Posts Tagged ‘chanukah’

I Have a Dream!

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

During the month of Kislev the Jewish People celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, a brave troop of warriors that vanquished the mighty Syrian-Greeks.  For millennia, as winter sweeps the Northern Hemisphere and the days grow shorter, the eight days of Chanukah salute those who keep the dream of freedom and justice alive in spite of overwhelming odds.  Interestingly, the Torah portions that we read at this time of the year also highlight dreamers; we learn about the visions of our Patriarch Jacob and his son Joseph, followed by Pharaoh’s butler and baker and then Pharaoh himself.  Clearly this resounding theme of the power of dreams, of hope amidst darkness, serves to lift our spirits and remind us that “not by might but by spirit” shall we all live in peace.

Jacob and Joseph’s dreams signify turning points in their lives that lead to profound transformation. Jacob’s first dream is the famous ladder stretching to heaven, revealing for our patriarch the inner workings of God’s glorious realms. His second dream, twenty years later, is of spotted and speckled sheep, in other words, of cash flow. Lavan, Jacob’s father-in-law, had nearly derailed Jacob’s mission of serving as the leader of the eternal force that would become the Jewish People. Jacob’s transformation crystallizes only when he realizes it’s time to extricate himself from material concerns and return to the Holy Land. He wrestles the angel and receives the name Yisrael, to show that he has regained his mission of leadership and dedication to a lifetime of spiritual struggle with his Creator and mankind.

Joseph’s dreams demonstrate that he is self-absorbed and perhaps too aware of his external beauty, having been spoiled by the attention lavished upon him by his doting parents. He not only dreams that he is being bowed down to, but he enthusiastically shares those visions with those who would do the bowing. Soon disaster strikes in the form of near murder at the hands of his “brothers,” being sold into slavery, temptation, imprisonment and abandonment. Joseph’s transformation from narcissist to altruist can be observed when he manages to notice the forlorn expressions of his fellow prisoners one particular day. Chances are that no one was jumping for joy in the Pharaoh’s dungeons. But Joseph is sensitive enough to perceive the change in demeanor on the faces of the butler and baker, and by attempting to come to their aid by interpreting their dreams, sets the forces of redemption in motion. Jacob/Yisrael recaptures the mantle of the ephemeral during his exile and Joseph’s development of altruism in his exile sets the stage for the formation of the Jewish People in Egypt and their miraculous exodus.

Our biblical heroes have passed on to their progeny a legacy of rallying against apathy in the face of human suffering.  In concert, I typically introduce my Unbreakable Soul song by asking the audience a question.  Everyone knows from the Passover story that God redeemed the Jewish People from slavery with an outstretched arm. But why would our loving God also orchestrate the events to send the Jews into slavery in the first place? What aspect of enduring torture, bondage and infanticide was necessary in the formation of this diminutive, eternal people?  I maintain that Jewish survival requires toughness and fortitude, an indefatigable resolve to stick together and stand for truth and freedom. Also, embedded in the recesses of our spiritual DNA is the quality of always looking out for those less fortunate. For a previously enslaved people, the concept of bondage is so odious that we must stand against any injustice inflicted on anynation. No wonder we have deeply offended fascists like Stalin and Hitler.

The Jews are history’s canary in the coalmine, serving as the first warning of the nefarious plots of despots and tyrants. We are a global, spiritual tsunami warning system, spread out by our Creator to the four corners of the earth to warn, teach and uplift our neighbors. I find it refreshing to see the current phenomenon of Righteous Gentiles taking a stand to protect Israel from her enemies. I believe the civilized world is waking up to fact that those who bless Israel are blessed and vice versa, that the enemies of the Jewish People are the enemies of freedom. Thankfully we Jews can look back on the great issues of history and find that we have stood on the side of peace and truth, and it is this time of year that we feel a sense of victory not only in the plight of the Maccabees and the restoration of our Temple, but in the continued victory over evil. This powerful theme of the month of Kislev is also loudly echoing in my personal life.

I am in the midst of the busiest quarter in my career. A mind-blowing thirty cities in a row where I have offered performances, workshops and Shabbatons for the full array of denominations and age groups. Somehow my voice is holding up, thank God, and my spirit just gets more energized with each new adventure.  I now realize what being a “textbook extrovert” really means: I feel tremendous joy when I’m with other people.  The bigger the group, the better, and it just keeps accelerating through the years.  One of the highlights of my recent journey was a week in the Southern US where I visited Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville and Chattanooga. This eight-day joyride in the welcoming arms of Southern hospitality gave me a insider’s glimpse into a region where one still sees Confederate flags aloft.

The musical and racial melting pot of New Orleans has always captured my imagination. In the streets of this classic city the ubiquitous musicians seem to handle any genre of music and defy barriers of race, religion or income bracket.  One is judged simply on the basis of soul: how deep and skillful are the notes that emanate from his or her instrument and how warm is the vibe when the musician is off stage.  I spent several nights wandering Frenchmen Street listening to the sweet expressions of countless bands and didn’t hear a bad player in the bunch.  New Orleans is a place where music lovers gather from all corners of the earth to dine on its unique cuisine and ingest its inimitable sounds. The concept of have and have-nots is blurred when it’s evident that the underfed, impoverished players on the stage are the city’s true royalty. That said, most of the patrons are White and most musicians are Black. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed a deeply scarred city divided on racial lines. I had the privilege of performing for the victims who were living in warehouses immediately after the flooding…and nearly all of those that had to rely on the massive public rescue effort were African American.

I arrived in Birmingham to find a city still grappling with the stain of segregation. I suppose that it’s apropos that the Museum of Civil Rights is locatedin this town that was so notoriously divided throughout the sixties. After my jubilant concert at Temple Emanu-El I wandered the downtown area with some local friends where we saw many disoriented Black homeless men wandering the streets. As unwise as it might have been to break out my wallet, I couldn’t help but offer a few bucks to whomever asked.  Needless to say, I was very popular. My friends then took me to a new concert venue to audition a fantastic Pink Floyd-style band, Washed Out, who jammed at top volume to a standing-room-only crowd.  Here the White youth of the city swayed in unison to the deep groove enhanced by a tantalizing light show. Old habits die hard in Alabama, and it’s not just the old guard that reminisces about the glory days: while relaxing in a local coffee emporium I read how the University of Alabama legendary Greek system remains entirely segregated.

One of the most outspoken proponents against injustice in modern times was Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked tirelessly in Birmingham by the side of local organizer Fred Shuttlesworth. I have always felt a connection with Dr. King and have marveled at his eloquence and passion.  I take great pride in the fact that my parents opted to name their third son John Martin Glaser in memory of this powerful leader.  Growing up in Brentwood, CA we were surrounded by neighbors with all the snobbery and WASP-y attitudes typical in pricey suburbs.  Somehow we weren’t privy to any of that foolishness. Thankfully our folks raised us colorblind and comfortable with friends from all strata of society.  Our family’s only prerequisites for our peer group were innate goodness, a sense of humor and zest for life.  I remember feeling fearful of leaders like Malcolm X but wishing I could hug Dr. King who “looked forward to the time when Blacks and Whites would sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

The following day I ventured with my friends to the Museum of Civil Rights which is situated adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church that had been blown up at the height of the tension in the sixties. This elegantly designed facility reminded me of LA’s Museum of Tolerance in its clever use of multimedia to tell a story and create a sense of emotional catharsis.  We wound through the maze of exhibits, gaining an understanding of the difficulties that the region faced when it had to transition from a reliance on slave labor after the Civil War. Blacks may have been freed from the shackles of slavery but they faced a resentful and pugilistic society that would spare no energy or expense to keep them in the underclass.  This scourge of our nation’s past seems so unthinkable today and I marvel that imposed segregation was still happening within my lifetime.  Finally, with Dr. King’s efforts to organize the masses of African Americans in non-violent protest, the tables turned on the supremacists and eventually the antics of the racist mayor and governor were exposed to a nation no longer able to stand idly by.

The museum’s ingenious floor plan led us inexorably into a darkened chamber where the singular visual was a large screen with Martin Luther King delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.  I was moved to tears by the reverend’s biblically inspired preaching.  I’m certain that this event was a modern day Maccabee moment as the unarmed minority managed to topple the entrenched establishment. I am so proud that our Jewish leaders stood by Dr. King’s side during this campaign and feel that the Jewish presence deserved more mention in the museum’s displays. Hopefully our efforts to uphold civil rights will be noted in the eyes of young African Americans when they investigate this painful chapter in their history.

Furthering this personal reawakening of the scourge of slavery is my friendship with fellow music aficionado Rob Steinberg, with whom I stayed while in New Orleans. He is one of the stars of the new motion picture, “12 Years a Slave,” and was in between press junkets and premiers during my visit. His character is the one to set in motion the freeing of the protagonist from being kidnapped and enslaved.  This jarring film is perhaps the most graphic representation of the brutality of American slavery to date. Another New Orleans connection I recently discovered is the fact that Louie Armstrong’s job as a young man was hauling junk for my Karnofsky relatives. The great Satchmo wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life as a tribute to the family that gave him love and guidance and taught him “how to live with real life and determination.”

Over the course of the past few months I have had the opportunity to visit the ancestral homes of three of our past presidents and founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Southwest Virginia, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville and Washington’s Mt Vernon near Washington DC. These great leaders that set the course for our bold experiment in democracy were all slave owners.  Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime and only emancipated a few of them.  The stark difference between the bourgeois mansions and the harsh slave quarters was shocking. The presidential families were buried in elegant crypts whereas the slaves were scattered in unmarked graves. Appropriately, each the tour-guide through these beautifully maintained historical treasures was an eloquent African American. Who better should tell the story of the exploits of these brave and brilliant patriarchs of liberty while clarifying the dilemma of slave ownership?  I’m proud to live in a country that continuously struggles to take the high road, one that spreads values of liberty and justice throughout the world in spite of the cost of blood and treasure.

Chanukah is a time for Jews to celebrate a three thousand year journey from oppression to freedom. I think that this year’s once-in-a-lifetime connection with Thanksgiving requires that we expand our celebration with all humanity. The essence of Chanukah is a dichotomy: it represents the fight against assimilation into our host culture so that our heritage can remain distinct but it also carries our universal message of freedom for all.  How can we influence the world if we disappear?  If only all nations had the chance to witness the streets of urban Israel to see Jews of all colors working together to build up our Promised Land. Our Jewish light, the light that our prophet forecast will illuminate the entire world, shines ever more brightly when we unify as a people to stand against ignorance, racism, injustice, genocide. I’m grateful both for the guidance of our biblical heroes and our living examples of tolerance and courage today. How incredible to know as I was visiting the monuments and museums in Washington DC this week that just down the street an African American leads our proud country.

As I prepare to gorge myself on generous helpings of my mother’s latkes and turkey, I’d like to conclude by offering my personal thanks to my parents for creating the paradigm of openness to all peoples for their four boys to emulate. My father employed the full rainbow of races among the personnel in his garment business, at all echelons of the corporate hierarchy. My mom brought home guests of all stripes and shared the full spectrum of music such that I had the merit of being influenced by jazz, Motown, rock, soul, classical and gospel.  Our family road trips were accompanied by Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, War and Tower of Power, our family seders concluded with Negro spirituals.  It is my hope to continue the work of my parents and grandparents to make this world a better place to live for all peoples, to realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a “day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”

The Reform Biennial: The Good, the Bad and the Plenary

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

 by Sam Glaser

 I am writing this newsletter on the road during my 2011 Chanukah tour. It is as varied an itinerary as can be imagined in the Jewish world; a whirlwind of performing for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, religious and day schools and a retirement home. This is my eighteenth Chanukah on the road, a time that is often difficult since I am gone for weeks rather than my typical every-other-weekend schedule, but is also the period when I relish in the joy of having so much time to interact with out-of-town friends old and new and reflect on the year gone by.

I began this adventure at the new Gaylord National Convention Center, a mega hotel complex just south of Washington DC that easily housed the 6000 delegates of the Reform Biennial. I have performed at several of these events but this one felt special. It ran like a well-oiled machine with a record number of participants and myriad opportunities for study, conducting the business of the movement and power-schmoozing. An impressive list of my musical peers was on hand to add a creative touch to the proceedings and a well stocked exhibit hall of Judaica from around the world was a shopper’s delight. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being embraced by the membership and clergy of synagogues where I have performed over the years.

 There were two highlights of the conference for me. One was the climax of Craig Taubman’s standing-room-only concert when he invited me to the stage to sing a spiritual version Maoz Tzur. It takes a big man to open up a very tight set list to let another artist share the spotlight. For me, it was a moment of redemption. My own concert earlier that day was scheduled during a plethora of breakout sessions and so the numbers in the audience were limited. I have a suspicion that those individuals that program the concert slots aren’t quite sure what to make of their frum, tzitzit-wearing friend Sam, in spite of the fact that most of my shows on my annual 50 city tours are in non-Orthodox synagogues. That day happened to be my birthday, and I was questioning the wisdom of accepting the invitation to attend in the first place rather than celebrating with my family. Having the chance to share in the intense spirit of a packed house for a show unopposed by other programming gave me and hopefully the audience a powerful high. I’m grateful to Craig for this gift.

 The other highlight was a pair of late night jams. I had just finished a midnight hour and a half kumzitz where I led a continuous medley of all tunes Jewish, Beatles and Broadway. With little strength left after such a long day I wandered through the lobby on the way back to my room. There I saw a group of the new wave of immensely talented young Jewish musicians who had just been kicked out of the lobby bar after last call. We started singing and were asked to find somewhere else to make noise. I dragged them back to the stage where the other kumzitz had just ended and we began another few hours of going around the circle sharing new musical creations with one another. Every musician had either a keyboard, guitar or percussion in hand and lent their voices to one another’s songs. The collaboration was organic and the support and love for one another was palpable. I must say I have renewed hope that in spite of the economics of downloads, loss of our distributors and financially ravaged synagogues, there is a HUGE future in Jewish music.

Plenary sessions can be inspiring or a grind. Imagine attending two three-hour banquets per day but you don’t even get the tepid chicken dinner. These were the programs where Obama, Eric Cantor, Ehud Barak and Natan Sharansky held court. I’ve been to enough Biennials and GA conferences to predict the exact script of each of these speeches. The politicians impress the audience with teleprompter readings of exactly what the constituent population wants to hear, pausing at preset moments for applause and standing ovations, posing for the photo with the movement leaders and then running to the waiting helicopter. Yes, it’s exciting to be in the room with the political giants of our day. But the succession of humorless soundbites leaves one wishing for a left turn, a bit of levity, a novel idea. The rest of the plenary sessions were chock full of congratulations for incoming or outgoing movement executives, showcasing programming and waiting for videos that usually didn’t work. No one was forcing me to be there. I attended the plenaries because I deeply want to see innovations, to be inspired, to feel hopeful for this largest movement on the American Jewish scene.

 A few things really got my goat. Over the days of the conference I heard many times references to the Reform’s iconic principle of “informed choice.” Informed choice requires that the chooser have all the possibilities at his or her disposal. It also requires a Jewishly educated laity. Real pluralism tolerates and engages all aspects of the spectrum of the Jewish people. Instead, I found many speakers to be defensive, taking a stand against tradition and using the word Reform to excess. In other words, rather than just say, I’m a Jew, the phrase continuously repeated was, “since I’m a Reform Jew,” “as Reform Jews we…” or, “I am proud to be a Reform Jew.” Jewish pride is great, but in many cases the speakers missed the chance to bring the conference a feeling of belonging to the greater whole of our glorious people.

 This idea of pluralism also must take into account the presence of Reform Jews with right wing leanings. I heard closet conservatives whispering amongst themselves in fear of political backlash. The AIPAC meet and greet was nearly empty in spite of the free cocktails. Applause for Republican Congressman Eric Cantor was guarded. Discouraging words are seldom heard in the interest of political correctness. Where is the famous Reform openness and tolerance here?

 While I’m venting, the basic food groups of the Jewish menu such as tefillin, respect for the laws of Shabbat or kashrut were absent. I asked if there were any provisions for kosher meals and the few provided had been sold out in advance. No kosher deli booth among the multitude of dining options, nothing with a hechsher for the many exhibitors, visitors and attendees who might appreciate such a concession. I lived on store bought bagels and salad for the duration of the conference. Attendees had to reach into their wallets over the course of Shabbat and cell phones were plentiful. I heard lots of calls for outreach…what would it hurt to have some outreach towards those on the traditional end of the spectrum?

 I know some of my readers are thinking: “you idiot! If you don’t like it, go to the Chabad convention next time.” But that’s missing the point.   I have seen in my short career the “running for the exit” of my generation. The URJ youth director informed me that 80% of Reform kids leave Judaism after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Gone. For good. Only 15% of those that identify as Reform Jews report any involvement at all in Jewish organizational life. More than half say they have not attended a synagogue within the past year and cannot read Hebrew. Ours is a generation that needs the power of a living Torah and the skeletal support system of mitzvot on which to hang the flesh of our spiritual lives. If it works for Orthodoxy throughout the millennia, there must be something to it. A strong Reform Judaism that has a grasp of these crucial fundamentals and includes them in the wealth of Jewish choices offered will be a movement that will attract American youth.   My friends, this isn’t Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox. Any failure of the Reform movement is the failure of Judaism.

 I was brought up in the Reform/Conservative realm and can attest to the fact that there is a way to ensure vibrant Judaism in the present and continuity in the future. Reform Jews are amongst the most dynamic, forward thinking, innovative and challenging of our people. They have the civic passion of Avraham while Orthodox Jews have the stringency of Yitzchak. Now is the time to come together in balance like Yaakov, with vibrant education, great music, and a love rather than fear of tradition. I know personally the power of Reform camping, prayer, social justice. I sang into the night with the new generation of teens and twenty-something leaders, educators and musicians. What’s done is done…but let’s get this new generation hip to mitzvot, giving them tools to have a full Shabbat every week, rejoice in the power of the holidays, to see that tefillin are cool and that opting for “pork sliders” and shrimp sushi is opting out.

 The departing leader of the movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, gave a fascinating presidential sermon on Shabbat. His daughter has become a Modern Orthodox Jew. He said the following:

 “When I look at Adina, I see someone who has put God and Torah at the center of her life. In her high school days, she would often challenge me. Judaism is of transcendent importance or it is not, she would say. And if you don’t believe in your gut that Judaism matters to an existing God, why bother?…Do I regret her religious choices? Absolutely not. She has chosen a path that I would not choose, but it is a worthy path. We continue our discussions, which are both vigorous and loving. And every time we do so, I think about the need to respect religious approaches other than my own. This is a subject on which I need reminding, from time to time. I am a combative person; I see myself as a defender of Reform Judaism; I am quick to offer a fierce defense of my liberal principles. But sitting across from my daughter and knowing the thoughtfulness of her convictions, it is respect that I feel and express; and I remind myself to stress the authenticity of my beliefs rather than what I may see as the shortcomings of hers. This above all is what I have learned from my daughter: that if we hope to engage our children, we will need to provide those answers – answers that are religiously compelling and intellectually engaging, as well as authentically Reform…this means making it clear that as Reform Jews, there are things that God expects of us. This means saying that ritual opens us to the sacred and gives structure to the holy. This means affirming our belief that if ritual dies, Judaism dies; it is only a matter of time. This means proclaiming that Shabbat is a God-given duty, even as we know that there are many, many ways for a Jew to fulfill that duty.”

 May Rabbi Yoffie’s wisdom permeate liberal Judaism. Let us give our kids real “informed choice” and let the chips fall where they may. Let us open the gates of tolerance to all branches of Judaism and not just to LGBT’s and the intermarried. If any movement in Judaism is going to make radical changes it will be Reform. They have done so as they have shifted to a Zionist platform and evolved from Classical Reform to a movement that was able to adopt the latest batch of Ten Principles and davens with the beautiful Mishkan T’fila siddur. I’d like to be first in line to work with the Reform movement on a task force to create true pluralism, informed choice and full spectrum Jewish education. It may be too late for the millions that have chosen to disregard the chosen people. But for those incredible young folks who were singing with me at Biennial into the wee hours of the night of their love for God, let’s give them a fighting chance at having Jewish grandchildren. Is it fair that only Rabbi Yoffie be assured of such a luxury?

The Genesis of the Exodus

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

by Sam Glaser

I was famished after my concert last night in Princeton, NJ.  Finding kosher food on the road is a perennial challenge and this well into the second week of a frantic Chanukah tour.  Man cannot live on salad alone! Thankfully, a dear fan in the area offered to cook up her homemade chicken specialty for me and we drove through the New Jersey darkness towards her home in East Windsor.  At one point I heard her exclaim, “oh, dear!” and sure enough a full-size deer carcass lay right in front of us. At 40mph she didn’t have time to react and we rolled right over it, dragging it under the car for several feet.  As I was sickened by the thud of hitting this once beautiful animal I was reminded of the commandment not to put a stumbling block before the blind.  Since I was the last one to witness the hazard it was now my responsibility to move it.

I didn’t move it.  We drove on joking that we could have had venison for dinner.  A few miles later we saw a bad accident.  A fresh accident, with steam pouring from the engine of a smashed compact car and an unconscious woman in the driver’s seat.  As we swerved around the scene we saw someone running to extricate the woman from between the seat and the air bag.  My first instinct was to stop and help but I wasn’t at the wheel and I reasoned that others were already helping.  We just drove on.

Our eventful ride culminated in a lovely dinner and the lighting of the Chanukiah.  In spite of the good cheer, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have stopped the car, that I missed an opportunity to reach out and help.  What would I want done if I was stuck in that car?  Some call it Jewish guilt.  I call it the Hineni (here I am) Response. Jews are incapable of standing on the sidelines.  Something in our spiritual DNA goes haywire when we perceive someone in trouble, see justice unrealized, witness lives in jeopardy.   The question is where does that response come from?

One could cite the intransigence of our forefather Avraham when faced with the potential annihilation of Sodom.  He had just entered into an eternal partnership with God and God chose to include Avraham in the plan.  Avraham’s impassioned argument to rescue any righteous Sodomites earned him the title of First Jew in History.  Noach obediently built the ark.  Avraham fought a knockout round with the Creator of the Universe to save even a despicable nation.

I’d like to argue that a far more subtle but equally powerful biblical anecdote contributes mightily to our Hineni Response. By mid-December we can feel the glow of the Chanukah candles and are reading the last Torah portions of the book of Genesis.  Chanukah is a time of wintry weather and gloom, during the shortest days of the year.  It’s at this time that we light the lights, offering hope and illumination to a besieged world.  True, we are described as a nation of priests, but we are also a nation of dreamers.  Our mere existence is proof of the Eternal and our return to Israel after a 2000 year exile is a testimony to the power of our dreams.  I think there’s no coincidence that it is at this time of year we read about four sets of dreamers in the weekly Torah portions, Yaakov, Yosef, the baker and wine steward and Paro (Pharaoh.)  While all their dreams reveal much about human nature, I’d like to focus on an easily overlooked nuance regarding the dreams of the baker and wine steward.

Shortly after being sold into slavery, Yosef had been framed by Potifar’s wife and thrown in jail.  He spent over a decade in an miserable Egyptian prison, which I imagine was not quite a Club Med.  In spite of the dire circumstances, Yosef still was able to notice the downcast expressions on the faces of the baker and wine steward.  This is the key moment, the Genesis of the Exodus.  Like Moshe who stopped to notice the phenomenon of the burning bush when everyone was walking right by, Yosef took the time to perceive their mood change and comfort these two prisoners.

Big deal, you might say.  But because Yosef had his eye out for the downtrodden in his midst and ACTED on that sense of compassion, the wine steward referred him when Paro needed his seven-skinny-cow dream interpreted.  Thanks to Yosef’s small gesture, he became the CEO of the country, the Jews obtained salvation from the famine in Canaan and the stage was set for our eventual miraculous exodus from bondage.  Case in point: we never know when our small gesture will change history.

The fact is that God operates through history in a series of small gestures.  The intriguing saga of Esther saving the day in the Purim story is another such step-by-step tale of national salvation.  God’s name is never mentioned overtly but it is impossible to read the script and not see God’s hand on every page.  This is one of the last books of the bible, as if God is preparing His people to live in the realm of small gestures rather than overt miracles.

My wife and I often regale Shabbat guests with the circumstances of our meeting.  We are both avid cyclists and our precious paper cut ketubah, lovingly created by my artist mother, features a pair of bikes parked at the base of a family tree. Twenty years ago my friend Mark Nathan from the Semester at Sea program called to encourage me to join him on the Rosarito to Ensenada bike race.  At the finish line I met an enterprising young man who was launching his first charity bike ride to raise funds for the American Lung Association.  I talked my brother Yom Tov into taking the ride across the island of Catalina with me.  In the meantime, Shira’s roommate Karen had heard of the ALA program at her urban conservationist job.  Had Mark not called to invite me, had Yom Tov not been willing to come, had Shira’s roommate not taken the job at Tree People…I rest my case!

When the slavery in Egypt became unbearable “God heard our cries.”  Our rabbis teach that the word “cry” is plural because God hears the cry when we are totally fed up AND the cry before we actually scream.  How many of us are screaming right now?  With increasing financial burdens, job-search woes, health issues, aging parents, kids at risk.  God hears these cries even when they are silent murmurs that keep us awake at night.  Jewish law maintains that it is meritorious to help someone financially well before they are on the street, to be aware of our fellow man’s struggle when on the surface everything seems fine.

The point I’m trying to make is that everyone you know has worries and fears.  Imagine how you feel when someone takes the time out of his or her busy life to hear you, to help you, to care.  Just like with Yosef and the baker, he or she may not be able to make the problem go away.  We are judged not by the result but by the initiative. In fact, the merit of any given mitzvah does not require the completion of the act.  If one is thwarted from the full performance, for example, if you ran out of a gas on your way to visit the sick, you still get heavenly reward for your intention.  Taking a moment to share a word of kindness can be enough to restore the recipient’s faith in humanity.  What we really need these days is our faith restored.

Social scientists have espoused the Broken Window Theory which states that allowing for broken windows and graffiti as the status quo in a city creates further disarray.  Broken windows lead to more broken windows and eventually, squatters, fire and theft.  The societal norm becomes “trash the city, no one cares.”  We live in a world where our faith in humanity is trampled.  Worldwide poverty, terror, crime, drug abuse and graft are ever on the rise.  It seems outrageous that fixing a few windows can change the crime statistics on the urban scene.  But it works!  Every random act of kindness has ripple effects that rock the heavens.

Here’s a beautiful way to read the language that the Torah uses when we were redeemed from slavery: at the seder table we recite, “God will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”  I had such a powerful “aha moment” when a rabbi pointed out that the sentence could be read: “God will redeem YOU WITH THE OUTSTRETCHED ARM,” in other words, when we create a world where people have their arms outstretched to help others, only then do we merit redemption.  Avraham started the Jewish people with a mission of action and compassion.  Yosef’s pivotal moment transpired because he had the presence of mind to be aware of another individual’s suffering.  And the ones who actually got out of Egypt to form the Jewish people were the ones who looked out for their fellow man.

Here’s my blessing to all those who had the patience to read to the bottom of this essay: may you have the peace of mind to hear the music of creation.  May you have eyes to perceive God’s hand behind all the events in your life and be grateful for every moment.  And may you play a leading role in the perfection of the world by seizing every opportunity to practice random acts of simple kindness.  As for me, next time I find someone in need on a frigid New Jersey night, I’ll stop!