Monday, October 3, 2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777- Making Dreams Become a Reality

Many of you know that I have participated in archaeological digs in Israel. I pay particular attention to the archaeological news and, sometimes, people come to fanciful conclusions about what has been uncovered.

For example, I remember seeing a report on Facebook of a discovery of a chariot in the Red Sea. Never mind that the report wasn’t true, there was no such discovery, people were sharing the fake news report and suggesting that it confirmed the Exodus narrative of Pharaoh’s army being swallowed by the sea. The TV show Ancient Aliens, which attempts to prove that aliens visited our planet in ancient times, currently airs on the History Channel and has aired for eleven seasons. Each of its 118 episodes have been watched by well-over one million people. So I was not surprised when I recently, I came upon this report:

After having dug to a depth of 50 meters last year, French scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1,000 years. Some people have come to the conclusion that the Franks had a telephone network all those centuries ago!
Not to be outdone, British geologists digging to a depth of 100 meters found fiber optic cable! Stories in U. K. newspapers read: “English archaeologists find fiber-optic cable in a 2,000 year-old sediment layer” and some have concluded that their ancestors had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years before the French supposed telephone network!
Never mind, that the fiber optic cables were new and buried in an earlier layer, we’re not talking about academic archaeology here!
One week later, Israeli Newspapers reported the following:
“After digging a hundred meters down in a Jerusalem marketplace, through three thousand of years of history, scientists found absolutely no wiring at all. They have therefore concluded that, 3,000 years ago, Jews were using wireless technology!”

Connected to Israel, some would believe that if it was reported by someone theoretically not telling a joke as I was. We have ancient aliens in Egypt. Why not ancient wireless communication by the Cohanim in the Temple?

After all, the cell phone is an Israeli invention, a response to the need to call up military reserves at a moment’s notice. Motorola in Israel invented cellular technology. The first cellular call was made only a few months before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, on April 3, 1973. Things in Israel can move from the realm of dreams to reality pretty quickly.

This evening, I would like to talk with you about exactly that, how our dreams can become realities.

This March, I had the opportunity to attend the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this year along with about 400 of my colleagues from around the world. We were able to interact with many national leaders and get a good feel for the political environment, especially as it relates to Reform Judaism.

Spending time in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem allows for a different perspective on Israel than most tours would provide. The cities are nothing alike. Jerusalem feels religious and oozes history.  Much of the city, the cobble stone streets, are well worn. Tel Aviv is very secular and feels as modern as it is, not only new, but up to the minute, under construction, and unfinished.

Jerusalem is the city of religious Jews, historians, and tourists, people significantly concerned about the past. Tel Aviv is the city of Shimon Peres. Shimon Peres said that for him “Dreaming (was) simply being pragmatic.” Tel Aviv is a city always dreaming, but practical at the same time, a center of technology and business, ever moving forward. The city lives out Shimon Peres’ directive that, “We should use our imagination more than our memory.” We join with all of the people of Israel in mourning his recent passing. This Rosh Hashanah is the first in seven decades that Shimon Peres has not been considered among the top cadre of leaders of Israel. He will be dearly missed.

While there were a number of memorable experiences on my recent trip, the highlight of my visit to Tel Aviv and of the trip as a whole was the Tel Aviv Half Marathon, which was, not much of a surprise, sponsored by a cell phone company, Samsung.

About three dozen of the rabbis in attendance at our conference participated in the races that day. One ran the full marathon, ten or so of us ran the half marathon, and the rest ran or walked the 5k. We all wore red running shirts that said, “Running for Reform! Supporting Reform Judaism in Israel!” that were provided to us by the Reform movement.

We were running and walking billboards.

I had many people run by me and offer a thumbs up, some saying, “Yalla Reformim!” “Go Reform Jews!” Several walked with me and told me about the congregations in which they grew up in Hartford, New York, Chicago and other places. Some talked about their Reform congregations in Israel.

I began with the first group of runners, crossing the start line about 500th. I finished the race in 6,800th place. Around 6,300 people were able to read my shirt when they passed me by! I was by far the best running and walking advertisement participating in the race. But unlike almost 1,000 people, I finished the race.

There were a number of things during the race that made it the highlight of the trip for me. The race reminded me of what Israel is really like, not the tourist Israel, not the idealized religious Israel.

Running with my colleagues for Reform Judaism made the run more than just a race. With a number of recent problematic decisions by rabbinical authorities that make life more difficult for Reform Jews in Israel, showing our public support was not insignificant. Our running was also a form of advocacy.

It was also a joyful experience. I can’t tell you how many times I smiled as children of all races and ethnicities who were watching the race cheered us on—in Hebrew, in English, in Russian and in some places in Arabic.

Then there was the variety of music along the way. I heard everything from American pop tunes to Hebrew hip-hop music and hard rock classics played roadside with guitar and drums. In one case, they were singing an America rock classic with lyrics in Hebrew, but I don’t remember the exact song.

·      There were several large groups of soldiers running in packs who flew by me while reciting their cadences.
·      There were religious Jews running with their tsitsit, their fringes, flapping in the breeze as they ran.
·      Muslims, Arabs and Druze, men and women, some of the latter wearing long sleeves and long pants beneath long skirts and with a hijab, a full head covering, in heat that reached well into the 70s.
·      And there were no few runners in the race pushing people in wheel chairs or people in racing wheel chairs moving themselves.

I had a pretty good idea of who was participating that day, because so many people passed me!

As the morning wore on, I started passing people myself. Runners began cramping up. In one case, I saw someone who just happened to be watching the race go over to a runner whose leg was cramping and who was standing by the side of the road to give them medical advice. Only in Israel. “Stretch it like this,” I heard the spectator tell a runner, in English, demonstrating.

The race was sponsored by Mai Eden, the Water of Eden bottled water company. Instead of giving us paper cups filled with water as you would find at races here. At this race, they were handing out small plastic bottles of water. Runners would, of course, as you would expect, twist the top off, throw it at the trash receptacle or just drop it, and then drink part or all of the bottle, either dropping it or throwing it at a trash can, sometimes actually getting it into the can. I often had to wade through bottle caps and bottles at each one of these stations. I can only imagine that more than a few people twisted ankles. At each location, several people were employed to use big shovels and brooms to sweep up the plastic and put it all in big bags to be recycled.

It was pointed out to me later that Israel has much more access to plastic than to paper. While it was strange to have all of these bottles tossed around, nothing would be wasted. Recycling is a normal thing in Israel now.

When I first began the race, we were tightly packed into a paddock that spanned a four lane road. About a quarter mile after we started, there was a backup on the left side near an overpass. I could see people veering to the left to look at whatever it was. People were nearly banging into each other. I was wondering what was going on. I thought that perhaps someone fell and was hurt.

As I got closer, I heard people clapping and cheering. There was a group of people with a young man who had stood up from his wheel chair and was using crutches to participate in part of the race. Runners were not swerving to avoid this person, they were swerving over to clap and shout encouragement as he took each step with difficulty. It brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t get a chance to see what the signs for the organization said, but I think it was the Israeli Make a Wish Foundation. Someone had a dream to participate in the race.

The Tel Aviv Marathon featured a large number of people participating for causes, pretty much every kind of medical issue was represented as well as numerous organizations promoting hunger relief, education, homeless shelters, support for wounded soldiers and more. It was a good representation of Israeli society and the Jewish world. Seeing all of this together was a deeply moving experience.

If you took a moment to think about it as you ran, and I had plenty of time to think, it was easy to see how many types of advocacy had been successful, many goals had been achieved. There was tolerance of difference- people of different religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, nationalities, soldiers and civilians, Arabs and Jews, running together. There was the promotion of recycling, even if a bit awkwardly. And there was not only an attempt not to exclude people with disabilities, but a clear attempt to include them in a number of ways. Goals that people had worked to achieve through advocacy in past years and work to achieve in our country were on display. It was inspiring to behold.

As you can tell from my comments, I’m not the fastest runner. I’m pretty sure I was passed by a tortoise or two at some point. But finishing upright and being able to enjoy it is an accomplishment.

If you had asked me two years ago, I would have laughed out loud at the thought of running a race. Im Tirtzu, ein zo agadah! In the words of Theodore Herzl, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

In February of 2015, I started getting into shape, but saying that makes it sound like I was much further along than I was. Trying to improve from out of shape would be more like it. I had no intention of considering participating in a race. In fact, I had never run more than two miles at a time in my life and that was when I was in High School!

I started my “improvement” by walking three miles on the treadmill. After a while, I added a bit of jogging. After a while, forty-five minutes became an hour and an hour became an hour and a half and then two. Then last October, I ran and walked the Des Moines Half Marathon. My first official race of any kind. It took me over three hours. Now, having finished three other Half Marathons including that one in Tel Aviv, I signed myself up for the full 26.2 mile Des Moines Marathon in a couple of weeks. It will take me over six hours.

I am running that marathon, not only as a way to challenge myself, but also to raise awareness of and money for our youth programs so that we may better support the many children in our congregation who want to spend a month of their summer at Goldman Union Camp Institute, to go on the NFTY in Israel six-week long summer program, or to attend NFTY Kallot regionally and nationally. These things are important for Jewish teens no matter where they live, but for Jewish teens living in Des Moines, Iowa, they are a primary connection to the broader Jewish world. We do our best to make sure that anyone who would like to participate in these programs is able to financially do so.

That said, what one realizes in training to run long races when starting out as a relatively, if not significantly, out of shape adult, is that it takes commitment to train, a willingness to change, the right fuel and gear. In the words of the 1980s Nike commercial, “It’s all about the shoes!” But also the various bands and wraps that keep aging knees doing what they’re supposed to be doing and the dietary supplements, the gel packs, salts, and chews, that keep your electrolytes up and keep you going on a run. You might not need many or any of these extra things for a short run, but for the long run, the further you hope to go, the more you require.

I’ve also thought about how similar all of this to other areas of life. It isn’t just someone training for a marathon who benefits from a mindset that they can accomplish their goals. There are good reasons that motivational speakers are hired to speak by companies and organizations. Attitude matters…a lot. The attitude that you bring to your work will go a long way to determining how successful you will be.

And training? Practice makes perfect. Getting in shape matters. If you’re not in shape, practice is going to be limited. If you’re in pain, you may not practice at all. So if you’re out of shape, you’re likely to give up quickly or practice in such a way that adapts to your limitations rather than your goals.

I was there a year and a half ago. I thought I couldn’t. And I was out of shape enough to easily convince myself I was correct. My mindset had to change before anything else. I think I can, I think I can.

Then there’s gear. Some people may be able to run a long way and for a long time without gear. Some of us can’t. Looking for solutions rather than accepting and accommodating problems makes a difference. Get shin splints? Try calf compression sleeves. Run out of energy? Try gels and electrolyte boosts. Worried about your heart rate? Talk with your doctor about it. Wear a monitor.

Every problem is not easy to overcome. Some are not possible to overcome. But some are. The lesson? Don’t give up on what you can improve on or overcome, and you’ll find that you will overcome quite a bit.

One can apply all of these things to organizations as well. Attitude and motivation matter. Training makes a difference. Having the fuel an organization needs, money, workers, and volunteers, keeps an organization going. The right gear, the adaptations that help an organization overcome systemic or situational challenges, can help an organization thrive amid difficulty.

And in thinking about it, we see these things in the Torah as well.
Motivation? How about the directive in the portion that we will read on Yom Kippur morning, “Choose life that you and your people may live!” and all of the blessings that come with living in the right way?

Of course the Jewish tradition has gear, things we use to perform the rituals. We have the tallit, the shofar, the menorah and more.

Training? How about the words of v’ahavtah? To summarize, “Devote yourself to these things with all of your heart and soul and mind. Constantly be mindful of them in whatever you’re doing. Teach them to your children.”

In general, it takes learning and practice to be able to maximize participation in Jewish life, learning prayers and songs, perhaps studying Hebrew, maybe even experimenting with making mazah balls or latkes a few times before getting the right mix of fluffiness and taste. We know that it doesn’t happen without some learning. Jews are life-long learners. For us, studying, training, is literally a commandment.

Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, we are the people running the marathon. We are diverse. Among us are fast and slow runners, the women in traditionally modest dress, the soldiers chanting cadence, the racing wheel-chair competitors flying along the course, the runners bent over in exhaustion, the young man using crutches to take a few momentous steps, the people swerving over to cheer, the American Reform rabbis running for Reform in Israel and the children of every color in the human rainbow celebrating as we passed. We are all different. Some of us too, like at the race, aren’t just onlookers to the Judaism of family members and friends, but are caring and loving supporters, actively helpful. Everyone together makes it all work best.

There I was, running through the streets of the largest Jewish city in the world, the largest Jewish city in history, located in the Promised Land of old, living out Theodore Herzl’s statement in so many ways.

“Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If you will it, it is no dream.”

The lesson for which life reminds us time and again is that between those two things,
Wanting it, willing it, on the one hand, and
Achieving your goals and dreams on the other,
Is often a good bit of hard work, training, study and commitment.

In the coming year, may we set our goals high and strive to achieve them.
May we pledge to do what is needed to accomplish what we set out to do and fulfill our pledges.
May we find success and blessing as we journey along all our paths.

Shanah Tova u’Metukah! May we all have a good and sweet New Year!

Kein yehi ratson! May it be God’s will!

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