Archive for the ‘Lincoln’ category

Gun Violence: A Personal Reflection

January 17, 2013

As I write this, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate over whether or not to limit the Second Amendment rights regarding gun ownership.  This is a debate far too long delayed in our land.  Every year has brought new tragedies born out of the barrels of guns while our legislators have waffled and buckled under the tremendous pressure placed upon them by the gun lobby.  This failure to act sadly has been reinforced by the toxicity of the temporary attention span of the American public as the outrage over each and every mass murder has too quickly faded from memory and has morphed into renewed apathy while we have redirected the focus of our attentions to the latest drama reported and exploited by the news media. In fact, just the other day, I mentioned to someone the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” only to receive the response, “Columbine?  What is Columbine?”  However, now that the American people have suffered such a trauma and are feeling so outraged by the slaughter of so many little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would appear that finally those in favor of some form of gun control may have gained some traction.  Maybe, but I am a pessimist.  I have to wonder how concerned about this issue people will be a month from now; in six months from now.

It is no secret where I stand on this question.  Of course, I could take this opportunity to regale you with all the argumentation offered by those who share my views on gun violence but I suspect that in so doing, I would be offering very little information that you have not heard before.  Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to share with you something a bit different.  I want to share with you why for me this is such a personal issue and not just another topic for debate.  I wish to share with you a painful story from my past.

From 1977 to 1982 I served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was a young rabbi, filled with enthusiasm and idealism.  I threw myself completely into everything I did and the congregation just ate it up.  One of my projects was running a one-man Jewish Studies Academy (that is what I called our adult education program).  One night a week, every week, I taught two different mini courses of 4 to 5 sessions duration, maybe offering 10 courses in a year.  It was fairly popular, attracting non-Jews as well as members of the congregation.

One such non-Jewish student was a young divorcee who, while never broaching the subject of conversion, attended every class and most services.  She quickly became an “unofficial” member of our congregational family, surrounded by a growing group of Jewish friends, my wife and I included.

This woman had two sons, both teenagers; one was around 13 years old and the other 15.  They were nice boys but understandably troubled by the breakup of their family.  Then one day tragedy struck.  After school the two boys brought two girls to the home of their father while their father was at work.  Both boys were trying hard to impress the girls.  So the older brother ordered the younger one to do some menial household chore.  Not to be shamed in front of the girls, the younger brother refused.  The older brother insisted. The younger one continued to refuse.  Then the older one went to a closet and pulled out a rifle.  He pointed it at his brother’s head and said something to the effect of “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off!”  Not to be intimidated, the younger brother continued to refuse.  So the older brother pulled the trigger and did just what he said he would do, shooting his brother in the head at close range and killing him.  A 20th century reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel.

Here I was, a young, inexperienced rabbi, feeling as though I was expected to offer sage counsel and support to a women who had one son lying dead and the other in jail, guilty of the murder of his brother.  All because their foolish father kept a loaded rifle unlocked in his house.  But what could I say, what could I do in the face of such profound tragedy?  There are no words that could even begin to take away that mother’s pain.  There is no wisdom that could even begin to make sense of that horror.  All that I could do was to be a presence.  Obviously, those events continue to haunt me to this day.  God seemed absent from the world at that moment.  Today I understand that God was not so much absent but rather exiled from the world at that moment; exiled not just by the act of violence itself but also by the various human choices which ultimately contributed to that act of violence, including the legislative choice to allow that young man access to the gun with which he slew his brother.

Limiting access to guns won’t eliminate the problem, for the problem is a complex web of contributing factors, but, God willing, it will reduce the number of victims.

A personal confession.  Prior to these events, I was one of those Americans who shared our apparently national love affair with guns.  Being raised in the ’50’s & ’60’s, how could it be otherwise?  The heroes of my childhood were the cowboys and the frontiersmen who constantly flashed across both the silver and the TV screens of that day; Davey Crockett, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, Paladin, and of course John Wayne, just to mention a few.  As a child, I was the owner of a veritable arsenal of toy guns.  While never a hunter, even into my college years, I loved to target shoot in my back yard with a variety of BB pistols and rifles.  But having witnessed up close this parent’s nightmare, from that day to this, I have never again fired one of my weapons.

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Life Is Too Short…

September 27, 2012

My wife and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in the Summer of 1977 where I assumed my first solo pulpit and my wife began serving the Reform congregation in Omaha as its cantor.  We were extremely fortunate in that in both congregations we quickly made many close friends.  In fact, today we still keep in regular contact with several of them.

One set of friends that we made in Lincoln were two wonderful people who, for the sake of this article, I will call Ann & Mark.  They were older than us, but then again in those days, who in the congregation wasn’t, other than the students in the religious school?  Ann always seemed to know the right thing to do.  She was always there for the temple, and there for us.  Mark was a successful professional who loved to read and who loved to engage in some of the most profound conversations.  During our 5 years in Lincoln we spent a lot of time with Ann & Mark talking, laughing, dreaming.  Each of us valued our friendship dearly.

Then it happened.  It was in November of our last year in Nebraska.  I was training their youngest daughter for her Bat Mitzvah.  One evening the four of us were out for dinner, and of course one of the main topics of our conversation was the family’s plans for the big event.  It was in the midst of that conversation that Ann asked my wife if during the cocktail hour, she would sit on a stool and perform folk music for the guests, coffee house style.  She told us how much she loved listening to my wife sing and that it would mean so much to them if she would sing during their party.

The request caught us flatfooted.  My wife has never been that type of entertainer.  While in high school and in camp she performed in some musicals and some operas, she never got involved in anything like cabaret singing.  And when it came to folk music, she has never been a big fan.  In fact, the only thing like a folk song that she knew how to play on the guitar was “Charlie on the MTA.”  And now, over 30 years later, I can tell you from recent experience that is still the case, for while we were in Anchorage this Summer, there was a folk singer performing at the bar in our hotel.  Somehow or other he got my wife to pick up his guitar and sing for the crowd.  After she played “Charlie on the MTA” she went straight into Debbie Friedman music.  The room which, as you can imagine, was full of non-Jews did not know what to make of it while the folk singer thought it was great.  In any event, with Ann & Mark’s request before her, feeling like a fish out of water, my wife told our friends that she wasn’t comfortable doing that, her repertoire of music being primarily Jewish liturgical music and not folk songs.

It was not long after that we learned that Ann & Mark were upset with us because my wife would not accede to their request and I did not prevail upon her to do so.  Her refusal hurt them.  We, in turn, became upset with them for placing an unrealistic expectation upon my wife and for allowing this matter to injure our relationship which had been such a strong and positive one.  Yet that was the way it was and sorry to say, we spent our last 6 months in Lincoln, Nebraska at a distance from these two people with whom we had shared such a lovely friendship.

But that was not the end of the story.  Both we and the Ann & Mark shared a very close relationship with another couple, who, for the sake of this article, I will call Joan & Ken.  Indeed, barely a weekend would pass when Joan & Ken and my wife & I wouldn’t be doing something together – usually eating, but sometimes going to a play or a concert.  Well, a little over a year after we left Lincoln, Ken was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 6 months later he died.  All of us in our group of friends were devastated by his passing.  For my wife and I, there was no question but that we were flying in from California for the funeral.  We arranged to stay at the home of another family with whom we were close.  As we discussed over the phone our plans with that family, they informed us that Ann & Mark were hosting a dinner for all of Ken’s friends.  We winced.  During our Lincoln-bound journey, my wife and I wondered what it would be like to walk into their home that evening.

So we found ourselves standing at their doorstep and we hesitantly rang the bell.  Ann answered it.  There were no words that were spoken.  There was only loving embraces.  I must tell you that even as I was entering these memories into my computer as I was composing this article, tears were welling up in my eyes and running down my cheeks.  Our dear mutual friend was dead and in the light of our shared loss how insignificant our former differences with Ann & Mark proved themselves to be for both couples.

It is Yom Kippur and I chose to share this story with you because I believe that it can speak to the meaning of this day.  For Yom Kippur is a day when we are supposed to confront ourselves with all of our flaws and shortcomings.  It is a day when we are supposed to take stock of our lives as we have lived them up until now and seriously ask ourselves, “Where did I go wrong and what could I have done better?”  And most important of all, “What am I going to do about it?”  For if we neglect to do these things, then Yom Kippur is really little more than one long, uncomfortable, perhaps even boring, day in a synagogue.  If we fail to confront our errors, both the small ones and the big ones; if we fail to admit to the pettiness which can so often drive our lives off course, then we will remain unchanged, and in this case unchanged means unhealed, while Yom Kippur is all about healing.

I chose to share this story with you because while this story is very personal to my wife and me, it also is all too universal.  There are so many other who have stories in their own lives that in their own way are quite similar to this one.  I suspect that there may be several reading this article who at one point or another had dear friends or family, with whom they suffered a falling out; a breach in the relationship which never healed.

I happen to be one of those people who loves movies.  Well, there is a movie which if you have never seen it, you should.  It is called “Avalon.”  It is about a Polish-Jewish family that comes to America in the early days of the twentieth century and strives to obtain the American dream.  In the beginning, the family was wonderfully extended with aunts and uncles and cousins, all caring for and taking care of each other.  Holidays were major family occasions.  But by the end of the film, we see one lone nuclear family on Thanksgiving, eating their Thanksgiving dinner on tray tables in front of the television.

Friends and family are so important in our lives, or they should be.  Yet somehow, all too often there are those of us who let them slip through our fingers for reasons not even worthy of recounting.  In the movie, the big family break occurred over a family Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone was sitting around the table waiting for an uncle and aunt to arrive, but they were late; extremely late.  Finally the host said, “Listen the children have to eat.  We cannot wait any longer!” and he started to carve the turkey.  Of course it was then that the uncle and aunt arrived.  When the uncle saw that they were carving the turkey without him, he was furious and he stormed out.  Is the carving of a turkey worthy of the dissolution of a family?  I don’t think so.  Yet that scenario, with its own particular details and nuances is replayed time and again in the real world, with real people, family and friends.

Yom Kippur is here to warn us that life is too short for us to allow ourselves to get caught up and trapped by minor squabbles and differences; to grant to so many little things the power to dismantle that which is truly positive, meaningful, and important in our lives.

There are a thousand cliches that tell us the very same thing.  Cliches like “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”  But because they are cliches, we tend not to give them much credence.  But when all is said and done, their message is a vital one for us, for they warn us over and over again, “Don’t lose sight of your priorities.”  Learn to recognize that which is major and that which is minor, and don’t let the minor destroy the major.

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of a professor who brought a pickle jar to class one day.  He set it on his desk, in front of his students, and then took large rocks and proceeded to place them into the jar.  When the jar could hold no more, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full.  They responded that it was.  Then the professor proceeded to take pebbles and pour them into the mouth of the jar.  Once again, when no more would fit, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full and once again they said that it was.  Then he proceeded to pour in sand.  When the sand reached the top of the jar, he asked his question yet again, and his students replied that indeed it was full.  At this point, he poured in water right up to the brim.  He then asked his students what the jar has to teach us about life.  Several responded that from the jar they have learned that there is always room for more.  “No,” he said sadly, “that is not the point.  What the jar has to teach us is that you have to put the rocks in first, for if you don’t there will be no room for them afterward.  And the rocks, they are the biggest, most important things in our lives.  They are our priorities.”

Every day of our lives we are confronted with multiple situations, and unfortunately, sometimes conflicts.  At these times, we need to focus on the rocks; the important things in our lives.  We must let them guide our choices, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and, of course, our emotions.  If we do so, then our chances are greater that we will not fall victim to the petty.

Our loving relationships are far more important than many of our opinions, yet why do we so often choose to sacrifice our friendships because of this issue or that issue over which we find ourselves in disagreement with the people we care about?  Yes there are some opinions that are not just opinions but in actuality true basic life principles – principles for which it is worthy to endure sacrifice.  But let us be honest about it.  The differences of opinion that more often than not result in driving wedges in our relationships are not of that caliber.  They are merely differences of opinion concerning opinions about which we have chosen, often for reasons unknown even to us, to dig in our heals and not let go until we have won.  It becomes for us about victory and defeat rather than right and wrong.  Years ago, Barb Arland Fye, the publisher of the “Catholic Messenger” taught me that when we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?”  If the answer is “yes” then we are contending over rocks.  If the answer is “no” then we are squabbling over sand and water.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to help us learn how to distinguish between the rocks and the sand and the water.  For when we elect to sacrifice wonderful relationships for sand and water, we are committing a sin against those we are cutting off and against ourselves as well.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to push us along the path of healing broken relationships.  We all know that two of the most difficult words to say in any language are “I’m sorry.”  But it is precisely those words, sincerely spoken, which contain the healing balm we all so desperately need.

Ann & Mark, my wife, and I were most fortunate for we were able to heal our relationship.  But to do so, we had to pay an excruciating price; the tragic loss of our dear friend.  I suspect that when we embraced, in Heaven Ken was smiling, for at least some good came out of his suffering and his passing.  But to this very day, my wife and I miss him terribly.  While we are grateful for the healing his passing brought to our relationship with Ann & Mark, we will regret for the rest of our days that the four of us could not have brought about that healing on our own.  Yom Kippur attempts to teach us that healing need not be born of tragedy.  It can be born of choice.