckling my seat belt, the driver said with a smile, “hi, how are you? you know, this is my first day driving pero I been thinking about it for a long time. Pero, how are you?” He is chatty and pleasant. He speaks with a thick Spanish accent and there are times when I have trouble understanding exactly what he’s saying. Finally, I switch into Spanish. When he stops teasing me about hiding my Spanish for the last five minutes, he asks a seemingly innocent question. “So what about you? What do you do for work?”

“I’m a rabbi,” I say. “It’s like being a priest, except I work with Jews instead of Catholics and I can get married.”

He starts to laugh. With a big smile he says, “You’re Jewish?! Man, you guys are the reason this country is so messed up. You own the government. You have all the money. Must be nice.” Then he starts to laugh.

I’m instantly feeling cold and uncomfortable. What do you say when someone is so nice and so anti-Semitic at the same time? Years of pastoral training cue a line of curious questions.

“What makes you say that?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says, “That’s just what my father told me. I don’t need any proof or anything because I know he’s right.”

After a pause, I say, “you know, it scares me to hear you say that. That’s what they said in Europe before they killed 6 million of my people. Jews are a tiny percentage of the population here. They don’t own the government. They don’t have all the money. And when you say things like that, it makes me feel scared.”

In the rearview mirror, I can see him watching the road. I can’t tell what his expression is. There’s quiet in the car for a beat. To break the silence, I ask, “what do you think about the latest crack down on immigration?”

Immediately he answers, “I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this country. I mean, if these people come in, they’ll ruin everything. They’re against American values. They’re terrorists. Pretty soon, they’ll overrun the country. You’ll see, if you let them in, in 20 or 30 years, there won’t be any white people left. It’ll be only Hispanics. And I’m Hispanic!”

Just then, Google maps interrupts us. “In four hundred feet, you will reach your destination.” That was it. That was the Lyft ride. He pulls up to my garage and says with a big smile, “it has been really nice talking with you. Can I give you my number? I usually work construction, but I really enjoyed talking with you and so if you ever need a ride, I could leave work to drive you wherever you need to go. I would really like to talk with you more.” I thanked him and assured him that I have his number through the app. And then, I walked away.

But the conversation left me reeling.

On the one hand, there was the blatant anti-Semitism. The blatant, weirdly pleasant anti-Semitism. Here was a guy who genuinely wanted to engage. He was cheery and affirming. He would like to keep talking. And, by the way, Jews are the reason the world is in trouble.

Increasingly, it is this kind of insidious hatred which animates our world. It’s not overly threatening, not based on experience, and ostensibly not fueling anyone to do anything. It’s just conversation. Just there. Vogue. Like wearing clashing colors and calling it high fashion or using offensive words in a rap song and calling it art. Don’t get upset about it, our culture tells us, this is hip. It’s free speech, man. If I hate on someone else, that should tell you I’m cool. It’s how we connect.

Today, we don’t worry about white-robed mobs lynching people in the streets. Instead, we hear people making off-color jokes and laughing while they spout friendly anti-Semitism. Our children walk into their school bathrooms to see swastikas carved on the doors. Our young adults arrive at college to be berated by groups which say Jews are the oppressors. Just this week, I met with a young adult who told me proudly that when he interviewed for his current company, he could even share that he was Jewish and talk about Israel! That is in 2018. He said that he didn’t even apply for another company because he knows they don’t employ anyone with a connection to Israel.

This type of hatred is insidious. It masks itself as friendly but has dire potential consequences. When we take it seriously, as we should, we are told that we are overreacting. That we are over-sensitive. (By the way, when people call you over-sensitive, usually it’s code for “you are feeling something I don’t want to acknowledge.”) That’s where we’re at. That’s where our world is at.

But I wasn’t just troubled about the anti-Semitism that popped up in my Lyft conversation. Here is this driver who is willing to throw shade on anyone. Your people, my people—the object of hatred doesn’t really matter. He is a Hispanic immigrant, hating on Hispanic immigrants. He told me his parents came to this country seeking asylum. He was born here by sheer luck. And yet, he thinks we should keep everyone like his parents out.

How can this man sit there and hate on his own people? I mean, I loathe the anti-Semitism, but in some ways it’s easier to process than the seeming hatred he has for his own people.

And while it’s tempting to say that this is just some crazy person driving Lyft, the truth is we too struggle with the pattern of unconsciously spewing hateful words, especially at ourselves. Recently, one of my students came in visibly upset. She told me that she was making fat jokes about herself in school. “I mean,” she said, “it’s ok when I do it because I’m talking about my body. I have a right to say whatever I want.” But then, her friends started repeating what she was saying. That hurt. And then, worst of all, a guy in her class took a picture of her, superimposed the image of a whale, and then sent that image out via snapchat. Ouch!

We talked about how inappropriate it was for this student to take the picture of her and send this offensive message. We wrote a letter to her principal, to her guidance counselor, and to her teacher to get her the support and resolution she needed. And then I turned to her. “What these students did and said about you is not ok. And, you can’t throw shade on yourself and expect other people to be nicer to you than you are. You have to treat yourself with at least as much kindness as you want others to treat you with.”

How often do we disparage ourselves without even realizing it? With all the vile hate-filled speech that we hear on a regular basis, we’ve become inured to the destructive power of our words. We think that hate speech is going on out there, unrelated to us. We don’t realize that when we put ourselves down, we are participating in the very same pattern of hate which has caused harm throughout history.

Words have power. That’s why freedom of speech matters. That’s why Judaism teaches that God created the world through speech. God said “let there be light,” “let there be animals.” God did not just make the light and the animals and the plants. Just as God spoke the world into being, we have the power to shape the world around us through our words.

When I was living in Israel, I learned a profound bit of Torah from my teacher Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan. She pointed out that since Hebrew is written without vowels, sometimes a word can be pronounced in multiple ways. For example, the book of Torah we finished today, written bet, mem, daled, bet, reish. Traditionally, bamidbar—in the wilderness. But, you could also pronounce it bam’daber. In speech.

Ok, that’s very nice, you might be thinking, but who cares. “In speech” or “in the desert.” That doesn’t speak to me. Except that it does. You see, the distinction here is what you say and how you say it. When you speak in one way, we’re all stranded in the desert. Not in Egypt, but not in Israel either. Stuck. But when you speak in a different way, in a more conscious way, then we get to engage in potentially transformative conversation with one another. Then we get to create another world together, just like God did when God spoke the world into being.

Ultimately, we can be down about hatred and anti-Semitism, or we can do our part to Lyft up the conversation by asking questions of genuine curiosity, speaking up, guarding our own speech, and speaking words of blessing. Whether we are stranded in the wilderness or engaged in transformative conversation is up to us. So here’s my question for you today: what will you say?

Fingerprints


Ten years ago, I was helping my grandmother to clean out her closets when we came across a tiny black velvet bag embroidered with birds and Hebrew lettering. “Oh,” my grandma said, “those are my father’s tefillin.” She gave them to me that day and told me what she always told us when we got something new, “use them in good health.”

Read More...

Halo


I have a very complicated relationship with ice cream. I can have no ice cream. Most days I have no ice cream. But I cannot have a moderate amount of ice cream. I cannot take a spoonful or two and call it a day. Once I open the pint, I finish the pint.

Read More...

The People We Free


Every Monday morning Aliza and I visit a woman in the House of Corrections in Boston. She is gay, and she is from Uganda, where it is not okay to be gay. She was persecuted for being gay, and she fled for her very life by seeking asylum in Boston.

Read More...

Split Screen


This has been the week of the split screen. Jubilant celebration pit against desperate agitation. Pictures of smiling, well-dressed politicians inaugurating a sparkling new American Embassy in Jerusalem juxtaposed with shots of Palestinians in Gaza wielding slingshots, silhouetted against the backdrop of burning tires, acrid smoke, and barbed wire. Split screen. Two pictures snapped at the same time, 40 miles apart. Two pictures that could not be more different.

As painful as it has been for us to see these two images juxtaposed in the news, it has been doubly painful to feel those images juxtaposed in our hearts and in our communities.

For some, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was an answer to fervent prayers and to decades of hard work. They say Jerusalem has always been our holy city. The heartbeat of the Jewish world. Jerusalem is where our Temples were built, where our ancestors offered sacrifices, where our people have lived and prayed and wrestled with God for more than three thousand years. Jerusalem is and will always be the capital of Israel. This move is about recognizing a reality on the ground, a reality which does not preclude the resolution of conflict, but which does acknowledge that Jews will not abandon the city of Jerusalem. Any future peace agreement will include the acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people. Why not move the embassy now?

Besides, they say, this move is not a sudden reversal in policy. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. In 1995, the House and Senate voted to acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and set aside funds to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For the last 23 years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have ignored the stipulations of the Jerusalem Embassy Act and refused to move the Embassy (even though Congress has since passed additional legislation to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel). By moving the Embassy, President Trump was not just carrying out a campaign promise, he was also responding to and actualizing a decision made through the democratic process. A promise which our government has reneged for more than two decades.

It is high time, they say, to celebrate Israel. 70 years of surviving and thriving against the odds. 70 years of struggling to resolve the conflict, 70 years of compromises, negotiations, and diplomacy. 70 years filled with terrorism and two intifadas. Even today, Hamas urges its people to run at the fence, to destroy Israel. We cannot allow their blatant disregard for human life to hold us hostage, we cannot allow their violent tactics to dictate the course of Israel’s future.

While this group celebrates, for others, the relocation of the US Embassy was too much, too soon. They say that while the Embassy Act has been on the books, our presidents have been prudent to delay. It’s too volatile, too dangerous. Just look at the protests that have been happening in Gaza for the past many weeks. 60 dead. Thousands injured. Among them children and bystanders. Is moving the Embassy worth so much pain and loss of life?

The embassy move was meant to be a celebration of conflict resolved. An incentive for Israel to work hard for peace. Instead, by rushing to move the embassy now, precisely on Israel’s anniversary of independence and Palestinian’s Naqba day, we have made peace in Israel even more unlikely. For Palestinians, the move was a slap in the face, proof that the United States has chosen sides and is no longer an impartial mediator. And, they say, we worry that moving the embassy will further radicalize the hard-right groups in Israel and make them less likely to negotiate with Palestinians.

Furthermore, they say, the fate of Jerusalem has yet to be decided. The international community sees Jerusalem as an occupied city. The international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Acting unilaterally to move the Embassy, without the approval and agreement of the international community, risks not only Israel and our interests in the Middle East, but also threatens our safety at home. Now the United States will be a target for all those countries who hate Israel.

Oy. What do we do in the face of split screens?

After the destruction of the Temple, our ancestors dispersed around the world. Their experiences were varied. Some found hardship, others opportunity. But no matter what they encountered in their travels and in their lives, they were looking at the world through the split screen of experience. On the one side, they saw the picture of their trauma: destruction of the Temple and displacement. On the other side, they saw the opportunity and challenge of the moment. Two screens.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we are in our ancestors’ shoes. We’re grappling with trauma. Living in a new place where we don’t quite fit in. Trying to maintain our connection with our spiritual home. In the place of sacrifice, we have to find something that will make us feel instantly connected and loved, safe and hopeful for the future. We have to devise a new ritual to start the day.

If I were an ancestor, I would create a ritual filled with sunshine and warm fuzzy feelings. My morning ritual would be as follows—wake up with the sun shining without an alarm, watch 10-15 minutes of cute baby animal videos on YouTube, write out 10 gratitudes, remember all of the miracles God has performed and praise God for all the blessings in the world, and then listen to joyful music while getting ready for the day.

Our ancestors could have devised a spiritual practice of sunshine and cute animals, but instead they chose to start our day with a split screen. Light and darkness. Blessing and challenge. Every morning we say a verse from Isaiah יוצר אור ובורא חושך God forms light and creates darkness.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Though our ancestors lifted the verse from Isaiah, they edited it to fit their spiritual needs. The original verse reads יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא רע God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates evil. But our rabbis didn’t want the focus to be on fragments of light emerging in a dark world, they didn’t want there to be total balance between good and bad. Instead, they wrote the words יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא את הכל God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates the whole. In other words, there may be light and darkness in the world, but the balance tips towards light.

Let me share a story with you that I learned at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference.  The year was 1948. Israel was struggling to fend of armies from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Things were not looking good and the United Nations had just ordered Israel to withdraw from Beersheba.

During this time, famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was travelling around Israel with an ensemble of incredible musicians. They would stop at military bases and perform to improve morale and help with the war. Just as the order to vacate Beersheba came through, Leonard Bernstein and his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra arrived to perform.

In the midst of a dark and uncertain future, it was a moment of sheer joy. Thousands of Israelis, including patients from nearby hospitals, schlepped out to hear the gorgeous notes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 15 in B-flat Major, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

And while they listened, Egyptian armies saw thousands of Israelis assembling and became afraid. They were convinced that Israeli armies were gathering in Beersheba to attack Egypt. So, they pulled their armies from Jerusalem and sent them south. That redeployment changed the course of the war and enabled Israel to defeat her adversaries.

In 1948, our people did not allow their bleak reality to prevent them from seeing light. Though we may be living in a moment of split screens, in a moment of darkness, we can turn our eyes towards the fullness of the future. We can look towards the light.

[Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od] *sung

The Majesty of Quotidian


You do not have to be a basketball fan to be wowed by Lebron James.

His story is not only a basketball story. It is a human story.   He is finishing up his 15th year in the NBA.  He is 33.   That is very old in NBA years, where many of the players are in their early twenties.  And unquestionably he has the least talented team of any of the NBA teams still competing in the playoffs.   All the other teams have multiple superstars.  The Cavaliers don’t. They just have Lebron and a bunch of journeyman players.

And yet, Lebron has been playing not only better than any 33-year old has ever played.  He is playing as well as he has ever played. Older Lebron is out-competing younger Lebron.  All the metrics of basketball, points scored, assists, rebounds, minutes on the court, clutch shots made that win the game—all those metrics point to this year as his finest hour.

This seems to be a Lebron James sermon that would be good for basketball fans and sports enthusiasts.  But stay with me now.  This is a sermon that belongs in shul on a Shabbat morning, because it is about you, about me, about all of us.

But to make that case I need first to talk about a fancy word, an SAT word, that nobody ever uses.  The word is quotidian, which has two definitions.

The first definition of quotidian is: “occurring every day, daily.”

Pause here.  How do we understand what happens every day?  How do we value what we do every day?  Does what we do every day suffer for its familiarity?

All of which leads to the secondary meaning of quotidian, which is “ordinary or common place.”  What we do every day runs the risk of becoming boring.

Think about your morning routine.  You wake up. You try to coax another day out of your weary body. You brush your teeth, brew a pot of coffee, take the dishes out of the dishwasher, catch up on the morning news, shower and get dressed for the day.  Maybe your morning routine involves prayers. Perhaps it involves a workout, yoga, running, stretching.  Perhaps it involves calling people you stay in touch with every morning.  Perhaps we reach for our cell phones and catch up on texts and emails that are somehow always waiting for us every fresh morning.

Think about the routines of your morning, how we do that day after day, forever. Does repetition lead to boredom?

In 1921, the poet Wallace Stevens answered this question yes when he coined the term “the malady of the quotidian.”  Quotidian is not just boring, the poet tells us.  It is a malady.  What we do every day does not only suffer from repetition.  We suffer enduring all that repetition.

Is Wallace Stevens right? Or might there be some other way to frame our daily deeds?

The Torah tells us that there was a sacrifice called the tamid.  The word tamid means perpetual.  This was a sacrifice that had to burn every morning and every evening of every day.  The main point of the perpetual sacrifice was that it was perpetual.  The light was always on. The fire was always burning. Forever.

How does that happen?  Answer:  It doesn’t just happen.   In describing the tamid sacrifice, the Torah coins this evocative  phrase, baboker baboker, morning in, morning out.  Morning in and morning out the priest had to remove the ashes from yesterday’s sacrifices.    Then he had to put fresh logs of wood in for today’s sacrifices.  Ashes out, logs in.  Baboker baboker. Every day. Forever.

That sounds an awful lot like Wallace Stevens’ “malady of quotidian.”

But then the Torah shares why the priest does this every day:  eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach loh tichbeh.  A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar. Do not let it go out.

There is a higher purpose to all these daily rounds, namely keeping a fire burning, never to go out.  The daily chores, and the higher purpose, are totally connected.  Ashes out, logs in, make a perpetual fire possible.

The Torah here takes the stuff we do every day and reframes it from the malady of quotidian to the majesty of quotidian.  The quotidian now has majesty because it makes higher purpose possible.

Which brings us back to the King of basketball, Lebron James.  What we see now is the eish tamid tukad al hamezbeach, the perpetual fire burning on the altar.  We see a seemingly ageless 33 year old, 15 year veteran outperforming much younger athletes and playing the best basketball that has ever been played on planet earth.  But like the biblical kohein, who every single day had to take the ashes out and put the logs in, Lebron’s greatness this season did not just happen.

After Shabbat is over, google “Lebron running the court video.”  It will show you what he did this past summer on an ordinary summer day, August 22, 2017, to be exact.  The video is 1 minute 1 second long.  It shows Lebron, already the greatest player in the history of the game, still working incredibly hard to perfect his craft.  It shows him running the full length of the court and dunking, eight times, in 1 minute, 1 second.  Pure work. Pure quotidian.

Why is he still working so hard on a summer day?  Because you can draw a straight line from that practice and that hard work to the unparalleled success he has had this year.  Perpetual fires do not just happen.  Perpetual fires only happen if you tend them perpetually.

Consider the folks here at Temple Emanuel who prepare breakfast every morning after our daily minyan.  They come in at 6:00 am, they open up the building, and what they do is pure quotidian.  They toast bagels, brew coffee, set the table for 15 or 20 people, put out spreads, put out drinks, daven, encounter every person who comes to the minyan, serve breakfast with a smile, and then clean the whole thing up, do every dish, put away all the food, sweep everything clean.  That is every morning of every day from 6 to 7 and then after davening from 7:45 to 8:30. And why do they do this every day?  Because it makes a perpetual fire possible—a community that welcomes its members in warmth, prayer and friendship every morning.

What are the ashes you take out and the logs you put in?  What is your perpetual fire?

If you are a teacher, you have your ashes and logs.  Every day you face a classroom of students, lesson plans, grading papers and exams, parents who have concerns.  Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that in a world where the very notion of truth is under attack, where reading and learning and knowing and having expertise are devalued, there is such a thing as learning, there is such a thing as truth, and you are inspiring the next generation to believe in it, to work hard for it, to pursue it.

If you are a doctor, you have your ashes and logs, a waiting room full of patients, hassles with the bureaucracy of managed care.  Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that you are bringing healing and relief and life to people who are stricken and desperate and are relying on you?

If you are a lawyer, you have your ashes and logs, timesheets that must be filled out, hours that must be billed, bills that must be sent out and collected.  Can you find your perpetual fire in coming through for clients who count on you?

If you are a salesperson, you have your ashes and logs, widgets to sell, customers to schmooze, early morning flights to make, competitors to deal with.  Can you find your perpetual fire in helping your customer get what they need and in helping your company and its employees thrive?

If you devote your energy to home, you know only too well your ashes and logs. Dishes, bills, laundry, garbage, carpool, making and cleaning up breakfast, lunch and dinner, homework.  None of this ever ends. But can you find your perpetual fire in creating a home that is a sanctuary for your family, a place of love and joy and renewal, a home where your loved ones thrive because of the love and care you put into it?

Recently I was at a shiva for a family that had lost its father.  After we davened maariv, one of the grown children was recounting a chapter of her father’s life that had remarkably not come up until then.  The children did not mention it when I met with them at the house.  The chapter did not come up at his funeral.  But at the shiva, this daughter recounted that for ten years, her father was a caregiver who faithfully attended to their mother who suffered from Parkinson’s. 36 hour days for 10 years.  That is a lot of ashes and logs.  There is no glory in 36 hour days. No glamor. No headlines. No one is looking when the caregiver is present day after hard day.  But at the end of his days, all those ashes, all those logs, led to a perpetual fire of character, loyalty, decency, steadfastness, a beautiful humanity.  The perpetual fire of role modeling how important it is to do the right thing when no one is looking. That is the majesty of quotidian.  Truly no King, not even Lebron, could do anything more important.  Shabbat shalom.

Live Like You Were Flying


How many of you have flown on an airplane in the last six months? For the most part, flying is predictable. It is predictable that there will be lines. Predictable that there will be delays. Predictable that on travel days we don’t eat great. That we will graze on protein bars and almonds.

Read More...

Focus


In college, I had a strange spring-time ritual. Every year, just about this time, I would start to feel overwhelmingly stressed. Every spring, I would end up crying in my advisor’s office. And every spring we had the same conversation.

Read More...

The Pharaoh Within


Shira and I have a first cousin who lives in Israel who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Shira happened to have been in Israel at the time and was able to attend his birthday party. Surrounded by his large and loving family, her cousin Alan observed that when he turned 50, there were 11 people in his immediate family—he and his wife, their 7 children, one of whom was married and had a child, their first and at the time only grandchild. One decade later, there are now 31 people in his family, as most of his children got married and started having children.

Read More...