Corona Response: We Can’t Do Everything, But We Can Do Something

The Corona Virus Crisis has confronted us with circumstances few of us could have imagined only a few months ago. 

Our lives have changed – radically, but one look at the news, with people standing outside in frigid weather on long lines waiting for food or a test spaced at least six feet apart, should let us know how blessed we are to be here in southwest Florida.

The numbers of lives lost and afflicted stagger us. And the thousands on the front lines fighting the virus and caring for the sick inspire us. 

Numbers?

No.

They are real people who could easily be our loved ones or ourselves.They are each an embodiment of God’s image, a sacred act of creation.

Poet Hannah Senesh, who parachuted behind enemy lines and was tortured and executed at age 23 for aiding the Partisans who resisted Hitler, wrote, (Ashrei ha-Gafrur in the original Hebrew) “Blessed is the Match.”

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

       Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places

Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake. 

       Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

We offer our profound gratitude to all have risked or given their lives so that the flames in others will continue to burn.

Viktor Frankl, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and later wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, taught: “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of purpose and meaning.”

Yes, our lives have changed, and we feel frustrated and powerless to make a difference. But not being able to do all we wish to do should never stop us from acting as Frankl urged, with purpose and meaning to do whatever we can. So:

  • Let us do all we can to remain healthy.  Hand washing, sanitizing, and physical distancing, cannot be optional.
  • Drink plenty of water, eat healthy foods and try to get sufficient sleep. 
  • Seek new ways – in our enforced leisure — to keep our minds occupied.
  • Reach out with phone calls, emails and letters to those you know who are alone
  • Donate what you can to organizations that make a difference.

In recent weeks I have released $1000 of my Discretionary Fund to F.I.S.H. because my experience on the Island has shown me how efficiently and effectively they use the funds we contribute to them.

As a congregation, Bat Yam was the first on the Island to announce a switch from in person events to digital activities to remain connected and offer comfort to our members and the wider community.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to our technological wizards, Janice and Ron Chaddock, Garry and Beth Weiss, and Dave Waks and Sandy Teger for making possible our Shabbat Welcome,” Shabbat morning classes and our “Wednesday Coffee Hour.” I shudder to think where would be without them.

A special shout out goes to Dave Waks, who worked tirelessly for hours with Cantor Simon and me to ensure our Passover Seder would work well.

The effort paid off. Our Seder reached homes from Hawaii to Germany. Our other offerings reach far more people in more places than those who were able to attend in person before the current crisis.

Recently, many of us learned the famous song “Over the Rainbow,” was not just written to express a little girl’s hope to escape Kansas in the 1939 move, The Wizard of Oz. 

Rather, the song’s Jewish composers, Harold Arlen (nee Hyman Arluck) and Yip Harburg (nee Isidore Hochberg) had something greater in mind. Seeing the storm clouds gathering over Europe after Kristallnacht they were dreaming of land over “the rainbow” of their people’s suffering: Israel. 

As we confront the changes in our lives the Corona Virus has wrought, I am so proud that Bat Yam is looking “over the rainbow.” With people stepping forward to meet the current challenge with courage and creativity we shall soon “wake up with the clouds far behind” to embrace a bright and sunny future.

An Open Letter to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Dear Governor DeSantis,

So now WWE, i.e. professional wrestling is an essential business to the health and welfare of the people of the great state of Florida??

Seriously!?

Are you kidding me!?

Governor DeSantis, without even stopping to think I can come up with a hundred industries or businesses more central to the welfare of our citizens than pro-wrestling.

Please, Governor, tell us why a sport in which the object is to injure, maim or permanently disable one’s opponent (and whether it is staged or not, people get seriously hurt) is more essential to our welfare than restaurants or, for that matter, any other business or industry one can think of.

In fact, if I were given the power one of the first things I would do is ban all blood sports (wrestling, boxing, WWE and yes, even football which shortens lives, causes dementia and leaves almost all its participants with permanent painful injuries) from the activities of civilized society.

The fact that lots of people relish coming together to see two, or four individuals do all that they can to beat one another’s brains out should not make it OK for society to sanction such activity.

One day, I am sure, we will regard these spectacles with the same revulsion we feel for the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome

What is wrong with us?

In 2009 in my former home state of Connecticut, we witnessed the sorry spectacle of former WWE executive Linda McMahon investing millions of dollars in her campaign to try to run for Senator against former CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Her campaign unearthed the sorry spectacle of a video wherein, in her WWE role, she kicked one of the wrestlers where it would hurt the most. Really!

In 2012 she ran again and lost as the Republican nominee for the Senate seat now held by Christopher Murphy. But money talks! In December 2016 the President-elect nominated Ms. McMahon to head the Small Business Administration. For the past year she has served as Chairwoman of “America First Action,” a pro-Trump Super PAC.

So yes, I am admitting my bias. Professional wrestling and similar sports should be banned!

That is all the more reason why they should be considered anything but essential!

The Silver Lining in a Very Dark Cloud

The staggering number of deaths around the country and the world, and the horrible suffering endured by so many has us reeling.

The world will never be the same.

No one should minimize the human and economic cost of the current pandemic. Loved ones, friends and untold number of others have died and will die. Staggering numbers of people have lost their jobs and means of sustaining themselves and their families. Too many people have died and will die without loved ones nearby to say goodbye or to attend their funerals.

The description of horror and upheaval are endless.

And yet…

Instead of trying to get back to the old normal, maybe we can embrace the silver lining in the very dark cloud passing over us and create a new and better normal for ourselves future generations.

What is that silver lining?

The earth in these short weeks of shutdown has made a remarkable ecological recovery. Water is cleaner, air is purer and the tide flowing toward inevitable environmental destruction has slowed.

What a vital warning this tragic time is reiterating. It is the same warning our Sages issued to us in the name of the Eternal One (Kohelet Rabbah, chapter 7) at the time of creation:  “You are in charge of and responsible for this earth. But it is the only one you will get. So preserve and enhance it. Do not pollute or destroy it.”

Can we somehow embrace that valuable lesson before rushing headlong back to doing things exactly as we did before?

And speaking of rushing … is there nothing we can learn from the forced “slowing down” that has become the current reality of our lives? 

I for one do not wish to return to a normal that fills every waking moment of every single day with responsibilities and obligations that make every pause and every deep breath we allow ourselves a guilty pleasure or a costly luxury.

As Queen Elizabeth so eloquently reminded us in her address to Great Britain and the world, might we embrace the beauty of aloneness and the time for self-reflection and meditation this time allows even after we can return to our previous routines?

Also, might we not  — while forced to accept physical distance – give thanks for the virtual capabilities this crisis has enabled us to embrace?

Might the absolute necessity for physical distance inspire us to greater “social closeness” through emails texts, video chats, phone calls and letters?

For example, last year’s Bat Yam Temple of the islands Seder found more than 150 people straining the fire code limits of the Sanibel House, and it was wonderful to be together. Hopefully, we shall be again next year.

But should we not give thanks that while this year’s Seder found just a few close family members together in a room, our ritual was enjoyed by people not only from as close as Sanibel and Fort Myers but from as far away as Hawaii and Germany as well.

I believe that the secret to Jewish survival despite all the hardships and tragedy history has imposed on us is our ability to cling to the hope that things will get better.

The national anthem of Israel, unlike those of many nations, is not a militaristic march, but a soulful melody entitled Ha-Tikvah, “The Hope.”

And so in the presence of the dark cloud hovering over us, I cling to the silver lining of this hope:  When the cloud passes over, and it will, may we learn the lessons it teaches and create a calmer, gentler world around us and within ourselves.

Michael Harris Levinson

As you will read below Mike Levinson played a very special role in my life. It was my sad privilege to conduct his funeral:

 

When I met via Face Time with Marilyn, Joanie, Gary, Alan, Gail, Neil and Alec, Calvin and Caroline, Renee, Howard and Abby, the love of Mike that generated from each of them was precious, palpable and inspiring.  The outpouring of affection moved me deeply but did not surprise me at all because I shared it.

When Mike Levinson arrived in my dorm room at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati 47 years ago, my rabbinical future was uncertain.  INTERMET, the program in urban interfaith ministry to which I had applied had just rejected me, but Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger felt Temple Isaiah might consider taking a chance on me as their rabbinic intern anyway.

So Mike, as President of the congregation, traveled to Cincinnati to see for himself.

He asked very thoughtful questions, listened carefully and reflectively, and showed both excitement about and concern for the future of the fledgling congregation that he led.

I was very impressed.

So, I was overjoyed when Mike called me a few days later to invite me to fly out to Columbia to learn more about the congregation and for them to learn more about me.

 Mike Levinson’s term of office ended as mine began, but I quickly learned that though he would not be president, he would definitely be present.

Throughout my years at Temple Isaiah, he was a wise, steady calming influence. And that has continued to be the case over all these years.  As Rabbi Craig Axler, Temple Isaiah ‘s current and much beloved rabbi put it, Mike, was the congregation’s version of E. F. Hutton: When he talked, people listened. When controversy swirled, Mike had a way of calming the waters, keeping us from getting sidetracked, and bringing people together.

Michael Harris Levinson was born in Joplin, Missouri and moved to Jacksonville with his family after High School.

At the University of Florida he met Marilyn Marks, and the rest soon became history.  Marilyn was 19 when they married. They moved to Bridgeport where Mike began his engineering career at GE and then to Frederick, Maryland where Mike did chemical biological research in the army. They came to Columbia in 1970.

I was single but with a serious girl friend when I arrived at Temple Isaiah, and I learned so much from observing the marital dynamic between Mike and Marilyn. They shared 58 years of love and devotion together, and served as models for the type of marriage Vickie and I have tried to create.

At the age of 52 Mike made a courageous career change.  When I asked why, Mike explained he wanted to work for more than just a paycheck.  So he went back to school to become a librarian.  How many men in their fifties do you know who leave a corporate career to become librarians? I know only one: Mike Levinson.

With his usual good humor Mike deflected the jokes about, ’“How many ways are they teaching you to say, “Shhh!” and other light-hearted jibes.

To my sadness, Mike was too sick in November to travel to Temple Isaiah when I spoke there to inaugurate the celebration marking their 50th year as a congregation. But I was pleased I had the chance to tell everyone there the story of how Mike Levinson saved my career and help launch it on the path it has taken.

I was thrilled too, that though Mike and Marilyn could not be there, Joanie and Alan were.

It brought back memories of how Joanie gave up her room for me when I came to Columbia to interview for the first time. It brought back memories of how on that memorable occasion, six-year old Alan challenged me to a fight the second I walked through the door and how calmly, gently and skillfully Mike and Marilyn dealt with the unexpected greeting their precocious son accorded the prospective rabbi.

More importantly it was so wonderful to see how grown-up Joanie and Alan reflect the intelligence, thoughtfulness and kindness of their parents.

Without question, for the last 47 years, Mike Levinson represented everything I want to be: A fair, honest and thoughtful person, a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather and a proud Jew.

If Mike represented so much that I continue to admire even though we have had only sporadic contact since I left Temple Isaiah in 1986, how much the more does he mean to his loving children and grandchildren and, of course, to Marilyn.

For all of them, Mike embodied wisdom, thoughtfulness, integrity and a wonderful sense of humor. He was famous for systematically weighing the pros and cons of various options when a decision about anything significant was at hand.

His ultimate career choice as a librarian was a perfect fit.  It enabled him to combine his love for information, science and helping people. His courage in giving up a successful career and going back to school to pursue what Mike knew would be a more fulfilling path profoundly shaped the values and priorities of his children and grandchildren.

His grandchildren found their “Pop Pop” eternally young. He could talk, laugh and play with them at their level. He was the one who would suggest a hot dog stand for a birthday lunch or a spontaneous stop when they passed an ice cream parlor.

“Spontaneous” is a word his loved ones used frequently to describe Mike. It was the rare combination of spontaneity, systematic thoughtfulness and “his infinite wisdom and sweet and gentle patience” that made Mike who he was. He was, they recalled the type of person with whom you could sit in a room and just “appreciate the silence.”

Mike was already very ill last spring when he and Marilyn came to Joanie and Gary’s for Passover.  But when Gary offered to let him lead the Seder Mike did so with enthusiasm and energy. How fitting  …  as Judaism was such an important part of his life!

Mike was 81 years old when he died, but his youthful spirit and inquiring mind made him seem much younger.

I will always be grateful that our lives intertwined, and I know his memory will endure for those who loved him and all who knew him as a blessing.

 

 

 

 

Hushabye!

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Surrounded by original MYSTICS, second tenor, George Galfo (left) and lead singer, Phil Cracolici (right)

On a beautiful day in June 1959 George Snedden, Don Marino, Graham Carnegie, Tim Lewis and I were celebrating the fact that we had just completed seventh grade. Has there ever been a better day in a young boy’s life than the first day of summer vacation?

We were hanging out with a transistor radio in the parking lot across the street from George’s apartment on William Street in East Orange, NJ, when a beautiful lilting melody with amazing harmonies came out of the radio.  “That was ‘Hushabye’,” by the Mystics, a group from Brooklyn, NY,” the DJ announced.

I was transfixed. 

Many who know me find my musical tastes strange. If someone gave me two front row tickets to a Rolling Stones concert down the street, I would pass them up in favor of third balcony seats at full price to hear a good doo wop performance. Credit my wife Vickie, a classical music fan, for putting up with my idiosyncratic preferences.

Credit her also for not refusing when I suggested a few weeks ago that we take a three hour drive to Coral Springs on a Thursday night to hear the Mystics in concert.

Like almost every doo wop group from the fifties, the Mystics have gone through a number of personnel changes, but when I learned that two of the five “originals,” lead voice Phil Cracolici and second tenor George Galfo would be performing, I bought our tickets.

The sold out show was wonderful. We sat at a table with some very nice people who marveled at the fact that we drove three hours to be there. Vickie, who honestly expected to barely tolerate the concert, enjoyed it thoroughly.

The new voices in the Mystics did a great job on a wonderful array of doo wop and some post doo wop numbers, but Phil and George were the reason I was there.

Why?

After 61 years “Hushabye” remains one of my all time favorite songs.

Life in those 61 years has certainly had its ups and downs, but “Hushabye” represents for me a precious idyllic vision of how God wants the world to be.

Some 2500 years ago, the biblical Prophet Micah envisioned a word where: Everyone would lie down under their vines and fig tress with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4)

“Hushabye” represents that world, a world where  children lie down at night in peace and security and “Guardian angels up above take care of the one I love.”

Micah’s words were just as eloquent, but he didn’t have Phil Crocolici’s beautifully understated voice and the Mystics impeccable harmonies.

Reconciliation

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Joseph’s brothers bow before him in Egypt by Stefanie Steinberg

 

The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph–so moved by Judah’s stirring appeal–reveals himself to his brothers. (Genesis 44:18-34)

“It is one of the greatest, most stirring addresses in all literature.”  That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s address to Joseph. Thank you, Mr. Ehrenworth. I know I was not a serious student in your class, but your explication of Judah’s speech has stayed with me my entire life. I did not realize it then, but you set in motion the process that inspired me to make the search for meaning in biblical narratives a driving force in my life.

Sir Walter Scott called Judah’s speech, “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language” (Joseph Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, P. 169).

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, z’l, 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). However, if 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.

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  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. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  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.

If Benjamin does not return home safely, his father will die. Judah who so callously inflicted the pain of the loss of Joseph on his father is not willing to let it happen again. In his speech, the longest one to one address in the Bible, 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 in order 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 shows us his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” derive 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 and live more positive, purposeful lives in the future.

 

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.  

New Year’s Resolution

In Chariots of Fire, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (along with three others) in 1982, Harold Abrahams, winner of the 1924 gold medal in the 100 meter race, compares his compulsively driven personality unfavorably to that of his friend Aubrey Montague who finished sixth in the steeplechase that year.

For all his fame and success, Abrahams laments he has never found contentment: “You, Aubrey, are my most complete man,” because, and I am paraphrasing now, you are content with who you are and do not spend your life as I have always trying relentlessly to prove your worth.

My New Year’s resolution for 2020 is to strive for the contentment that Abrahams saw in his friend Montague.

 Psalm 131 frames my quest:

 

Eternal One:

(Help me so that)

My heart is not haughty,

nor my eyes too lofty.

Neither do I exercise myself

in things too great

or too far beyond me.

Surely I have stilled

and quieted my soul

like a weaned child

with his mother.

Let my being be like

a weaned child. (Psalm131:1-2)

As a New Year begins, I hope to be as good a person, husband, father, grandfather, friend and rabbi that I can be.

 “Who is rich,” asked the second-century Sage, Simeon ben Zoma?

“The one who appreciates what he has.” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

Eternal One,

You have blessed me in ways too numerous to count.

Help me to quell regret for things that elude me

With profound gratitude for the things that I have.

May I come to realize, at last,

That the constant pursuit of more—

Is in the words of Kohelet:

“Vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Grant me, I pray, health and strength

To – in the days and years left to me –

Make life just a bit better

For others.

Amen

 

 

 

You Can Go Home Again

Last fall our caring and erudite President Barry Fulmer, here at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands sent a wonderful reminder to the congregation regarding our service for the Shabbat during Sukkot, which was based on the book of Ecclesiastes.  Ecclesiastes (like Esther for Purim, is the Megillah read in synagogues during Sukkot.)

In his letter Barry included a quotation from Thomas Wolfe’s posthumously published novel: You Can’t Go Home Again.

I had never read this American classic, and since I was soon to “go home again” to the first congregation I served Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland, I decided I should. We left Columbia for Nashville in 1986.

For 13 yearsI served the congregation  as its first full-time rabbi. Since they were beginning to celebrate their 50th year, they invited Vickie and me back for a weekend to begin a yearlong series of celebratory events.

The book was much longer than I realized, but in the beginning of chapter 6, I found the perfect quotation to use as the introduction for my Friday night sermon. When after traveling the world, Wolfe’s protagonist George Webber returned to his boyhood home of Libya Falls, (Asheville in disguise) North Carolina for the funeral of the aunt who raised him he felt as I felt when I returned to speak at Temple Isaiah after 33 years:

“Something far, near strange and so familiar, and it seemed to him as though he had never left … and all that had passed in the years was like a dream.”

When the invitation first came to Vickie and me well over a year ago, I was delighted to accept, but I wondered, “Who will remember us? Who will care and who will come?”

To our delight, the service was packed, and many of those in attendance were students from years ago with whom I had studied for Bar or Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation. Some had traveled from as far Rochester, NY, Boston, New York City and North Carolina to be there. It was a joy to see them, and have some share the lessons from their B’nai Mitzvah portions as they fit into my teaching session on Shabbat morning.

Then on Saturday evening the present and past Presidents of the synagogue hosted Vickie and me for dinner in a private room of a lovely restaurant. After the meal the presidents took turns sharing nice memories they had of us.

With one exception they did not speak about memorable sermons or other “public acts” that stood out in their minds. Rather they spoke of specific things I did for them personally that made a lasting impact on their lives. To be honest, I could barely recall some of the instances they recounted.

But the lesson of the evening is one I shall always remember.

As Maya Angelou once wrote: “People will forget what you say … but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

I am glad we could “go home again” to re-learn that vital lesson.

 

 

 

November 29 Will ALWAYS Be My Thanksgiving


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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.

I have.

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.

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The Jewish and Muslim cemeteries in Flensburg, Germany, lie side by side

 

 

   Bridging the Gap Between Deuteronomy 15:4 and 15:11 A Thanksgiving Prayer

IMG_3813 Thanksgiving soon will be here,

A grand and special day,

So I opened up the Good Book

To see what it has to say.

 

I find in Deuteronomy

A glorious proclamation:

“There shall be no needy among you

In any land or nation!” (15:4)

 

What a wonderful vision that is!

If only it were true,

But I note a few lines further

We have much work to do!

 

“The poor will never cease to be,” (15:11)

The very next paragraph reads.

How can two such opposite views

Be almost rubbing knees?

 

The answer lies between

The conflicting thoughts we heard,

But we must follow closely

And take to heart God’s words!

 

 

There will be no poor about!

But that can only happen when,

We all work together

To make it “Now,” not “Then!”

 

Yet we know the time’s not near

When all will heed God’s wish

So those of us who really care 

Must step up to the dish.

 

Those of us who’re here today

Are comfortable no doubt.

But all too many on God’s earth 

Surely do without!

 

Without a home to keep them dry

Without clothes to keep them warm,

From snow and sleet and wind and rain,

And every passing storm.

 

Others strive just to exist

Without enough to eat

Try feeding five on minimum wage.

That’s surely no mean feat.

 

 

 

And don’t forget those in our midst

Who have much that they own,

But suffer sadness deep inside

And feel so all alone.

 

Can our hearts make room for them?

Our bounty share at least?

And perhaps invite some to our home

To share Thanksgiving’s feast!

 

Scripture’s charge to us is clear:

There is much still to be done,

Before our world and God’s will

Truly become one!

 

As we give thanks for all our blessings,

With hearts and hands unfurled:

Let’s embrace God’s challenge to us

To repair our broken world!