There are times I am truly touched. Perhaps what moves me most is seeing the love of a couple who shared a lifetime together, and yet their love is still growing. In some of our members I have seen a love so deep that it is as though the two are one soul. I think of some of our more senior members married for most of their lives who are inseparable. If one was sick or hospitalized, the spouse would never leave their spouse’s bedside. What makes such love flourish? It is a sense of love that surpasses time, but belongs in eternity. Often they have known each other since their youth, gone on to raise families, spent middle-age with each other, gone on to retirement and their most senior years together. They are eternally bound to each other.
When I see such deep love expressed so poignantly especially in old age, I wonder. I wonder what it is that makes love so strong, and what it is that we can share with each other to strengthen our own bonds among families. In that love, I often see a growing love, not one of diminution. Of course at times tragedy has tempered their joy. Of course at times there have been arguments and bickering. Despite all the difficulties, what started out as a magical attraction has turned to the deepest level of friendship and understanding in which the two souls cannot exist without the other.
If I ask such a long-lasting couple their secrets the answers I receive range from: love, to remembering the most important expression, “yes dear.” For everyone the answers must be a little different but what is clear is the commitment never dies, and if anything only strengthens together with the caring they have for each other. I often think back to what a pillar of my former congregation in St. Louis told me after I had blessed him and his wife upon their 50th wedding anniversary. He said marriage is the most difficult job you’ll ever have, and the secret, the secret is to work upon it daily.
Perhaps what seems to the casual observer to be such a blissful union of two souls is really only the result of years of tending the garden of love. What better time of the year than now, today, to nurture our own gardens of family love.
Unfortunately good images seem to stay in our minds for fleeting moments; while negative images are often reproduced and can last generations. For many around the world and in United States the leaders of Alabama have created a few iconic negative ones: Governor Wallace proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Police dogs attacking protesters during the famous march on Selma. We also have outstanding images: our Gulf Shores sugar white beaches, Mercedes made in Alabama, Sweet home Alabama, sung by people around the world, and soon to be Airbus made in Alabama.
One image I don’t quite understand is our political leaders repeatedly focusing upon raiding bingo parlors and other attempts at gambling in Alabama. Judaism’s teaching on gambling is quite clear: if it’s done as simply a game for entertainment it is considered exactly that, entertainment. If it is done as an attempt at a profession, in other words that is the career of the person with no useful production for society it is not okay, but rather wasteful and destructive.
What does all this however say in a utilitarian sense for gaming in the state of Alabama, when we are surrounded by states that allow legal gambling, and use those funds to assist with educational and other state mandated programs? All you have to do is drive to Biloxi, and you will see enough Alabama license plates to make you believe for just a moment you are in downtown Mobile. All you have to do is open the local paper’s entertainment section, and you will see the majority of the largest entertainment ads are not for downtown Mobile, but for the casinos in Biloxi. Clearly citizens of our great state are gambling in Biloxi, and buying lottery tickets in Florida and other states. So it does appear in a utilitarian sense we are negatively affecting revenue that could be flowing into our state to further much-needed causes such as education.
We also must not forget the danger of addiction. Clearly that is a significant problem with gambling, perhaps the most significant. For the addictive personality, gambling can be a terrible vice. This must be gaming’s biggest and extremely serious negative: the many who will take their last dime to a casino with the fervent belief there is hope for a major winning.
Just as the rabbis reluctantly gave in to gambling when not used as a sole form of income, we should have done the same thing to prevent our state from slipping even further down in the ranks in tax funding, often floating off the bottom, when our neighbors opened to gaming. If we can do something to help the education of our students in Alabama, we should do it. Shortsighted planning in years past can lead to long economic declines. Judaism would clearly tell us to keep the big picture in mind: we have a responsibility to help all our citizens: the poor, the needy, the widow, and the fatherless, and the orphan in the largest utilitarian sense. Those are not my words, but rather the words of our greatest prophets 2700 years ago-except the utilitarian part. That has always been our mandate. Now there is even a new twist in state politics: the new plan to take money away from failing schools and allow children to attend private schools with that same money. Clearly this will not benefit the children who will be forced, for various reasons, to remain in those failing schools, now deprived even further of funding. Imagine if Alabama was synonymous with the best public education in the country, and that became our most important iconic image. Just imagine.
I have always liked to think of myself as being rather progressive, open to new experiences and new ideas. However broad-minded I might be, until recently I never paid much attention to the renewed fascination so many have with zombies. The Walking Dead is now one of the most popular TV shows, available also on DVD. The recent first show of the series had a rating of 5.6, which means it handily beat out all other shows broadcast that evening. When one of my kids while on winter break spent a couple of days watching the entire series, I began to think there might be something to it, though my immediate thought was he must be very bored. So I actually sat down and watched, against my natural instincts, a couple of episodes.
It did keep my interest – sort of. Quite a bit of suspense, interspersed with lots of guts and gore, which I could live without but of course we know it’s not real. You would expect that in a zombie show.
So why is there such incredible fascination with zombies? What does it say about our society in general in the year 2013? Maybe we simply need some excitement in our lives, which is actually is not harmful to us personally. Some might enjoy the suspense, and the sense of danger. For others it might be a type of escapism from the real world, which after all isn’t most all entertainment? Perhaps it has a deeper meaning – we are all fearful of death and unsure of what lies beyond this world. Rebirth, reincarnation or the zombie state all speak of our fearful interest in what lies beyond this world.
Maybe what the new zombie craze is really telling us is that society is far from progressing, but in a way turning back to the voyeuristic violent days of the Roman Coliseum. It is like the games without a gladiator’s actual death, but nevertheless still filled with Hollywood violence.
Entertainment for relaxation purposes is not a bad thing. A balanced life has always been a Jewish ideal. So my suggestion is this: along with enjoying your entertainment try to also do something to make this also a better world. It is with the latter I’m sure you will ultimately find far greater meaning.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, together with the Union for Reform Judaism through the wing of the Religious Action Center, are on record for stronger gun control laws. On the Religious Action Center’s website you can find, “It is imperative that President Obama and Congress take action to prevent gun violence, including taking assault weapons off of our streets and improving our system of background checks.” By far the great majority of reform rabbis are in agreement for stronger gun control laws.
I concur with my colleagues in regards to the need to effectively keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. We have all too often seen the tragic consequences of this failure.
There is a danger however in Jews being the leaders in taking all guns from our homes, and Jews complying. This is what happened to my own grandfather in 1938 in Vienna, Austria:
Soon after the Nazis took control of the Vienna, Storm Troopers came to my grandfather’s apartment and searched it for contraband. He owned a pistol, which had been made illegal by the Nazis for Jews to own. This was one of the first laws passed in 1938 when the Nazis occupied Austria. The Storm Troopers, who my father described as being similar to the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s, at first wanted to immediately take my grandfather to a concentration camp. My grandfather, who had great people sense, brought out the schnapps and managed to ingratiate himself with the storm troopers well enough to make them leave for the night without arresting him on the spot. Needless to say, he was able to escape with the rest of his immediate family from Austria. More than thirty other members of my family died in the Holocaust. My point is simply this: we should think very carefully about disarming the Jewish world. Perhaps the Holocaust would have had a different ending if the Jewish community could have effectively protected themselves.
Most parents spend considerable time thoughtfully picking the names of their children. I remember all the hours my wife and I spent debating possible names for each of our three children. We wanted the name to be just right, one we both liked and one which would help them through life. No question there is power and meaning to someone’s name.
In fact in the Hebrew Bible the second book is called in the Hebrew language Shemot, which means names – in English we call it the book of Exodus. It is named after the first verse of the book of Exodus “These are the names of the sons of Israel…”
There is an ancient Jewish legend which teaches the great importance of names. The legend teaches each person has in reality three names: the name that parents give to him or her, one that friends bestow, and the one that God gives to a person at the end of his or her days.
The legend teaches about our character. Some of it is clearly given to us at birth, from heredity. Clearly we are influenced by our environment and our friends. But the name we really make for ourselves is one for which only we are responsible. We are all free agents. The real name we create for ourselves is the one we create by what we do and how we live our lives.
The terrible tornado in Mobile has been a true test of the names we are creating for ourselves. As Rabbi I have personally witnessed many of our members doing extraordinary acts of kindness and dedication on behalf of our historic Springhill Ave. Temple. Similarly many people have already created names for themselves, ones of remarkable generosity. As this New Year begins it is most appropriate for us to ask what is the name we are creating?
What is it like being the rabbi of a congregation that has been damaged over the years of my rabbinate by two hurricanes and now perhaps the worst damage from an EF2 tornado? At first discouraging, but on the other hand déjà vu, and experience dealing with disasters comes to mind. As my wife reminds me I tend to be the cup half empty type, but I am learning to change.
So I must think of our Jewish motifs: Joseph saw seven good years, and seven lean ones, but a better time would eventually come. Moses knew the children of Israel would enter the Promised Land, in time. The prophets though they saw evil, still predicted a better day would yet come. The ancient homeland of the Jewish people has been brought back to life once again. How could I predict anything but a better future, and an even more beautiful congregational building once more? As one of the oldest congregations in the country, going back to 1844, I am confident our future will indeed be better than our past.
My colleague and friend Rabbi Elyse Frishman, being detained by Israeli Police for wearing a Tallit at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel. She is the editor of our Reform Prayer Book, Mishkan T’fillah. This must change!
Following this incident, which occurred just before the last night of Hanukkah 2012, Haartez published an op-ed by Rabbi Frishman recounting her experience. She writes, in part:
We began to move through security. All of us wore our prayer shawls and carried our prayer books. There were rumors: No women permitted to bring prayer books or prayer shawls today! Contrary to rumor, prayer books were permitted – but for the first time, no prayer shawls. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that women could not have prayer shawls today. Security began to confiscate them. Some men walked in with prayer shawls. Most women had theirs removed.
There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a prayer shawl. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…”
We gathered quietly at the rear of the Western Wall to pray. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my prayer shawl, but I’m afraid.”
Two police officers walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the prayer shawl.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.”