Rabbi David Sobel—In Memoriam
Walking along Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, Vickie and I met a man and his wife from Boston. As we chatted and learned we had lived in West Hartford, he asked, “Did you know David Sobel? He was a Rabbi in the Air Force and my chaplain when I served in Thailand in the 70’s.
Oh yes, I answered, I knew David.
We have learned: “He who sings, prays twice.” David Sobel’s life was a musical prayer of exquisite beauty and meaning.
Every time I visit the Congregation Beth Israel Cemetery in Hartford I stop by David’s grave. We began our studies together in the summer of 1968. We played basketball and tennis together. He was a fine athlete. He was a bundle of energy, and he played both games in an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style. He loved life, and he loved music.
Mort Glotzer, of blessed memory, once shared these thoughts about David with me:
“The Sobels, Bea, Charles, Donna, David, Andy and Amy lived next door to my parents on Kirkwood in the Golf Acres section of West Hartford. Bea was a president of the Temple Sisterhood. Charlie was active in the Brotherhood. Both Donna and David were members of the Senior Youth Group when Arline and I were the adult advisors. The Sobel kids were among our favorites.
David was a fine athlete. I believe that he wrestled in high school and college. He worked as a construction laborer during summer vacations. He told me that he worked in the engine room of a freighter ship on his trip home after his year in Israel. He was not afraid of hard work.
David was the student Rabbi at the Farmington Valley Jewish Center during his last year at Hebrew Union College. One Friday afternoon, I met him on a flight that he boarded in Cincinnati. I mentioned to a colleague of mine who sat next to him that he was a friend of mine. My colleague (a Christian) asked me if I knew that David was going to be a Rabbi and that he played in a rock band on Saturday nights. I knew about everything except the rock band, but that didn’t surprise me. David was a regular guy.
After his ordination, David served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. In a tragic accident he was killed in Bangkok.
One evening, Bea came over to my parents’ house to tell them that David had been killed in Bangkok. We were stunned…the chief Chaplain from the Air Force preached at his funeral. There was a military honor guard. Bea wouldn’t allow a rifle salute. It wasn’t the kind of honor that was appropriate for a Rabbi.”
Each time I see it David’s tombstone reminds me how fragile life is. It is a gift we can lose in an instant. Each visit to his grave is another reminder to try to make each minute of each hour of each day count for something meaningful and purposeful. We never know when our time is up.
In a memorial tribute to David, navy chaplain Rabbi John J. Rosenblatt wrote:
David felt that he was in God’s service to bring spiritual comfort where it was most needed. Individuals were his congregation. Open fields were his synagogues.”
David Mark Sobel was a son of Congregation Beth Israel of which I am Rabbi Emeritus. The atmosphere and opportunities Beth Israel afforded him helped him become the man he was. “Alas for those who die with their songs still in them.” I see David now, slashing toward the basket, going for broke by trying for an improbable winner on the tennis court, playing his guitar, speaking in the short clipped tones I remember, a kinetic, energetic force, small in stature, strong of body, persistent of mind.
His energy was so palpable that it is hard for me to imagine him gone even though he died more than 45 years ago. We played together. We learned together. Now he is gone, and I am still here. Why? I ask, but I know the question brings no answer. I do know that thinking of David strengthens my resolve to use the time I have to make a difference.
When we think of those like David who died too young, we think also of the victims of last week’s tragedy in San Diego, the ones in Sri Lanka and Pittsburgh and the many that preceded them. We shudder in dreadful anticipation of next week’s tragedy. But David Sobel and all of those we have lost through war, terror or disaster, over the years can and do live on when they inspire us to be better people.
We cannot understand why they had to die, but we can honor their memories with more compassion for others, more zeal for good causes, more discipline for purposeful living and more strength to turn away from that which is foolish and vain.
“Repent one day before your death.” The Sages taught. But how do we know when we shall die, a student asked?
“We do not,” answered the Sages, “so we had better repent today, for none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow.” (Pirke Avot2:10)
Alas for those who die with their songs still in them, but happy is their fate compared to those who sing no songs at all. So let us sing as if there were no tomorrow, and may the melodies and lyrics of our lives find favor before the throne of The Eternal One.