Monthly Archives: September 2013

Remembering- Mom and Jean Nate

Our Jewish calendar provides us with time to remember those we have loved.  On their Yarzheits, or anniversary of passing, our thoughts turn to our mothers or fathers, our sisters or brothers, our husbands or wives, and for some of us, our children.

We struggle to remember, their presence remains powerful, but sometimes we struggle conjuring up memories that seem to fade a bit more in our everyday.  Often, people who were seemingly ever-present in our past become wistful moments in our present. A smile comes to our face and a tear to our eyes.  We are warmed by their reappearance, but our memories can fade if we do not try to remember specific things that link their presence to us.

As a small boy, it was hard for me to buy presents for either Mother’s day or Father’s day.  Many of us remember the days before the Internet, this extraordinary “point, click and automatic delivery to the door” of today’s reality.  Back then, Mr. Dykstra would let me call him and he would deliver flowers to the house and I would be there waiting with the money I had saved clutched safely in my hand, nervously counting and re-counting to make sure I really did have enough.

Sometimes many times, I could go with my mom shopping.  And there in the Drug Store, I found my “go to” gifts for both mom and dad.  Jean Nate Body Splash for mom and Pierre Cardin aftershave for dad.  Mom and dad always smelled good- distinctively like my mom and dad with the citrus scent that was at the heart of the respective fragrances.

Mom said she liked Jean Nate.  I remember the bottle- frosted glass with a round black cap containing the yellow colored “Friction pour le bain” as the bottle said.  I never knew what “Friction pour le bain” meant,  “Friction” seemed a strange word, but it was all appropriately exotic enough, being in French, even though I pronounced it JEAN like my mom’s first name.

Dad similarly always smelled like that sharp lemony odor contained in the modern glass bottle with shiny silver half circle cap, which reminded me of an old-fashioned keyhole on a lock.   I remember when I tried some of it, pouring some into my hand and they splashing or slapping it against my cheeks and neck.  It seemed to kind of sting and yet be cool at the same time.  But that was dad’s smell.

I do not know what it says about one’s fashion sense when you let your small child select your fragrance.  But it certainly says that the love you have for your child is infinitely more important.  Those smells still linger and are powerful memories that come rushing forth from the recesses of my mind.  And suddenly there is my mom as I remembered her with long dark hair and soothing voice.  There is my dad- for some reason in a wide-lapelled suit coat – I don’t know how he got stuck in the 70s, but at least it was not a leisure suit! But he was dressed and on his way to his business.  I was transported back in time, to a simpler time, a beautiful and uncomplicated time.  It washes over me as though it were yesterday.

I also remember the distinct smell of my grandfather and his cigars, and the room in my grandparent’s house in which my grandmother permitted him to smoke them.  I remember my grandmother’s kitchen, the smells of her chicken soup made with dill that was uniquely hers.  I remember the fragrance of Macaroni and cheese casserole wafting through my other grandma’s apartment and my grandpa’s cheek soft and smooth, scented with his shaving soap.

The smell of the food, the fragrance of the soap or eau de toilet, the remnant of the cigar- these are the memories of those whose lives have touched us directly.  We remember them vividly in these moments because we shared moments and life together.

But now, all that we have are the memories of that time together.  These recollections are bittersweet, bringing a smile to our lips and tears to our eyes. What we might give to have them with us now.  Just a bit more time together we wish, just one more memory to hold in our heart.  Husband or wife, mother or father, sister or brother, the memories of those whose lives were so intimately intertwined with ours remain.  And even though time passes and we try our best to move forward, the loss remains profound.

As we recall our loved ones though, it is amazing to notice how their hard edges have faded, the sharp lines are blurred.  In our honest moments, we know that there were times of stress.  Tension existed, tempers could flare and egos could get in the way. Each of us could fall victim to the thing called being a human being.   But here in this place, we remember with warmth and love the good things, the uplifting things, the godly things that make these departed loved ones cherished parts of our lives.  If only it was always so.

But we have the chance to do precisely this.  Yizkor is the opportunity for us to remember those who are departed.  It is a time for reflection.  We look inside and examine ourselves, not only confronting who we are, but also, whom we wish to be.  We take this special time and carve it out from this day and reflect on those who have touched us, shaped us and nurtured us.  For we have been forever changed by their presence in our lives.

Yizkor is our chance to remember them.  Zichronom Livracha, may their lives be a blessing.  As we remember their finer qualities and the beautiful memories, their memories become an inspiration.  The best they had to offer is what we remember.  And by keeping that in our hearts and minds they move us to live in better even more special ways.

When we remember that special thing about them that brings a smile to us, we remember.  But when we do that special thing for another person, not only do we make someone else smile, but our loved one comes alive in our hearts, whether it is cooking for someone you love or accepting the sincere gifts of another with grace and gratitude rather than judgment, as my mom and dad did with their son.

May we live fulfilling those aspirations and through this, honor those we have lost and keep them alive in our hearts.

Grieving for our loss in the Washington Naval Yard, Where do we go from here?

It is truly heartbreaking.

The events in Washington this week have left me wondering.

12 people with stories of life and love were all catastrophically taken away in an incomprehensible moment of horror.  The voice of the mother thankful that her boy is now in a place where he cannot hurt anyone else makes the tragedy even sadder, if that is even possible.  Right now it is time to grieve the loss of those precious souls.  But then we must move on.

 We are at a crossroads of sorts and we can go one of two ways.  First, we can accept as sad fact that this level of violence is the price we pay for living in a free society.  These tragic events are bound to occur and we must accept that every 90 days or so, we will find ourselves mourning the loss of another group of tragic victims.  We will walk around with heavy hearts, and perform the rituals that we will use to move through the loss.  We will lower the flags, offer condolences to the survivors and then continue to live or lives as best we can. But we run the risk of becoming so callous to the pain and suffering that our hearts will harden and each passing slaughter will become easier to bear.   I am not prepared to accept this path.

 Our alternative is to recognize that this tragedy is not only senseless, but it is unacceptable.  We must rise and say this must end.  Human life is precious and deserving of protection.  We therefore must begin the conversation to try to understand why this level of violence persists.  What are the underlying causes and what might the remedies be?  Honest discussion and study needs to occur.  Preconceptions must be set aside.  We must search deep within our society and ourselves and grapple with the extraordinary level of violence that permeates our otherwise civil society.

 Certainly one issue is that of mental health.  Access to mental health treatment is apparently a major issue.  But access requires that we remove the stigma associated with seeking help and even more; provide adequate treatment when help is sought.  Other issues are the pervading place of violence in our culture, access to weaponry regardless of competency, lack of enforcement of existing laws as well as loopholes within existing laws that make those laws toothless.  There certainly is more, but this is a good place to start our analysis.

 In a country such as ours, these events affect us all.  Those who are victims of violence are on some level our brothers and sisters, regardless of their background; we are all Americans.  And if we do not stop this, one day the one who will be mourning the direct loss of a loved one might likely be you.

Enduring Life lessons come from how we live- A message from Nitzavim

If you could choose your last words or final deeds, what would they be?

In Nitzavim, the portion we are about to read, Moses uses his final moments to share his parting thoughts with us– the final words that will linger in the hearts and minds of those there after he is gone.

 Choose life.  It is here.  It is now.   But the truth of it is, we really do not know for how long.  As we read in the Unataneh Tokef prayer, death comes in many forms, and we have been rather creative in coming up with a list.  We can only hope and pray for life and health.  But deep down, we all know that inevitable end of our physical life lurks waiting.

 I have had occasion to be with a family who knew death was coming.  The mother had some months to prepare; her cancer would not be stopped. I was with a family where the death of the father was completely unexpected.  A massive coronary took him in the middle of is regular bike ride with his wife.

Perhaps you might think that the first instance is easier.  You know it is coming, you can say goodbye, settle your affairs; prepare those you will leave behind.  Whereas when someone is taken in a moment, there is and no time at all.  It is abrupt and harsh.

 The truth is that no matter how you might try to prepare, it is merely an intellectual exercise.  Emotionally the pain of loss is just as jarring and real in the moment it comes.  So if we do not know the how or the when of it, you might be wondering if what I am talking about isn’t itself just an intellectual exercise.  How is it possible to plan when we don’t know how to measure what is left in days or in years?

 We have the opportunity to impart our final words through both words and deeds every single day. Truth be told, we do not share our final message in the final moments of our lives. That is not the time.  It is hard to think clearly, if you wrote it down, you likely you left it in your desk in another room, or your glasses are upstairs, so you cannot read your notes anyway!

 There is a Midrash about Jacob on his deathbed, surrounded by his children, wondering if he left them with the truly important lessons.  They responded with “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai echad” Hear oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is one.  Given that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, an alternative translation might be:

“Dad, you taught us your lesson well and we heard you.”

 I met an extraordinary man during an overnight rotation working as a hospital chaplain. I went to Jim’s room intending to console a grieving family.  But consolation was not going to happen. Jim was an organ donor and the Gift of Life team was preparing to bring life to several people who would benefit from Jim’s heart, lungs, liver and even his corneas. The people at Jim’s bedside were celebrating the man who continued to live and embody the ideals that made him beloved even after he was gone.

 Similarly, the funeral for our friend on his bike was a celebration of his life.  Each eulogy lovingly shared the joy of being counted as a friend.  And the woman, who had the time to prepare; that was my mom.  And I try to live by her values that still live inside me.

 Moses is about to tell us, “Lo BaShamiyim hi!”  It is not in the heavens, or someplace else out of reach, like your desk drawer.   We revere Moses not for his parting words alone, but for the gifts he gave us throughout his life.  And likewise for us, it is in the things we say and do everyday that makes the difference and endures as our legacy.

 Moses words still ring true; Not only is it completely within our grasp, it starts the moment we decide it to be so.  Let that time be now.  Take the hand of the person sitting next to you, whether it is someone you know or a complete stranger.    Take their hand for just a moment, look at them and smile, and together let us listen to the words of Nitzavim.

Finding Ourselves and God- a Message from Isaiah

It’s like Déjà vu all over again.  Yes, I am again quoting from one of my favorite American Philosophers, Yogi Berra.  Here we are, back in this familiar place. “Is this the fast I desire?” cries God through his prophet Isaiah. For those of you paying attention, you will notice that this is precisely the Torah Portion we read last year. 

 It is said that a definition of insanity is to repeat the same thing over and over again, hoping that “this time will be different,” like re-watching the movie Titanic and hoping the boat doesn’t sink.  But this is looking back at the past.

 We know that we cannot change the past.  Instead we look to the future and seek change there. During the High Holidays, we do not only about ask forgiveness for past bad behaviors; but we also believe we can learn from our mistakes and resolve to do better.  We will do T’shuva and the future will be great. But the Haftarah tells us it is really not about the future either.  For in reality, we cannot control that which has yet to happen any more than we can control that which has already occurred.  Isaiah is really all about the now– the present– this very moment.  Here and now, we can make a change.

That is why I am so excited about the initiative that Rabbi Straus announced last week in his sermon.  We have all received the envelopes to commit to supporting groups such as the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, HIAS refugee resettlement, and the Calvary Baptist Church in West Philly, dedicated to improving the lives of our neighbors who do not share our many blessings.  We can do something today by writing a check and becoming involved.  Reform Judaism has always embraced that we are fully engaged in the community and world around us.  We at Main Line Reform Temple have decided to make this a reality in a most amazing way. And I am honored and thrilled to be part of a community that is willing to engage in such an extraordinary practice.  So please give generously however you are able.

Isaiah makes it clear that before we can be in relationship with God, we first must be in relationship with the other, other people not just those like ourselves, but the poor, the homeless, hungry those who do not share our many blessings, but those who remind us that in someway, we are broken too.  In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohen’s poetry expresses it  well:

        Ring the bells that can still ring

         Forget your perfect offering

         There is a crack, a crack in everything,

         That’s how the light gets in.

 Our giving is part of the inspiration and aspiration that is the core message of the High Holidays.  The actions we undertake today will make the life of someone needy just a little bit better.  And then, the future for all of us shines brighter.  When we embrace Isaiah’s call to act in this way, we indeed are on the path towards the fast that God desires.

*  This was the d’var Torah delivered at Main Line Reform Temple on Yom Kippur 5774