A Rainbow

I taught a Scolnic Institute course this past spring called “Does the Soul Survive?“ It was about Jewish views on reincarnation, resurrection, use of mediums to speak to the dead, and related matters that are indeed part of Jewish tradition but not taught in your average Hebrew School. Past life regressions, near death experiences, telepathy too. I believe in the reality of all of that, so it wasn’t an academic exercise for me. There is a lot more to life and death and the soul than we think. For example, when someone under hypnosis starts speaking Spanish and hadn’t ever learned it, how do we explain that other than a reincarnated soul?

Anyway, this past Sunday – it was Father’s Day about which I wrote – I got more proof that there is more to life than we think. I officiated at a beautiful wedding in horse country in Middleburg, parked my horse with the others and enjoyed being with a great couple under the chuppah. The bride’s family has long been part of my life. Her grandparents too. As they were reaching the ends of their days, the grandfather said that he would come back to be with the family, in the form of a rainbow. I hadn’t known that. But after the chuppah there was an outdoor cocktail hour, and soon after it began, right up there in the sky, was a beautiful rainbow that remained in place for a good fifteen minutes. But here’s the thing: there was no rain anywhere, hardly even a cloud, it was a beautiful (hot) sunny day! And there was the rainbow. Explain that!

It’s summer and I have some plans, so these blogposts will be irregular. Send me an email if you are worried about me. Please don’t be. Wishing all of you a good and refreshing summer. Best, Bill Rudolph

Where’s Mommy?

There’s the story of the boy who comes home from school all excited because he was chosen to be in the school play. “What part did you get?” asks his mother. “I got the part of the father,” the boy answers with enthusiasm. The mother gives him a disappointed look and says, “But why didn’t they give you a speaking part!” Fathers have been much maligned in our society. Also, a neglected breed. Whenever you see interviews of sports and movie stars, they usually end with, “Hi mom!” The father comes home from work to find his son playing in the den. He calls out to him, “Seth, I didn’t see you all day. I missed you so much. Come give your Daddy a big hug and kiss.” What’s the response? “Where’s mommy?”

There was a time where fathers deserved this rap. Fathers were not very much involved with raising the kids -it was off to work, meetings or bowling after dinner, golf on the weekends. There is nothing Jewish about that – the role of the father is very central in our tradition, responsible for training his children to swim, to acquire a profession, and to teach them Torah. Like the rest of the Western world, we Jews were hoodwinked by a rigid and alien notion of what fatherhood entails. Dads were supposed to bring home—pardon the expression—the bacon, impose the discipline of last resort and preside from a distance as the head of the family. All of the details of the child’s life were the bailiwick of the mother. As a result, while Mother’s Day celebrated the deepest love of all, Father’s Day was a nod to benign authority.

It is very different now, fathers taking on much more significant roles in the family, but old notions die slowly, and Father’s Day is still very much a second tier observance. I can’t change that myself, not is it at the top of my problems list, but I do want to take this opportunity to share the three main things I have learned from being a father:

1) On the negative side, I never really understood the horrors of the Holocaust until I had children. If the Nazis put me in a camp and murdered me, I could deal with that. But thinking of that scenario happening to my kids was a totally different story, and then I understood.

2) On the positive side, only with kids of my own did I really appreciate my own parents – the nights sitting up when I was sick, worrying when I came home late, fighting me to do homework, you name it. I think only when we need to do things like this with our own kids do we understand what our fathers and mothers did for us.

3) On the judgmental side, seeing how challenging it is to be a parent, and seeing how different my brother z”l turned out from me despite having the same parents and environment, I learned not to judge the parenting skills of others, as tempting as that is. That made me a better person and better rabbi.

Let me know what lessons you have learned. In the meantime, I am thinking of my own father. He was my hero and role model. He died twenty years ago, a few months before the boy who made me a father for the first time stood under the chuppah to be married. He and his wife and their two kids, my grandkids, will be coming over for our traditional barbecue. My other two kids, living elsewhere, will call. Just once in the last ten years were all three kids and their families with me and Gail for Father’s Day. It was one of the best days of my life. I hope others, fathers and mothers, have good memories that this weekend will refresh.

Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

Six Days and Fifty Years

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. Those of us who were teenagers and beyond and paying attention won’t ever forget those days of fear then ecstasy. The Post commemorated the anniversary with a whole section on the ills of the “occupation” that followed Israel’s unexpected victory, no big surprise there unfortunately. (Just remember, the Arab neighbors tried to destroy Israel before there was one single settlement, so possibly the problem isn’t only the “occupation.”) Different Jewish thinkers have focused on the unity of the American Jewish community in those days of grave existential danger to Israel, and how far from that we are now, unfortunately. Most rabbis are afraid to even speak about Israel, not wanting to enflame feelings on different sides. Beth El, my mother ship still, is not that kind of place and by providing a balanced approach on the issues rather than a single one has made it possible for us to talk with one another on this.

Let me stick to what that war engendered, from my personal perspective.

1) It actually transformed our self image as Jews. The Holocaust era marked us as victims, to the world and I think to ourselves. Israel’s lighting victory against all odds created a new visual, and we carried ourselves in a different way from then on.

2) It reminded us that we are a people, wherever we live and however we live out our Jewishness. In my Reform temple (remember that is how I grew up and today just happens to be the date I had my Bar Mitzvah there) nobody talked about Israel, the rabbis were not even allowed to mention it because we were Americans first and last. After 1967, all that changed, and Am Yisrael Chai is as common a refrain in those circles as anywhere.

3) We became more activist. Seeing how close Israel was to disaster, and how little the world cared, we understood that we had a new mission and purpose. If we tiptoed into the White House during WWII to try to muster help for our brothers and sisters being incinerated in the concentration camps, after 1967 we rallied and demonstrated (eg for Soviet Jewry) with confidence and determination. AIPAC and J Street are reflections of this activism, spawned by the Holocaust but enshrined by 1967.

4) We believe in miracles. The gold medal by the U.S. Ice Hockey team in the 1980 Olympics was nothing compared to Israel’s victory in 1967. Was it a miracle? Was it messianic? Time will tell, but back then it certainly felt that something supernatural had occurred.

Much has happened in the 50 years since. It’s easy to focus on the negative: many wars and mini wars, David becoming Goliath in the eyes of many nations and the United Nations, BDS, unhappy internal politics and corruption. Better at this time of reflection to focus on the restored beauty and vitality of the land, the absorption of immigrants, the start up nation, new alliances. In the sea of turmoil that is the middle east, I hold on to the image of Israel as the ark ( a well armed one) floating above the flood waters of turmoil, that one day will see the dry land of reason and peace appear and make a good soft landing. For that, we can all hope and pray.

Best regards and Shabbat Shalom.  Bill Rudolph

No Practical Application

The Jewish people did something very strange Tuesday night. All over the world, Jews gathered together in synagogues and in private homes in order to study. Some studied for a few hours. Some studied all through the night. This is one way that Jews observe Shavuot. It is the holiday of receiving the Torah, and so we honor the Torah by studying it on this night.

But what exactly did we study that night? There is no set text. Some people study a chapter from each book of the Bible. Some people study according to a Kabbalistic order. Some study the book of Ruth. At Beth El, our topics (skillfully organized by Rabbi Harris) ranged from the very Book of Ruth to Amichai poetry to church-state constitutional law to who buried Moses (see the pronoun in Deuteronomy 34:6 for why this is a question.) We made it to 1AM. It is safe to say that we learned little that night that we can make use of in our business affairs, or that we can apply directly to our daily lives.

And if you should ask me why we devoted so many hours to the study of things that have no practical value, the best answer to this question that I know is the one that is given by Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his great book: The Earth Is The Lord’s. The book is kind of an ode to the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a tribute to the way in which they lived on the Sabbath and during the week. It tells the story of how ordinary wagon drivers would take a break from their work in order to slip into a Bet Midrash and catch a bit of Torah, not so that they could be better and more skillful wagon drivers, or so that they could earn a graduate degree, but so that they could be better human beings. It tells the story of how people could be menial laborers six days a week, and feel like royalty when they sat down at their table on Shabbat.

And then Heschel comes to the question of what they studied, and why. He asks: How come they often studied laws that were no longer binding, laws that no longer applied since the destruction of the Temple, or that only applied in the Land of Israel? How come they put their entire heart and soul into the study of pages that often had no practical application?

Dr. Heschel says that, for them, “ideas were like precious stones. The gracefulness, the variety, of the polished ideas they dealt with enlightened the intellect and dazzled the eye. This was not realistic thinking, but great art likewise is not a reproduction of nature.” And then Dr. Heschel responds to those who make fun of impractical learning like this. He says, “It is easy to belittle such an attitude of mind, and to call it impractical or unworldly. But what is nobler than the impractical spirit? The soul is sustained by the regard for that which transcends immediate purposes. The sense of the transcendent is the heart of culture, the essence of humanity. A civilization that is devoted exclusively to the utilitarian is at bottom not different from barbarism. The world is sustained by unworldliness!”

Isn’t that a powerful statement: “the world is sustained by unworldliness?” That statement is the key to the traditional concept of Jewish learning. No one studied Torah in order to get a degree or earn a living (except maybe people like me.) No one studied Torah in order to get a grade or pass a test or get a promotion. A Jew studied Torah because it was our life, and the meaning and the measure of our days. A Jew studied Torah because it taught us how to be human. And that is what Shavuot night study is about = Torah for its own sake.

David Brooks in the Times spoke of this from a secular point of view. “I am old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to a life of ideas – the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people today believe in, or aspire to, this kind of a life. I am not sure how many schools still prepare students for this kind of life, but I sure hope that there are still some. If not, we will raise a generation that will be technologically trained, and materially rich, but that will be spiritually empty.”

Let me finish with a great story from Heschel’s book. It is a story that speaks to my soul, one that I think our children – who study so much only for the sake of getting a good grade on their S.A.T’s, who work so hard in order to get into the right school – it is a story that our children need to hear and that they (and we) need to think about. This is the story:

“Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol once started to study a volume of the Talmud. A day later, his disciples noticed that he was still on the first page. They assumed that he must have encountered a difficult problem, and that he was trying to solve it. But when a number of days passed, and he was still immersed in the first page, they were astonished, but they did not dare to question the master. Finally, one of them gathered up his courage, and asked him why he did not proceed to the next page. Rabbi Zusya answered: ‘I feel so good here; why should I go elsewhere?’”

Join up next year for an evening of Torah study on the night of Shavuot. I guarantee you will be glad you stopped being so practical for at least a few hours. But you don’t have to wait a year for that.   Best, Bill Rudolph

I Like You Too

Last week I talked about hockey parents in an interlude from the WH drama. Congregant S thought I should keep up the interlude and turn instead to some of the issues facing the country, like health care and taxes and environmental policy and administration policy towards the Middle East (Israel.) Let’s try the latter, which was very much in the news as the first leg in Trump’s first overseas trip as President, which has now taken him to Europe. As an aside, I might note that never has every movement, every handshake, every word of a President been so analyzed; I am not sure how worthwhile that is but I guess it sells commercial time.

Trump, like every President before him (how often can we say those words?) thinks getting a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is important. He has people he trusts working on it. He seems to be putting pressure on both sides. Given the unofficial thaw in relations between Israel and its Sunni neighbors, there is the slightest ray of hope that maybe these efforts will bring positive results. Wouldn’t that be nice?

What I want to ponder is how Trump was perceived by Israelis and whether we can buy into that. Just a short blurb from David Horovitz, a respected journalist who is the founding editor of the Times of Israel:

“’Iran’s leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction,’ President Trump said in his main speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on Tuesday. Then he departed from his prepared text, and added: ‘Not with Donald J. Trump, believe me.’ The remark was met with cheers and a standing ovation. ‘Thank you,’ said the U.S. president three times as he waited patiently for the clapping to stop. And then, waving a hand out toward his audience, with a smile, he said, ‘I like you too.’”
 Horovitz continues: “Those few seconds summed up Trump’s visit to Israel – his expressions of instinctive solidarity with the Jewish state – after eight years of what Israelis always felt was somewhat conditional, caveat-filled support from President Obama. Israelis know no more than Americans about how Trump’s presidency will play out. They cannot be sure of what he will say or do. But he came to Jerusalem. He told Israel he loved it. He vowed to stand with Israel against Iran. And he stood in respect at the Jews’ most holy place of prayer.”

How do we understand this, knowing Trump as we do? Is it mostly a sigh of relief from Israelis that Obama is gone (which I share with regard to his foreign policy which was mostly based in arrogance and naivete)? Is their trusting Trump representative of an almost desperate hope for new ideas that could lead to peace? Or is it simply a desire for a world leader to love Israel without conditions? Can we here find it in our hearts to see Trump doing something positive? Lots of questions to ponder.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a good holiday weekend. How did it get to be Memorial Day so fast? Best, Bill Rudolph

The Power Play

Last time we talked about Papaderos and the little mirror. That was really about responding to the political circus we see around us. You won’t mind if I change the subject even if momentarily? I bet not. But not before I note that more Americans filled out March Madness brackets than voted in this Presidential election, and there you have part of the answer to why this country is in trouble.

The following story reappeared on my radar after the recent hockey playoffs, with the Caps meeting their usual demise at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. My sympathies to Caps fans. I am a Philadelphian, so I am used to disappointment, but at least we were never blessed (cursed?) with high expectations.

When Mario Lemieux was coaching his son Austin’s peewee youth hockey team in 2010, a father of one of the players had a suggestion. Pittsburgh Penguins team president David Morehouse was there to witness it. “We were at a game when [Mario] showed me [the email],” Morehouse said. “It was when BlackBerries were still popular. He showed me an email on his BlackBerry from a parent, and it said, ‘I’m really concerned about the power play, and I have some suggestions on how to fix the power play.’ Mario showed it to me, and we both just started laughing.” Lemieux played 915 career regular-season games in the NHL and scored 690 goals, including 236 on the power play. To top it off, he’s a Hall of Famer and owns the reigning Cup-champion Penguins.

But being an elite athlete doesn’t necessarily make someone a good coach. There are plenty of examples of former pros who tried to coach but couldn’t — at any level. But challenging Lemieux’s knowledge of the game? That’s ridiculous.
But it’s an example of what many youth coaches — even former pros — sometimes deal with when they leave the game and step behind the bench of minor or youth hockey teams. “If someone is willing to tell Mario Lemieux, who is in the top five players to ever play in the National Hockey League — how to run a power play, then anyone is open to criticism,” said former NHL goalie Brian Boucher, who coaches his son Ty’s bantam team. “Parents are unbelievable.”

We pause to reflect on this story. I have seen parents do this kind of thing – not on a superstar level of course – with my own eyes, having children and grandchildren who have gone through MSI (soccer) and MCSL (swimming) and Rec Basketball and Little League (baseball.) Parents – usually fathers – are often certain that they know more about the particular sport than the coach, or the lane judge, or the referee or umpire. For that matter, they definitely know more about education than their kids’s teachers.

What is this about? The “challenge authority” generation? The arrogance of higher education degrees bestowing a sense of universal expertise? Enough watching TV sports figures do their analyses to think we can do it too? I am not sure, and your thoughts will be appreciated, but I know it’s not good – kids have less respect for grownups, especially teachers, than they should or need to. That worries me.

Now can we get back to news from the WH? Hopefully not too quickly. Shabbat Shalom and best regards, Bill Rudolph

The Meaning of Life ca. 2017

Interesting times aren’t they? Here is a thought, generated from last week’s Torah portion, which may be relevant. The Torah portion talks about the incense that filled the Holy of Holies before – or after – the High Priest entered on Yom Kippur. In biblical times, the incense came first and the High Priest couldn’t see much. Later, the rabbis delayed the smokescreen until after the High Priest saw everything; evidently they thought that seeing reality was important.

Alexander Papaderos was a doctor of philosophy, a teacher, a politician and a resident of Athens. He had become a kind of living legend in Greece – a man of strength and intensity, energy, physical power, courage, intelligence and passion.
At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek Culture, Papaderos rose from his chair and asked, “Are there any questions?” Silence. But finally one brave young man raised his hand timidly, “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed, but the professor was going to answer.

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, Papaderos brought out a very small round mirror about the size of a quarter. He explained that when he was a small child, during the Second World War, he was very poor. One day, on a road in his remote little village, he had found the broken pieces of a mirror from a German motorcycle. He said, “I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it wasn’t possible.” So Papaderos had kept the largest piece, and by scratching it on a stone, he had made it round. It became his favorite toy. He became fascinated by the fact that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine… in deep holes and crevices and in dark closets. It became a game – to get light into the most inaccessible place.

Papaderos kept the little mirror and as he grew up, he would take it out from time to time and continue the challenge of the game. “When I became a man,” said Papaderos, “I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for the meaning of life.” “I came to understand,” he said, “that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge and love – it’s there and will only shine in the dark places if I reflect it.”

We live now in a reality where the darkness and smokescreens – lies, fake news and alternative facts – are so thick we can hardly see. We must remember one word: knowledge. Blow away the smoke with the fresh air of truth, of empirical evidence, of a healthy skepticism and a commitment to intellect as the highest gifts we humans have ever been given. With that knowledge, we can shine some light into the dark places. Maybe that is a key job for us now.      Best, Bill Rudolph