Author Archives: Bill Rudolph

About Bill Rudolph

Bill Rudolph is the Rabbi Emeritus at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda Maryland, and Chief rabbi of Warrenton Virginia. His blog, It's Wednesday, had hundreds of followers back in the day. He is back to blogging now.

Words and Music

Today is Hoshannah Rabbah. While the gates of repentance close on Yom Kippur at Neilah, the rabbis added in a little more time for those slow to change or to face up to the need for it. Today is it. Here is a relevant thought, before the holidays move totally to the rear view mirror.

As you may know, I am the rabbi AND the cantor in my little shul in Warrenton. The latter role is way more challenging. This year I had a cold on Yom Kippur, which made it even scarier. The High Holiday melodies are difficult to sing, and until now I didn’t have a clue why, thought it was just some kind of cruel trick on me. See what you think of this commentary by Elliot Dorff, a wise professor at our L.A. rabbinic school. Longer than my usual, take your time.

I have a Ph.D. [writes Dorff] in philosophy from a philosophy department that espoused analytic philosophy, which focuses on the meaning of words. I am therefore probably the last person you know who would tell you to ignore the words of Yom Kippur – the words of the liturgy and the words spoken in sermons during the day. Words bear meaning, and the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy are especially graphic in describing the brevity and weakness of our lives, the lack of control that we have over much of what happens to us, and yet the great responsibility that we have for what we think, feel, and, especially, do.
But music also conveys meaning. The exact same words sung to different melodies or at a different cadence can mean completely different things. The Kaddish, for example, is traditionally sung to nineteen different melodies throughout the Jewish year, and listening to a skilled hazzan sing the exact same words in different melodies and beats does indeed make them feel very different and thereby convey very different meanings, even though the words, if translated, would mean the exact same thing each time.
For me [this is all Dorff], though, the Aleynu prayer is the best example of how music conveys meaning. That prayer began as part of the Malkhuyot section of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This section focuses on God’s sovereignty, because it asserts that we have a duty (aleynu l-) to praise God who created the world and taught us Jews our distinctive way of living and who, we hope, will teach that to the rest of the world so that all human beings understand that they must live with the recognition that only God is sovereign (not money, idols, etc.). The prayer is attributed to Rav, who lived in the third century, but during the Middle Ages the practice was begun to end every morning, afternoon, and evening service with the Aleynu prayer. During the year, the melody to which it is sung – you know it – hugs the melodic line. In contrast, during the High Holy Days, the melody to which it is sung [the one where the hazzan gets down on his knees] skips octaves. I want to suggest that that is not an accident – for most of the year we feel God’s immanence – that God is with and among us – but on the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, we feel God’s transcendence – that God is far above and beyond us and different in kind from us. By hugging the melodic line during the year, the music articulates God’s immanence, and by skipping octaves on the Days of Awe, the music draws attention to God’s transcendence.   The same is true for the iconic music of the Kol Nidre prayer. It too skips octaves [which is why Rabbi Rudolph fails miserably to sing it.] And its minor key adds to the transcendent feel of God, for it expresses our sense of fear and awe before the One who will judge us on this day, knowing, as we inevitably do, that in the past year we have not lived up to all that God would want us to be in our interactions with each other and with God.

So [Rabbi R now speaking] next Yom Kippur by all means pay close attention to the words of the liturgy and the sermons, but also pay attention to the music. Both the words and the music will hopefully make the Day of Atonement the cleansing moral experience in the face of a transcendent God that Yom Kippur is intended to be, and that Hoshannah Rabbah completes.
There is your music lesson, but it’s really theology. I hope it resonates. Best, Bill Rudolph

 

 

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Two Receipts

 

An Erev Yom Kippur Thought

A nearby colleague wrote about what she discovered when she went through her father’s special metal file box after he passed away. There were birth certificates, death certificates, cemetery plot deeds, a brown notebook containing poems his wife wrote to him while he was away fighting in World War II, elementary school class photos of all of the kids (including my colleague.) And then there were two receipts next to each other: a receipt for a monthly payment towards The World Book Encyclopedia (remember the days when there were no computers and no wikipedia and the library wasn’t so close?) and a receipt for an Israel Bond.

My colleague pondered these receipts a long time. Why only those two retained for posterity? On the World Book first: neither of her parents attended college as young people. They both went right to work after high school. They were hard working and self-sacrificing. They wanted their kids, she thinks, to have every opportunity they didn’t have. In purchasing this encyclopedia, they were obviously investing in their kids’ future.

As for the Israel Bond, it must have meant more than the U.S. Savings Bonds that they also collected for the kids’ college costs; there were no receipts for those. Her parents were first generation Americans. Their parents had immigrated to America to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Europe before WWII. The relatives they left behind all died in the Holocaust. They knew what it was like for Jews in a world without a Jewish State. Israel for them was a great hope and a great consolation.

Of all the possible receipts, just those two in a file in his special metal box. Why? My colleague thinks that they were saved because they made her father proud: proud he could provide for his kids’ future, proud he could nurture their young and inquiring minds, and proud that he could be part of the inspiring undertaking of reestablishing and sustaining the then new Jewish State of Israel. And perhaps he saved them together to leave her and her brothers a message about what was most important to him: being a proud modern American and a proud Jew, caring for one’s family, expanding one’s knowledge, and identifying with, and supporting, the Jewish people and our homeland, Israel.

When the time comes, please God, not for many many years, I hope that when our kids sort through our things, they will also be reminded of the values that we hoped to instill in them. For me and I think many of you, those values would mirror those we saw above: a love of learning, pride in being American and Jewish, and a love for and commitment to the people and land of Israel. Maybe that values legacy is already assured, or maybe we resolve at this holiday season to do what we can to make it so. It is never too late for that.

Wishing you an easy fast and a great new year. Bill Rudolph

Questions

Shalom:;  Here are some questions to carry with you to shul on the holidays or discuss at the dinner table during the holiday and the days leading up to Yom Kippur.  I suggest you print them out. They are courtesy of Rabbi Kalman Packouz and, though not new, I think they remain useful in helping us frame our individual thinking and introspection at this time of the year. Gail and I wish for all of you a good sweet New Year in a slightly more peaceful world. Rabbi Bill Rudolph

1)    When do I most feel that my life is meaningful?

2)    How often do I express my feelings to those who mean the most to me?

3)    Are there any ideals I would be willing to die for?

4)    If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

5)   What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?

6)    What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?

7)    What are the three biggest mistakes I’ve made since last Rosh Hashanah?

8)    What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

9)    If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in my life?

10)  What are my three major goals in life?  What am I doing to achieve them?  What practical steps can I take in the next two months toward those goals?

11)  If I could give young people only three pieces of advice, what would they be?

12)  What is the most important decision I need to make this year?

13)  What important decision did I avoid making last year?

14)  What did I do last year that gave me the strongest feeling of self-respect?

15)  When do I feel closest to G-d? If I could change one thing about my spiritual life, what would  that be?

16)  Do I have a vision of where I want to be one, three and five years from now?

17)  What are the most important relationships in my life?  Over the last year did those relationships become closer and deeper or was there a sense of stagnation and drifting?  What can I do to nurture those relationships this year?

18)  If I could change only one thing about myself, what would that be?

Arms Too Short?

Shalom. I want to share more High Holiday material that doesn’t reach the big time. Last week it was life as a lottery. Look at Irma’s path, isn’t that what we were talking about? This post is about God. At no time of the year is God so much the subject and object of our thoughts as now. Believing in God is not easy. Almost from the beginning, people had questions. Bad things happened to good people long ago. Think Job.

The questioning continues today. In my lifetime there was an evil about which it was hard to be silent. The death of the righteous was an everyday occurrence in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Public executions took place often. But there was one time that was different than the others, a time when two adults and a thirteen year old boy were to be killed. Elie Wiesel was there, in the camp. He tells us:

The three victims mounted together onto chairs.
The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
Then the march past began.
Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where Is God now?”

For many people, perhaps for some of you, God died in the concentration camps. After Auschwitz, it was impossible for many of our people to even remain Jewish. But not for Wiesel. He still remained a Jew. He still believed. He knew that God was not destroyed at Auschwitz – only a certain way of thinking about God. And he knew, as Maimonides also knew, that there are many different ideas about God, perhaps as many as there are people! They are complicated, these other ideas, and if you’re interested, any half decent rabbi would be honored to teach you about them.

When we pray the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur we will ask that we be released from all vows made foolishly, or in haste, or under duress. One of the worst of these is the oath, almost a curse really, that faults Judaism for being meaningless because many of our traditional concepts have been shattered on the rocks of historical change. I cannot tell you how many otherwise educated, liberal, people have told me that Judaism is of little use because its concept of an omnipotent deity is outmoded.

You have the right to question, you have the right to explore. You have the right to pick and choose, accept and reject, and even create a form of Jewish expression that is meaningful to you. If you do not do any of that, however, if instead you swear false oaths against your faith, than you squander some of your most precious gifts.

Some time ago there was a Broadway play called, “All Our Arms Are Too Short To Box With God.” Whatever we believe, or don’t believe about God, tells us something about ourselves, but nothing about God. We are not in the same ring. Whatever God is, S/He is untouched by our concepts. All our arms are too short to reach all the way up to the Divine.

But. though our arms are too short to reach God, they should not hang limply at our sides, reaching out for nothing because some magnificent ideas of the past have lost their meaning for some of us. Our arms are not too short to reach out to each other, to our families, to our community, right now to those sufferings the ravages of the hurricanes. Our arms are not too short to grapple with the many ideas that are there awaiting our consideration. Nor are they too short to create new ideas, new truths, and new opportunities for human sanctity and dignity.

All of our arms are plenty long enough, if we have the will, to reach out, and with God’s help, create a more beautiful world in which we all may live. Ponder that as the holidays loom closer.           Bill Rudolph

 

 

 

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