Tag Archives: Memory

Presence is an active not passive activity

 We think of “being present” for the other as being available to hear them and be with them.  We say we reach out to them but often we are really offering to wait for them to come to us.  I have learned that is not enough.  Offering to be there is a far cry from going to where they are.   And I have also learned that when someone needs another, they rarely have the presence of mind to reach out to someone else, instead they are trapped, caught in a place of aloneness.

 A friend recently lost a son, a tragedy that words cannot adequately describe.  He was loved by many, as was his mother, my friend.  People packed both the funeral and the Shiva minyanim, expressing their love and support.  At one minyan, I approached my friend and I said in earnest, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” She responded, “Thanks, you’re the third rabbi who has made that offer tonight.”  She was appreciative, but her  matter-of-fact response was very instructive.

 Two weeks later I called her.  She had heard that I weaved the story of her son into a sermon and was overflowing with gratitude that I had remembered her and him.  The simple act of making a phone call, reaching out to her, rather than sitting waiting for her to call me, was received as a profound gesture of caring.  In those few minutes I truly did something important and meaningful.  I went to her and provided comfort.  Realistically, she never would have called me, and it was unrealistic for me to think otherwise. She was unable to reach out to me.  Whether we are providing pastoral care or being a friend, it is what we do that makes the difference in the lives of others.

Hannukah, Maccabees, Soviet Jewry, Freedom. We remember.

On the eve of Hanukkah thoughts turn to the meaning we glean from the ritual and what we remember, particularly the cause of freedom and what is necessary to achieve it.  As we recall the Maccabees, I think of the words of acclaimed anthropologist Margaret Meade who once said, “Never Doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Many of us remember to that momentous time on December 6, 1987 when a quarter of a million people came together on the National Mall to protest during Premier Mikhael Gorbachev’s visit to Washington demanding that he “let my people go,” and grant the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel.  But before 250,000 people could gather and speak with one voice, people needed to galvanize them.  In fact it was on May 1, 1964, outside the Russian Legation to the United Nations in Manhattan, that the first mass public rally to support Soviet Jewry was held.  This was the original committed core that started the process, and as they say, the rest is history.  Those Soviet Jews that wanted to were eventually granted the right to make aliyah and go to live as Jews in the Land of Israel.

We celebrate those brave souls who risked their personal safety to stand for the ideal of freedom that is embodied in Judaism.  We rightfully pay tribute to those who stood up and spoke to power there knowing free speech did not exist in that place, that such speech came at a great price.   Those of us here in the United States were encouraged and energized by their voices and we joined ours to theirs.  The cry for freedom grew louder and louder until it could no longer be ignored.  The doors opened and the great exodus of the twentieth century began; the Jews of the Soviet Union came home.

We saw the power of the word defeat the mighty.  We can and should celebrate this modern miracle.  But the past is only prologue.  For not all the Jews left.  What of those that remained behind?  They could have been forgotten as our attention focused on the new Olim and we reveled in our accomplishment.  But that small committed group continues to make its voice heard and the Jews of the Former Soviet Union have also entered into a new era.

The Jews of the FSU are actively reconnecting with their Judaism that others had tried to take away two generations ago.  With the help of outside groups such as the JDC there is a Jewish revival happening.  It is not the whispers of Jews practicing their faith behind closed doors, but Jews being and doing Jewish in the open.  To visit major urban centers in the FSU, Synagogues that had been shuttered or once repurposed as things like warehouses are now open for business as places of worship.  We saw with amazement not only synagogues but also day schools  and Jewish Community Centers.    And even more remarkable, not only Chabad is there, but so are other streams of Judaism. An organic Judaism is taking hold as Jews rediscover and reconnect to their past, themselves, and their future.

The work is far from over.  Rabbi Tarfon tells us in Pirkei Avot that “You are not duty bound to finish  the work, but neither can you desist from it.”  Judaism’s rise in the FSU, from near extinction to flourishing, is nascent.  It remains our sacred obligation to use our power and influence to nurture Jews around the world seeking to connect with our sacred wisdom.  We are there to open the doors and welcome our brothers and sisters to join Klal Yisrael.  Our true tribute to those who have done so much for the cause of freedom is to continue the work that they started and help the next generation of Jews.

How special must it be to be really special? Thoughts on Thanksgivukah.

Thanksgiving and Chanukah coincide this year.  You may have already heard that.  You may also have heard that according to the people who calculate such things, this event will happen again in 70,000 years, give or take.  So for us it is safe to say Thanksgivukah is a once in a lifetime event.  It is the first time the two holidays occur at the same time and, as much as I love my country, I am not sure if it will be around 700 centuries years from now for the next one.  Thanksgivukah is a big deal if only because it likely will happen only this one time.  Let us celebrate!

 So break out the sweet potato latkes and the turkey menorahs with candles for tail feathers.  I am sure that there are all kinds of tie-ins, dreidels and chocolate gelt meeting funny looking black hats (maybe no change there) along side pumpkin pie and turkey with dressing.  And on the more serious side, there are the opportunities to learn and make meaningful connection; how do we as moderns understand the two holidays?  How do we tell the intertwined story?  How do we relate to the people both Native American and Pilgrim and their respective narratives from a Jewish point of view?  What a special celebration this will be.

 The thing of it is, each day of our lives is truly just like Thanksgivukah; a unique moment that is ours for as long as it lasts, and once gone, only a memory never to be relived but possibly recaptured as myth and retold because it was special.  What if we greeted each day with such a profound sense of awe and anticipation?  How much better might life be if we lived each day to its fullest?

I will not let you go until you have blessed me.

In the dark solitude of night Jacob wrestles with an unidentified man until dawn, but would not let him go, even after he appears to vanquish his opponent. Although the text says it was a man, the figure is mysterious and might have been an angel of God or possibly a demon from Jacob’s psyche.

 This remarkable story speaks to how we might make something good come from the troublesome or even the tragic event; for Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing.  Instead of fleeing, as Jacob has in the past, Jacob only grapples with it. Acknowledging this event is now a part of him, Jacob holds on.  Jacob emerges from the scuffle physically injured, forever changed. But he still insists that something good comes of the encounter a blessing.

 So many of us confront tragedy in our lives.  And despite the pain and the suffering tragedy causes, people often turn it in order to make something good as a result.  For example, the founders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD, were able to take the unspeakable horror of losing their children and create a crusade to save the children of others. Veronique Pozner, recently named as one of the Forward 50, lost her 6-year-old son Noah in Newtown and transformed her personal tragedy and grief into a rallying cry for gun control legislation in Connecticut.

 We are forever changed as a result of the harsh tests in our lives.  For Jacob, his hip was damaged and his name changed to always reflect that the event had irrevocably altered him.  Nothing will bring the lost children back to their mothers. Noah will never return to Veronique, but she celebrates his brief life, by working to create a better world.  May we all find the strength to do so.

~Thoughts on Vayishlach

Go Forth, But not Alone

Lech Lecha

I had the privilege of officiating at the funeral and first evening Shiva Minyan of a lovely man.  It came time to share a D’var Torah during the Minyan and I spoke to Lech Lecha, our Parashah and God’s command to Abraham to “Go Forth- to a land that I will show you.”  The Hebrew is in the singular, in other words God is speaking directly to Abraham, instructing him what to do.  As we learn in the story, Abraham does indeed venture out from his father’s house and into history, becoming our Patriarch, a father to those as numerous as the stars.   Abraham did need to respond to God’s challenge, but he was not alone.

Sarah was Abraham’s wife and partner.  Although God does tell Abraham to “Go forth,” Sarah stood by his side throughout the process.  The two of them acted together.  And there is significance in that.  As I ruminated over the circumstances in which my D’var Torah would be shared, I wondered if in fact the beautiful story of my friend, as related to me by his widow, was a representation of what Abraham and Sarah experienced.  It takes an extraordinary person to embark on an extraordinary venture.  But would he or she have the courage to do it without the love and support of a trusted partner? Could someone reach for the stars without a companion to provide strength, someone willing to walk with you by your side?  And even if a person were capable of achieving “greatness” without any one else’s support, could such a person be the progenitor of a people?

I believe the answer is no.  And herein lies a teaching of our Torah portion.  We cannot achieve true greatness without the support of others.  One can achieve, but without others to share and give strength, the venture is selfish.  Lech Lecha, you must do it but you cannot do it alone.

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.

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.