Unplug

Thirty minutes east of Portland, towering over exit 31 of Interstate 84, tumbles Multnomah Falls. More than tumbles, really. It cascades thunderously, shooting spray on people posing for pictures in front of the natural wonder. Picture the power of the waterfall (or go to Google images- it’s worth seeing).

OK, now picture this. And right in front of this miracle of nature, a 500-foot waterfall, is Bill on his cellphone, back turned to the water, oblivious to the spray, talking on his cellphone.  What is wrong with this picture? I mean what is wrong with this picture!  (This is cheap- we can’t post pictures here, but you can use your imagination or visit futornick.wordpress.com to see it on my blog.) OK, I staged the picture, and Aviva took it for this entry. But it really isn’t far-fetched to imagine ourselves being so immersed in technology, so needing to be connected, that we can turn our backs on such a wonder.

The fact is that we do this every day. We solder ourselves to technology and rarely separate from it. I know for myself, it is really difficult to stop staring at my screen(s). When we stay so “connected”, though, we disconnect ourselves from so many other things: the miracle of family, daily wonders, waterfalls.

The Shabbat that falls on March 6 and 7 is the National Day of Unplugging. Now who has the authority to decide that there is a national day of unplugging is still somewhat unclear to me. And, as I talked about on Rosh Hashana, it is fairly ridiculous that we have a day that we are to “unplug”. Like I said a few months ago, we all know that we have a national day of unplugging every week called Shabbat.  But so many of us don’t put aside the time for unplugging on Shabbat that the National Day of Unplugging may actually be necessary.

The trick is going to be unplugging regularly after March 7.  The organization promoting the National Day of Unplugging is called Reboot. Let’s all use March 7 to reboot and to reconnect ourselves to what our prayerbook calls “the miracles which are with us every day.”

The lost post

I submit for your dissection a post that should have happened 3 months ago, but which I recently discovered, unpublished. Like a hidden gem, an artifact. The Basement Tapes. Hah! Re-reading the words, they don’t seem to have gone stale. In fact, the thoughts about tribalism seem to have been amplified with the events of the summer shortly after I left. I hope you enjoy my musings, old though they may be.

I’m on my way to Israel for Hannah and Sydney’s Bnot Mitzvah. Not too long ago, I woke up, having slept most of the way from Toronto. In fact, I missed just about the entire Atlantic crossing, which is too bad, since I wanted to see if I could see the aurora. I even picked a seat on the left window, the north side or the plane. It was a long-shot anyway- I’m sure there was nothing to see.

Anyway, we’re now flying over Brittany, the map indicating Lorient in the near distance, with Nantes our next crossover point. I’ve long wanted to visit Brittany, especially Lorient for the Festival Interceltique, the world’s largest Celtic music festival. Someday, hopefully. As we cross through northwestern France, I turn on Nolwenn Leroy, the French-Bretonne singer, and listen to Tri Martholod, a Breton song that means, three sailors. Next, Bro Gorsh va Radou: the unofficial anthem of Breizh (the Breton word for Brittany). What better time to listen to Breton songs!

And of course, my mind starts wandering away into the ether. Just thinking about tribalism and tribal conflict. Not too long ago, I was watching Youtube as Nolwenn sang Bro Gorsh at the Stade de France before the final of the French cup soccer match contested by two teams from Brittany. The crowd sang in unison, waving Breton flags, their faces painted with the Breton colors. It was an expression of “nationalism”, the of pride in their origins. Until the early 80s, local languages- Breton, Basque, Provencal, Langue d’Oc, couldn’t be taught in schools in France, so as not to separate the state (l’etat) into fragmented nationalities. But tribalism won out, and now there are many regional languages being revived in France.

For some reason, I’ve had many recent conversations about the tribal nature of people as a species. Not just concerning France, but everywhere- Israel, Ireland, France, Rwanda, South Africa, etc. etc. On my stopover in Toronto, I watched a World Cup match, and at the beginning, the crowd roared their anthems. Then, the teams went at each other, a peaceful proxy asserting national identity. Anthems and flags- is that really how we define ourselves?

Actually, as I sit on the Canadian flag carrier, I wondered about the US and Canada. Only a line on the map separates us. Or is it something deeper. Does that border divide us into distinct peoples, or did we become that way by virtue of having a border there? Chicken and egg?

And now heading to Israel, whose neighborhood is such a graphic example of that tribalism. Oy, it’s too much to contemplate. And we’re only over central France.

Erev Rosh Hashana 5775

Here’s what I said this year.  Hope you enjoy it.

Clarity

[Sing] There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.

It’s time we stop, Hey! What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.

Last year I gave you some homework. This year, I’m giving you two things to do. Let me recap last year’s assignment. Remember the Mikdash Me’at? Just to review: From the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet told the people that since the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, that God was a mikdash me’at: a little sanctuary. The rabbis expand the Mikdash me’at to mean synagogues and study halls, and later into our homes, our schools, our offices, our very beings.

I ended with this prayer: May this be a year when each of us constructs the Mikdash Me’at, the little sanctuary that is the holiest place in the world.

So, How many of you built your mikdash me’at this past year? Well, I was building mine, but a text message came in. Then another one. And 46 emails. I have to admit that I’m a little embarrassed about this, since I was the one giving the sermon, but I got knocked off course in the middle of doing my homework.

It’s not surprising, really. None of us is immune. We’re constantly “dealing with things”. Texts are coming in. Constantly. And emails. And the occasional phone call. I, and I think many of us feel besieged by our own availability and need to be IN TOUCH; it gives us comfort. I have a great picture from inside my sukkah of the three teenagers who were over building with me. We were taking a break, and in the picture is each of the teens on their cellphones; I was too, by the way. Inside the sukkah, which incidentally is a mikdash me’at!

I think it’s an addiction. We’re always using. We have a need for noise, for filling in our time- texting, Facebook posts, Instagram. We’re silent but not silent. We fill every empty space. It’s as if we have to fill every moment with interaction, with feedback. We look to others to tell us what to think.

As I reflect on this, I started to wonder: When did silence stop being golden? We fear silence and unfilled minutes. And it hurts us. It crowds out our ability to refresh, to renew, to concentrate on our spiritual selves. To just have some quiet would be so welcome.

We need a cure, and part of the cure is that we need to, and I hate this word, Unplug. We need to stop fearing silence and gaps in interaction. Turning off one’s cellphone occasionally, not responding to emails within 9 seconds of receiving them is not a sign of weakness or lack of commitment. I’m fairly sure my sukkah could have gone up first, and then the four of us building it could have resumed our texting or instagramming or whatever we were doing.

Over the summer, I was in Michigan, visiting family and friends, spending time at various lakes. My affinity for water is for another day. For a week, I didn’t check my email. When I downloaded my emails to my phone, I had 1,200. And guess what? It turns out that I’m really not that important! But that made me feel good; the world didn’t end when I didn’t check my email. I felt refreshed.

We of course have a weekly day of silence and unplugging. Gunther Plaut said: I view the Sabbath as a “useless” day. When we hear the word useless, it’s pejorative, a negative. But Plaut clearly meant it in a positive sense. He goes on: We must once again understand that doing nothing, being silent and open to the world, letting things happen inside, can be as important as, and sometimes more important than, what we commonly call the useful. I don’t know- even on Saturday afternoon, after a day of synagogue, I have frequently felt restless, like I’m not accomplishing anything. Useless is such a negative. But to be useless is so necessary. And we can think of it also as a “Use-less” day. A day when we’re not using, when we’re not feeding our addiction.

There is an organization called Reboot that is promoting a day in March, a National Day of Unplugging. I’ll be honest. I’m skeptical. Well, actually, I thought it a bit ridiculous. We have a national day of unplugging every week. It’s called Shabbat. Heck, today is a national day of unplugging. But unfortunately, I think it may be necessary. The trick is going to be unplugging on another day besides March 7. And then to keep doing it. So our first task is to unplug; not just from technology, but from anything that infringes on our silence.

The second assignment for this year is to do reflect and absorb. In the Talmud, the letters of the Torah and the spaces between each have an importance. Commentary says that the white spaces, the places where we fill in the meaning of the Torah, are more important even than the letters.

Rav Abraham Kook teaches that we can deepen our understanding by considering that extra space is left blank to separate sections of the Torah. The Sages explained that these separations allowed Moses to reflect upon and absorb the previous lesson. In other words, the spaces correspond to the realm of thought and contemplation.

Even though I was tongue in cheek about not building my mikdash me’at, I actually did build one this year. My Mikdash me’at is the Power Hour [describe it]. Now, I know that it isn’t for everyone. Actually, as one with a conservadox upbringing and a decidedly non-touchy-feely approach to worship, I didn’t know it would be for me.

But over the course of this past year, something happened. Something wondrous. And I can’t explain it fully, and I can’t say exactly when it happened. It touched my soul and spirit as has rarely happened for me in my life. One of the people who attends Power Hour regularly, my friend and chevruta, walked into my office, and, told me that he felt the same thing (with apologies to Buffalo Springfield): “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

I look around that room, at Power Hour, and it feels to me like each of us are cells, intrinsic to each other, that form a body. We gather around the Torah, form a circle, and share blessings with each other. There is an intimacy that I have rarely found in a prayer service. When we all join together to say blessing, to stand with each other at Yahrzeit, to ask for healing, there is a power.

But perhaps the most important aspect of the Power Hour is that we can reflect and absorb. Angela and Saul provide beautiful music, and we find kavana for the prayers together, but most important is that there is silence. There’s time for deep reflection, for closing one’s eyes, and absorbing the tune, the words of the prayers we say. There are people who don’t even open the book.

At the end of the service, I leave refreshed, present. Again, I’m not sure how to define this eloquently, except to say that I feel clarity. That clarity connects me to everyone on an even deeper level. Like I said, Power Hour isn’t for everyone, but if we can all unplug, reflect and absorb, even for one hour, it can change us for the better.

There’s a story that I (and probably many of us) have heard many times, but until this year, I never really connected to this, never really felt what it was talking about. A great pianist was once asked, “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” The artist answered, “The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides.” The beautiful notes and the pauses between. The silence.

Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav said, Teach me, dear God, that often the most effective words are no words at all. Teach me how and when to communicate with that most potent gift of silence. Shana Tova.

Bat Mitzvah(s) on the Beach

OK, so Aleh Negev was the highlight of my summer (including my vacation in Michigan and New Jersey, post to follow). I mean, how could it not be? It’s not everyday that one is inspired and humbled. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the other two days I spent in Israel (insert smiley face here).

Wait a minute- two plus one is three. You went to Israel for three days? Yes. Yes I did. Because that’s how it worked out. And three days in Israel is better than no days in Israel. I mean it. Meshuga? Yes, if you ask Marj and Dave and most other people I know. Regardless, I’d do it again. In a New York minute, as they say.

When Apryl Stern and Michelle Gee asked me to accompany their families, and to prepare Hannah and Sydney for a Bat Mitzvah in Israel, I was flattered and excited. As you know, I would look for any excuse to go to Israel (even for three days, as mentioned above). But the opportunity to participate in a sacred event in Israel (having just experienced several of them in December with Mathias, Aviva, Phoebe, and Ariel) was far too much to resist.

To make things even more enticing, Hannah, Sydney, and I would have the opportunity to craft a B’not Mitzvah that incorporated both traditional and unique elements. And we would do it in front of family and friends from Israel, England, and California. So the answer was a resounding “Yes!”

I won’t bore you with details of travel, except to say that I flew through Toronto, and had a 12-hour layover, which afforded me the opportunity to spend a few hours in town, have brunch, watch the World Cup, and walk around an interesting neighborhood (Roncesvalles for those who are curious). It was my first visit to Toronto, and I must say that I enjoyed it, and would love to return.

But back to the topic at hand. Here’s my trip report.

Air Canada managed to deliver me safely to Ben Gurion Airport, where I met my friends Jen and Assaf, with whom I would be staying in Herzliya. They picked me up, and whisked me away to Abu Adham, their favorite hummus restaurant. I must say, as a foodie and a fairly non-hyperbolic, objective critic, that it ROCKED! No, really, their hummus is outstanding, and they gave us a bonus falafel ball that was absolutely delicious. Is it better than Ali Karavan aka Abu Hassan in Yafo? That’s for people with more taste buds to decide.*

*- I like both, and would be delighted eating either.

That’s it for Monday. We ate lunch, we went to their new apartment in Herzliya (Mercaz, not Pituach), we hung out in the apartment, I did emails, I fell asleep, Jen took a picture of me and texted it to Aviva, we went to dinner in Tel Aviv, we came back, we went to sleep. Fun. Kind of what might happen in California, but it was in Israel. Which makes it better. Really.

Tuesday, the Gees picked me up to go to Aleh Negev, which I documented non-sequentially above. Tuesday afternoon I hung out in the apartment, I did emails, we went to dinner in Tel Aviv, we came back, we went to sleep. Rinse and repeat.

After brunch on Wednesday and a little shopping trip to procure some Judaica (a dreidel, some little Kiddush cups, candlesticks for Nat and Mimi, a Mezuzah for Jen and Assaf), Assaf dropped me off in Herzliya Pituach, at the building where the Gees and Sterns had rented apartments, across the street from the beach, so that Hannah, Sydney, and I, together with Hannah’s brother, Guitar Noah, could run through that evening’s service.

I can’t describe this adequately, but I’ll try. Sitting in an apartment a block from the Mediterranean Sea, with our siddurim open, practicing prayers and songs is different from practicing in my office, or even in the Sanctuary at CBJ. Israel is palpable; it permeates oneself (or at least it permeates me). Even in a “secular”, i.e. not the Kotel, place like Herzliya Pituach. As we ran through what we would be doing, I felt it. Plus, Hannah and Sydney are delightful kids. And Noah, well, most of you know how I love watching our teens as they grow up and find their paths as young adults. Noah is just tremendous: kind, mellow, easy to be around, and lots of other positive adjectives, not to mention very talented on the guitar.

So now let’s skip forward past my return to the apartment, doing of emails, and misadventures with Gett (Taxi App- iTunes store, if you really want to know) to return to the beach.

It’s Wednesday evening, 7:00, at Gazebbo restaurant overlooking the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. The sun is still fairly high above the water, and people are arriving. English accents, Israeli accents, South African accents, California accents (what are those?) as everyone catches up with each other. I alternate among checking in with Hannah and Sydney, greeting familiar and unfamiliar faces, marveling at the setting.

I hug Irene Gee, David’s mom, oops, I mean David’s mum, whose bittersweet feelings are etched on her face. Feelings of happiness at celebrating her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, of having family together, many of whom have just arrived from London. Feelings of profound sadness and grief that Malcolm is no longer with us in this world. Malcolm, David’s dad, died in late May, just a month before he would have celebrated his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Malcolm was a wonderful man: kind, intelligent and engaging, a lover of his Judaism and of Israel. I had the privilege to know him when he visited California, and came to shul at CBJ. The world is poorer with his loss. I also had the privilege to read David’s eulogy for Malcolm, and if he lets me, I will share it here in this space in a future post.

But back to the ceremony. In true Israeli fashion, we missed the sunset, since we started late waiting for people to get there. Which was ok, since we were davening Ma’ariv, the evening service. Hannah and Sydney, with Noah’s accompaniment, led Ma’ariv, sang their respective Maftirs that they will do at CBJ in September and November, and gave drashot on their Torah portions. When the time came for the Amidah, everyone had the chance to pray silently facing the Sea.

OK, here is where I’m going with this post. The Amidah is meant to be a conversation between a person and God. There’s a formula, a set of nineteen blessings (on weekdays; there are seven on Shabbat), thirteen of which ask God for various things without which it is difficult for us to reach our ideal selves: Wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, repentance, safety, etc. The other six are blessings of praise and gratitude. Sometimes, it is difficult to find the presence of God as something with which one can communicate directly. Sometimes, not so difficult, but that ebb and flow is what I call theological dissonance. The God who is both close to us yet remote from us (or sometimes not even extant) is not always relatable. For many of us, but for me, personally, I frequently feel that dissonance acutely when I pray.

But standing in front of the Mediterranean Sea, I felt none of that. The Sea feels immanent, a manifestation of a mighty divine force that has made itself knowable. I looked over the sea and felt something profoundly spiritual seize me. Seeing the waves that stretched to the horizon with the slightest bit of the light of the sun that had disappeared, gave me a sense of the infinite. At that moment, I closed my eyes and left the pages of the siddur behind. My conversation with God did not follow the formula of the siddur, the words I uttered were soundless. My prayer sprung from my heart, from my being.

And then it was gone. It was time to wrap up the service so we could eat. But in those couple of minutes, I felt that I had had a profoundly spiritual moment. At that moment, I did not have a connection to the traditional words that I usually say. Somehow, though, at that moment, I know that those traditional words helped me.

OK, what am I trying to say? That you need both. The siddur is a template, a jumping off point. It points to the important things we need to be thinking about, and gives us a common vocabulary to communicate those things with ourselves and with others.

But it’s only the beginning. Every moment can become one in which we feel the presence of God, or if you will, a more undefined spiritual presence. At that moment, one that is more raw and spontaneous than davening from the siddur, we need to be able to recognize and give voice to our connection. It doesn’t have to be overlooking the infinite sea or on the top of a Tahoe peak. It can be at home as we harvest our tomatoes, hear our children laugh, see our significant other for the first time that day. It is when we hear Angela play her guitar at the Power Hour, and get whisked away on the notes that seem to form a road to a higher space.

But back to the B’not Mitzvah. The girls did great, people seemed to genuinely dig the service, and we had a nice dinner. And it was great to see the Blooms, who made the overland trek from Zichron Yaacov, Ed and Sharon, and the Hausner crew, who all brought some California to Herzliya Pituach.

And on Thursday, I flew home.

Aleh Negev- A remarkable place

The drive to Aleh Negev is only about 90 minutes from Herzliya, but being Israel, it feels as if we have driven halfway across the country. Which I guess we just about have. As we know, Israel is not a big country. About the size of New Jersey. Or El Salvador. We know.

We’re heading to the outskirts of Ofaqim, between Beer Sheva and Sderot. 16 miles from Gaza. (In the month since our visit, 2 rockets have landed on the Aleh Negev property. One of the rockets did significant damage to a building. The residents are confined to safe rooms and shelters.)

But in late June, all is quiet. I’m riding with the Gees. David is driving, and Michelle, Nathalie, and Sydney are enjoying the view as we make our way to rendezvous with the Sterns. Raymond, Apryl, Noah, Hannah, Sarah, and a couple of other family members will meet us at Aleh Negev. Hannah and Sydney are going to celebrate their B’not Mitzvah together one day hence, on the beach in Herzliya, at sunset. Back in May, when Doron Almog came to CBJ to speak about Aleh Negev, both Hannah and Sydney enthusiastically let me know that they wanted to tour the village as part of their mitzvah projects. Avnet Kleiner set up our visit, and off we went.

As we approach Ofakim, a fairly sizeable city appears. From afar, the first striking feature is the number of minarets that rise against the sky. We count at least seven. Then, Arabic writing on signs, and a couple of men wearing kaffiyehs. The town is Rahat, a place of which I have never heard. In the age of the iPhone, however, ignorance is temporary and enlightenment just a touch screen away. It turns out that Rahat is a Bedouin city, which sounds like an oxymoron. It’s the only one in Israel, and 55,000 people live there. We will later meet someone from Rahat who is being treated at Aleh Negev for a brain injury.

And this is something that strikes me as we later tour the facility. The staff and residents are Israeli and Bedouin, Jew, Muslim, and Christian. Mostly Jewish, as one might expect, but Aleh Negev is remarkable in its egalitarianism. Muslim children treated by Jewish therapists; Jewish children attended to by Muslim nurses. Because Aleh Negev is a place that accepts everyone for who they are.

It’s a philosophy that permeates the Aleh Negev. There are children with birth defects, kids who contracted illnesses that left them with special needs. One child suffered brain damage from drinking poison. Adults visit the campus for outpatient hydrotherapy, occupational, and physical therapy after suffering traumatic brain injury.

All of the staff with whom we spoke emphasized how they meet everyone where they are. Aviva, who teaches the blind and visually impaired talked to us about a blind autistic student to whom she was teaching the difference between right and left. She told us that you can’t say that someone is incapable of learning. Nobody is unteachable. You just have to figure out how.

As we sat in a classroom with a group of autistic children learning a song, Ariel (not his real name), a resident boy of about thirteen or so, came over to me and wordlessly hugged me, a sincere embrace that he held for several seconds. When he released me, he walked over to another member of our party and hugged her, then proceeded to wrap his arms around several other people. A three-year-old girl in the preschool scooted around, following a wheeled cart, moving quickly and purposefully. A year earlier, she had been unable to even walk.

There are more than one hundred and fifty residents of Aleh Negev, each with a story, each unique. It is truly a special place.

A month after my visit, the contrast of Aleh Negev, where one’s ethnic or religious background makes no difference, and the barbarism of the hatred of the other mostly perpetrated by the Hamas, but let’s not kid ourselves, lurking not far beneath the surface of Israelis as well, really points up the true tragedy of a war that should never need to be fought. Yet while I have been party to anti-Arab feelings that some of my Israeli friends and acquaintances have stated, and I know that the ecumenical nature of Aleh Negev is not the prevailing feeling in Israeli society, let’s not kid ourselves. The blame and responsibility for the conflict today falls completely on the people who want to cause death. That the Hamas could send rockets with the possibility that they could fall at Aleh Negev of all places is beyond unconscionable, and beyond criminal. It is evil.

But not to end on a bitter note. I don’t have the words to express adequately how moving and transforming a visit to Aleh Negev can be. I know that Hannah and Sydney, the Gees and the Sterns, and I were incredibly touched by the dedication and perseverance of the staff and residents of Aleh Negev.

Epilogue: I do want to add my gratitude to Alan Fisher and Barbara Sommer, who introduced us to Aleh Negev and previously to the Central Arava Medical Center. Alan and Barbara encourage us not only to donate to important JNF-sponsored projects in Israel, but also to connect with those whom these projects serve. They are true Zionists, building the land that is our homeland. More importantly, they are humble people, true tzadikim. If the world is really populated by Lamed-Vavniks (google it if you’re unfamiliar), then I would bet on Alan and Barbara being counted among their number.

I’m Back!!

Sorry for the long hiatus; just recovering, finally, from the holidays.  Lots to post soon.  For now, here’s my article that will be in the upcoming Voice.  Mark Jan 11 on your calendars- it’s going to be great!!

 

In February 1999, Michelle and I moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, and put our roots down here.  Unlike many in this neighborhood, we enjoyed living in LA.  The weather was great, there was a lot to do, and most important for us, we had a wonderful Jewish community.  So it was not without some sadness that we left the city that is not a city to become Northern California denizens.  Of course the most difficult part about moving was leaving our friends behind, relationships that we had built and treasured.

 

Among those friendships, one of my closest was with Keith and Laura Miller.  We met in 1994, at my synagogue in Santa Monica, and I became very close with the Millers and their children, Adina, born in 1992, and Zachary, born in 1995.  When we moved, one of my biggest regrets was not being around to see Adina and Zack grow up.

 

Watching kids grow up is amazing.  We watch them discover the world.  We see them change in so many ways, shedding their physical and emotional baby fat, evolving through their adolescence into adulthood.   For me, the most gratifying part of my job is the relationships I get to form, especially with young people.

 

I’ve been at CBJ for more than eleven years, which means that my first bnei mitzvah students are out of college and in the “real world.”  I have been able not only to watch them grow up, but also to help guide them through the years.  When I get together with these twenty-somethings today, it’s with the ability to see where they have been, and how much they have matured.

 

How much the moreso do I feel blessed then to see my own children blossoming even as I gaze!  Aviva is twelve, and Shira is nine, and every day brings new joys and challenges.  I am proud at the young people they are, and at what they are becoming.

 

I am also so proud of Aviva, who will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah on January 11, because she understands that Bat Mitzvah is about taking on the responsibilities of mitzvah, of doing for others.  In the next Voice, she will write about her tzedakah (Project Leket); it will be a little hard for her father to believe that her picture will appear next to her bio in the Voice as a Bat Mitzvah.

 

Michelle, Aviva, Shira and I hope that you will be able to join us on January 11.  This community has helped to raise our children, and we feel so blessed to be a part of it.  We look forward to celebrating together!

 

By the way, Adina Miller is now a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she is active in the Jewish sorority, and Zack is a freshman at Puget Sound, where he is on the basketball team.  And my good friend Keith was the Cantor at my synagogue in Santa Monica, and he will be honoring us at Aviva’s Bat Mitzvah when he leads us in Musaf!

The sermon got done!

CAUTION- Long post ahead!  Here is the sermon from last Weds night.  I think it worked!

 

Erev Rosh Hashana 5774

Building the Mikdash Me’at

 

Anyone need drywall work done?  Last month, we took 2 trips to New York to help rebuild houses that were destroyed by hurricane sandy.  We mudded.  We sanded.  We painted, trimmed, installed insulation.  The first house we worked in was owned by a single mom and her 8-year-old daughter, upstairs in a tiny loft space while her downstairs was being rebuilt.  Another house was of a 90-year-old woman who was bouncing between relatives while the gutted inside got redone. 

 

At one house, where our volunteers were installing insulation, the homeowner came to Rachael Yourtz.  This woman cried as she told Rachael about losing everything and the long road ahead in rebuilding her home.  She also cried when she talked about the gratitude she felt. 

 

We didn’t just do an abstract concept of social action.  We built houses.  But it was more.  We helped rebuild people’s lives. Our work was holy work, and our building was of holy places. The walls we were building became a mikdash me’at. 

 

What is a Mikdash Me’at? It’s based on a line in Chapter 11 of the Book of Ezekiel.  As the people of Israel languished in their Babylonian exile, the prophet Ezekiel told them that God was a mikdash me’at: a little sanctuary.  The “real” mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, had recently been destroyed, and the heart of the lives of the Jewish people had been cut out of them.  The holiest place in the world lay in rubble.  Ezekiel tells the people that even though God has scattered them among the lands, yet God has been a small sanctuary, a Mikdash me’at, to them.  

 

The Talmud expands the Mikdash me’at to mean synagogues and study halls.  This is our Mikdash me’at.  Later rabbinic commentary tells us that everywhere can be a mikdash me’at: our homes, our schools, our offices, our very beings.  As we left for Long Island, it was with this in mind.  We would be creating a mikdash me’at through our hard work, sharing of ourselves with those in need.  We would create a mikdash me’at within ourselves, the feeling of doing holy work.

 

It was not just the doing good that made the experience special. It was that we got to share it with each other, to form bonds with each other.  When we got on the Virgin America plane together to return home, it was with the experience that had drawn us all so much closer to each other. 

 

The story is told of a great rabbi who is given the privilege of seeing the realms of Heaven and Hell before his death. He was taken first to Hell, where he was confronted with a huge banquet room in the middle of which was a large elegant table covered with a magnificent and crystal. The table was covered from one end to the other with the most delicious foods that the eyes have ever seen or the mouth tasted. And all around the table people were sitting looking at the food…and wailing. It was such a wail that the rabbi had never heard such a sad sound in his entire life and he asked, “With a luxurious table and the most delicious food, why do these people wail so bitterly?” As he entered the room, he saw the reason for their distress. For although each was confronted with this incredible sight before him, no one was able to eat the food. Each person’s arms were splinted so that the elbows could not bend. They could touch the food but could not eat it. The anguish this caused was the reason for the great wail and despair that the rabbi saw and heard.

He was next shown Heaven, and to his surprise he was confronted by the identical scene witnessed in Hell: The large banquet room, elegant table, lavish settings, and sumptuous foods. And, in addition, once again everyone’s arms were splinted so the elbows could not bend. Here, however, there was no wailing, but rather joy greater than he had ever experienced in his life. For whereas here too the people could not put the food into their own mouths, each picked up the food and fed it to another. They were thus able to enjoy, not only the beautiful scene, the wonderful smells, and the delicious foods, but the joy of sharing and helping one another.

 

When we got back from the east coast, Eli Melmon, the youngest member of our crew said that he felt good contributing because the amount of people that had been hit and the amount of people helping, was not exactly an even ratio and there need to be more people to even out the ratio.  We can’t leave each other behind if we’re to create mikdash me’at.  We need to share generously.    

 

Reality is though that sometimes sharing is not possible due to circumstances: a hurricane takes all that we have, we lose a job, unexpected illness taxes our resources.  Our neediness takes away our ability to share with one another.  But many of us face neediness that goes beyond poverty and resource depletion.  It’s the neediness of being overburdened by life, being overwhelmed by tasks.  We are needy in a different way. 

 

It’s as if we live a natural disaster that has taken away not our homes or our purchasing power, but our very souls.  We may not realize it, but we’ve lost the ability to share because of either circumstances or our own conscious choices. And losing that ability to share hinders our ability to build that Mikdah Me’at, or even tears it down.

 

When I’m able to make time for Rockin’ Shabbat, for example, I love the music and the story.  But I really love the ability to share Shabbat. Think about Avinu Malkeinu or the Neila service.  The tunes and liturgy could move us if we were by ourselves, but when we do them together with our community, “Wow!”  It’s a peak experience, partly because we share it with each other.  When someone brings up Avinu Malkeinu in class, others nod their heads and look with a reverie, understanding exactly the types of feelings of others because they share those feelings.  Those who have been to Israel together in this community have a special bond that they share with each other.  Shameless plug- we’re going again.  There’s still space!

 

In April we had the amazing experience of neighborhood Shabbat, where so many of you generously opened up your homes.  Afterwards, I talked to one person who had been skeptical about going, but afterward let me know how happy he had been to share the experience with others in our community.  Sharing each others’ lives is what we’re talking about when we talk about relational Judaism.  You’ll hear many more times over the next couple of weeks, and by email, about the Sukkot brunches that we are doing in neighborhoods.  Host one of these, or if you can’t, then say yes to sharing in someone else’s Sukkah. It’s because the nature of community is to share.

 

“I would love to build a sukkah, but….”  as you imagine the feelings that are created by family and friends as we share laughter and stories. Ah, the sukkah….. My favorite holiday is Sukkot.  It isn’t hard to figure out why.  Eating outside, having friends over, visiting other people’s sukkot.  Building, decorating.  What a blessing.  The themes of sukkot:  Gratitude, fragility, celebrating bounty, relief that the crops turned out okay.  All of these resonate with me. 

 

On a deeper level, what really resonates with me is the conception of the sukkah as a mikdash me’at.  We share with each other our bounty, and create deeper relationships together.  There is something about building something, or if we can’t build it ourselves, about sitting in a newly constructed space.  Whether it’s a home on Long Island, or a sukkah in our yard, the physical space lends itself toward being a MIkdash Me’at, a place where fresh starts are possible, where holiness can reside. 

 

And so you might ask, why talk about Sukkot tonight, on Rosh Hashanah?  Well, there’s precedent in Nehemiah 8, where on Rosh Hashana Ezra tells the people to build a sukkah.  And for the first time since Joshua leads the people into the land, they do it.  Starting today, we build the mikdash me’at for this year: spiritually, on Rosh Hashana, and physically, on Sukkot, where the Sukkah becomes our holy.

 

I know that this year, as I sit in my Sukkah, and in the Sukkot of friends, I will be thinking of the kitchen in Wantagh with the refrigerator floating in 4 feet of water, and of the signs on houses in East Rockaway that read “uninhabitable”.  By constructing a temporary structure, I create empathy with those who lack, and I recognize that it can all blow away one day, in the breath of the wind.  I will also think of those who were routed from their homes by the fire on Woodside Road, and know that I and others here will respond to their needs, to help even the ratio between those who were hit, and those who help out.  When I share my bounty, it should also be with those in need, to bring cans to Second Harvest, to serve food at Maple Street Shelter. 

 

We are blessed to have elbows that bend.  And we are blessed to have arms that want to feed each other.  We are blessed to have arms to put around each other.  And we are blessed to be able to use those arms to pick up those who need it.  We can use those arms to build a sukkah, and yes, to even put in some drywall.   May this be a year when each of us construct the Mikdash Me’at, the little sanctuary that is the holiest place in the world.  Shana Tova.