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Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.

Dvar Torah For Torah Portion VaYera and Commemorating Martin Luther King Day 5770.
                It is a complaint that repeats itself so many times in the short span of a few biblical chapters, we almost want to shut our ears out of embarrassment.  I am referring to Moses’ persistent protests that he is the wrong man for the job of forcing Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves.  Certainly, Moses is known in the Bible as anav me-od, extremely humble, as the book of Numbers, chapter 12 calls him;   yet this is not how Moses describes his inadequacy for the position of liberator and leader of Israel.  He refers constantly to his being an arel sefatayim and a kevad peh:  one who has uncircumcised lips and is slow of speech.  These phrases have been variously interpreted to mean that Moses had a severe speech impediment or that he simply was a poor speaker who could never hold his own before a big shot king like Pharaoh.  Whatever they actually mean, Moses clearly saw himself as unable to speak with force and eloquence before Pharaoh, which is why God dispatched his brother Aaron to serve as his speech maker and agent.
                Nowhere  is the role of Moses and Aaron as dynamic duo for the Lord expressed  more strikingly than in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the very beginning of Exodus, chapter 7, God tells Moses:  “See, I have made you as God before Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet.”  This is a strange way for God to describe human beings, even two servants as close to God as Moses and Aaron.  Though Moses is described in biblical and later rabbinic literature as a prophet, referring to him as God feels  sacrilegious.  This is especially the case when we consider how forceful Judaism has always been in refusing to deify or even idealize Moses as a human being.  Further, referring to Aaron as a prophet or divine messenger seems so contradictory to the role he played throughout the Bible:  that of the conciliatory ritual functionary whose temperament at times clashed with Moses’ role as a truly fiery prophet speaking God’s admonitions to the people.  
                Numerous commentators found God’s descriptions of Moses and Aaron troubling as well.  Understanding that Pharaoh saw himself as a god, and had already refused to recognize the existence and supremacy of the God of Israel, these Torah teachers explained our strange passage in a number of interesting ways.  Moses was indeed God –more accurately God’s stand in- to Pharaoh, for Pharaoh would only be humbled by what and whom he could see.  According to our ancestors, God sent Moses to be “God before Pharaoh” in a number of ways:  as a master teacher, as a fear inspiring angel, as a judge, and as one with superior power.  Surely, only God can be God, but Moses would be the human conduit through which God would act to wreak judgment upon the arrogant oppressor.  Aaron would extend Moses’ divine agency through words of warning and admonition, as the mouthpiece of divine power.   Ultimately, these two brothers were flawed human beings who would die before reaching  the promised land with the Israelites.  However, in their lifetimes they concretized God’s battle with Pharaoh, and pressed God’s case against the king’s egomania and unjust  treatment of the Israelites.
                It is the rare leader fighting for justice who has the credibility and moral weight to be compared with Moses and Aaron.  The Reverend Martin Luther King jr., whose birthday and legacy we celebrate this weekend, was one of those rare leaders  for whom the comparison was appropriate.  Like Moses, he saw himself as God’s servant fighting for civil rights for the future generations descended from African American slaves, and for all Americans.  He lived and died by the words of the old African American spiritual that demanded of every Pharaoh in every age to “Let My people go” as Moses had done before him.  Like Moses, Dr. King was part master teacher, part awe inspiring angel, part judge who stood in judgment of a racially divided American society and found it sorely wanting. Like Aaron, Dr. King fought his war with the Pharaohs of bigotry and discrimination, not with plagues and violence, but with words:  eloquent words that showed people life could be better, that  America could behave better;  demanding words that organized boycotts and sit ins, pressed hard on the laws and law makers of America, and  inspired thousands to dedicate their lives to the cause of freedom; healing words that showed America that human rights are not some marriage of convenience between a government and its citizens, but an eternal truth embedded in the word and will of God, Creator of all human beings.
                The night before he was murdered, April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis TN, in support of striking sanitation workers in that city.  Eerily alluding to what may have been his recognition that his life might soon end, he spoke these famous words, through which he connected himself once again to Moses and his legacy of fighting for freedom:
"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." 

An old Jewish aphorism states that from Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses.  It is referring to Moshe Rabbeinu and to Moses Maimonides, our great Torah teacher of the middle ages.  Reflecting upon the life of Martin Luther King jr., I might amend that saying in honor of this weekend:  From Moses to Martin, there was no one like Martin.  And that has made all the difference in this, our promised land.  Shabbat shalom.

(c) 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein                

Tuesday, January 12, 2010



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

When we moved into our house a number of years ago, the two old, sprawling willow trees on each side of our lawn stood like lazy guards at an open gate. They graciously waved their long, leaf drenched branches at us, ushering us into our new home. Over time we settled into a lackadaisical relationship with our trees; we let their chaff choke our gutters, and we fought back very little as their roots pushed up under our driveway. Branches large and small fell with increasing frequency under the weight and pressure of snow, ice, and wind, yet we looked on and cleaned up after our aging neighbors. We left them in peace, and they let the breezes whisper to us through their thick leaves as we sat on the steps of our house on summer nights. An ice storm broke off very large limbs of both willows, littering our property and endangering passersby. Realizing that we had waited too long to care for them, we contacted an arborist who owns a tree service. After a brief check, he told us that the old willow on the right side of our house was rotting. With its massive, drooping branches forming a looming canopy over our street, large parts of it –or the tree itself- would eventually fall down as it continued to rot and die. The tree would have to be cut down.

I struggled to keep myself grounded with the pragmatic rationale that cutting it down was the sensible, responsible thing to do. Yet on the morning that the tree service was scheduled to arrive, I woke up with the queasy feeling that we were about to euthanize a dying grandparent. Turning to my wife, I whispered my fear that our youngest daughter -a great lover of these trees- would be traumatized by the day’s events. A compassionate and practical woman, yet still half asleep, she whispered back to me: “It’s just a tree, she’ll get over it.” Annoyed by her response, I bounded out of bed to start the day in a state of agitation.

The tree servicemen came and went, mustering their impressive arsenal of saws, cables, and cherry pickers that dismembered Old Man Willow from canopy to stump with tidy, almost robotic dispatch. Watching them, I could not shake the powerful images of trees personified as people that are found in the Bible. Yet as increasingly large pieces of the old man thudded to the lawn, I allowed my fascination with the technology to push aside my uneasiness, and I reasoned to myself: “It’s a rotted old willow tree, Dan. You’ll get over it.”

That afternoon, my wife, daughter and I stood around the stump, as we easily poked holes in its spongy center and half heartedly attempted to count its many rings. We performed an informal ritual of “arboreal memorial” by alternating between quiet murmurs of regret, acknowledgment of the stump’s rotted sponginess, and respectful silence. Neighbors and friends stopped by over the next couple of days to comment wistfully on the tree’s sad remains, almost as if they were paying the traditional shivah visit in a Jewish house of mourning. Looking over at our surviving willow, I was mildly shocked by its lonely lopsidedness: a twin bereft of its sibling and swaying forlornly on our lawn.

I gradually got over the “tree-as-family member” thing; yet something about this routine, if regrettable, act of property maintenance continued to bother me. A few weeks after we cut the willow down, I came across the 1937 painting, Willlow Tree, by the abstract painter, Arthur Dove. Upon first glance, I assumed that he had drawn a cross section of a stump that can either be viewed sideways or from above. However, looking more closely, I realized that the supposed “stump” resembled a fetus curled up in the womb, hardly the shape or life form I would expect to find inside the stump of an old willow. The personal significance of Dove’s work became painfully apparent to me. Our deceased tree possessed a kind of fetal memory. Its trunk, branches, leaves and rings encoded a long, rich history of birth, growth, decline and death that patterns all life and living things. Necessary and routine as it may have been, by cutting down our willow, we had also erased one small piece of that memory.

Now that the willow’s stump and roots have been ground and the top soil has been replenished, I have planted a Japanese maple sapling and small shrubs in its place. Their mix of light maroon and dark green will capture the sunlight and fill our lawn with color. They will grow through the seasons, and the willow’s rough brown branches and light green leaves will slowly fade from memory. On late afternoons I will sit on the steps of my house, pausing to consider that, after all, it was a very old tree.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

So, Here Is A Shofar That I Wrote To God (Poem)

Note: I wrote this before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, 5770 (September 2009) after learning of the illness of the child of a friend.


Guardian of Israel, Who neither slumbers nor sleeps,
Wake up!
Master Builder, Who fashioned the human brain
And planted on its sides two elegant ears,
Take the cotton out of Your own, and get it through Your head
That I am here,
Angry, pleading, shivering
On the lawn outside of Your heavenly home.
I whisper, weep, and wail,
Loudly gasping for Your attention
As You sit there, dozing divinely on Your throne.

I am the child wailing with pain,
I am his parent weeping with fear,
I am the one whispering hoarsely-
“Where are You?”-

You tell me that, when that shofar blasts,
I –like it- should let out a whimper.
You tell me that, when that ram’s horn sounds,
I –like it- should let out a groan.
You tell me that, with the first blasted note,
I –like it- should let out a wail…
But I’ll tell You what:
I –like it- will gather my breath
With the force of hurricane wind in a sail
And I’ll shout and shriek and shake my fists
At You, demanding You be there when I call,
I’ll rattle Your walls and shatter Your windows,
As I shake You, wake You from the conspiracy
Of Your Deaf-Mute Complacency.

Say hello to my little friend, Lord:
This bent, stooped, bowed, crooked shofar,
Symbol of humble petition, submission, contrition
No more.
This weapon of the wounded
That wounds Your cast iron heavens,
Its bullets whistling
Anguish and hope.
Together with every piercing note-
Every voice of every person
Who ever loved, lost, smiled and suffered-
We’ll march on Your property:
An army of shofars bellowing like grown ups
And crying inconsolably like children.
Hooting and hollering,
With love, lust for life
And that limitless mix of joy and fear
For what this year may bring,
We’ll get Your attention,
As we scream Tekiah in Your ears,
And get in Your face…
Only to realize when, face-to-face,
That You were awake all the time:
The anxious Parent up at 3 AM in tears
Waiting for us to come home, away from all harm
Whispering to us, “I’m here, it’s ok.”
Letting us fall silent, and cradling us like babies
In Your arms.

© 2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Poem I Published In The Jewish Forward

From time to time I'll be posting poetry that I've been privileged to publish. Unfortunately, I"m still figuring out how to insert links, so you'll need to cut and paste for now. I hope you enjoy it.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

My wife and I recently spent a few days in Santa Cruz, California, on the shores of Monterey Bay which is home to the National Marine Sanctuary, one of the largest and biologically richest marine life preserves in the world. A favorite pastime on the bay for locals and tourists alike is to get on a boat and go whale watching. All year long, depending upon the season, you can see different species of these beautiful creatures, along with their cousins the dolphins, as well as sea lions, otters, seals, and a host of graceful seabirds. Each of the whale watching programs -and there are many- markets the superiority of its tours with fantastic claims such as, “whale sightings guaranteed or your next trip is free,” as if marine life will perform on command for the pleasure of us humans who gawk from these boats, insisting on getting our money’s worth with a great show. The whales, of course, have an agenda which is radically different from ours. They swim, breed, rest and play at their own pace, unaware of little else except employing the skills of survival with which they have been endowed over billions of years. Unlike dolphins, who relish chasing and swimming near the boats that come out to sea, whales like to keep to themselves, content to dive and surface where and when they choose, oblivious to the humans invading their homes.

Out in the boat, a few miles away from shore, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, we were surrounded by the peace and stillness of endless water, along with pods of dolphin and beautiful grey whales. A once endangered species, greys are now estimated to number over 26,000 along the Pacific coast. Marine biologists, two of whom were conducting our tour, study these mammals with great care and respect, and they work hard to enlighten the layperson about how these creatures live. Our guides taught us some incredible things. Did you know that the greys migrate yearly from the Bering Sea near Alaska to Baja California and back? That is a 12,000 mile round trip between their winter and summer homes with their entire families. Imagine trying to take your kids or your grandchildren on a three hour trip from Albany to New York City in a car. Think about what that involves and you’ll realize that we do not hold a candle to the whales. Did you know that greys have such huge lung capacity that they only need to come up out of the water to breathe every seven to eleven minutes? (Remember, whales and dolphins are mammals, not fish. They do not have gills.) The most conditioned swimmer or diver would be lucky to stay under water without scuba gear for a few minutes before gasping for air. Did you know that like a lot of marine life, greys use echolocation, a built in sonar system which allows them to guide themselves through pitch black water without ever having to see a thing? I can’t find my way from Albany to some parts of Latham, even when using a map in broad daylight. The guides had me hooked. To quote America’s children, the greatest of all scientists, whales are mad cool.

We also learned about some profoundly disturbing features of the life of whales. Our guides quite matter-of-factly described to us the predatory battles which take place between female grey whales and their cousins the Orca, or killer whales who share the water with them. When hungry, Orca will attack baby greys and eat them. Like all mothers since the beginning of time, female greys fend off Orca fiercely by slapping them with their powerful tails or biting them until they leave the babies alone. Commenting on this grotesque whale-on-whale violence, our guide Frank mused nonchalantly, “What are you gonna do? Orcas also have to eat.”

Unable to enjoy anything without taking at least a few moments to ponder anxiously its moral significance, I couldn’t help thinking about what Frank had said. With all of their highly evolved intelligence and social behavior, you would think that whales would have found ways to survive which are less brutal to their own kind, but they haven’t. Even more vexing are the scary, apparent similarities between whale behavior and that of human mammals. We pride ourselves on our moral and social sophistication, yet we can be just as predatory, whether we are engaged in war with each other or simply eating other animals. For all of our presumed evolutionary superiority, we continue to exploit and to prey upon other species and upon each other.

It was the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who taught that when we are left to our own devices in the state of nature, our lives remain “nasty, brutish, and short,” with no purpose to living except to attack one another out of selfish motives, and then to die. Even out of the state of nature, in what passes for society, life often appears to fit Hobbes’ description perfectly. It is no wonder that Hobbes was committed to the idea of an autocratic, iron fisted regime which people would impose upon themselves for the purposes of maintaining moral and social order. It is interesting that Hobbes referred to such a regime as the Leviathan, the monstrous and powerful mythical whale mentioned a number of times in the Bible. Perhaps we should go one step further than Hobbes: rather than live under the watchful eye of the great political whale, maybe we should give up being human, slink back into the sea from which we emerged at the beginning of time, and become like the great sea creatures. We might spare ourselves a whole lot of pain that way.

Yet each time I ponder the pain caused by our predatory side that makes us look more whale than human, I realize that my very ability to ponder is part of what makes us more human than whale. Though I have no intimate knowledge of the inner life of whales, I believe it is safe to assume that when Orca attacks a baby grey, it isn’t thinking about how a morally free choice is being made or about its disastrous consequences for the victim. Orca is responding in a very primitive and instinctive way to hunger, and nothing else. Over billions of years, Orca and grey whales have evolved the capacity to hunt, the tools of echolocation, great lungs, and the ability to travel enormous distances. These things are their gifts which help them to survive and which make them wonderful. Yet the burden and the glory of having to choose between brutality and beneficence, and having to accept responsibility for these choices, belong to human beings alone. For all of their sophistication, whales do not argue about good and evil, or fight, or kiss and make up, or feel remorse, or ask forgiveness, or repent, or accept apologies. Since the day that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil we have been blessed and cursed with that knowledge and with the ability to act upon it. Admittedly, human freedom is often an unbearable paradox. Our lives possess dignity and meaning precisely because we are equally free to prey upon each other as we are to pray for each other. Were we programmed to be consistently good our world would be much nicer but we would be irrelevant because our moral choice would have been obliterated. Human freedom is as indispensable as it is terrifying.

There are times in my life when I wish I could be like the whales, floating gracefully in the sea and living in the moment, free of the anxieties of moral, emotional, and spiritual struggle and ambiguity. I suspect that we all fantasize about how pleasant it would be just to be from birth until death. Yet, thankfully, this is not our reality. Since that time when we climbed out of the sea to begin the journey called living, our visions, our choices, our beastliness and our beauty have made the human story perhaps the greatest one ever told. If I may badly misquote Robert Frost, we have taken the roads less traveled by...and that has made a whale of a difference.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

I was a late bloomer when it came to getting a driver’s license. Growing up in an urban family for whom driving a car was an exotic, somewhat fearsome ritual, I graduated –kicking and screaming- from the passenger’s side to behind the wheel when I was an old man of twenty six. I suppose I should have seen it coming: that dreaded day when, a year before the end of graduate school, my wife firmly reminded me that our home in Manhattan would soon be a distant memory as job offers in the suburbs beckoned over the professional horizon. What followed were my first tortured miles on the road. My attempts to become a driver almost totaled friendships after near fatalities practicing in friends’ cars. Three failed road tests at the hands of bored and sadistic examiners drove me into therapy, as I tried to figure out a possible connection between my childhood anxieties and my troubles with driving. By the time of my fourth road test, I was experiencing an emotional multiplier effect. My inability to pass the road test turned from a minor nuisance into my uphill battle to become a real American adult who was free to move about his life. A kind examiner took pity on me the fourth time, and later my wonderful wife rescheduled the “driver’s license party” for me that she had canceled a number of times before. Joyous that night in the company of friends and family, I had finally arrived.

I vowed that when each of my kids came of age and prepared for this rite of passage I would not fail at this parental duty of helping them to get their licenses. They would not be condemned to be pedestrians forever. For the past six months I have taken to the road with my son as one of his driving instructors. We have bonded around these lessons, the latest of our shared driving experiences that began when he was eighteen months old. Back then, he and I left my working wife behind and took a vacation car trip for ten days to visit family along the Eastern seaboard. All these years later, I gladly (and with surprisingly little trepidation) hand him the car keys and teach him the skills of automotive manhood that I dream will spare him the infantilizing humiliation that was mine. Little league dads and stage moms revisit and repair their early traumas and ambitions through their children’s endeavors. I am what you might call a parallel parking parent, seeking through my son to exorcise the demons of my dark driving past, as well as facilitate his coming of age. Yet there are hard lessons that I the teacher have had to learn in that driver’s seat. One day I took him on a practice road test, barking at and failing him for any and all infractions, like a real life examiner. Growing uncharacteristically testy, he barked back: “You know, maybe that’s how they did it when you took the test in New York City, but this is Albany!” We returned home in surly silence. As he turned away from me into his room, I stopped him. “I’m sorry I did that to you. This is not about you, it’s about me. It was humiliating for me, failing all those times.” With a characteristic adolescent mix of filial tenderness and curtness he shot back, “Yeah, I know.”

The impulse to live or re-live through our children is like the sports car we see racing around on the car commercials above the little words, “Professional driver, do not attempt.” It seems like such good fun, performed with effortless grace and skill. Then, we get behind the wheel and try to drive our children’s lives –albeit for the noble purposes of helping them that we have rationalized for ourselves. Unsurprisingly, those car rides some times crash- and- burn, or simply go nowhere. The poet Kahlil Gibran was right. Once they leave the womb, our children are not our children. That is the awesome, heartbreaking mystery of loving these young ones and letting them go…but not before they pass the road test.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Some time ago, a friend who was the priest of a local Catholic church invited me to guest preach at Sunday morning mass. This church is airy and modern, a beneficiary of both sunlight streaming through her windows and of her generous benefactors. I rarely preach outside my own synagogue. Accepting my friend’s invitation was an opportunity for interfaith goodwill, so I took my assignment seriously.

After a quiet early morning mass, the ten o’clock crowd entered, a more boisterous group that busily filled the sanctuary. I took in the beautiful worship with a mixture of spiritual reverence and respectful detachment. I was witnessing a community seeking connection with God and each other. How could I not find that deeply moving? Yet I was also an outsider to this particular community whose beliefs are not mine. Naturally I would feel somewhat marginal to the experience.

I intently watched communion being offered, as the pianist played lovely contemporary music. I also watched a teenaged boy, maybe fifteen years old, waiting to take communion. He looked no different from my teenaged son. It was a hot day, so he wore shorts, a tee shirt, and flip flops, presumably permitted attire for summer mass in this warm, inclusive church. He playfully jostled a boy in front of him, most likely his little brother. When his turn came to receive the wafer and the wine, he quickly paused in his playful banter. He entered the sacred space of communion with no fanfare or trepidation, just a look of comfort with this ritual that belonged to him and his family. Thirty seconds later he was done, a faithful adherent transformed, yet the same teenager he had been before. Touched by this scene, I asked to meet his family after mass. They were, in fact, an active church family, and he was one of the musicians.

Afterwards, I thought about this boy and about the parallel spiritual experiences and comfort level of my own son and daughters. For all of them, religious expression is neither exotic nor alienating. It is a kind of mother’s milk that gently nourishes their everyday experiences without them giving it much thought. Like that boy and his family, my family and I have worked hard to foster a spiritual culture in our home, howbeit a distinctively Jewish one. My kids sometimes complain about it, and like most kids brought up in religious homes, they may reject all or part of it for a while as they explore adulthood. Yet at some level they know that our family’s consistent spiritual practice lends order, meaning, and love to our lives.

I do not know what has happened to that boy I met that Sunday. I hope that he and his family are well and that he is preparing, like my son and our family, for high school graduation and the bittersweet farewell to home that comes with growing up. I hope both boys will never forget that religion is a spiritual home where, when they feel they need to go there, God will take them in. I hope that no matter how far from that home they find themselves, they will also understand, to paraphrase the writer Max Dimont, that God is portable. But mostly, I hope that every child graduating this summer, whether religious or not, will grow in soul, as mirrors reflecting and flooding God’s light into an often cold, dark world.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

Summer Camp


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

One of my children’s favorite refuges from their parents is the Jewish summer camp that they attend. It is one of several summer programs in our religious denomination that, for over half a century, have built lasting friendships, produced marriages, perpetuated the values of Judaism, and left kids with cherished memories well after they have grown up. When my wife and I dropped our kids off at camp and picked them up a month later this past summer, I was mystified by its power to draw them away from the comforts of home and into the secret society of their circle of camp friends and activities. I attended one of these camping programs only once, the summer that I was thirteen. My parents made me go for a full eight weeks, and as a scared, insecure, unathletic homebody, I wanted nothing more than to escape that prison and hitchhike back to our house in Queens. Though I recognize now how wisely they helped me to cut the cord and become more independent, at the time I was miserable. That is why, even though we gladly pay the bills to have the kids be at camp summer after summer, I have had a hard time understanding what they see in the whole experience.

Two days after we picked them up, I drove back out to camp to spend some time teaching at our denomination’s regional high school youth group conference. Other than the voices of excited teenagers socializing and playing softball in the distance, the usually noisy, energetic campgrounds were deserted and quiet. The summer season was really over, but in the gentle movement of the wind as it passed through the tall pines, I imagined echoes of children, mine and others, singing, laughing and pledging their loyalties as they greeted one another then bade each other tearful goodbyes all too quickly. Almost immediately upon arriving I was haunted by images of my daughter running back and forth from one activity to the other with her bunkmates, her sweet smile and spunky personality filling camp with joy and warmth. I kept thinking about my teenage son walking around with his buddies, one year older, just dying to rule camp and to seek out the new, awesome adventures of adolescence. Walking from my car to the camp’s magnificent library I stopped and wept as these images filled me with memory and meanings. For me, camp had been in retrospect a necessary evil, without which my learning to leave home would have been so much more difficult. For my kids, camp has been a blessing that is teaching them to feel at home wherever they are, whenever they are in the company of friends and community. Yet camp also means that they are getting older. They are slowly taking their leave of us as each summer passes and they store up memories, have experiences, and form relationships to which my wife and I will mostly never be privy. That is as it should be, but that day I truly tasted the bittersweetness of growing up and saying farewell, a life cycle ritual that our kids reenact each camp season. Like my parents in the distant past, each summer my children are teaching me the fine and poignant art of letting go.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

There is nothing that my children love more, and that I love less, than amusement parks. Each summer, whether we are at a monster park like Morey’s Piers in New Jersey or a gentle kiddie park like our own Hoffman’s, my kids cannot wait to charge through the gate, grab their tickets from us, and sail off into the sky at dizzying, gravity defying heights on rides that make me physically ill just to look at them. My two older children’s taste for these thrills is so infectious that my youngest child has now begun to join them with an abandon and light heartedness that I cannot understand. My wife, who is not much less anxious than I about these rides, looks on with me in utter amazement as we wonder aloud if these are really our children, and if so, where they got their genes from. Often, only the good graces of my more adventurous sister in law, their beloved and fun loving aunt, save us from having to accompany our kids on all of these roller coasters and water slides. She has saved her nephew and nieces from the dark prisons of our cowardice and motion sickness on more than one occasion.
I knew my hang ups about being hung upside down would clash with my children’s high energy thrill seeking as early as the summer when my son was eight. Champing at the bit like a race horse about to leave the gate, he was forced to listen to our cautious lectures about safety on the monster water slide he was about to zip down. “No funny business up there,” we warned him. “Lie flat on your back, do not try to stand or sit up as you’re going down, and for heaven’s sake…” As we droned on and on, he looked up at us with his big little boy eyes that spoke volumes to us: “You are aliens from another planet, and you are driving me nuts. Now, let me go have fun.”

Some of my anxiety derives from a legitimate concern about the safety of amusement parks, and the limits of what young children should be doing at them, and some of it derives from my neurological wiring. There are folks like me who just get sick from a combination of speed, height, and sudden movements. Some of my anxiety derives from fears about being out of control that I have carried with me since I was young. For many people, roller coaster enthusiasts especially, the feeling of being out of control produces an almost euphoric rush that they crave. As a father and a rabbi, I get enough of that chaotic feeling every day, that I can live without me or my kids creating more of it. Nonetheless, when I find myself projecting these fears onto my children, I struggle to suppress that part of myself so that I can let them ride to their heart’s content. I don’t want them to grow up fearing the things that I fear, because I want them, within reasonable limits, to be much more free and at home in the world than I have been in the past.

At a deeper level, my problem with putting myself and my kids on all of those rides is that they are symbols for what the author John Irving calls the undertoad, the terrifying reality of chaos and randomness just below the surface of our journeys through life, which threatens to pull us down into death. Life isn’t scary and bumpy enough, that we have to go looking for opportunities to produce artificial encounters with mortality? However, reality is a complex balance between laying down by still waters and plummeting down raging rivers. We cannot escape this truth, and we would be fools if, in the process of protecting ourselves and our children from danger, we squelched our freedom to take risks and our courage to live fully. I imagine the roller coasters and water slides wisely chanting a chorus to me when I hesitate before saying yes to requests for an amusement park visit: “Check the height and age requirements on the tilt a whirl, and see to it that the safety belts are fastened on the Comet coaster. Then, let go of your children’s hands and allow them to experience the thrill and the risk of real life.” Though you will never catch me on anything wilder than the merry go round, that chorus is sound advice that teaches me and my children how to embrace our spinning carousel of a world everyday.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

As part of its airport renovations, the Capitol District Airport Authority wisely included an interfaith prayer room, for which it enlisted the support of the different religious communities. The room is decorated with an understated mural of Ann Lee Pond and the Helderbergs under a nighttime sky, along with two fountains on both sides dribbling water into an artificial stream. Sitting in this stream are well polished stones that shine under dimmed lights while the water gurgles, creating an atmosphere of peace. In one corner of the room are prayer books and other ritual objects, while tucked away in the other corner is an ornate Muslim prayer rug decorated with a picture of Mecca. Simple benches adorn each side of the room, beckoning to travelers to sit and allow themselves a few moments of contemplation. I often use the prayer room prior to catching a flight. Set apart from the coffee bars, intercoms, security guards, and noisy travelers, it is a place where I, a regular worshipper and a somewhat nervous flyer, can connect with God in privacy. Judging by the numerous entries in the room’s sign in book, I am not alone in my appreciation for this bit of sacred space that helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for each trip.

Almost without fail, the first thing that I do when in other airports is ask at the information desk about a similar prayer room or chapel in which I can pray peacefully. Sadly, the American airports that I have been in, most far larger than ours, have no such islands of calm. In the past, this presented me with a big problem, because the occasions on which I fly are in the early morning when there is a limited window of time for me to recite morning prayers according to Jewish religious law. Out of necessity, I have learned to be comfortable praying in public at any airport terminal. I find a quiet spot where few people are sitting, I put on the ritual garb of Jewish prayer, and I try to enter a different world. Each time I do this, with other passengers and airport staff strolling by me, I grow a bit more unselfconscious. Are they curious, put off, or suspicious about me, as I attempt to pray intently while wearing strange clothes that contrast with their capris and business suits? I don’t know, because I’ve trained myself not to care by not looking around to see who, if anyone, is looking at me. For the longest time I shied away from such public displays of religious involvement. I reasoned that they violated the personal space of others and that they could invite trouble from people less tolerant than me. My real concern, the one that none of us shakes off entirely after adolescence, was that I would be laughed at or that someone would think I’m weird. Over time my reasoning has changed. Almost by default, the public places of America are showrooms for multicolored hair, various ethnic dresses and styles, and more body parts prominently displaying piercings and jewelry than one can imagine. I’ve learned to accept my role as another strange note in the music of the diverse American experience, which often sounds more like a tone poem than a symphony.

Notwithstanding my accommodation to the necessity of being religious in public, I would like to require every airport, train station and bus depot in this country to build a chapel similar to the one our region has. Places for public transportation are microcosms of the breathless culture in which we reside, providing a stage for our harried and unreflective races through the day. Stand in a corner of any of these venues and count the cups of coffee, the cell phones, and the business suits zooming by and you are certain to become dizzy or get a headache. Add to this mess the terrifying significance of these places in the back of each traveler’s mind: they are often points of departure from the familiar and the safe, for destinations that often hold out uncertainty. Setting out on a trip should be an opportunity for centered contemplation of one’s life and the meaning of one’s inner and outer journeys. Instead it becomes a chance to get heartburn from overpriced fast food and to feel angry and anxious as we try to beat the clock to leave a terminal or a gate. A chapel or meditation room would reverse so much of this unhealthy living simply by being there as a protective refuge from the headlong rush. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, it could be an island in time and space. Atheists and fundamentalists, sinners and saints, could all sit side by side in this sacred space, sharing the blessings of meditative silence and the pursuit of the inner life. Strengthened and refreshed, we could reenter the terminal, station, or depot feeling better prepared to deal with life’s challenges and more capable of behaving like human beings towards each other.

Governments and industries build amenities that reflect the demands and needs of their customers, making certain to provide the community at large with what it values. Airports in particular resemble mini neighborhoods, hosting business centers, conference rooms, malls, and even hotels that arch gracefully over their grand concourses. The emphasis in American religion is slowly shifting away from formal membership in denominations and towards the private spirituality of the individual. Whether we like it or not, this changed emphasis coupled with geographic mobility is growing a class of Americans who practice a kind of “religion on the go.” They will demand increasingly that the comforts of meditative spaces be included among the options already offered for those in transit, and those who develop our nation’s travel centers would be wise to heed those demands. I look forward to the day when, without violating the separation of church and state, our public places will proudly provide these mini-retreat centers for the private enrichment of our inner lives. Their presence will send the powerful message that the diverse spiritual paths of Americans are of the greatest importance and deserving of support. They will also gently remind people like me that, even when we are on the road, we are never too far away from home.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

New Year's


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

One blessing of being a light sleeper is waking up to watch the sun rise. I generally welcome the new day this way on early morning visits to the beach when I vacation with family during the summer. Yet, recently I have discovered among the many simple pleasures of the capital district an almost perfect spot for watching the sun and the moon jump back and forth over the horizon. A few miles from my home in Albany, at the corner of New Krumkill and Font Grove roads there is a small parking spot overlooking a field. It is an elevated point with an almost unobstructed view from which I am able to look down into Albany and see the towers of the university and the Empire State Plaza. I sit on the hood of my car in front of a dilapidated, authentic red barn whose paint is fading. I watch and listen as the world of sky, sun, moon, trees, and birds goes about its business, oblivious to me and the other humans who pass through the area.

On New Year’s Day, 2002, I woke up early. Anticipating sunrise at 7:25 AM, I dressed, kissed my wife goodbye, and quietly left the house without disturbing our sleeping children. Driving out to the intersection with the sun just at the edges of the sky I marveled at the different look and feel of our community when it sleeps and is enveloped in silence. That morning was cold but clear and windless, allowing me to ease out of the car and embrace the peace and stillness of New Year’s Day without great discomfort. Other than the voices of birds in musical conversation and the occasional bark of a dog, nothing else competed for my attention. Light broke on the eastern horizon in front of me, while high in the Western sky behind me the bright moon began to fade as if being pushed back into its hiding place by the sun eager to rule the day.

The tentative fingers of sunlight that wrapped themselves around the wisps of clouds in the distance quickly grew into floods of brilliant red, orange, and pink. On a telephone wire above me, three birds held me in rapt, almost childlike attention as they chirped a reverent welcome to the sun that was by now well above the horizon and almost impossible to look at directly. Pulling a pocket Bible from my knapsack, I read aloud some verses from psalm 19: “The sun bursts forth like a bridegroom from his marriage chamber//Like a champion exultant and eager to run his course.” There we all stood in gentle praise on January 1, - the sun, the moon, the cold air and I, bound together with each other, the birds, the barking dog, the trees, and everything else: witnesses to the unity of all life, the painting on God’s canvas.

The night before, my family ended 2001 at the first night celebration in downtown Albany. Then too the sky was lit up, only this time by fireworks that, this past year, were part of our ongoing response as Americans to the tragedy of September 11. As the year closed in an explosion of sound and color with “God Bless America” blaring from a loudspeaker at City Hall, I was moved by our attempt to deal with our collective grief through this slightly superficial display of patriotism. That next morning I was alone in the middle of a world no different than the day before, yet so full of hope for what could happen on the day after. On the heels of a tumultuous year of death and suffering, I stood at that intersection and wrapped myself in the rhythms of nature and of life that continue despite their unpredictability. The author, Rachel Remen, once wrote that life may be terribly uncertain, but it is not fragile. Even in the deep winter freeze it persists, as surely as the sun chases the moon away in their race through the morning sky.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

My friend Tom has taught me the fine art of hiking. An avid naturalist since the age of fifteen, he is as comfortable spending a few days in the high peaks of the Adirondacks as he is in his own home. In the time that I have known him, Tom has taken me on three hikes through those peaks that I would never have done myself. By now a “46er,” a climber who has reached the summits of all forty six Adirondack high peaks, Tom takes me along partly for company and partly because he knows how much I enjoy hiking. He is a sure footed guide through rough and inspiring terrain whose challenges I love.

Understand that hiking with Tom is no piece of cake. He is incredibly strong and well conditioned, and keeping up with him is challenging. Our first high peaks together were Mount Algonquin and Mount Iroquois, two of the tallest peaks in the state that are separated by a rough and unmarked trail over a ridge called, simply, Boundary. We completed our ascent of Iroquois without incident, and feeling strong, I eagerly agreed when Tom proposed that we not backtrack over Algonquin, but rather, take the trail to Lake Colden and return to Marcy Dam, making a loop. It was a decision that my legs would regret, for as I found out later, the trail that we were descending is one of the steepest descents in the high peaks.

Overestimating my own strength, I was incredibly unprepared for the physical difficulties of the all day trek. My leg and thigh muscles took a beating, and with five of the fifteen miles left to go on the hike, I was desperate for a drink of water, having failed to conserve what I had brought with me. As Tom was showing me how to climb down a rock wall ten or fifteen feet high, my thigh muscles suddenly locked and I froze. In a panic, I yelled to him that I could not move, and for a few moments I vaguely understood what it feels like to be paralyzed. Tom helped me off the wall, and I hobbled along behind him down a difficult descent of huge boulders, stopping frequently to knead my sore calves and thighs. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Give me your backpack.” “Tom, you shouldn’t have to carry my stuff for me. I’ll be fine,” I replied. Staring at me with polite frustration, he answered, “You don’t understand. I can carry three times as much as I am now and still move at the same speed. You’re slowing us down, now give me your backpack!” In the middle of the high peaks with the sky growing darker and reports of black bears in the area, you don’t argue with your guide. He carried my backpack the rest of the way.

Last summer I was better prepared for our hike up Giant Mountain and across Rocky Peak Ridge. In preparation, I exercised regularly and conditioned my legs. I also decided well in advance that I would drink water only after long intervals when I really needed it. I was proud of myself for doing so much better on the trail, though Tom amazed me yet again. The day of the hike, his wife was out of town with their son, and he had no babysitter for their three year old daughter. What to do? Like any good 46er educating his children in the ways of the trail, he took her along and she had a blast being carried gracefully up and down by her dad who never missed a beat, and who once again moved faster than me at all times.
The day that Tom and I hiked Algonquin, we stopped briefly to chat with an assistant park ranger trained in trail guidance, who informed us that the Adirondacks are about a billion years old. Walking around the Adirondacks exhibit in the State Museum some time later, I discovered that, to be much more precise, their origins go back nearly a billion and a half years, and a geologist I know tells me that some rocks there are probably closer to two and a half billion years old, corresponding to the Precambrian era in geologic time. They were formed when the only living things around were the simplest bacteria and maybe some fish. Life in all of its complexity continuously evolves, with whole species rising and becoming extinct. Yet it is humbling to realize that these mountains under our feet have been silent, unyielding witnesses to all of this within the vast embrace of time and nature for a good part of the earth’s history. Even more humbling is the great paradox that these mountains present to the hiker. Their majesty is a song of glory to the beauty and variety of life. Yet one false move off of a boulder, and the mountains can send you to your death, as they remain where they are, implacable and oblivious to your suffering. Most humbling of all, the mountains themselves shrink one half inch per year, the victims of the even larger forces of erosion by wind, rain, snow, and ice.

Like Tom, the mountains are my teachers. I am drawn to the mountains whether I am climbing in the Adirondacks, hiking on the California coast, or descending into ravines near the Dead Sea. Admittedly, their appeal to me is not always about my humbly putting my life in perspective as I stand dwarfed before them. When I hike I come alive with a deep sense of the raw power that still pulses through my generally sedentary and slowly aging body. I feel the strain of leg muscles, the fierce pounding of my heart and the rush of air into my lungs as I conquer a summit and survey the vast world high above street level. Yet even these experiences gently force me to prevent myself from swelling with too much pride at my own strength. My energy is merely one small rivulet that flows out from and back into the ocean that is life itself. The mountains and I are separate entities, but we are also one with each other in the project of creation shaped gently by God’s fingers at the beginning of time. Huffing and puffing along a trail, I dance a waltz with them that will continue well after they and I have returned to the earth.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

We all filed in to the SEFCU Arena on the UAlbany campus in a raucous spirit of joy and pride on Albany High School’s graduation day in June. Albany High is an inner city school, so my son graduated with friends and acquaintances from numerous social class, ethnic and economic backgrounds. He knows students who are the first to graduate high school in their families, and who grew up in some of the worst neighborhoods in the city without proper familial or educational support. Yet there they were, receiving high school diplomas, their tickets to potential success in the future.

Knowing that he was speaking to a bunch of teenagers, the keynote speaker -a renowned scientist and entrepreneur- presented a very funny Powerpoint slide show. It bore the simple message that in this fiercely competitive world, if you want to stay ahead of the game, you have to work hard, be competitive, and innovate aggressively. I found his style and message refreshing, even inspiring, until he started talking about his high tech business version of “the golden rule,” which was a strange echo of Darwin’s evolutionary theory that the members of a species who survive are those who adapt most readily to change. I was dismayed, to say the least. When did the biblical commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” cease to hold the golden rule title and get replaced by a message amounting, however jovially, to tired truisms about getting ahead in a “dog eat dog” world? My wife wisely reminded me that some of the students he was addressing are from such disadvantaged backgrounds that they need all the inspiration they can get. Nonetheless, I left the ceremony fearful that my son and his peers had been charged by this influential man with nothing more than the usual narcissistic obligation to self framed as an iron clad rule of nature, and aping the language of religious ethics. His speech begged a larger question for me about American values that nags at me constantly: have we have forgotten or been scared away from teaching children the fine art of being a mensch, the popular Jewish term for a good and decent person, which is the essence of “the golden rule”?

I recognize that many teachers work hard to raise classroom communities based upon the core values of compassion, cooperation and character. But these pedagogic endeavors quickly fade as the pressures of academic success, college admissions, and standardized tests overwhelm high school students and teachers. It does not help that public school teachers are justifiably reticent to promote their students’ character development because it feels too much like religious training being snuck into a public education setting. However, they forget about us, the religious leaders and educators who are not interested in fighting culture wars with them. We don’t want to teach creationism as science, ban books in school libraries, or overrun school boards. What we want is to make common cause with parents and teachers to help children live according to the moral values of personal civility, decency and responsibility, and compassion.

There is a broader consensual dialogue about combating culturally ingrained incivility and selfishness that can bridge the religious-secular divide. We are a culture in search of a common educational language that can help the genuinely nice kids of my son’s generation value integrity and kindness as much as they value getting a high paying job. Emerging from the mess of Bernie Madoff and the current recession, we have been humbled and devastated by the betrayal of values that these tragedies represent. Perhaps we are ready to restore the golden rule to its rightful place in the private and public spaces of our lives and those of our children. Perhaps we are ready to re-learn the fine art of being a mensch.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.

Lost Objects


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Something strange is happening to me. Over the past couple of months, members of my family and I have become the human equivalent of St. Anthony’s medallions, which according to Catholic lore bring the wearer the power to find lost objects through the intercession of that patron saint. This is admittedly a weird metaphor for me, a believing Jew and rabbi, to use about myself. Yet, how else to explain my eerily recurrent experience? Let me illustrate.

First, while with me at a local supermarket, my youngest daughter saw that a man using the store’s ATM had left behind a twenty dollar bill in the cash dispenser. We ran after him to return the bill, and I refused his offer to give my daughter the money as a gesture of his gratitude. Then some time later, after eating ice cream in a restaurant with that same daughter, I noticed that the waitress had forgotten to charge us for an item. I pointed this out to her and she thankfully corrected our bill. Most recently, after returning from a shopping trip, I realized that the cashier had accidentally placed a bracelet lying on the store counter in my bag with the items I had purchased. I went back the next day to return the item to the owner of the store.

I wonder: has God granted me, of all people, the power to find and return the lost possessions of others? I’m the guy who is still late to meetings because I leave my car keys in places no archaeologist could unearth. Upon more critical self reflection, I am forced to admit that my role as finder of lost things possesses none of the spiritual significance or glamour that I might attach to it. Stuff happens, and lost stuff is thrown into that liminal space between our awareness and our sleepy distraction quite randomly and naturally. Finding what is lost is just as random, from my perspective: a confluence of luck, looking around, and location.

Nonetheless, a lucky streak of three “finds” gives me pause to consider what it teaches me. My faith and moral code compelled me in all three instances to return what I found or to make good on what was missing. However, some –perhaps many- people would take that lost property, justifying their behavior with the technical, letter-of-the-law equivalent of finders-keepers-losers-weepers: if you are too irresponsible or spacey to hold onto your property and I find it, it becomes mine. Why should I not benefit from your lack of attentiveness and bad luck, especially since, technically, I did not steal what belonged to you?

I am neither an expert in the study of law nor the study of ethics, but I know when I am touching the edges of the murky realm of borderline dishonesty. This is behavior that cannot definitively be called theft and that is not as blatantly dishonest as the argument that stealing is only stealing if you get caught. Yet, the logic of this version of finders-keepers is equally dangerous because of the dog-eat-dog impulses underlying it, and the rationales we use to salve our consciences when we act upon those impulses. If I can rationalize taking your lost things because of your frailty or temporary disability I will have no problem with many other instances in which I actively benefit from your bad luck or misfortune. This kind of thinking finds its ugliest cultural expression in the insidious and elitist claim that if I have power and wealth and you don’t, each of us deserves exactly what he or she gets. This kind of thinking is nothing new, having plagued haves and have nots alike for millennia.

We will need to leave the massive overhaul of society’s institutionalized selfishness to our new president and his advisors. However, since all politics is local and personal, that transformation will have to begin with how we treat one another. Charity may begin at home, but so do meanness and exploitation. As we begin a painful period of national recovery and healing, our greatest challenge as individuals, person-to-person, will be this: to have the honesty to recognize when we are giving a pass to bad behavior, no matter how good we may want to make it feel, and to have the courage to act on our noblest, not our nastiest, impulses.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Some time ago, I mentioned to the parents of a student of mine that I like to go bowling. The boy’s parents, who have been bowlers on the local scene since their student days at Albany High School, responded to my revelation with a mixture of admiration and shock. They admired my motivation to frequent the bowling alley for more than my kids’ birthday parties, despite my admitted lack of skill. Yet they were also shocked to find their rabbi relishing a sport that is often stereotyped as the gritty domain of coarse, beer drinking louts who bum around all day. I forgot about the conversation until the day before the young man’s bar mitzvah ceremony, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual for 13 year old boys. That Friday morning I stood in the sanctuary of our synagogue – a place of holy retreat from the world- taking posed photographs with his family in honor of this milestone. I saw a gift bag that had been placed inside my lectern but I thought little of it, until my student approached me with it, smiled, and said, “This is for you.” Inside the bag was a shiny, new bowling ball. The family told me to take the ball to one of the well known pro shops in our area. They had paid for me to have the ball’s finger holes custom drilled and to have it monogrammed. I was speechless, for I had never received such a unique and sincere gift before, and I was now initiated into the bottom ranks of the elite bowling community. Separated from the “Sunday birthday party crowd,” who can be identified by their frantic search for the lightest ball in the racks as a gaggle of kids clings to them, I knew that I had arrived.

Why am I attracted to the game? I’ve been asking this question since the time I laughed all the way through the Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers’ comical film noir about bowling. I’ve decided that I like to bowl for at least three reasons. I bowl, obviously, because it’s fun and because I can play it fairly well. I’ve never been much of an athlete, and I don’t expect that state of affairs to change in the future. Yet, when I watch frail looking eighty year old men from the senior league easily scoring strike after strike, I say to myself with conviction: “I want to do that! If they can do that, so can I.” Bowling is a challenging yet simple sport that even I -an uncoordinated man lacking in court sense- can play with success. Bowling is also a kind of spiritual act for me, one in which I pull myself out of time momentarily and focus my awareness on following the directional floor arrow leading to the sacred center pin, the key to a strike or a spare. I suspect that the inventors of the game were spiritual people themselves, for the idea of one ball breaking up ten pins is strangely reminiscent of the Jewish mystical teaching that God, who is indivisibly One, formed the physical world through a chain of ten emanations of divine creativity. Maybe there is some truth to the old school kids’ tale that whenever you hear thunder, that’s just God going bowling. Perhaps my most important attraction to the game is this: Though rich and satisfying, my experience as a spiritual leader feels at time like the proverbial life in the fishbowl. When I get to the bowling alley, the lanes are filled with a very diverse group of people who have no idea that I am a rabbi or even Jewish, nor could they care less. Bowling allows me to transcend my daily circumstances and just be one among many kinds of people in blessed anonymity

I remember stopping by a local alley a while back, still dressed in my suit and tie after a morning meeting. In the lane next to me were two young, tough looking, blue collar workers who were taking some time out of the work day to bowl a few frames. My game progressed, and I felt increasingly inspired as gutter balls led to some spares and then to three consecutive strikes in the last three frames. The computerized score keeper then informed me that I had achieved what is called a turkey. Wondering what that meant and embarrassed that I didn’t know what to do next, I nervously turned to the two men and said, “Excuse me, but the scorer is telling me that I got a turkey. What do I do?” I was terrified that they would start laughing at me. Clearly not interested in wasting too much time on the conversation, they paused, and then said the two words that are every bowler’s salvation : “Bowl again.”
They may not have thought twice about the encounter. However, looking back, I realize that at that moment I had crossed the deep cultural and social divide between us through that most human act of reaching out in need of help and support. On the lanes and in all of life, this universal recognition of mutual need is the basis of civilized community, and an indispensable ingredient in promoting peace and justice. At $2.50 a game, my favorite sport may just prove to be the cheapest form of international diplomacy in the future. Trading in our army boots for bowling shoes, we can spend our time knocking down pins instead of each other.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

I am currently publishing a children’s book about the underground railroad. In it, a family of slaves seeks refuge with an immigrant Jewish family from Germany who had never intended to serve in the dangerous role of harboring escapees. Noticing the Jewish family’s Menorah lamp burning brightly in their window one night in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the African American family mistakes the lights for the lights of a safe house beckoning kindly to people running from plantation owners and slave hunters. Caught in a web of accidental circumstance, fear and suspicion, the story’s four parents are prodded by their four quick thinking children into devising a plan for hiding the fugitive family that night. The plan works, the two families celebrate Hanukkah together, and the Jewish family helps its new friends escape to freedom the next morning. Though based upon historical fact, the story is fiction. The Jews of America before the Civil War were a tiny, politically passive minority that played almost no role in helping or owning slaves. Inspired by a conversation with one of my students, I wrote the book to help young readers imagine the extraordinary potential of ordinary human beings, children especially, to act with courage and compassion in times of great fear, danger and oppression.

True stories abound concerning courageous rescues of oppressed people by others who risked their lives to do so. Many schools in our area have children read Lois Lowry’s award winning Number the Stars, a historical novel which tells about the rescue of Danish Jewry from the Nazis by the Danish resistance. Fourth and fifth graders are introduced to the Underground Railroad, and its narratives of bravery in the face of brutality become commonplace to them. Many of our children watch all or part of Schindler’s List in middle school or high school. It is only a matter of time before similar accounts of courageous compassion emerge from Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur, to be woven into our children’s educations and our everyday language. Inspiring as these stories are, they stand out precisely because they are exceptions to the human apathy, cowardice, and –at times-willing complicity with the evildoing of those in power that we too often witness. Consider the ancient biblical story of how the Pharaoh coopted the Egyptians into allowing him to enslave and murder the Israelites, and how a few courageous women resisted his decrees before Moses came on the scene. This ugly, lopsided aspect of human character and behavior has been with us for a long time. Raised in a toxic atmosphere of tribal hatreds, terror, misinformation and the naked lust for power, too many people, it appears, will at the very least avert their eyes with guilty rationalization as their neighbors are dragged from their homes, never to be seen again.

I find it troubling to contemplate all of this and I wonder: if a knock came on our door in the middle of the night and our neighbors begged us to hide them from state sponsored terror, would we and our children find the courage to let them in? To be fair, even asking this kind of a question openly is much easier for Americans than for people in repressive, less socially diverse societies. All the more reason for Americans to keep asking them, to learn those stories of courageous compassion, and to model for future generations steadfast respect for all human life and a firm commitment to protecting it. Further, we would do well to remember that for all our advancement as a society, America was a state sponsor of slavery only 160 years ago, and segregation was the law in a number of states up until the 1960s. Remembering the past so that we and our children are not doomed to repeat it is not just a curriculum requirement, it is a sacred national obligation. Even more important, telling those stories about the men and women who risked their lives to save the oppressed is a vital discipline of collective conscience: a way of teaching ourselves and the world that human beings have the capacity and the obligation to give one another refuge.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

When I was fifteen, one of my partners in crime was a cousin of mine. At family gatherings, he and I would perform show stopping improvisational comedy skits that had our family members roaring for hours. My cousin probably does not remember this, but he taught me the memorable pun for the word gladiator. You know the old game. The teacher tells you to make a sentence using a word like gladiator. So you say, “A lion ate my mother in law---and I’m gladiator!” At thirty eight, I still chuckle at this retort which I knew carried with it all sorts of popular stereotypes about mothers in law before I even had a mother in law. Mind you, I have a mother in law whom I love and respect, and who I am very glad no lion has eaten. But the absurdity of this word play still tickles me.

What does not tickle me is the frightening truth about the human condition which is conveyed in the recent blockbuster movie, Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The movie portrays with graphic precision the total disregard for human and animal life displayed by ancient Roman society, as slaves were hurled into brutal, “fight to the death” contests attended by blood thirsty citizens of all classes. Watching it with my wife one night, I was transported back to 1987 in Italy, which she and I visited together with my in laws. Viewing the Coliseum in Rome, I couldn’t get past an ugly paradox. The Romans, with their advanced culture, employed their mathematical brilliance and their keen aesthetic eye to create this architectural masterpiece which was the site of some of the cruelest bloodshed in human history. I encountered a similar paradox later that year when, touring the British Museum in London, I suddenly realized that the British Empire had gloriously preserved the riches of diverse cultures by raping and robbing them, all in the interests of civilization. I struggle the most with this paradox of “brilliance and brutality” when studying the Holocaust. How could German society - which at the time of Hitler’s rise to power was the world leader in everything from science to the humanities- use its phenomenal gifts for the development of a genocide machine which claimed the lives of eleven million human beings, six million of them Jews? I have to conclude that intelligence is no guarantor of goodness, and that the heart of darkness often blots out conscience and compassion. Aristotle’s assertion that reason is what nobly sets us apart from other animal species has not made complete sense to me for a long time.

My son recently brought home a children’s book about gladiators by a respected educational publisher. It describes in loving detail and colorful cartoon pictures everything you would want to know about these men, including what they ate, the weapons they used, and how to say “Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutamus!,” which is Latin for the gladiators’ salute: “Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!” The educational goal of the book is noble enough: it tries to impart intimate knowledge of the Roman empire and its excesses to the young reader in an objective manner. Yet it is that objectivity which gnaws at me. Certainly, critical and dispassionate inquiry is a hallmark of Western culture. We cherish it as the mechanism for teaching values such as tolerance, respect for diversity, and the rule of democratic law. But I fear that at some point education can become so value neutral and objective that young people will use it to objectify others. Too many cultures have educated generations of the best and the brightest, who used their intellectual skills to act like monsters. Is American education travelling the same path when we encourage students to be competitive, market driven successes while we shy away from teaching moral reasoning, values, and character development?

Admittedly, I am making sweeping generalizations in the form of alarmist questions. I am not suggesting that we erode the separation of church and state by imposing a specific set of values on public education and public life. Yet as a spiritual leader I take my cue from the prophets of ancient Israel who railed against the demeaning of human life and the injustices perpetrated against the weakest members of that sophisticated society: its poor, its sick, its disenfranchised, the ones about whom no one cared and who were often abused. The prophets’ criticisms transcend time and place to speak loudly to us, reminding us that “justice will roll down like mighty waters” and that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” only when we teach ourselves and our children to strive for those ideals. How about requiring all high schools in America to teach the Anti Defamation League’s excellent “world Of Difference” curriculum which promotes tolerance? How about encouraging an Advanced Placement course in ethical problem solving? Why not establish a year of required national service for all high school or college graduates, to promote their sense of obligation to community and to sharpen their moral leadership skills? Our children -in fact all of us- need to learn more than the value of the profit motive. We need to be motivated by the values of the prophets. To paraphrase the late John Lennon, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one who envisions this kind of America. Awash in big money and deep poverty, great power and political apathy, our divided and often selfish society is hungry to revive its public dialogue about who we are and what we stand for. If we don’t revive it, we risk turning into a culture of moral mannequins: well dressed and pretty but hollow. Our task is to avoid becoming a community of masters and gladiators. Our survival as a civilization depends upon our fulfillment of that task.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

While in a Judaic crafts store a few weeks ago, my wife and I were intrigued by a framed print which bears an inscription from a famous book of Jewish wisdom: “The age of forty is an age of understanding.” The comment is taken from a passage authored by Judah ben Tema, an ancient Jewish sage who lived in ancient Roman Palestine. In it, he outlines his view of the most important achievements toward which a person should strive at each stage of life, from five to a hundred years of age. Because we are turning forty this year and because the print has a unique style, it resonated strongly with us in a way that other pieces in the shop did not. Since buying it and hanging it on a wall of our home, I have been fascinated by the artist’s interpretation of what this bit of wisdom means. Below his very fancy lettering of the quote in Hebrew and English, he has placed a version of Vitruvian Man, a man’s body that is drawn with great mathematical precision and symmetry. It is laid out in such a way that you get the impression that the body parts, the arms and legs especially, are moving. Many such pictures exist, the most famous being those of Leonardo Da Vinci. Their focus on the mathematical dimensions of the body as an example of symmetry and perfect form are based upon the writings of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman era architect whose ideas about architecture dominated Europe until the Italian Renaissance. The artist of our print used a version that has the signs of the Zodiac surrounding it in a circle. The zodiac signs are drawn twice, paralleling each other on both sides of the circle as mirror images, complementing the way that the two sides of the man’s body mirror each other. One side of the circle is a rubbing onto a piece of dull gray sheet metal which contrasts with the lighter colors of the drawing paper on the other side.

I have thought a lot about how I would interpret the artist’s rendition of Judah ben Tema’s statement. The word for understanding in Hebrew is binah, which can also be translated as discernment, the ability to distinguish one thing from another with wisdom. The man in the drawing is presented in light and dark colors: at forty we are hopefully wiser about the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, and the brighter and darker sides of who we are. Metal and paper divide the drawing in half: at forty, our relationships and perspectives on life have hopefully achieved some balance between a harder, stricter insistence upon justice and a more compassionate and flexible acceptance of life’s imperfections. The inner circle of the drawing contains the picture of a man: flesh and blood moving freely through the world. The outer circle contains the zodiac signs, those tools of ancient astrology which understood human affairs as a matter of divine fate which could be predicted by reading the stars: at forty, we are hopefully better equipped to know the difference between the things that are fully within our power and responsibility to change, and the things which are truly out of our hands. All of these artistic symbols are visually balanced and symmetrical, perhaps reflecting the ideal human life of physical, emotional, and spiritual wholeness toward which we strive at age forty.

I am saddened that this perspective on turning forty is not exactly shared by the culture at large. Since the time that I turned thirty nine, I have been introduced to the anxious American preoccupation with getting “over the hill,” along with its silly theme parties and even sillier gag gifts such as false teeth, adult diapers, and toy coffins. People have begun asking me half serious questions about what it’s like to be nearing old age, implying that I am supposed to be feeling cursed or that I am in premature decay. I am not in denial about the gradual effects of aging upon my body: I am certainly slower, grayer, and heavier than I was at eighteen or even at thirty. I am just uncomfortable with the pejorative assumptions about aging that seem to underlie the “turning-forty-over-the hill” phenomenon among Americans. Our society, which obsesses about the physical perfection and sexual prowess associated with youth, still does not know what to do with growing older. This is despite the fact that we are blessed with healthy longevity and that our older population, that is growing, has become a powerful political and cultural force with which to be reckoned.

I was fortunate to have acquired a different perspective about aging when I was growing up. My father has worked in the nursing home business since the time that I was a small child. He would bring me to the nursing homes in which he worked to meet the residents who lived there, many of whom were very old, weak, and sick. Yet many were also very humorous, wise, and mentally alive. My parents taught my siblings and me to look past older people’s physical appearances and disabilities that could be scary at times to a kid, and to discover the incredible human beings that they are from within. I have internalized these values as I have matured, and they inform the way that I think about my own life. The way that I see it, getting older has not led me over the hill so much as it has helped me to approach life’s summit from where I can see and discern reality a bit more clearly.
From that summit I am forced to acknowledge that as much as the rituals and myths of turning forty can be misguided or ageist, they nonetheless play a role in helping us to confront our mortality. Because we are blessed with average ages of between 76 and 80 in America, we are well aware that forty is roughly the midpoint between birth and death. For all that forty is a time for reveling joyously in wisdom and maturity it is also a time for being terrified: we are passing from, roughly, the first half of our lives into the last half, with death awaiting us at the end. As tacky and offensive as some of them may be, the preoccupations and ceremonies of turning forty are like all rituals. They seek to organize and give coherence to our experiences in times of chaos, crisis, and transition. To paraphrase my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, they are threshold rituals that allow us to pass from our first forty years into the next by helping us to confront these changes in our lives with a defiant sort of humor that accepts mortality yet also reaffirms the joy of being alive.

Recently, two dear friends of mine turned forty, and this essay is in their honor. Both of them are fine human beings. One of them is raising five boys, and the other is raising three girls with their respective spouses. These accomplishments alone at age forty should earn them the right to share the Nobel Peace Prize! Their lives are not perfect nor have they experienced uninterrupted joy. Yet they have taken the raw material of life given to us at birth and they have shaped it, each in her own way, into something sacred and meaningful.

And so, hats off to my two friends. Hats off to all forties and forty somethings and almost forties who are meeting life’s challenges and celebrating their big birthdays. My advice to all of us: let’s celebrate and be grateful. We have made it to a time and a quality of life that plenty of needy people in the world may not ever attain. As we climb over that big hill and begin the gradual descent into that valley where the shadow of death will start to grow longer, let’s take our antioxidants, check our 401k’s, and most of all, let’s stop worrying about aging. It’s going to happen to us no matter what we do and no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light. Our goal is to grow older with grace and wisdom, while finding meaning in every moment that we are here.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.



Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Some time ago, as I prepared for worship early one morning while standing by water’s edge on a beautiful Florida beach, the sun rose over the horizon, gleaming a fiery orange. In front of me rolled the seemingly endless expanse of ocean, its waves filled with life and the mysteries of life’s origins. Behind me rose ultra swanky hotels with their ghastly colored facades, each one uglier and gaudier than the next. I was all alone. It was just me, the water, and hundreds of people walking, jogging, slurping coffee and gabbing along the boardwalk behind me. Alone is often a state of mind. As far as I was concerned, I was truly alone as I wrapped myself in my traditional Jewish prayer garb and began to recite the early morning blessings of the Jewish prayer book. I was oblivious to the possible stares and befuddlement of beachwear clad passersby who would see me in my strange worship clothing from a distance. As I tried talking to God through my prayers, my mind wandered helplessly back and forth between the words of the prayer book and the awe inspiring setting of the ocean that can produce almost spontaneous inspiration.

Then I saw him. He was probably in his mid twenties, though his heavy black parka in which he huddled with the hood over his head made him look older. Thick black sneakers with the laces untied came up above his ankles, and he seemed not the least bit aware or disturbed that he was dressed for upstate New York in February while around us a clear, seventy five degree day was dawning. Fairly close to the water, and no more than twenty feet away from him with no one else close by, I was instantly repelled by him. Inferring from his dress and behavior that he was homeless and mentally ill, I was overtaken by a primal fear for my safety. I almost instinctively began planning how to flee him if he approached me. Having encountered my share of mentally ill homeless people, some of whom were violent, when I lived in New York City, I decided that it was in my best interests to avoid eye contact and to move away from him quickly. As I stood near him in a state of quiet panic and suspicion, my mother’s voice –of all things- suddenly broke through the cloud of terror and distraction inside my head: “Don’t run away from him or mistreat him. For all you know, he could be a messenger from God.” All laughter aside at the absurdity of the situation, I wasn’t really surprised that her advice popped into my head just then. From time to time since my childhood, she has reminded me and my siblings of that ancient Jewish folk teaching, impressing upon us that each person is so precious it is always possible for anyone –even the anonymous homeless man walking the beach- to be God’s messenger dressed in deceptive clothing.

I didn’t run away. I stayed to watch him lie down in the sand, oblivious to me and the rest of humanity, as the ocean wind crept gently around us. We were twenty feet apart, both of us out of synch with the world, but still separated from each other by light years of radically different fortunes. I was a privileged, middle class man enjoying God’s sunny company while wearing Bermuda shorts. He was a homeless man, clothed in the winter-dark colors of mental illness. My heart opened to this person who I did not know, who I would never befriend and whose life I could not change. With my compassion for him overcoming my fear, I began to weep as I touched the fragile yet persistent bond of humanity drawing us together. My mother’s voice faded, and from deep within me I imagined hearing God responding to my prayers by asking me: “Is your heart breaking for this man?” “Yes,” I answered between sobs. “Good,” God said, “Now you can truly begin to pray.”

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.


Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

We came from Albany, New York, Scottsdale Arizona, and Pensacola, Florida. We came from Washington, DC, Boston, Massachusetts, and New York, New York. We came from Las Vegas, Nevada, Fullerton, California, and Mexico City, Mexico. Like a people journeying to its promised land from the four corners of the earth, we converged upon beautiful Mobile, Alabama to celebrate with close friends of mine as their son became a bar mitzvah, a boy who is coming of age in the Jewish tradition. Representing our family from Albany, my son and I took a long journey down to the deep south, joining other dear family and friends to watch with pride as the boy took his own journey into adulthood through this time honored rite of passage. The weekend went perfectly. The young man led worship services, reciting the ancient Hebrew prayers with a southern drawl, thus fusing the sacred language of his ancestors with the warm, rich cadences of the wider world in which he lives and plays. His father is the rabbi of the synagogue where the ceremony took place. It gave me and my other colleagues who were there incredible pleasure to watch him be the proud father as well as the officiant, something that we clergy don’t often get to do for each other. Their Jewish community demonstrated its unparalleled blend of gracious southern hospitality and haimishness, the Yiddish word for warmth and hominess. “Shalom y’all,” the slightly exaggerated Hebrew greeting of peace peculiar to Jews of the south, was the order of the day. We worshipped together, we ate too much great food, we sang, laughed, and cried, as the boy’s extended family and friends surrounded him with love and pride, thanking God for enabling us to reach that special occasion.

A few months later, my entire family and I were privileged to celebrate with other close friends from rabbinical school days as their daughter became a bat mitzvah, a Jewish girl who is coming of age. Once again, family and friends converged on the synagogue in Washington, DC, where my friend –the girl’s father- is the rabbi. People came from all over the world to wish her well as she began her foray into adulthood, and once again we proudly sang, danced, ate, drank, and worshipped together.

Now that my son is preparing for becoming a bar mitzvah in the next year, I have been thinking a lot about the underlying meaning of these and similar life cycle celebrations. Specifically, who is the celebration really about? At one level, these ceremonies celebrate the life and achievements of the child in the presence of God and community. They are our way of saying to him or her, “We thank God for your having reached this point in your life, we wish you luck on the next leg of your journey, and we have expectations of you as an adult member of your faith wherever you go and whatever you do.” Yet at a deeper, though not too hidden, level these life cycle events are also an opportunity for extended family, parents in particular, to take a long look at what the dramas of their lives have wrought thus far. If our children are reflections of us, then bar and bat mitzvahs, communions, and confirmations are times when we look in the mirror to confront what is peering back, beauty, warts, and all. We invite our friends and family not only because we love them and want them to share in our joy, but also because they have been our supporting actors in our life dramas and they can affirm that we have acted well. We also need them to assure us that the best scenes in those dramas are yet to come, especially since our children’s growth means that we too are gradually aging and nearing death.

At both celebrations I attended, after morning worship and the Sabbath day luncheon were completed, many of the guests went home to rest before evening worship. A small group of us –mostly rabbis and spouses- sat around at a table singing the traditional, Sabbath melodies that are customary in Jewish tradition as the light of the Sabbath day starts to fade and the gradual transition to the new week begins. Drinking scotch whiskey slowly, we sang the twenty third psalm to a popular melody whose somber notes match the days’ serenity and our acknowledgement of the frail, imperfect world awaiting us beyond the protective walls of the Sabbath and those celebrations of life. We chanted my favorite line in the psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no harm, for You (God) are with me.” I have taught one meaning of this line many times to others: from the moment that we are born, we realize that every day of life is a walk in that valley. We are always conscious of the fact that death is shadowing us, and that each day that we live that shadow grows a bit longer.

Nonetheless, we can walk through life courageously, knowing that God’s presence fills our lives when we live with purpose and joy. Sitting with my friends, the proud parents, at their celebrations, and awaiting the time when I will be the proud parent, I now understand the words in a very personal manner. Yes, our children’s coming of age is one more marker that we have passed on our journeys through the valley. Yet we are passing those markers together as fellow travelers who will support each other along the way. Even as we grow older, our children –reflections of ourselves and made in God’s image as well- will take their own places on the journey and carry with them the values and love that are the durable legacies we have given them.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.