Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, August 18, 2022
In This Moment: The Climate Bill is this Generation's Moonshot; The Jewish Boxer of the Week is one of our own! The Cool-Hottie Rabbi in Netflix's "13"; Israel icon Tzvika Pik: Best known among American Jews for songs not on his hitlist.
Click above for a summary of this week''s portion, which includes the second part of the Sh'ma and the strange commandment to "circumcise your heart." See also parsha packets on the second paragraph of the Sh'maand the history and practices regarding the bima, (what it is, where it is and who is allowed to ascend). Included in the packet is an article I once wrote comparing the exclusiveness of the bima with the Berenstain bears' treehouse. ("No girls allowed!"). In 2002 I descended from the bima on Shabbat and sat among the congregants, and that's where I remained until Covid forced me back up those steps. It's just one more way that Covid has set us back from the vision of intimacy in communal prayer that we had long pursued.
In This Moment
Join us for our annual Barbecue and Barechu (or vice versa) on Friday night, and again on Shabbat morning and on weekdays. This week's portion, Ekev, means "heel," as it's opening lines instruct us to walk in God's ways. Whenever we come to this portion, I'm reminded of a famous poem by Mary Stevenson, which I share here. While the passage is most often presented in a Christian context, a look at the author's biobrings home the universality of Stevenson's struggles and how this Depression-era passage can inspire people of all faith backgrounds, living through all manner of hard times. Now, as if Covid wasn't enough, there's monkeypox too, and to top it off, they had to being polio back. Really, I'm not that nostalgic!
I hope this can being a little healing to those who are in pain.
A Thai Buddhist monk prays for 12 boys and their soccer coach in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, on June 27, 2018. Rain continued to fall and water levels kept rising inside a cave in northern Thailand, frustrating the search for the boys and the coach who were missing in the sprawling underground caverns. All were eventually rescued.(AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
(RNS) — Last week Congress passed the most consequential climate change legislation the United States has ever attempted, designed to reduce carbon emissions by 40% and solidify America’s position as the world leader in the fight to save our planet.
Saving our planet is this generation’s moonshot, and we have finally, and belatedly, achieved liftoff: The journey from the Mercury program’s initial forays into orbit to Apollo’s lunar landing was much shorter than thefive-decade odyssey to this moment from the first warnings of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the carbon dioxide problem,” back in 1969, two months after the moon landing.
So here we go, but it’s important to note that this week’s liftoff was horizontal, not vertical. Our focus must turn now from outer space to inner space, from the planets and stars to the overflowing rivers and parched forests. But there is much that the prior moonshot can teach the current one.
One man who seems to realize this already is Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director whose new film, “Thirteen Lives,” brings us back to the tense early summer of 2018, when an international team of experts and volunteers joined forces to rescue a boys soccer team stranded in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but see similarities to “Apollo 13,” Howard’s 1995 movie, in which, with teamwork, ingenuity and outside-the-box thinking, another skilled team was able to rescue highly trained astronauts from an infinite void, with no atmosphere, no climate and no possibility of sustaining life.
Earth, one senses, is angry at our hubris and is sending us a final ferocious warning before it all goes up in flames.
In Howard’s new film, the wrathful rains are personified by the mythical princess Jao Mae Nang Non, also known as the “reclining goddess,” whose image looms over the mountain and cave (that both share her name) where the boys were trapped. Legend has it that her ill-fated love met a tragic demise in that spot. Villagers make offerings to appeal to her for mercy, while the rains fall like tears from her grieving eyes. She is a constant, visible reminder that we have made a mess of our relationship with nature, and now we are paying the price.
Unlike last year’s climate change film, “Don’t Look Up,” the message of “Thirteen Lives” is that we need to look down, into the darkest fissures of the earth, the caves and sinkholes, the submerged rice paddies and gushing tributaries. Look down into the eyes of the princess.
“The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth God gave over to us,” the Bible’s Psalm 115 reminds us. We need to fix what’s in our backyard and not be distracted by the shinier objects above.
Curiously, both of Howard’s rescue films have the number 13 in the title, which points to another shared lesson: Both the celestial and earthbound moonshots are profoundly spiritual missions, boosted by a fusion of humility and hope. “Who knows thirteen?” — Jews sing at the conclusion of the Passover seder. “Thirteen are the attributes of God,” referring to the 13 qualities of mercy through which God governs the cosmos. Through these attributes, we can sense God’s presence and the unity of all creation.
This summer, the James Webb Space Telescope enabled us to see galaxies being born and dying and light that was generated at the dawn of time, just after the Big Bang, 13 (yes, 13) billion years ago. In the Israeli media, the Hebrew word used for this Webb’s-eye view of the universe was Ein Sof, which in the secular context means “infinity,” but it is also a well-known kabbalistic name for God’s most mysterious and unknowable essence.
When we gaze back through those 13 billion years and slip the surly bonds of time and space, we approach the face of God. The closer we come to seeing the beginning — and touching God — the more we recognize that we are not God, and the smaller we feel. That stunning vision from the heavens should fortify us with humility for the struggle that awaits; for back here on earth, the reclining goddess is growing impatient.
In the Talmud, 13 is also the age of responsibility. And what greater responsibility do we have than to take those God-like qualities of mercy and apply them to sustaining life here on our home planet? For while we look up and our Webb-enhanced view gets clearer and sharper, we look down and our view of what lies beneath us becomes muddier and murkier. As more sinkholes start to appear, the ground gives way and the waters rush in. The princess is begging us to act.
“Chiang Rai,” the princess of the cave cries, “we have a problem!”
We need to summon the same dogged determination of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz as we grapple with humankind’s most intractable predicament: “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon,” said Lovell. “And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.”
Kranz put it best as he wrestled with the unmanageable challenge of bringing the boys home:
“Failure is not an option.”
Now the work can begin, at long last, thanks to the underwhelmingly named Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Let’s call it the “Inconvenient Truth Act” of 2022.
Kudos to Ha'aretz for talking about these innocent victims. Terror hit home for Israelis as well this week, with an early morning attack on a group near Zion Gate in Jerusalem, involving a family from Brooklyn. Still, thank you, Ha'aretz for helping us to focus on the human cost of war for all sides. Also, Israel struck a note of transparency when its investigation indicated that five Palestinian children said to have been killed by a misguided Islamic Jihad rocket actually were killed mistakenly by Israelis.
For most of my life, I tried to hide stuttering as much as possible, an experience of constant anxiety, shame, frustration and exhaustion. As a chubby kid who stuttered, raised in a very observant, Orthodox household in Columbus, Ohio, I was desperate to fit in. If I was capable of hiding stuttering, even a little bit, I would. For me, hiding a stutter often meant simply not talking, even when I desperately wanted to. I also avoided stuttering by constantly changing words and phrases as I spoke, usually approximating what I originally intended to say, but not always expressing the complete intent of what I wanted to....
Slowly, I’ve become more and more comfortable saying exactly what I want to say when I want to say it. In pastoral situations, I’m more able to be present and to care for my congregants and their loved ones because I’m less worried about my stutter. When I looked for a new job several years ago, the prospect of talking in front of interview committees was scary. Ultimately, acknowledging and owning my stutter for all of these communities only helped to make a connection with them.
How the Rabbis Thought About Work (Hartman, video lecture)Work shapes our lives, our relationships, and—for better or worse—our status in the world. The nature of work is also rapidly changing. Over two sessions, David Zvi Kalman looks at how the rabbis understood the ideal role of work in our lives, the kinds of work that were best, and their understanding of the relationship between work, rest, and play.
Antisemitism Once More (Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner) -Amid the discussion around the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and what it might mean for Trump and the rule of law in America, there is a detail that I worry isn’t receiving enough attention but that points to a dangerous reality in the United States today. It centers on Bruce Reinhart, the magistrate judge who signed the FBI's search warrant. As his name became public, he has faced a withering volume of threats from those who believe Trump should be above the law. In today’s America, with the MAGA crowd revved up for attack, that was to be expected. But that attacks were to be expected should not obscure the fact that they are dangerous. Very. The possibility of their leading to violence should not be underestimated. Many of these threats focused on the fact that Judge Reinhart is Jewish. It got to the point that the synagogue where Judge Reinhart sits on the board had to cancel Shabbat services:
Fire hits vacant Grossinger’s hotel, once a Catskills jewel (AP)The famous resort closed down decades ago, but this final indignity was a sharp reminder of how everything eventually turns to dust. But so many people search vainly for a way back to those summer days and huge buffets. This quote from "Brideshead Revisited" comes to mind: "I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world."
Here's my take on Josh Peck as the Cool Hottie Rabbi: He’s a nice guy, and I like when he goes "full rabbi" by replacing his baseball cap with a yarmulka ("Respect the yarmulka!"). But what's with this haftarah done with piano accompaniment? Also, he describes God in a binary, patriarchal manner, (“God’s calling; HE’S asking for HIS language back.”) No self respecting progressive rabbi on the Upper West Side would pigeonhole God with such binary language as these days. Rabbi Shapiro’s Hebrew is OK, but it’s clear that his knowledge of Hebrew is not natural to him, from the way he overdoes it with the “shva na” vowel pronunciation in the word holchim, which he pronounces correctly but too-correctly as HOLE-LEH-CHIM (see the grammatical rules for this obscure but fascinating Hebrew vowel and scroll down to see the word in question, הולכים). And the attempt to pronounce a “resh” like an Israeli is as laughable as the horrible Boston “r”s you hear in crime movies. (And I would know; I'm your rabbi, from Boston!). On the Today Show, Peck talked about his own Bar Mitzvah at a posh NYC restaurant. Which synagogue did he go to? There was no synagogue...
Quickie quiz. Can anyone guess which haftarah portion Evan has? Answer below...
The music is top notch, especially the opening and closing numbers, and I definitely recommend the film, especially to middle schoolers. If you've always felt your Jewish grandmother sounded a bit too much like a waitress from "Cheers," you'll love Rhea Perlman as the grandmother, and Debra Messing is just plain great.
Quiz answer: Portion is Beresheet, and haftarah is from Isaiah 42 (Evan's few lines are below), a famous passage glorifying the wonder of Creation and proclaiming that Israel should be a "light unto the nations."
Prime Minister Yair Lapid mourned the loss of the singer and songwriter, noting that Pik sang the words, “‘Music penetrates the heart’ — a sentence that describes most of his songs and tunes that penetrated the heart and Israeli culture… Zvika was a revolutionary artist of his generation, a pillar of Israeli pop. Zvika died today, but his songs and music that are left behind will continue to be played for many years.”
American Jews might be most familiar with three songs that do not register near the top of his greatest hits in Israel. It's similar to the different ways Americans and Israelis have experienced people like Golda Meir, or the last two American presidents. We are just different, though Israelis and American Jews all agree that Michael Aloni is dreamy. But Pik's long list of Israeli hits does not include two early melodies of his that we sing all the time over here; his 'Sh'ma" and "Shehechianu" melodies have become iconic in progressive worship here, and "Light a Candle" was very popular as a Eurovision hit that combined Hebrew and English.
"Light A Candle" (top left) "Shehechianu" (top right) and