Between You and Me

“If you stop doing hard things,” she said, “you’ll stop being able to do hard things.”  That was what my health instructor said during class a couple of weeks ago.  She was lamenting how her mother, who used to be on her feet all the time while she was working, had retired, joined the YMCA and gravitated towards doing chair yoga as her primary movement practice.  Because her standing muscles slowly atrophied, she took a fall in the locker room and was heading into surgery to repair various injuries.

When she said that, I realized that my whole life has been guided by a similar principle.  If I had allowed my natural shyness to win the day, I’d have never taken a public speaking class in college.  If I had never taken that class and gained experience facing my paralyzing fears, I might not have summoned the chutzpah to apply to Rabbinical school.  If I’d have given myself over to those persistent and unpleasant nerves for the first 15 years of my rabbinate (!), I may have given up on being a rabbi. It’s not that I’m never nervous before speaking.  It’s not that all my talks are amazing.  It is that I’ve built a strong muscle for doing things that are hard for me because I’m doing them all the time: earning 3 black belts in TaeKwonDo, engaging in training programs that provide new challenges for my professional and personal life.  There are easier paths.  I’m almost 50.  I could just keep doing what I’ve always done.

The truth for all of us is that the hardest aspects of life are usually in front of us.  If we stop doing hard things, if we take the familiar road, we may stop being able to do hard things like let our children grow up and leave home, retire and find new ways to spend our time, live with new physical limitations, grieve a beloved, give up our homes and independence.

In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt famously said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Living in the arena and daring greatly has made all the difference for me.  You may reflect and discover the same is true for you.  I am grateful to you for all the opportunities you’ve given me to learn and teach and stay in the arena so that I can better serve as your rabbi.

Between You and Me – May 2019

Carpet Story

A story from Iran: When a certain Muslim had been swindled by a Jew in business, the angered party went to the regional governor and prevailed upon him to issue an official edict requiring the conversion of every Jew by a certain date, upon pain of death.

As the deadline approached, the Jewish community was paralyzed with fear.  With two weeks left, the various elders finally buried their long-standing differences and held a solemn conference at the house of the chief rabbi.  After much thought, they agreed to send a delegation to the governor, but had no idea how to persuade him to change his mind.  The rabbi’s wife said, “Leave it to me and my sisters.”

When the time came, the Rabbi’s wife presented the delegation with two enormous silk rugs, woven by the women in the province.  She gave them specific instructions on what to do when they faced the governor.

A few days later the delegation stood trembling before the Governor. “There is nothing that will make me change my mind, but since you are here, what have you to say?”

“We have brought you a gift, as a token of our gratitude for these many long years during which we have been privileged to live quietly and obediently under your powerful protection.”  The governor liked gifts.  The elders had both of the carpets brought in and unfurled at the ruler’s feet.  “On behalf of the Jewish community of this province, we place these two humble offerings before His Excellency, and request that He choose one of them as our tribute.”

Both carpets were broad, plush, tightly woven, and made out of the most exquisite material.  The first one was covered with colorful curving calyxes and designs of gold and green and turquoise, intricately intertwined with whirling waves of purple petunias which spiraled ceaselessly and centripetally towards the median.  The second carpet was red.  That’s all it was.  The whole rug was just one sprawling, solid red mat, from warp to woof, from end to end.  “I should have you all decapitated for such insolence!” said the Governor.  “Do you take me for a fool?  Who in his right mind would not choose the first carpet—and who in full possession of his faculties would choose the second?”

The most senior member of the Jewish delegation stepped forward from amongst his peers and looked the governor straight in the eye.  “The silk rugs are the territories under your benevolent sway.  Today that province is filled with peoples of every imaginable culture and creed and in this way, it resembles the first carpet.  Would Your Excellency, then, exchange the first carpet for the second?”

Which rug, which neighborhood, which country, which world do you want?  At times, even I long for the ease of a plain rug.  It’s just easier to figure out how to make it work in my home.  But the monochromatic rug doesn’t dance in the light or offer my mind the possibility of seeing how green and blue do go together, especially when I’ve convinced myself that they don’t.  However, uniformity is not a worthy aspiration of an enlightened soul because it doesn’t accept the truth that the world by its nature, is and will be, full of dazzling diversity.  True peace and well-being will come when we can find a way to weave every difference into the whole so it finds its unique light.

May , 2019

Between You and Me – April 2019

The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh.  How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.

Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity.  There is no shortage of victims and violators.

If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story.  They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other.  The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh.  “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror?  To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a).  In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds.  Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them.  The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader.  Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history.  According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile.  The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.

We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus.  It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray.  But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it.  We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens.  But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.

Between You and Me

You may remember the NPR audio series called This I Believe that aired a decade ago. They were short, personal essays written by various guests about a core conviction borne from an impactful life experience. I will never forget one called, “Always Go to the Funeral.” In it, the author recalled how her father insisted on taking her to funerals throughout her childhood but that what he really meant to teach her was how to show up for things even when she didn’t want to and how to show up for people even when it’s hard.

When I became a rabbi, I signed up for a life of showing up and I can’t think of any more meaningful way to spend my time, even when it’s hard, even when I’m out of gas and don’t think there’s anything left in the tank. Showing up to all of that is both the greatest joy and greatest challenge of my rabbinate because it often isn’t possible to be everywhere I’d like to be and it’s not always clear where I truly need to be. Oftentimes, I am pulled in the direction of urgent matters only to run short of time for the ordinary, but sweet moments of people’s lives as much as I’d like.

Every once in a while, however, the waters part in my otherwise chaotic calendar. In June, after years of friendly invitations, I was finally able to show up at a book share at Pisgah View HeadStart where temple members Marty and Kathryn Mann and Jim Theobald volunteer as members of the Tikkun Olam committee. Every other High Holiday season, Marty invites our congregation to donate children’s books that he distributes to kids who don’t have the resources to enjoy reading in their homes. Each comes with a sticker that says that the book is a gift from their friends at Congregation Beth HaTephila. It’s a beautiful Temple project, but until I showed up, I didn’t realize just how moved I’d be.

I was greeted at the door lovingly by Lorraine, the supervisor of the program. I knew immediately from her smile that these kids were lucky to spend each weekday welcomed by her warmth. As I proceeded into the building, I was introduced in each classroom filled with children, dressed in their best, playing with toys, learning to share and do puzzles and build with blocks. After the tour, a display of books was set up in the common area. Marty took small groups of children one after the other and invited them to choose one book to take home with them. You can imagine how precious the expressions on their excited faces were.
The book share is a special event at Pisgah View HeadStart. But what is truly remarkable is that the kids there know they can count on Mr. and Mrs. Mann and Mr. Theobald. They come to visit them every week. They are a presence in their lives. And they make a difference.

This I believe: each of us has a circle of people we make a habit of showing up for: our partners, our parents, our children, our pets. But life is always beckoning us to stretch and show up for a child, for a sick friend, for a stranger. The only question is, will we?

Between You and Me

Two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, I accompanied 12 students to the March for our Lives in Raleigh.  Shortly after, one of our teens organized a rally for students here in Asheville.  Inspired by their passion for change, their stories of being afraid at school and a deep conviction that all life is precious, I feel a shared responsibility to keep the issue of gun violence in the forefront of our minds.

I’ve been a rabbi for 22 years and a student of Tae Kwon Do for the last nine.  On the surface, it appears counterintuitive, but the two identities really do complement each other: the discipline, the ritual, the cultivation of awareness and character each demands feeds the other.  I practice mostly because martial arts are mind, body and spirit practices that teach deep respect for others and cultivate the qualities of perseverance, self control, indomitable spirit, integrity and courtesy. Despite having earned a third degree black belt, I’ve often still wondered whether I should rest more easily because I’m better equipped to defend myself.  As a martial artist, I walk taller and more confident when I’m alone at night.  But should I ever be in danger, would my training really be sufficient?

I had a memorable encounter with a visiting 6th degree master instructor early in my practice at a Tae Kwon Do tournament.  “At your skill level, do you feel confident you could defend yourself against anything, even if someone pulled a gun on you?”  I inquired.  His response floored me. “Yes, because I never leave the house without my pistol.”

Guns are a game changer.  Americans are 5% of the world’s population and we own 50% of the world’s guns.  In such an environment, it seems the only credible defense against a gun is another gun.  At the same time, studies are inconclusive whether putting more guns in the hands of good people is a good or a bad approach to gun violence.  Folks who study gun violence think the difficulty or ease with which guns can be acquired has more to do with changing the number of crimes committed with firearms.  In addition, we know painfully well from the school shooting in Florida that the authorities are not responding even when people who have guns are on FBI watchlists.  Addressing the scourge of gun violence has to be comprehensive and decisive.

I believe Parkland revealed to us too late to be prophetic that gun violence is a public health issue.  More than 210,000 students have experienced it at school since Columbine in 1999.  Those students will never be the same.  But I’m glad I am hearing their voices and I will join with them in making Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High be the tragedy that inspires us to do something collectively that will be sane and smart.  We Americans are good at tackling tough issues.  Remember how we radically changed American mores around tobacco, got people to start wearing seat belts and addressed the issue of drunk driving.  And our society is better for it. For all our sakes, now is the time to act on gun violence, too.