Category Archives: On my mind

Now That’s More Like It

الحمد لله‎   ב”ה

So I’m living here in Oakland now.

I’ve been feeling the need to connect and/or be responsive to the people around me.  I see a fair amount of suffering and poverty, as well as the slightly hardened way many people walk when they are surrounded by folks in need.  And I need to do something different.

I have been doing my usual thing: I smile to people as I walk, and I give to folks who are in need, but I feel like I’ve been blessed with a lot and I should share more of it.  Share more of my money, my time, my self.

There have been protests here lately as well, and I haven’t taken the time to find out where and when they are, and if there is some agenda there that I can support.  I was actually traveling on a road trip through Saint Louis back in August when Michael Brown was shot.  I was 25 miles away when it happened.  Feels odd to be so disconnected from the aftermath.

There has, of course, been a lot of emotional response to the event.  So many of us think we know what happened, even though we weren’t there, even though the eyewitness testimony is so all over the map.  Because we tend to see events like this through a pre-determined lens of however we already understand the world to be.

But what I see is that even though I have little idea exactly what happened in Ferguson, I do see communities that are so angry and resentful over years of exclusion and mistreatment that a single incident of this kind can induce riots.  What kind of a country are we living in when a large segment of the population is that bitter?

And there of course the over-reactions to those reactions, and so on.  A lack of any kind of reasonable public discourse, it has seemed to me.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read Chris Martin’s

I still don’t know what I’m going to do.  But I do appreciate the thoughtful and feeling response to tragedy.  Nicely done.


What are you thinking?



So I’m driving along on a California freeway, six lanes in each direction.  Six lanes.  The traffic is relatively light, so we can all choose whatever lane we want.  But I notice no one drives in the rightmost “slow” lane; my fellow drivers are spread out across the remaining five lanes.  Is there a stigma to that “slow” lane?  Indeed, the driver in the left-most “fast” lane is going the slowest of all.

I realize I’d like to pass, which I would have to do on the right, but I can’t because the driver in that lane is also going relatively slowly.  And I find myself growing annoyed at this situation.  “What are these drivers thinking?” I ask myself.  If they want to drive slowly — fine!  Pick a slow lane.  Why dawdle in a fast lane?  If we all chose our lanes thoughtfully and cooperatively, everyone could go just the speed they want.  No problem.

And it’s not just these two drivers, either.  All five left lanes have relatively slow cars in them.  Cars approaching from the rear that want to speed along have to weave in and around many of these sluggish cars.  In fact, the irony is that the fastest drivers end up using the slowest lane a lot, because it’s usually empty, creating the dangerous situation where the fastest vehicles and the slowest merging on-ramp traffic vie for the same space.  Crazy.

“Why, why, why?” I self-righteously ask as I shake my head and condemn my fellow travelers’ lack of safe and considerate driving choices.  And, just moving here from the Midwest, I leap to the stereotypical explanation that Californians in general are so caught up in their own experience that they are oblivious to the needs of the other drivers around them.  Unfair, I grant you, but that’s where my mind goes.

So I pause.  I take a breath and remind myself that G-d has created this moment for me for a reason. What might He want me to learn from it?

The thought blossoms in my mind: is this how we look from On High?  We’re all going about our daily individual lives, caught up in our own experiences, our own families, our own Facebook pages, and all the while–  people relatively nearby don’t have enough food to eat, families lack shelter, children face terrible schools, whole communities are losing hope.  There’s a crisis demanding our attention, and yet we go trudging along, day by day, seemingly oblivious to the fact that our inaction keeps such a system in place.

What are we thinking?

G-d seems to have infinite patience with us, but I have to say, “Why, why, why?”  Why are we, one of the richest nations on earth, failing to provide for our fellows in such obvious ways?  Do we really think it’s fair and good the way things are for the least well off?  That their suffering is somehow their own fault?  Even the kids growing up in some of these neighborhoods and schools?

I had a conversation recently with my soon-to-be brother-in-law.  When we look back at the 50s, we wonder how people could tolerate such a blatantly racist system of separate public bathrooms and schools, sitting in the back of the bus, and so forth.  Surely we would never have been so complacent, right?  But what will generations hence say about our tolerating the huge inequity in school systems between rich and poor communities?  The glaring and increasing gap between the rich and poor overall?

Lovely questions to ask, I say to myself.  Ultimately, I’m asking these questions of myself, Gentle Reader.  And I’m not at all sure what I’m going to do about this.  When I was younger I did social work for a time, helping families in difficult situations.  We didn’t solve all their problems, but I know I did feel, at the end of the day, that I’d made some kind of positive difference in their lives.

But I feel we need some kind of systemic change here; a more widespread change of awareness, a change of heart.  We need to find ways of working cooperatively, not just on the highway, but in communities as well.

I feel this acutely myself right now.  Moving to Oakland, where plenty of folks are suffering, I find it difficult to contemplate taking a six-figure computer job and just ignoring their plight only a stone’s throw from my house.

Part of the difficulty, I think we all readily admit, is that these problems seem so large and intractable that we don’t know where to start.  So we don’t start, and we end up doing nothing at all.  Which is clearly unsatisfying.  Even volunteering one weekend a month would be better than nothing.  But somehow that feels inadequate as well.

And this is something I need to figure out.  It’s bothering me.  I can’t just poke along behind the slow moving driver in front of me, thinking self-righteous thoughts.  I need to act.

Gentle Reader, what do you suggest I do?

Slowing down


Feeling sick today, with a bug that’s been with me over Rosh Hashana and Shabbos (ie, the past three days).  So no fasting for me, despite the fact that it’s a fast day (Tzom Gedaliah).

That means both letting go of the fast, and not going very fast.  :>

I think there’s a grace to practice when sick.  Letting go of the “to do” list, the upcoming deadlines and projects around the house.  Just being here with this body, with this spirit.  Slowing down.  Letting go.

I usually find a spiritual message waiting for me in there, like a gift yet to be unwrapped.  Some correction (small or large) that I need to make in my trajectory or my outlook.

I haven’t seen it yet this time around.

But the day is young.

What do you do when you’re sick, Gentle Reader?

Rest in peace, Rabbi Barry Woolf (z”l)


R. Woolf #2

Sunday, he was at the bris celebrating an eight-day-old baby entering into the eternal covenant. Monday, he had entered the eternal realms himself, and his body was being escorted to The Holy Land for burial.  Here one day, gone the next.  Breathtaking.

Rabbi Woolf was a friend of mine.  One of those funny things because we had never spent much time together really, but somehow we had a connection, an understanding between us.  And when we did spend time together it was most rewarding.

He spoke his mind, Rabbi Woolf did.  He’d get a twinkle in his eyes sometimes before he said something he knew might sound outrageous or controversial.  But he called things like he saw them.  I found that so refreshing.  In a world where people sometimes tiptoe around unpleasant truths or awkward situations, Rabbi Woolf would dive right in to the heart of the matter.

He had little patience for hypocrisy or showiness.  Most troubling to him was what he saw as a trend in religious circles towards focusing on the external manifestations of piety (clothing, etiquette, ritual) rather than the inner workings of the heart (kindness, truthfulness, going the extra mile for a fellow human).  And he spoke frankly about it.

I also thank him for his advice in developing my relationship with the woman who is now my fiancée.  She and I have different religious practices, as well as divergent expectations on how to proceed in a relationship.  “Move out to California for six months,” he trumpeted.  “Follow your heart.”  And I did.  And here we are, planning our wedding for the end of October.

So thank you, Rabbi Woolf.  I was hoping to dance with you at our wedding celebration, but I will have to content myself with knowing you are there in spirit.

I was sorry not to be able to bid you farewell yesterday at the St. Paul airport, but I was glad to hear that rabbis from all sectors of the community were there.  A fitting tribute.  From sunny California, I add my tearful wave to theirs.  I’ll miss you.

May your journey be a joyful one, to the heights of the celestial realms.  I’m sure they’re celebrating in heaven.  One of the good ones has returned home.