Archive for the ‘Parenthood’ category

Elusive Happiness

September 18, 2013

I wish to talk with you about happiness.  Now I know that happiness seems like a rather odd topic for such a solemn holy day as Yom Kippur.  It is not a subject that one would readily identify with the classical themes of Yom Kippur, they being sin, repentance, and atonement.  One would think that it is hard to talk about happiness in a room full of fasting people.  Yet, after giving it some thought I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day – and by that I do not mean the Neilah service, the Concluding service, the end of this day – but at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is actually very much about happiness.

Several years ago, one of the members of our congregation, in the midst of a conversation we were having, remarked to me that whenever someone asks him, what was the best period in his life, when was he the happiest, he would respond that now is the best time of his life.  He has never been happier than he is now.  That was quite an amazing statement.  How many of us, in all honesty, could say the same thing about our lives?  That these days are the best days of our lives?  There may be some among us, but most people tend to wax nostalgic.  For some reason or other we find it comforting to think back to what we like to call “the good old days,” that time in our lives when we imagined ourselves to be at our happiest.

That is not to say that most of us are terribly unhappy.  Some are, but most are probably not.  Though we may not be terribly unhappy, we tend to capture our happiness in fits and spurts.  We take it when and where we can find it.  Much of the rest of the time, we seem to hover in a realm between happiness and unhappiness, feeling not much of one or the other.  Just existing.  Often are the times we ponder dreamily about finding happiness; ultimate happiness.  How great life would be if only this would happen or that would happen.  For happiness can be an elusive prey.  We spend so much of lives grasping at it, sometimes successfully and some­times not.

All people are in search of happiness.  No one really wants to be unhappy, no matter how grumpy they may appear on the outside.  Indeed the grumpiest and dourest of people are usually those who have met with the greatest frustrations in their search for happiness; so much so that they appear to have given up the quest.

Unless we are among that privileged minority that can proclaim, as did the congregant I mentioned earlier, that these days are the happiest days of our lives and that we could not be happier, then we need to seriously re-evaluate where it is that we have been seeking our happiness.  Perhaps we might be, just like in the words of country western song, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong place”[1] but in our case it has been looking for happiness.

Happiness is not monolithic.  Not all happiness is equal.  There is that experience of happiness that lasts for the moment, however long that moment might be, and then there is that experience of happiness that resides with us perpetually.

As we take this Yom Kippur opportunity to seriously examine the conduct of our lives, we must include in our introspection the manner and the means through which we have sought out happiness.  For if we discover that our quest for happiness has in some ways been misdirected then we must consider the possibility that such a misdirected quest for happiness can also throw off our quest for personal self improvement; that perhaps some of the lack of lasting happiness that we find in our lives is directly or indirectly related to where we have fallen short so far in our Yom Kippur inspired attempts to lift ourselves up to a higher level of human existence; that in order to make of ourselves better people, we need to do a better job of sorting out in our search for happiness that which is momentary from that which is lasting.

In our search for true happiness it is all too easy to mistake the momentary for the lasting.  After all, momentary happiness can be far more readily available and its rewards can be more immediate.  It can offer us great pleasure and do so quickly.  The trap is that before we know it, the pleasure has faded.  It may not be gone, but it is greatly reduced often to the point where we take it for granted.

Consider vacation trips, for example.  I love to travel.  I know many of you do as well.  For weeks, if not months, I look forward to those trips.  Right now the Cantor and I are excited about the possibility of visiting the Garfields in their home in Ireland next summer.  When it comes to such vacations, the departure date cannot arrive soon enough.  Finally it does arrive, and I am off on my trip, a trip that seems to go by in a flash.  Next thing I know, I am packing to go home.  Then I am on the airplane.  Then I am walking in the door of my apartment, weary, with luggage in hand.  Next day, I am back at work; my long awaited vacation over too soon, as I re-enter the daily grind, almost as if I never left.  Of course I have the memories and the pictures – whether or not I will look at those pictures in a year is another story – but while they are nice, they are not the same.  The vacation was a pleasure of the moment.

I am not ashamed to admit it.  I love my toys, especially the electronic ones like my big screen TV and my laptop and my cell phone.  They give me a lot of pleasure.  But the strange thing about it is that as much as I love them, they never seem to be enough.  I love my big screen TV, but I wish I had a surround sound system and a blue ray player.  I love my laptop, but I wish I had one that was faster and could do more things, yet not be as heavy for when I travel.  I love my Samsung cell phone but I wish I had a phone with longer battery life and better voice recognition.  Whatever I have, it just never seems to be enough.  While they fill me with pleasure, in the end they still leave a void.  That is momentary rather than lasting happiness.

Who doesn’t like a new car?  There is something about that new car smell and the excitement of all that glitz and glitter and all those little extras.  I knew someone who never really cared for a new car.  It was my father.  He and my mother drove clunkers.  Growing up, all my friends’ parents periodically pur­chased shiny new cars, but not mine.  It used to drive me crazy.  “Why can’t we get a new car?” I would incessantly whine.  “Why?”  my father would retort.  “A car is just something that takes you from one place to another and ours get us there just fine.”  I think back on those conversations now and realize how true were the words attributed to Mark Twain who reportedly said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”  My father, in his wisdom, was quick to recognize that our love of new cars is yet another of those examples of momentary happiness.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against momentary happiness.  I enjoy it.  I wouldn’t give up my big screen TV for all the tea in china, even without the blue ray player and the surround sound.  And I still look forward to vacation trips whenever I can take them.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with momentary happiness.  It is just that we have to understand it for what it is  – a temporary high, if you will – and not confuse it or try to substitute it for true and lasting happiness.  We should not get so lost in our acquisition of these temporary pleasures that we sideline our search for the sources of happiness which will not fade with the passage of time but rather will stay with us and lift us up; lift up our spirits, lift up our sense of self esteem, and lift us up as decent human beings.  While the happiness of the moment can be fun – and that’s OK because everyone deserves some fun in their lives – still our search needs to focus on the happiness that stays with us.

Where can this lasting happiness be found?  The answer to this question is really where happiness and Yom Kippur substantially intersect.  For what is the ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur?  Not just to examine the dark side of our character and our actions, our sins and our failings, but rather to do so in order to help us in the task of re-inventing ourselves as better people, kinder people, more loving people, people who seek to make a positive difference in the lives of others; both those whom we personally know and with whom we share our lives as well as those whose faces and names are unknown to us but with whom we share this planet.

Where is lasting happiness to be found?  Well, it is not in objects and possessions.  It is not in nicer houses and newer cars, in fashionable clothing and the latest electronics.  In the final analysis, it is to be found in people and relationships, and within ourselves.  It is to be found in love, in its many manifestations.

My son Joshua was born 30 years ago in California, in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the computer revolution.  In those days it was a land of hopeful start-ups and massive material success.  Soon after his birth, I rushed out of the hospital to put the finishing touches on the invitations that the Cantor and I had de­signed for his brit milah ceremony and then I rushed the proof to the printer.  After all, having only an 8-day window, we needed to get them printed and mailed as soon as possible, so great was our desire to share our joy with others.

Upon my return to the Cantor’s hospital room, a nurse took me to the window in order to show me some­thing.  Just about the same time that Joshua was born another boy was born as well.  Like me, no sooner was that baby born than his father also rushed out of the hospital.  Upon his return, he took his wife to the window and proudly pointed to what the nurse was now showing me – a brand new Mercedes parked in front of the hospital, wrapped in an enormous ribbon and bow.  Pointing to it, he announced to his wife, “This is for you!  My way of saying thank you for giving me a son!”  That guy just did not get it.  He could not even tell his wife that he loved her and that he was full of joy at the prospect of them building a family together.  He could not do it without the aid of money and material possessions.

It not the things in our lives that make us the happiest, and keep us the happiest.  It is the people in our lives that do so.  It is our relationships – including our relationship with God – which grant us the gift of enduring joy.  That is, if those relationships are positive and healthy.  Yom Kippur calls upon us to strengthen our relationship; to build upon the relationships we currently share, to heal the relationships we once enjoyed but for whatever reasons now are broken, and to seek to create new relationships with people we barely know and even with people we have never met.  In order to do so, we need to make of ourselves people worthy of relationships; people with whom others wish to relate.  Decent people.  Honorable people.  Sensitive people.  Self-sacrificing people.  Virtuous people.  Loving people.  Such people also happen to be happy people, really happy people, not just happy for the moment but happy for the lifetime.  Happy because they are rightfully proud of the people they are and the life they have chosen to lead.  Happy because they have earned the respect and love of others.  Happy because they have come to share their lives in so many ways with so many people.

If we take the messages of Yom Kippur to heart and sincerely act upon them, we will discover that they carry us down the path to happiness, real happiness, lasting happiness.


[1]“Lookin’ for Love,” by Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, & Patti Ryan, performed by Johnny Lee.

Advertisements

Stages

June 10, 2012

We live our lives in stages.  I have found myself having to confront and make peace with this reality as of late, as my wife and I have started the long and arduous process of dismantling our home of 27 years, as we prepare to sell our house and downsize to a 2 bedroom rented condominium.  Considering where we are in our lives – with all our children now living away from home, and indeed my wife living primarily in Detroit – this dramatic shift makes sense.  Why maintain a 4 bedroom house, when most of the time only one person is living there, with that number only growing to 3 every other weekend.  So ends the home ownership stage of our lives and so will begin the stage of returning to smaller dwellings.  Yes, returning.  For when we first were married, 37 years ago, for three years we lived in rented apartments – in the newlywed stage of our lives – as we eagerly looked forward to, and saved for, that time when we would enter our home ownership stage, and the raising of a family.

Yes, we live our lives in stages.  If we are blessed, then most of our journeys from stage to stage are joyous adventures; starting school, no longer needing a babysitter, getting a driver’s license, going off to college, getting married, buying a home, giving birth to children, watching our own children travel through their own set of stages.  Even the stages in the later periods of our lives can be wondrous adventures, such as grandparenthood and retirement.  Yet, when all is considered, the various stages of our lives have more to do with what we make of them than what they make of us.

Still, even as we live so much of our lives in stages, there are – or should be – certain constants present as well.  Love should be one such constant.  It can grow, as we enfold more people into our circle of love, but we should work very hard never to let it diminish or disappear.  Our love for our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, their spouses, their children, our relatives and friends, should never be treated as stages in our lives.  We should never grow out of love with these people who have found a place in our hearts and in whose hearts we have found a place.  Yes, there will be days when we find that our feelings for these people will either rise or wane, but they should never disappear.

The same should hold true for our feelings toward God, faith, and the Jewish people.    Belief in God, our practice of religion, and our attachment to the Jewish people should never be considered as a stage or a phase in our lives.  We should never find ourselves saying, “Yes.  Jewish living used to be important to me.  I used to pray.  I used to study.  I used to be involved in the Jewish community, but since then I moved on.  I’ve grown out of that phase.”  God, faith, the Jewish people are not meant to be likened to the width of our ties, the length of our skirts, the style of our hair, or even the type of car we drive or the home we live in.  Connecting with God should be more of a continual desire than whether or not we feel that minivans are still functional in our lives.  Rather we should approach our relationship with God, faith, and the Jewish people more in the manner in which we approach our relationships with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our family, our friends.  Like with those relationships, our bonds to God, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people, will over time change, evolve, and hopefully grow.  There will be good times.  There will be bad times.  There will be those times when these relationships raise us up to the heights, and there may be times as well when we find them bending almost to the breaking point.  Almost to the breaking point; but we should never let them break.  For when they break, whether or not we realize it, we break as well.

Just as with our loved ones, no matter how busy our lives may be, we need to carve out time to be with God and the Jewish people.  For if we do make time for them, we will find that just as with our loved ones, there is miraculous healing and strength to be found.

Funeral Pre-Planning

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur eve.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, I mentioned that there is only one rabbi buried in our cemetery, Mt. Nebo. That rabbi is Rabbi Isaac Fall, the very first rabbi of this congregation. Someday, there will be a second rabbi buried in our cemetery, and that rabbi will be me. For when the time comes, it will be in Mount Nebo that both I and the Cantor, along with our son Josh, will be laid to rest. I know that for a fact because we already have purchased the graves.

No, we are not expecting to use any of those graves in the foreseeable future. Death is not knocking at our doorstep, at least not that we know of. It is simply that we have started a process of pre-planning for that eventuality.

In fact, for quite some time, I have been an advocate of funeral pre-planning. Many have been the congregants that I have counseled to do just that, both in order to relieve their family of the burdens and the costs of making funeral arrangements at a time when the last thing they need is something more to anguish over, and in order to assure that the details of their funerals are according to their wishes and not someone else’s.

I have been doing such counseling for years but I have to admit that aside from the Cantor and I drawing up our wills, we have put off doing such planning ourselves. That is until last year, when the Board discussed raising the cost of burial plots in our cemetery. It was in the light of that discussion that the Cantor and I decided that if we are going to buy our graves, now’s the time to do so, for why wait and pay more? You see, after 25 years of serving this congregation; after 25 years of welcoming your infants into the covenant of our people, teaching your children and preparing them for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah services and their Confirmations, officiating at their weddings, and sadly, officiating at the funerals of your parents, spouses, siblings, and sometimes even your children; after 25 years of living in this community and raising our own children here, we have come to think of this as our home, and we have neither the intention nor desire to spend the rest of our lives anyplace else. So it was only logical for us to buy our graves before the price went up.

Then this summer, the Cantor’s father passed away. So there we were, in Detroit, sitting around her brother’s living room with the rest of the family, meeting with the funeral director and the rabbi, arranging for her father’s funeral, often agreeing, but sometimes disagreeing about what Seymour would have wanted. We didn’t argue. We just grappled with trying to find the right answers so that in the end we could render him the most appropriate honor. Would he like this casket or that casket? Did he want to be buried in a suit or in tachrichim, the traditional funeral garb? Questions both big and small. What would Seymour want?

It was after we returned home that the Cantor and I decided that we wanted all those questions resolved before we died, so that our children would not have to grapple them. And not only that, but we wanted it all paid for in advance so that after our loved ones laid us to rest, they would not have to confront a multi thousand dollar bill and hope that our estate would be able to cover the cost. The pain of a loss is pain enough to bear when a loved one dies. Those who will mourn for us should not have to endure the pain of funeral arrangements as well.

So we have been going about the process of pre-planning our funerals. We have met with both David Deuth of Weerts and Steve Presley of Wheelan’s, for both these funeral directors have been very caring of our Jewish community and we wanted to give both of them the opportunity to “bid the job” as it were. We discussed caskets. We discussed vaults. We discussed whether or not we want the Hevre Kadisha to ritually prepare our bodies. We discussed limousines. We even talked about having chocolate in the family room – a nice touch we experienced at Gail’s father’s funeral – and we both love chocolate, though by that time we personally wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but others would. And then we met with Mr. Carvel, at the cemetery, and set up a program to pre-pay our grave opening fees. In our planning, we want every detail taken care of so that our heirs need not be challenged by them.

Our next step – and we have discussed this – will be to write ethical wills. Writing an ethical will is a beautiful Jewish tradition. Through it, you transmit to your heirs, not your material possessions but rather your spiritual ones; the teachings, values, and principles which you hold dearest to your heart and which you sincerely wish that your loved ones will strive to incorporate into their own lives, and by so doing, keep your spiritual legacy alive. It is also a vehicle through which you can express certain wishes when it comes to the funeral service itself. If my father-in-law had written an ethical will, it most certainly would have included the fact that he wanted a Dixieland band to accompany him to the grave. In any event, we knew that because he told us so on countless occasions. Now, I would not include a Dixieland band in my ethical will, but I very well might include the desire to have someone sing the Peter, Paul, & Mary song, “One Kind Favor.” That song has always touched me and I always have wanted it sung at my funeral.

But when all that is said and done, the hard facts on the ground are that there is far more to funeral pre-planning than all the items I have listed so far and the other countless related details which I neglected to mention, such as flowers. These other aspects of funeral pre-planning are not things that you can take care of with a funeral director, or any other functionary for the ceremony. And without question or doubt, these are the more significant elements that contribute to the beauty and meaning of your funeral service.

My father-in-law, Seymour Posner, had a beautiful funeral but the most beautiful part of it was not the result of our conversations with the funeral director or the rabbi. It had nothing to do with the casket we chose or the chocolate in the family room. And while my brother-in-law, and my niece, and a family friend, and the rabbi offered lovely eulogies, even they only contributed to the greater beauty in a limited sense. What made his funeral so strikingly beautiful was the fact that over 750 people attended. Over 750 people felt it important enough to take the time out of their busy lives to come to the mortuary in order to pay their last respects to this man, my father-in-law. That type of turn out – that type of demonstration of love – is not something that you can arrange for in advance by hammering out details with funeral directors and setting up payment schedules.

When it comes to that aspect of funeral pre-planning, that type of pre-planning takes a lifetime; a lifetime of living one’s life in such a way that one effectively touches the lives of others.

In the past, I have told you that traditionally Jews are supposed to wear their kittel on Yom Kippur. The kittel is a white linen robe which serves as a burial shroud. For on this day, more than any other, we are instructed to dress for the grave. For on this day, we need to confront our own mortality, and in so doing, commit ourselves to engage in this most important aspect of our funeral pre-planning. For it is up to each and every one of us, and no one else, who that person will be that they are burying on the day of our funeral. We can plan the details of the casket and the vault and the flowers till the cows come home, and we can pay all those bills in advance, but all those plans are meaningless unless we truly invest ourselves into planning to transform ourselves into the type of people whose very nature and character inspire others to take time out of their busy lives to attend our funerals and show us the respect we have earned.

That is what we are supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to be looking at our lives – at the people we are, the people we have become – and seriously ask ourselves: “Is this the person I want to be? Is this the type of person who will inspire others to render me honor by attending my funeral?”

The name of the game here is touching the lives of others in positive and loving ways. All too often we are so wrapped up in our own personal pursuits. We spend so much of our time seeking comfort and pleasure for ourselves. We measure ourselves by material standards; how much we earn, how much we have, what we wear, where we live, what we drive, where we eat, where we go on vacation. In so doing, we miss the point entirely. It is not a matter of what we have and what we gain, but rather a matter of what we share and what we give. Our comfort, our ease, our luxury only pleases us. Others may compliment us. Others may envy us. But trust me, no one loves us because of it. People never love you for what you have. They love you for who you are, and how you share yourselves with them. It is not how easy your life is, how much pleasure you enjoy. It is how you have helped to make their life a little easier, a little more pleasurable.

I wish to share with you a true story; the story of a man whose funeral I officiated at some 13 years ago. Some of you, or maybe many of you, may have heard this story before, but it is worth retelling.

Actually it is the story of two men; the man I buried and his brother. These two were as different as night and day. The deceased lived his whole life here in the Quad Cities, while the brother went off to college, entered business, experienced growing success and ultimately wound up as a major New York corporate executive; a very wealthy and powerful man. The brother who remained in our community led a rather simple life. He never made a lot of money. He never seemed to need a lot of money. He was neither famous nor powerful, and these things did not seem to matter to him. His wealthy brother truly loved him but also didn’t really think that much of him. He felt that his brother never really made much of his life.

And it was true, materially speaking that is. He hadn’t done much. He hadn’t made much. But he did accomplish something, but it wasn’t anything you could take to the bank or buy a car with.

You see, this simple brother loved sports. Particularly high school sports. Even more particularly, Moline High School sports. Whatever the sport – whatever the team Moline High School fielded – he was their biggest fan. For years, he was their biggest fan. He was such a big fan that he actually became an unofficial part of their sports program. Whenever a Moline High School team played, his seat was not in the stands, but on the bench, along with the players. And while sitting on that bench, he constantly gave the players words of encouragement, and sticks of gum. He loved them and they loved him.

Then the man died and his wealthy brother arranged for the funeral. After all, he needed to take care of his poor brother. And financially, he did so. But when it came to the funeral itself, he was in for a great shock. For the room was packed; filled with student athletes and with graduates. A massive number of people whose lives this simple man lovingly touched. Graveside, at the conclusion of the interment service, all these young people marched by the open grave, each one dropping into it a stick of gum.

The wealthy brother was more than flabbergasted. For while he loved his sibling, in truth, he thought of him more or less as a nebish, never really amounting to much. But here, at this funeral, he came to discover that his brother who may have been lacking in material possessions was rich in friends; was beloved by many. The more he considered what he was witnessing, the more it shook him. It shook him so because he came to realize that it was not through wealth or power that his brother had amassed such a loyal and loving following. It was through the gifts of his heart. It was through all the efforts that he had expended, over so many years, in showing others how much he cared for them. And what probably shook the wealthy brother the most was the growing realization that when he died, the chances were slim that there would be anywhere near an equal demonstration of affection at his funeral. Yes, today, there were many who catered to his every whim, but he knew in his heart of hearts that they did so, not so much because they loved him, but rather because of his position and the power he wielded over their lives. But when he dies, that power will be gone, and so might they. Now he found himself questioning his long held perceptions. Who truly was the wealthiest brother? He with his possessions and his power, or his brother with his army of devoted friends?

Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved. Even those who protest that they don’t want to be loved, deep down, they really do; perhaps more than most. It is natural for us. Being loved lifts us to the clouds. It makes us feel as though the entire world is ours. There is no greater high. How wonderful it feels when we encounter people who are truly happy to see us. The smiles that fill their faces warm our hearts as little else can. Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved.

Yet the sad truth is that for many of us, we are not nearly as loved as we would like to be. We may know a lot of people, and many of them may actually like us, but how many of them really love us? Perhaps all too few. Whether or not we realize it – we acknowledge it – that fact is our misfortune.

But who is responsible for that? We are, and no one else. For we are the ones who are in control of whether or not we are loved by others. For if we want others to love us, then we must love them, and show them our love. Admittedly, sometimes loving others can be a challenge, for it can call upon us to put others before ourselves; to place their needs before our needs. These days, in a world which tends to focus on the pursuit of self-satisfaction, this can appear to us to be an insurmountable challenge. But it is not. For the magic of it is that the more we care for others, the more we find that we are also caring for ourselves. There is a personal healing imbedded in acts of selflessness; when we reach out to touch the lives of others in positive ways. It provides us with a pleasure more satisfying, more long lasting, than any material possession or self-indulgence will ever offer.

Each and every one of us has the power to become that person. All that is necessary is that we decide to do so. This is precisely what Yom Kippur calls upon us to do. This is precisely what God calls upon us to do. God has blessed us with the capacity to perform countless acts of loving kindness; to live a life of loving kindness, but it is purely up to us to do so. And if we do so, we will find that when we are laid to rest, our funeral pre-planning will have paid off. For those whose lives we touched will be there with us, accompanying us to the grave. They will say prayers and many may weep; they may weep real tears as they bid us farewell.

So what will it matter to us, some of you may wonder? We will be dead, beyond the touch of their tears. But it will matter. It will matter because it means that our life will have had lasting meaning. It will have been a life well spent, for in it we have sowed the seeds of love wherever we went. Those seeds have taken root, grown and flourished. And now that we are gone, those who shed tears for us, will spend at least some of the rest of their lives gathering the seeds of love we sowed within them and sharing those seeds with others. It is that river of love, flowing from us, through us, and back to us again, that has the power to transform our funeral from an exercise in ritual to a testimony to a life which has changed the world and changed it for the better.

On the Passing of My Father-in-Law

July 27, 2010






It was late on a Friday afternoon when I answered the telephone only to hear my brother-in-law’s voice both asking to speak to his sister and informing me that my father-in-law – Seymour Posner – had passed away.  For those of you who have never received such a phone call, I cannot begin to describe the experience to you.  It is unlike any other communication you will ever receive.  And it never gets easier to receive it.  Unfortunately, in my life, this was the fifth time I have been informed of such a personal loss – for the passing of my mother, my father, my sister’s husband (who was like a brother to me), my sister, and now my father-in-law – and each time, no matter  the circumstances, I have been equally taken aback by the finality of the notice.

Four months ago, my father-in-law was hit by a car and as a result had to undergo surgery to repair multiple fractures to his leg.  That was the beginning of the end, for even while the surgery repaired the leg, it was followed by one complication after another.  It was as though the fabric of Seymour’s health seemed to be unraveling before our eyes.  Someone recently told me that the breaking of a bone can release certain toxins into the system which can effect other aspects of a person’s health if not treated quickly enough.  I do not know whether this is true or an urban legend.  What I do know is that from the time of Seymour’s entrance into the hospital for the surgery on his leg to the day that he died, he was constantly under medical treatment for one ailment or another and was hospitalized on several occasions.  His was an unbroken line of illnesses from the car accident to his death.

During these months of her father’s illness, my wife, Gail, jockeyed back and forth between Iowa and Michigan to offer whatever help she could to her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, and their families.  Though I know that she wished she could do more, of course she could not begin to match the efforts of her Detroit family.  There are times when it is very hard to be living at a distance from the ones you love and this was one of them.  I believe I understand how she felt, for I know how I felt when I was at a physical distance from both my mother and my sister as they endured the cancers that eventually took their lives; wanting to be at their sides but being kept away by the obligations of long distance living.

After Gail’s brother, Ken, called with the painful news, Helene (our youngest) and I packed as quickly as possible while Gail arranged for Shira (our oldest) to fly to Detroit from her home in Alexandria, Virginia.  We decided not to bring our middle child – Josh – for he is a young man with autism who would not fully understand all that was happening and probably would not respond well to the chaos that goes hand-in-hand with a funeral.  Josh came home the next weekend and still we struggled with how to help him understand that his “Poppa” had died.  Since Josh is fixated on animated movies, we finally decided to start our conversation by asking him about “The Lion King”, directing him to tell us about the fate of Mufasa – the father of Simba, the main character, who died while Simba was yet a cub – and then we related Mufasa’s death to that of his grandfather, using family photos.

Two hours after we receive that painful news, we were on the road,  traveling late into the night, only stopping to take a hotel room when exhaustion overwhelmed us.  We arrived in Detroit the next day, driving directly to Ken’s home, where the family was gathering.

As a rabbi, there have been countless occasions when I have met with bereaved families to plan the funeral of a loved one.  I have to admit that it was indeed odd being on the “other side” of the conversation as we sat through two separate meetings, first with the funeral director and then with the rabbi.  Both were accessible, professional, and deeply compassionate.  They made me proud of my profession.  As a rabbi, I strive to be a healing presence to the bereaved during these meeting but I have to admit that I am not always sure that I have achieved that goal.  Information is passed from one to the other.  Questions are asked and answered on both sides.  But has any healing taken place?  Yet sitting in those meetings, I now have a better sense of just how much healing does occur.  Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to experience such meetings when my own parents passed away, for it was their wish have neither funerals nor burials.  They wanted to be quietly cremated and have their ashes scattered at sea.  Though it went against everything I believe, out of respect to my parents I acceded to their wishes.  But on this occasion, there I was, sitting with my wife’s family, witnessing and experiencing the healing such true professionals bring to the hearts of the bereaved.  It happens through the very questions that are asked and how they are answered.  It happens in the sharing and the caring.  It happens simply by the physical presence of a person who is there to help.

Seymour Posner was a very special and unique individual.  The word that kept cropping up in his eulogies – there were four of them – was “character.”  Indeed he was a real character, but he also was a man of great character.

Seymour savored life, always striving to enjoy it to its fullest.  Indeed, joy was so much of what he was all about.  Many were the places in which he found his joy.

There was humor.  No one loved a good joke more than Seymour, and few told them better.  Many were the jokes he shared with me, that I brought back to my home communities, effectively spreading his mirth.  At 80 years old, twice he was invited to do stand-up comedy at a popular club in Ann Arbor – the home of the University of Michigan.  That should say it all!

Then there was good food and fine red wine – always served with ice, for as he repeated pointed out to anyone who would listen, in Europe the wine cellars are so much colder than in America, so here one needs add ice to bring the wine to is proper temperature.  I told you he was a character!

Then there was travel.  Few things excited Seymour more than the opportunity to visit new places, both close and far, have new experiences, and acquire new learning.  The little tidbits which tour guides invariably share and which put many of us to sleep, his mind would voraciously consume.  Indeed one might say that the acquisition of new knowledge was almost an addiction with him.  He truly was a lifelong learner.

Then there was music, especially when it was upbeat.  How he loved to go to live concerts.  And if those concerts were conducted out of doors, and they were preceded by a picnic, so much the better!  Yes, music lifted his soul.  Indeed, many was the time when he had proclaimed that when he died, he wanted his funeral to be New Orleans style, with a dixieland band accompanying him to the grave.  And so it was!  Seymour fished his wish, for at his interment there was a six-piece dixieland band composed of three of his grandsons and three of their musical friends.  And nothing would stop them from honoring the man with multiple variations of “When the Saints Come Marching In” (a tune not often heard in Jewish cemeteries!), even in the midst of the most horrendous of thunderstorms.  For even as the heavens opened up, and their waters descended in torrents, not unlike those of the days of Noah, still the band played on!  I can only imagine that the heavens opened so fully, drenching the mourners, in order to hasten Seymour’s entry making sufficient room to better accommodate the grandeur of Seymour’s soul.

And of course Seymour loved the practice of law.  Seymour was a criminal attorney in Detroit.  Talk about location, location, location!  Every day in court was another adventure for him.  Early in our relationship, I asked him how in good conscience he could defend people whom he knew to be criminals.  His answer fascinated me.  First of all, he said, every person, no matter their character, is entitled to a decent defense.  That is his job; to provide them with the best defense he can offer.  If he wins cases that perhaps he should have lost, that is only because he was able to provide better argumentation than the prosecution.  That is not his fault but the fault of the state in not having supported a more effective prosecutor’s office.  He has done his best, and either the prosecuting attorney did not do his best, or Seymour’s best was simply that much better than the prosecutor’s best.  Besides, he told me, these people are his clients, not his personal friends.  He defends them in court.  He doesn’t invite them home for dinner.  If I had any doubts about what he was talking about, they dissipated one day when he recounted one of his stranger cases.  He found himself defending a fellow who was caught red-handed in possession of all sorts of stolen electronic equipment.  When the police apprehended the man, the trunk of his car was packed with such stolen merchandise.  Now this person was a bit of an oddball.  He was one of those folks who believe that they are under attack from alien mind controlling rays.  Therefore, he covered his head and other body parts in aluminum foil, to prevent those rays from penetrating.  Well, with absolutely no viable defense, Seymour felt that he had nothing to lose by putting his client on the stand.  So, before the court – before the jury – he questioned the man about his beliefs concerning alien attempts to invade his body.  He then asked him what he was doing with all that electronic equipment found in his car trunk.  The defendant went on to explain in detail how he planned to build a devise to fend off the aliens.  Later, in Seymour’s summation to the jury, he said to them something along the lines of  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  You have heard my client testify concerning his beliefs about an alien invasion and his plans to defend against such an invasion.  It should be quite obvious to you that my client in not in possession of all his facilities.  Now I have to ask you whether or not you truly believe that a person in my client’s obviously reduced mental state would actually be capable of successfully organizing and accomplishing a crime such as the one the prosecution has accused him of having perpetrated?”  Believe it or not, even to Seymour’s surprise, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty!  Yes, Seymour loved the law and he loved to opportunities it afforded him to exercise his vast skills in debate and creative problem solving!

But of all Seymour’s sources of joy, there is no question but that he derived his greatest pleasure from people.  He loved meeting new people and making new friends because he saw in each potential new relationship a source of great delight.  Therefore he was more than willing to invest himself in the relationships he established.  He clearly understood that if one is to derive the most satisfaction from the people one knows, then one has to be willing to give to those people the most one can of oneself.  And he did.  So it should not have been surprising that when it came to Seymour’s funeral, there were over 750 people in attendance, with a cortege to the cemetery stretching some two miles in length, and with over 100 people showing up at the house of mourning each night that the family “sat shiva” (for in Judaism we receive visits of consolation and hold memorial services at our houses of mourning for anywhere up to seven days following the funeral).  So many were those who yearned to pay the final respects to this man and to offer their comforting presence to his beloved family.

Of course, of all the people who brought joy to Seymour’s life, there were none more important to him than his family.  Seymour Posner was  the most devoted of family men.

Seymour often referred to Muriel as his first wife.  She was indeed that!  For 58 years, she was his first wife and his only wife!  In this day and age, when divorce has become more the norm than the exception, a marriage of such duration is a resounding testimony to the power of love and devotion.  They first met while in college and they provided all who knew them with the ideal role model of true life mates.  They shared everything – joys and sorrows, adventures and quiet moments, and a love for each other that was truly boundless.

No father could be prouder of the accomplishments of his children than was Seymour.  That two of his three children – Ken and Sandy – followed in his footsteps,  becoming lawyers, was a source of great pride for him.  Even though his eldest, Gail, strayed from the family profession, he forgave her since, after all, she did become a cantor which combined his love of music with his strong sense of Jewish identity.  God, how Seymour loved to listen to Gail chant the service.  Several were the times that he would travel to whatever city we lived in just so that he could hear her chant “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur eve.  Indeed, her “Kol Nidre” was the last rendition that he ever heard, he and Muriel having spent his last Yom Kippur with our family in Iowa.  Besides, Gail did marry a rabbi, and as those who are familiar with Judaism know, while a rabbi is not a Jewish lawyer, a rabbi is a judge when it comes to matters of Jewish law.  Speaking of Seymour’s Jewish identity,  he was never above bragging to all his Jewish friends how he and Muriel had done their part to invest in the future of our faith and our people,  for in an age of increasing interfaith marriage, all three of their children married Jews and bore Jewish children!  When it came to his children, Seymour was staunch believer in creating unique relationships with each of them, based upon their personalities and their strengths.  Gail was his strong willed independent eldest child.  He granted her the space she needed so that she could carve out her own life, always feeling his love and support, but not his interference.  Ken, his son, he groomed to take his place as the head of the Posner clan.  Sandy, his youngest, he took under his wing and mentored in the art of criminal law.  In his recognition of the singularities of each of his children, he successful strove to nurture them in such ways that they could best fulfill their personal potentials.

Seymour’s children were fond of giving their father special gifts.  But none of their gifts were any more precious to Seymour than his grandchildren.  As proud as he was over the accomplishments of his children, he was positively glowing about anything that had to do with his grandchildren.  No journey was too long for Seymour if, at its end, he had the pleasure of watching his grandchildren perform, whether it be music or theater or sports.  He was a veritable groupie when it came to “Just Cuz”, the band put together by grandsons Justin and Alan.

Seymour and Muriel surely understood that the straightest path from children to grandchildren had to include expanding the family to in-laws.  I was the first of these outsiders to inject himself into the Posner household.  As is common with firsts, there was a learning curve.   Indeed, they say that when Gail called her folks to tell them that she was bringing me home over Winter Break to meet them, her mother rushed into the bedroom, woke  Seymour to tell him the news, and all Seymour could say was “Oh shit!”  Indeed, for a while that was my nickname in the Posner household.  However, with the passage of time, they got used to me and came to realize that acquiring sons-in-law and daughters-in-law were actually a testimony to successful parenting.  They learned not only to accept but to welcome us strangers into their close family circle.  By the time Ken married his wife Gail, and Sandy married her husband, Ken (notice that the family was not very open to coping with new names), Seymour and Muriel had come to view in-laws as new children.  Indeed, for the past 22 years, since the death of my parents, Seymour and Muriel were the closest thing that I have had to a father and a mother.

For Seymour, the definition of family most certainly was never restricted to the nuclear family.  He embraced his family in its broadest sense.  He was deeply devoted to all the members of his extended family, both his blood relatives and Muriel’s.  How he loved to visit with family, both near and far, whether it meant driving up to Lake Orion to spend the day at Aunt Netty’s & Uncle Manny’s lakeside cottage, or flying to Los Angeles to visit niece and nephew Susan & Dennis.  Nor was blood even a defining factor in Seymour’s sense of family.  Several years ago, he and Muriel figuratively adopted an entire family – the Sobles – and fully enfolded them into the Posner family; two more children and two more grandchildren.

I have been a rabbi for 35 years and if I have learned any life lesson during that time it is this.  The measure of a life successfully lived is not to be taken from the amount of material wealth one has amassed.  Nor is it to be taken from titles and status one has attained.  There is only one true measure of a successful life, and that measure is to be found in people; how meaningfully one has touched the lives of others.  Seymour lived a life in which he was blessed with both material comfort and prestige, but without question or doubt, his most significant achievement was in being the type of person that he was; in so positively and lovingly touching the lives of so many others.  In that way, he has left an indelible mark of goodness upon our world.

One Lung Living

June 15, 2010






I am a sufferer from asthma.  However, with the proper medication, I usually have been able to keep it under control.  However, this past winter I suffered from an upper respiratory infection which my primary care physician strove to knock out with prednisone and a serious antibiotic.  When all was said and done, the coughing was far more under control but I never really recovered from the shortness of breath.  For months, I attributed that shortness of breath to my asthma, which I thought had somehow just gotten out of control.

When I finally did have an appointment with my pulmonologist, he suggested that since it had been a year since my last breath test, I should take another.  Much to both of our surprise, the test indicated that my breathing capacity was half of what it was a year ago.  So he listened to my lungs and grew concerned that there was far less breath noise coming from the left lung than the right.  So began more serious tests.  An x-ray revealed that the left side of my diaphragm was elevated up against the lung, which appeared significantly reduced.  Something called a sniff test – which uses a fluoroscope, which I have not seen since the 50’s – clearly showed that the left side of the diaphragm is paralyzed.  Why?  We are still seeking that answer.  Thank God, the most common cause – cancer – has been ruled out.

In the meantime, I basically have needed to get on with my life, primarily using only one of my lungs.  Obviously, it has made a difference.  I tire more easily.  Indeed, I perpetually feel weary.  And it does not take that much to make me breathless.  Walking uphill, even with the slightest of inclines, is a chore.  A short flight of stairs leaves me utterly winded.  My gait is slower and walking while talking – on cell phone or in person – has become quite the challenge.

As I write this, I am on one of my mini-sabbaticals.  Months ago, I had been invited by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., to attend a two-week seminar for university faculty teaching the Holocaust.  With my oldest child, Shira, living in the D.C. area, and with my commitment to Holocaust education, I have been eagerly looking forward to this experience.  Well, with the onset of this lung problem, it was questionable as to whether or not I could handle all the walking and book schlepping that would be required of me, not to mention the infamous D.C. summer heat and humidity.  Anticipating what lie ahead, I was on the fence – yearning to immerse myself in the seminar experience yet fearful that my body would betray me.  Friends questioned the wisdom of my going ahead with these plans.  But when I asked my pulmonologist, he told me that I would regret passing up such an opportunity.  Therefore, as long as I took it slow and listened to my body, I should go for it.  So I did!

I write this article having finished the two-week program, on the night before I return to the Quad Cities.  Physically speaking, this has not been an easy two weeks.  Even though I was born and raised in the ultimate city – New York – still, living in a small city such as Davenport, where one drives everywhere they wish to go, it is easy to forget how labor intensive it is to travel by public transportation.  The walks to and from the Metro (the D.C. subway system), with a backpack filled with papers and books slung over my shoulder, in the heat and humidity which even mark the Washington mornings, were in and of themselves exhausting, and breathtaking (but not in the “My, how beautiful!” sense of the word).  Invariably, by the time I reached the classroom at the Museum, I was soaked in sweat.  And if that were not challenge enough, anyone who knows the D.C. Metro system, knows that it runs deep underground, with major escalators transporting passengers to and fro.  However, as those who know the system can attest, those escalators are often non-functioning.  With one lung working, I quickly found that a dead down escalator was no fun, but manageable.  A dead up escalator, on the other hand…  But when all was said and done, the very fact that I enter these words into my keyboard is testimony to the fact that I have survived.

As with most of the challenges of our lives, embedded in their difficulties are important life lessons.  This challenge was no exception.  There is much I have learned from my Washington experience, out of the classroom as well as within it.

First I have learned that it can be all too easy to surrender to our challenges.  We can permit them to overwhelm us and immobilize us even before we attempt to confront them.  “This will be too much for me!” we say as we convince ourselves to step back and aside.  We play it safe and by so doing, we avoid the pain that comes with facing the difficulty head on.  But we also avoid the multiple benefits of moving forward with our lives.  I could have passed on the seminar, staying safe and secure in my home in Davenport; never expending myself beyond the slightest huff or puff.  I most certainly would have been more comfortable.  But there would have been so much more that I would have denied myself.  First of all, there would have been the seminar, which was great!  Great teachers.  Great colleagues and new friends.  Great new insights into a subject that really moves me.  Then there would have been the quality time I spent with Shira; the weekday dinners and the weekend outings.  On the last 5 days, Gail and Helene joined us.  What a special time the four of us shared; something which we do not get the opportunity to do that often any more.  Then there was Washington itself.  I never tire of this city.  There is so much to do here, and especially to learn.  Every visit is a growth experience.  I could have taken the easy way out and stayed safe at home, but then I would have missed all of these wonderful experiences.  The benefits were most certainly worth the physical price I had to pay.

Second, I learned that there is a difference between listening to my body and surrendering to it.  My body has been telling me to slow down – not stop!  So I have had to learn to slow down.  My gait these days is definitely slower.  It is more of a meander than a march.  Yet I can still move forward without completely losing my breath as long as I can accept that slower pace and as long as I give myself more time to get where I am going.  Even so, it was somewhere between ironic and comic that I found that while walking the streets of Washington, at this much slower pace, still there were those people – able bodied people – who walked even slower than I; they had two good working lungs (or so I assumed) but still I outpaced them!  Slower does not necessarily mean last, but even if it does, it is the getting to where you are going that counts.

All this has made me reconsider how much so many of us push ourselves.  We are driven, but in truth it is also we who are the drivers.  And where does it get us?  More often than not, to the very same place we would wind up if we simply slowed down and chose not to tear our bodies and our lives apart in the getting there.  All the time, people say “What’s the hurry?” but how many of them really mean it?  Yet that is really one of the most important questions of our lives.  “What is our hurry?”  Why must we transform our lives into races?  If only we would choose to slow down, we might find a heck of a lot more to enjoy along the way.  And God knows, neither our bodies nor our souls would need to suffer the wear and tear of it all.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, we must learn to play with the hand that has been dealt us.  I do not know what caused the left side of my diaphragm to stop functioning.  So far, the doctors do not know either.  Is it something I did or is it just a freak happenstance?  Admittedly, I cannot say the same about my obesity (and I think about that a lot these days), but about my lung right now I can say it.  Of course I want to repair the damage but it may not be reparable.  If it isn’t, I will have to learn to live with it.  I will have to figure out how best to treat it; how far I can take it and how can I avoid doing further damage.  But that does not mean that my life as I know it has come to an end.  I cannot cry over it.  I just have to move forward with it.  And I most certainly cannot give up seeking a means to repair it.  When conventional medical treatment runs its course, I will turn to non-conventional treatment.  I will do this for as long as such a pursuit does NOT interfere with my living as full a life as I can, in the moment.  What I mean by that is that I will not surrender my life to the quest for a cure, but will continue that quest as long as it enhances my life and does not detract from it.

For the important thing about life is actually living it.  Not just enduring it or expending it, but living it; making the moments and the minutes and the hours and the days and the weeks and the months and the years matter.  As a rabbi, one of my most painful duties is trying to offer comfort to those elderly congregants who have become so afflicted that while they maintain a biological life, they have lost any semblance of a quality of life.  Having had the privilege of serving my congregation for 25 years, I have enjoyed knowing these individuals in the fullness of their lives.  But now, to watch them transformed into empty breathing, heart beating shells, simply breaks my own heart.  That is not a fate I wish for myself or anyone I love.  Yet as I spend time with such people, they teach me still – in their silence and their vacant stares, they teach me.  They teach me that I must make the most of my life while I still have the ability to do so, for when that ability is gone, it is gone.  All that will remain will be the mark I have left on those whose lives I have touched – hopefully in more positive than negative ways – while I was still capable of being a vibrant actor upon this stage.  When it comes to that type of living, no malady such as a bum lung is going to get in my way.  I will not let it.  Rather, I choose to play the hand that’s been dealt me and carry on as best I can, given the circumstances.

I know not what the future holds for me but this I do know.  I will choose to make the most of whatever I have, challenges not withstanding.  That is what living a full life is all about.  If it has taken the loss of the use of one of my lungs to drive home that lesson for me, then so be it.  I am grateful for the insight.

Long Days, Short Years

May 20, 2010

I wrote this piece two years ago, as a synagogue newsletter article.  From the day I first penned it, I have had a particular affection for it and always have wanted to provide it with a wider audience.  So now I wish to share it with you, here on my blog, in hopes that it may be read by some who never got the chance to do so before.  Taking an author’s privilege, I have made some slight alterations to it and have made it current in its references to the passage of time in my life.

There was that one evening that I found myself sitting in the library of the Tri City Jewish Center, in Rock Island.  It was 7:10 p.m. and I was waiting for people to arrive for a 7:00 p.m. meeting.  Tapping my fingers impatiently on the library table, I was filled with the thought that it had been a long day and I was more than ready to see it end.

Sitting there, the thought of long days brought to mind a piece of wisdom shared with me by a good friend on the day of Shira’s (my eldest daughter) Brit Chayim ceremony.  As my wife’s and my parenting adventure was just getting started, he told me that parenthood was a matter of long days and short years.  I have never forgotten that statement and to this day I often share it with new parents as we plan for welcoming their first born into the Jewish community.  With each passing year, I find the truth of that statement increasingly reaffirmed.  With my eldest having received her master’s degree and my youngest (Helene) in high school, at times I am overwhelmed by the thought of how long were several of those days yet how short were all of those years.  Nora am I alone in this.  Ask any parent who has sent a child off to college.

As I sat in that library, waiting for the rest of that committee to arrive, eager myself to end the day, it likewise struck me that my friend’s wisdom is not restricted to parenthood.  For what is true of parenthood is true of life itself.  Our lives are a matter of long days and short years.  For me, many are the days that I do not return home until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., sometimes even later.  Yet here I sit, 60 years old, having been both a rabbi and a husband for 35 years, having been a parent for 29 years, and rabbi of Temple Emanuel for almost 25 years.  Still I cannot fathom where the time has flown.  It seems like only yesterday that I arrived in Iowa; like only yesterday that Shira was born; like only yesterday that my wife and I stood under the chupah; like only yesterday that I was ordained; like only yesterday that I wa a child myself living with my parents, my grandmother, and my sister on Astor Avenue in the Bronx, going to school, sleigh riding down the Wickham Avenue hill on winter afternoons and playing baseball on the green space next to Pelham Parkway and going to Orchard Beach in the summer.  I am not an old man, though at times I may sound like one.  Still, with more years behind me than ahead, I am astounded by how all my long days have amassed themselves into all those short years.

It gives one pause to consider what really counts in this life.  The years are so short that we must never undervalue how precious is our time on this earth.  Yet when it comes to our days, while they may be long, to judge them solely, or primarily, by their length is a mistake; a profound mistake.  At the end of each day, the question we should be asking is not “How long was it?” but rather “How good was it?  How much did we accomplish during it?”  and most important of all, “How much of a positive difference did we make in the course of it?”  Long days are not so bad if, at the end of those days we can say to ourselves, “My efforts today have made a difference for the better.  I have touched the lives of others, and by so doing have their lives a little easier or a bit more pleasant.  I have not only dwelt upon my own needs and interests but also have made a little investment in a brighter future for all people.  I have spread at least some seeds of love and caring, gentleness and kindness, knowledge and wisdom, insight and inspiration.  I have been grateful for the people I have encountered and conducted myself in such a manner that just perhaps they are likewise grateful for having encountered me.”

Whether or not we are of a theological bent, if we live our lives in such a manner, then we are truly God’s servants on earth, spreading God’s messages of love, respect, and responsibility.  As our short years fly by, may we be able to reflect on them with pride, knowing that we filled them with quality living.