Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Decoration Day/Memorial Day, 2013: Deeds and People to Remember

My mother always used the original name of this holiday, Decoration Day, rather than it’s more modern one.  She was a stickler for tradition.

She taught that for those who have served their country and have given their lives for that sacred privilege, there truly is no greater honor than to remember them through appropriate rituals of the day: Flags, flowers, red-white-and-blue bunting, ceremonies, and words were all integral parts of decorating the graves, and remembering the struggle, of service people in preserving American liberties and values.  My father’s Jewish War Veterans post always sold Memorial Day poppies to remind us to honor those who died in defense of this country, honoring their struggle.

Decoration Day arose almost spontaneously during and/or after the Civil War; historians cannot easily pinpoint its exact date of origin.  That is of no consequence, of course.  The great hue and cry of the era was to heal the nation, and mourning the more-than-600,000 Civil War dead was one of the early pathways through the nation’s grief

Just as we learn in the book of Ecclesiastes, however, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9), and modern-day struggles continue whose soldiers we must also mourn.

I think about our national experience in Vietnam.  So many Americans wanted us to win that Cold War struggle against Communism.  So many Americans warned us to leave that seemingly pointless proxy confrontation.  And we never found national consensus, until we had experienced a great loss of values and lives on both sides.  And in the midst of that era’s angst, many forgot about, neglected, and actively shunned our veteran soldiers and their needs.

The photo above is an image of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, DC.  If you have not been there, you should place it on your agenda for your next trip to our nation's capital.  It is a dramatic expression of our nation's desire never to forget those who died for our nation.

And if there is one lesson that we, as Americans, seem to have finally understood from our foray into Vietnam, it is that we have taken a different and better approach to the service men and women who return from our conflicts.  They are on our mind, and in our hearts.  And the sacrifices they make – even when many have questioned the overall goal of our nation’s presence there – must be honored and appreciated, even in these days of shrinking dollars for veterans and their needs, and even when many Americans questions the overall purpose of our country’s mission.

Our fighting men and women act on orders by superiors – and ultimately a civilian superior, the President – whom we can petition when we disagree with our nation’s military or other actions.  And we must, at the same time, care for our soldiers, active and retired, even when we have disagreed with the purpose of their actions.

If there is an overriding message on this Memorial Day, it is to continue to respect and support those fighters who have placed their lives on the line for our nation’s ideals and values.  We do this in the memory of all those who have fallen for this nation.

On this Memorial Day, find a veteran, or an active service member, and let them know how much we truly appreciate their sacrifices.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Life in Israel during Times of Alarm (and not yet crisis)

I have observed that Israelis tend to live in many different worlds, and many at the same time.  (Talk about your multi-tasking!)  And this is, to me, most evident at this moment in time, when the State of Israel faces – and addresses – external threats.

By now I imagine that you have learned that Iranian surface-to-surface missiles were destroyed by an air attack in Damascus over the past weekend.  It is presumed that these weapons were to be transferred to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and someone wanted to eliminate them.  As of this writing no one has claimed responsibility for this attack, though the presumed perpetrator is Israel.

The rationale is for such an act is just and clear: Israel has the obligation to protect her citizens.  As President Obama said this past Sunday, “…What I have said in the past and what I continue to believe is that the Israelis – justifiably – have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah…Hezbollah has repeatedly said that they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv, so the Israelis have to be vigilant and they have to be concerned.  We will continue to coordinate with Israel…” (You find the video at http://www.nytimes.com/video/#100000002208575)

But on the Israeli street, life continues as usual.  As they say, “Ein b’reirah,” “There is no alternative.”

Students go to school: I was present yesterday as a Fifth grade class at the Arlozorov School in Haifa spoke by video conference to our students at Temple Beth El in Madison.  And after the video conference, they went outside to play basketball (and did not go home to do homework!), just like any other day.

Adults go to work: The road traffic is the same, with some very dangerous drivers, and many polite and careful ones.  That, by the way, is a notable change for those who are familiar with Israelis’ reputations for being poor drivers.

Life along Israel’s northern border feels normal: There is no obvious (that’s the operative word, I imagine) military presence, except for what is typical for a patrolling border with a hostile neighbor.
But there have been exceptional experiences over the last ten days or so:

From the Israelis shooting down a Hezbollah drone over Haifa Bay, to the first attacks in Syria last Thursday night; from the weird journey that an Israeli citizen took in crossing the Lebanese border this past Thursday (purportedly an emotionally upset person), to this past Thursday afternoon when I was on a hike about six miles east of here and heard artillery fire in the direction of Lebanon; to Saturday night's action in Damascus.  Yes, these are exceptional times…but Israelis seem to be taking them in stride, and they remain upbeat and positive throughout.

Discussions of the security situation are heard endlessly on the radio and on television; there is no lack of dialogue on the subject.  But people whom I encounter every day – from Erez College to Congregation Emet v’Shalom in Nahariya to my host family on the kibbutz where I live – seem to deal with things in stride, a reality that reduces some of the stress that one might otherwise feel given the same situation.

May we live in peace and security, so that no one has to learn about war anymore!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Observations from my Sabbatical Leave: Happy Mothers' Day


On this coming Mothers' Day (notice where I placed the apostrophe!), I cannot be with my wife - a wonderful and always supportive mother - to share with her in person my admiration and appreciation of her mothering talents.  So for those who have connections with mothers here, there, and everywhere, I found something on the Internet that I would share with you.  I cannot cite the source, but I believe it will place a smile on your face!  Share it with the nearest mother you know!

WHY GOD MADE MOMS:   Answers given by 2nd grade school children to the following questions:

Why did God make mothers?
1. She's the only one who knows where the scotch tape is.
2. Mostly to clean the house.
3. To help us out of there when we were getting born.

How did God make mothers?
1. God used dirt, just like for the rest of us.
2. Magic plus super powers and a lot of stirring.
3. God made my mom just the same like God made me. God just used bigger parts.

What ingredients are mothers made of?
1. God makes mothers out of clouds and angel hair and everything nice in the world and one dab of mean.
2. They had to get their start from men's bones. Then they mostly use string, I think.

Why did God give you your mother and not some other mom?
1. We're related.
2. God knew she likes me a lot more than other people's moms like me.

What kind of a little girl was your mom?
1. My mom has always been my mom and none of that other stuff.
2. I don't know because I wasn't there, but my guess would be pretty bossy.
3. They say she used to be nice.

What did your mom need to know about your dad before she married him?
1. His last name.
2. She had to know his background. Like is he a crook? Does he get drunk on beer?
3. Does he make at least $800 a year? Did he say NO to drugs and YES to chores?

Why did your mom marry your dad?
1. My dad makes the best spaghetti in the world. And my mom eats a lot.
2. She got too old to do anything else with him.
3. My grandma says that mom didn't have her thinking cap on.

Who's the boss at your house?
1. Mom doesn't want to be boss, but she has to because dad's such a goof ball.
2. Mom. You can tell by room inspection. She sees the stuff under the bed.
3. I guess mom is, but only because she has a lot more to do than dad.

What's the difference between moms and dads?
1. Moms work at work and work at home, and dads just go to work at work.
2. Moms know how to talk to teachers without scaring them.
3. Dads are taller and stronger, but moms have all the real power cause that's who you got to ask if you want to sleep over at your friends.
4. Moms have magic, they make you feel better without medicine.

What does your mom do in her spare time?
1. Mothers don't do spare time.
2. To hear her tell it, she pays bills all day long.

What would it take to make your mom perfect?
1. On the inside she's already perfect. Outside, I think some kind of plastic surgery.
2. Diet. You know, her hair. I'd dye it, maybe blue.

If you could change one thing about your mom, what would it be?
1. She has this weird thing about me keeping my room clean. I'd get rid of that.
2. I'd make my mom smarter. Then she would know it was my sister who did it, and not me.
3. I would like for her to get rid of those invisible eyes on the back of her head.

The translation of the Hebrew poem above about mothers:

If you look to the right or you look to the left, whether you look behind or ahead, you will never find any other word more beautiful than mother.
The word rings out with wonderful sound which no one has ever been able to match.  A special word that has no equal, nor can be exchanged with any other, is mother.
It is the most pleasant of words to which, at night, we fall asleep.  It is the first word that we learned to speak.  Do you remember, mother?
And if her reputation and name do not adequately define her, at home or out of the house, it’s not because we have forgotten her.  For we will never forget you, mother.
And if her reputation and name are somehow mistaken, perhaps this is a mistake that has been made by others, we know that this was completely wrong – forgive me, mother.
And even after we’ve grown, and when we’ve set up our own homes: for eternity, forever, and always we will remember and love you, mother.