The world has been grieving for too many days now. Orlando, Louisiana, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Turkey. And these are just the tragedies about which we know because the various news outlets deem them worthy enough for our attention. Of course, every day, 30 people die from gun violence in this country. Many die from cancer or other diseases long before what we might call a full life is over. Others die suddenly in the context of what we call a tragedy. And people starve to death all over the world while we throw away more food than we consume.

“ENOUGH!” we scream inside (maybe outwardly as well). Or in the words of the old Broadway musical, “Stop the World! I Want to Get Off!” But we can’t. We can’t get off the world and it won’t stop. What, then, can we do? How do we mitigate the negativity all around us (a negativity that we fear may be right on top of us at any moment?)?

Two possibilities come to mind. One is that when we walk down the street and someone is coming in the other direction, try to make eye contact with that person and say hello. We never know what might happen in the next moment and that passerby might be someone upon whom our life might depend or vice versa.

This past week, my wife suggested that we go to church – not just any church, Macedonia
Baptist in Watts, the sister church of our congregation. Pastor Shane Scott was amazingly honest and inspirational. He lifted us all up when all we could see was a downward spiral. Part of his honesty was to have all the young men in the congregation stand up and walk forward to the pulpit. He then asked all the older men to come forward and surround them. He told the rest of the congregation to rise “embrace” these young men, lifting up our hands, beseeching protection and blessing upon them. He asked the choir to sing a beautiful contemporary gospel piece called “I Need You to Survive”.  The song is sung from the standpoint of someone speaking to an anonymous “other”. It doesn’t matter who it is because when human beings act as horribly as we can or when the Universe produces it’s natural catastrophes, we need each other to survive, whomever that other might be. I need you to survive.

My other suggestion is to use the word “and” more than the word “but”. I find the word “and” to be much more hopeful, much more forward thinking. “But” stops us in our tracks. “And” pushes us forward. Hebrew has a nice indication of how “and” moves us into the future, into the inevitable unknown. In Hebrew the word “and” isn’t really a word at all. It’s a letter, the letter “vav” (ו ), and it’s always attached  to another word, attached moving onward. When the world is moving in many directions, it’s seems like we are, too, and we try to artificially “stop” the world with the word “but”. “And”, on the other hand, reminds us that there’s really only one direction to our lives and that’s forward. That’s where hope is possible. That’s where peace is possible. That’s where understanding and kindness are possible. We’d better get going to “and”. There’s much to be done, and only one direction to go to get there.

arrow on road

My Pastor’s Grateful for My Call and I Don’t Know What to Say


RNCD and Pastor Shane Scott 2015

My wonderful pastor, Shane Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, was grateful for my call this morning after two police shootings of two African-American men in two days. He even posted his gratitude on Facebook. I’d like to respond to him and I invite you to listen in.

“Shane, my brother, colleague and friend, I feel at such a loss. We have been together for many occasions. Our congregations have shared Dr. King’s birthday weekend in each other’s places of prayer, we have done social service projects together, we’ve offered words of teaching to each other’s communities. We have consulted one another and counseled one another in our common roles as clergy.

“I remember after the children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, you taught me and my community an important lesson: that your community experiences a “Sandy Hook” every week. When I heard that, I didn’t know what to say. And now, in the face of the events of the last two days, again, I don’t know what to say except perhaps to tell you this story that I presented to my congregation the year before last on Yom Kippur, our holiest day:

‘My wife’s best friend of twenty-eight years, Karen Smith Elstad, died this past December. Karen was an esteemed attorney and a revered professor of law and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. When she asked, “How are you?” she really wanted to know “I’m fine” wasn’t an answer for Karen; it was an invitation. She would also be able to offer follow-up questions and comments that helped you hone your answer. Still, after all of the give and take that followed “How are you?”, I never felt prodded or probed. Instead I felt like I’d had a wonderful experience with a true, caring friend.

That Karen was African-American was background information and only rarely a topic of conversation. Of course it was there when she was discussing her work promoting of women of color in private practice and at Southwestern University School of Law, where she was a dean. There were a couple of other occasions when it came up, too.

Karen was over for dinner with some of our other friends and probably because of something that was extant in the news, we were talking about racial profiling. Karen, as on countless other occasions prior and thereafter, was the only African American present. And, as in all of those discussions, everyone who knew Karen was waiting for her insights, not because she was African-American but rather because she was Karen. I recall feeling that Karen was unusually silent during that particular conversation. Then again, Karen was often quiet during discussions. When Karen did speak, it was always insightful and usually offered a perspective that had not been present. So, the white, West LA mostly Jewish participants kept talking until, at one point Karen said, “Shut up! You have no idea what it’s like to be black and drive around this city!” From that point forward, the rest of us listened. Karen talked about the times that she’d been pulled over. Sitting there with someone we cared about deeply who recounted instances in which she was a victim of racial profiling, our prior comments were reduced to drivel.

When it comes to such discussions, I still feel that, as a white person, I need to just listen. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. As a Jew, I have similar experiences in my personal history and in my people’s history that lead to similar perspectives, but I really don’t know what it’s like.’

“So, Pastor Scott, I’m all ears. The period on the world’s timeline when my people were shot simply because of who we are is really, relative to all of Jewish history, not that long ago. Our memory of it is always urgent and always accompanied by the words: “Never again!” but it is happening again and it’s happening to you and your community, which, because we have and will share so much, is my community, too. As I said to you on the phone this morning, I am ready to stand, to march, to protest, to lobby, to boycott and to speak truth to power with you wherever and whenever you tell me you want me. I know that members of our Beth Shir Shalom community are ready to stand with you as well. Until then, know that my heart stands with yours and you’re welcome to lean on it any time.”

A Story about Elie Wiesel

I have a story about something Elie Wiesel said that I suppose only a select few might recall. This is because I had the rare opportunity to hear Mr. Wiesel speak when I was in college. After his lecture, which I’m sure was amazing and, sadly, most of its specifics I have long ago forgotten, many people came up to the podium to ask him some questions. One of those questions and its answer have challenged and inspired me for decades. A person asked, “Can you forgive those who perpetrated this evil upon you and your family?” Mr. Wiesel’s answer was immediate, well thought out, and obviously (to me)had been given before. He said, “Don’t ask me. I survived. Ask the dead.” It’s a stunning response for the non-Holocaust survivor that lets us know that the Holocaust has an intrinsic morality that only those who traveled its dark paths will ever truly understand.

Mr. Wiesel was 87 years old. Most of his contemporaries have either joined him in death or will soon. Then it is up to those of us who did not experience the Holocaust to teach and preserve its unique legacy. By “us” I mean all of us, Jew and non-Jew. The future of the Holocaust’s memory and meaning belong’s to all of us.

Wiesel was one of the first people to respond to the murder of hundreds of thousands by the Khmer Rouge. He marched along the Cambodian border saying, “This happened to me. I can’t let it happen here.”

These are huge shoes to fill. We have no choice but to be worthy of the task.