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Thanks

One year ago today, I stood on this pulpit and spoke with you about the children’s poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, that classic piece of poetry that explores the profound meaning found in the liminal space between asphalt and concrete.

We discussed the metaphor implicit within Shel Silverstein’s writing, how the messiness of that place where the sidewalk ends is the reality of all our lives, the meaning implicit in this holiday of the New Year. How each and every year we live our lives in the turbulent space where the sidewalk ends, where the smoke blows black and asphalt flowers fill pits and cracks, and that our purpose on this earth is to find a way to walk forward in spite of life’s messiness. Read more

I Did It, Mom

Dear Mom,

It happened. Finally.

There were a handful of things that you built your life around. Besides shopping, and Lifetime Television, and rice pudding… You got to marry off two of your daughters before getting sick. You got to see me become a rabbi before you began treatment.

You left this world knowing that you had raised two children, had built a massive family of in-laws and step children and an ex-husband and so many others who were tied together because of you.

And I think you also left wondering whether I would ever settle down. Whether I would find the woman I loved and actually find the courage to ask her to spend her life with me.

I did.

And she said yes.

I will never get over the regret I feel that you two never met. But you were too sick by then. It would not have been fair to you and who you were. So you had to settle for Facebook “friends.”

But you knew that she was incredible.

You were the first one to know that Dallas was where I should go, where I should bring my work and build my life. You knew it before I did. You didn’t know that I was going to find my match here, a woman who I could not be more fortunate and blessed to now call my fiancé. A blonde, at that!

She’s so much like you, mom. She’s a fundraiser, yes. And she’s also beautiful, and the sweetest, kindest soul in the world. She loves your family, and spends so many of her days madly in love with the bonds of love that you built. She’s stubborn, and strong-willed, just like you.

She would make you unbelievably proud. She works so hard to keep your memory alive, to be all that you would expect of her, to carry on your legacy for me and for all our family.

I’m so sorry that, Friday night, we couldn’t call you. You were the one person who would have enjoyed that call the most.

But I feel you smiling. I feel you and your joy and your excitement for everything that is to come. I just wish I could see it too. I would give anything for that.

When you were dying, when it was too late, and you knew the end was coming, you asked my dad, “Will the kids be ok?”

I’m not going to lie. It’s been an awful year. Your absence leaves a hole that I don’t know we’ll ever begin to fill. There are days when I think I’m ok, and then, the next, or the one after that, it all comes crashing back down. I miss you so much. I always will.

But today, mom, for the first time in a year, only three days before we mark your yahrtzeit, I finally know the answer to your question.

I miss you so much mom, so so much. But I found Danielle.

And I am going to be alright.

Love,

Me

Sandee

The day after my mom was given her death sentence, I went up to the Valley to visit my grandma.

Still shaken by the shock of the news, I wanted solace in the embrace of a person I loved and had known my whole life. I wanted to share the terrible news with someone who cared and knew my mom.

We sat together at a table, over lunch, and I said, “Grandma, you know, my mom’s really sick.”

She sat there, unfazed for a moment, and then inquired, “Oh. Do you think I should go visit her?”

Holding back the tears, I smiled for a quick moment, amused by the irony of her offer. She was, after all, well into an advanced case of Alzheimer’s at that point, confined to the Los Angeles Jewish Home where she could be cared for and cared to. She no longer remembered my mom, but she faked it well. She certainly was in no position to go visit.

But, despite the ravages of her lost identity, she still had the vestiges of sympathy and concern, offering to be there to help soothe someone else’s pain.

In that moment, at the table, I shook my head. “No, I don’t think you need to visit her, grandma.” I said. “I think she’ll be OK.” I knew she wouldn’t.

She looked me in the eye, reached out and grabbed my hand. “Are you going to cry now?” She asked. I did.

I haven’t seen my grandma since that June morning. Between the move to Dallas and  mourning of my own mom, I’ve had to cling to news and updates from my dad about his.

My grandma breathed her last breath this morning, at 3:52 AM, surrounded by the immensely large family of which she was matron. We knew it was coming, inevitable, but it still stings to lose someone. And it aches to watch my dad lose his mom, because I know just how awful an experience that is, and I don’t want anyone that I love to have to live through it. So I’ll be there, to help him walk down mourning’s path. The role-reversal feels odd, but also oddly soothing.

Such is.

My grandma’s mom herself lost all semblances of her memory, for almost ten years before her passing. I remember, as a kid, visiting my great grandma with her, sitting at a table with the shell of a woman, incognizant of who or where she was. As we left that visit, I asked my grandma, “How do you deal with seeing your mom like that?”

“My mom’s already dead,” she said to me. “I said goodbye to her years ago.”

And such it was, in ways, with my grandma as well. She began her departure many years back. She’s been all-but-gone for a few now. But today she left this earth.

Yet despite Alzheimer’s toll, she was still my grandma, still alive, she was still my dad’s mom, a woman who, even in her dementia, could reach out and ask if she should go pay a visit to my sick mom, could put her hand on mine and ask if I was going to cry.

This morning, grandma, I cry for you. Sondra Audrey Singer, you will be missed.

The Work of Prophets

Among the writings, papers, books and essays I have come across in my day, one quote rises above all others for its resonance, its salient criticism coupled with its invitation for improvement.

Abraham Joshua Heschel opens his major philosophical work, God in Search of Man, with words stunning in their sharpness, words that will be familiar to many of you with whom I have had the honor of studying this past year. The opening words to Heschel’s magnum opus declare:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Religion’s demise in modernity, says Heschel, is its own fault, a direct result of its inability to captivate the hearts and minds of its practitioners. Coming from arguably the most influential rabbi in twentieth century America, these words offer a acute critique of religion as we know it.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

Heschel, through his very being, showed us a way to remedy this malady. For Heschel was a man who dedicated his life to embodying a Judaism which has the power to transform worlds, a Judaism that speaks intimately to the soul. Heschel was a man who demanded we do nothing short of praying with our feet – allowing our prayers to infuse our very being such that our actions on this earth make manifest the very godliness and goodness that we pronounce in our liturgy.

Irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.

That need not be the religion that we hold dear. Judaism is relevant when it speaks to the issues of the day. Judaism is interesting when it when it helps us find answers to life’s greatest problems. Judaism is relieving when it offers an optimism that can lift our spirits and help us out of the depths of life’s morass.

On this most holy day, as we introspect and afflict our souls to repent and return to a more goodly path, we may be tempted to think that Heschel’s message is not the most pressing of issues. We may be tempted to let introspection turn us inward, closing us off to the world around us. We may be tempted to let teshuva monopolize our attention as a uniquely personal exercise. We may be tempted to fast, to abstain from food and drink and pleasure solely as a means of self-flagellation and punishment.

We could not be more wrong. Read more

On Dreams and Craters

There are three types of craters in this world.

The first, with which we are probably most-familiar, is when an object impacts the ground with such speed, power or force that it leaves a hole in its wake. A meteor zooms through space, ultimately entering our atmosphere, smashing the earth and creating an impact point as small as a few centimeters or as large as a thousand miles across. A volcano erupts and lava pours out, pulling down the soil above it.

The second type of crater is formed – and here’s where we get technical and scientific – it is formed when water erosion tears at the soil of a particular location, while, simultaneously, plate tectonics raise the land surrounding that erosion. There are five craters of this type named in the world, all of them in Israel. They are called a makhtesh. And the largest makhtesh is Makhtesh Ramon, about 51 miles south of Be’ersheva, where, in the middle of the Negev desert, the land opens up into a giant chasm 500 feet deep surrounded by a ring of rock 24 miles long.

The third type of crater is the impact left in the wake of transformative human behavior, when individuals so thoroughly challenge the status quo, revolt against ingrained assumptions or speak truth to power such that life as we know it, in that space, that situation or that entity is changed entirely, possibly forever.

And I want to speak with you tonight about this third type of crater, which is forming, as we speak, on the slopes of the second. Read more

Awake

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, thousands upon thousands of Jews would enter its gates every day to join in the business of Jewish offerings to the Divine. Along the southern wall of the holy complex was the Hulda Gate, actually a pair of passages – three arches on the right side and two on the left. Any person entering the Temple came through this entryway.

The Mishnah recounts that there was a very particular process for entering Beit HaMikdash – the Temple – through the Hulda gate. Not much different than the system of driving or walking that we live out to this very day, everyone entered on the right and exited on the left.

Thousands of Jews every day, approaching their Creator in service and admiration passed through the three arches on the eastern side of the Southern Wall as they entered, and passed through the two arches on the western side as they left. Imagine the enormity of the experience. Thousands of worshippers walking through three narrow passages on their way into the complex, and then again through two even narrower passages on their way out. A flood of devotees approached through small channels of entrance and exit all in the same direction.

But there was an exception to this flow. Read more