Vickie Rings the Bell

Vickie, the Bell, her Certificate of Treatment Completion and I

A lovely brass bell sits near the entrance of the Moffitt Cancer Center Infusion Unit. When patients complete their course of chemotherapy treatments, they ring the bell to celebrate their bravery and their accomplishment.

Today is the day for which we have been waiting since Vickie discovered the lump near her groin at the beginning of July.

The final diagnosis of Stage three non-Hodgkins lymphoma came through in September, and from that day to this, the doctor’s words, “Treatable and curable,” have been the lifeline to which we have clung.

But no one said the journey to today would be easy, and Hurricane Ian certainly complicated things, but here we are.

If there is a symbol for Vickie’s journey, it is the Sanibel Strong necklace I gave her for Chanukah. Our friend Scot Congress of Congress Jewelers designed. It features the Sanibel lighthouse, a beacon of hope for all of us who live on the island.

Now she has completed the last (we hope and pray) of six chemotherapy infusions. We cannot say enough good things about her doctor in Fort Myers, and the staff here at Moffit Cancer Center.

The infusion time becomes seemingly shorter because Vickie plays Mah Jong with her close friends, Caren and Elissa.

Each of our three children interrupted his and her busy life to visit with us and help,out in different ways. We are also very grateful for the love and support we have felt everyday from our Bat Yam family and the loving , supportive messages that have come through on social media.

The unsung hero is Vickie’s smartphone! How did we ever exist before those things were invented. They keep Vickie connected to friends and family around the world and to innumerable sources of knowledge and entertainment.

When the treatment ended, her nurse for today, a lovely Indian woman named Sushila, gathered as many of the infusion center staff as she could collar and announced, Vickie is going to ring the bell.

The inscription under the bell stresses the importance of savoring every victory in the fight against cancer — big or small. 

For Vickie this was a big one.

With tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face, Vickie gave that bell several resounding clangs!

She will have PET scan a month to tell us — we pray — what the last one a month ag ago revealed: no evidence of cancer. Then, of course, she will be monitored regularly, and if all goes well, she will need no further treatments.

Gradually, then, her strength will return, her hair will return, our house will become habitable and life will,go on as it did before cancer and before Hurricane Ian.

What a wonderful possibility to contemplate!

I welcome you to follow me on Twitter: @rabbifuchs6

When All is Said and Done

eMy friend, since I entered rabbinical school in 1968, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, has the honor to present the azkarah, the memorial tribute to colleagues who have died in the past year at the upcoming convention of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis (NAORRR).

Because the convention will honor Joe and his classmates on the fiftieth anniversary of their 1973 ordination, Joe also prepared a special azkarah for members in his class no longer living. His beautifully crafted, sensitive and caring remarks bring vividly to life each of the individuals he named and fill me with gratitude that I am not on the list. It also strikes me that the azkarah list is one that no rabbi escapes forever. 

And so, I found myself environing my own funeral and asking, “What will they say about me?”

They would recall, I guess, the books I have written and some of the distinctions and honors bestowed on me over the years. These milestone events crop up at various points on a clergy person’s path if he or she does not commit murder or some other egregious offense that disgraces the calling. 

As these “highlight moments” came to mind –and each had seemed so precious at the time—I found myself asking aloud, “What do they matter?” And the honest answer is, “Very little indeed.”

What I really would like my azkarah to include are some moments no one knows about, many of which I have forgotten myself or the impact of which I was not aware in the first place. As legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once wrote: “A teacher never knows what stays with those he or she is teaching.”

At the end of the day, the only moments that really matter in my life are the moments when something I said or did made a positive difference in another person’s life.

Those are the moments that matter … the only moments that matter.

Awards and honors afford only ephemeral gratification. Often, they result from luck or circumstances that have nothing to do with objective merit. Often too, they are an excuse for an organization’s fundraising effort.

As Vickie’s childhood Rabbi, the late Alvin Fine, wrote, “Victory lies not at some high place along the way but in having made the journey … a sacred pilgrimage.”

As the famed sportswriter, Grantland Rice put it so eloquently: “When the one Great Scorer comes to score against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

Packing Anxiety

Packing for me is always stressful!

It does not matter whether it is a short trip or a long one, packing fills me with anxiety.  Yes, I have a carefully prepared list. Yes, I go over it several times. And still when I get where I am going, I always manage to have forgotten something.

Today our destination is Tampa where Vickie will receive what we hope will be her final chemotherapy session at the Moffitt Cancer Center. If all goes as we hope and pray it does, her protocol going forward will be to rest, regain strength and gradually return to her pre-cancer life.

The hotel where we stay is very near to the University of South Florida as is the Moffitt Center. Many of the hotel’s guests are Moffitt patients and their families.  The hallways and lobby of the hotel are full of encouraging posters made by USF students as well as elementary school children, with messages of encouragement and positivity for those undergoing treatment. The hotel staff is sensitively aware that many of their guests have not come to Tampa for vacation.

There is a gratis shuttle that takes hotel guests back and forth to the hospital. The drivers are courteous and encouragingly upbeat.  At Moffitt too, everyone we encounter from the attendants in the free valet parking lot, to the orderlies, clerks, nurses and elite cancer-specialist physicians are gracious, courteous and caring.

Even with these wonderful positives, the purpose of our trip exacerbates my packing anxiety. Worrying about how things might turn out only increases the high likelihood that I will forget to put something I need in my suitcase.

Vickie’s assurance that, “they have stores in Tampa where you can buy anything you might forget,” does not diminish the stress.

As I put the almost-forgotten pajamas into my bag, I remind myself of the vital fact that so many people traveling to Moffitt have grim prognoses, and, in the scheme of things we are very fortunate.  From the outset, Vickie’s doctors have said her condition is, “treatable and curable.”

From the beginning of Vickie’s cancer journey, I have held fast to those words. Now that we are approaching this pivotal juncture, I shall try to focus more on the hoped-for outcome of our trip and less on what might be missing from my suitcase when I get there.

A New Year Dawns

Early morning, January 1, 2023

The sun is fighting to break through the haze that delays the dawn of a brand-new year. I am betting on the sun just as I am betting that light will displace the haze that Vickie’s illness and Hurricane Ian have cast over our lives.Yes, a new year is here, and Vickie and I thank God we are alive with a comfortable roof over our heads, sufficient food to nourish our bodies, and – after 48 and a half years of marriage –a deep love for and commitment to one another.

We are also grateful for our three healthy children, their wonderful spouses and nine healthy grandchildren. When we look at the big picture, we see clearly that our cup overflows

Tomorrow, we head back to Tampa for tests, a consultation, and what we hope will be Vickie’s sixth and final chemotherapy treatment. She has fought so hard since her diagnosis in August, and we are cautiously optimistic that her body will remain free of any evidence of cancer.

We also hope and pray that the sun will break through the haze that envelops so much of our world, There is enough sadness to break the heart, but we must not let despair keep us from enjoying the blessings in our lives.  

At the same time, we must not allow the pursuit of our enjoyment to stifle our concern for the world and its woes. In our small way, may we each hope to be an agent of that sun to help dry up some of the plagues that mar our planet:

  • Hunger
  • Homelessness
  • Rampant violence
  • Racial injustice
  • Resurgent antisemitism
  • Illiteracy
  • Environmental ruin

Hillel the Elder taught 2000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when” (Pirke Avot 1:14)

When we contemplate the enormity of the world’s problems, the quotation attributed to the Unitarian clergyman, Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909, speaks powerfully to me:

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

If we keep both Hillel and Rev. Hales wisdom in mind, I believe – though we won’t finish the job – we can make measurable progress toward healing our world in the year just begun.

Finding Treasures I thought Were Lost

(ABOVE: MyKiddush cup from 2016 and my tennis trophy from 1966)

There is a special joy in finding treasures I thought I’d lost. 

Yesterday Vickie and I returned to Sanibel to check on our house and get a sense of how the restoration was proceeding. Landscapers were hard at work with a promise that our ravaged front yard would be beautiful once again. We also met with an air-conditioning professional to arrange for a unit on our lanai.

Crowded into the two upstairs bedrooms were things salvaged and deemed save able from the lower floor. To my delight my eyes lit on two treasures I thought I would never see again.

I received them 50 years apart.

One was the Kiddush cup given me as a gift when, in 2016 I conducted the first Jewish service in the city of Friedrichsstadt, Germany, since Kristallnacht. On that night, November 9, 1938, the Nazis instituted an organized pogrom across Germany against the Jewish community. The burned many synagogues to the ground, but they did not torch the one in Friedrichsstadt. Instead, they commandeered it as a headquarters for Nazi soldiers in that city.  In recent years the German government restored it to the Friedrichsstadt Jewish community.

Unfortunately, very few Jews live in the vicinity of Friedrichsstadt today. Nevertheless, the Christian community gathered every Jew they could find from the surrounding area and joined them for a Shabbat service commemorating the return of the synagogue. It was a great privilege for me to conduct that service.

Tonight, Vickie and I will use that Kiddush cup at Shabbat dinner. For us it joyfully symbolizes the renewal of Jewish life in the country of our ancestry, a place that tried and failed to uproot Jewish life completely.

The second treasure from 50 years before is a very different one. It is the championship trophy from the 1966 Eastern College Athletic Conference Draw II Fall Tennis Tournament held at Rider University in Trenton, NJ. Fred Vanderbilt was representing Hamilton College in the Draw I division, and I in Draw II.

I am sure our Coach, Mox Weber, thought Fred, who was a finalist the previous year, had an excellent chance to win his division and that Steve “would try his best.”

Unfortunately, Fred – in large measure because he had to play three matches in one day – fell in the quarter finals. That left me.

56 years later I look back with pride on five of the best matches I ever played to win my division. In the finals I lost the first set to Bob Mendel of Franklin and Marshall College but won the second 6-4. I jumped out to a 5-2 lead in the deciding set, but I could feel panic setting in as Mendel won the next three games to tie the score.

I stole a glance at Fred and his wife sitting on the sidelines and tried to keep my head together. “Don’t worry about the last three games, Steve” I told myself. “Just play one point at a time.”  There was nothing profound or new in the advice I gave myself, but somehow it worked. I won the next two games to take the title for Hamilton.

Each of these treasures is a precious symbol to me. Judaism and tennis have both taught me so much about life, and the importance of trying my best and perseverance. Each is a special blessing and retrieving them gives me hope that there are many blessings yet ahead for Vickie and me.

My Mantras

2022 was a rough year. 

Hurricane Ian devastated our home and disabled our worship space. My wife, Vickie, is fighting and –thank God—winning a valiant battle against Stage Three Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Dealing with these challenges has been -to say the least- not easy. To cope I have come to rely on my mantras.

The first is the traditional Jewish prayer upon awakening.  “I thank You, Eternal and Enduring Ruler, that you have restored my soul to me with graciousness.  Great is your faithfulness.”

These words set the tone for my day. They remind me that being able to awaken each day is a gift from God, and God wants me to use it productively.

Next, I recite the Sh’ma, the words from the Book of Deuteronomy, “Hear O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God Alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) 

These words lie at the heart of Jewish prayer and are the central affirmation of our Jewish heritage.

My mantras also include three verses from Psalms, included in Jewish prayer services, that remind me of the enormous power for good or for ill that lies in the words I speak.  As one who has made his living with words these three verses are vital reminders:

“Eternal One, open my lips that my mouth may declare Your glory.” (Psalm 51:17)

“My God, keep my tongue from speaking evil, and my lips from speaking deceitfully.” (Psalm 34:14) In the Psalm this verse is stated in the second person, but our prayer book and my personal prayers instruct me to apply it to myself.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, O God, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19: 15)

 Interspersed among these three verses in my ritual are two more exhortations from Psalms:

“Cease from anger and forsake wrath.” (Psalm 37:8) This verse reminds me not to let little things bother me or to permit anger to cloud my judgment. How often I need this reminder, especially when someone cuts me off when I am driving.

“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”  (Psalm 61:2) This verse encourages me to strive each day to be a better person than I was the day before.

My mantras set a very lofty set of goals before me. Admittedly, I often fall short of them, but they help me start my day with a vision of my better self, a vison of the person I would like to be. 

I believe all of us could profit from some time each day to meditate on the goals for our lives. In his best-selling book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Herbert Benson prescribes a simple four-step process to quiet our minds that I find very helpful:

  • A quiet atmosphere
  • A comfortable position
  • A mental device
  • A passive attitude

My mantras are my “mental device.” They speak to me because of my studies in biblical interpretation that underlie my life’s work. Each of us can benefit from choosing a mantra or mantras that relate to our own life circumstances. Incorporating them into a simple meditation ritual can help us deal with the challenges we each must face.

Joseph Reveals Himself

The magnificent oil pointing above of Joseph’s brothers bowing before him is the work of my (no 101-year-old mother-in-law, Stefanie Steinberg.

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Parashat Va-yigash.

We wonder though, why does Joseph treat his brothers so harshly? Why does he accuse them of being spies? Why does he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why does he instruct his steward to put his goblet into Benjamin’s bag?

Many commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge. The brothers mistreated Joseph and sold him as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back.

Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes that at first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge. He still wants revenge more than he wants love. (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 284)

If, however, revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused. Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed.

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him away into slavery. With Joseph gone, Benjamin became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son.

Judah knows what is at stake. In one of literature’s most stirring speeches (Genesis 44:18-34), he offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph-who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence-needs to hear to end the charade.

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)].

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story discusses his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past.

I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary.

We Never Know

One of the Platters lesser-known songs, but one of my favorites is: “You’ll Never Know.” What makes this song special to me is the richly melodic repetition of the title by the group’s late bass man Herb Reed.

The song speaks to me because in life we sometimes never know the impact for good or for ill our words and actions have on others.

As a Rabbi, I have spoken in front of many people over the last half century. Sometimes, I confess, I wonder what if any impact my words have. I am sure many of you occasionally ask, as I do, “What’ the point?”  What’s the point of all the time, the blood sweat and tears we put into our work?

It doesn’t matter what line of work you pursue. At times it all seems meaningless, and we harbor thoughts akin to those that begin and permeate the Book of Ecclesiastes:  Vanity of vanities …Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. Of what useful purpose is all the work that we do under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)

My thinking on this question has been enriched by an observation our son Leo recently shared with me. After a successful career as an Educator and Principal of an inner-city elementary school that he founded, Leo made the decision to undertake the arduous five-year course of full-time study at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to become a Rabbi. It was not an easy decision, and only the love and support of his wife, Liz, and his two sons made it possible. 

Leo and I frequently debate the merits of Abraham, and often we must agree to disagree. But this year Leo shared an insight from the writings of the late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, that sheds new light for me on the “Vanity of vanities…” question.

Abraham is renowned for his faith in God. But what makes his faith so special is that he had faith even when the outcome of his journey was far from certain.

Specifically, when God instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he was uncertain of what the outcome would be. And yet he found the courage to go on. In so doing he in partnership with the Eternal One taught the world of the horror of human sacrifice (a lesson, as I have written elsewhere, we still struggle to learn).

Viewing Abraham’ and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah this way, comforts me on my journey through life, and I hope it will comfort you.

We “never know” what the outcome of our efforts will ultimately be. But if, despite that uncertainty, we walk the path we believe God wants us to pursue, we have the best chance to fill our lives with purpose and meaning.

The Chanukah Lamp is Full…

TheChanukah lamp is full

The Chanukah lamp will be full tonight as much of the world enjoys their Christmas dinner.

The eighth night of Chanukah has always been special to me. The full Chanukiah gives off its maximum glow and has always conveyed to me a sense of completion. The fully lit chanukiah speaks to me of dreams fulfilled and not the aspiration of the previous days with their latent message, “There’s more.”

And yet the Chanukah candles burn quickly to remind us that the moments of fulfilled visions and dreams are fleeting indeed.

So, it is with life.  We strive and occasionally, if we are fortunate, we achieve a milestone.  It doesn’t matter which milestone It could be a victory in a game or even a championship.  Maybe it is an aced test or an academic degree. Perhaps it is a new job or a big promotion.  It might even be achieving the most important goal to which we can aspire: winning the person of your dreams as a life partner.

It doesn’t matter if it is a big dream or a small one. The feeling of triumph and completion never lasts. Soon we look for a new challenge. No matter what we achieve we continually ask, as Peggy Lee does in her signature song, “Is that all there is?”

Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma asked two thousand years ago: “Who is rich?” And he answered, “Those who are content with what they have.”

Maybe it is human nature that contentment is an ephemeral feeling. 

But as I savor the beauty of the full Chanukah lamp and envision many others at their Christmas dinners, I can’t help but think: Wouldn’t it be nice if people of whatever religion spent more time celebrating and appreciating one another? Wouldn’t it be great if we could savor our joys a bit longer before turning the page and looking for our next challenge?

From Darkness to Light

Joseph with his brothers bowing before him (oil painting by Stefanie Steinberg)

Our Sages firmly believed that it was more than a coincidence that the Torah portion in which Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams is the portion read in synagogues around the world on the Shabbat that falls during Chanukah.

The most common explanation connects the lights of Chanukah which illumine the winter darkness to the emergence of Joseph from the darkness of prison to the light of freedom and the status he achieves as second in command to Pharaoh in Egypt.

For me there is another more personally meaningful explanation. In this portion Joseph emerges from the darkness of his own self-centeredness to the light of humility he has learned during his two years in prison.

At the beginning of the story Joseph flaunts his dreams and their interpretations in the face of his older brothers. Even though he is their father’s favorite son, and even though he and he alone receives the famous, “coat of many colors,” he makes matters worse by tattling to his father about whatever he observes the brothers are doing wrong.  To rub salt in an already chafing relationship he flaunts his grandiose dreams of superiority and dominion in his brothers’ and his father’s faces.

But after two years in prison, he emerges with the light of a different perspective.  When Pharaoh references Joseph’s skill as a dream interpreter, he responds with hard-learned humility: “Not I but God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare.”

This understanding of the connection between Chanukah and this part of the Joseph story makes Chanukah not just a historical remembrance or a time to show pride in our Jewish heritage.  Rather the Festival of Lights becomes a catalyst for our personal journeys from the darkness of self-absorption to the light of selflessness.  

The word. “Chanukah,” means, “Dedication.” The festival becomes so much more meaningful when it inspires us to “dedicate” our efforts less t our own self-interest and more  to the well-being of those around us and the world at large.