Tuesday, November 27, 2012

But Does This Really Answer The Questions

My brother and I spent hours in the back seat of the family car driving through endless deserts on what we called family vacations.  They were actually opportunities for our father to look at ranches he wished he could buy but knew he never could.  In that back seat my brother and I fought, giggled, and played endless rounds of RockPaperScissors without ever questioning the validity of the outcomes.  Here, now, is a possible explanation for the game we so enthusiastically played.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Torah thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Our ancestor Jacob didn't feel much gratitude in the Torah portion that we read on this holiday weekend (Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3).  After he and his mother Rebecca deceived his father Isaac into thinking that Jacob was Esau, and therefore the legitimate recipient of Isaac's spiritual blessing, he was forced to run away to escape Esau's wrath, once his elder brother realized what had occurred.  His mother sent him to her family in Haran, but the sheltered Jacob was on his own, and Haran was more than a day's journey away.  Forced to stop for the night, he took up a stone for a pillow, and had a remarkable dream.  He saw a ladder from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it.  And God stood beside him and offered him reassurance, saying that He would be with Jacob, and protect him, and that the land would be for him and his many descendants.  You would think that Jacob would be grateful for this extraordinary dream and its message.  However, only five verses later, he makes a vow that is really more of a deal with God than a vow, "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father's house - then the Lord shall be my God."  That doesn't seem particularly thankful for what God has promised him, nor particularly trustful.  Or, is Jacob just asking for what he needs - food, clothing and safety - to be able to continue living, and be God's faithful servant?  Jewish prayer sometimes reflects our needs.  The morning prayer, Asher Yatzar, thanks God for the proper operation of our bodies, and acknowledges that without the proper functioning of our organs, we would not be able to stand before God and offer praise.  Psalm 115 reads, "the dead cannot praise the Lord...but we will bless the Lord now and forever".  Knowing the frailty of the human condition, perhaps we feel - rightly or not - that we need to remind God of it when we are feeling particularly vulnerable.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Late Night Conversation With A Drunken Neighbor

There I was walking the dog and there she came staggering toward me.  The dog was sniffing an interesting blade of grass and so my 'run for your life' instincts were put on hold.
"I imagine you've had a different kind of Thanksgiving," she slurred and staggered my way.
Since I had had a different kind of Thanksgiving -- having declared it a day of feeling glum and deprived --  I could only agree with her.
"Yes," I said.
"And we are all so sorry," she careened toward me.
"Oh," said I beginning to wonder if my glumness had oozed beyond my own four walls.
"It must be really hard on you," she continued, beginning to appear oblivious of my presence.
Just then another neighbor staggered into the street.  I began to suspect that my neighborhood was not as  staid and formal and, yes, boring as I had long believed.
"You know," she slurred to the newly arrived to the street scene neighbor, "these people (pointing at me) are having a pretty hard holiday."
Now I was really confused.  So was the man to whom she spoke and whose name I had forgotten.
"Oh?" he said practically mimicking my previous response.
"Yes," she continued now an authority on my misery and my life.  "Her dog has pancreatic cancer."
Stunned, the dog and I both stared at her with wide mouthed amazement.  The man with the forgotten name also looked pretty confused.
She appeared content with her announcement and was beginning to stagger toward what I presumed to be her home although at this point it is doubtless quite obvious I know little about my neighbors -- not nearly as much as they presume to know about me and my life.  However, I felt compelled to correct her misappropriation of information.
"My dog isn't sick," I practically shouted at her.
"What?" she whirled on me.  She seemed to be accusing me of misinforming her.
"My dog isn't sick.  My partner had surgery for pancreatic cancer but we're pretty sure they got it all.  She is, however, recovering from the surgeries to remove the tumor.  I'm sure it was she you had in mind."
"No.  I'm sure I was talking about your dog."
"But he's not sick."
"Well, thank God for small favors," she said and disappeared into the darkness and hopefully toward her home.
Thank God for small favors.
That pretty much sums it all up, anyway.

Recovery Wishes From The Children of Temple Sinai of Glendale

These wishes are sent from Glendale to the Jersey Shore from the children of the religious school of Temple Sinai of Glendale.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Best That You Have

We just sent off 20 boxes of sweaters, jackets, blankets, shoes, childrens' toys and various other items from Southern California to the people of the Jersey Shore, some of whom lost everything they had owned.  The drive was organized by our daughter, who herself was unable to return to her home in Hoboken until yesterday.  People responded in great generosity.  One of our friends here in California e-mailed shipping companies until she found one that would pick up and deliver the boxes at no charge.  The story that touched me most was that one of our donors received the e-mail request for supplies and went to her linen closet to dig out some old blankets.  As she was looking them over, she thought, "Why am I giving these people my worn out old things?"  and went to Target, bought ten new blankets, and donated them instead.

When I told that story to my home health nurse, she said, "That's how it should be.  When we give, we're actually giving to God, and how can you give God any less than your best?"  That led my biblically oriented mind to the story of Cain and Abel.  We are told that Cain, a farmer, brought an offering to God of the fruit of the ground.  Abel, a herdsman, brought the first-born of his flock.  God, giving no explanation, accepts Abel's gift and rejects Cain's.  The classical commentators note that Abel brought the first-born, the best that he had.  Since the text said nothing about the nature of Cain's gift, they assume that it was rejected because he brought, not the best, but the worst of what he had.

Thanks to everyone who gave.  May the people who need these things receive them, and use them well.  May the spirit of giving the best that we have pervade everything that we do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How To Be Happy

Research indicates that we are happiest when we work toward something outside of ourselves.  Or in the words of Albert, when we have a goal.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Didn't They Tell Him To Delete Twice?

I mean, we all send personal emails from our work computers what with the high speed internet where we work and all.  But most of us learn quickly to delete sent messages and received messages twice -- once from the email and once from the deleted folder.  Even then most of us suspect they are never deleted.  But then, most of us don't head the CIA and thus know that in the wrong hands our personal email messages could put an entire nation or even the entire world at risk.  Chances are the most damage my email to my brother saying 'Hey!  Don't know but glad you asked,' is only going to harm me if I sent enough such messages to indicate that I'm spending more time in my own affairs than in the affairs for which I am paid.  And even those benign messages I twice delete.
So I'm just thinking that if I know about twice deleting even more so should that knowledge be front and foremost in the mind of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Thank You To All Who Gave

When my daughter asked for contributions of coats, sweaters or blankets to help those who lost everything to storm Sandy, I made one phone call and posted one item on Facebook.  The contributions received have been, literally, overwhelming.  Thanks to all of you for such amazing generosity.





At least 8 boxes of blankets, coats and sweaters have already been shipped.  Moments after I took this picture four more boxes arrived.  We estimate that we will send twenty-five more boxes to the distribution car wash in New Jersey.
And to those who shipped independently (from Southern California, from Nevada, and from Texas) thank you, thank you, thank you.
Some of the most gut wrenching contributions were of clothes and sweaters for infants and toddlers who, too, lost everything except loving family and generous strangers.

We Remember Our Fallen


Jerry Walker -- the uncle I never met.  He died in the South Pacific at the age of nineteen years.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Finding the Right Mate

This week's Torah portion is Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1-25:16), meaning "the life of Sarah", but it begins with the account of her death.  Abraham goes to Hebron to bargain with Ephron ben Zohar to buy land to bury his wife.  Then, he moves on to the living and goes about the business of finding a wife for his son, Isaac.  Abraham sends Eliezer back to "his country", the place where Abraham's family dwells, and bids him find a wife for Isaac from among their women.

Eliezer does Abraham's bidding, but seemingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of his task, he asks God to send him a sign.  The sign he chooses is that he will go to the local well at evening, when the women draw water, and the woman who offers to draw water for him, and also for his camels, is the right wife for Isaac.  The commentators argue over whether Eliezer is practicing divination, which is forbidden by Jewish law, or if he has simply designed a test of character.  The commentator Malbim speaks for the latter view: "After selecting the most outwardly attractive of the damsels he required to find out more about her inner qualities...this would indicate that she was a hospitable, considerate and unassuming person".   That person was our matriach Rebecca.

Certainly, these characteristics would be important for any potential spouse, but especially so for Isaac, already traumatized by nearly being sacrificed by his father, and deeply grieved by the recent death of his mother.  Isaac, of all people, needed a Rebecca in his life, and of all the patriarchs and matriarchs, they seem the most deeply devoted to one another.  At the end of the story of their meeting we are told "And Isaac brought her unto his mother Sarah's tent, and took Rebecca and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Gen. 24:6).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

It Was The Best Of Me.

It was the worst of me.  That's the way it is in a crisis and that's the way it is in a disaster.  Both bring out the best of who we are and the worst of who we are.  Sometimes the best and the worst come out at the same time.  In the middle of or right after a crisis or a disaster are definitely not optimal times to start self improvement programs.  The best example of this I can think of is from the movie 'Airplane' in which the character played by Lloyd Bridges keeps announcing, "I guess I chose the wrong time to quit...smoking...sniffing glue...etc."  If we were trying to exercise more or cut down on calories those positive life changes probably won't stick during or right after the crisis or the disaster.  The solution?  Cut yourself some slack.  Sometimes realizing that what we are feeling is normal helps.  So here's what's normal during or after a crisis or a disaster:  Fatigue.  Fear.  Grief.  Anxiety.  Bad dreams when sleep is possible but generally problems sleeping.  Depression.  Self medication with many of the substances the Lloyd Bridges character had tried to give up.  Here's what helps:  Talking.  Telling our stories over and over again helps to normalize our experiences.  Normalize a disaster?  No.  Nothing can make the experience normal.  But working the experience into our personal narratives?  Yes.  Talking will help do that.  Talking to others also helps us remember that even when it may seem like it, we are not alone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dealing with the After The Disaster

The east coast keeps getting hit hard by storms and the storm related trauma.  The trauma begins during the storm and continues for long after the Red Cross has packed its bags and gone home.  No one who sees a disaster is untouched by it - even those who never lost electricity, never had to evacuate, and never opened a refrigerator to discover spoiled food.  No one who sees a disaster is untouched by it.  And almost everyone experiences some degree of trauma either as individuals or as entire communities.  Most people pull together and function during and after a disaster but even the highest functioning of those individuals may not be functioning on their usual high level.  Disaster stress and grief reactions are normal responses to an abnormal situation.  And nothing about the storms in New Jersey and New York has been normal nor has the destruction that has changed lives forever.  Those of us so far removed from the damage still think of the east coast as being there.  While the residents of Hoboken or the Jersey Shore or Staten Island or Long Island wrap their lives around their realities the rest of us must wrap our minds around the fact that there is no longer a there there.  That there is gone and yes there will be a new there but not now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Happy Birthday To A Man Who Loved To Vote

My father may or may not have been born on this date a hundred years ago.  He died forty-two years ago at the age of fifty-eight and - were he still alive - would finally be old enough to be dead.  I say this is perhaps his birth date because no one actually remembered the exact day of his birth.  The clearest memory is that there was a bad storm on the day of his birth and counting days back to the storm they (his parents, perhaps, or perhaps his older sister) arrived at this date -- November 6.  It's fitting that this date is election day.  My father believed in the obligation of voting.  For years our little ranch house was the polling place to which a staggering variety of mountain/desert folk came to cast their ballots with pens dipped in ink.  It is also fitting that today is his chosen birthday because his granddaughter is in the middle of a big East Coast storm and looking for a place to vote.
Happy birthday, Ira.  Stay dry, Jesse.



Monday, November 5, 2012

Voting Keeps Us Free

Regardless of who you vote for, vote.  It matters.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Getting Started Again Can Be Hard

And sometimes we act like children.  I'm not sure if that's all bad.  At any rate, inspiration isn't free.