Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Trip of a Lifetime

(Originally appeared in the February 17, 2011 issue of the Temple Israel Voice.)

By the time this column appears in print, I will be in Israel with 39 teenagers, members of our community in 8th through 12th grade. We might be at this very moment praying in the eternal city of Jerusalem, pounding the streets of Tel Aviv, hiking through the Jilaboon stream in the Golan, on top of Masada, or learning about the mandate-era British immigration blockade in Atlit.

To me, however, the high point of this trip is not the touristy stuff, the things that everybody does on their 10-day tour of Israel. Rather, it is the experience that the group will have on the second Shabbat that we are there, when we will be hosted by families that belong to the Masorti (that’s the name of Conservative Judaism outside of North America) synagogue in Ashkelon, a city on the Mediterranean coast. There we will celebrate Shabbat together with teens from the Israeli equivalent of USY, spend time in the homes of our Israeli hosts, and thus experience (if only for a day and a half) something that most visitors to Israel never experience - a slice of Israeli life as peers. This is unique, and our teens will never forget it.

I am reminded of a well-known poem by Jerusalemite Yehuda Amichai (zikhrono livrakha), “Tourists,” in which he identifies the problem with tourism in Israel: that is, seeing the ancient rocks rather than the living, breathing inhabitants

"Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower; I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. 'You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.'

"'But he’s moving, he’s moving!' I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'"

This may, in fact, be the holiest work that I have done as a rabbi. Having visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I know that placing Israel on the radar of a Jewish teen during the key period of one’s identity formation is essential. This trip will help the participants understand Jewish nationhood, our connection as Diaspora Jews to the Jewish state, and the outgrowth of Zionism as the newest branch of Jewish civilization.

But beyond that, there is even more here. As I have stated for the record numerous times in the past year, the continuation of our children’s identification with Jewish institutions after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is crucial. This trip is not only about Israel; it is also about building strongly-identified, Jewishly-knowledgeable adults, who will some day hold the reins of the Jewish community. They will return with new perspectives on Judaism and Jewish life, which will strengthen not only these teens as individuals, but also the Youth House and Temple Israel. And they will not only have dipped in the Dead Sea and cried at the Kotel (the Western Wall); they will have also met the man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.

Many thanks go to the Khorshid Dina Harounian Israel Education Fund and several other donors who made this trip possible.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tetzaveh 5771: Disposable World

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel, Shabbat morning, Feb. 12, 2011.)

This is a sermon that should have been delivered a few weeks ago, around the time of Tu Bishvat. But for various reasons it was not, so here we are. No matter - the message is just as important and applicable.

Actually, I have been working on this an entire year. In most cases, a Shabbat sermon begins for me about 4 days before Shabbat. In this case, I had this idea a year ago, around Tu Bishvat 5770. And I have been working on it steadily ever since, particularly on the visual aid, which we’ll get to in a moment. (I love visual aids!)

Here are a few questions:

When the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, did they take the good china? Did they take the fancy silverware? What did they eat off of in the desert?

Now, if the Exodus were taking place today (leaving aside for a moment the internal turmoil in present-day Egypt), do you think they would have eaten on the run using actual plates and forks and knives (not that matzah cuts that well). No. They would have used plasticware. Disposables.

The parashah that we read today, Parashat Tetzaveh, details the fine materials used for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary or Tabernacle. As would be expected for something that is set aside for holy purposes, it is made out of the highest-quality materials available: gold, finely colored linen cloth, precious and semi-precious stones, fancy-schmancy woods and rocks and animal skins. No polyester, no plastics, no artificial anything.

OK, so that’s funny. There were, of course, no human-made polymers available 3200 years ago, when the Israelites were wandering through the desert. Or, for that matter, most of human history; the first entirely synthetic polymer, known as Bakelite, was developed in 1907.

So here is a fun fact about synthetic polymers, which we usually call plastics: they do not break down in the environment at the rate that natural materials take to break down. Estimates range from 500-1000 years for most plastics.

The entire world produces and uses about 200 million tons of plastic each year. Our American share of that is about 26 million tons, and only about 5% of that amount is recycled. Put another way, 95% of the plastic we use in America eventually ends up in a landfill.

Now, as I have explained in this space before, in the very small town where I grew up in Western Massachusetts, there was no municipal garbage collection. You had to bring your own garbage to the municipal landfill, which everybody referred to as “the dump.” My dad and I used to have fun going to the dump - it was an opportunity to pick over the cast-off pre-owned items of others - and we usually came home with less stuff than we arrived with.

But here’s the salient point: at the dump, we had to personally throw our own garbage onto the current pile. All around us, we could see the landfill personnel managing our whole town’s garbage - pushing it around from place to place with heavy equipment, sorting it, covering it, uncovering it, and so forth.

And it continued that way until some time in the ‘90s when the dump closed, because it was full. There was no more room for anybody’s garbage. The Williamstown Municipal Landfill became the Williamstown Transfer Station, where my father to this day brings his garbage, throws it into a big trailer, when the trailer is full, it gets carted off to somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind.

Americans generate about 250 million tons of garbage every year. That’s nearly a ton of garbage per person, about 4.5 pounds of waste per day for each woman, man, and child. 2 kilograms. By this time tomorrow, all of us in this room together will have produced roughly 2700 pounds of garbage. That’s about the weight of a small car, and it takes up a MUCH bigger volume.

12 percent of that garbage will be plastic. That’s over 300 pounds of synthetic polymers. In one day.

Here’s a mental exercise. Take a moment to think back to every plastic fork you have ever used. At every party, at every inexpensive restaurant, at qiddush here at Temple Israel, at picnics, at benei mitzvah celebrations, etc. Where are those forks now?

Well, in some sense, they are all still with us. Every plastic fork you have ever used is sitting right now, buried in a mound of garbage.

Now we come to the part about the visual aid.

These are all the plastic forks that I used from last Tu Bishvat until this one, three weeks ago. Most of them I used here at Temple Israel (I’m here a lot!), but some I used on airplanes, at weddings, at last year’s second-night Pesah seder, all over the State of Israel, at the Youth House beach day in August, and so on.

I tried to save every single one, although that’s actually quite hard. The inclination to simply throw everything away when you’re done eating off disposables is VERY hard to beat. So I threw away a few. I usually figured it out the moment after, but, rather than risk having somebody see their rabbi picking a dirty fork out of the garbage, I found a way to substitute somebody else’s used fork for mine - my daughter Hannah happily volunteered several. In any case, I used almost all of these forks personally, and probably the number is pretty accurate.

It’s 141 forks, about three per week. And I consciously tried not to use that many, either. But of course, I did throw away the plates, the spoons, the knives, the cups, the napkins, and the leftovers. I suppose that if I could have saved all of that stuff (a nasty thought, it’s true), I would have to have a MUCH bigger bag. And, of course, some day I will have to throw away this bag as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, God has given us this Earth, and we are gradually filling it with garbage. We dig holes in the ground to cast away our disposables, some of which are poisonous. We douse our fruits and vegetables with pesticides and chemical fertilizers that run off into ground water. We are filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon dioxide, while we feverishly chop down trees in the rain forests.

The Torah tells us the following in Parashat Bereshit, the very beginning. When God created the world, and then created human beings, He gave them a task:

Gen. 2:15 (p. 15 in our Humash, Etz Hayyim)

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.

“The Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it.”

We should do more tilling and tending, and less driving, burning, chopping, spraying, and disposing.

Now, I cannot stand up here and tell you never to use plasticware again, because that is clearly ridiculous. During the course of this Shabbat, I have already disposed of a bunch of plastic implements. Even as we speak, the Temple’s staff is laying out forks, knives, spoons, cups, and plates downstairs in the Crystal Ballroom in preparation for the qiddush reception.

And we don’t even have a dishwasher in this building.

But I can suggest the following:


Think a little more about what you consume. Think about the miles you drive, the water you leave running while you brush your teeth, the plastic you throw away, the setting on your thermostat. Think about the fact that our relatively great personal wealth here in America enables us to go about life without thinking seriously about conservation.

But tilling and tending, as God has commanded us, requires careful thought.

Back to Exodus, to today’s Torah reading, Parashat Tetzaveh, in which we read earlier about about the Hoshen Mishpat, the breastplate of decision. This is truly one of the coolest objects described in the Torah, and it was part of the whole priestly-sacrificial cult that was the path through which our ancestors worshipped God. The hoshen mishpat contained a fitting for the Urim and Tummim, two objects which channeled God’s word. If the Kohen Gadol / high priest needed to chat with God, the Urim and Tummim, in some mystical, magical way, made that possible. (Maybe you know that it says “Urim veTummim” on the Yale University coat of arms.)

So if the Urim and Tummim oracle were functioning today, and the subject of the earth came up (perhaps in the context of the discussion of why there are suddenly tornadoes in Great Neck and multiple snowstorms in Oklahoma), I can imagine God telling us the following:

“What on Earth are you doing? Did I not tell you in Bereshit, the book of Genesis, just after I created you, to take care of this planet? Instead, you convert oil into plastic, use it once, and throw it away. Your material goods are disposable, and you treat My Creation - the air, the water, the mineral bounty - as disposable as well. Shame on you for fashioning disposable lives from the eternal things that I have given you.”

Maybe that is what God would say. Regardless, the future depends on our choices today. What may seem inconsequential to each of us individually will have a huge impact when multiplied by 300 million Americans, or indeed 7 billion people around the world. Now is the time to think.

That is a belated Tu Bishvat thought for you. Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 2/10/2011 - The Inner Dialogue

At about 5:30 AM, my 20-month-old son was wide awake, although we were trying not to be.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, he sang a fragment of a song that he knows from the weekly Tot Shabbat service led here at Temple Israel by Morah Ronnie Katz. It was as if we were suddenly let in on whatever was going on in his mind at the moment.

It was to me a reminder that we all have inner dialogues, and that when we approach others for any reason - to request a favor, to ask a question, or merely to chat - we are surely interrupting their inner dialogues. And that applies to people as well as to God.

It is a good principle to remember: during holy moments, or when interacting with others, consider where, emotionally, the other party is before initiating a conversation. And give everybody kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tuesday Morning Kavvanah, 2/8/2011 - At Dawn I Seek You

When I was in cantorial school, I was once tasked with bringing a couple of new cantorial students up to speed on the morning minyan. One of them, after her first morning minyan experience, remarked to me, "What a great way to start the day!"

Dawn is the holiest moment of the day. Quiet and reflective, the arrival of the first light recalls God's first act in the Torah, the separation of darkness and light.

The 11th century Spanish-Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote a brief poem about dawn, Shahar Avaqeshkha, found in Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, p. 103, in which the poet accurately portrays the prayerful sweet spot of the day:

At dawn I seek You, Refuge, Rock sublime;
My morning prayers I offer, and those at evening time.
I tremble in Your awesome presence, contrite,
For my deepest secrets lie stripped before Your sight.

My tongue, what can it say? My heart, what can it do?
What is my strength, what is my spirit too?
But should music be sweet to You in mortal key,
Your praises I will sing so long as breath's in me.

Nearly a millennium later, ibn Gabirol's words still apply.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thursday Morning Kavvanah, 2/3/2011 - Morning Meditation

Jewish prayer covers a wide range of activities: chanting, singing, reading Torah, mumbling, quiet, and each of these serves a different purpose.

On weekday mornings, when there is a lot of material to cover and a whole day in front of us, including trains that do not wait and morning meetings, there are vast swaths of mumbling and quiet. To me, these tracts without singing point to the meditative qualities of prayer. There are times when we need the quiet, the focus, the opportunity to meditate.

Just a few days ago there was an article in the New York Times about meditation that pointed to the health and behavioral benefits that might come from meditation. Of course, the study that it references was dealing with Eastern meditation, rather than Western.

Nonetheless, I know from personal experience that there is much to be gained in those quiet moments of prayer. Join us for our morning meditation (and the singing and chanting as well).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday Morning Kavvanah, 2/2/2011 - The Ice Storm

One of the psalms that we read every morning during Shaharit (the morning service) invokes God's role in the natural world, and the power that God summons through storms:

אֵשׁ וּבָרָד, שֶׁלֶג וְקִיטוֹר; רוּחַ סְעָרָה, עֹשָׂה דְבָרוֹ

Fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind, fulfilling His word. (Psalms 148:8)

Our ancestors were far less removed from nature than we are today; they did not have central heating or effective weatherproofing. They saw the storm as a sign of God's strength.

We see snow and ice and freezing rain as more of a nuisance than anything else. But it might be helpful to let ourselves be occasionally humbled by nature and God. Perhaps this would lead us to respect both more.