Category Archives: RJL Biography


“Nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

It’s been 25 years since I read The Plague by French author Albert Camus. I’ve thought about Camus’ story over the last 18 months, but even more so in the past few weeks. More than a decade ago Camp Ramah Darom suffered an outbreak of H1N1 flu; the summer of “Swine 09” was what we called it. In retrospect, the inconvenience of that time pales in comparison to COVID. But lately I’ve been thinking about a camper that summer named Mary, which is not her real name. Mary arrived at camp already visibly sick with the flu; and though it can never be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, she quite likely served as the source of H1N1 transmission to others at Ramah. Calling her Mary — as in Typhoid Mary — may seem a bit unkind, but then again no one outside of a select few know her true identity; and, in all fairness, the term Typhoid Mary generically denotes any carrier of a disease who constitutes a danger to the public because of a refusal to take appropriate precautions. In this particular case, of course, the onus of responsibility falls not upon the girl, but rather the parents who rationalized putting their daughter on a plane in the first place.

Yet Mary’s parents are but a small example of a far, far larger problem that transcends issues of health and medicine; indeed, a challenge that speaks to the ever-present tension between individual and community, self-interest and the greater good. The sage Hillel understood this polarity when he coupled his two famous questions into a single statement: אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. — If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

The child who singlehandedly, albeit and with no malice aforethought, infects a camp with swine flu is but one symbolic way of communicating the power we have as individuals to change the world around us. Again and again, as a rabbi, as a parent, as a human being, I see the ways in which the decisions of individuals unwittingly impact on others. There are no grand schemes involved, no cabals or conspiracies; just the simple desire to exercise autonomy, to be true to own’s self and one’s predilections. Nevertheless, to live in a community — whether a summer camp or a synagogue, a neighborhood or a city — unavoidably leads us as individuals to impact upon the lives of others. What is remarkable to me is how often we do what we do without considering the ramifications of our decisions on the larger circles in which we live.

In this week’s Torah portion we read the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, which speaks of the consequences of the choices we make: To follow God’s word results in reward, to depart from our covenantal relationship with God leads to punishment. It is vital to note the contrast between the singular and plural found in the Sh’ma. The first paragraph frames itself entirely in the singular; the second largely in the plural. In loving God with all our heart, soul, and might, which is the theme of the opening section we are called as individuals; it is meaningless to talk of society being commanded to love God in some corporate fashion, indeed, nowhere in the Torah are we ever commanded in the plural form to love God.

But, not the second paragraph. By phrasing the consequences of reward and punishment in the plural, we recall that sometimes we’re the beneficiaries of other people’s good deeds, though we’ve done nothing on our own to merit benefit. At other times we suffer for the transgressions of others, though we’ve done nothing to deserve punishment. The rain that waters the crops of the righteous bless the fields of the wicked; the fire that spreads from the house of the sinner also burns the home of the righteous neighbor. Communal providence is an alien concept to our society because we idolize individualism — and so the Sh’ma comes along to remind us how interwoven our lives and fates truly are: whether it is the second-hand smoke of a restaurant patron we breathe in that makes us sick; the endowment given by an individual to a specific university that results in a cure for a rare disease or even the simple willingness to wear a mask for the sake of protecting others from COVID, there is a complex collectivity to our lives that is as inevitable now as in ancient times. This, too, is a lesson of the Sh’ma’s second paragraph.

When enough individuals make the same decision for personal reasons, a critical mass is generated that can affect the entire community. That the Delta variant of COVID is now ravaging Jacksonville is traceable to the choice that individuals made not to be vaccinated. By the same token, Superintendent Diana Green of the Duval County public school system, who sent official notification to all principals that she would announce a mask mandate on Monday morning for all K-12 students because of the COVID surge in Jacksonville, was short-circuited by one man in Tallahassee, who has forbidden all school districts in the state from taking an action the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and every physician I’ve spoken to is urging, even begging. Children under 12 who, by definition, are unvaccinated, are significantly more vulnerable to the Delta virus. As of yesterday there were 15 children with this new form of COVID in the pediatric ICU at Wolfson. One person and one decision impacts an entire community.

We may not not relish this; we may even sometimes resent it, but it is an unavoidable and inextricable aspect of being in a relationship with another person, a family, an entire community is made vulnerable by what others do. The only remedy is to accept our responsibility in protecting one another. As Jews we know the answer to the question, “הֲשֹׁמֵ֥ר אָחִ֖י אָנֹֽכִי – Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Talmud teaches that God created a single human being to teach that one who saves another’s life has saved an entire world. In a secular culture that values personal autonomy above virtually everything else, it is sufficient to be a world unto oneself. Within a Jewish context, however, community consists of interlocking worlds, a human ecosystem in which mutual dependencies constitute a permanent pas de deux between ourselves and our neighbors. Beyond the noise and bombast of those who peddle conspiracy theories, the quacks who tout dangerous misinformation, and those who have trouble seeing how their insistence on personal freedom saddles the rest of us with the consequences of theirs irresponsibility, it is clear what the Torah would command us to do: when the mainstream medical establishment begs us to get vaccinated, we are obligated to do so; when physicians tell us to wear everyone to wear a mask indoors during a COVID surge, we listen. Judaism commands us to protect our own health, and equally the health of others. As a Jewish institution this is what we need to do.

A little girl inadvertently brings flu to a summer camp. A man who refuses to wear a mask inadvertently gives a total stranger a life-threatening case of COVID while standing in line at Target. The good news here is that the pandemic has offered us an opportunity to go beyond the egotistical walls that trap our souls and limit the field of our spiritual vision. We can rise to the challenge. We really can.

I’ll leave the last word to Albert Camus, or, if you like, Raymond Rambert, the journalist in the novel who attempts to evade the quarantine of Oran, only to stay and make a difference in the lives of others. “Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I had no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.” Indeed, it is, Monsieur Rambert; to live within community is to truly realize how community lives within us.

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THE VACCINE WE CAN MAKE Rosh Hashanah 5781

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On May 14, 1796 an English physician named Edward Jenner quietly made medical history. Jenner had been waging war against smallpox, a deadly scourge accounting for more than 10% of all deaths in mid-18th century Britain. The good doctor had noticed that milkmaids often contracted an illness known as cowpox; transmitted by cows to people, it resembled smallpox, but was much milder. Most intriguingly, he observed that those who had had cowpox appeared impervious to smallpox. So, on that fateful day in 1796, Jenner induced cowpox by inoculation in a boy named James Phipps. A few days after young James recovered from the milder condition, Jenner exposed him to smallpox not once, but 20 times! Yet Phipps had become immune; he was now protected against infection no matter how many times he was exposed to the deadly disease. Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz, a younger contemporary of Jenner living in Central Europe, described the doctor in Tiferet Yisrael, his commentary on the Mishnah, as “one of the righteous of the world,” a man whose place in heaven was assured for having saved millions of lives (Tiferet Yisrael, Avot 3:14).

When I was a kid one of the most riveting books I read was Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. It chronicles the exciting work of scientists like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Emile Roux and others, who discovered the microbes causing diseases such as rabies, anthrax, diphtheria as well as how to make effective vaccines against them. de Kruif’s book fascinated me not only because it read like a great detective novel, but because I was intrigued by the idea that science could tame germs by co-opting them, transforming the very pathogens that caused disease into the means by which a person could be protected from them. This was science, but it seemed magical, a little like alchemy, albeit a kind that really worked.

As we await a breakthrough in the campaign to produce a vaccine against COVID both safe and effective, we have many questions. Has the research become overly politicized? Are we moving too quickly? Will Americans feel confident in a vaccine once available? Yet long before the novel coronavirus, and long before Edward Jenner, Judaism understood the basic premise of vaccination — not in a scientific sense, of course, but a spiritual one. I’ll explain . . .

The Talmud tells a wonderful story about how the rabbis were able to trap the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, and imprison it. They triumphantly believed that they had finally rid the world of immorality and wickedness. The yetzer ha-ra, however, only smiled and said, “You’re happy now, but just wait and see what happens to the world.” At first, the rabbis noticed the improvement: violence dropped precipitously, theft no longer occurred. There was neither envy nor dissension; no one ever argued or became upset.  Indeed, people become so self-satisfied that they stopped striving or yearning for more. People no longer married or wanted children. Even the sages themselves became lazy and put off their study of Torah. It was then that the rabbis reluctantly, but unavoidably, decided to let the yetzer ha-ra go (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 69b).

At the end of the creation story the Torah tells us, “וַיַּ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד — God saw all that He created, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani comments in Midrash that the phrase “very good” refers to both our righteous and evil inclinations. How  can the yetzer ha-ra possibly ever be called “very good”? Scripture answers that were it not for our more self-centered and base desires no one would ever build a house, have children, or engage in commerce, as the biblical book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “All labor and skillful enterprise come from people’s envy of one another . . .” (Ecclesiastes 4:4).

Yes, sexual urges can lead to betrayal, but they can also be conduits to acts of loving intimacy with one’s partner and the miracle of birth; a burning ambition to succeed in one’s professional field may foster a hostile dog-eat-dog work environment, but it could also result in new inventions or breakthroughs for the benefit of humankind; the pursuit of financial gain can fan the flames of greed, or create wealth donated to a world of good causes through the mitzvah of tzedakah.

The Torah offers many examples of how that which is evil can be harnessed and repurposed for good. The Israelites worship a Golden Calf, yet the מי חטאת, the waters of purification the kohanim used to ritually cleanse individuals is made with the ashes of a young female cow. In the book of Numbers God punishes the Israelites’ ingratitude with a plague of biting serpents . . . but when they plead for forgiveness, God tells Moses to put a copper image of a serpent on a pole: as the people gaze at the image they recover from their wounds. The very things that can kill us, can also save us . . . if we are able to harness them.

Those recovering from substance abuse disorders are often able to convert their obsession with self-destructive behaviors into singlemindedness about recovery, healing and health; they become as focused on sobriety as they once were on the substances they abused or the negative behaviors they couldn’t escape, a quality that psychologist William Glasser writes about in his book, Positive Addictions. While I’m not so sure that one should ever pair the words “positive” and “addiction” in the same phrase, I get what he’s trying to say. We can take the same energy devoted to self-destructive ends and recast it to benefit ourselves. The process of teshuvah is not so different than the development of a vaccine; in the laboratory of our souls we can convert the spiritual DNA of what ails us into a source of healing and strength.

The 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger” Adversity can foster determination; impatience can lead to action; anger can open the door to reconciliation; death reminds us of how precious is life. To live in a fairytale world in which all is sweetness and light would be a costly mistake, for its life’s dirt, its germs, if you will, which stimulate the antibodies that develop our characters and make us better, stronger, and more resilient people.

Said Rabbi Abahu, “מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין, צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין — A sinner who repents stands in a place where even the completely righteous cannot stand” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 34b). We all fall down, we miss the mark, we stumble. It would be insane to celebrate failure, but it makes no more sense to wallow in our failures, either. We must do our best to avoid illness — wear a mask, wash your hands, practice physical distancing — but somewhere, sometime you will fall ill with something. The same is true of moral failure and spiritual illness. We can and must do our best to avoid wrongdoing — think gratitude, be humble and positive, remember you are created in God’s image — but somewhere, sometime you will screw up. What then? Will you get up? Will you learn from the experience? The Days of Awe offer us a spiritual laboratory in which introspection and consideration of our failures allow us to develop the vaccines that can convert guilt into forgiveness, and shame into hope. It is so cliche, I know, but without the intense sourness of lemon there would be no lemonade.

When and if there’s a truly safe vaccine for COVID-19, I will be happy to roll up my sleeve. Yet even now I am engaged in developing vaccination serums each and every day of my life as I consider my mistakes, my failures, my flaws and fears, and try to repurpose them to the good. The message of this season is that life is one continuous process of ongoing immunization — for the lessons we learn from failure grow faint with the passage of time, and need to be relearned; just as one needs a new flu shot each year. It is precisely because God loves us that Holy One doesn’t grant us immunity from the consequences of our choices. Though our failures are our own, God gives us the means to make our afflictions the source of our healing. The immunizing qualities of teshuvah, repentance, are never farther away than our next thought.

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Image result for colored glass kiddush cupOnce there was a little boy who decorated his very own Kiddush cup at a Jewish summer camp. When he returned home everyone oohed and aahed; his mother thought the cup was as colorful as a rainbow, his father complimented him on the intricacy of the design.

The little Kiddush cup was pretty pleased with herself, too. She was born in a factory where she was just one more inexpensive glass, identical to thousands of others. Now, dressed in beautiful colors she felt truly unique and special in a way she had never experienced before.

Naturally, when that first Friday evening arrived, the boy wanted to use his special goblet for Kiddush. The little cup trembled with nervous joy as she was placed on the beautifully set dinner table for the very first time. That Friday evening was the first of many on which the Kiddush cup had a prized place at the table. Week-in, week-out, for months and then years, the little boy used his cup each and every Shabbat. Over time the paint on her sides began to chip and lose some of its shine, but she never noticed that . . . and it seemed that no one else did, either.

But there came one Friday night when the little Kiddush cup wasn’t taken out at all. From her vantage point in the china cabinet she saw that a brand new and very shiny silver goblet stood in her place. “Mazel tov, my boy!” she heard through the glass door. “We are so proud of how you led services and read Torah at your Bar Mitzvah!” a family member said. “We hope you’ll enjoy using this new sterling silver Kiddush cup, and that it’ll always remind you of this important day in your life as a Jew.”

From that day on, the little Kiddush cup was rarely taken out of the breakfront; gathering dust at the back of the cabinet, she grew more and more faded; for the first time she noticed that her rim was chipped and her paint had flaked off in strips around her base and sides.

Years passed . . . the boy grew into a man. The little Kiddush cup would glimpse him from time to time, but he no longer lived with his parents. Whenever he came for a visit though, her heart would leap with joy as she remembered the days when he was a child and she had been a bright and sparkling new Kiddush cup.

One day, the young man came home with a woman. They smiled and held hands; everyone in the family congratulated them on their engagement, and admired the sparkling diamond ring the young woman wore. That night, the two of them stood before the cabinet as the young man opened the door and took out the old, faded cup. Turning to his fiancée, he said, “I made this when I was a child. I never dreamt that one day the two of us would be standing here talking about getting married. I’d like to give this cup a very special place in our home, if that would be OK with you.” While the little cup didn’t understand what they were talking about, she felt proud that her owner spoke so lovingly about her. He hadn’t forgotten about their years together, after all!

And so on the day of their wedding, the little cup stood proud and tall as the Hazzan held her, chanting the Sheva Berakhot, the seven blessings of marriage. When he was done, both the groom and bride drank deeply from her. It was then the rabbi very carefully wrapped the little cup in a napkin and placed her on the floor. “As you know, it is a tradition at a Jewish wedding to break a glass. Doing so reminds us of the Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem, for even on our happiest occasions we never forget the sorrows of the Jewish past. Let us all pray that however many pieces this glass will break into so may this wonderful couple’s happiness be multiplied.” As the young man’s foot came down with a crash, everyone shouted, “Mazel tov!”

Let me pause the story here . . . The tale may vaguely resemble Margery William’s children’s classic, the Velveteen Rabbit, but what I’ve been sharing is actually an excerpt from a story I wrote for my own children years ago. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself, “What a mean father! Could Rabbi Lubliner really be so unfeeling to tell his own children such a grim fairy tale?” Before you judge me, however, let’s get to the ending:

When the wedding reception was over, the happy couple carefully gathered the shards of colored glass from the broken cup, and used them to design a beautiful Mezuzah for the front door of their new home. Nestled inside were the two passages of the Sh’ma written by a Torah scribe containing God’s special name. The little Kiddush cup, who was now a Mezuzah, felt warm and embraced by the ancient sacred words inside her. As for the young man, he never grew tired of telling the story of how his boyhood Kiddush cup had become a Mezuzah, sharing the tale not only with visitors, but his children as well.

Webster’s defines “resilience” as an ability to recover in the face of misfortune or distress. Yet resilience is neither a destination nor even an attitude. Author Sherri Mandell, whose 13 year-old son Koby was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in 2001, knows a great deal about the subject. She writes, “. . . resilience is not overcoming. It’s becoming. Becoming more, becoming our fullest and deepest selves as a result of adversity. We don’t leap over troubles as if they don’t exist. We allow them to be our teachers when facing adversity causes us to change, grow, and become greater.”

For Monty Python fans, you may remember a scene in the Holy Grail when King Arthur fights the Black Knight. The latter refuses to concede defeat — even after the king cuts off both his arms, the Black Knight scornfully says, “Tis but a scratch!” Then he loses both legs to Arthur’s sword, after which he shouts defiantly, “Only a flesh wound!”

That my friends is NOT resilience, but stubbornness. The unwillingness to admit weakness and frailty is an impediment to real resilience. To find resilience you must first acknowledge your own brokenness.

You’ve probably heard about the tragic death of Botham Jean, an innocent man shot by Amber Guyger, a former Houston police officer. Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly under Jean, somehow thought she was entering her own dwelling and killed the man she believed to be an intruder. What happened at the conclusion of the trial was simply incredible. During his victim impact statement, Jean’s brother, Brandt, spoke directly to Guyger: “If you truly are sorry — I know I can speak for myself — I forgive you.” With the judge’s permission, Brandt then hugged the convicted killer of his brother.

Let’s be clear: Brandt Jean did not exonerate Guyger of her guilt; Whatever solace she derived from his gesture, his words were uttered for his own family, to help them let go of the anger for the sake of their own healing. Resentment is a spiritual cancer; it blocks the road to resilience by binding us ever more tightly in chains of never-ending bitterness. Yom Kippur would free us of the fetters that shackle us to grudge-holding; the path to finding forgiveness requires us to grant forgiveness. To emerge from the Day of Atonement with your resentments intact is, to use Maimonides’ stark image, like immersing in a Mikveh, a ritual bath, while holding vermin in one’s hand. “Stronger than hate” — to use the slogan that came into being after the horrific murders at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh” — doesn’t mean our hate is stronger than that of our adversaries, but exactly the opposite. We vanquish hatred by not hating.

Resilience is built into the DNA of Judaism. Jewish law insists we never conclude an Aliyah or a Haftorah on a negative note. Midrash teaches that the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Hebrew calendar because of the myriad tragedies that occurred on that date, will one day mark the start of the messianic age. And in the presence of death, immediately after filling in the grave of a loved one, mourners recite a special form of Kaddish envisioning a time when “the Eternal will restore life to the dead, uproot idolatry from the earth, and bring our worship of God to the very place where heaven and earth meet.” Kaddish is a prayer for mourners, but not one of mourning; its message is that hurt can be healed, and that the broken pieces of our lives can be reassembled — albeit in new ways in which the cracks themselves become a part of the design.

Image result for edmond fleg"

Edmond Fleg, 1874-1963

The French Jewish writer, Edmond Fleg, wrote “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” Three years after the Shoah — the horrific nadir of Jewish history — a Jewish state was reborn in our people’s ancestral homeland after more than two thousand year of exile. The marvel of such resilience was adumbrated by the defiant song of the partisans at the darkest hour in our people’s history: “Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letstn veg, Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg; Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho – S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot – mir zaynen do! Never say that you are on the final way, Though darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day; Because the hour we longed for is so near. Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder: we are here!”

Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught his disciples that the root of evil was despair. Despair, if sufficiently powerful, can deceive us into believing God’s light within ourselves or the world has been extinguished. Rebbe Nahman therefore insisted, “If you believe that something can be ruined, also believe that it can be fixed;” He said famously, “The world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is to cross it without giving into fear.” and he taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous always.”

The Breslover Rebbe, however, was no Polyanna; during his short thirty-eight years of life on earth, he was often afflicted with melancholy and suffered from depression. For him joy was never attenuated from the awareness of life’s fragility and its shadows.

Resilience is not a leap into the future, but an acceptance of the present. Sometimes we have to be willing to go through the motions for a period of time until our souls catch up to our hopes. First we acknowledge and name our pain; then, when the time is right we have to let go of our sorrow, our anger, our fear, our pain.

No one loves holding on to pain. Yet somehow we cling tenaciously to the familiar, no matter how unpleasant, because we’re afraid to let go. We are like the fellow who falls off a cliff, yet manages to grab the branch of a scrubby tree growing from the canyon wall. In desperation he prays to God for help, who responds by reassuring the man, and then tells him to let go. “But God, you don’t understand,” the panicky man answers, “I’ll die if I do.” “I promise you won’t. Now let go,” the Almighty says again. In the ensuing silence, in a weak and terrified voice the man calls out again, “Is there anyone else up there?”

The alcoholic opens the door to recovery when he lets go and admits his powerlessness. We want to be resilient, but we’re too afraid to let go. But until we do, the journey forward can’t begin.

Yom Kippur is the day God calls us to let go. We occupy this space, beating our chests with one hand, all the while stubbornly clinging with the other to the scrubby branch growing out of the canyon wall. We’re afraid to let go; even more tragically, some of us don’t even realize that we’re barely hanging on to a branch that could break any second, flinging us to an abyss.

But we’ve got one advantage over the man dangling from the branch: he was alone when he fell, but we have each other. A story is told in the Talmud about Rabbi Yohanan, whose righteousness had the ability to heal others. Yet it happened once that the great sage himself fell ill. His colleague, Rabbi Hanina, came to visit Rabbi Yohanan and asked him, “Are these sufferings welcome to you?” to which the latter replied, “Neither they nor their reward.” Rabbi Hanina then said, “Give me your hand,” and raised him up. The sages ask, “Why could Rabbi Yohanan not raise himself?” To which the text answers, “The prisoner cannot free himself from the jail” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b).

Resilience is nourished by community. The kindness of others breaks through the walls of suffering. When two friends climb a hill, the incline seems less steep than when they climb it alone. So, too, when all of us realize that we only need one hand to hold that proverbial branch, we can take the other to form a human chain and slowly make our way to safety. On Yom Kippur we gather as a community we confess our shortcomings in the plural and we acknowledge our blemishes collectively because resilience cannot thrive in isolation. The not-so-secret truth is that in the compassion and understanding we show others we find healing and greater resilience for ourselves.

On Yom Kippur we stand before God like broken, battered Kiddush cups. We have been chipped by life’s defeats and losses, our colors faded, tarnished by disappointment in ourselves or others. “Life ain’t no crystal stair,” as poet Langston Hughes once wrote, “But all the time I’ve been a-climbin’ on, and reachin’ landin’s, and turnin’ corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark where there ain’t been no light. . .”

Yom Kippur is a not a day of sadness, but quite the contrary; indeed, according to the Mishnah, never was there a more joyous day on the Jewish calendar than Yom Kippur (Ta’anit 4:8). Tradition  compares a couple’s wedding day to Yom Kippur: on both occasions we may begin life anew with a clean slate, our sins forgiven, our future no longer mortgaged to the baggage of the past.

Only you and I have the power to offer up our brokenness to God, and to one another, by asking pardon for our blemishes, by granting forgiveness to those who have hurt us. In doing so we rewrite the narrative and repair the brokenness; we can become something better and greater. We may even experience the resilience that can transform us from a cracked and faded glass into a beautiful Mezuzah filled with holiness and the wonder of God’s presence.

On Yom Kippur God asks us to write the story of who we are and what we wish to become. The best of stories aren’t the ones in which there is perpetual sunshine and bliss. “Once upon a time there was a princess who was always happy. The end” — is flat. In the meaningful stories, there is a mountain to climb, a raging river to cross, a glass to be smashed. To reach the other side we must first enter the darkness; only after we’ve embraced our own imperfections in the presence of one another, will we find the resilience that is God’s reward to the great storytellers of this world. On a day given to the hope for renewal, one that promises a million possibilities, God has given you an opening: “Once upon a time . . .” Now you must take it from here.

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Two old friends met each other on the street one day. One looked forlorn, almost on the verge of tears. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” Three weeks ago, my uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars,” said the first.  “That’s a lot of money,” observed his friend. “But you see,” the first man said, “Two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand dollars, free and clear.” “I’m sorry for your losses, but it sounds to me like you’ve also been very blessed.” “You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million from her.” Now the man’s friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so glum?” He responded: “This week . . . nothing!

Most of us don’t have such a skewed perspective, but our lives are covered by a thin film of complacency, one that is easily pierced by true disaster. Watching news of the rescue efforts in the Bahamas the week before last, I heard victim after victim of Hurricane Dorian tell of their harrowing experiences and the heartbreak of losing everything they owned except the clothing on their backs . . . and sometimes not even that. Yet time and again each expressed gratitude for having escaped, for just being alive even though they’d lost all their possessions.

Feeling grateful after living through a major trauma is common. At the moment an individual emerges from a life-or-death situation, reality has a way of scrubbing her perspective clean, scouring away the daily exasperation that means nothing when life itself is at stake. We Jews have a blessing for everything, including one we say after escaping danger: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹקֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַגּוֹמֵל לְחַיָּבִים טוֹבוֹת, שֶׁגְּמָלַֽנִי כָּל טוֹב. — “Praised are You, Lord our God, who rules the universe, showing goodness to us beyond our merits, for bestowing favor upon me.”

For most of us, however, moments of extreme peril are thankfully few and far between. In the ordinary rhythm of our days, there so many things, little and big, we take for granted. Have we ever considered that even the minor nuisances of life may actually be blessings in disguise?

A few years ago, an e-mail entitled “I am thankful,” made the rounds on the internet. In part the message went like this:

I am thankful for the mess I have to clean up after a party, because it means that I’ve been surrounded by friends; I’m thankful for a lawn that needs mowing and windows that need cleaning because it means I’ve got a home; I am thankful for the parking spot I find at the far end of the lot, because it means I am capable of walking; I’m thankful for the piles of laundry and ironing, because it means I have clothes to wear; and I am thankful for the alarm that goes off each morning, because it means that I have another day in front of me.

The Talmud teaches that a person should recite one hundred blessings every day, each an expression of gratitude for what is ours (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 43b). This may seem like a daunting task, but I bet if someone asked us to share a hundred complaints about the things that irk us daily, chances are we’d have little trouble doing so!

Image result for david stendahl rast quotesRobert Emmons, a professor at the University of California at Davis and author of the book Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier,  conducted a fascinating study in which he discovered that people who focused on their blessings in life actually improved their health and well-being through gratitude. Even more striking, those who felt blessed were significantly more likely to have helped someone else with a personal problem or offered emotional support. In other words, they utilized the blessings they found in their own lives to help transform the lives of others.

Rabbi Eliyahu Spira, who lived in 17th century Prague, observed once that a worshiper can fulfill his daily prayer obligation just by listening to the leader recite the Amidah and responding “Amen” to each blessing. But there’s one exception: Birkat Hoda’ah, the benediction whose theme is gratitude to God for “the wonders and gifts that accompany us, evening, morning, and noon.” During the repetition of the Amidah there is a separate paragraph the congregation prays silently while the reader continues aloud. Why? Because when it comes to saying thank you, we can’t delegate the task to someone else to do for us. Each and every one of us is required to express our own appreciation of the blessings we receive (Eliyahu Rabbah 127:1).

Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to look at the world with new eyes made for wonder and gratitude. A beautiful story is told in the Talmud about the sage Ben Zoma, who thanked God for all the working people of the earth. “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he could eat bread! He plowed, sowed, and reaped. He bound the sheaves, threshed the grained, winnowed the chaff, selected the ears, ground them, sifted the flour, kneaded the dough, and baked it. Only then was he able to eat. But I get up and find that all these things have already been done for me” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58a)

Imagine taking 60 seconds a day to think about all the strangers whose names you will never know upon whom you depend, from the fellow who picks up your trash, to the factory worker whose attention to detail keeps your plane from crashing. Are they doing their jobs? Yes. But is that any the less reason to be grateful?

What is the first thing you do when you open your eyes? Do you grab your phone and check who messaged you while you were sleeping? Is it to look at your schedule and think about how hectic and crazy your day will be? Imagine instead if, upon awakening, you said the following simple words, “Thank you God, for restoring me to consciousness” That thought is expressed by Modeh Ani, a one sentence prayer that observant Jews recite in the morning, and found at the beginning of every siddur.

Imagine then getting up to use the bathroom, and thanking God for “fashioning the human body in wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should one of them fail to function by being blocked or opened, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You.” Yes, Judaism has a bathroom blessing — but before you chuckle, consider someone who can’t live without dialysis, a person with an ostomy bag, or a friend who’s experienced the agony of kidney stones.

The practice of gratitude requires appreciation of the ordinary: the ability to move, see, hear, have clothing to wear, food to eat, a roof over our heads. We are better, happier, healthier people for expressing our thanks..

Recently I finished a lovely book by John Kralik, entitled A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. At the age of 48 Kralik had reached a dead end: his law practice was in grave financial trouble, and he was about to lose his lease; he was in the middle of a difficult divorce and broke. He had no relationship with his elder son, and his girlfriend had dumped him. He writes, “As that year progressed, there had been days when I was so preoccupied with my problems that I walked into the street without checking for the WALK sign. When a car missed me with a honk of the horn, I wondered whether everything might have worked out better had I been hit. I did not want to die exactly, but I began to think about the peace I could get in a hospital room, recovering from an accident or a heart attack. The responsibilities of my work would no longer intrude. For just a while, the depressing events might slow.”

Image result for a simple act of gratitudeOn a clear and cold New Year’s Day John Kralik went hiking in Angeles National Forest and wound up getting lost. As darkness fell and he began to slip and stumble at the edge of a ravine, he heard a voice: “Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have, you will not receive the things you want.” He writes, “I do not know who spoke to me. I could not explain this voice, or the words it said, which seemed to have no logical relation to the other thoughts in my head.” It was then that he had his epiphany: to find one person to thank each day; one person to whom he would write a note, so that by the end of the year he would have written 365 thank-yous.

When I read this, a light bulb when off in my head. There are times when I find it hard to be grateful. Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard. I see pain and misery caused by illness and grief; what’s even harder is when I witness unnecessary hurts inflicted upon people, emotional hurts that could so easily be avoided but for people’s egos, insecurities and jealousies.

Yet I see so much goodness and kindness, too; it just sometimes gets lost in the thick clouds of a gloomy day. And that’s why I decided that in the year ahead, I would follow John Kralik’s example and write one note a day (except on Yom Tov and Shabbat) expressing my gratitude to someone daily. Will I get to every single person I wish to thank? No, but the  very fact that I have so many folks to be thankful for is itself a source of gratitude. My goal is to make a copy of each day’s letter and in the process gradually create an inventory of gratitude to peruse come next Rosh Hashanah.

Here’s a a note I sent to the general manager of a local cemetery. I’ve changed the names to protect the privacy of those involved. The man to whom I wrote was kind in helping a family in need: “Dear Jack — Thanks so much for waiving the opening and closing fees for Bob’s burial. You never know Bob, of course, but back in the day when he had more money, he anonymously helped pay for several indigent burials himself. I believe your act of kindness might just be God’s way of repaying Bob for his generosity.”

Let me share with you another note I sent to a member of our congregation. In this case, too, I’ve disguised the identity of the person. “Dear Bill — I know you and I have different perspectives on the direction we should take as a congregation. As strongly as I believe that in my view, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate your passion. In an age when committed volunteers don’t grow on trees, I’m grateful for your devotion to our community.

Even in the short time since I’ve started writing these notes, I have found them therapeutic, healing, and very satisfying; I expect you might as well. We live in a world filled with way too much invective, polarization, and anger; a partisan world of carping and complaining in which we’re losing our ability or desire to see good in the people with whom we disagree politically. In a world suffused with the smog of smugness, gratitude is an oxygen mask to keep our souls from shortness of breath.

Life can be a dirty business. There are microscopic particles that infiltrate our pores, causing irritation and inflammation to our skin. Environmental exposure to pollutants leave unhealthy residues on our skins; the germs that we come into contact with from the surfaces we touch can make us or others ill. We know, then, that we must wash to keep our skin clean and healthy. But what is true of our dermis, is also true of our soul. There are spiritual toxins that settle on us, while complacency can leave greasy film on the mindfulness we need to cultivate to live life gratefully.

This morning I offer you a gift . . . It’s the moist towelette with the message you found on your prayer book, on top of my suggestions for soul cleansing. Now, you can use the towelette to wipe your hands next time they get sticky, but I’m hoping you’ll put it in a place where you’ll occasionally see it, so that when you do, you will go out of your way to stop, and feel thankful for the ordinary miracles of being, or remember to express thanks to someone that you wouldn’t have reached out to otherwise.

Soul Cleanser RH5780

To be Jewish is to give thanks – literally. The etymology of the word “Jew” stems from the root odeh, which forms the basis of the name our matriarch gave to her fourth son, Judah: “Ha-pa’am odeh – this time I will give thanks to God” (Genesis 29:35). From Judah (Yehudah) comes the words “Jew” (Yehudi) and “Judaism.”

Gratitude is foundational to human existence because it requires us to develop a deeper awareness of everything we experience. Gratitude is liberating because the appreciation of the gifts that are ours frees us in the moment from past regrets and future anxieties; it releases us from envy over what we don’t have and what we are not. Gratitude is transformative because it can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend, an adversary into a blessing. For the arrogant, gratitude is a reminder that all of us receive far more good than we deserve; for those plagued by self-doubt, gratitude is a reminder that we are precious in God’s eyes and truly do matter. The paradox of gratitude is that it will help us better accept a blemished and imperfect world filled with blemished and imperfect people; but through its practice the world and its people will be that much better and worthy of God’s blessings and miracles that surround us noon, night and day.


Below you’ll find the sheet I distributed throughout the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah — actually, it was the maintenance staff who placed a sheet on each chair, for which I thank them!


1. Judaism offers a treasure trove of resources to express gratitude. Here are just a few of the many, many expressions of thanks (berakhot) found in our liturgy:

Upon awakening in the morning:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם, שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ.
I am grateful to You, living and enduring Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in compassion. Great is your faithfulness!

When hearing good news:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵּטִיב.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe,
the Source of good and the Doer of good.

Upon returning to a place where something miraculous happened to you:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁעָֽשָׂה לִי נֵס בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe,
for performing a miracle on my behalf in this place,

When seeing a wonder of nature such as a shooting star, high mountains, vast deserts, or a spectacular sunrise or sunset:
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית.
Praised are You Adonai our God, who rules the universe, renewing the work of creation.

2. Write a brief thank-you no fewer than several times a week for a year. Don’t count the obligatory thank-you notes we politely write in response to material gifts. Send your brief expressions of gratitude to people whose deeds, words or attitudes you appreciate, whether they have been directly beneficial to you or to others. These notes need not be more than a few quick sentences.

3. Keep a gratitude journal for a period of time in which you daily remind yourself of the gifts and benefits you enjoy. Be specific about the things for which you are grateful. “I’m grateful for my spouse” is superficial – think about something concrete s/he did.

4. Think of particularly difficult times you went through in the past . . . then look to see where you are now. When we remember life’s more painful moments and how far we’ve come, we create an explicit contract in our mind, which is fertile ground for gratefulness.

5. Be mindful of your breath . . . and be thankful for it! Several times each day slow down and bring attention to your breathing. Notice how your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything . . . continue breathing this way. For each of the next five exhalations, say the word “thank you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how fortunate you are to be alive.

6. Use visual cues around your home by putting appropriate quotations or reminders to be thankful in places where you will see them. Only when something is out of sight is it also out of mind.

7. Set your watch or smartphone to go off at random times of day. When you hear the alarm go off, count your blessings on the spot.

8. Find an accountability partner, a friend or family member with whom you talk at pre-arranged times during the week. Just as individuals seeking to lose weight or exercise regularly are much likelier to stick to a regimen if they do it with someone else, you are more likely to maintain the discipline of identifying and expressing gratitude if you do it with someone else.

9. Avoid ungrateful people. The attitude of those who are cynical and ungrateful can be catching. Negative attitudes are infectious.

10. The words we use create reality. Grateful people tend to use the language of gifts, givers, blessings, fortune, fortunate, abundance. Those lacking in gratitude tend to focus on deprivation, deservingness, regret, lack, need, scarcity, loss. Consider your speech; we can change our mood by what we say to ourselves and others.

11. Even if you aren’t feeling thankful about something, go through the motions. What we do externally can influence our feelings internally. Taking the time to say thank you to someone you’ve never properly thanked — even if you aren’t feeling the “love” at that moment — can move you to a more positive mindset.

12. Be thankful for annoying and frustrating people. Yes, this is INCREDIBLY hard to do. The Dalai Lama often tells his audiences that he is grateful to the Chinese government for giving him the opportunity to practice love for his enemies. Those who bother, anger or worry us can make us stronger; they may even teach us how to be more patient and calm. The adversity we experience can lead us to a discovery of new strengths within ourselves that we didn’t know were there . . . and that’s something to be grateful about!

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Image result for yizkorCenturies ago Yizkor, the memorial liturgy for the dead, was recited only on Yom Kippur. Its roots are found in a rabbinic comment on a verse in the Torah: “כַּפֵּר֩ לְעַמְּךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל אֲשֶׁר־פָּדִ֨יתָ֙ ה’ — Atone for Your people, Israel, those whom You have redeemed, O Lord” (Deuteronomy 21:8). According to the medieval midrash of Tanhuma, the first part of the verse refers to atonement for the living, while the latter refers to the dead, which must be redeemed by the living. The text continues: “לכך אנו נוהגין להזכיר את המתים ביום הכפורים ולפסוק עליהם צדקה — Therefore, our practice is to remember the deceased on Yom Kippur by pledging charity on their behalf” (Tanhuma, Ha’azinu §1).

Over the course of the generations the custom of reciting Yizkor spread to the three Pilgrimage Festivals. The Torah reading on the final day of Pesah, Shavu’ot and Shemini Atzeret teaches that when we journey to the Sanctuary in Jerusalem for the holidays, “וְלֹ֧א יֵֽרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י ה’ רֵיקָֽם.  אִ֖ישׁ כְּמַתְּנַ֣ת יָד֑וֹ כְּבִרְכַּ֛ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ — You shall not appear empty-handed before God. Each person shall bring from whatever the Lord your God has blessed you with” (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). The Torah’s linkage of the festival with charity is reflected in the language of the Yizkor prayers in which we pledge tzedakah to honor and elevate the souls of the departed.

I often struggle with the belief that the living have the power to elevate the souls of the dead. Rabbinic literature is suffused with myriad sources emphasizing that we will be rewarded or punished solely on the basis of our own actions in life.  If we are judged by the content of the lives we lead, how can the prayers or righteous acts of others intercede on our behalf after we’re gone?

Yet as Solomon Schechter once said, “Whatever the faults of the rabbis, consistency was not one of them.” There are myriad Jewish views concerning the afterlife, and they do not all harmonize with one another. Ours is neither a religion of dogma nor catechisms — if one Jewish view resonates more with you than another, that’s fine; if your beliefs change over time, that’s OK, too. Anyway, who am I to argue with a centuries-old belief rooted in rabbinic text? Should my prayers and positive deeds elevate the souls of my loved ones who no longer walk this earth, so much the better!

Notwithstanding the question of Yizkor‘s redemptive power of the dead, there is no question of its impact on the living.  Yizkor possesses the ability to inspire and elevate the souls of the living through the gift of memory.  Ben Sira, an ancient sage whose words hearken back to the 2nd Century B.C.E., embodies this truth:

Let me now praise those of piety, of our ancestors in their generations. Their good fortune shall not come to an end; their fruitfulness shall remain with their seed; and their inheritance with their children’s children. In their covenant their descendants abide, and for their sake with those who come afterward. Their memory remains forever, and their righteousness shall not be forgotten. Their bodies were buried in peace, but the names live unto all generations. The people will recount their wisdom, the congregation shall declare their praise.  (Ben Sira 43:1, 11-15)

As we think about those whose legacies continue to inspire us, I wish to share with you the memory of a very special man, Rabbi Henry Sosland, who passed away at age 86 a few weeks ago.  Some members of our community met Rabbi Sosland briefly — he flew from New York to Jacksonville to participate in my installation ceremony 14 years ago.  Yet even if you didn’t have the privilege of knowing him, in a way perhaps you have, at least indirectly.  When I am at my best as a rabbi and as a person, I’d like to think I embody lessons I learned from him as my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend.

Rabbi Henry Sosland (right) joins with other clergy in March 2003 for a peace vigil on the steps of the Old Rockland County Courthouse in New City, New York

Raised in Kansas City, Henry Sosland graduated from Harvard College in 1953, and went on to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1958. Later that year, he married his lifelong partner and soulmate Judy, and came to the New City Jewish Center, the Conservative synagogue in Rockland County at which he would spend 47 years. In this day and age, it is almost unheard of for a rabbi to serve a single synagogue for the entirety of his or her career. Henry liked to quip that he actually served three, perhaps four, different synagogues, when one takes into account that, with Henry Sosland’s guidance, the New City Jewish Center developed into a large suburban synagogue, quite different from its roots as a congregation of just a few dozen families. That Rabbi Sosland was able to grow the community is not only a testament to his skill as a rabbi, but also to his own capacity to grow. At every stage of his tenure congregants knew that they had a caring, deeply compassionate and incredibly menschlich rabbi, one whose integrity, authenticity and humility were palpable to all.

My father, Rabbi Immanuel Lubliner, of blessed memory met Henry while in rabbinical school, although he was ordained two years later in 1960. The friendship of my parents with the Soslands, however, stemmed from the days in which my father and Henry served congregations across the Hudson River from one another and the informal fellowship they enjoyed with fellow Conservative colleagues from Westchester and Rockland counties.

After my father’s very early retirement from Parkinson’s Disease and his growing immobility, most of my dad’s colleagues forgot about him — not deliberately, to be sure, and not all at once. But in the course of their busy lives as clergy with family, the calls and visits to my dad gradually became fewer and fewer — out of sight, out of mind, as the old saying goes.

But Henry Sosland was different. He would go out of his way to pick my father up and take him to Rabbinical Assembly programs and meetings in Manhattan; and when Abba could no longer travel, he would frequently shlep from Rockland to Westchester over the Tappen Zee Bridge to visit. As a fully engaged and active rabbi with many responsibilities of his own, I still am not sure how Henry found the time to visit my father regularly. But this much I can say: On the cusp of asking God to remember the souls of our departed, I can never forget that Rabbi Sosland remembered my father when so many of his colleagues didn’t.

My gratitude to Henry Sosland is not unlike the Dayyeinu we sang at our seders a few nights ago: Had Rabbi Sosland only served as a sounding board for me when I first thought about going to rabbinical school . . . dayyeinu. Had he only written references on my behalf when I applied for admission to the Jewish Theological Seminary and pursued fellowship opportunities . . . dayyeinu. Had he only coached me in writing my senior sermon . . . dayyeinu . . . If he had just co-officiated at my wedding . . . dayyeinu . . . and had he only quietly helped pay for me to do post-graduate work at JTS when I thought about leaving the pulpit for academia more than two decades ago . . . dayyeinu.

One the most impactful experiences I had as a Seminary student was the year I spent as an intern at the New City Jewish Center. Rabbi Sosland treated me like a colleague and gave me the opportunity to teach, preach, and officiate at life cycle events, not as a rabbi with training wheels, so to speak, but as a colleague. When I once questioned him about whether or not it was appropriate for me to use the title “Rabbi” when I wasn’t yet ordained, he said, “You are a rabbi to the people you serve. You will learn as you go — even once you’re ordained you’ll continue to learn — but you aren’t practicing on people. They need you to be their rabbi, so be their rabbi.”

One day during my internship year, I was preparing to drive back to Manhattan after a weekend in New City. I had just changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, when Henry came into the office with a couple I hadn’t met and introduced me — not as Rabbi Lubliner, but as “his friend, Jonathan.” Since he never referred to me in front of laypeople as anything but “Rabbi Lubliner,” I realized this was his gentle way of communicating his opinion about my “unrabbinic” garb without embarrassing me in front of others. In my work with the colleagues who have come to work with me over the years as the Center’s Second Rabbi, I’ve endeavored always to keep Rabbi Sosland’s example as a teacher and mentor uppermost in my mind. Two millennia ago Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua said: “יְהִי כְבוֹד תַּלְמִידְךָ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ, וּכְבוֹד חֲבֵרְךָ כְּמוֹרָא רַבָּךְ — Honor your student with the deference due a colleague, and honor your colleague with the deference due a teacher” (Mishnah Avot 4:12). When I hear these words I can’t help but think of Henry.

As we turn to Yizkor I share these recollections of my teacher with you because I want everyone in this room to know more about a special man who inspired me with his goodness and wisdom; his impact on my rabbinate is immeasurable. But I also believe that each and every one of you has had a Rabbi Sosland of your own: a person whose life graced yours with the blessing of priceless gifts, ones that shaped your character and outlook, the kind that made you a better you.

As once our ancestors traveled on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals to the Temple in Jerusalem bearing gifts, so we journey through life bearing the gifts given us by our friends and family. In the rucksack of memory we carry their examples, their stories, and their values with us to ensure that, when our time to stand before God comes, we do not appear empty-handed before the Eternal One, but bring with us the lineaments of character bequeathed us by those who’ve gone before and given by us in turn to those who follow. May our prayers and deeds elevate their souls, even as their legacies raise our aspirations and lift our lives.

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Answering Hate with Hesed; In the Aftermath of Pittsburgh

Image result for Pittsburgh vigil

An interfaith vigil in Milwaukee, Wisconsin following the shooting at Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation

Last Friday morning I sat quietly in the sanctuary by myself for some time. As I looked at the bimah I wondered what I would have done had a gunman confronted our community. I then turned toward the seats and thought about where each of our Shabbat morning regulars sit — God forbid, had the attack occurred at the Center, who would have been hit?  When the shooter began his deadly spree of violence at Tree of Life on October 27th in Pittsburgh it was 9:54 AM: here we were finishing shaharit (morning service) and preparing to take the Torah from the ark. And then it occurred to me that if the assailant had known anything about synagogue attendance patterns, he would have postponed his attack for 45 minutes, since that’s when the bulk of the congregation arrives.  Thank God, he didn’t . . .

Anti-Semitism is as old as Western civilization. We’d feel better if we could offer a tidy and credible explanation for the hatred of Jews and the myriad self-contradictions it entails. How can otherwise rational people believe we are capitalist and communists? How can Jews be despised for being weak . . . and then feared for secretly controlling the world?  We are accused for being rootless globalists, yet are excoriated for our tribalism. Israel acts like Nazi Germany in its treatment of Palestinians, but then again, the Holocaust is a Jewish fabrication, which never happened. There is no simple explanation of a phenomenon that is as enduring as it is pernicious.

We are all God’s children. Yet to be equal is not to shun variety and diversity. We are unique and celebrate our differences; we have long refused to assimilate and disappear into the majority culture. Jews are proud that they’ve thrived for thousands of years, long after other ancient peoples became extinct.

But there are some who fear difference; individuals who cannot feel good about themselves unless they’re tearing down others. To such persons the Jew is a red flag, a reminder of their own insecure smallness. Anti-Semitism thrives in places and times of cultural upheaval, in societies where suspicion runs rampant about those who look differently, love differently, speak differently, or pray differently. The us-versus-them mentality, which suffuses so much of our social and political discourse today, nourishes prejudice of all kinds. When a white supremacist goes on a shooting spree of a Sikh temple, it is only a matter of time before an African-American church is attacked. When a mosque becomes the target of a hate crime, you can be a synagogue is next.

Image result for Synagogue bombing Jacksonville Jewish Center April 1958This is hardly a new lesson. In the wee hours of an April morning in 1958, a bomb exploded at the entrance of the Jacksonville Jewish Center in its old location in Springfield at 3rd and Silver. Not five minutes later, another explosion rocked James Weldon Johnson Junior High, an a segregated, African-American school four miles away. A call just minutes before the bombs went off claimed responsibility for both. Should anyone be surprised?

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Hayye Sarah, which means “The life of Sarah.” Yet ironically, the reading begins with the announcement of her death! In honoring the stories of the dead, we not only keep them alive, but we add layers of additional meaning to our own lives. Inveterate optimists, Judaism forbids us to engage in despair and perpetual sorrow. No matter how bleak the situation, the Psalmist finds his way from darkness to light: “You turned my lament into dancing, you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy, that my whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly; O Lord my God, I will praise You forever” (Psalm 30:12-13).

This Shabbat and for countless more after that, an anti-Semite in an orange jump suit will languish in a prison cell, and perhaps after that, on death row. But even now, at this very moment, Shabbat morning services are being held at synagogues throughout Pittsburgh and, indeed, around the world.  Tree of Life will be restored.  We are resilient. Push us back and we spring forward.

When the shooter was brought to the ER, he shouted, “I want to kill all the Jews.” Unbeknownst to him, three of the doctors and a nurse who cared for him at Allegheny General were Jewish, one of them the son of a rabbi. Despite his horrific crime, he was treated fairly and impartially by the very people he wished to destroy. It reminds me how physicians at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, time and again, have saved the lives of terrorists apprehended while committing acts of mayhem and murder.

In an era marked by naked partisanship and tribalism, we overcome hatred with radical demonstrations of humanity. Rabbi Noah Shalom Barzovsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe, who lost nearly all of his family members to the Holocaust, observed, “Loving kindness builds the world; it is the very foundation of the universe because the Holy One created all things from hesed — is it not the way of the source of the good to produce good? Conversely, that which removes loving kindness from the world destroys the world. The path to draw divine hesed toward humanity is through performance of acts of loving-kindness, as the Talmud states (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b): “All who have compassion on God’s creatures merits God’s compassion” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Hayye Sarah).

We are neither pacifists nor polyannas. We defend ourselves when necessary, we take security and safety seriously. But our task in this world is to overwhelm evil with goodness, to quench the fire of hatred with kindness. We respond to loss with life. In this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham dies his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together to bury their father. Though separated by destiny, they seek comfort and unity in each other’s presence. On Monday evening, hundreds of non-Jewish residents of Jacksonville, joined our community to show unity and seek comfort with us. The phone calls I have received from other faith leaders; the letter I received from the Bishop of St. Augustine; the donations and cards from non-Jewish neighbors in our community;  the $150,000 raised by the Muslim community for Tree of Life and its members; and, of course, those who are in attendance at services this morning to show solidarity. Countless acts of kindness flow together to form a mighty river of humanity to extinguish the flames of intolerance.

The American Jewish poet, Charles Reznikoff, once wrote: “Out of the Jewish dead, out of the greatly wronged, a people teaching and doing justice; out of the plundered a generous people; out of the wounded a people of physicians; and out of those who met only hate, a people of love, a compassionate people.” In the face of those who seek to divide Americans, we unite; in the presence of death we look for life; confronted by hate, we practice kindness. Where there is darkness we kindle light, where suffering exists we practice empathy. Truth crushed to the earth will rise again. And so will we. Am Yisrael Hai — the people Israel lives!

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Image result for jacksonville skylineWhen I drive to the airport I generally prefer to go through downtown because I’ve always loved city skylines.  Even when I travel to the airport via the Beltway, about mid-span over the Buckman Bridge I look downriver to see the tiny silhouettes of our big buildings in the distance. I’m the kind of guy who knows that, at 42 floors and 617 feet, the Bank of America Tower is not only the tallest building in Jacksonville, but the 11th tallest in Florida, and the highest in the state outside of Miami.

Of course, there is nothing in the world quite like the New York skyline with its countless spires, which poet Walt Whitman once described as, “high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” From whichever direction I approach Manhattan, my eyes go first to One World Trade Center, the tallest of the Big Apple’s many fingers pointing heavenward. And each time I do, I reflexively note the absence of the Twin Towers that stood there for 28 years until one Tuesday morning in September, 17 years ago today.

Every time we now fly, we experience one of the legacies of 9/11: shoes off; laptop out; finish or throw out that drink before the security checkpoint. It seems unbelievable today, but 18 years ago you could bring a baseball bat or a knife up to 4 inches long on a plane. Still, when we go through the TSA line we’re probably not thinking about the events of September 11, 2001, but are focusing inside on the struggle to take off our shoes while simultaneously getting our laptop and clear bag of toiletries into the bin for screening.

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“Have you seen . . .?” Flyers seeking information on the missing are plastered all over the city.  Late September 2001

Every so often history makes an indelible mark on our memories. The morning of that terrorist attack is seared into our brains as the day when our collective sense of invulnerability as a nation was shattered. As the tragedy of that early September morning unfolded, we heard the anguished cries of families fearfully awaiting news of loved ones. We saw the pictures that plastered the walls of construction sites and subway stations, the photos and descriptions of the missing. We mourned those who left for work one morning, never to return.

The sorrow of that time seemed to transform the world and galvanize our nation. In the weeks following the attack, extravagance was in poor taste, frivolous behaviors frowned upon. Contributions to charity skyrocketed. New Yorkers, Washingtonians, indeed, all Americans came together in a way not seen since World War II. Bipartisanship was the theme of the hour.

Those first months following 9/11 Americans lived with a new sense of purpose and urgency. As the realization of life’s ephemeral quality and its uncertainty set in, many who delayed marriage took the plunge. Those who had put off having children decided to wait no longer. Who knew what might be around the corner? The summer following 9/11 a mini baby-boom took place around the nation. In the aftermath of the tragedy, myriad talk shows and newspapers featured human interest stories about the emotional and spiritual changes happening within the fabric of American culture.

Not unlike Hagar, Hannah and Rachel, the heroines of Rosh Hashanah’s Scriptural readings, who found ultimate redemption through tears of grief, it appeared that America was prepared to distill meaning from its mourning. In sorrow we resolved to change. And we did change. . .for a while.

Human beings are resilient; we possess elasticity of mind and spirit. Great force can compel us to stretch ourselves, to reach farther and higher. With the passage of time, however, a relaxation of tension causes us to slowly, sometimes almost imperceptibly, contract. Eventually most of us return to our old grooves. Except for those who lost loved ones that day, the weeks, months and years since September 11th have seen us largely go back to old ways of thinking and doing.

The horrific images of that morning showed us the importance of living to the fullest because the business of life is uncertain, yet how many parents curtailed their working hours to find more time to spend with their children because of 9/11? How many spouses have invoked 9/11 to revitalize marriages gone stale because they now realize how fragile life is? How many of us have fundamentally changed the way we treat those who work on our behalf, viewing their efforts with greater empathy? Have we sought additional opportunities to volunteer or give more tzedakah as a response to September 11th? Do we wake up each morning with a greater appreciation of what it means to be alive because one beautiful autumn day nearly 3,000 people were killed for no good reason and with little warning?

Once upon a time, when I was younger and more naive, I believed that suffering by itself could make one a better person. The very act of loss, despair and hurt should be enough to create a resonant empathy, an ongoing feeling of compassion. Indeed, the word “compassion” means “with suffering.” After Susan and I lost our daughter, Ranit, 19 years ago, I remember vowing to myself that I would be a better person forever. Having experienced hell itself, I would always offer a shoulder a lean on, a hand to hold, and a listening ear to all those in pain. When I shared this resolve with a friend, who had fought a difficult battle against cancer and was a survivor, he smiled and said, “You think life has forever changed for you. Yes, it has. But there’s a difference between life changing for you, and you changing for life. Just wait and see; plenty of your old self will come back to keep you company.”

Suffering alone cannot make a person better, or for that matter, a society. With the passage of time, the open gash heals to a scar; the burning imperative to find meaning becomes muted. Life goes on. And if the desire to be better in the wake of trauma is proof of our Divine spark, then a return to the old rhythms of everyday life is evidence of our human nature. As the aches and anxieties of painful wounds heal, the keen sense of urgency ebbs and gradually dissipates.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unlike other Jewish holidays, aren’t tied to a particular agricultural or historical event. And though we think of Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, the Torah considers Tishri to be the seventh month, not the first! It would almost seem that these Days of Awe were placed on the calendar at random, with little rhyme or reason.

Rosh Hashanah would be no less meaningful in January than September; its theme of self-improvement and better living as timely in the winter or spring as in the autumn. And that is precisely the message of these days. Real change is not measured by what we do in the moment of intense emotion, the immediate aftermath of tragedy. It doesn’t come as they wheel us into the O.R. for major surgery, or as we lie in a foxhole in the middle of a battle. Such events batter down the door of complacency, they force us to confront the fragility and transience of life; and they may serve as catalysts for change. . . if we use them. But the danger passes, the moment recedes. The heart equivocates. The mind hesitates.

For true teshuvah to happen, for real change to occur, it requires the willingness to work on oneself in the most ordinary and humdrum of circumstances. “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” a modern guru tells us, but, it is precisely how we deal with the small stuff that reveals who we are. The moments of great triumph or agony are, for most of us, relatively few. Our lives are defined by the mundane moments in between.

But that is why God created in us the capacity to tell stories and to learn from them. Even without the intensity of trauma and its immediate aftermath, we can recall a story and remind ourselves of its meaning. On that fateful September day there were thousands of stories created. Most of them are not the stories of Jews, but they are Jewish stories because they highlight authentic Jewish values. They are shofar sounds by way of narrative: just as the ram’s horn awakens us to what really matters, the accounts of the survivors call us to rise from the slumber of our complacency.

Jarek Klimczak survived because two co-workers made the mistake of arriving two hours early for a meeting. He left the Marriott at 3 World Trade Center, which later collapsed under the debris of the second tower, to have coffee with his colleagues. He went out in casual clothing with nothing but his key card to room 1043, planning to return in an hour to get ready. The decision saved his life, but cost him all his belongings: “Only hours before,” he later observed, “the items in my luggage seemed so dear to me — some of them too precious to ever consider losing. But in the face of this scene of carnage, and in the instant of their disintegration, they all became trivial objects not worth a thought.” A simple reminder of what really matters.

Denise Campbell witnessed a man falling, seeming to flying really, from the South Tower in a dark suit and a light-colored tie. For months he was in her dreams. Eventually she composed a letter to his memory, writing, “In my dreams you came to me and I could always feel your presence. I wonder if that is you in my dream, coming to greet me, introducing yourself. I wonder if you know that the pain of seeing you fly introduced a new thread of reality for me — a thread of anger, pain, guilt for living, worry, acceptance, devout respect, hope, love, and of peace, finally peace. Today I live each day with gratitude and wonder . . . I am not perfect. I am flawed. I make mistakes and mess up. There are days I fail to reach my objective of carrying gratitude and seeing the wonder of this thing called life. But somehow I pick myself up and readjust, putting those who have died in the forefront of my mind.”

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The “Survivor Tree” November 14, 2001

If you visit the 9/11 Memorial Plaza you will see a very special Callery pear tree, known as the “Survivor Tree.” Almost a month after the attack on the Twin Towers, the tree was discovered at Ground Zero severely damaged with snapped roots and burnt and broken branches. Workers removed the tree from the rubble and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation nurtured it back to health. After nine years of recovery and rehabilitation, the city returned the tree to the Memorial plaza in 2010. Look carefully at the trunk, and you’ll see the new, smooth limbs that extend from the gnarled stumps, creating a visible demarcation between the tree’s past and present. The tree is a poignant, living reminder of resilience. It carries the scars of tragedy, but when it blooms in the spring, its flowers look like those of any other pear tree.

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The “Survivor Tree” at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza today

Unlike the pear tree, however, we are not merely the victims of life’s cruel vagaries. We can make a difference — like Gregory Fredrick, a hotel engineer who just happened to remember he had fixed a shower bar in a handicapped woman’s room on the 5th floor of the Marriott at the World Trade Center. His recollection saved the life of Leigh, a wheel-chair bound woman with multiple sclerosis, and her mother Faye. They were trapped on their floor when the passenger elevators cut out. Using a freight elevator that still had power, Gregory’s thoughtfulness saved the lives of two women of whom he knew nothing but their first names. They would disappear into the chaos of that day, and he wouldn’t see them again for eight years. Gregory Fredrick would reflect to an interviewer years later, “Sometimes our calling is way beyond us, and that’s what happened to me. I happened to be at the right place. I don’t know what made me think about Leigh and Faye. But I thought about them. Meanwhile, I try to stay strong. It is important to live our lives to the fullest because we don’t know how long we have in this world.”

September 11, 2001 was a moment in time, one that will be remembered as a day of infamy. Time will continue to run its course, and as the years go by, the power of September 11th to inform our behavior will continue to diminish — much in the same way that December 7th, 1941 — another “day in infamy” — no longer has bearing on the actions of those born after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Such is human nature. It is perhaps a curse, but more likely a blessing, since the passage of time can heal us as well. We could scarcely continue to exist if we always lived in the presence of intense emotion or unbearable pain.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is timeless. It comes out of nowhere — unconnected to any particular date or event in history — to remind us that teshuvah is not the business of grand gestures and sweeping changes made in the heat of the moment, but is at the heart of making the mundane better as we bear in mind the stories that warn and teach us of life’s fragility. Said Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Sages: “שׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד לִפְנֵי מִיתָתָךְ — Repent one day before your death” (Avot 2:10). The Talmud objects, “But how does one know when will that be?” “Exactly the reason to start today,” is the answer (BT, Shabbat 153a).

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The World Trade Center towers as they were

The night before the World Trade Center attack, I drove into New York City for a meeting and had dinner at a kosher restaurant two blocks from what would become ground zero twelve hours later. It was a clear and pleasant evening. Because I love skyscrapers I automatically looked up at the Twin Towers as I drove by; their commanding height and twinkling lights always invited a glance . . . a glance, but no more; these buildings were a permanent part of the skyline; landmarks to be taken for granted. If I only had known. . .

The suddenness and swiftness of tragedy, which impels us to live with urgency. . . that was the lesson we learned on September 11th, 2001, the day of. Rosh Hashanah, however, is the lesson of September 10th, 2001, the day before. The time when all was quiet and seemingly well. The time to change is now. For who know what waits in the wings of tomorrow? Who truly knows?

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Students evacuating Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida

In last week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read about the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary our ancestors used from the era of their desert wanderings until the building of the First Temple. At the very heart of the structure was the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant which contained the first and second set of tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.    Over the ark there were the cherubim, two winged figures made of pure gold. They served as shields for the ark, as well as a kind of throne, if you will, from which God would communicate with Moses and impart the Divine word.

The rabbis speculated extensively about what the cherubim actually looked like.  In a play on the word Kruv, (the Hebrew for “cherub”) the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Abbahu, suggested that the word means, “K’raviya” – like a child (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 5b).  It’s a powerful idea: our children, symbolically speaking, stand in proximity to the Ark of the Covenant, in the spiritual geography of Judaism, we place them in the Holy of Holies.

A week ago a terrible tragedy took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  17 human beings were shot down in cold blood by a disturbed 19-year old, who could not legally purchase a beer, but was able to buy an AR-15 assault rifle in perfect conformity with state law.  Our schools should be Holy of Holies – places of safety, civility and education, places of hope for the future, where children can expand their horizons and forge life-long friendships.

          Yet Nikolas Cruz entered that Holy of Holies and destroyed 17 cherubic figures within.  There were many cues that were ignored or missed.  He had demonstrated signs of being violent and disturbed.  Cruz was known to express anti-social views.  He had been expelled from school for his violent behavior and had shown an obsession for guns . . . And yet he was able to buy all the accouterments of death with which to murder others with maximum efficiency.  There is something terribly wrong here.


But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears, take the rag away from your face; now ain’t the time for your tears.

-Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Some of our leaders – particularly those who consistently oppose gun control in any form – will tell you in the wake of every mass shooting that now is the time for prayer, not politics.  This response has become a meme of sorts, the trope of apologists who defend the Second Amendment, yet transgress the Second Commandment by elevating the right to bear arms into a kind of idolatry.  The sincerity of their pious words would be more believable if they told us when, exactly, would be the right time to have an honest and unflinching debate about the balance between public safety and gun rights.

Yet none other than God reminds us that there are moments when prayer just isn’t enough.  When Moses and the children of Israel had their backs to the sea, and Moses began to pray, God said, “Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15).   There is a time for a prayer, but also a time for action.   The very families devastated by the tragedy in Parkland are crying out to our elected officials for decisive action; they demand more than heart-felt prayer alone.


Ours is not a pacifistic religion; there is nothing in Judaism that would preclude individuals from owning firearms, whether for sport or self-defense.  Indeed, killing an individual in self-defense is sanctioned by the Torah itself: “אִם־בַּמַּחְתֶּ֛רֶת יִמָּצֵ֥א הַגַּנָּ֖ב וְהֻכָּ֣ה וָמֵ֑ת אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ דָּמִֽים — If a thief is discovered while breaking in and is beaten to death, there is no blood-guilt in this case” (Exodus 22:1).  The Talmud comments, “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. Here it may be presumed that the thief has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not hold himself back and remain silent when an intruder invades his property. Therefore the thief comes with the implicit assumption that if the owner of the property attempts to intervene or stop him, he [the thief] would kill him first” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a).

Yet elsewhere Judaism invokes and affirms that self-protection has its limits. There were no guns in Talmudic times, of course, but it wasn’t unusual for folks to keep a wild dog on hand to protect themselves from robbers. The owner of an attack dog, however, was not given carte blanche to do as he felt like. In the Shulhan Arukh, the preeminent 16th-century code of Jewish law, we learn that it was forbidden to raise a dangerous dog in an urban areas unless secured with a metal chain at all times (Hoshen Mishpat 409:3). The thinking here is that while a barking dog can deter robbers, the liability of letting a vicious dog go free is too much, since it might attack an innocent bystander.  In more rural settings, on the other hand, Jewish law permitted the owner to take the dog off its leash at night . . . so long as he was tied up again by day.  In remote areas the assumption is that help might be farther away and the danger greater — hence the permissibility to allow the dog to roam one’s property at night.  Still, the animal had to be restrained by day because of the liability associated with letting it roam free.  Judaism insists that our responsibility for the well-being others is no less important than one’s own personal protection.

For the same reason, halakhah would also limit the sale of weaponry to those deemed unstable, of flawed character or suspected of criminal intent.  We read in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah: “Our sages taught: One should not sell idolators or Kutim (two classes of individuals considered of dubious character) either weapons or accessories of weapons; one should not grind any weapon for them; one may not sell them either stocks, neck-chains, ropes, or iron chains.”  The rabbis extend this prohibition even to fellow Jews of whom there is concern about their intentions (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 15b).  Since it was not always apparent from appearances whether or not an individual might fit into any of the above categories, the law presumes the need for some kind of inquiry; in modern terms, a background check.

The Torah offers a sensible and balanced view.  Jewish law has no problem with the Second Amendment, but does take serious exception when the right to bear arms is transformed into an absolute, trumping all other considerations. To live in social compact with others is to agree that we accept some limitations on our behavior for the greater good — just as there are certain limits posed on the First Amendment for the commonweal, so, too, with the Second.

A honest reading of Jewish law would support closing the gun show loophole that allows for the purchase of weapons without a background check; prohibiting bump stocks or any means by which semi-automatic weapons might be converted into automatic weapons; getting rid of high capacity magazines; and requiring gun safety measures in homes where young children can and have ended up dead while playing with firearms.  Jewish values would support making it impossible for individuals who had demonstrated violent, anti-social behavior to procure guns simply by walking into a store.

The foregoing are positions taken by United Synagogue, the Rabbinical Assembly, the National Council of Jewish Women, the ADL, the Union of Reform Judaism, and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and many others.  I urge you as I have done to yet again write our legislators in Washington, lest they find themselves relegated to the wrong side of history on this issue.  I believe sane gun laws will one day prevail, the only question is how many more massacres like the one of this past week it will take.

Our young people are watching us.  They are waiting to see what we do in the wake of yet another mass shooting in yet another school.  Here’s a post I read on Facebook from Jamie Bielski, a 15-year-old member of our congregation:  “I can’t stress enough how important the issue of gun control is. Regardless of your own political belief, hopefully you can see that legislation regarding guns should not be handled in the way it is today. Had Congress learned from history and had new legislation been passed, we would not be devastated by the tragedy that occurred yesterday in Parkland. Please take action. Call or email your representatives.” To Jamie’s plea, I would point you to the resources within the Jewish community that can help you learn more, and be an effective advocate for gun legislation reflective of our tradition’s values: Rabbis Against Gun Violence; the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the community resource guide on gun violence prevention of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

          We have entered the month of Adar.   In ancient times, it was during this month that a half shekel tax was collected from Jewish communities throughout the world for bedek ha-bayit, the repair and support of the Temple in Judaism.  In the Holy of Holies, we need to repair the damage that has been done by the smoking barrel of an AR-15, to restore the cherubim mangled by yet another shooter with a weapon of great destruction.

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We cannot resurrect those killed in Parkland: Peter Weng, age 15; Carmen Schentrup, 16; Alex Schachter, 14; Helena Ramsay, 17; Meadow Pollack, 18; Alaina Petty, 14; Joaquin Oliver, 17; Gina Montalto, 14; Cara Loughran, 14; Luke Hoyer, 15; athletic director Christopher Hixon, 49; Jamie Guttenberg, 14; assistant football coach, Aaron Feis, 37; Nicholas Dworet, 17; geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35; Martin Duque Anguiano, 14; Alyssa Alhadeff, 14.  No, these precious lives are gone, but we can work to ensure that this does not happen again. And again.  And again.  Our children are watching; so is God.





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MEET THE MAN WHO SAVED YOUR LIFE: A Yizkor sermon for Shemini Atzeret 5778

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The Hebrew word Yizkor means “remember”.  It begins each of the individual prayers we recite asking God to remember our loved ones in exchange for our pledges of tzedakah or the promise of righteous acts.  In truth we are not asking an omniscient God to remember; after all, can we truly imagine a “forgetful” God?  Rather, we are asking God to help us remember, because human frailty sometimes occasions forgetfulness on our part.  Through acts of tzedakah and the performance of ma’asim tovim, good deeds, we add substance to our memories of family and friends, linking our recollections of them to tangible and positive acts of righteousness.

Yet this morning I would like us to take the time to remember an individual that none of us ever met.  It is unlikely you’ll recognize his name or be able to identify his single greatest achievement.  And while I believe he was an intelligent individual who succeeded in his chosen field, his presence in today’s sermon is due to a single 5-minute period in his life.

So where were you on September 26th in 1983?  A check of my 200-year calendar revealed that it was a Monday during the intermediate days of Sukkot.  I was a junior at Vassar College; and I don’t have any recollection of what I was doing that day . . . other than the fact that I was likely in a classroom somewhere on campus in Poughkeepsie, New York.  Only a few weeks earlier, Korean Airlines Flight 007 had been shot down by a Soviet jet with all 269 passengers killed.  A civil war raged in Angola, while Lebanon had already disintegrated into multiple warring factions.  The attack on the U.S. Marines compound in Beirut was still almost a month away.  Ronald Reagan was our President, while the Phillies and the Dodgers, as well as the Orioles and the White Sox, were in the final week of the regular season, getting to ready to battle one another for their respective league championships.

September 26, 1983 was probably an ordinary day for most of us — sufficiently mundane to pass into history unnoticed, relegated to the place beyond memory where all distant yesterdays melt into undifferentiated oneness.

But that day could easily have been the last of your life and mine.  Indeed, it almost was the last day of the human race.  Every child born after that date, and every person who lived to wake up the morning of September 27th, 1983 owes a debt to gratitude to a person they probably never heard of because of a momentous decision they never knew he made.

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Petrov as a young officer

Stanislav Petrov was his name, and he died quietly last month at the age of 77.  On that morning back in 1983, however, he was a 44-year old lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Stationed at Serpukhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States, he was just a few hours into his shift when sirens went off.  What was then state-of-the-art computer equipment warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base and where heading straight toward the Soviet Union.

Keep in mind that the autumn of 1983 was a very tense moment in the Cold War.  The Soviets were wary that their downing of KAL flight 007 would be avenged in some way; President Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, and had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Kremlin’s leader, Yuri V. Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an imminent attack American attack.

Colonel Petrov occupied a critical spot in the decision-making chain. His was the responsibility to authenticate  the report of incoming missiles to the Soviet military’s senior staff, who would then consult with Mr. Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack.  As the computer systems in front of him changed their alert status from “launch” to “missile strike,” and affirmed the accuracy of the satellite transmissions, Colonel Petrov had to figure out what to do.  The tracking devices indicated that detonation would occur in 25 minutes . . . each minute spent without taking action decreased the possibility of launching a successful retaliatory strike against the United States.

After five nerve-racking minutes — electronic maps and screens were flashing as he held a phone in one hand and an intercom in the other, trying to absorb streams of incoming information — Colonel Petrov decided that the launch reports were probably a false alarm.  As he later explained, it was a gut decision, at best a “50-50” guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and a hunch that if the U.S. had opted to launch a first-strike it would have fired scores upon scores of missiles rather than just five.

He was right . . . and here we are today.  The false alarm was the result of a Soviet satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of clouds for a missile launch. The computer program that was supposed to filter out such information had to be rewritten.
Petrov was never given a medal or a commendation for his willingness to trust his own instincts rather than a computer.  Instead, he received a reprimand for not having recorded in his logbook all of the data that streamed past him in those unforgettable few moments.  It didn’t matter that he had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, so he didn’t have a third hand to log data.


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Petrov in his final years

Stanislav Petrov never boasted about his decision to trust his gut rather than the computer screen in front of him.  He left the military a year later, and faded into obscurity — at one point he was reduced to growing potatoes to feed himself.  But for the publication of a 1998 memoir by General Yuriy Votintsev, the retired commander of Soviet missile defense, his role in averting nuclear Armageddon would never have been known.  “I was just at the right place at the right time,” he said in a later interview.

Was it God who put Stanislav Petrov in that control room on September 26th, 1983?  If he had called in sick and someone less distrustful of computers had taken his place, would we be here today?  He was just doing his job — so he claimed — but what acknowledgment do we owe an individual who, on a hunch, ignored his computer and thereby avoided what surely would have been the start of World War III?  What does it mean in the larger sense to be at the right place at the right time?  And how does one know that he or she is, unless granted the gift of 20/20 hindsight?

We learn in the Mishnah of Avot in the name of Ben Azzai, “אַל תְּהִי בָז לְכָל אָדָם, וְאַל תְּהִי מַפְלִיג לְכָל דָּבָר, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה וְאֵין לְךָ דָבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם — Do not dismiss any person; do not underrate the importance of any thing — for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place under the sun” (Avot 4:3).

Is there an American Stanislav Petrov on watch deep in the nuclear bunker of Cheyenne Mountain in Wyoming?  More disturbing, is there a Petrov-like figure waiting in the wings somewhere in North Korea’s top secret nuclear headquarter?   Are we dancing on the edge of a volcano?

There is no person without his hour.  One need not be a hero to save the world; or to put it differently, being heroic doesn’t necessarily require anything but a willingness to do one’s job . . . and accept responsibility for the call one makes.  The drama of Stanislav Petrov’s story is not why he deserves to be remembered, but because he was as ordinary as the effect of his decision was extraordinary.  In going to work one day, he just happened to save the world.

Which is precisely the point.  The Apter Rebbe, the great-grandfather of the theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, once observed:  “A person does not choose the form in which he wishes to perform service for God, but rather perform it in any way opportunity affords.  He should be like a vessel into which anything may be poured — wine, milk, or water” (Menorah Ha-Tehorah, p. 80).  Whether future generations will remember our deeds or not, God calls each of us to change our world in some way by being at the right place at the right time . . . even though we may be clueless about the what, where or when.  In the end your small acts of wisdom or compassion may be of equal or greater value to the grand gestures you consider to be your most enduring legacy.

Edward Markham, the American poet, once wrote, “Choices are the hinges of destiny.”  During Yizkor, let us consider how the choices of our loved ones changed our destinies, whether for good, for ill, or perhaps both.  Everything we do in life potentially matters . . . even the decision to remember some people and forget others.  I will remember Stanislav Petrov — not just because I’m happy that I wasn’t obliterated in a nuclear holocaust that September morning 34 years ago, but because he has quietly reminded me that I may make a lasting change in just a few minutes of living, and in so doing, alter the course of another human being’s destiny.  For if every person is a planet in the galaxy of humanity, then, maybe each of us may save a world and assure our place in eternity.


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In Search of Meaningful Adjacencies – Yom Kippur 5778

Image result for reflecting absence pools nyc

Reflecting Absence — The 9/11 Memorial

When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . . When I visit my father, our daughter, or my in-laws, I sometimes stroll across the street to  Marshall Nirenberg.  He received the 1968 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for having deciphered the genetic code which showed all living things are related. It’s pretty cool having a Nobel Prize winner across the street from your loved ones . . .

Let me be clear.  My family doesn’t live across the street from Professor Nirenberg, any more than he lives across the street from them.  Rather, they are buried across a path from one another in Sharon Gardens, a large Jewish cemetery in Westchester County, 25 miles north of Manhattan.  It is quite an accomplishment to receive a Nobel Prize; yet until I read his tombstone, I had never heard of Nirenberg; it’s only because he’s my family’s neighbor that I became acquainted with him.  Funny whom you meet in a cemetery . . .

Ismar Lubliner's graveWhile in New York a month ago I had a few free hours before my flight home.  On an impulse I decided to visit the grave of my Uncle Ismar.  Ismar was serving in the army of occupation when killed in Japan a few months after V-J day.  He had just turned 25.  Though our son, Itamar, is named after my uncle, I had never met Ismar, because he had died nearly twenty years before my birth.  Grandma Johanna, of blessed memory, couldn’t afford the cost of a burial in a Jewish cemetery, so she let Uncle Sam pick up the tab.  Ismar’s final resting place is at Pinelawn National Cemetery on Long Island.

When I first saw Ismar’s grave, I was struck by the fact that it was but a tiny island in a sea of identical white tombstones stretching across the horizon. Despite the fact that Pinelawn houses the remains of 350,000 veterans and their spouses, it seemed that Ismar was alone, surrounded by strangers.  To his left was a fellow named Charlie Clarke from Georgia who, judging by the date of his death and division, most likely died in the battle for the Rhineland in December, 1944.  Buried on Ismar’s right was Cleveland Weeks, a Private in the Quartermaster’s Corp, who died in December, 1943.  And immediately behind my uncle’s grave is that of a fellow Jew, Staff Sergeant Lawrence Lustgarten, who served in the 491st Army Airforce Bomber Squadron. Again, judging the date of his death and the assignment of his squadron which I looked up on-line, Sgt. Lustgarten probably died while bombing Japanese forces in China in 1944.

These young men from dramatically different backgrounds lived and died hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  King David’s beautiful words about the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan do not apply: “הַנֶּאֱהָבִ֤ים וְהַנְּעִימִם֙ בְּחַיֵּיהֶ֔ם וּבְמוֹתָ֖ם לֹ֣א נִפְרָ֑דוּ — Beloved and cherished, they were never parted in life or in death” (II Samuel 1:23). My uncle and his neighbors never met in life.  Only in death will they rest side-by-side for all eternity.  If there’s meaning to be found the proximity of their remains it is that they were all part of the “Great Generation” which fought the tyranny of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire.  Perhaps that’s meaning enough.

The first time I heard the term “meaningful adjacency” was during a visit to the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan.  At the site where each of the Twin Towers stood, there’s a pool surrounded by a railing on which panels are mounted listing the names of those who died on that tragic date of September 11, 2001.  The original proposal called for the names of the dead to be placed randomly around the two reflecting pools marking the sites of the North and South Towers. The designers, Michael Arad and Peter Walker explained that “any arrangement that tries to impose meaning through physical adjacency will cause grief and anguish to people who might be excluded from that process, furthering the sense of loss that they are already suffering.”

But Arad and Walker were wrong.  In response to more than 1,200 requests from family members, they decided to arrange the names of the the nearly 3,000 victims using an algorithm to create “meaningful adjacencies” based on relationships — proximity at the time of the attacks, as well as company or organization affiliations for those working at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.  The goal was to surround each victim with the names of those they sat with, worked with, those they lived with and, very possibly, those they died with.

The term “meaningful adjacency” has stuck in my head ever since.  The phrase captures what so many of us seek when we consider where we want to be buried. It is natural to derive meaning and comfort from knowing you’ll be laid to rest near loved ones.  Ask my assistant Danielle, who handles purchases for plots at our cemeteries.  The quest for meaningful adjacency is what underlies the conversation of congregants thinking about where to purchase plots: Will it be near parents, spouses, or God forbid, children?  Should one be interred by the side of one’s first spouse or one’s second? Sometimes it’s even about the folks next to whom a person doesn’t want to be buried.  Occasionally we have to deal with the difficult religious question of disinterment.  Though generally frowned upon by Jewish law, under some circumstances it’s permissible to relocate a body, but only when doing so creates a meaningful adjacency that more than offsets the disrespect of disinterment.  Where we “live,” so to speak, after we’ve died is given significance by spending eternity near the folks about whom we most cared in life.

In death we find meaning in the adjacencies of those buried near us.  In life, however, it can go both ways.  In other words, adjacency can foster meaning just as much as meaning creates adjacency.  Our values and priorities can shape our choices of where we live and why, or what we choose to own; but by the same token, our surroundings and possessions can also subtly shape our values and priorities in ways we scarcely notice, but are no less real for the lack of attention they receive.

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Peter Paul Rubens, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1614)

In the Torah, Abraham’s nephew Lot chooses to move his family to the city of Sodom.  He isn’t seduced by their immorality or enticed by their depravity.  Rather, “וַיִּשָּׂא־ל֣וֹט אֶת־עֵינָ֗יו וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־כָּל־כִּכַּ֣ר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן כִּ֥י כֻלָּ֖הּ מַשְׁקֶ֑ה לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ שַׁחֵ֣ת ה’ אֶת־סְדֹם֙ וְאֶת־עֲמֹרָ֔ה — And Lot looked around and saw how well-watered the entire plain of the Jordan was, before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).  For a shepherd it was an ideal locale for pasturage.  Of course, that the bad character of his new neighbors didn’t seem to bother Lot is itself a comment on his character.  But perhaps the most fateful consequence of Lot’s decision to live in Sodom was the environmental impact on his daughters.  After Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for turning to watch Sodom’s destruction, he and his daughters take refuge in a cave . . . where they get their father drunk and sleep with him.  While justifying their incest as a need to repopulate the world in the wake of a destruction they believed to be universal, commentator Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz notes, “This explanation is untenable, seeing they had just left Zoar [a town which had suffered no devastation].  Their conduct does not admit of any extenuation; they were true children of Sodom.”  Children live what they learn; they learn by what they see around them.

In a very different take on the influence of our surroundings, a wealthy man once entreated the ancient sage, Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, to accept a lucrative position as the spiritual leader of a community with no rabbi.  Despite the promise of a 100,000 golden dinarii as well as precious stones and jewels, the rabbi declined the offer, saying, “אִם אַתָּה נוֹתֵן לִי כָּל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב וַאֲבָנִים טוֹבוֹת וּמַרְגָּלִיּוֹת שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם, אֵינִי דָר אֶלָּא בִּמְקוֹם תּוֹרָה — Were you to give me all the money, jewels, and pearls in the entire world, I would only dwell in a place of Torah” (Pirkei Avot 6:9). Rabbi Yose ben Kisma understood the concept of meaningful adjacency, even if unacquainted with the term itself.

In Judaism there is a concept of tumah, which is often translated as “ritual impurity.”  It’s an unfortunate translation, because in English the word “impurity” has a negative connotation, which the Hebrew doesn’t have; tumah is a morally neural term.  One can only become tameh through contact with a source of tumah, such as childbirth, dead bodies, certain species of animals, or various body fluids.  None of the foregoing are “bad”, they’re simply a part of life.  For Jews, cemeteries are sacred places, but they also happen to communicate tumah.  The concept of tumah emphasizes the impact of environment on our spiritual selves.  We are whom we touch, where we live, what we see.

The upper middle class family whose kids are raised in an exclusively white neighborhood attending a largely white private school are likely to grow up so immersed in white privilege as to be unable to see the ways in which it has shaped their existence.  The African American youngster raised in a ghetto neighborhood with failing schools will possess a radically different view of the police, city government, or the public school system.  The youngster who grows up in a trailer park in rural Suwanee County, Florida surrounded by adults who’ve never met a Jew may well have a preconception of Jews influenced by her surroundings.

In this way we are no different than Lot or Rabbi Yose ben Kisma whose lives were shaped by their neighborhoods.  To be sure, there are Jews compelled for one reason or another to live in a place lacking in Jewish life.  If that truly bothers them, however, they will go the extra mile to create a meaningful Jewish existence, and that extra effort may actually add unexpected depth to their Jewish identity (indeed, I know this personally from having lived in Japan for a year).  But if Judaism is important enough to them, they’re also likelier to depart for greener Jewish pastures when time and circumstances permit.

Yet if the absence of Jewish institutions plays little or no role in deciding where to live, it is not only a potential sign of Judaism’s marginal relevance to that person, it is also likely to further erode his or her link with Jewish life.  When a high school senior decides on a college with few Jews and no organized Jewish life, it’s not only evidence of Judaism’s current irrelevance to her but portends greater estrangement from Jewish life because of its absence at a critical moment in her life.  Like a photographic negative, meaningful adjacency also consists of what we choose not to live with, the experiences and opportunities of which we deprive ourselves, whether intentionally or not.


Image result for old pushkesThe concept of meaningful adjacency also finds expression in the objects with which we surround ourselves. More than 25 years ago, Susan and I were visiting the parents of a fellow rabbinical student in Rochester, New York.  Theirs was a well-to-do family and we walked around the house oohing and ahhing their art collection.  On one wall was a Chagall, on another a Rembrandt, on a third was a Picasso . . . these were not reproductions, but the real deal.  When we expressed to my friend’s father how impressed we were by his art collection, he replied, “Yeah, they’re nice, but here, let me show you something really special.”  It was hard to imagine what could possible top the incredible display of art we had just seen.  We followed him into another room and there, in a glass-fronted cabinet was a collection of pushkes, tzedakah boxes from various countries and centuries.  There is no question that the value of the artwork far exceeded the monetary worth of the pushkes, but it was equally clear that this man derived far more meaning from the tzedakah boxes than from the masterworks on his walls.  For him the latter was decoration, but the former a reflection of his own commitment to charitable giving and Jewish life.

Next time you visit Israel it’s worth taking a trip to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev.  It is here that David Ben-Gurion lived after his retirement from politics until his death in 1973.  You can visit Ben Gurion’s house, which is more of a large hut than anything else.  Everything has been left exactly as it was when he died.  If you take a tour of the site, you will quickly see that Ben-Gurion was a man of few pretensions and possessed little appetite for material goods.  You will also see that the one thing he had in incredible abundance was books.  He was a voracious reader in several languages and owned a vast library.  In the objects found in his modest home, you’ll learn a lot about the character of David Ben-Gurion.

And this is true of all of us.  If you died today and a curator were to create an exhibit of your life frozen in time, what would be found in your pockets?  On your nightstand? In your desk or wardrobe?  What payments would your last bank statement reflect, to whom would you have written checks in the last few weeks of your life?  What would your computer’s files contain, and what would they say about your character?

True meaningful adjacency doesn’t come from the person we declare ourselves to be, but from the testimony submitted by our actual surroundings and possessions.  “I am proud of my Jewish heritage,” a person proclaims.  Yet a walk through his home reveals no mezuzah on the door, no Jewish ritual objects or books on the shelves in the family room.  His check stubs and bank statements reveal no charitable giving to Jewish causes; his correspondence indicates he belongs to various civic associations, but not a synagogue.  There is no reason for us to doubt this person’s declaration of Jewish pride, but it is equally undeniable that it possesses no record and leaves no legacy.  To proclaim values for which there is no evidence of having existed is a little like being buried in an unmarked grave.

Image result for fox in the vineyardIn Midrash Kohelet Rabbah there’s a story about a hungry fox who spies a vineyard of luscious grapes.  He squeezes through the fence and greedily eats to his heart’s content, but when he tries to get through the fence, he has become too fat to escape.  To leave the vineyard he has no choice but to fast until he has returned to his original size.  Upon his departure, he stares sadly at the delicious grapes and says, “O vineyard, O vineyard, how good are you and your fruit!  All that is inside you is beautiful, but what benefit can one get from you?  As one enters you, so he comes out, hence Scripture teaches, ‘כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֤ר יָצָא֙ מִבֶּ֣טֶן אִמּ֔וֹ עָר֛וֹם יָשׁ֥וּב לָלֶ֖כֶת כְּשֶׁבָּ֑א  — As one comes out of his mother’s womb so must he depart, naked as he came —  וּמְא֨וּמָה֙ לֹֽא־יִשָּׂ֣א בַֽעֲמָל֔וֹ שֶׁיֹּלֵ֖ךְ בְּיָדֽוֹ — He shall take nothing of his wealth with him’” (Ecclesiastes 5:14).

No, we can’t take it with us.  But that’s just the point.  What we leave behind are all the meaningful adjacencies we’ve created, all the objects and clues which tell the future the truth about our values, beliefs, and relationships.  They may be objects or memories, but they are the actual record in real time of our true identities.

Who are you sitting next to at services today?  Who would you never want to sit with?  Which friends or family have you cut yourself off from, and who are friends your children hang out with?  Where do you spend your time and where do you not?  How do you spend your money?  What books are gathering dust on your shelves and which volumes are threadbare from constant use? If you own a pair of Tefillin do you know where it is, and if so, is it a curio in your closet, worn but a single day in your life?  What apps are on your phone, and what pictures in your wallet?  When was the last time you volunteered to help the needy or came to make a minyan?

Yom Kippur is a day when we realize how our possessions, surroundings, and the way in which we spend our time reveal our relationship to the world.  Do we like what we see?  If we are completely honest, do the furnishings of our lives match what we say is most important to us?

Time is a curator taking inventory of all our adjacencies, both spatial and temporal. In life’s gallery of art, it is the totality of our physical existence which forms the collection we bequeath to others.  Deciding next to whom you’ll be buried, that’s the easy part. The most important meaningful adjacency, however, is the one between life and death. The inevitable proximity of the hereafter and the herenow demands we think about what surrounds us in the present.  Beyond the grave, memories are the only ligaments connecting us to the earthly existence of those who go the way of all flesh.  These ligaments are the sum of all our adjacencies in this world — will the story they tell be meaningful? The decision is  yours.

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