To Tell the Darkness, We Beg to Differ YKE 5778/2017 Rabbi Edwin Cole Goldberg

Selfie with American Gothic

G’mar Chatimah Tovah and Shabbat shalom!

If you are like me, you love The Art Institute of Chicago, and for many reasons.
One reason I love the Art Institute is that it has Grant Wood’s well-known painting, American Gothic.
Created in 1930, it depicts a farmer standing beside a woman that has been interpreted to be his daughter or wife.

Actually the figures were modeled by Wood’s sister and his dentist. The woman is dressed in a colonial print apron evoking 19th-century Americana, and the man is holding a pitchfork.

Interesting story about this piece of art.
For the painting to happen, the artist had to “repurpose” his life.

Grant Wood grew up in Anamosa, Iowa.
Yet when this Iowa farm boy decided to become a painter, he imagined there was only one place for him to go: Paris. He joined the expat American art community there and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

But one day in 1926, Wood woke up with a chilling thought. Every thing he was painting was wrong. He confessed to a friend:

“All those landscapes of mine of the French countryside and the familiar places in Paris. There’s not a one that the French Impressionists didn’t do a hundred times better!

“… All these years wasted because I thought you couldn’t get started as a painter unless you went to Paris and studied and painted like a Frenchman. I used to go back to Iowa and think how ugly it all was. Nothing to paint. And all I could think of was getting back here so I could find something worth painting.”

He continued:
“I think … at last … I’ve learned something….I think you have to paint … what you know. And despite the years in Europe — all I really know is home. Iowa. The farm at Anamosa. Milking cows. Cedar Rapids. The typical small town….Everything commonplace…the quiet streets, the clapboard homes, the drab clothes, the dried-up lives, the hypocritical talk, the silly boosters, the poverty of culture.”

The artist then declared:
“I’m going home for good. And I’m going to paint those cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses and all those pinched faces and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and the storefronts and the look of a field or a street in the heat of summer or when it’s 10 below and the snow is piled 6 feet high. I’m going to do it.”

And so he did. American Gothic is very possibly the most famous American painting of the 20th century. It’s one of the very few paintings that’s instantly recognizable the world over. It’s become a beloved icon of our culture.

There was a time when Grant Wood considered the rolling hills and dairy farms of eastern Iowa a wasteland, a place of artistic exile. It was only when he learned to re-vision, to repurpose, to seek the contentment that could be found there that he discovered his own distinctive style as a painter.

Here is a truth: most of will not be painting masterpieces to be hung in the Art Institute but all of us can learn a lesson from Grant Wood.

All that we see about us, all that we touch and feel that is real, serves as a stimulus for our creativity and for our development as human beings.

On this holy night of Kol Nidrei, we return to our roots, to that which is authentic in our lives. Tonight we come home. We return to what we know. To what is real.

The homecoming is not only for us as individuals.
As a congregation we are also coming home.

As you know, we are celebrating 150 years of Temple Sholom as a spiritual home.
I hope that for many of us our congregation feels like home or at least has the potential to feel that way. I hope our lives feel intertwined with the history of this sacred place.

Most of us have our own stories about this congregation, including yours truly.
I may have become a rabbi here less than five years ago but I actually first stepped foot in Temple Sholom back in 1971, when Rabbi Binstock officiated at the bar mitzvah of my cousin, Mark. I was impressed then too!
My personal connection is even stronger than that. As many of you also know, after coming here and speaking my first year about my mother’s rescue from Nazi Europe due to helpful Chicago families, I learned that the man who literally got my mother and her family a seat on the Pan Am airplane to freedom was Grant Pick, Sr. Grant Pick, Jr., his son, was an active member of Temple Sholom until his untimely death. Along with others he started the Monday Meal program. Grant’s wife, Kathy Pick, is still a cherished member.

Outside in Lake Shore Lobby there is a plaque, in memory of Grant and his establishment of the Monday Meal. When I first came, the light above the plaque rarely worked. I have made it a personal mission to always have this light on. I did so not only out of gratitude to Grant and his family, but because I also think that light is a symbol of the past, present, and potential greatness of Temple Sholom.

I imagine many years from now someone asking me what was my mission at Temple Sholom and I will answer, “To keep the light burning.” And they will think that’s a metaphor. But actually I will be quite literal.

Also maybe metaphorical.

Light and a flame, have long been symbols of Temple Sholom. Indeed, there is a flame of light on our Temple business cards. Also, as most of you know our 150th year has an official motto: Temple Sholom: Illuminating the Future Since 1867.

Some questions to ponder:
Just how have we been illuminating the future in the past?
Why is this image of light so essential to our story?
And what, exactly, is so special about light as a symbol?

Here is my answer: Earlier tonight, when we took out the Torah scrolls, we read this verse from Psalms:
Light is Sown for the Righteous, Joy for the Upright in Heart. Or zarua latzadik ul-yishrei lev simcha. (Ps 97 11).

Of all the texts in the Bible why do Jews traditionally sing these words when we take out our Torah scrolls for Kol Nidre, quite possibly the holiest moment of the year?
Why of all texts do we sing this?

Think about it: Light is sown, planted. Just like seeds. It is latent, like the crops on Grant Wood’s farm in winter.

It does not come out by itself. Light needs us to thrive. It needs righteous people.
Righteousness is the very essence of our Torah, of our faith.
“Light is sown for the righteous.”
Light is also sown by the righteous.
And it is the righteous who spread the light.

Why, exactly, is light a metaphor?
In Judaism “light” stands for all spiritual blessing for all our blessings are sown for us just as wheat-grains and flower-seeds are sown. We gather the harvest from this sowing—as we pluck flowers from garden or field, or reap the wheat from the fields.
You see, God gives us our blessings not fully-formed—but as seeds.

Temple Sholom over the decades had cultivated those seeds and produced beautiful light.

Just look at our history. Our early senior rabbis, Aaron Norden and Abraham Hirshberg, were known for the social justice work they performed for the City of Chicago. They cared about the poor and – in the language of their day – “the friendless”. After he left the pulpit and served in the Illinois legislature, Rabbi Norden sponsored a fair wage bill. Rabbi Hirshberg wanted everyone to have a place to pray in the city so he arranged for the temple to rent the Medinah Temple – you might know it these days as the Bloomingdale’s Home Store – to hold extra High Holy Day services. Rabbis Norden and Hirshberg most definitely brought the light.

Rabbi Louis Binstock arranged for Eleanor Roosevelt to speak from this very pulpit. The very same Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Rabbi Binstock brought Reverend Dr. King. Rabbi Binstock brought the light.

Rabbi Schwartz with education and Rabbi Petuchowski with pastoring brought the light. Elie Wiesel brought the light when he spoke from this very pulpit.

I don’t have to tell you how much light our current clergy – Klay Kodesh – brings to this community. As do our lay leaders, volunteers and staff. We work for social justice. We feed the hungry. We educate ourselves and our children. We pray to God for goodness and peace.

But what about the future?
How shall we proceed in our illumination?
In our righteous work?

It is obvious to say that, just as we have harvested the planting of those who toiled before us, it’s now our time to sow the seeds of light.

But these days something is different. It’s been a long time since this congregation, this community, this country has faced so much darkness and is in need of so much more light.

Do I have to spell out the darkness of these days? Charlottesville. Washington. Whitefish. The Internet.

Make no mistake: we are living in a scary time. And so sowing the seeds of light — at least in my lifetime — has never seemed so important and so challenging.

Just how do we shine the light outward in these difficult days?

Once there was a grandmother, struggling with a life-threatening illness, who had her little granddaughter with her one Chanukah. The granddaughter was watching her as she lit the menorah and placed it in the window. “Grandma,” the little girl asked, “why do we light candles on Chanukah ?”

“We light candles on Chanukah, my dear, to tell the darkness we beg to differ.”

Casting away darkness is our mission; like an old Chanukah song says: banu choshech legaresh, we have come to banish the darkness.

In the years ahead as individuals and as a sacred community we have an important choice to make: will we sow more seeds of light or will we allow the darkness to increase?

My fervent prayer is that you will join me and your congregation in saying loud and clear to the darkness,
“We beg to differ”.

How do we spread the light? How do we banish the darkness?
How do we tell the darkness, “We beg to differ?”

So many things to do:

There are the mitzvot of feeding the hungry and all the other charitable acts.

There are monetary donations we can make.

There are political acts and there is the need to educate ourselves, to get into the “great game” of politics. Only it’s not just a game. It’s our future. This country needs us active; no more spectator sports.

But also there is the need to support our spiritual home. During these dark times it may be tempting to put all our resources in the political arena. But I believe strengthening our spiritual home is also vital.

Now more than ever we need to confront racism, xenophobia and hate with a renewed effort to study and understand the wisdom of our Jewish heritage.

Now more than ever our young people need exposure to the texts and practices of Judaism that will give them a strong identity and promote resilience and grit.

Now more than ever we need to have a place to gather in prayer and to find inspiration.

We should all heed the call to sow the seeds of light in Temple Sholom. Let your temple be part of the solution. Just as we have been for 150 years.

Now more than ever, we need each other and we need a strong Temple Sholom of Chicago. We need you to make our temple stronger, warmer, more learned, more spiritual, a place to come and be made resilient and refreshed, renewed and refocused.

I know some may see the rise of antisemitism in our country and conclude the best thing to do is avoid too much Jewish practice, to blend in, to assimilate even more. To hunker down.
This is exactly not the right thing to do.
This is the worst time to walk away from our Jewish identity and our resources of spiritual resilience.
Two thousand years ago this lesson was taught to us by the great Rabbi Akiva.
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?”
Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable.
“A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said the fox to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’
“Said the fish to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’
“The fox said: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’
“Said the fish to the fox: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’
“The same applies to us,” taught Akiva. “If now, when we sit and study the Torah, our source of light and the core of our existence, how much more so will we be in danger if we neglect it . . . .”
Akiva was right then and he is right now.
In dark times more than ever we need the light of Torah, of Jewish wisdom, of identifying with the Jewish community.
And we need to support our spiritual home, the synagogue, the only institution whose single purpose is the cultivation of Jewish light.
Temple Sholom of Chicago:
We need to sow the seeds of light.
We need to continue to illuminate the future and say to the damned darkness: we beg to differ!

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“Arise, shine for our time has come,” declares the prophet. The world is pleading to us: shine the light of righteousness in a world eclipsed by hate and fear.
Temple Sholom has a purpose.
Our business is illumination.
That’s what we do.
We shine the light and we never stop hoping for a better future.

Hugo Gryn, an exemplary Reform rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, was born in Czechoslovakia in a home filled with great warmth. He once related: When I was a young boy my family was sent to Auschwitz. For a while my father and I shared a barrack. In spite of the unspeakable horror, oppression and hardship, many Jews held onto what scraps of Jewish religious observance as they were able.

One midwinter evening one of the inmates reminded us that tonight was the first night of Chanukah, the festival of lights. My father constructed a little Chanukah menorah out of scrap metal. For a wick, he took some threads from his prison uniform.

For oil, he used some butter that he somehow obtained from a guard.

Such observances were strictly “verboten,” but we were used to taking risks.

Rabbi Gryn continued: I protested at the “waste” of precious calories. Would it not be better to share the butter on a crust of bread than burn it?

“Hugo,” said my father, “both you and I know that a person can live a very long time without food. But Hugo, I tell you, a person cannot live a single day without hope.

This Menorah is the fire of hope. Never let it go out. Not here. Not anywhere. Remember that Hugo.”

My friends, the darkness gathers.
The fear is real.
But so is the light. And it is ours to share.

This then is our task, as we illuminate the future: to release the light of goodness, of kindness, of justice and peace. The light of Torah.

And the best part is we don’t have to go anywhere. We don’t have to search for something. We already have it! It just needs to be released.

Temple Sholom has illuminated the darkness for 150 years.
We are just getting started!
What is our task? To keep the light burning, yes. But even more crucial, to sow the seeds of light.

An old Hebrew song says: “we all have little torches.” Yes indeed we all have little torches. They are not tikki torches of hate used on the march in Charlottesville. No, sir. They are beacons of light.
And just as the darkness is real so, too, is the light.

Light is sown for the righteous. Or Zarua Latzadik.

I call upon all righteous people to help us sow the seeds of light and hope, to welcome the New Year with the prayer that a starburst of righteousness will illuminate for us all a future of blessing and peace.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Temple Sholom Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5778/2017

Shanah Tovah, Temple Sholom, and Happy Birthday!

How one hundred and fifty years young we are!

Many here today have been loyal members and great supporters of Temple Sholom for a good portion of this time. Please know how indebted we are to you. Thank you! The success of Temple Sholom is due in no small part to your loyalty to and love for this congregation. God bless you!

You know, one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1867, some amazing things happened in the world.

January 9, 1867: African Americans in D.C. are granted the right to vote.

February 13: the Blue Danube Waltz by Strauss premieres in Vienna.

March 2: the US Department of Education is formed.

March 29: the US Congress approves the building of the Lincoln Memorial.

June 12: The Congress that serves the Austro-Hungarian Empire votes to give Jews in the Empire political emancipation. From this vote countless doors will open to Jews in Austria and the Germanic States.

September 12: the 2nd synagogue in Curacao, Emanu-El of Willemstad, is inaugurated.

September 27: the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation is formed. And that will become Temple Sholom of Chicago!

Later events that year include the opening of the first Jewish college in America, Maimonides, and the beginning of the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson.

But back to September 27 and the beginning of our congregation.

I would like to think that our founders would be excited to see what we have done with the congregation in the last 150 years.

You should know that a congregation that would last this long was not a sure thing. When the original founders of the synagogue met in a lecture room on North Clark Street in 1867 to establish our synagogue they agreed on the fact that Chicago needed a synagogue north of the river. When they dedicated the first modest building on September 27 of that year — it cost a whopping $6000 — they were in agreement that the location was convenient. The outstanding issue that divided them was what kind of Judaism would they practice.

The first senior rabbi, Adolph Ollendorf, who was paid a salary of $100 a month, only lasted for two years. Many think he left because the congregation was divided between those who wanted to practice a traditional Judaism of ritual and observance, and those who favored social justice and the reformation of Judaism.

This tension would not quickly give way and there are those who argue that the next senior rabbi, Aaron Norden, who lasted for decades, ultimately left the congregation for the same reason. The congregation couldn’t decide what kind of Jews they wanted to become.

Although eventually the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation would evolve into Temple Sholom of Chicago and align itself with Reform Judaism, the tension between those who valued rituals such as keeping kosher and Shabbat observance and those who preferred the social action of prophetic Judaism remained and to some extent still remains.

Of course, the Jewish elements that the synagogue later discarded, such as head coverings for men, Torah study instead of sermons, prayer shawls, and bar mitzvahs, have all made a comeback. But the early message of social justice is still strong among Temple Sholom members.

I am proud of our social justice tradition. While researching Chicago Reform Jewish history in preparation for this year I came across a dramatic story of a labor strike at the clothing company Hart, Schaffner and Marx in 1910 that pitted poor immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe against a wealthy Reform Jew.  Hannah Shapiro, an 18-year-old Russian-born worker, led a walkout in response to a wage cut at a Hart, Schaffner & Marx factory. Within weeks, nearly 40,000 others joined the strike. After four months, Joseph Schaffner, a German-born Jew, settled with his workers in a landmark agreement that established a wage increase of ten percent, a 54-hour work week, and an independent arbitration committee to resolve labor disputes.

Schaffner only agreed to settle the strike when his rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch, convinced him that his establishing a more just place to work was the Jewish thing to do.

This was a great moment for Chicago.

When we celebrate our congregation’s momentous birthday, we should be proud of our legacy of social justice allied with our Jewish heritage.

God knows we need social justice now more than ever. The old English major in me keeps being haunted by W. B. Yeats’ famous lines, written a century ago but oddly relevant:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 

Here’s my question: If “the best lack all conviction,” then won’t the worst “with passionate intensity” have the field to themselves?

Who are the worst who are filled with passionate intensity?   I will let you make that determination for yourselves.  

As for me, I want to be clear: We need actively to share our values with our beloved country.  150 years of American Jewish life North of the River should be celebrated as a blessing but also recognized as a mandate.  The freedom we have enjoyed comes with certain responsibilities.  These include fighting for the rights of others as if we were fighting for our own rights.

Let me get more specific: As American Jews it is essential we should express outrage and condemnation of the executive order announced recently that repeals Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA was instituted by President Obama in reaction to years of failed immigration policy, giving many young people who had spent most of their lives in the U.S. hope for the future. I know there is some doubt this drastic and harsh order will be carried out but our task is not to be lulled into complacency.

We American Jews have no choice but to support these immigrants. With vigilance.

We are a nation of immigrants. And as Jews, we are all immigrants. The young people protected by DACA are part of the fabric of our communities and of our country. Their story is the story of our people as well. We know what it is to be strangers. We know the hard work and extraordinary fortitude that is required to succeed as immigrants. And we know this: We must maintain this country’s long tradition, and the principles it was founded upon, as a welcoming country, a leader of nations, and a safe haven.

The assault on immigrants is a dangerous precedent and incompatible with both our core Jewish values, and our core American values. We need policies that do not tear families apart, that aren’t created out of hate and baseless fear, but that lift up our shared humanity.

The young immigrants affected by DACA are the future of this country. We cannot turn our backs on them. We call for legislative action that provides protection for DACA immigrants and all those who come here seeking a better life for themselves.

Let us then urge our Senators and Representatives to immediately pass the Dream Act of 2017 (S.1615/H.R.3440). Congress must act now to protect DACA recipients from deportation or detention. The bipartisan Dream Act would grant DACA recipients permanent residence status and provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers who attend college, work in the U.S., or serve in the military.

We need to support this bill because it is enmeshed in who we are.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the head of the Religious Action Center, and a future guest this year at Temple Sholom, recently offered this pledge:

We will not be indifferent when a  woman of color fears for the safety of her children.

We will not be indifferent when a young man is at risk of losing his essential health care.

We will not be indifferent when take home wages hold millions in poverty or when mass incarceration rips apart millions of American families.

We will not be indifferent when transgender Americans are denied the chance to serve their country.

We will not be indifferent when a sheriff sworn to protect the community abuses the law and preys upon people instead.

We will not be indifferent because we believe so deeply in the power of people of faith to act together and transform our society.

We will not be indifferent because we know

that when we stand with one another,

when we love one another as neighbors,

Then we can hold our leaders accountable

to a higher moral vision

that transcends any political party

and any political moment,

And redeem the soul of our nation.

There are so many other social justice issues. Our Sholom Justice Committee under the leadership of Rabbi Conover, Matty Major and Marla Gross, need your help. We should be proud of all that is being done.

And yet, I fear that too many of us today  subscribe to the social justice side of Judaism but have never indulged in the larger view of Judaism, rejected for a time by our Temple Sholom ancestors, but embraced by many in the years that have passed.

Why does this matter?

For one thing, social justice does not equal Judaism.

Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, and what we usually call social justice, is vital to our mission at Temple Sholom in particular and as Reform Jews in general, but it is does not stand alone at the core of our ancient faith. World-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, is nothing more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect.

To put it another way: It’s been said that saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system.

Don’t misunderstand me: I personally align with progressive values, and I believe that they have a place in Judaism. In fact I celebrate the confluence of many liberal and Jewish values.

But progressive values—or conservative convictions, or libertarian streaks, or any other variety of ideological sentiments—only have a place in our religion if they spring from our corpus of Jewish texts and especially our theology.

Our sacred task as Reform Jews is to teach and reflect the authentic values of our liberal Jewish heritage. They are the values that come from the Torah, the ancient prophets, and the compassionate insights of the classical Sages.

Our 150 year legacy as a congregation– not to mention our 4000 year Jewish heritage — should not be watered down into a vague notion of social action. Unfortunately the term “tikkun olam” has become a general motto of most American Jewry, and like other Jewish words such as “chutzpah” it has entered English vocabulary without translation. American politicians readily invoke it.

Ironically the term did not always refer to social justice work. In medieval Jewish philosophy, the word “tikkun” was often applied to human self-development, and to the quest for human “perfection,” self-actualization or moral/spiritual improvement. It was about self growth.
Even in the 1960s the term was not popular. Although he was no stranger to social action or to the teachings of the biblical prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel did not use the term “tikkun olam” to describe either of them. Heschel advocated the application of a particularly and authentically Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual issues. Unlike contemporary views of tikkun olam that begin with universalism drawn from non-Jewish ideologies, Heschel advocated the application of particularly Jewish… ideas to universalistic issues.
Simply put, our world does need repair. But so do we.

So this is what I ask of you on this special birthday: allow Temple Sholom to repair the world but also repair ourselves. The need is out there and we’ve got the cure: Jewish wisdom and practice.

Consider, for instance, Shabbat. I understand that Saturday worship was difficult for generations of Temple Sholom members. Many had to work on Saturday. One response in the early days was to make Sunday the Sabbath. Temple Sholom tried this for years. Then again, many over the years only came twice a year and did not visit the synagogue at all on most sabbaths.

But today is not one hundred years ago, and the demands on our sanity have never been greater. In short Jewish practices that may have seemed irrelevant to our Temple Sholom ancestors are pretty timely now.

We need time away from work, from our smart phones. We need prayerful meditation and the insights of ancient but timely texts.

Temple Sholom offers all of this. In honor of our 150 or in light of our crazy world, I plead with you to take this part of Judaism seriously too.

Working the Monday meal is amazing. Studying on Saturday and Sunday is also a gift, one that I urge you to consider. Being members of this incredible temple gives us a kind of Jewish authenticity that is hard to beat, but there is more that most of us can do to practice Judaism in its fuller sense.

The brochure you have spells out a myriad of opportunities, including studying our Reform Jewish heritage and the teachings of the classic prophets. Please take them home!

In short, we all know that America has many faults that must be repaired. I pray that we find a way as a country to do this work together. We must, as Rev Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. said during a 1965 commencement address for Oberlin College, learn to live together as brothers and sisters. Or, we will perish together as fools. But such work does not start in the streets. It starts in the classroom and sacred space. We repair the world first by repairing ourselves.

In conclusion, consider the insight of a Jewish ethical sage:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.

I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.

When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.

My friends, the new world beckons, the year of celebration begins and the world more than ever needs our help.

I pray we will rise to the challenge, buoyed by our noble and righteous heritage, inspired by the dedication and legacy of the giants who walked before us.

Happy Birthday, Temple Sholom.

Now let’s get busy!