My Brother Z”L

I have had writer’s block of late, pretty sure I didn’t want to delve into the obvious topic, the election, even if I can’t resist reading the multitudinous attempts to understand it. Thanksgiving was a challenge, but we kept things civil by focusing the kids on the workings of the electoral college and the impeachment process. Anyway, I think this is one of those rare cases where everything has been said already AND everyone has said it. So, let’s try something different.

My brother died mid September, already 2 1/2 months ago. Your support during this time has been most welcome, especially as the loss has been heavier than I anticipated.
Being the only survivor, I took on the tasks relating to clearing out Steve’s apartment and going through his papers. It’s not that much fun, as some of you know who have done this. I feel like a voyeur much of the time and everything I touch that he touched makes me a little sad.

You learn a lot about somebody from doing this. People collect the oddest things, and Steve was no different. Others retain every piece of paper; Steve was one of those too. He kept elaborate records also. The most interesting of the latter is the record of the approximate mileage he put on each of the cars that he owned, from the 1959 Ford with a mere 30,000 miles to the 1969 Pontiac with 77,000 to the 1984 Chevy with 92,000. The last cars were the 1994 Ford with 65,000 and his first (and last) foreign car, a 2002 Nissan with 89,000 miles when he traded it in a few months before he died. Grand total: 560,000 miles. Can anyone tell me their totals? I also noticed that he got a new car every few years early in his life, then it was ten years or more between cars as I guess the novelty of having the latest model wore off.

Steve also seems to have kept every financial document and statement he ever received – carton after carton of cancelled checks (remember those?), medical bills, lab reports, bank statements, social security notices, you name it. I guess he didn’t know about the six year rule for saving things. Anyway, it turns out that it was not in vain. An annuity that he had taken out is being transferred to me. The insurer says its basis is about 6% of the current value of the policy which was taken out in the late 80’s. There is no way a conservative annuity could grow that much in that period of time, but the insurer (biggest in America) insists that is all they can verify and the total of the increase will be taxable. But there in all the boxes were originals from the late 80’s, some handwritten by the broker, indicating much larger initial contributions. Uncle Sam will get less, but don’t feel too sorry for him.

Being the last left of our family still is weighing me down. As Congregant D wrote to me, “People experiencing sibling loss have compared it to losing a deep part of their childhood. The ones with whom you share the same heritage, upbringing and values during an entire lifetime are no longer present in your life. “ D remembers me talking about growing up in Philadelphia and the sense of joy I had about those years. Give us a ball and we could play all day. Life was simpler. And there was only one person who experienced it all with me. And he, all the sudden, is gone.

You know what to do this weekend. Call your siblings. Shabbat Shalom and best regards. Bill Rudolph

President Elect Donald Trump

Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, is in a state of shock over the results of the presidential election. Young people who supported Clinton are especially affected, feeling that they lost both an ideal and an expectation. Living inside the Beltway, or on the Upper West Side, it is now totally clear, is living in a bubble; it distorts the vision of what the country is really thinking and feeling. Seeing that reflected at the ballot box is eye-opening; for some that is good and for some that is chilling.

Like most Jews, I voted for Hillary. Between 70-80% did. I thought she would be a good President. With Trump I had/have mostly fears and doubts. But he was elected, so now what? A lot has been written already about what happened, about which I know as much as you do, or what to think going forward. I share some thoughts now on the latter, brief of course.

Every Shabbat morning in synagogues around the world we recite a prayer for the welfare of our government.  It is recited not because it’s the nice thing to do, or the patriotic thing to do … it is recited because it is the Jewish thing to do!  Our tradition tells us to do it. I can give you the texts if you wish. When I was in Zimbabwe last fall, we recited the prayer, even with a brutal incompetent government. Here too we have to show respect and support for the leader of our country whether we like him or not, whether we like it or not! But we worry about what will be. Will President Donald Trump build a wall along the Mexican border and get Mexico to pay for it?  Will he ban Muslim immigration?  Will he tear up the Iran Nuclear Agreement?  Will he move the American embassy to Jerusalem?  Will he deport illegal immigrants?  Will he negate the ACA?  Will he bomb ISIS?  Tear up international trade deals?  No one can know for sure.

A colleague reminded me of two figures in history who may provide some hopeful perspective on what may be. Remember what happened when Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister?  He had been considered the ultimate Hawk … the father of the settlements.  And then when he became Prime Minister, he was the one who uprooted 8000 settlers and disengaged Israel from all of Gaza.  Critics on the right condemned him, but he explained, “The view from here is different than the view from there.”  When you are the head of a country things look very different than when you are just a political candidate.  What you say on the campaign trail may be very different from what you can do from a place like the Oval Office.

There is also the legend that when Alexander the Great was first serving in the Greek army, one of his superiors insulted him and Alexander promised revenge someday.  Later on in life, when he became the ruler of the Greek empire, one of his aides remarked to him that he had never taken vengeance on his old time adversary.  And Alexander replied, “I am not going to allow Alexander the Small to dictate policy to Alexander the Great.”  Yes, for Alexander the Great – like Ariel Sharon – the view had changed from “there” to “here.”

So, as President, will he be “Donald the Great” or “Donald the Small?”  We can hope that he will rise to the occasion. In the meantime, I like what Mark Cuban tweeted the day after, “We all need to give President-elect Trump a chance, support the good, lobby against what we disagree on.” Feel free to write back. Best, Bill Rudolph

 

Anxiety

NY Times columnist David Brooks is my favorite of those people. I thought his piece early this week on the anxiety many Americans are feeling in this election season was right on target, and worth sharing. Mostly this is Brooks, assume that quotes go around most of it. I have just finished many holidays and don’t have so many original thoughts.

This election campaign isn’t now and maybe never was about policy proposals, issue solutions or even hope. It has taken the form of two candidates who arouse gargantuan anxieties, fear and hatred in their opponents. As a result, some mental health therapists are reporting that three-quarters of their patients are mentioning significant election-related anxiety. An American Psychological Association study found that more than half of all Americans are very or somewhat stressed by this race.

Now there are good and bad forms of anxiety — the kind that warns you about legitimate dangers and the kind that spirals into dark and self-destructive thoughts. In his book “Worrying,” Francis O’Gorman notes how quickly the good kind of anxiety can slide into the dark kind. “Worry is circular,” he writes. “It may start with a concrete anxiety: Did I lock the back door? Is this headache a stroke? And it has a nasty habit of taking off on its own, of getting out of hand, of spawning thoughts that are related to the original worry and which make it worse.” That’s what’s happening this year. Anxiety is coursing through American society. It has become its own destructive character on the national stage.

Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind. It cycles possible bad futures around in your head and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios, 90 percent of which will never come true. Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield. A mounting tide of anxiety makes people angrier about society and more darkly pessimistic about the possibility of changing it.

This being modern polarized America, worry seems to come in two flavors. The first fits many (some?) people we know. Educated-class anxiety can often be characterized as a feeling of overabundant options without a core of convicting purpose. It’s worth noting that rich countries are more anxious than poorer ones. According to the World Health Organization, 18.2 percent of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3 percent of Nigerians do.  Today, when you hear affluent people express worry, it’s usually related to the fear of missing out, and the dizziness of freedom. The affluent often feel besieged by busyness and plagued by a daily excess of choices. At the same time, there is a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that they don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all-encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace. I see that.

This election has also presented members of the educated class with an awful possibility: that their pleasant social strata may rest on unstable molten layers of anger, bigotry and instability. How could this guy Trump get even 40 percent of the votes? America may be not quite the country we thought it was. I definitely have felt this.

Now, among the less educated, anxiety flows from and inflames a growing sense that the structures of society are built for the exploitation of people like themselves. Everything is rigged; the rulers are malevolent and corrupt. It is a well-established fact that people who experience social exclusion have a tendency to slide toward superstitious and conspiratorial thinking. People who feel exploited by, and invisible to, those at the commanding heights of society are not going to worry if their candidate can’t pass a fact-check test. They just want someone who can share their exclusion and give them a better story.

Anxiety changes people. We’ve seen a level of thuggery this election cycle that is without precedent in recent American history. Some of the anti-Trump demonstrators seem more interested in violence than politics. Some of the Trumpians are savage.

Now, some of the things that have made us vulnerable to this wave of anxiety are not going away — the narratives of fear, conspiracy and the immobilizing stress. America’s culture may be permanently changed for the worse.

But the answer to worry is the same as the answer to fear: direct action. If the next president starts enacting a slew of actual policies, then at least we can argue about concrete plans, rather than vague apocalyptic moods. Furthermore, action takes us out of ourselves. If we’re worrying, we’re spiraling into our own narcissistic pool. But concrete plans and actions thrust us into the daily fact of other people’s lives. This campaign will soon be over, and governing, thank God, will soon return.

Ponder this and have a good day. Bill Rudolph

A Yom Kippur Thought

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agree that they had no other recourse but to pray to God. However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the islands.

The first thing they prayed for was food.

The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren.

After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to pray for a wife.The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing. Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, and more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him.
However, the second man still had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive God’s blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.

As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice from heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?
 “My blessings are mine alone, since i was the one who prayed for them,” the first man answered. “His prayers were all unanswered and he does not deserve anything.”

“You are mistaken!” the voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you wouldn’t have received any of my blessings.”

“Tell me,” the first man asked the voice. “What did he pray for that I should owe him anything?”

“He prayed that all your prayers be answered.”

For all we know, our blessings are not the fruits of our prayers alone, but those of another praying for us.

As we gather for Kol Nidrei, we need to understand that we stand together before God, not as individuals, but as a community, a caring community. Hopefully we all have that, so that we can lean on one another, pray for one another and be able to depend on one another. Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh BaZeh, we are responsible for each other.

May all of our prayers be answered and may we all be blessed.   Best to you for an easy fast. Bill Rudolph

 

What Not To Expect

Shalom. As many of you know, my brother Steve passed away quite suddenly two weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, which I will share before long as I try to sort them out and analyze why it’s been so difficult. Making it easier has been all your love and support, for which I am most appreciative.

I had started devoting this blog to High Holiday thoughts that won’t make it to the big time. That was interrupted. Now, with Rosh Hashanah coming so soon (even if it’s as late as I can remember), and the presidential candidate debate fresh in the mind, let me tell you why I am not going to speak about the election in my sermons. Many rabbis are debating whether to speak and/or what to say; this wise counsel is based on writings from my colleague Michael Gold.

I believe that a rabbi should not become embroiled in election politics.  First, it is clearly against the law for a rabbi serving a non-profit organization to appear to endorse a candidate.  Synagogues must remain neutral.  Second, I have passionate supporters in both my synagogues for both parties, each trying to convince me that their party is better for the Jewish people.  But alas, there is not one clear Jewish view on any of the major political issues from immigration to fighting poverty, from religious rights to taxes, from gun rights to abortion.  Judaism is far too subtle and complex to be a one issue religion.  And, last time I checked, God is neither a Democrat or a Republican.
Of course, I do have opinions and thoughts about the election, the issues, and the candidates.  I watched the conventions and I am watching the debates.  I want to know where the candidates stand, not just on Israel but on everything.  But having said that, there is one standard that is particularly important to me.  It comes out of the Torah reading for Shoftim, read just a few weeks back.
The Torah portion speaks about politics.  It talks about the desire of the people to appoint a king over them.  Ideally there should be no king; God is the only king who will predictably do justice.  But the people want a king; eventually they would appoint Saul and then David as kings.  David’s line would stay in power through the entire history of the southern kingdom of Judah.  Now there are rules for the appointment of this king.  Look at Deuteronomy 17:15ff to see them. And it says that the king should not multiply gold and silver, nor have too many horses, nor have too many wives.  (King Solomon ignored this and his kingdom fell apart.)

The central law regarding the king is an interesting one, that he should have a copy of the Torah with him at all times.  The Torah teaches that he should read from the Torah in order to learn to revere the Lord and to observe the commandments.  The Torah is well aware that power corrupts.  The copy of the Torah serves to limit the king’s power.  It gives him a vision to better understand his role as political leader.  And it gives him ethical laws to discipline every action.

That brings me to our election.  Obviously I do not expect our president, our senators and congress people, other elected officials, to keep a copy of the Torah with them.  But I do expect them to have those two qualities that the Torah requires.  I expect them to have a vision.  And I expect them to have ethics.
So, I want to know about a candidate’s vision for our country, our state, our municipality.   The Bible teaches, “When there no vision the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he.”  (Proverbs 29:18)  A king cannot simply rule because he wants to rule, he must have a vision of the direction to which he wants to lead the nation.  As I listen to the presidential candidates, I try to sift through the personal attacks to see if they can articulate a vision.
Second, I want to know about a candidate’s ethics.  Is s/he trustworthy?  Is he or she careful about their words?  Are they truthful?  Are they kind?  Do they uphold the dignity of all people?  I look for examples of ethical and non-ethical behavior.

I will be looking at both vision and ethics as I decide how to cast my vote.  I will not endorse a candidate.  But I will ask, which candidate is most likely to have holy scripture next to their bed and exhibit a sense that they are being judged by God?

Ponder this. I wish for you all a good and sweet new year, one with hopefully at least a little more peace and calm in the world than we have been seeing of late. Bill Rudolph

Hastening the Coming

I am taking a break from Malcolm Gladwell and sharing some pre High Holiday nuggets that don’t make it to the big time, as we get closer to the days that still make rabbis very nervous no matter how many years they have been officiating.

We await the coming of the Messiah who will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. It doesn’t seem like we mortals can get that done. But is all that we can do is wait? Absolutely not. I want to share a beautiful little tale called “The Rabbi’s Gift.” I hope it can be my gift to you and to all of us.

There was a monastery that had fallen upon such hard times there were only five monks left in the decaying monastery: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. Now in the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the rabbi and ask if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the rabbi wept together.

The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the old monks wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Maybe Brother Elred. Maybe Brother Philip. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah…

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently. They brought their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order, thanks to the rabbi’s gift.

Where do we go from here? Let us receive the Rabbi’s gift and use it to strengthen the communities in which we live and pray, and to strengthen our own sense of worth. The effect of this kind of extraordinary respect for others and for our own selves will surely be to help bring about the Messianic Age, the betterment, the healing of this troubled world.

Ponder this for the new year and best regards. Bill Rudolph

The Pill

It’s time for some more Malcolm Gladwell. Last week we did the article “Most Likely to Succeed,” about football and education, taken from his new anthology What the Dog Saw. Today I want to talk about birth control and cancer. Not my normal subject matter, but there is a connection with religion and with health. This will be longer than my usual, read a little each day.

The piece is called “John Rock’s Error,” subtitled “What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t Know about Women’s Health.” It first appeared in The New Yorker ca. March 2000. John Rock was a devout Catholic, mass every day, at the same time a giant in obstetrics at Harvard Medical School. The Pill, his crowning achievement, was approved by the FDA in 1960. Pope Paul ruled against oral contraceptives in 1968. The debate ran with passion through the whole decade and beyond.

John Rock maintained that his faith and his medicine were perfectly compatible, because he saw the Pill as a natural method of birth control. It didn’t feel natural, but it worked by natural means, mimicking the hormone progestin that prevents any new ovulation so gestation can succeed. Look it up and you will understand better. The Pill basically shuts down ovulation as long as it is taken but in a “natural” way that Rock saw as theologically significant. Kind of like the “rhythm” method that Pius XII sanctioned in 1958 because he viewed it (too) as a natural method of regulating procreation. In fact, rhythm works by limiting sex to the safe period that progestin creates. Pius XII then approved the Pill too. It took ten years for the Church to reverse that.

The action that really captured my attention switches to more primitive lands. Researchers in Mali ca. 1986 found that tribal women there give birth eight or nine times on average. From the age of 20 to 34, they spend so much time either pregnant or breast feeding (which suppresses ovulation) that they average only slightly more than one menstrual period per year. After 34, it’s about four menses a year. All told, women in that Dogon tribe menstruate about 100 times in their lives. By contrast, the average modern western woman is somewhere between 350 and 400 times, because they are not pregnant very often. So what?

It gets more interesting when we study the incidence of certain cancers that women get. Researchers believe that the shift from the more primitive pattern of menstruation of 100 to the 400 pattern subjects women’s bodies to changes and stresses that their bodies weren’t necessarily designed to handle. Incessant ovulation increases the occurrence of abdominal pain, mood shifts, migraines, endometriosis, fibroids. anemia, and (most seriously) the risk of some cancers. Cancer, after all, occurs because as cells divide and reproduce they sometimes makes mistakes that cripple the cells’ defenses against runaway growth. Any change promoting cell division has the potential to increase cancer risk, and ovulation appears to be one of those changes. When a woman ovulates, an egg literally bursts through the walls of her ovaries. To heal that puncture, the cells on the ovary wall have to divide and reproduce, increasing the cancer risk. Every time a woman gets pregnant and bears a child, her life time risk of ovarian cancer drops 10 percent! Why? Her ovarian walls are saved at least a dozen bouts of cell division! So… the Pill really does have a natural effect. By blocking the release of new eggs, the rounds of ovarian cell division are reduced. As a result, a woman who takes the Pill for 10 years cuts her ovarian cancer risk by about 70 percent and her endometrial cancer risk by about 60 percent. Here ‘natural” means something very different than what Rock meant. The Pill is really only natural in so far as it’s radical – rescuing the ovaries and endometrium from modernity.

But you say, don’t women still have their periods while taking the pill? They do/ did. They don’t ovulate but they have their periods. That is because Rock thought that doing away with the monthly menses wouldn’t seem “natural,” so the Pill is only taken for three weeks each four week cycle (or there is a placebo in the fourth week) to allow for menstruation. It would be simple, and not harmful, to prevent menstrual bleeding altogether for months on end, with real benefits. And that is the direction that reproductive specialists are more and more advocating, along with work on a new Pill that would also fight breast cancer.

It is ironic that Rock sold the Pill to the Church as no more than a pharmaceutical version of the rhythm method, when it turns out that the Pill can save lives. Not as a drug to prevent life but as one that can save life. The Church might well have said yes if it understood that. Instead, Rock got to experience the attacks on the Pill from the Church that ultimately left him a broken man. But science, Gladwell reminds us, often produces progress in advance of understanding. If it had been otherwise in this case, the order of events in the discovery of what was “natural” would have been reversed, and Rock’s world, and our world too, would have been different places.

I think I got the science right, but medical people will make it so. Regardless, I think there is much to ponder here about real life and death issues. Write back if you wish. Shabbat Shalom and best regards, Bill Rudolph