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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

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