Tag Archives: Yizkor

We matter: Confessing our goodness makes a difference

11 Oct
Positive confessions

Positive confessions

 

Most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day. But is it? It is true that the season confronts us with life’s fragility. In fact, three experiences recently have reminded me how fragile life is.

The first was Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, for us, there was no significant damage in our area. However, north of us and south of us, especially Haiti, communities suffered significant damage, humbling reminders of the randomness of nature and our fragility. Waiting out the hurricane was like living in a state of limbo. The TV stations had 24/7 coverage of the pending storm and doomsday warnings about the worst possible effects.  For two days, I was tuning in for constant updates. Is the storm staying out to sea or is it turning west towards land? I couldn’t do a thing about it except get my house ready and pray. The lack of control caused me great anxiety.

Second, on the heals of the hurricane coverage, our nation’s political climate reminded me of life’s fragility. I’m not discussing politics or the Presidential race itself. I must express how sad I was Sunday evening leading up to the debate. Many parents wrote on Facebook that they could not allow their children to watch the debate because of concern there would be inappropriate material for children, given the video controversy that erupted over the weekend. At least one middle school in our community sent out an email on Sunday advising parents that the social studies faculty no longer recommended students watch the debate when they had previously been assigned to watch it for school.  During a presidential campaign the debates should be the ultimate civics lesson for our children to see democracy in action. Where have we gone wrong as a society if we must shield our children from the most important civics lesson in the free world? Given all of the negative influences in society, the responsibility that parents have to teach important values to our children is sometimes daunting and another reminder of life’s fragility.

The third reason that  I’m reminded of fragility is a New York Times article  published last Sunday in which I had the honor to be quoted. Sam Freedman in his column “On Religion” commemorated a sermon by the late Rabbi Kenneth Berger at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa on Yom Kippur, 1986, 30 years ago today. I have cited this sermon in the past, and in his reporting Freedman was inquiring what drew me and other rabbis over the years to Rabbi Berger’s message. Rabbi Berger asked his congregation, “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?”

The premise of Rabbi Berger’s question was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”

 

Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Out of 296 passengers, 111 were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those final moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.

My interview with Sam Freedman returned me to Rabbi Berger’s powerful message. It has withstood the test of time for three reasons: Rabbi Berger used a vivd story that everyone could relate to, the Challenger disaster; he drew from that a compelling message of living a life that matters; and, finally, Rabbi Berger’s own tragic death turned his sermon into a prophecy and gave his words added kedushah, holiness. For these reasons, “Five Minutes to Live” is a classic, and its message has a poignant urgency for me this year. The Rabbi Berger story on one level is a tragic story of life’s fragility. However, Rabbi Berger’s message is also one of hope and renewal that relates to the deeper meaning of Yom Kippur.

In fact, while many of the symbols and rituals of Yom Kippur remind us of our fragility and mortality, Yom Kippur is really in its essence a joyous day. Yes, we gather for Yizkor to remember our departed loved ones. However, as we remember our departed we affirm life. Yom Kippur as a whole is a day that affirms and celebrates life.

The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way:

Said Rabbi Abahu: The way of the word is that when one comes to be judged, one wears black clothes.  This is not the case concerning the People of Israel. The Book of Life and Death are before us, who will live and who will die. And yet, we wear white, we wrap ourselves in white garments, and we believe that the Holy One will act kindly towards us. (Rosh Hashanah 1:3)

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook adds another element regarding the act of confession:

A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds. (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10)

For Rav Kook, reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self-confidence, which is critical to our belief in our ability to do and accomplish for ourselves for the Jewish people and for the world.

Inspired by this approach, I’d like to introduce a prayer  composed by  Rabbi Avi Weiss  that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This new vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.

אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ  יֹפִי

We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.

הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ

We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,

חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת

We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,

יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ

We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,

נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ

We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,

פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ

We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,

רִחַמְנוּ, שָקַדְנוּ

We have been merciful, we have given full effort,

תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ we have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.

I am not discounting the traditional Ashamnu. We will continue to say it today. At the same time, Ahavnu is a welcome supplement that is true to the spirit of today.  When we feel good about our accomplishments both as individuals and within our community, we may feel extra motivation to do more good. We will be inspired to make the next five minutes of our lives count.

Perhaps everyone should consider reflecting upon his or her good attributes by writing out a personal Ahavnu in English or Hebrew alphabetical order. It would also be good to do the same relative to the Jewish community, our country and the State of Israel. With all of our challenges, there is so much to be proud of.

Last week, when a hurricane approached we got our homes ready, we stayed home with our families and ahavnu, we loved one another just by being there together. I pray that our affirmation of our love inspire us to bring more love into the new year.

When recent news reports revealed the dishonorable speech of public figures, many of us instinctively thought how best we could teach our children honor and respect of others. Kibadnu—we honored and respected. I pray that our sense of kavod inspire us to infuse our lives this year with intense kavod habriyot, honor of all human beings.

When we are confronted with life’s mortality and the figurative sense that we may just have five minutes to live, we instinctively bless those close to us. Beirachnu—we have blessed. I pray that our instinct to bless those dear to us in times of turmoil, inspire us to bless our dear ones frequently and to bring greater berachah, blessing, into our world.

As we remember the lives of our departed loved ones and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Through our combined efforts, may God grant us the strength to bring love, honor and blessing into our world.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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Tapping into “Adam II” on Shemini Atzeret

4 Oct
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next several days the various Nobel Prizes will be announced, so I thought it would be worthwhile to refresh our memories of the origins of the Prize. Alfred Nobel made his vast fortune after he invented dynamite. Initially, it was used to build railroads, but it wasn’t long before it was used for military purposes. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. In one of the most infamous journalistic errors, newspapers carried the obituary of Alfred with the headline: “The merchant of death is dead.” The story described Nobel as a man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Alfred Nobel was stunned to read this account of his legacy and set aside most of his estate to create the five Nobel Prizes that highlight peaceful advancements for humanity.

Alfred Nobel’s revelation relates closely to the theme of a recent book The Road to Character, by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He opens the book: “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”

Brooks is inspired by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in which he contrasts two opposing sides of human nature that he derives from the first two chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, we meet humanity on the move, assisting God in the creation of the world. Rav Soloveitchik called this Adam I. In modern terminology, Brooks renames Adam I is  “Résumé Adam,” the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature that seeks to build, create, produce and discover things.” In contrast, there is Adam II, derived from the character by that name whom we meet in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. Adam II is internally focused. Adam II seeks a serene, inner character, a sense of integrity in the face of life’s moral dramas. Adam II will never admit it, but he (or she) cultivates the positive attributes that will appear in his or her eulogy or obituary. We, the descendants of Adam, live in the contradiction between the outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam.

Brooks argues that our current generation’s ethos is more heavily weighted to Adam I. In this mindset, “[i]nput leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest….Impress the world.” Adam II lives by a different mindset, a moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.” Brooks adds: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”

Brooks laments that our society today has lost touch with Adam II to a large extent. Prior generations spent more time cultivating character and eulogy virtues, while our generation is heavily tilted towards résumé virtues.

Like Soloveitchik, Brooks advocates a balanced approach to the duality of human nature, and laments that we as a society have lost our way.  “The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied with the struggle to achieve.” (p.259) Using Google, Brooks discovered that the language of economics in books and publications has increased, but words having to do with morality and character have declined.  Words like conscience, virtue, bravery, gratitude, and kindness are all down over 50% over the course of the 20th century.  We are losing the language to talk about values, and we can’t nurture Adam II without it.

Brooks calls those who confront their imperfections “moral realists.”  They are aware of their flaws and strive to improve.  This is in accord with Jewish wisdom that teaches:

איזהו גיבור?  השמח בחלקו “Who is a hero?  The one who conquers his weakness.” (Avot 4:1)  Indeed our heroes such as Moses, David, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Esther, and other biblical characters had to cope with their insecurities and ultimately overcome them, making them our role models.  Jewish Heroism lies in the work of Adam II.

Our gathering today on Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to reflect on the Adam II side of our character. Shemini Atzeret is prone to get lost in the shuffle of the fall holidays. Our holiday today follows the high drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the pageantry of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, the revelry of Simhat Torah is postponed until tonight and tomorrow.  Sh’mini Atzeret seems more like a way station than a destination.

The midrash explains Shemini Atzeret as an opportunity to look inward. It’s a call to tap into our Adam II. Commenting on the designation of this holiday as “atzeret” the rabbis understood it in the sense of stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.’”

The midrash is both simple and profound. We spend all of the High Holidays and Sukkot reaching out to God, asking for forgiveness, for redemption, for life itself. We want to carry on with our lives of building and creating. Along comes Shemini Atzeret to remind us that God seeks an intimate relationship with us. This text complements another midrash that explains the sacrifices over the seven days of Sukkot as honoring the seventy nations of the world. In contrast, on Shemini Atzeret, the sacrifice honors the special relationship between God and Israel. For seven days we’re hobnobbing with the other nations, each showing off to God their greatness. Today, we confront God directly, and in so doing we confront ourselves.

Sh’mini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. If the other holidays this month up until today have been Adam I, outward focused days, today is about Adam II. It is inward-focused.

Tomorrow, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara—God creates. So too, Humanity creates. That is Adam I, and it is a necessary part of life. However, tomorrow’s reading ends with Shabbat. God ceases creation. Shabbat redirects attention from the outside to within. The verses describing Shabbat are the prelude to Adam II, the inner-focused aspect of humanity.  We need Adam II to ground our actions in the moral character that we hope will burnish our legacy. When we tap into our Adam II, we create a more intimate relationship with God that molds us into the kind of people we ought to be.

Perhaps it is the image of divine-human intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other’s company. When they died, we realized that their résumé virtues did not matter so much. What mattered most were their eulogy virtues—their kindness; their character; their integrity. On Shemini Atzeret, we remember our loved ones for these essential qualities, and we miss them terribly as a result.

May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to nurture our character so that we may bring God’s presence into the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Fears, Goals and Trade-offs: The Makings of a Meaningful Conversation

22 Sep

 

Author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande's prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

Best-selling author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande’s prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

There’s a story about a man who hoped for his whole life to be in the movies. Years went by, but he never had his chance. Finally, a film crew came to town, and they were looking for extras to appear in a Civil War picture. The director gave him one line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The man was so excited to land a speaking part, and for days he would practice his line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The big day came for the shoot. On his way to the set, the man says to himself over and over, “Hearken unto the cannons! Hearken unto the cannons!” He puts on a Union Army costume practicing his line, “Hearken unto the cannons!” Then, they finally start shooting the scene, and there’s a gigantic blast of a cannon, and the man shouts, “What the hell was that!”

As we go through life, we are not always prepared for the roars of the cannon, momentous changes that alter the course of our lives.  For example, any one of us or our loved ones may seem perfectly healthy one day, then receive a serious diagnosis of illness the next.

During this season, we create a communal cannon blast, as it were. It’s sort of a fire drill to prepare us for the real cannon blasts that shake up our lives. We gather in large numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and put on a display of pageantry through our services to remind us of God’s grandeur. This pageantry is designed to create a framework in which we can do the real work to bring God’s presence into our lives by bringing healing to our relationships and our world. That work is called Teshuvah (return). If we do this work well, we will be better equipped to deal with the unexpected cannon blasts that shake up our lives.

Teshuvah is not easy. Teshuvah  requires thought. Teshuvah requires intentionality. Teshuvah requires action.

For ten days we have sung in synagogue the plaintive melody of Avinu Malkeinu. We cry out to God as a parent, Abba, someone who is close to us; we also call to God the Melekh,the distant ruler of the universe.   At the end of that prayer we say aseh imanu tzedakah vacheseddo with us acts of tzedakah—righteousness— and loving kindness. We say to God: “this is what we are doing. We are inviting you—even imploring you—to join us on the way. If you join us, then You, God, will have no choice but lhoshiainu, to redeem us.

We all have times when our faith is challenged. We see loved ones suffer from illness. We see people around the world suffering from natural disasters and man-made disasters, such as war and terror. We ourselves suffer from illness and hardship.

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), taught that there will come a time in everyone’s life when we lose faith in God. Too many things may have happened to us. We have too much knowledge of bad things that happen to good people. “At that moment,” the Rebbe says, “go take care of someone who is sick. Go visit someone who is lonely. Go do an act of tzedakah, of hesed. You will feel God in your hands and your faith will be restored.”

As we prepare to say the Yizkor service, I’d like to suggest specific actions we can do and words to say to a dear one with serious, perhaps life-threatening, illness. My hope is that when we take such action those who are suffering in some way, particularly those near and dear to us, feel cared for and valued as human beings.  Through simple action and words, we have the potential to strengthen the relationships that matter to us most. Through the bonds of those relationships, we will feel God’s presence.

The action that I propose is derived from Dr. Atul Gawande  and his remarkable book Being Mortal. Dr. Gawande is an accomplished surgeon at Women’s and Brigham Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a columnist for the New Yorker. In his book, he notes that the medical profession has developed great technology for treating disease and keeping people alive. At the same time, he writes, “Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

Gawande notes that for much of the last century there have been two kinds of doctors. One could be described as “paternalistic,” an all-knowing priest-like figure whose advice a patient does not question. Another form of doctor is “informative.” This doctor will give you the facts of your disease and then offer different choices of treatment. The course of treatment is up to the patient, the doctor is just providing information. Gawande, however, advocates for a different model: the “interpretive” doctor-patient relationship.  Here the doctor’s role is to help patients determine what they want in the big picture. Interpretive doctors ask, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” Then, in response to the patient, they provide appropriate guidance for treatment based on the patient’s priorities.

Gawande shares lessons not only from his own career and how he has grown in his practice of interpretive medicine but also from his personal experience of the medical system. He describes his father’s battle with a rare form of tumor in his spinal column that threatened to make him quadriplegic and kill him. Gawande’s father and mother are both doctors who immigrated from India.  Their entire family speaks the language of science and modern medicine. The father, therefore, was able to ask very sophisticated questions about his own condition and potential treatments. Gawande contrasts two neurosurgeons whom his father visited for consultations. Both agreed that the tumor could not be removed; it could only be decompressed. In both cases, the neurosurgeons described the benefits and risks of surgery. Their styles, though, differed greatly when it came to answering the father’s questions.

Gawande writes that one neurosurgeon wanted to operate immediately and was annoyed by his father’s many questions. “He was fine answering the first couple,” he writes. “But after that he grew exasperated. He had the air of the renowned professor he was—authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do.”

Gawande continues: “Look, he said to my father, the tumor was dangerous. He, the neurosurgeon, had a lot of experience treating such tumors. Indeed, no one had more. The decision for my father was whether he wanted to do something about his tumor. If he did, the neurosurgeon was willing to help. If he didn’t, that was his choice.” The elder Dr. Gawande made a choice—not to use this surgeon.

Gawande reports that the next surgeon also exuded confidence. “But he recognized,” Gawande writes, “that my father’s questions came from fear. So he took the time to answer them, even the annoying ones. Along the way, he probed my father, too.” This surgeon reflected that the father was more worried about the harm the operation might cause than the tumor itself.

Gawande continues, “My father said he was right. My father didn’t want to risk losing his ability to practice surgery for the sake of treatment of uncertain benefit. The surgeon said that he might feel the same way himself in my father’s shoes.” The neurosurgeon spoke to his patient as a fellow human being rather than a diseased specimen to be treated, and he won the trust of the author’s father.

As Gawande tells the story of his father along with the maturation process of his own surgical practice, he highlights three questions that doctors should ask patients, particularly when confronting terminal illness. He calls this a “hard conversation” and that doctors need to muster the compassion, courage and skill to engage in these conversations. The questions are:

  1. What are your biggest fears and concerns?
  2. What are your most important goals?
  3. What trade-offs are you willing to make or not? For example, Gawande describes one patient before agreeing to a risky operation who asked if after the surgery he would still be able to watch football and eat ice cream.

Of course, for any of us who are caring for loved ones with serious illness, this is a template for the hard conversations we all should have. In times of illness, each of us should sit with our loved ones, hold their hand and be fully present. We then should ask: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make in the face of this battle? When we have such a conversation, we reaffirm the humanity of our dear ones. We fulfill the words of Avinu Malkeinu and literally bring God in our midst to be with us as we perform an act of hesed, loving kindness.

Returning to Gawande’s story, these three questions played a significant role in his father’s treatment and final years of life.  The senior Dr. Gawande was an accomplished and respected surgeon in his own right who enjoyed his practice. His greatest fear, it turns out, was not death but quadriplegia. His goals were to practice medicine as long as he could and continue other community activities that he enjoyed. In terms of trade-offs, if surgery were to save his life but leave him paralyzed, he would forego surgery.

The father delayed surgery and continued in his medical practice for a time and in a respected community leadership position. He monitored his symptoms, such as tingling in his hands. He established a red line with the neurosurgeon as to when he would have to have surgery. Some two-and-a-half years passed with the father living a fairly normal life until pain and numbness had advanced. He retired from medicine and eventually opted for surgery. The tumor was decompressed and he was able to maintain mobility, at least for a while.

Some time after his father’s surgery, Gawande was invited to give the commencement address at a university near his parents’ home. His father’s health had declined, and he was confined to a wheelchair. The tumor had indeed taken its toll. For a while, Gawande feared his father might not survive long enough to hear his speech. When it became apparent he would, the planning turned to logistics. Originally, his father would sit in a wheel chair on the floor of the basketball arena housing the ceremony. But when the day came, the father was adamant that he would walk and not sit in a wheelchair on the floor.

“I helped him to stand,” Gawande writes. “He took my arm. And he began walking. I’d not seen him make it farther than across a living room in half a year. But walking slowly, his feet shuffling, he went the length of a basketball floor and then up a flight of twenty concrete steps to join the families in the stands. I was almost overcome just witnessing it. Here is what a different kind of care—a different kind of medicine—makes possible, I thought to myself. Here is what having a hard conversation can do.”

A “hard conversation” is actually quite simple when we break it down to its component parts. We ask three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make, or not? Our challenge is to  discover within ourselves the courage, compassion and love to make these conversations possible. And then we must listen. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed. According to our prayer when we perform loving kindness God will be imanu, with us, right by our side.

As we prepare to remember departed loved ones in Yizkor, my hope is that we will tap into the best of their values for which we remember them. As they were there for us, let us be present for our dear ones who need us today. We may not know when cannons will fire that will shock us into our mortality. We can at least be better prepared for when they do. Let us have the courage to have hard conversations with our loved ones about our fears, our goals and the aspects of life we most cherish.

Avinu Malkeinu, give us the strength to be fully present for our dear ones who turn to us for purpose and hope. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed—we’re not going to sit by silently. We’re going to take action and have conversations of lasting importance. We invite You, God, to be with us when we perform this act of hesed. In our work together with You, God, we pray vhoshieinu, that you will save us through the power of Your presence in our sacred relationships.

Amen.

Shavuot, Memorial Day and my personal link to V-E Day

22 May
My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

My grandfather, Sam Lesner, during World War II.

This year, America’s observance of Memorial Day coincides with the second day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot when we say Yizkor, the memorial prayers in memory of our departed loved ones. We think of them now as on other holidays since they are not physically present to enjoy the festival with us. This year’s convergence of Memorial Day with Yizkor is striking as it comes on the heels of the 70th anniversary of V-E Day when the Allies secured the unconditional surrender of the Nazis. We recall the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the line of service to our country and the Allies in the effort to restore order and justice to the world. We also always have on our minds the six million Jewish martyrs who were slaughtered in the Shoah. Just as we must never forget their death, we also must never forget the brave soldiers who liberated the remnant of European Jewry.

In recent weeks, since the anniversary of V-E Day, I have been reflecting on my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, who served as an Army medic in the European theater, particularly in France and Belgium. He was in the Battle of the Bulge and bore witness to the ravages of war. During his entire period in the service from his first day of boot camp to the day he returned home, he and my Grandma Esther, of blessed memory, wrote letters to each other every day. These letters were preserved, and over the last few years my mother Roberta Bernstein and her sister, my aunt Judy Holstein, have transcribed, edited and organized these letters. I’d like to share a few selections from my grandfather from the last weeks of the War and his reflections on V-E Day as it happened.

14 March 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

For several days now truck-loads of liberated victims of the Nazi monsters have been speeding down the highway. I can’t describe just what happens to one as these trucks whirl by and the scarred, dirty, weary faces break into spasms of joy and tears as they shout greetings to us. It hurts inside of you.

May 4, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

Today the mail brought me your letter of April 15, a sensitive, poignant expression of your feelings and the nation’s at-large over the death of the President [Roosevelt, on April 12]. Our great loss, however, has become our great gain, our salvation, for the events which are following the complete destruction of Nazism, which should be cause for a Roman holiday — these events, because of our great loss, are being viewed seriously, quietly, as they should be.

Far better that we are bowing our heads in prayerful thanksgiving instead of making a mockery of the death cries of our brothers. There has been no attempt here to start a “celebration” of the great victories which are being announced hourly. Just a few minutes ago we heard the news of the millions of “mighty” supermen surrendering unconditionally. Perhaps the weekend will bring the last and final chapter to their horror. I don’t think anyone will feel very gay. Our feelings about this are so deep and so intermingled with the loneliness that pursues us at all times that we are more likely to utter a profound “thank God” and let it go at that.

V-E DAY 7 May, 1945 Somewhere in Belgium

My Darling:

It was about 5 PM today when we heard the official news. We were at chow. There was absolutely no demonstration because every man of us at that instant thought only of home. What are our wives doing? What are our folks doing? What are our sweethearts and friends doing? There was some handshaking and then we returned to the barracks and sat on each other’s’ bunks. “Gee, I wonder how our families feel?” It was repeated over and over and none of us had an answer. But I know what you are feeling, my beloved. Because I am suddenly frightfully lonely, I will follow the crowd tonight. We will simply move in a crowd toward the town and the thing will gain momentum as we go along. I don’t know what I’ll do or what I’ll say. I know, though, that I must move and with each step I’ll hear the beat of my heart. It keeps saying, Esther, Esther, the worst of this is over. My Darling, there is hope now, a real, joyous hope. I must go now, beloved. The day is glorious. Last night I smelled the fertile earth for the first time, and I remarked on it to Max. It was a strange sensation, suddenly being so aware of the fruitful earth. “This is spring at last,” I said, little realizing the morrow would be truly spring again for the world. This day then, May 7, 1945, is the beginning. While much of the world’s war-weary bow their heads, we raise ours high and say “thank God” for His safe guidance and protection. Tomorrow, my Darling, perhaps I can tell you just how it feels. For tonight and every night, my love, undivided, and my thanks for the child you gave me.

May 23, 1945 Ciney, Belgium

Yesterday, I witnessed a sight that filled my eyes and my heart with tears. For some days now, prisoners of war and political prisoners have been returning to their Belgian homes. The small, shabby Ciney is ludicrously decorated with the “palm of welcome” which are small uprooted trees, stuck in the cobblestones in front of the returning man’s
home. Max and I, walking to town, drifted toward the railroad station where a crowd had gathered. We knew then that a trainload of victims was due. Children, their arms loaded with makeshift bouquets of field flowers, dashed about excitedly. Finally, the train pulled in and stopped. The few who were returning to Ciney jumped off as many others stood in the doorways of the long train of boxcars. There was a rush as fathers
grabbed up their kids, crushing them and their flowers. I shall never forget one little girl who was too young to know such emotion, clinging to her “hero” Daddy as he held her high in his arms. That child was sobbing with the suddenly released emotion that was far too mature for a child. Will men remember those moments of reunion with their children and direct their lives toward a world of peace? Or will they forget again and start fighting each other with the hatred and savagery of wild beasts? Even in this small community, already the seeds of future wars and disturbances are being planted. It is a bitter thing to watch. May God grant them the wisdom to settle their differences without violence. So, until tomorrow, my love, Daddy

My Grandfather’s eloquent words speak for themselves and need no augmentation or interpretation 70 years later. I’ll just add that our festival of Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when the people of Israel collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a community bound together by shared obligation. Our Torah was not only God’s gift to Israel, but a gift to the world as a blueprint for justice and human decency. V-E Day symbolized a moment of hope that the global community would stamp out hatred and enter a new era of understanding and cooperation. In 70 years, our world has grossly fallen short of that vision, as my grandfather eerily predicted in post-War Belgium exactly 70 years ago. And yet, we must never forget the heroism of the American GIs who left behind their families and the security of home to fight and defeat the ruthless enemies of that era who enacted unthinkable death and destruction.

As we recall our loved ones during the Yizkor service, let us salute those who have served our country and are still with us to bear witness to their trials. Let us also recall with special deference those who are no longer with us who served our country and defended our freedom. Some of them died in the line of duty, and some were blessed to return and rebuild their lives and families. We honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they bravely defended. May the memory of our all of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country with the values for which it stands and to pave the way for everlasting peace.

A relationship worksheet for Yom Kippur

1 Oct
This Yom Kippur, reflect on relationships that are important to you. Complete each sentence and share them in person with people important to you.

This Yom Kippur, reflect on relationships that are important to you. Complete each sentence and share them in person with people important to you.

Shavuot, Yizkor and D-Day

3 Jun
D-Day, June 6, 1944

D-Day, June 6, 1944

We gather today for Shavuot and Yizkor to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us to celebrate the festival with us. This year, we have added reason to focus today on remembering our departed. June 6, 1944, exactly 70 years ago tomorrow, was D-Day, the day on which the Allies made their momentous assault on Nazi-occupied France. It happens that June 5 was the initial date set for D-Day, but it was not actually executed until the 6th. So, from one perspective, today is the anniversary.

Words are inadequate to describe the epic scope of this decisive battle that foreshadowed the end of Hitler’s diabolical dreams of world domination. Operation Overlord, the official name of what is commonly known as D-Day, was the largest air, land, and sea operation undertaken before or since June 6, 1944. The landing included over 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and over 150,000 service men.

After years of meticulous planning and seemingly endless training, for the Allied Forces, it all came down to this: The boat ramp goes down, then jump, swim, run, and crawl to the cliffs. Many of the first young men (most not yet 20 years old) entered the surf carrying eighty pounds of equipment. They faced over 200 yards of beach before reaching the first natural feature offering any protection. Blanketed by Nazi fire power, they found themselves in hell. One local D-Day veteran, Sol Kaslow, was quoted in the Palm Beach Post saying, “I was struck by the smell. It was the dead bodies, and the ammunition had a certain odor. And that stayed in my mind.”

When it was over, the Allied Forces had suffered nearly 10,000 casualties; more than 4,000 were dead. Yet somehow, due to planning and preparation, and due to the valor, loyalty, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces, Fortress Europe had been breached (from: http://www.dday.org/history/d-day-the-invasion/overview). From that day forward, the Allies methodically pushed the Nazis out of France, back into Germany. Eleven months later, the Nazis were finally defeated. Seventy years after D-Day, this singular moment in history stands out for the courage of the thousands of men who sacrificed so that the world would be freer.

The confluence of Shavuot and D-Day this year is a chance to reflect on the values represented by both Judaism and America. Judaism promotes a strong sense of communal obligation, calling upon us to reach beyond our own self-interest for the benefit of all. Certainly, the heroes of D-Day served in this spirit. The heroes of D-Day also represented the American ethos of freedom. They bravely faced the most maniacal enemy of freedom in history in order to preserve our freedom.

Jewish tradition champions freedom. In fact, on Shavuot, we celebrate the completion of the physical freedom achieved in the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to a new found spiritual freedom. Shavuot commemorates the receipt of the Torah – a pivotal moment when Jews collectively entered a covenant that transformed us into a people – a community bound together by shared obligation and commitment to freedom. Shavuot adds another important element for our contemplation: hesed, lovingkindness. The Torah provides us with our essential toolkit for bringing hesed into the world. In case we missed the point, the book of Ruth that we read on Shavuot emphasizes the centrality of sharing lovingkindness with others.

A strong case can be made that Jewish values and American values are very different. Judaism emphasizes obligations and communal loyalty, while American society emphasizes individualism and personal autonomy. This valid distinction occasionally produces tension, but that’s for another day. Today we acknowledge and celebrate how Judaism and American values share much in common and complement each other where they don’t.

Many Jewish Americans feel the bond between Judaism and American freedom intuitively. Alan van Capelle, Director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish public policy advocacy organization writes that Jews’ belief in the promise of America “is in our DNA – that it is something we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to – and that we don’t want to escape it because it enhances our lives, infusing them with meaning.” He adds that a strong sense of purpose, of being part of something greater and more important than ourselves, is the reason the Jewish community withstood thousands of years of adversity and continues to grow today.

For Jewish Americans, even if we don’t realize it, there is a direct link between our sense of covenant at Sinai and the numerous proud examples of tikkun olam, repair of the world, that American Jews have led the way in carrying out. At our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, many of us heard inspiring examples of Jewish Americans within our own community who have made a difference. Rabbi Sid Shanken shared his moving account of when he was a freedom rider fifty years ago in the summer of 1964. We also heard Linda Geller Schwartz of NCJW and learned of the outstanding work her organization is doing to combat human trafficking. Our ongoing efforts to emulate people like Rabbi Shanken and Linda Geller Schwartz honor the sacrifice our troops made on D-Day and the freedom for which they were fighting. Our efforts to repair the world also honor our commitment to Torah, our precious gift that we received on Shavuot.

We should never know from another D-Day, but the D-Day of 70 years ago reminds us of what our nation stands for and for which so many of our troops died. We can never fully repay the debt we owe to those who served our nation in World War II, but we must try. Our payment of that debt is to ensure that everyone can share in the social and economic opportunity of our nation and enjoy equal rights and liberties. Achieving the promise of America is what our troops fought for 70 years ago, and what we owe them today. The promise of America is the bridge between Shavuot – which reminds us of our obligation to build a society rooted in hesed, lovingkindness – and the anniversary of D-Day – which reminds us that Americans have been willing to die in this effort.

As we recall our loved ones during this yizkor service, we honor their memory for the Jewish values and the American values that they stood for. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to strengthen our country so that future generations may benefit the way past generations have benefitted from the American project. And may the memory of our departed bring us closer to the best of Jewish values that our loved ones represented so that we can impart a Jewish tradition of meaning for generations to come.