Distinguishing Between What Is Real And Enduring and What Is Not

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Shabbat Manual contains one of my favorite prayers:

“Help us, O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”

Parashat Va-ethanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) Contains both the Sh’ma and the deuteronomic reiteration of the Ten Commandments, two of the most “real and enduring” gifts of our people to human thought. The portion also emphasizes God’s solemn warning to the people as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai: Do not make a sculptured image or any material form as an object of worship but seek to do the will of the invisible God with all your heart and soul. (DT 4:29)

Many years ago I heard Eli Wiesel quote the famous passage from Pirke Avot (3:1 in the name of Akavaya ben Mehallelel) “Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give account.”

“Now, which of these,” Wiesel asked rhetorically, “is the most important? The most important,” he asserted, “is ‘from where you came!’

Every Jew should always remember that he/she came from Sinai.”

Our tradition teaches that all unborn generations of our people stood with our ancestors at the foot of that mountain. There they heard God command us not to worship things that we can see and touch.

How vital and how unheeded that lesson remains! So many of us make money and fame our gods. We measure our success by our salaries and press clippings. We worship the athletes and entertainers who make mega millions. We covet the lifestyles of CEOs who make in an hour what minimum wage earners take home in a year!  This is the idolatry the Torah condemns.

In our worship of material things we ignore the immense debt we to the Almighty.        

Before God intervened, we were lost in a world of oppression and meaningless drudgery. We worked unceasingly to build store cities and pyramids to the glory of the Egyptian pharaoh-god. Day after day we endured the same mind-numbing routine.

 But God went to war with pharaoh to get us out of there! In so doing the Eternal One gave us the possibility of a life of purpose and meaning. Redeemed from service to Pharaoh, we pledged to serve God by working to replace the hatred and violence in this world with Tzedakah, Mishpat, and chesed, righteousness, justice and lovingkindness.

When I think of the debt we owe God for redeeming us from Egypt, I think of a small child, who somehow wandered out into the street. The mother looks up to see a truck speeding toward her little one, and she realizes with horror that she cannot save the child herself. At the very last second a person runs into the street, swoops up her child and rolls to the other side, just in time to avoid the truck. Clearly, there is nothing the mother can do to adequately repay the one who saved her child.

That is the debt we owe the Eternal One for pulling us – just in time – out of “the iron blast furnace” of Egypt! (DT 4:20)  We can never fully recompense the Eternal One for bringing us from Egypt to Sinai, but we should try unceasingly to do so.

At Sinai we renewed with our invisible, untouchable and in many ways unfathomable God the Covenant that God first made with Abraham and Sarah.

In exchange for our freedom, a meaningful Jewish future and the Promised Land, we pledged to use our talents and abilities to seek meaning and purpose in our lives beyond our own success. It is a Covenant that requires us to “distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”

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Remembering Dr. Joel Deutsch

This week in synagogues around the world we begin the story of God’s Covenant with Abram,Sarai and all of us. That Covenant is the basis of everything we do as Jews. In it God promised to protect us, give us children, makes a permanent people and give us the land of Israel. But we don’t get those things for nothing: In return God charges us: 

1. Be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)

2. Walk in My ways and be worthy (Genesis 17:1

3. Fill the world and teach your children to fill the world with צדקה ומשפט “righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)

Over the years of my rabbinate few individuals have come closer to living up to the Covenant’s ideals than Joel Deutsch, M. D. It is more than seven years since Joel left us, but in tribute to his memory and as a reminder to us all of the Covenant’s ideals, I wish to share his eulogy with you.

Joel Deutsch loved Congregation Beth Israel with a prophet’s love. He eloquently and sometimes stridently demanded that we live up to the highest values of our tradition. He called us to account for not caring enough about the new Americans in our midst, for not showing sufficient deference and ceding sufficient power to the seniors of our community, and for a lack of fiscal transparency and accountability.

He would have been, quite honestly, a pain in the neck except for the fact that Joel backed up his complaints with tireless efforts in every realm of our community’s life. Rare was the Shabbat when he and Harriet did not worship with the congregation. Rarer still was the Shabbat morning when he and Harriet did not bring their minds and their hearts to the serious study of Torah at 9:30 a.m.

Joel’s passion for Jewish learning did not end with Torah study. When I taught my first graduate course at Hartford Seminary on Reading Scripture through Jewish eyes, I discovered to my delighted surprise Joel and Harriet among the students enrolled.

Joel was a sponge for Jewish knowledge. I can hardly recall an adult learning opportunity in which he did not participate. Learning for Joel – secular, scientific and religious – was a consuming passion. But knowledge was not an end in itself. Knowledge for Joel Deutsch was the means to use his vast talents and abilities to make the world a better place.

As Joel’s favorite Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The God of nature is the God of history, and the way to know Him is to do His will.” I have never met a person more eager to do God’s will than Joel Deutsch.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 15, 1926. He graduated from NYU and Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia. At Hahnemann he caught the eye of Harriet Miller, a young research assistant who worked at the medical school. “He was quiet, respectful, and very loving,” Harriet recalled. “He enjoyed talking about philosophy.” They married on June 26, 1949 after Joel’s graduation from medical school, and they shared 58 loving years together. They had two children, Bob and Dick.

When Bob brought Laura into the family, she became like a daughter to Joel. He also became the devoted grandfather of Jessica, Ross, Dan and Jay.

“Dad encouraged us to do our best,” his sons remembered, but he never pressured us. He always told our mom that her job of raising children was much more important than his job as a doctor, and he meant it. The most important things he taught us were that true riches have nothing to do with money and to respect people from all walks of life.”

Anyone who knew Joel even slightly knows that respect and concern for the Divine image in which God created all people was the hallmark of his philosophy. As a young army physician in the early 1950’s Joel was assigned to care for patients in a military prison. He found the living conditions there to be unacceptable, and he protested to his superiors. When his complaints fell upon deaf ears, he journeyed to Washington D. C. to consult higher authorities. Even their threats to ship him off to a war zone in Korea did not deter Joel from speaking out against the injustice he saw.

In 1974 Joel and Harriet moved to this area when he accepted the position of Chief of Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. He took great pride in his role as a physician and a teacher and was equally devoted to his patients and his students. The experience of actually holding a human heart in his hands filled Joel with a feeling of awe and responsibility to use his talents to improve life for others.

He was very proud of his role in developing one of the first Physician’s Assistants programs at Mount Sinai Hospital. As President of the Hartford division of the Connecticut American Cancer Society Joel was instrumental in setting up over I-84 the powerfully impactful billboard that depicted a skeleton smoking a cigarette.

Although surgery was Joel’s medical specialty, he was truly a renaissance physician devoted to compassionate care of the entire human being. His never ending thirst for knowledge and his passion to share that knowledge extended to the fields of oncology, psychology, cardiology, orthopedics and just about every medical field.

In his retirement he became the medical consultant to every member of Beth Israel’s SAGE program. Countless individuals have regaled me with stories of how Joel took a personal interest in their case, did extensive research about their disease and told them just what questions to ask their doctors and how to navigate the often confusing world of Medicare, prescription drugs, hospital visits and so many other things.

Amazingly, Medicine and Jewish learning were only two of Joel’s interests. He was a computer maven who was a “walking search engine” on almost any subject. He loved telescopes and gadgetry. He was a gifted photographer and an inveterate fan and user of all the latest photographic equipment.

He particularly loved photographing flowers. He was always proud that the Mount Sinai Hospital oncology unit commissioned him to decorate its walls with his floral photographs.

Joel also loved music, cartoons from the New Yorker, and sharing the wisdom of his years with his grandchildren. At significant family occasions he would say, “I am not going to wait until I die to tell you what I have learned in life.” He would then proceed with an “ethical will” which encapsulated his values and ideals.

Yesterday (August 7, 2007), I made my monthly presentation to our congregation’s SAGE group. I always look forward to being with this wonderful group of congregants and find the experience very gratifying. But yesterday, something palpable was missing. And it has been missing ever since.

It was Joel. Joel’s probing questions, his challenge against doing things the way they’ve always been done, his advocacy for the seniors in our community, his love of Judaism, Israel and Jewish values; his reminders to support the Wiesenthal Center, the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center – all of these were missing, and it will never be the same. In fact, nothing at Beth Israel will be the same—not Torah study, not worship, not our social justice initiatives, not even our Ongai Shabbat where Joel would often take me aside to remind me of another important matter that needed my attention.

He has gone now to another realm, and heaven better be ready to make some changes. Here on earth, though, we will think of him often. We will remember things that he taught us and that he did for us. His values and his passion will inspire us. Yes, Joel has gone to another realm, but his memory will remain with his family, his colleagues, his patients and so many–-in this sacred community and beyond-–whose lives he touched for a blessing.

Amen