Monthly Archives: August 2017

A Lottery

It is Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and I like to share some of the lessons and stories that I come across in my sermon preparations that don’t make it to the “big time” but are worthy nonetheless. This thought, by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, best known as the former Chief Rabbi of England, was going to be used even before the horrific flooding in Houston and environs, with which it kind of fits.

During the holidays we often raise our Kiddush cup and say l’hayyim. Especially at this time of year, we ask for life, over and over again, life for ourselves and each other. So what is life? How do we describe that which we want to have during this new year and the however – many – more days we still have before we leave this earth?

People have struggled to answer this question in every age since life began. I like the answer of Rabbi Sacks. He says that life is a lottery, and that every one of us who is alive today, and who lives in the western world, is a winner. The only problem is that most of us are not aware that we have won. We are like the owners of a winning powerball ticket which has somehow fallen into the couch, and therefore we are unaware of all the money that we have won.

What does R. Sacks mean when he says that life is a lottery? He means that if we had been born in the Middle Ages, our life expectancy would only be half of what it is today. We live at least twice as long on average as most people did back then. And we did nothing to be born in this century and not in that one. It was just the luck of the draw.

And he means that if we had been born in Poland or in Russia in the last century or so, we would have had to smuggle ourselves out of the country, taking with us only what we could carry with us, and we would have had to travel for many, many miles in order to arrive at a free country, whereas most of us who are here today were born in this country. We did nothing whatsoever to earn the right to live in a free country. We were born into it. And that, too, was the luck of the draw.

And he also means that if we had been born in the ancient world, that unless we were a Jew, we would probably be illiterate all our life. Most non-Jews were. That is why King John did not really sign the Magna Carta, as most people think. He did not know how to write his name, and so he signed it with an X. And therefore, if you are literate, that is simply because you happened to be born at a time when literacy is widespread. You did not earn this ability. You got it simply by being born in this time and place. It was the luck of the draw.

And so, Rabbi Sacks says that life is a lottery. The main distinguishing qualities of our lives are really a matter of luck. And therefore, we should realize how lucky we are.

Do you like this definition – that life is a lottery in which we just happen to hold the winning ticket? I am not sure. On the one hand, it is certainly true. None of us chose to be born when and where we were. None of us earned the right to live in this century or in this country instead of at some other time or in some other place. But on the other hand, I feel a little bit uncomfortable with the idea that life is just a matter of luck. Don’t we have at least some share in fashioning the kind of life that we lead? And doesn’t God? I feel a little bit uncomfortable with this definition that life is a lottery. Don’t you?

I suspect that Rabbi Sacks is probably a little bit uncomfortable with this definition too, for he has devoted his life to teaching people how to live with their good luck, and how to be grateful for their good fortune, and so I have no doubt that he believes that both God and people have a share in molding lives, and that not everything in our lives is a matter of luck. But that is one definition of the meaning of life that I want to offer you today: life is a lottery. I have another that got my attention, for another time.

Praying for the people of Texas, and asking that we all contribute what we can to the relief and rebuild efforts. Best, Bill Rudolph




Let Me Be Honest with You

Last week, the blog’s first week back from Bethany Bar Harbor and Egg Harbor, I talked about my nostalgic visit to the old Hillel haunts in Michigan. Now, as promised, it’s back to real life, which is amazingly dominated by Trump-related news. The five minute national news on WTOP, to which I awake in the mornings, had nothing but Trump every second one day late last week, like there was nothing else going on in the world.

In shul on Shabbat, Beth El’s new young rabbi educator, Max Nissen, gave a nice guest sermon on the choices we have in life, including what to do when we are really angry, like after Charlottesville. About halfway through, he paused, and said “Let me be honest with you…” How many times have I heard that expression? A zillion, but this time it jumped out at me, in a very problematical way. Did he mean that until that point, he wasn’t being honest with us? Of course that is not what he meant, he meant that he was going to be frank with us, share something we might not have known about him. But on its literal surface, those words made me question the one who spoke them; I resolved never to use them, gone from my vocabulary.

That got me to thinking about the power of words, made strikingly relevant by our supposed President. Words can do so much good – a kind word to a kid, a supportive word to someone struggling, a word of affection. And words can do so much damage – they can belittle, they can take the wind out of our sails, they can increase hatred and prejudice, they can bring the world to the brink of disaster (think Hitler.) So, when Trump said midweek that there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Klansmen whose actions led to the violence in Charlottesville, the reaction to those three words was a pretty awesome demonstration of the power of words. (BTW, I dare him to name even one.)  The reaction was widespread, even corporate execs couldn’t stomach those words. But they do fit into our understanding of the power of the spoken word, in this case actually maybe more for the good than for the bad because they helped us know for sure who we are dealing with. In case we weren’t sure.

When Gail and I stood under the chuppah, it was over 30 years ago, Rabbi Sam Fishman prayed that we would always choose the words we would say to each other wisely. He reminded us that God created humans with one tongue and two lips, giving us twice the power to stop speech as to make it, and we should understand that to be a message about choosing our words carefully. A great lesson, not forgotten these many years later. It is too much to expect that this President think before he speaks and tweets. But that isn’t an excuse for us to model that behavior. We can, and should, do much better.

Best regards and safe eclipse. Gail commented when she saw the teshuvah on what blessing to say when we see the eclipse, that only the Jews could respond to a simple question with a small book length answer. That explains a lot about us. Best, Bill Rudolph

Real Life

We are back from our travels and settling in to real life. Vacations seem more important than I can remember, with the news of the world being so difficult to stomach, as they can provide a good excuse to check the web less frequently, not have a newspaper, and worry about which ice cream flavor will be that day’s highlight. And now that we are back, and all the problems are solved, we can look forward to a new year with unbridled optimism. I wish. But let us wait one more blogpost to get into real life; in the meantime hopefully you will indulge my self-indulgence.

Summer for me is a lot about the bike. There were several extended bike ride locations – Bethany, Maine, Wisconsin – and they were a highlight. The beach is always good. It was my first time in Maine, on an organized ride with Marc. It’s pretty hilly, always uphill or downhill. Lobster and lobster rolls and lobster whatever were constantly on the radar if not the Rudolph stomachs. Not a very diverse population, which was true in Door County Wisconsin as well. It’s hard to know what is America these days – is it Bethesda? Bar Harbor ME? Egg Harbor WI? For sure, there are many different America’s and it’s good to get out and see that firsthand, living as we do in a particular bubble that doesn’t reflect very much on what is going on in this fair land. Wisconsin was mostly to visit my daughter Sara, whose family on her husband’s side always summers in Door County. Best ice cream. Wonderfully flat roads. Another sailing misadventure but Gail and I were good in the kayaks.

Wisconsin was a road trip, passing through Michigan. Memorable for me in many ways was my little journey back to the earlier days of my rabbi life, there in Michigan. You may remember Michigan from my high holiday sermons, started on the way back from dropping my eldest son Dan at school. Before that, I lived there, from 1969 to 1980 when we moved to Washington. The first real job in my life was Hillel Rabbi at Michigan State University. The building, an old house, is still standing, looking none the better. Hillel has moved twice since I was there, always into nicer facilities for which I can take no credit. The house I lived in is also still standing, and looked even better than we were there. I will never forget the days before settling on that house. It cost $29,900, and I couldn’t sleep worrying about taking on that much debt. Funny how things change! The MSU campus looks great, much expanded but with good taste. It was fun to see all that.

Ann Arbor has a bigger place in my heart. We moved there after three years in East Lansing. The Hillel was a bigger operation and there was more room for me to grow. That facility has also been replaced, but the house we lived in is looking good. We walked around taking pictures to share with my kids, and the current owner rushed out to discern what terrorist group we were affiliated with. She was happy to meet a former owner, had tons of questions about how the house (a tudor home built around WWI) had been in our days, and showed us each and every room. That house had much more character than any before or since, and still does. But it was more than 35 years ago that we lived in it, and it’s hard to remember what life was like then.

Once moved to Washington, I worked in the Hillel headquarters till 1996 when my part-time gig at Beth El morphed into a full-time one. And then I retired, or semi-retired. One of the other joys of the summer was running out almost every week to our new Ramah Day Camp, located in Germantown, which I helped a little to create. Enrollment is over 200 in only its third summer, and the vibrations are really beyond description.

It is nice to look back on important parts of life, especially when there are current sequels. Hopefully you all have both too. And I hope your summer has been good.

Best, Bill Rudolph