Posted tagged ‘Shira Karp’

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

Advertisements

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

Empty Chairs

April 11, 2012

At the Passover Seder, we begin the Four Questions by asking “Why is this night different from all other nights.”  This year, for me, that question was but an echo of another with which I had to contend:  “Why is this Seder different from all other S’darim?”

That difference was that this year, for the two S’darim that I attended, there were some painfully empty chairs, either literally or figuratively that in past years were occupied.  They were the chairs that in the past were occupied by the members of my family but this year stood empty.  With the my wife living in Detroit as a result of being transferred there by her “day job,” and it not being one of the weekends when my congregation has contracted for her to return and serve as our partime cantor for our worship services, she  remained in Detroit, sharing the S’darim with her mother, her brother, her sister, their spouses and their children.  My eldest daughter, Shira, remained in Louisville, where she lives and works, conducting her own Seder with her friends. Since, like the Cantor, our 28 year old son with autism, Josh, visits the Quad Cities every other weekend – weekends when the Cantor is home – he spent Pesach at his group home in Iowa City.  As for our youngest, Helene, the price of comparative airfares dictated that she travel from her school in Minneapolis to Detroit to share Seder with her mother.   Therefore this was the first Pesach of my entire life (not counting the year when I studied in Jerusalem) when I had no family with which to share the holiday.  This was the first Pesach since my wife and I met in which we have not been together for Seder.

My wife and I both knew that this would be difficult for me.  We spoke of it as we parted the week before.  But just how difficult it would be did not really strike home for me until I was reviewing the physical layout of the congregational Seder and looked at the head table, at which point I was confronted by the empty chairs that in the past were filled by my wife and my children.  Others would be assigned those seats but of course it simply would not be the same.  Pesach is such a family time and I found myself overwhelmed and overpowered by a dreadful sense of loneliness; one that I carried with me all the way through the S’darim.  One that I still carry with me, even now that the S’darim are passed.  It is a loneliness not unlike the loneliness I felt on the first night at home after my wife moved to Detroit and Helene went off to college; when at the end of the evening I walked through the house, turning off the lights on my way to my bedroom, passing all those rooms, especially those bedrooms, so recently occupied but now empty.

I share this with you because all too often we take our families too much for granted.  There are even times when, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we have viewed their companionship as more of a burden than a blessing – as we yearned for some “alone” time; for time just for ourselves.  But let us be careful of what we wish for.  It is nice to grab some private time but it is only nice when we can place it side-by-side with family time.

Over the past several months, there have been those who have jokingly quipped with me, asking, “Isn’t it nice to be leading the bachelor life once again?”  I, on my part, have jokingly responded, “Not so much so, for in my situation I only get to bear the burdens without enjoying the benefits of bachelorhood.”  But joking aside, without the companionship of my family, my life has been incomplete.  In truth, there have been times when it has felt more that incomplete and closer to meaningless.  For it is our loved ones who grant the truest meaning to our lives and without them there remains a vacuum which perhaps is impossible to fill.

As we move beyond Pesach, if there is anything we should carry away from it, let it be the warm memories of our families gathered round our Seder tables and how we should never forget how are important those we love are in our lives. Let us hold them close and hold them dear.  On their account are our lives blessed.

The Psychology of Sad: A Yizkor Sermon

October 13, 2011

Several years ago, I received an email inviting me to take a personal health survey on a website called “Real Age.”  The purpose of the survey was to compare one’s chronological age with what they call one’s “real age,” which is determined by some formula which factors in both the state of the health of one’s body and the healthy or unhealthy behaviors one engages in.  While I was less than satisfied with the results of the survey, it did inspire me to sign up for their free wellness emails which I now receive about every three days.  Each email contains three short articles about simple things that we can do to improve our health.  They are articles like, “Eat Mexican Tonight and Fight Colon Cancer” and “Clear Brain Plaques With This Nutrient” which happens to be Vitamin D, and “The Food That Helps You Feel Carefree” which happens to be, believe or not, tuna fish.  Though sometimes based upon obscure studies, these are fascinating articles which offer some truly helpful tips, though I suppose there is a limit to how often one can be told to drink green tea and go for a walk.  Every once in a while I forward a whole bunch of these articles to my two daughters so that they too can reap some of their benefits.  I used to send them to the Cantor, but she kept sending them back to me, saying, “Well, are you going to do this or not?”

While most of the Real Age articles are about improving one’s physical health, every once in a while they publish one about improving one’s emotional health.  One such article was entitled, “Sad?  Don’t Forget About It.”  I read it and I immediately thought of this Yizkor service and this very special gathering of mourners.

According to this article, studies show that when we are feeling sad, it is important that we do not brush aside our sad feelings and try to forget them, but rather we need to embrace them and remember the source of our sadness if we wish to truly heal ourselves.  To quote this article, “Knowing what’s making you sad is key to dealing with it, learning from it, and letting go.  If you don’t process what you’re going through, sad thoughts may continue to linger, and sad signals may even get stored in your body.”

If this be true, and I trust that it is, then once again, I am amazed at the profound wisdom of those rabbis long ago who established the Jewish practices and traditions surrounding death and mourning.  They told us, “Do not try to run from your sadness and your pain.  Do not try to hide it and gloss it over.  Rather, you must embrace it, for only through embracing the pain of your sadness can you learn how to deal with it and live with it.”  Ours is not a tradition of wakes and calling funerals “celebrations.”  Quite the contrary.  It is a tradition of Keriah; of tearing our clothing in order to acknowledge that our loss has created a tear in the very fabric of our lives.  It is a tradition of Shivah; of stopping our lives for seven days so that we can focus on the grief of our loss.  It is a tradition of Kever Avot; of visiting the graves of our loved ones before our major holidays.  It is a tradition of Yahrzeits and Yizkor; of setting aside special times dedicated to remembering our loved ones now gone.  How very wise those rabbis were, for long before the days of Sigmund Freud and the birth of psychology, they understood all too well that in remembering there is healing.

The rabbis also understood that human beings need the structure of specially appointed times in order to facility and focus that process of remembering.  Of course we are fully capable of remembering our loved ones on days other than Yahrzeits; at times other than during Yizkor services.  But if left to our own devices, those memories are usually pushed to the back of our minds, for the challenges of day-to-day living tend to demand most if not all of our attention, so our thoughts focus on them.  The memories of our loved ones will float to the surface occasionally, but only briefly, as our minds are overwhelmed with filling more immediate needs.

This, by the way, is the very same reason why we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and holidays like Valentine’s Day.  Of course, we love all our dear ones 24/7, but usually we do not have the opportunity to give that love a lot of thought or attention.  However, when we arrive at a birthday or an anniversary, or Valentine’s Day, we have been given the opportunity to focus on our feeling; to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones how much we love them.

Yahrzeits, Yizkor, Kever Avot, Shivah; they are no different from this.  They, too, are opportunities to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones who are no longer with us how much we love them still.  And with the telling and the showing most certainly comes the remembering.  And with the remembering comes the healing.

Yet there is something within us which calls upon us to resist this process of remembering and healing.  Perhaps it is because we live in a society which is obsessed with fleeing from pain or discomfort.  Most of us grew up without the benefits of air conditioning, yet we were able to survive and adapt to the hot, muggy days of summer.  But today, who goes outside if they do not have to in the middle of August?  We have invested millions of dollars into the development of drugs to eliminate the very sensation of pain.  In our society, pain is something to be avoided at all costs, rather than confronted.

Yet to avoid the pain of our loss is to deny ourselves the healing of memory.  And memory does heal us.  For the more we remember our loved ones, the less our memories dwell on the pain of our loss and the more we recall the pleasure and the joy and the love they brought into our lives.  The more we remember, the more our memories morph from anguish to gratitude; from the sting of loss to the sweet caress of love.

My mother died the agonizing death of cancer.  As her end drew near, delirium engulfed her.  The last time I heard her voice was over the telephone, the Cantor, Shira, Josh, and I were in Los Angeles.  Josh, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, was undergoing an extensive evaluation at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.  I made the phone call while waiting to meet with his doctor.  I felt terribly torn for I needed to be with my son on the West Coast, but I also needed to at least stay connected with my mother on the East Coast.  As my sister kept me abreast of my mother’s condition, in the background I could hear my mother, calling out in her delerium, “Is that Henry?  Where is Henry?  Is he coming?  Is he here?”  Those words cut through me like a knife.  They were the last words I ever heard my mother speak.  She died literally hours before I was able to bring my family home to Iowa and rush off to her side in Florida.

The pain of that memory encapsulated for me my pain at the loss of my mother.  Even as I speak of it now, I feel a painful twinge.  But over the passing of the years, I have found that by embracing my memories of my mother rather than avoiding them because of the pain they may evoke, I have been able to heal from the pain of that particular memory, and from the pain of her passing.  For the more I chose to remember, the more the painful memories gave way to the warm and loving memories, not of her passing but of her life.  Now, when I think of my mother, I do not dwell on her cries born of delirium but rather on how she would go out of her way to make each and every member of our family happy; how, whenever she discovered a dish that  I liked to eat, she would serve it to me every single day, week after week, until I could no longer bear to look at it.  And when I would finally say, “Stop!  I can’t stand to eat this any more!” her reply was always the same; “But you used to love it!”  All she ever wanted to do was to make me happy.  And she did that with everyone in our family.  She was the personification of familial love.  As I remember the love, and not the pain, I am healed.

So it is with all of us, or so it can be with all of us.  We are gathered here to remember.  Remembering is so very important.  That is why we call this service Yizkor – “Remember” with an exclamation point, for the Hebrew word is in the command form.  Let us not hesitate to take every single opportunity our lives and our Judaism offer us to remember our loved ones.  Let us not be afraid to fill our minds and our hearts with their memories.  For the more we choose to remember, the more we come to understand that truly only their bodies have gone.  The essence of who they were still lives within us.  They still speak to us.  They still accompany us as we travel the path of life.  All that they were, we carry inside of us, in our memories of them.   And the more we choose to remember, the more we bring them back to life; the more we bring all that was so good and wonderful about them back to life.  The more we remember, the more we ourselves are healed of the pain their passing has inflicted.

We have gathered here in this sanctuary, for this special service, dedicated to the memory of our loved ones.  May our thoughts of them now fill us more with joy than with sadness; more with gratitude than with pain.

The Perfect Day: A Sermon for When Yom Kippur Falls on Shabbat

October 12, 2011

How many people here have ever participated in a guided visualization?  Raise your hands.  My first experience with guided visualizations was – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise – back in the days when I served a congregation in California.  Well, if you haven’t had such an experience up until now, after tonight you can proclaim to the world that you have done one.

For those of you who are uncertain about what a guided visualization is, let me explain.  What I propose to do is take you on a journey, but not a journey in which we actually physically leave this building or even our seats.  The journey I wish to take you on is one that will take place totally in our minds.  I am going to try to help you to relax and open your minds, so that you can better imagine this journey as I describe it to you.  I know that sounds very touchy-feely – very California – and it is not something the we reserved Midwesterners do easily, but I want you to give it a try nonetheless.  I want you to drop your defenses and your scepticism, and open yourselves up to the possibility of such an experience.

So the first thing we need to do is relax.  We need to put our bodies and our minds in a relaxed and open state.  There are things that we can do to help bring that about, so here is what I want you to do.  First of all, I want you to sit up.  Uncross your arms and put them at your sides.  Uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground.  Now close your eyes and keep them closed.  I will tell you when you can open them.  Now, we are going to do a breathing exercise.  Bear with me.  This will help.    I want you to take a deep breath in, hold it, and now very slowly let it out through your almost closed lips.  Let’s do that again.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  And one more time.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  Hopefully by now you are feeling somewhat more relaxed.  You should be feeling little if any tension in your muscles.

Now that we are more relaxed, I will walk you through our journey, describing it in some detail.  What I want you to do is picture in your mind what I describe to you.  Not just seeing the scene, but experiencing the feelings as well.

It is a beautiful early Fall morning.  The sun is shining and you can feel the warmth on your skin.  It is warm but not hot.  It feels nice.  It feels very nice.  You are walking in a forest.  It rained the night before and you can smell the fresh damp earth.  That luscious musty smell.  The trees around you are green, but they are starting to change color.  Some sooner than others.  The green of the woods is speckled with oranges and yellows and reds.  Ahead of you, you see that the trail opens up.  You see the increasing light in front of you.  As you continue to walk toward the light, you find yourself entering a lovely glade, with a pond.  You stand there, looking at the pond.  Its water is still.  It is like a mirror.  You gaze upon it and see the reflection of the glade and the sky in the water.  You feel the warmth of the sun on your face.  It feels great!  You hear the chirping of birds in the background.  As you look around, you see some hills in the distance.  The sky above is blue with a few scattered puffy clouds.  You are taking it all in.  You are at one with the beauty.  It is as if you entered a landscape painting and have become part of the painting.  It is better than a painting.  You are transfixed.  You never want to leave.  It is a perfect moment.

When you entered the forest, you were carrying many burdens in your heart; worries and concerns about money, work, family, friends.  But as you stand in this glade, breathing in the sweet fresh air, with the warmth of the sun on your face, you begin to feel the weight of those burdens lifting.  Your heart seems lighter, freer.  You are at one with the beauty that surrounds you.  You feel a connection between you and the beauty which surrounds you; between you and the glade; between you and the sky; between you and the chirping birds.  You are filled with a certain sense of awe at how wondrous all this is; and a certain sense of gratitude.  The pleasure of the moment is a gift and for it, you are grateful.  In this grateful moment, you somehow feel a bit more connected to the artist; to the Giver of the gift; to God.  You are happy as you realize that the One who would grant you such a gift must care for you; must love you; must want you to be happy.  You stand there, filled with a sense of peace; a peace that comes from your connectedness to all that surrounds you.  You sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself, and in so sensing, you never felt better.

It is time for you to leave the glade.  You need to walk back through the forest, and back to your home and your life.  You turn and start down the trail.  But this time, you do not carry with you the burdens with which you entered the glade.  Rather you carry the memory of the sun on your face, the fresh smell of the air, the song of the birds, the beauty of the pond.  Your heart is light rather than heavy.  Ahead of you, you see light.  You are coming out of the woods, heading toward home.  Your journey is ending.

You can open your eyes now.  I hope that you permitted yourself to experience the journey, or at least parts of it, and in having done so, found it refreshing; an oasis of peace in a stressful life.

If you opened yourself up to the possibilities of this journey; if you permitted yourself to visualize being in the forest and the glade, taking in the warmth, the beauty, the peace of the moment; if you allowed yourself to become immersed in this imaginary sojourn,  then whether not you realize it, you also allowed yourself to experience just a hint of what Shabbat can be like in our lives.  For like the glade, Shabbat, too, can be an oasis of peace, beauty, relief, and connectedness; a welcome, blessed, and rejuvenating escape from our all too demanding and draining weekday lives.

But like this guided visualization, only those who are willing to open themselves up to possibility of the experience of Shabbat can benefit from it.  I know that among you this evening there were some, maybe many, who resisted this experiment.  They sat in their seats, refusing to engage in it, perhaps thinking to themselves, “What kind of narishkite is this?  This is silly!  This is a waste of my time!”  But I expect, indeed I hope, that there were some among you, even if just a few, who were not as cynical and as closed; who were willing to engage in the spirit of the moment, and in so doing, did discover it to be a somewhat pleasurable experience.  So it is with Shabbat.  There are those Jews who choose to close themselves off from the Shabbat experience, perceiving of it as an inconvenience or even a burden.  It, too, they view as narishkite and a waste of their time.  But then there are those Jews who choose to embrace the Shabbat experience, and in so doing discover it to be not a burden but rather a relief; not a waste but rather a gift – a precious gift – one they look forward to receiving week in and week out.

When I was growing up, my parents would host a big family dinner every Sunday afternoon.  After religious school, all sorts of relatives would descend upon our home.  My mother loved to cook, so every Sunday was like Thanksgiving as we crowded round the dining room table, which was filled to overflowing with a variety of delicacies.  One of those delicacies was sweet potatoes topped by toasted marshmallows.  Everyone would devour them; everyone that is except me.  I would have none of it.  They would urge me on, saying, “Just try it!  You’ll love it!  It taste like candy!”  But I was convinced that they were lying.  It was just a trap, for nothing as orange and vegetable looking as that could ever taste good.  So for years and years, I refused to let sweet potatoes touch me lips.  That is until one day, at a Thanksgiving dinner, as an adult, I permitted myself to be persuaded to at least give it a try.  So I placed as small a morsel as possible on a fork and put it to my lips.  And you can guess the rest of the story.  It was delightful!  Everything that all those people at those family dinners said about sweet potatoes was right on the money.  For all those years, I had denied myself that wonderful treat!  Now that was a waste!

Shabbat is the sweet potatoes on the serving table of our lives.  We can convince ourselves that Shabbat – as I had convinced myself that sweet potatoes – is something to be avoided.  But in so doing, we deny ourselves a very special treat; something that can bring so much pleasure into our lives.

Now I know that there are among you those who are thinking, “Whose he kidding?  I’ve been to Friday night services?  Where’s the pleasure outside of the oneg?”  But I strongly caution you.  Do not equate Shabbat with Shabbat services.  While Shabbat services are a part of Shabbat – an important part of Shabbat – they are not the totality of Shabbat.  Shabbat is not just an hour and fifteen minutes on a Friday night.  That’s right, an hour and fifteen minutes, shorter than even a Disney movie.  Shabbat is a whole day.  Traditionally, 25 hours.  It is prayers – it begins and ends with prayers – but it is far more than prayers.  It is the creation of an oasis of peace and beauty and freedom and love in the midst of what often can be a tempestuous week.  That is why we Jews greet each other on Shabbat by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” may the peace of Shabbat embrace you.  It is, or can be, a cherished opportunity to reconnect with our loved ones, our fellow Jews, our God, and with ourselves.

As many of you know, I am a strong advocate of sending our children to Jewish summer camps.  Invariably, when you ask these children who attend these camps – who love attending these camps and go back year after year – “What is it about camp that you like the most?” they do not tell you it is the boating or the water-skiing or the water slide or the climbing tower or the horseback riding.  They say, “It’s Shabbat!”  When you ask them “What is it about Shabbat which is so special?”  They will tell you about the special Shabbat dinner and the singing and the dancing that follows.  They will tell you about being able to sleep late on Shabbat morning, and having an unprogrammed day of freedom and relaxation, in which there are activities available which they can choose, or choose not, to partake in.  They like being off the clock.  They like being able to take some control of their lives rather than having others control it for them.  If they want to go swimming, they go swimming when they want to go swimming and not when someone else is telling them, “Now is the time to go swimming.”  Yes.  Shabbat is about freedom and leisure.  The great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it so well when he said that Shabbat is not a time “to do” but “to be.”

Many of you may remember our former congregant, Dick Gottlieb.  Several years ago, Dick offered me some truly sage advise.  He said, “Henry, you have to take time to sharpen the saw.”  What is “sharpening the saw?”  The analogy that he drew was with someone who is sawing wood.  That person goes along, sawing and sawing, cutting more and more wood.  But eventually his blade starts to dull, and the wood cutter discovers that even though he is expending more and more time and energy, the result is that he is cutting less and less wood as his blade grows duller and duller.  So he invests himself longer and harder into his task, but contrary to his desire, his productivity continues to decline.  What he needs to do is, rather than trying to continue to cut wood with a dull saw blade, he should stop his wood cutting altogether in order to take the time necessary to sharpen his saw.  We all need to sharpen our saws.  We need to break from the routines of our lives in order to refresh ourselves, so that, when we return to the tasks at hand, we can do so with renewed physical, mental, and spiritual vigor.  Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to sharpen our saws.  It gives us the chance to break with all the demands that drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually during the rest of the week; to put them on hold and say, “Not today!  Today is not for meeting your needs but rather, for meeting mine.  It is for recharging my battery, so that I can better face you in the week to come.”

In the course of my life, I have observed many Shabbatot.  I have observed them in Iowa and New York, all over the country and in many places around the world, including in Israel.  But the most perfect Shabbat for me was – believe it or not, not in Jerusalem, nor was it at camp – but rather it was a Shabbat that our family spent with our traditional cousins in Minneapolis, Joyce & Robert Warshawsky, one Thanksgiving weekend several years ago.  To me that Shabbat stands out in my mind as an ideal; as a goal to strive for in Shabbat observance.  As I describe it, some of you may find yourselves surprised, for it was not what you might have expected to hear from me.
The Shabbat started, of course, on Friday night, with a typical traditional Shabbat dinner, replete with flowers, candles, Kiddish and challah, the blessing of the children, along with the “Eishet Chayil,” the praise of the women, and a luxurious meal.  There was singing and schmoozing around the dinner table long into the evening.  Believe it or not, we did not go to services that night.

We did, however, go to services the next morning.  It was a rainy day.  So our cousin, who belongs to both an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue gave us a choice of where to pray.  When we put the ball back into his court, he chose the Conservative one because we could drive there, while we would have had to walk to the Orthodox synagogue without even being able to carry umbrellas.  The service was nice.  Long, like most traditional services, but it was followed by an excellent luncheon.  Besides, it felt good to spend the time with other Jews – even though, aside from my family, they were all strangers to me – praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs, strongly sensing that we shared something special with these people which we shared with few others in our lives.  On top of all that, the rabbi’s devar Torah was a good one, providing much food for thought.

By the time we got back into our car, the rain had stopped.  We drove back to our cousin’s house where we spent most of the afternoon lounging around.  We took naps, read books, sat around and talked, and much to my surprise, considering our cousin’s traditional leanings, even watched a movie; if memory serves me correctly, “The Mask” with Jim Carey to be precise.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a walk around a nearby lake.  We walked, we talked, we sat on benches.  We simply enjoyed being together and being outdoors.

We went back to the house, hung out some more, until it was time for Havdalah.  We held that brief service with its powerful symbolism, and as we doused the candle into the wine and sang “Eliyahu HaNavi” our Shabbat drew to a close.

Now that may not sound like much, but it was so peaceful.  Nothing was forced or demanded, one way or the other.  No pre-torn toilet paper or lights on timers.  It wasn’t about prohibitions but rather about relaxing and being together.  It was about centering ourselves and disengaging from the hectic pace which can overwhelm our lives.  In its very simplicity, that Shabbat was truly an oasis of peace and rest for the body and the spirit.
I share all this with you because tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Shabbat as well as observe Yom Kippur.  Contrary to what some might think, that is no small thing.  It is a big thing.  For Shabbat, the most frequent of Jewish holy days is also the most sacred of Jewish holy days.  Even more sacred than this High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.  Not only is it the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but its very frequency significantly contributes to its sanctity.  For one can never dream of nurturing a healthy spiritual life by merely dedicating one or two or three or four days a year to matters of the spirit.  Our souls, and our relationship with God, and with our Jewish identity and our Jewish people requires more continuous and consistent care.  And that is where Shabbat comes in.

On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to confront our sins and seek to repair them.  We consider ourselves a community of sinners.  One of the sins we need to confront is our neglect of Shabbat, and in so doing, our failure to foster our own spiritual lives.  In so doing, we not only sin against God and the Jewish people, but we also sin against ourselves.  Each and every one of us, whether we recognize it or not, needs Shabbat.  We need the peace that it brings and the healing that it brings and the unity that it brings.

On this Day of Atonement, may we truly repent our neglect of Shabbat and sincerely commit ourselves to atone for this sin by striving to make Shabbat a part of our weekly lives, by not only attending services – though that would be nice – but also by electing to break with our weekly routines on this day, setting it aside for the refreshment of body and soul and for the renewal of our relationships with our loved ones, with our Jewish people, with God, and also with ourselves.

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.