What a blessing! Leo, Ben, Vickie and Sarah were all by my side for my surgery in Cleveland, November 29, 2012.
Yesterday’s Thanksgiving celebration was wonderful, but today and every year, November 29 is my personal Thanksgiving. I was born in March, but I consider November 29 my re-birthday.
On this day in 2012 for the second time doctors cracked open my chest to operate on my heart. This time it was Dr. Lars Svensson and his surgical team at the Cleveland Clinic who replaced the mechanical aortic heart valve that was no longer working as well as it should. At the same time, they repaired what could have become a life threatening ascending aortic aneurysm.
When my cardiologist in Connecticut, the late Dr. Robert Chamberlain, whom I admired greatly and trusted implicitly, diagnosed the aneurysm, he said, “This will be a tricky operation, and I suggest you have it done in a major center of heart surgery.” After some research we decided on the Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Chamberlain recommended Dr Svensson.
We noted that he had repaired the aneurysm of NBA Forward Jeff Green (now with the Utah Jazz, then with the Boston Celtics), and a year later he was back playing professional basketball. Dr. Chamberlain, Vickie and I decided that if Dr. Svensson was a good enough surgeon for the Boston Celtics, he was good enough for us. So we made an appointment.
We had some flexibility in choosing a date, so I opted for November 29. Why?
On that date in 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states: a Jewish Palestinian State to be called Israel, and an Arab Palestinian State. Jews in Israel and around the world rejoiced at the decision even though the State of Israel the vote created was mostly desert with borders nearly impossible to defend.
By contrast the Arab world unanimously pledged to push the fledgling Jewish State into the Sea.
The Jewish State somehow managed to withstand the onslaught of the entire Arab world, and Israel declared its independence as a sovereign state on May 14, 1948.
I was blessed that Leo and Sarah came to Cleveland from California and Ben traveled from Connecticut to Cleveland to be with Vickie and me for the surgery. It was a precious but nervous time we had together, and I prayed that I would survive the surgery and thrive as Israel survived and thrived the war thrust upon it after November 29, 1947.
In the seven years since my second open-heart surgery, I have enjoyed untold blessings. Among them:
- An ever deepening bond with Vickie
- Watching each of my children thrive in their personal and professional lives.
- The opportunity to serve as guest Rabbi for three months in Milan and Florence, Italy.
- The opportunities I have had over the past five years to teach in German high schools with Vickie and to conduct worship and lead study in progressive synagogues as well as to preach in some two dozen German churches where I have often been the first Jew the worshippers have ever the seen.
- The six books I have published
- The blessing of serving as rabbi to Bat Yam Temple of the Islands in Sanibel, and the wonderful life Vickie and I enjoy here.
All in all I consider where I am today as opposed to seven years ago a minor miracle. It is a minor miracle that occasions my hope for a major miracle in the Middle East.
My annual Thanksgiving of November 29 has forged a strong bond to the message of the Torah portions we read at this time of year. On the Shabbat following my operation seven years ago the Torah portion related the climax of the Jacob story when God changes his name to Israel and he reconciles with his brother.
Tonight seven years later we read the beginning of the Jacob narrative when he extorts the birthright from his brother Esau and then impersonates his brother before his blind father to steal his brother’s Covenantal blessing.
The scene describing Esau’s entrance into his father’s tent to ask for the blessing Jacob just usurped is one of the most heartbreaking literary passages I have ever read.
Clearly, Jacob was innately more suited to be heir to God’s Covenant than the mercurial, live-for-today Esau, but only the most heartless person fails to feel Esau’s pain as he pleads. “’Bless me too, father … have you only one blessing … bless me too, father,’ and he lifted up his voice and wept.”(Genesis 27:34-38)
I have felt a strong connection to Israel since I was 15-years-old, and our Confirmation cantata, written by Rabbi Avraham Soltes, of blessed memory told the miraculous story of Israel’s rebirth.
I first visited Israel, when I studied there for a year nearly 50 years ago. Since then I have been blessed to visit more than two dozen times, sometimes for extended stays during a sabbatical and my tenure as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. I have also helped to lead several group tours over the decades. Each time I visit, my love for the country grows.
Over the years I have staunchly defended Israel’s right to defend itself against the many terrorist attacks and invasions the Arab world has inflicted upon her.
The Arab World rejected peace plans in 1936, 1948, after the Six Day War in 1967 and many times subsequently. I understand why, but I still feel sadness that Israel’s position has hardened over the years.
Today, I have no doubt that in its conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world, Israel is much more right than wrong. As the late Abba Eban, a dove if ever there was one, once said, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Each day I thank God for American aid that enhances Israel’s ability to defend itself from those who still wish to destroy her. I believe that, as Golda Meir reportedly once said: “If the Arab world laid down its arms there would be peace. But if Israel laid down its arms there would be no Israel.”
Nothing reinforced that conviction for me more than our visit to the Gaza border on our congregation’s trip this past spring with our friends from Sanibel Congregational UCC and their wonderful Pastor, Dr. John Danner.
How can we not be moved by the existence of the Gaza Peace Wall in the face of the reality that when the alert sounds, the residents of nearby areas have but seconds to scurry into bomb shelters where too many children have already spent too great a percentage of their young lives.
Yes, I admire all that Israel has done, and for me her right to exist as a sovereign Jewish State is non-negotiable. Had there been an Israel in 1935, we would not have to commemorate the horror of the Holocaust as we do year by year.
But, still …
It is not enough for me for Israel to be more right than wrong in its conflict with its enemies. In the face of all its challenges true greatness for Israel, will lie in its ability to somehow find a way “to dry Esau’s tears.”
Just as Jacob’s receipt of the blessing caused Esau untold anguish, we cannot deny that the creation of Israel caused great pain, anguish and displacement in the Arab world.
The Torah’s metaphor speaks so clearly to me.
Just as our biblical namesake ultimately made a great sacrifice to coexist peacefully with the brother who had vowed to kill him, so too true greatness for Israel is not just a matter of agricultural, medical and economic and technical breakthroughs. True greatness lies in unceasing efforts to make peace with the descendants of Esau who inhabit the Arab world. Despite decades of intractability there must be a way.
Israel’s National Anthem is Ha-Tikvah, “The Hope.” I will never abandon my hope that peace will one day come to the Middle East.
When I came to the Jewish cemetery in the northern German city of Flensburg near the Danish border in 2015 to participate in commemorations for Kristallnacht, I was dumbstruck by the fact that the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in that city are adjacent to one another.
Seeing how peacefully, Jews and Muslims can lie together in death strengthened my resolve to never give up hope: One day Jacob and Esau will once again embrace and Jews and Muslims will live together – as well as lie together – in peace.
The Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in Flensburg, Germany, lie side by side