#TieBlog #Toledot 2014

21 Nov
Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week's tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

 

Food and sustenance play a prominent role in Parashat Toledot. Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of stew. He later deceives his blind father by wearing hairy skins to appear like his brother as if he had just returned from a hunt. His mother Rebecca prepares the purported game for Jacob to present to Isaac and receive in return his innermost blessing intended for the first born. In between these two narratives centered around food, we learn that Isaac reclaims the wells that his father had dug in Canaan. The family legacy cannot continue without sustenance from water, nor can it continue without nourishment from food. Often Parashat Toldot corresponds with Thanksgiving. This year, we read Toledot a few days before Thanksgiving. The turkeys on this week’s tie represent the prominent role of food in the drama of Jacob and Esau.

A true hero

14 Nov
Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Robert Dorfman, Z”L.

This week, a lifelong friend of mine lost his father after a prolonged illness. When I spoke to my friend this week I shared a favorite memory, probably when we were nine- or ten-years-old, when his father took us to the Chicago Auto Show. We weren’t interested in the cars. We couldn’t drive, after all. Our focus was to make a beeline for the Buick section for the meet-and-greet with Walter Payton, the legendary running back for the Chicago Bears. He was then in the prime of his career.  Payton shattered numerous records in his Hall of Fame career and helped lead the Bears to a Superbowl victory in 1986. He retired as one of the great legends of sports. A soft-spoken, kind man by nature, he was known by fans as Sweetness. Tragically, Payton died of liver cancer in 1999 at the age of 46.

 

Three years ago, I read a gripping biography about Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman , “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” Through meticulous reporting, Pearlman uncovers shocking truths about Payton. He was a womanizer and fathered a child out of wedlock whom he never met. He was addicted to pain killers, which the author reports is linked to liver disease. He was deeply depressed. He was a reckless driver. Despite all of these things, he maintained a pristine public image as a model husband, father and citizen and generous philanthropist. Pearlman’s book attempts to uncover the enigma of a man who went out of his way to visit sick children in the hospital and neglected his family.

 

When Pearlman’s book was published, it was criticized by those who sought to preserve Payton’s pristine, almost god-like image. I disagree. As a Walter Payton fan, Jeff Pearlman did us a great service by illustrating a star athlete as a flawed human being. Pearlman describes how Payton, late in life, thought he was a candidate for a liver transplant. He actually wasn’t. But his last act of communal service was to encourage people to become organ donors. The number of donors in Illinois multiplied exponentially as a result of Payton’s plea. He redeemed himself and brought great meaning to his life through his actions in his final days. Pearlman’s work on Payton anticipates the mountain of evidence that has emerged in the past year or so pointing to the problems endemic to the game of football itself and the toll it takes on those who play the game and our society, which pays big bucks to watch it. Pearlman shows that Walter Payton’s heroism grew out of his humanity, not the touchdowns he scored.

 

Like Pearlman’s assessment of Walter Payton, the Torah describes the Biblical heroes in human terms. They did great things, to be sure, but they were flawed like you and me. For instance, the Torah highlights Abraham’s great achievements such as discovering monotheism and bringing justice and morality into the world. At the same time, the Torah does not hide Abraham’s human faults. He passes his wife off as his sister not once, but twice, saving his life while risking hers. He throws Hagar and Ishamael out of the house into the desert to die. They are only saved by divine intervention. He fails to protest God’s final test and nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. Isaac is traumatized, perhaps even blinded by the event, and never speaks with Abraham again. He definitely has his human flaws.

 

However, Abraham is still a hero. A clue to his greatness is that he is content with his lot. As Abraham’s days draw to a close we read v’Adonai berach et Avraham bakol, God blessed Abraham with all things, (Gen. 24:1). Later, as Abraham is about to die, we’re told that when he died he was b’seivah tovah zaken v’saveiah—a good ripe age, old and contented (25:8). The text tells us that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. The midrash imagines that Abraham reconciled with his sons and the two of them with each other before he died. With this final act of teshuvah, Abraham dies content that there is peace in his family, and his legacy will continue. Abraham lives a full life with many successes and a number of mistakes. Through it all, he recognizes the mistakes and reconciles with his sons, or at least brings about their reconciliation with each other.

 

Abraham’s long life in which he died old and satisfied stands in contrast to football players in our era. The best of the best are paid millions of dollars, but they often are scarred with physical and emotional pain and truncated lives. Others barely last a year or two, maybe three in the NFL, after which they lack direction for the rest of their lives. The narcissistic behavior by some players who assault and rape women reflects on men who are not happy but who are angry, entitled spoiled brats whose bullying of others has been tolerated because they can clobber other players and score touchdowns.

 

As I reflect on Pearlman’s reporting on Walter Payton three years ago, I see it now as a prelude to the mountain of stories in the last year or so linking the multi-billion dollar football industry to a host of problems such as early onset dementia, violent crimes committed by active and former players and severe depression and suicide. This season alone three high school students from around the country died from head injuries sustained while playing. These trends should give us pause to assess our values as a society. What does it mean to earn the status of hero? When we tune into a football game on TV, and the broadcast replays both the pictures and sounds of a devastating tackle, we bear responsibility. The networks are playing to primal desires within us to watch other human beings hurt each other for sport. Our society is paying a price for our indulgence of our modern day gladiators as heroes.

 

For too long our nation has looked askance when former football players have developed a host of physical and mental problems from years of getting their brains bashed in hundreds of times per day. Former NFL players live on average 20 years less than normal male life expectancy in our country. Among the 1985 Chicago Bears who won the Superbowl, Walter Payton died of liver disease, likely spurred by addiction to pain killers; Dave Duerson, All Pro safety, committed suicide at the age of 50; Quarterback Jim McMahon now suffers from dementia and is a lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit against the NFL.

 

The problems go much deeper than former players’ health, unfortunately, as discussed in Steve Almond’s new book “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” Because of our indulgence of football, school districts struggle for funds while municipalities build lavish stadiums often with significant tax breaks for the owners. Universities that make billions of dollars from football have tolerated star football players raping women. Only now are we starting to wake up to the deep systemic problems in society at large that this violent game has bestowed upon our society.

 

Walter Payton was no Abraham. He certainly was not blessed to live out the fullness of his years. However, at the end of his life he overcame his many human flaws and inspired others to do good. His final act of kindness saved many lives, and for that he is a hero. His legacy should be reexamined to bring safety and common sense into American sports and to remind us all of what truly matters.

 

 

#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

6 Nov

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock…

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The “Sorry” Button: In Memory of “Car Talk’s” Tom Magliozzi

4 Nov
Half of NPR's "Car Talk" duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

Half of NPR’s “Car Talk” duo, Tom Magliozzi, 1937-2014

 

This was originally delivered as a sermon Rosh HaShanah Night, September 16, 2012. 

“Car Talk,” has been one of the most popular radio shows for a generation. This fall, its hosts are retiring. Yes, Ray and Tom Magliazzi, also known as Click and Clack, are “pulling into the garage,” so to speak. For 35 years, Ray and Tom have entertained listeners with their thick Boston accents, self-deprecating humor and occasional advice about cars. I know next to nothing about cars–most things mechanical, for that matter. What attracts me to listen to Car Talk is not Ray and Tom’s advice about cars, but their advice about life and relationships, couched in their advice about cars.

A few months ago, they produced a list, somewhat tongue-in cheek, of the top ten new features that they would like to see in all new cars. Their top potential innovation is the ‘Sorry!’ Button. We know all cars have horns. As things stand now the only way drivers have to communicate with each other is with their horns—or their fingers. This state of affairs makes it difficult to create a friendly atmosphere on the roads. So, in the words of Ray and Tom: “Is there anything that we need more on the roads today than a ‘Sorry!’ button? We often do bad or dumb things when we drive, and we have no way to communicate remorse. It might just lead to a little more civility.

“As it stands now, when you tick off another driver, he or she has little choice but to remind you that you’re a moron [HONK!]. Then you have to retaliate with a clever retort like, ‘Oh, yeah? Well, you’re a moron, too! [HONK!]’ Say you’re sorry, though, and you break the cycle. A ‘Sorry!’ button could defuse a lot of otherwise explosive situations — not to mention, it would generate a good deal of karma.”

Imagine occasions for using the “Sorry” button. Say, I cut you off because I didn’t see you. Or, you’re stopped at a green light and your honking at the car in front of you to move already. Then you realize there’s a poor lady with a car full of kids she’s taking care of. Or, perhaps I got too close behind you, and it wasn’t my intention. Right now, the only mode of communication is a loud HONK! It’s shocking, aggressive, sometimes even abusive. The Car Talk brothers say let’s try something different. Let’s push a button that says “I’m sorry.” This would expand our repertory of communication. I cut you off, and I didn’t see you–I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had kids in the car–I’m sorry. I know I got too close and wasn’t paying attention–I’m sorry.

Why is it that in so much of our travels, our only mode of communication is the testosterone-fueled aggressive horn? HONK! You’re in my way, GOSHDOGGIT! (or fill in blank). Get out of my way! What if Ray and Tom’s idea came to be and instead of strictly aggressive behavior, we could just say, “Hey, I’m sorry.”

Now, imagine if we had an “I’m Sorry” button for life. “You know, I just said something I shouldn’t have said–I’m sorry. I was wrong; I offended you; I’m sorry.

In the pressures of life, we often fall into easy but harmful habits of communication. We are conditioned to make ourselves understood before we seek to understand. We may know intellectually that the opposite is the best practice: first seek to understand, then to be understood. Cultivating that habit requires effort, and many of us fall short, even in our closest relationships.

Imagine if every married couple took a course titled, “How to lose a fight.” Picture some typical marital bikkering. Those of us who are married have probably experienced this at some point. But there’s a twist. All of a sudden, let’s say the husband says mid-fight: “Time out. I’m going to shut up. Tell me again what you just said.” The wife says her piece, and then the husband reflects back: “You’re telling me that when I come home from work and I’m grouchy and hungry and had a hard day that you’ve had a hard day too and that I’m not sympathetic enough to you? Boy, you’re probably right.” Imagine this type of conversation taking place not only with married couples but between siblings, children and parents, co-workers, business associates and synagogue members. That’s an example of bringing the I’m Sorry Button into life.

Well, I have good news, everybody. We do have an “I’m Sorry” button for life. We Jews call it Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of returning that we begin tonight. This is our reset button. While ideally we should be in a constant state of teshuvah every day, during this season teshuvah is especially prevalent on our minds. Our tradition allows us the time and space to think, “What can I do differently to make myself or the world better?” In teshuvah, we dare to think about ways in which we can change our habits, getting rid of harmful habits and embracing nourishing ones.

There is an emerging science of habits. This year a fascinating book came out titled: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. The author unpacks the neuroanatomy of habits. He breaks down the formation of habits of individuals. Then he studies habits of companies and organizations. Finally, he demonstrates how entire societies can be conditioned by habits for better and for worse.

Duhigg posits that habits–even once they are rooted in our minds–aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Over the course of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I plan to explore in greater depth the role of habits in our lives. They have enormous effect on our personal lives, on our community life including here at Temple Torah, and on society as a whole. I invite you to join me on a journey over the next ten days to explore how we can embrace new, wholesome habits for ourselves and our community.

I don’t know if engineers in Detroit will ever equip cars with “I’m Sorry” buttons; however, if we cultivate the right habits perhaps we’ll never need them. May we be so blessed in this New Year.
Shanah Tovah

Inspired by and largely derived from D’var Torah by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom, Los Angeles, before the Chicago Board of Rabbis, August 22, 2012.

Nothing But the Truth

24 Oct
Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was a busy news week with many reports of tragedies, including horrific terror attacks both in Jerusalem and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. I’ll come back to these incidents shortly. A news story that gave me pause, though, was the report I heard on the car radio Wednesday morning that Ben Bradlee died at the age of 93. The former Executive Editor of the Washington Post was an American hero who championed the First Amendment’s call for freedom of the press. He spoke truth to power when he made his historic decision to publish the Pentagon papers that exposed the abuses of the Johnson Administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He then entrusted two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to pursue the report of a suspicious burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Their reporting exposed the corruption of the Nixon White House and contributed to Nixon’s ultimate resignation.

In reading various obituaries of Bradlee this week, I was struck by a tribute to him by Bob Woodward who remembered the words that as a young reporter he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

As important as freedom of the press and accountability of leaders were to Ben Bradlee, of utmost importance to Bradlee was the truth. The story had to be right before it could go to press.

At this point, I could pivot to the Torah reading and draw a nice analogy between our Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and the legacy of Ben Bradlee. The Torah reading notes Va-tishahet haaretz lifnei Ha-Elohim, va-timale haaretz hamas. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11; Hamas here is not related etymologically to the terrorist organization by the same name).  Through a close reading, the Sages wonder why the verse must add the phrase “before God.” Isn’t that obvious? Rather, the Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as “lawlessness” (hamas) to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them (JT BM 4:2). This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy (from Etz Hayim, p. 41). When the truth was ignored, society crumbled. Noah, though he had his faults, was uncorrupted by the pervasive lies around him, and God saved him. In modern times, Ben Bradlee stood for the truth and reminded our nation that our government’s credibility must rest on the foundation of truth.

That could be a decent enough D’var Torah, and we could call it a day and wish each other Shabbat Shalom. However, that same Wednesday, we learned of a terrible terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a crowded train stop killing a precious three-month-old baby girl, Chasya Zissel Braun, z”l . Her parents had struggled for years to conceive, and they had just returned from taking their daughter to the Kotel for the first time. In addition to the death of this baby, several others were injured, and police on the scene quickly shot and killed the driver.

The Associated Press reported this crime with the following headline: Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem. They added the following summary: “Israeli police say they shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack.”

The Internet soon lit up with criticism of the Associated Press biased, out-of-context headline. The AP responded by “correcting” the headline, which they changed to “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” That darn automobile just had anti-Semitism flowing through its engine, spark plugs and wiper fluid! Finally, after even more widespread outrage on social media, they changed the headline to “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.” Benji Lovitt, a blogger on the Times of Israel, lampooned the AP with a number of hypothetical headlines such as: “Noah Abducts Entire Animal Kingdom” or “John Lennon Drives Fan to Crime” or “Abraham Lincoln Interrupts Play.” This is dark humor at its best.

The good news is that the AP responded to criticism and wrote a more accurate headline that reflected the actual tragedy that occurred. Nevertheless, the original headline highlighted an inherent bias in the press that tends to view Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as victims.

Unfortunately, the same day this attack occurred in Jerusalem, there was also a terrorist attack at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, reminding us that the cancerous scourge of terror can and does reach our shores. The press had no problems reporting this story. The New York Times headline read: “Gunman Panics Ottawa, Killing Soldier in Spree at Capital.” There was no hiding behind passive language or the government’s just actions in defending its citizens and government leaders.

In response to the murder of the baby girl in Israel and the Associated Press’s initial coverage, another blogger on The Times of Israel, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, wrote a chilling but poetic reflection. She asks us to imagine the joy of the Braun family over their newborn daughter and her first trip to the Kotel. Then she is killed before their eyes.
“Can you imagine their horror? The screams and then the silence…
“A baby girl is dead.
“Her family is shattered.
“Meanwhile, international media reports that “Israeli police shot an E. Jerusalem man.” (AP may have changed the headline, but the url exists forever and ever.)
“I kind of hate the world right now.
“Let’s all light a candle. It’s really dark here.”

In Parashat Noach, pervasive lying and lawlessness brought darkness to the universe. Only Noah and his family lit a candle of truth, and God saved them. Similarly, in our own time, the darkness of falsehood is spreading. When the world tolerates terror against the Jews and ignores the truth that militant Islam stands for death and destruction of Western civilization, it will continue to metastasize around the world. We’ve seen terror in America on 9/11, and now, unfortunately it has come to Canada as well. The Western free press is the first line of defense against anti-democratic trends around the world, and the credibility of journalism rests on getting it right.

Maybe the Associated Press’s response to criticism is a sign of hope. A large number of critics mustered a bit of Ben Bradlee and said to the AP: “You don’t have it yet, kid.” When we hold a mirror to the press and remind it what it stands for, we’ll not only help them get it right, we may even save lives. May God grant us the strength to bring truth and light into the world.

#TieBlog #Noah’sArk

24 Oct

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

As we turn to Parashat Noah, we are faced with the perplexing challenge posed by the first verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” Why does the text say “in his generation”? The rabbis of old had a debate. Some say that if Noah could stand out in his age when surrounded by depravity, all the more so in other ages when he would have other decent people around him. Other rabbis aren’t so sure. He was certainly better than the people around him, but he would have paled in comparison to an Abraham or Moses who intervened before God on behalf of people condemned to die. Noah never says anything. He builds his ark and goes on his way. Check out this clip from Bill Cosby’s famous “Noah” routine. Which opinion of the midrash does he favor?

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Returning to Jaffa Road

15 Oct

Kelly book

Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, who died February 25, 1996

Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, who died February 25, 1996

The last time I saw my friend Matt Eisenfeld was bright and early on Thursday morning, February 22, 1996. We were studying in Jerusalem for our rabbinical school year in Israel. I had finished my morning davening, eaten a light breakfast, and packed my backpack, ready to spend the day at the Hebrew University library to do some research as part of my rabbinical school studies. A little after 8:00, Matt came over. He was having problems with his computer and asked me earlier that week if he could come over to use my computer to type a paper for a class we had taken together on the Song of Songs at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. While we were technically on a mid-winter vacation from classes, most students in our class were bogged down with final papers from the previous semester and were using the recess to work on them. Matt was particularly zealous in finishing his work from the first semester because he and his girlfriend, Sara Duker, were planning a long-awaited trip to Jordan, and he did not want too much work hanging over him at that time. Earlier that week I ran into Sara on the street. An environmentalist ahead of her time, she was on her way to a demonstration protesting the construction of a new national highway that threatened damage to vital ecosystems in Israel’s land. That’s my last memory of Sara.  When Matt came over, he shared with me and my roommate a bag of fresh croissants which he had picked up at a bakery on his way to our apartment. For a few minutes, we schmoozed and caught each other up on the details of our personal lives. He then started working, and I left for the library. When I returned home, he had already gone for the day. Three days later he and Sara were gone forever, and I never saw them again.

For several weeks, Matt and Sara had been talking about traveling to Jordan. The day finally came, February 25, 1996. At around dawn, they boarded a Number 18 bus, one of Jerusalem’s busiest lines. They were on their way to the Central Bus Station where they were going to catch a bus to Petra, Jordan. They never made it there. At approximately 6:45 AM, as the bus was winding its way down Jaffa Road near the Central Bus Station, a Hamas terrorist detonated a bomb that killed 26 people and wounded 49. Matt and Sarah were among the dead.

Later that day, a Schechter Institute professor called with the news of Matt and Sara. I can’t even begin to describe the shock and devastation I felt at that moment or for weeks and months thereafter.

Their loss was not only devastating for their family and friends. It was a loss for the Jewish people and for humanity. Both were tremendously inspired and inspiring Jews who were passionate about their Jewish observance and had magnetic yet humble personalities. Matt was a graduate of Yale University, destined for a brilliant career in the rabbinate. Sara graduated Barnard College and was pursuing a career as a research biologist.

Matt and Sara were idealists who put words and lofty goals into action. Sara’s quote in her high school yearbook is: “Keep both feet firmly planted in the clouds.” This speaks volumes about both her personality as well as Matt’s. They befriended a homeless woman in Morningside Heights and taught her to knit kippot, which she could sell to JTS students. They put their ideals into action.

Matt and Sara’s story is now beautifully told in the new book The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, by Mike Kelly. The author is a renowned author and columnist for the Bergen Record in Northern New Jersey. Sara was from Teaneck, and Kelly covered the story of Sara and Matt’s death from the beginning. Several years later, he covered 9/11 and wrote extensively on its impact in the aftermath. This led him on a personal mission to learn more about terrorism emanating from Islamic fundamentalism. He travelled around the Middle East, and he ultimately returned to the story of Matt and Sara because it encapsulates the toll of terrorism on the families of its victims.

The suicide bus bombing on February 25, 1996, that claimed the lives of Matt and Sara represented a turning point in Israel’s history.  The Oslo accords, signed on the White House Lawn less than three years earlier, raised much hope in the region and around the world that peace was imminent. In the aftermath of Oslo, Jordan and Israel normalized relations, and Israelis began traveling to Jordan, as Matt and Sara planned to do. There was a feeling of great optimism in the air.

Much had already happened post-Oslo to raise concerns about its viability, including the Baruch Goldstein massacre of Palestinians in Hebron on Purim in 1994 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by Yigal Amir. These two attacks were carried out by Jewish extremists. As Kelly reports, Israeli law enforcement officials in the mid-1990s were more focused on cracking down on Jewish extremists. They assumed that the Palestinian Authority would crack down on Hamas and other extremists in their camp. One of the most sickening revelations from Kelly’s reporting is that Yasser Arafat, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, knew in advance of Hamas’s diabolical plan for February 25, and urged a Norwegian diplomat to stay out of Jerusalem that day.

Over the ensuing months and years, the February 25 bus bombing yielded other developments of global consequence. It factored into Shimon Peres’s loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in elections three months later. It undermined the Oslo process. Most significantly, the Israeli investigation established that Hamas terror was financed by Iran and that the mastermind of this bus bombing trained in Iran.

Matt and Sara’s parents, Len and Vicki Eisenfeld and Arline Duker, wanted justice. They grew close to Stephen Flatow, a New Jersey lawyer, who lost his daughter Alisa in a suicide bus bombing in Israel in 1995. Kelly reports on a confluence of diplomatic and political events that led to these families suing the Republic of Iran in US Federal District Court in order to seize frozen Iranian assets in the United States. Recently adopted Federal law allowed for such lawsuits against nations, such as Iran, that the State Department considered state sponsors of terror. The families were among the first to test this law in court (I personally testified in the Eisenfeld-Duker case in Washington in May, 2000). The Court held Iran liable and awarded significant damages to the families. The next hurdle was collecting the money.

Even though President Clinton signed into law the legislation allowing families of terror victims to sue state sponsors of terrorism, the Clinton Administration resisted release of Iranian assets. They were concerned that such release would dash any chance of an eventual diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. Kelly describes the intricate maneuvering among all three branches of our government as the families sought justice. Eventually, a compromise with the administration was reached and the families received some compensation, though a fraction of the original judgment.

I lived through and observed this saga up close and have always been inspired by the strength and courage of Len and Vicki Eisenfeld and Arline Duker. Mike Kelly brought this saga together in one narrative, with all of its complex twists and turns, and my admiration for the families has deepened. They fought back against Iran not for their own sake but because they wanted to do whatever they could to prevent other parents from losing children to terror. Through their efforts, all three branches of the US government put Iran on notice that their sponsorship of terror is intolerable.  Despite the horrific tragedy that they endured, the Eisenfeld and Duker families affirmed life.

Our observance of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, in its essence, is about affirming life in the midst of an uncertain, unpredictable and often violent world.  All of the rituals associated with Sukkot and Simchat Torah affirm our mortality. On Sukkot we dwell in temporary booths, fragile structures that are exposed to the elements. On Shemini Atzeret, we pray that God will bless us with rain so that we don’t starve. Furthermore, we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers in memory of our loved ones who have passed away. On Simchat Torah, the day we rejoice over the gift of the Torah, we read about the death of Moses. Mortality is very much on our minds, but we affirm life.

The statement zman simchateinu (the season of our joy) is a life affirming declaration, even when we confront death. We know horrible things happen in the world both through natural disasters and the evil and suffering with which human beings afflict one another. The message of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret is “Despite it all…” Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will seek to strengthen the quality of our lives. Rabbi Neil Gillman notes the ambivalence of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, from which the message is “Despite it all…” Despite all of the pain and suffering in the world, we will seek to strengthen the quality of our lives. In our precarious and fragile world, loyalty, trust, commitment and love are the things that give us strength. The Eisenfeld and Duker families embody all these qualities.

I think about Matt and Sara every day, but especially when we say Yizkor. I’ve been personally blessed that I have not lost any of my close relatives for whom I would traditionally say Yizkor. When we say Yizkor, I refer to the passage in the prayer book for remembering martyrs, and I remember Matt and Sara, how they lived life to the fullest and how it was taken from them too soon:

“May God remember the souls of our brethren, martyrs of our people, who gave their lives for the sanctification of God’s name. In their memory do I pledge charity. May their bravery, their dedication, and their purity be reflected in our lives. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life. And may they rest forever in dignity and peace. Amen.” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, Rabbinical Assembly, 1998, p. 195).

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