Friday, February 27, 2015

Boldly Go – In Memory of Leonard Nimoy

Tonight’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is focused on the priestly raiments. We learn about the Ephod, the Breastpiece, the robe, a fringed tunic, headdress and sash, the kinds of yarns that are to be used and metals and gems for adornment.  There was a whole lot of commentary connected to this Torah partion today with people arguing about whether the priestly dress was white and gold or instead blue and black!

After describing the priestly vestments, the Torah speaks of the method of consecration, of the sacrificial practices that must be performed. Finally, we hear of where God will meet with the priests, in the Tent of Meeting which will be sanctified by God’s presence.

The specifics of the discussion of priestly garments are not directly appropriate to the matters of the day, or perhaps considering the many discussions about the color of that dress, all too appropriate. Yet, the Torah which was taught this afternoon was indeed connected to the priests. It focused on the Priestly Benediction and the hand gesture of the character Spock from Star Trek. The much beloved actor who portrayed Spock, Leonard Nimoy, passed away today at the age of 83.

Leonard Nimoy, who grew up Orthodox in Boston to Ukrainian immigrant parents, helped to bring Jewish ideals into millions of homes through Star Trek. Nimoy, actor, director, photographer, poet, ended up so connected to the character of Spock that he struggled to make his own way. His two autobiographies were entitled, “I am not Spock,” published in 1977 and “I am Spock,” published in 1995.

Star Trek, which debuted September 8, 1966 took on the social issues of the day though a campy sci-fi show set in the distant future. Star Trek challenged numerous social norms from women’s rights, to race, equality and much more. Spock’s character presented and represented several challenges to social norms.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, called him the “conscience of Star Trek.” Spock was a vehicle used to bring science and reason to confront human emotional reactions and beliefs. Whenever a prejudice or some aspect of faith impacted a storyline, Spock was there to squash it or to highlight it.

My favorite Spock scene is one from the movie Wrath of Khan. Spoiler alert, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. Plug your ears if you’d rather not hear.

The ship was crippled and the only way to save it was for Spock to enter a room full of a lethal level of radiation. The doctor discouraged Spock from entering. Spock incapacitated him, entered, and saved the ship along with all those onboard. When Captain Kirk arrived and interacted with Spock as he lay dying, Leonard Nimoy’s character explained himself by saying that, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper."

It’s a very Kantian message, based in science and reason.

Star Trek’s real message, however, is in Captain Kirk’s response, the Jewish response, set up by Spock’s statement. It is found in the following movie, “The Search for Spock,” which was directed by Nimoy. In it, the crew takes a great risk to recover Spock’s now resurrected body from "The Genesis Planet," I won’t even bother to comment on the obvious religious overtones of that.

Spock, not remembering what happened, asks Kirk, “Why would you do this?” “Why go through this great risk, put the whole crew at risk, to help me?” Captain Kirk responds with a rabbinical statement, “Because the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many.” It is a statement based on Mishnah Sanhedrin, which teaches, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Nimoy’s character, Spock, was part of an inter-racial family--well, actually an inter-species family. Spock was part human and part Vulcan. His character and its narrative of nearly five decades of Star Trek episodes and movies about his character, helped people understand mixed-race, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. We followed many story lines about religious rites, cultural stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice. Star Trek taught tolerance and did so significantly through the character of Spock.

Spock showed that geeks could be leaders and helped make science cool. His was a character far ahead of his time, beloved by science fiction fans from the start.

Star Trek’s theme in its early incarnation was “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The statement was about exploration, about human adventure. In retrospect, it was also what the show did in confronting the accepted ideas of its day. It was bold.

Commander Spock’s character, Start Trek as a show, and Leonard Nimoy throughout his life, went boldly forward and urged us to follow. “Lekh lekha!” Get up and boldly go from where you are used to being and what you are used to having around you. Things are going to change! It was a biblical message. It was the message of the 1960s. It was a Jewish message.

Today, was a day that fans of Star Trek have long dreaded. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is now truly dead, not to be resurrected in the next movie.

His memory lives on. It was something special today, seeing people all around the world sharing a Jewish sign, the Priestly Benediction, with one another? How meaningful on this day of political argument, of fears of terrorism, of division, that so many offered each other a blessing? “Live long and prosper!”

Leonard Nimoy will always be remembered for his portrayal of the character of Spock, for his on stage portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, for his love of Judaism and for the many things he taught us all about how to live, to be proud of our Judaism, and to care for one another.

Live long and prosper, my friends. Live long and prosper! Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Bread Bag Shoes and Insulting the Poor

It's time for the unpopular prophetic voice. Friends, partisan politics aside: Please explain to me why we're making fun of Joni Ernst because she grew up poor in rural Iowa? Policies, argue away. Don't like her choice of camouflage footwear or "making them squeal," criticize away. You want to complain about Ernst playing up her poverty as a child, if she is, go ahead. You don't have to agree with her or like her.
I have to take exception with making fun of the fact that Joni Ernst's mother, wanting to protect her shoes because they couldn't afford new ones, had her put bread bags over them in bad weather. Anyone who cares for the poor shouldn't be making fun of that. Are we now going to make fun of which plastic soft drink bottles poverty stricken people in India or Africa tie around their feet? We're going to have jokes about Mountain Dew giving them a greater lift? "Hey, wonder if that guy knows he can get a pair of shoes 2 for 1 at Hy-Vee this weekend?" This whole meme about bread bags is highly elitist and offensive. If you wouldn't walk up to a homeless person and insult their clothing, heaping insults on Ernst because she shared a memory of being a poor kid is probably not an appropriate thing to do. It isn't a Jewish thing to do either.
Proverbs 17:5 "Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their maker."
Here endeth rant.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Clarion Call - The Death of Liberty

We do our best to be tolerant of religious sensibilities. Tolerance indeed requires a willingness to avoid offense. Yet, we cannot be tolerant of those who resort to violence because someone offended their sensibilities. Freedom requires the ability to say what others, and especially those in power, do not want to hear: the criticism and the challenge. Let's just recall a few quotes shall we:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. - George Orwell
If Freedom of Speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
(Special message to the Congress on the internal security of the United States - August 8, 1950) - Harry Truman
Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear! - Catherine of Sienna, 14th Century
We have been warned time and again.

We can neither ignore the fact that we face active threats from violent Islamists nor the threat that fear will additionally produce in limiting liberty. We know that:
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Benjamin Franklin
We now see the world's major media outlets refusing to offend. Oxford University Press is now discouraging the use of pigs in children's books because that might offend Muslim sensibilities. So prepare yourselves for the "Three Little Chickens and the Huffing and Puffing Wolf." Yes, we know with absolute certainty that there are people who are intolerant and even those who will engage in violence against those who challenge and disagree. Their goal it is to overthrow our liberty. Should we simply concede our freedom because the way we use it offends some?

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet's philosophy fueled the American and French revolutions. He is better remembered by his nom-de-plume used so as to avoid persecution by those eager to silence him. Perhaps, his words will motivate us today:
I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Voltaire
Let me add my own statement and my own warning to the list of those who spoke before:
Our freedoms are based on on our willingness to fight and die for them against those willing to fight and die to limit them.
We can watch freedom slowly erode and cower in fear under threat with Jews gradually or rapidly leaving for safety in Israel from all over Europe or we can accept the reality that the one thing the west cannot tolerate is a willingness to abdicate freedom to avoid offending those who disagree with how we put it to use.

On Sunday, January 11, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Paris for the sake of freedom and in support of those who are threatened. Many others in France did not rally because they do not value the defense of freedom and support the threats. Today, France and truly all of Europe face a stark choice:

  1. Stand up and act against the growing tide of oppression that has developed because of toleration of the intolerant or 
  2. Watch liberty overthrown.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and The Jews - A Sermon for Shabbat Shemot

On Wednesday morning, three men, who are said to have claimed connection to Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Al Qaeda of Yemen, attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, killing a dozen people and injuring eight more. The four prominent political cartoonists working for the controversial satirical magazine were all killed. Among them was Georges Wolinski, a French Jew born in Tunisia in 1934 to a Polish Jewish father and a Tunisian Jewish mother, whose family had come to Tunis from Italy. After his father was murdered in 1936, he and his mother moved to France where he became a political satirist and cartoonist.

Other victims of the terrorists included two unarmed police officers on patrol to prevent attacks against the previously attacked Charlie Hebdo offices. One of the officers executed by the terrorists was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. In the attack, the perpetrators killed a cross-section of France: Jews, Christians, Muslims, secularists, native born and immigrants.

Much of what Charlie Hebdo printed on its pages was offensive. It was not offensive in the way that National Lampoon or Saturday Night Live might offend. It was offensive in the way that the old Totally Tasteless Jokes books, for those who are familiar with them, could offend. It was offensive in the South Park sort of way, from the social and political left, but with explicitly graphic cartoons. Yes, Charlie Hebdo’s pages offended Muslims. They also offended Jews, Christians, and just about anyone else whom the magazine’s authors and cartoonists thought they could target.

The response to the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been significant.
The French Islamic community, fearing a backlash because of this week’s attacks, has responded very strongly. The French news service AFP stated today that:
French imams condemned the violence committed in the name of Islam during Friday prayers as the country reels from the double hostage dramas that followed the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine on Wednesday.
The same message — distancing the country’s five million Muslims from the jihadists responsible for the attacks — was relayed at more than 2,300 mosques across France.
“We denounce the odious crimes committed by the terrorists, whose criminal action endangers our willingness to live together,” says the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur.
He also appeals to “all the Muslims of France” to take part in demonstrations planned for Sunday to pay homage to the 12 victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the bloodiest in France in more than half a century.
Muslim theologian Tareq Oubrou, an imam in Bordeaux, in the southwest, said Muslims were furious that their religion had been “confiscated by crazies… and uneducated, unbalanced people”.
Numerous foreign leaders have said that they will attend the huge rally in Paris set for Sunday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Spanish Prime Minister Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose countries have suffered major terror attacks in the past decade, were among the first to say they would attend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said they would also come.
President Obama stated today, “I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow,” and described France as America’s “oldest ally.” “We fight alongside you to uphold values that we share,” the President said.
Most of us who have offered our support for the value of free speech over the past few days would not also support the content of that speech as offered by Charlie Hebdo. In fact, most of us would decry much of it. Yet, we also must be concerned when the opportunity for us to become offended by the views of others is silenced, when protests and criticism that rattle us and disturb us are declared illegal or silenced by threat of violence. That is the highway to oppression. The hangman may well come for Charlie Hebdo first, but when the hangman comes, we know that there are others on the list as well, including us- selected for what we believe, what we say, how we look, where we're from... And in fact, in France this week, first they came for free speech and then they came for the Jews.

This morning we awoke to the news that two new people, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddienne, were wanted in connection with the robbery of a gas station and murder of French police officer that occurred yesterday. This afternoon, Amedy Coulibaly entered a Kosher Deli/Supermarket with two AK-47s. He took nineteen hostage. Coulibaly called FBM-TV in Paris this afternoon and stated that he chose the store because he was targeting Jews. Furthermore, he claimed to be part of the Islamic State, stating that he had orders from the Caliphate.

Four hostages eventually were killed along with Coulibaly. Of the fifteen survivors, four were critically wounded. Meyer Habib, a Jewish Member of Parliament in France, said that among the dead was his best friend and that he knew two others who were also killed in the store.

No few synagogues around Paris chose not to hold Shabbat services this evening and to close for the weekend out of fear: not all of them, but no few of them. Many members of the Jewish community are simply too afraid to go to Jewish places tonight. For the first time since World War II, synagogues in France have shuttered their doors on Shabbat out of fear.

While many proudly declare “Je suis Charlie!” It will be interesting to see how many also declare “Je suis Juif!” What sort of support will the Jewish community of France receive in the aftermath of this attack, an attack that comes in a year following a dramatic upsurge of Antisemitism in France complete with numerous attacks against synagogues, a year that saw the highest emigration of French Jews to Israel in many years. It is two years after an attack on a Jewish day school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and three children were killed by terrorists. It is also merely months after a Summer that saw mobs marching through the streets of France shouting “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right.”

My friend Rabbi Audrey Korotkin pointed out today in answering the question, “What has changed?” that it is simply that the target of such violence and hatred is no longer just Jews. France did not say, “Je suis Juif” then, nor did it the numerous other times when Jews were attacked and killed as Jews, and it probably will not now. Charlie Hebdo, the magazine filled with hate and derision, deserves love simply because the French cherish freedom of speech. Do the French cherish the lives and freedom of Jews? So far the answer seems to be silence.

Silence…a silence that brings us to this week’s Torah portion.
The Israelites were fertile and prolific. They multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. Then new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
It has been four score years since a great evil took hold in Europe. In August of 1934, Germany came to have a Fuhrer. In September of 1935, it passed the Nuremberg Laws. We are of an age that has forgotten. It is not the good Joseph that we have forgotten, but the opposite, the evil, how it came to pass, how it grew and prospered. Europe has forgotten what allowing hatred to flourish in its streets can produce. We are the king who forgot.
The Nazis spread fear and hatred. They did not stand for enlightened modern values, but for contempt of many of them. Those Muslims who support and encourage participation in Al Qaeda, who seek the growth and spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who advocate for the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab nations through violent means also seek to spread fear and hatred. They do not support those values cherished in the west of Freedom of Speech and Religion or many others advocated by majorities in western nations. Many of them have as goals the completion of Hitler’s work in the genocide of the Jews and the domination of the globe.
There are voices seeking to bring change. My friend, Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy has spent much of the last three days being interviewed on national television. This is a link to one such appearance in Phoenix.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who took power by ousting the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, who appears by all evidence to be a successor to Hosni Mubarak as a military strongman, is also the one leader in the Muslim world who perhaps is positioned to speak out in condemnation of religious radicals with whom he and his government are at war.
Last week, on New Year’s Day in fact, Al Sisi spoke at Al Azar University, one of the leading Sunni religious institutions in the world. He stated:
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (multinational community of Muslim believers) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking – I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Canadian Muslim women’s rights activist Farzana Hassan, yesterday offered words in the Toronto Star that we all should hear:
Muslim organizations have naturally denounced the attacks.
However, the attitudes of many Muslims remain steeped in an ancient mindset that is anathema to the secular West, and the usual rationalizations have diluted these so-called condemnations.
The implied argument is that the victims have in a sense helped to bring the tragedy on themselves, because if they offend the sentiments of over a billion people, there are bound to be some who will take up arms.
In other words, this terrorist outrage deserves to be condemned, but the West needs to understand that Islamic sensitivities need to be respected; how can so many non-believers just not get it?
Yet, Westerners do get it.
It is just that they quite rightly repudiate it.
It may sound trite to say that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, but it is true. Mockery, satire, even blasphemy form a part of this.
Of what use is the right to say only what everyone wants to hear?
It is only in challenging many so-called sacred values that the West has made progress towards formulating the best of societies where rights are guaranteed — ironically, even the rights of religious people who would deny those rights to others…
We are now faced with a sad and stark dichotomy where two worlds, one that cherishes individual freedoms, the other that suppresses them at every opportunity, are constantly pitted against each other.
The West must defend its liberties.
Cowering under Islamist intolerance would dilute some of the most treasured aspects of its civilization.

Rabbi Korotkin notes, using the words of Martin Niemoller:

First the Islamists came for the Jews. But the world by and large did not speak out, because they were not Jews. Now the Islamists have come for the satirists. Does the world stand by, because most of them are not satirists? Do they think that the cartoonists of “Charlie Hebdo” are in a different category, because they, like Zionists, were asking for it?

As Rabbi Korotkin essentially asks, “Is Europe ready to confront a hangman that has come for the Jews and the satirists?”

This year will almost certainly see a dramatic increase in the number of Jews leaving France for safety in Israel. Will it be a year that sees Europe care about that fact? Or be less than happy about it if they do care? They will march, but will they only march? Will they watch the hangman come, and even, in the words of Maurice Ogden, serve him faithfully? Or will they, and we along with them, stand against him in public square?

Our thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with our Jewish brethren, once again facing both tragedy and ongoing threats. May light and not darkness come into the City of Light tonight and in the days and nights to come. May we support those who seek to bring light into the darkness of hate-filled minds and be successful in our efforts. May the prayers and songs for peace and comfort that we and Jews around the world have offered tonight bring strength to our people everywhere.

Tonight, Nous Sommes Juifs Francais. We are all French Jews. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik, be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I Can't Breathe! M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R

The blow that knocks the wind right out of you and makes you gasp.
The asthma attack when your lungs just don't work right.
Choking when you swallow wrong.
Pneumonia, Emphysema, lung cancer that leave your lungs incapable of functioning properly.

Being choked.
Being thrown to the ground and held down.
"I Can't Breathe!"

How does one watch the video of Eric Garner's pleading and death without finding it difficult to breathe, to get choked up in fear and anxiety. 
Suffocation, drowning, these are two of our greatest human fears.
We watched a man grasped around the neck, put into what appears to be a choke-hold, and held down while he proclaimed time after time, "I can't breathe." Until, he stopped speaking because there was no more air for him.

I don't know why any officer moved to take him down to the ground. I don't know why anyone decided that a physical altercation was needed to stop a man selling individual cigarettes to homeless people who couldn't afford them any other way.

Being choked. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
Being thrown to the ground and held down. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
"I Can't Breathe!" M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.

This was a father of six children. He'd had a troubled life. He'd been arrested 31 times. Now he was selling "loosies" to make a few bucks from people who were themselves struggling to breathe, to live.

I didn't sit on the Grand Jury. I have no idea what they saw and heard. I don't know if the officer who decided to take Eric Garner to the ground is entirely responsible for his death or even if he's the only one of the officers present who might be somewhat responsible.

I do know that I saw a man who was not violent thrown to the ground as if he was. 

I do know that he died at least in part because he was grasped around the neck and held down on the ground as he struggled to breathe.

I do know that he told the police officers that he couldn't breathe eleven times.

I do know he had been standing there on that sidewalk, assuming he was selling individual cigarettes, in order to make a few dollars because the government put so much tax on packs that poor people can't afford to buy a whole one.

I do know there are those in this country who feel like they're being choked and held down, perhaps by their own past mistakes, perhaps by those of their parents, perhaps by discrimination and racism, perhaps by a system that simply makes it difficult to rise.

I do know that there are far too many people in this country who wake up in the morning and long to be able to breathe: to have enough money, enough food, enough health, a roof over their head, enough love, enough hope for a better tomorrow.

But day after day, they wake up and say, "I can't breathe!"

I do know that we hear them. Sometimes they yell so loudly that we cover our ears. Sometimes they protest. Sometimes they riot. We see it on TV  and all over the internet. Sometimes we tune them out. Sometimes we change the channel. Then we stop hearing the voice. Quiet at last! Until the ambulance comes and we wake up momentarily and notice what we've done or not done.

Didn't mean it. Oh, there were opportunities. It wasn't all our fault. There were other factors involved. He was overweight. He didn't take care of himself. Not our fault. No officer's fault either according to the Grand Jury. No True Bill.

We heard but we didn't listen. Haunted:
  • I'm minding my business, officer.
  • I'm minding my business.
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • I told you the last time, 
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • Please, please don't touch me.
  • Do not touch me...
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.

Friday, November 21, 2014

To Bigotry No Sanction

"To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance," these words begin the letter of response to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, written by President George Washington. The President borrowed ideas – and actual words – directly from Moses Seixas’s letter to him. They are words of which we all should be mindful this weekend as the decision by the Grand Jury in St. Louis is announced. George Washington wrote that:
"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."
Pres. Washington closed with an invocation: “May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Regardless of what happens with the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson this weekend, there are vitally important issues that need to be addressed going forward, not just in St. Louis but across the United States.
There is a lack of trust between police and minorities in many communities around our nation.
There is an assumption of active racism and bias. In many places, there is a history of it coupled with modern experience.
There are municipalities that fund themselves off of citing the poor for infractions often caused by poverty and need.
There is deep poverty and despair, joblessness and under-employment, a lack of quality education, hunger and homelessness.
Drug use, drug trafficking, robberies and murder connected to them are common and periods of incarceration are an assumed part of life.
Children live in environments where it is safer to be part of gangs and to arm themselves than try to remain apart from the gangs and guns.
Guns and violence are so prevalent in local communities that police officers rightly need to be on guard, something that can cause the rapid escalation of interactions into deadly encounters.
Far too many young men are dying.
Far too many parents and children are grieving.
There is plenty of blame to go around and a whole lot of work to be done.
Let us not stand idly by.
This weekend, let us pray for peace and change for the better. Let us be thankful for the many blessings in our lives as we head into Thanksgiving week, but also heighten our awareness of those who lack them in their lives. Let us "scatter light and not darkness."
Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cherishing the Struggles: Living Each Day to the Fullest - Yom Kippur Morning 2014

The High Holidays are a time when we take the measure of our lives. What have we done well? At what have we missed the mark? What must we do to make up for our failings and improve our life and our world? It is also a time when we notice what is missing from our lives as well as what we have: health, happiness, love, financial security, friendship. Most of all, we note the absence of those who once were here alongside us. There have been separations and divorces. Children have gone away to college or for work. Some have returned home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. There may be friends with whom we’re no longer close. Most painful of all is the absence of loved ones who have passed away, whose very presence enriched our lives; whose glance was reassuring, whose smile lit up our world, whose touch warmed our hearts. Our thoughts may be of them today.

Many of us will attend the healing service this afternoon and the Yizkor service that follows it, seeking healing as we remember. The services are both filled with prayers and readings of comfort. One particular reading, written by Herbert Louis Samuel, challenges us to consider the benefits of death and new birth:

“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?”

The expected answer is “No.” Our minds tells us “No.” Of course, those new things are some of the best things in life, some of the most joyful. Yet, for some of us, if not for all of us in some way, our hearts say, “Wait a minute!” If we could live in health, if we could be young always, in love always, if we could sit here today and close our eyes and know that, if we put out our hand, it would be grasped by someone who loves and cherishes us… Could the answer be in doubt? “Yes.” Our minds understand that we must let go. Our hearts may never agree.

The rabbis tell us that Yom Kippur is the day when to an extent we rehearse our own death, the white of our robes and our kittels, connecting to our desire to humble ourselves on this day. On Yom Kippur, we are especially aware that we are mortal and we ponder life’s big questions: How good do I have to be? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the purpose of my life? Why must we die?

Today, I am going to speak about the last of these, about death. However, I am not going to talk about what happens to us after death. Instead, I am going to talk about what the fact that we are mortal should mean to us in relation to three other questions:

What would we do if we knew how much time we had to live?
What would we do if we had no idea at all, that it would simply happen?
What lessons may we learn from reflecting and considering our mortality?

First, what would we do, if we could, to use the terminology of our tradition, number our days?

To an extent, over the past two years, I along with my family, many colleagues and friends, and untold others lived vicariously through the writings of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, friends of our family, from rabbinical school days. Their son, “Superman Sam,” was diagnosed with Myeloid Leukemia in 2012 and died in December 2014. They came to call his illness, “Ninja Leukemia,” because it kept evading treatments. Their campaign to raise money to combat childhood cancer is the reason that my hair is this short. I shaved my head in March as one of over 70 rabbis who responded to a call for #36Rabbis to do so. Working with St. Baldrick’s, we raised well over $600,000 for Childhood Cancer research and raised awareness about the need for research. My wife and children have also been running races in honor of Sam.

Over the course of the past two years, we learned many things from the Sommer family as they faced the challenges brought by Sam’s illness. Phyllis Sommer wrote in January after Sam died:

Throughout the last two years, Sammy used to say to me often: "I miss my old life." I feel that way all the time now. I miss my old life. I miss my family of six. Desperately.

Do I want to turn the clocks back to May of 2012 and be in our "normal" life? Oh yes, I miss the oblivion of a "charmed" and "perfect" life with four healthy children whose biggest problems involved birthday parties and math problems and potty training.

Oh the pain and guilt of telling you that I don't know that I would want to give up some of the last two years. We made friends -- real, beautiful, powerful friendships -- with families in crisis, people who helped us, doctors, nurses, staff and volunteers at so many organizations....all of the people [who] touched our lives and became our community. How could I beg to erase that even as much as I wish I could turn back the clock? 

It’s this idea that led to me entitle my sermon today, “Cherishing the Struggles.” It is the understanding that for Phyllis and for many others, there are meaningful things that can be cherished even from times of deep struggle. Time and again, I have heard from families about the people who helped to care for their loved one during their illnesses. In some cases, they became like family members. Those relationships were born of the struggle. In the case of Superman Sam Sommer’s struggle, there was the addition of not only raising money and awareness but of educating hundreds of thousands of people about childhood cancer.

Those of us who have followed the Sommers’ blog, as they chronicled their son’s battle, saw this in every posting. On November 13, 2013 Phyllis Sommer told the world that the cancer had returned, even after the bone marrow transplant, and that there were no more options left. I can’t read much of that posting without tearing up, but these words are important for us to hear on this day when we think of what is most important in life. She wrote:

He still feels well. We don't know how long that will last. We're going to "suck the marrow out of life" as long as we can.
Quite literally and figuratively. Capitalize on his good days. Fill them with joy and blessing and delight. Stick his feet in the ocean and his head in the clouds. Fill his days with wonder and love.

When I look around this room, I see people with whom I know those words resonate because they have experienced similar feelings with their own family members and friends. In this room are wives and husbands, children, parents and others who have similar experiences. As you and your loved one faced illness, there were good days and there were bad days. Like the Sommer family, you did your best to capitalize on the good days, often altering plans to seize the day.

Knowing that time may be limited, we make different choices because our priorities change. Make a Wish Foundation is an organization that helps families “suck the marrow out of life” and work to accommodate that changed set of priorities. They helped to bring Sam and his family to Disney World, in August of last year, four months before he died. Make a Wish, along with help from the Sommers’ rabbi and congregational community, sent a special plane to bring Sam and his family to Florida so that he would not have to face all of the viruses that are found in the air of commercial planes. Then at Disney World, they provided a special suite at a hotel, a guide for the family, and a permanent-Fast Pass, enabling the family to skip all the lines. Phyllis wrote:

From 9am-3pm, we rode over 11 rides (and had lunch and met Mickey!) and some of them twice. It was awesome. Sam kept repeating over and over, "this is the best day ever!"
Gratitude? It doesn't even begin to describe it. We are bursting with it. It was the most amazing gift our family has ever received. It was an experience that will hold its magic for us for a long time to come. 

When Disney wants to do magic for an eight-year-old, very sick child and his family, they’re stellar at it. For kids like Sam, families may not have lots of opportunities to achieve “Best Day Ever!” Disney is exceptionally good at delivering that. And with the help of Make a Wish Foundation, children like Sam are enabled to have experiences in life that they would otherwise miss.

Regarding priorities, as we approached Rosh Hashanah this year, Phyllis remembered the conversation that she had with Sam’s doctor last year.

Sam was 8 days post-transplant. His immune system was incredibly compromised.
Solly [Sam’s younger brother] had just begun a new preschool. Germs....everywhere. (no matter how much hand sanitizer we used!)
I posed the question [to the doctor]: Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah, I said, and it's Day 8. I really want to know if I can bring Solly over here. Sam hasn't seen him in over a week, and I just think it is important to have them all together. But if you think this is a bad idea, I will get over it. 

That’s the “time isn’t limited” mindset. It’s the “maybe next time” or the “I’ll get to it later, when it will be better” mindset. It’s the mindset through which most of us interact with our world most of the time, especially as parents: relatively cautious, prioritizing health and safety. It isn’t the “time is limited, there may not be a next time, just do it” mindset. Phyllis described the doctor's response:

Dr. M cleared his throat, and I could tell he was going to say something that I knew already. "He has a bad leukemia," he said. "That's the biggest threat to his life."
I remember taking a very big deep breath.
"Are you saying that I may never have all of my children together again on a Rosh HaShanah? That this could be our last one together?" The words came out all in a rush, almost defiantly. 
"Yes," he said. "That's what I'm saying."
Fine. Decision made. Solly will come. We all will be there. Together.
So I brought Solly on Erev Rosh HaShanah.
I imagined that every day was his last.
Just in case.
Today, I'm glad I did that.

At the end of her blog posting from November, when she announced that the cancer had returned and that time was limited, Phyllis wrote:

From now on, we will hold on tightly to each moment, we will celebrate and we will play and we will laugh and we will create a lifetime's worth of memories and moments in the time that we have left.
We have no other choice.

We understand that. When we know how much time we have, we maximize it. More magical moments: more hugs, more kisses, more time spent together. We call the family together because we know we won’t have many more, if any, opportunities to do that.

What about when we don’t know how much time we have?
Our priorities are different. We are very willing to wait for the next opportunity. We might say, “We’re too busy to go to Disney World this year.” “Next time around, we’ll see if we can go to Israel.” “I know that concert is happening next month and you’re really excited to go, but I have to work that night.” “I’m on a diet.” “I’ll try it next time.” “I’ll travel when I retire.” We postpone.

Then, often we never get the chance to do what we hoped to do. Physical limitations may make it difficult for us to travel: our knees, our back, perhaps the onset of a disease. Sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to live with the slow onset of age related limitations. We suddenly find ourselves limited or infirm. Sometimes, death comes with no notice at all. “If only we had… gone on that trip that we kept putting off.” “If only we had gotten that convertible this past year.” We’re left with “If only.”

In either case, there are regrets. We will always have regrets that we misspent our time together and that we did not have more time with our loved ones when things were good. That is not affected by whether or not we were given notice that the end was near. What we miss are the highlights, the magic that we could have created, the joys we could have experienced, had we seized the day.

What lessons do we learn from considering our mortality?

We are reminded again and again today that life is fleeting. No matter how much we think we are in control, we’re really not able to say, “I’m going to have 95 years and from 65-85 I’m going to travel the world.” We really cannot look at the calendar and plan that African safari for January 2020 with a degree of certainty. Neither can we wait to change the way we live our lives if we need to do so.

God may be endlessly patient with us, but God is endless, eternal. We are not. We are a people who believes in righting our path every year. We are the people who know that Unetaneh Tokef with its “Who shall live and who shall die” is the nature of life, even if we do not believe that God is somewhere writing names down on a ledger or, for some of us, even believe that there is a God. If I asked those in this room to stand if a loved one or a friend died too soon, there would be few who would remain seated and more than likely all of them would be young. The Yiddish proverb is “Der Mesche Trakht un Got Lakht.” “People plan and God laughs.” Often, our plans fail.

Our tradition sounds the Shofar. Not just for us to atone. We sound the Shofar to wake us up and to pay attention to our lives. We sound the shofar to get us to remove our faces from our cell phones and see the world that is more than two feet from our eyes and more than an instant into the future.

The words of this morning’s Torah portion include a stark choice: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Let us consider today that this choice is not one facing us only on Yom Kippur, but is instead always before us. We always have the choice to act or ignore, to seize the day or postpone. We always have a choice whether or not to take advantage of the good days and “suck the marrow out of life.”

The Torah gives us, in this context, the best advice I can offer:

“Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life: go on that magical family vacation, play that round of golf, go to see that concert with your kids. When it’s all said and done, it is better that more was done than said.

When it comes to the end, you’re not going to want your epitaph to read, “Always had time for work,” “There’s always next time,” or “Never Really Lived.”

So how about on this Yom Kippur Day, we all take the advice that Phyllis and Michael Sommer decided was best for Sam:

[Let’s stick our] feet in the ocean and our heads in the clouds. Fill our days with wonder and love.

Let’s choose life.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu u’t’chateimu. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!