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Archive for August, 2013

Not in Heaven?

300px-kanizsa-triangle.svg-tmThe High Holy Days are coming, and some of the verses we read for Yom Kippur are previewed in this week’s reading: The laws of God are not in the heavens, or across the sea, they are very near to us, in our hearts. 
But how could laws from God not be in heaven?

A fabulous G-dcast cartoon, with music by Eliana Light , animates a famous Talmudic tale. about a court dispute about whether an oven was kosher. One man, Rabbi Eliezar had a special connection to God, but Rabbi Gamliel, Eliezar’s brother in law, disagreed. Miracles from heaven backed up  Eliezar: a tree uprooted, a stream flowed backwards, the building almost crushed!  But another Rabbi, Yehoshua, said: miracles are irrelevant, these are laws for us down here!

Heaven doesn’t need laws, we need them: within our hearts for wholeness, and in the charged up spaces between us for peace and wholeness as a community. But don’t we want deep truth to rule our laws? And why would the Talmud reject divine inspiration and intervention as a pathway to that truth? I’m not sure, perhaps because  we could run into the quicksand of zealots who are misguided or devious, and it’s too hard for us to tell the difference! So, we must figure it out logically and by engaging with dialogue with one another; outside miracles are no fair!  

And yet ideologues in government continue to refuse to engage with the other side, thinking their answer is in heaven.  But don’t we want those who stand up for principles? Yup, but it can’t only be in heaven, when we live it down here on earth.

This week, of course, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.  Was Martin an ideologue? Well, he said famously the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, and referenced a day when righteousness will flow like a mighty stream, and saw himself, like Moses as one who would not get to the promised land. But he put himself out there in dialogue with many, including many Jews who marched with him and helped craft Civil Rights amendment. He stretched out his neck and engaged  at risk of his life. He taught us about first steps, and crawling toward a dream if you cannot fly. I offer this link to David Berger’s Martin’s Dream sung by Zamir Chorale of New York



Chimeras were ancient legendary mixed creatures. I think it’s such a powerful image for me because I imagine being a  chimera of all the influences that motivate me, including music, and science and Torah. How about you?Chimera_(PSF)

But here’s the thing: chimeras are real, legend no more. I am engaged in a conference in Genetics this week run by the DNA learning center (Cold Spring Harbor labs). It’s been 30 years since grad school, and I really needed this update in biotech and newer revelations. Science is cold hard facts, right? Not so much! This conference reinforces for me what I know: Its brilliant deductions, philosophy and insights  can blast minds open to layers of reality that were previously invisible. These insights relate to our health, our sustainability, they can predict problems, or solutions, can be tools or weapons. Perhaps it is scientists who are most like the Levites in this week’s Torah reading who proclaimed on mountaintops the amazing blessings if the Israelites did the right thing, and horrific curses if they didn’t. The blessings and curses of this portion capture me, they are the stuff of our dreams and nightmares, and everywhere in this world there are people suffering simultaneously with those joyful.  Our world is a mix, a little like a chimera.

And that brings us to modern genetics. With its tools, we are creating chimeras, mixes of creatures’ genes that have never existed before. With these chimeras, genetically modified bacteria make human insulin, sheep make cystic fibrosis treatments in their milk, pigs grow organs for human transplant (potentially), cats glow with a jellyfish protein (as a tag to see if they’ve taken up the HIV fighting gene). It’s amazing! glowing-cat

But scientists warn us that danger is lurking.  The  instructor, Bruce Nash, of Cold Spring Harbor, a brilliant and funny guy, an inspired educator, is studying bee genomes, because we’re in real danger of losing the creatures that pollinate our food to the ravages of pestiicides. We have no alternatives to honey bees, and they’re dying. Many Genetically Modified organisms are developed to clean up pollution, which is best avoided in the first place. In this week’s labs we worked on DNA barcoding plants in a vanishing habitat. Species are being lost at a rate unrivaled since the time of the great dinosaur extinction, 1/3 of all life forms are threatened, which impoverishes and threatens us!  Bruce keeps saying these techniques are powerful, and they are, but I feel that few people are paying attention, too busy with their narrow paths.

Be quiet and listen! screams Moses to the Israelites.  Too much noise seems to be drowning out important messages. Science gives us amazingly powerful tools and advice. How do deal with them. Perhaps with humility and open ears as Moses and the Levites suggest, can help us bring more blessings to this complex and beautiful, dangerous, tortured, inspiring world.  It’s a chimera.

In Praise of Memories, History.


Of all the moments you’ve experienced, which ones are emblazoned in your memory? I am afraid of heights, and I screwed up enough courage to ride on the ferris wheel in Coney Island one day when I was ten or eleven, and it got stuck, with me on the very top. I was scared! I remembered the glint of the sun on the sea, and the sway of the car – I’ll never forget.  As Rosh Hashanah draws close, it is my Grandparents whose memory looms large in my life as I spent the holiday with them: the odors of holiday meals,  the scratchy feel of Grandpa’s clothes & talit as I sat with him to hear the sound of the shofar, the warmth of their smiles and embraces.

History is memory writ large. My daughter has recently graduated as a History major.  In particular, she has taken the tragic history of America’s native people to heart, and is impassioned to show people their story, and to expand that to awareness of all who are trodden.  History and memories are a strongly valued in Jewish tradition, I would even go so far to say we don’t exist as a people without them. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE! advises Rafiki to Simba (from Passover post )

This week’s Torah portion ends with an injunction to REMEMBER the scoundrels Amalek, who attacked us from the rear in wanderings through the wilderness, attacking the most vulnerable among us.  And we are paradoxically told to blot out their memory. Perhaps we should forgive, but never forget. This has become the mantra of how so many deal with Holocaust history. But what is it me must blot out about Amalek?  Perhaps this: shame on us for letting them straggle behind, rather than embracing the elderly, the children!  The uncaring behavior of ours is what we needed to blot out.  Memories are not blank, they come with emotions and lessons – as my daughter’s history scholarship shows.

We don’t exist as individuals, as souls, without memories either.  Physically, the people we used to be no longer exist! The molecules that make you up come from the surroundings: the air you breathe, and the materials you eat and drink. You are completely rebuilt after about three years, made of molecules that, guaranteed, were once part of dinosaurs, of Leonardo daVinci, of Shakespeare.  The surface of your skin, even on the oldest person, is completely replaced and new every six or seven weeks. Each new day we are reborn, according to the morning blessings.  The ONLY thing that gives us an identity through time, that says I’m the same soul as I was a year or a decade or a half century ago, that tells me who I am, are the ideas and images our memories stitch together as a continuum.

Do you remember the musical Cats?  The song Memories is about Grisabella, the glamour cat, who lives in the memory of her younger self.  What makes it so poignant is how true it is for some. Further, how many of those family and friends we’ve lost to death continue to inform our lives today? Their memories are powerful for us.

Of course, for many the heartbreak is that Alzheimer’s disease,  erases what is so crucial. It is the long term memories that tell us who we are do persists the longest for patients. Ironically it is the loss of memory that drives home just how crazy important it is.

This incredible poem is by Alden Solovy is an ode to the value of History and Memory


History is sacred,
Memory is holy,
Time is a blessing,
Truth is a lantern.

Source of sacred moments,
Creator of time and space,
Teacher, healer and guide:
Thank you for the gift of memory,
The gift that allows us to see beyond the present,
The gift that allows us to remember our past,
And to remember our lives.

Thank you for the gift of vision,
The gift that allows us to imagine the future,
The gift that allows us to learn and to teach
The lessons of the ages,
The lessons of millennia,
So that we may heal ourselves and the world.

Eternal G-d,
Thank you for the gift of history,
The gift of ancient moments and modern tales.
Grant us the wisdom and understanding to see history in the light of truth,
To trust the enduring power of memory to guide us from generation to generation.

Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

As the passing days bring us closer the Days of Awe, it is our memories that come front and center: memories of absent family members, memories of the deeds and mistakes of the past months, memories of last year’s resolutions, of past Holidays. They all converge to a sacred point in time. Awesome!

Justice, Justice


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg displays the Biblical quote “Justice, Justice you will pursue”. . The classic question “why the repetition of the word Justice?” is often answered by understanding the various aspects of justice. In Kaballah, the two aspects Chesed & G’vurah, which are Loving kindness and strength,  show the two complementary aspects that are the puzzle pieces of righteousness, justice.

But consider this: perhaps Justice is repeated for the same reason we repeat a lyric in a song. So that the second time can be in a different dynamic or in harmony. I Imagine that the first singing can harmonized in a major chord, the second in minor. Perhaps the first singing can be whispered, the second shouted! Only together as a community can justice, or righteousness even exist. Only with many voices, only when the truth can be verified by more than one witness (also in this Torah portion), and with a jury of many. Only in harmony.   Consider this quote from Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice, who speaks about justice verses mercy  arguing with the Jewish lawyer, Shylock.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
….Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

Wow! Do you see the conflicts? Is mercy the opposite of justice? No, Torah repeats justice to show that mercy is the partner of punishment. Also, William says the quality of mercy falls like rain, but Deuteronomy says we must pursue justice! Justice is not easy, neither is the half we call mercy: wanting vengeance might be easier. I heard recently an interview of a man who was convicted to life in prison through faulty hair evidence.  The conviction was voided and another man (a prosecution witness) was later convicted. This is not an isolated case, hair cannot be “matched” as an identification, regardless of what Quincy ME says!  check out page 2 of: . There now is a non profit called the Innocence project which pursues wrongful confictions based on faulty DNA evidence   Clearly justice, including mercy sometimes doesn’t fall as the gentle rain from heaven (sorry, Will) QUINCY M.E-900x900

I then notice the “twice blessed” parallels the use of justice twice: cool!  Finally,  the reputation of the Jew is (unfairly),  squarely in the court of punishing, strong justice.    Mercy is not separate from Justice, but at its very heart. It is the path to harmony and community.

One other observation: we don’t call a person sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court a judge, we call her a Justice: repeat nine times.

For a modern musical setting, check out Eric Komar’s Justice, Justice, song seven on the Jukebox at

Too many hungry families sleeping on the street.  Too many addicts trying to get back on their feet.. Justice, justice shall you follow, Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof!

Happy Elul!

Choose! or Not?

The sense to focus on this week is vision. “See that I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse” are the opening words of “Re-eh” meaning vision/ see. These words powerfully appealed to me many years ago, because they validated my own independence to choose in life, and the possibility that choosing life and blessing are within my grasp!
The song, “Liv’racha” by Mah Tovu conveys drama surrounding the choice. To listen:
But how much steering of our own life’s ships do we have considering how powerful outside forces  and circumstances that influence us are? We did not choose to be born into the time, family, circumstances that we were. Are there certain dispositions determined by our genetics and our upbringing that limit our choices? Fairly new in genetics is a third influence, epigenetics:, from fetal existence on, chemicals in our environment determine gene expression for decades to come. Certainly not choices we have made.  Classical physics of the 1800s was convinced that if they were able to plot the location and velocity of each particle, they could predict the future: there would be no choice at all, due to unwavering laws of nature.  This parallels a traditional religious belief that all is pre-known and pre-determined.

But then came Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: that one cannot measure location and velocity, that observation would actually change one or the other.  You can check out uncertainty in this Minute Physics short: , Quantum physics further uncovered a world where particles could pop in and out of existence. Uncertainty itself is part of the fabric of existence.  So if uncertainty is back, choice then again looms large. And we do make choices: career, friends, address, whether to risk tangling with life’s dangers….

A midrash  speaks of choices that go against our nature. In a world gone completely violent there was a single earthling that still walked with God. Commanded to build the ark, Noah did, and soon animals were converging upon this righteous family bringing all manner of headaches in their wake the likes of which had never been encountered before. The lion roared I’m famished and began to crouch and stalk other animals. In true Dr. Doolittle fashion, Noah understood and approached the beast. Sir, if you’re going for a ride on my boat, I must ask you not to hunt the other passengers,  pleaded Noah.  Not hunt?!? But it is my very nature to! cried the lioness.  I am asking you to do it anyway so we can make it through this journey together, explained Noah, and when we make it out alive, I will let it be known to the world how regal your species is, true royalty among the animals. And so the lion and lioness agreed not to hunt for the rest of the journey. Just then Noah’s son Shem came running up to his dad as the whole boat began to thump and shake.. It’s the elephants, Shem spurted out, all out of breath, they’re stomping and dancing to the music. They’re going to capsize us all!  So Noah ran to speak to the elephants, urging them not to dance for the duration of the journey.  Not dance!?! But it is in our very nature to dance! trumpeted the elephants.  But when Noah promised to tell all of the elephants’ wisdom and memory, the elephants promised not to dance for the duration.  And so the monkeys promised not to steal, and the mosquitoes not to bite, and the snakes not to strike, each making a choice for mutual survival, but only for the rest of the journey. (adapted from R. Ed Feinstein) Now, lest you laugh, thinking it is impossible for a beast to make choices to defy it’s nature, it is what the human animal sometimes does, and is perhaps one feature that elevates us, making us creatures in Divine image. Jane Goodall uncovered those war-like, savage elements of chimpanzee nature that so mirror our own worst behavior. She considered despair, until an insight, that unlike chimps, we can choose ways beyond such pieces of our makeup. (Reason for Hope, Jane Goodall)

But still unanswered: can Divine knowledge and free choice still co-exist? For me, an answer in  a beautiful story by Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi. This is an adaptation of a piece of that story.  Reb Chayim returned home from a journey on a river in a row boat with his teacher, Reb Nachum. He explained to his wife Tzillah that in navigating the rapids, pools and falls, Reb Nachum was teaching them the answer to the question which had so troubled them all: how can divine providence and free will co-exist? Now, Tzillah was an artisan, with a brilliant eye and hand for weaving. Come with me to my weaving shack, my husband, and I can answer that question without getting you soaking wet!.  So Reb Chayim followed. There she showed him the Torah cover she had been commissioned to weave, still in the loom. She then took the shuttle with a purple thread and sent it across the loom The warp also had various colors, and it was always important to check these.  She then showed him a similar and completed work in which she’d embroidered beautiful symbols with gold thread.  She explained that the warp was carefully prepared, stretched and threaded to prepare the loom, and once this foundation was laid, it was her choice to select, not only the colors for the weft, but how much energy and care would be put in, and attention to complementing the colors of the warp.  Don’t you see? she exclaimed, the Divine presence is like the warp? It is for us to choose which threads we put into the shuttle with which God weaves the tapestry.  What we add is our love, intention and care.” 

After a long sigh of insight, Reb Chayim composed this hymn for Yom Kippur:

As tapestry is formed, thread by thread, and colof is to texture wed,

Our life is woven on Your loom, we yield to You, save us from doom.


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