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Rosh Hashanah - 2011 / 5772

09/01/2011 09:33:02 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

I suspect that some number of who are gathered today are hoping that I will talk about Israel and the request for recognition by the Palestinian Authority at the UN last week.  And I suspect that there are some gathered here today who are hoping that, in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, I will talk about something more timeles .

The with answer is yes.

I do have a few thoughts about what took place at the UN last Friday, its  implications, and I do feel the need to share them, though this chapter is in many ways just beginning, and I will leave it to the pundits and bloggers to offer analysis. I will confine my remarks to the frame with which I, and perhaps you, might choose to approach understanding of what is happening.

And yes, it is Rosh Hashanah, and I feel compelled to share a few thoughts about how we might live in the year, and hopefully, the years ahead. I am mindful of the fact that by cutting the proverbial baby in half this way, I am as likely to disappoint  as I am to satisfy, so I will make a deal with you: Rabbi Perlman and I will, in the months ahead and throughout the year, address both the timely  and the timeless in our Shabbat sermons.  And in case you are wondering, as I like to remind everyone, your tickets are good all year round.  In fact, most weeks we do not even ask for them.

So let me introduce my thoughts about both the timely and timeless with an observation  which, I believe, illustrates some of the fundamental ways in which Judaism differs from Christianity, and so, from some of the core values embraced by the rest of the Western world, particularly some unarticulated ones.  I submit:  over the years, I have posed to various Christian colleagues the Talmudic conundrum of two people travelling in the desert, but only one has sufficient water to survive.  The story assumes that no more water can or will be found in sufficient time.  Do they share the water, knowing that they will both die?  Does the one who has the water sacrifice him or herself and give it to the other person, so the other one can live?  Or does the person who has the water drink it, even though it means the other person will die?  The question is not what would a person who, but what should a person do.  Should the person who has the water drink it, give it to the other person, or share it?  I have discussed this passage with dozens of Christian priests and ministers over the years, and every single one has responded that the person should either give the water to the other person or share it.

The Jewish answer, however, is that the person with the water should drink it.   Judaism teaches that one is not required or even allowed to give up his or her life in favor of another.  And it applies to the community as well: another Talmudic passage describes a scenario in which two cities share a water supply that originates with the community on the top of a hill.  The Talmud rules that the upstream community takes precedence if there is only enough water to provide drinking water to one community, because the water "belongs" to the upstream community.  The community is not obligated, or even allowed, to endanger itself in favor of the other community.

I sometimes wonder if, more than outright anti-Semitism, and perhaps as much as simple ignorance, it is that other worldview, one which validates and even celebrates placing oneself or one's community in harm' s way in favor of another individual or community that inspires so many in the Western world to continually judge Israel by standards to which no other nation on earth has ever been held, even as those who regularly denounce Israel have never experienced quite the same threat to their national existence.

Friends, let me state unequivocally that I am not an uncritical supporter of the Israeli government.  My love for Israel is unconditional, my support for Israel is unconditional, my dedication to Israel is unconditional, but my support for the current or for that matter any Israeli government has never been unconditional nor uncritical.  I have serious reservations about many of the policies that every Israeli government, including this one, has embraced.  The Palestinians have bona fide grievances, and any peace plan will have to address those grievances.  Land will have to be returned, extraordinary financial compensation will have to be made, and I cannot even hazard a guess as to how the question of Jerusalem will be resolved.  But in this latest episode, Mahmoud Abbas, on behalf of the Palestinian people, has effectively reiterated his rejection of Israel's very right to exist.  Israel has already  demonstrated , in Gaza, that it is ready to do its part.  Israel knows that  It cannot and will not be without pain and without more cost - and that is not only necessary, it is right.  But Israel needs a partner, and keeps waiting for one.  Jews have long referred to Israel as Eretz Hakodesh, the Holy Land.  But in order for Eretz Hakodesh , the holy land, to be admat kodesh, holy ground, those who walk upon it must be engaged in holy acts.  Israel makes certain that it is not only the holy land, but is holy ground, by its efforts to write, including making a just peace with the Palestinians.  In fact, Abbas referred to it as the Holy Land, mentioning that both Jesus and Mohammed walked there.  Unfortunately, there was not a single reference to any historical Jewish presence in the land of Israel, and his reference to 1948, the year of Israel's establishment, and not 1967, the year, which has been the focus of all previous negotiations, does not move the conversation forward.

I do actually believe that when all is said and done, this will have been one more bump, even if a sizable one, along the path to true peace.  I believe that in part because I believe that Israel is truly committed to making Eretz Hakodesh, the holy land, admat kodesh, holy ground, and will wait as long as is necessary for a true partner with whom to make peace.

My colleague, Rabbi Hillel Silverman, tells a story which has been republished many times, which captures not only the pain and suffering, but the hope, of both peoples.  I cannot say with certainty that is a true story, but it has been published enough times, and by reputable publishers, but I am comfortable sharing it:

When the Old and New Cities of Jerusalem were reunited in 1967, a recently widowed Arab woman, who had been living in Old Jerusalem since 1948, wanted to see once more the house in which she formerly lived. Now that the city was one, she searched for and found her old home.

She knocked on the door of the apartment, and a Jewish widow came to the door and greeted her. The Arab woman explained that she had lived there until 1948 and wanted to look around. She was invited in and offered coffee. The Arab woman said, "When I lived here, I hid some valuables. If they are still here, I will share them with you half and half."

The Jewish woman refused. "If they belonged to you and are still here, they are yours."

After much discussion back and forth, they entered the bathroom, loosened the floor planks and found a hoard of gold coins. The Jewish woman said, "I shall ask the government to let you keep them." She did, and permission was granted.

The two widows visited each other again and again, and one day the Arab woman told her: "You know, in the 1948 fighting here, my husband and I were so frightened that we ran away to escape. We grabbed our belongings, took the children, and each fled separately. We had a 3-month-old son. I thought my husband had taken him, and he thought I had. Imagine our grief when we were reunited in Old Jerusalem to find that neither of us had taken the child."

The Jewish woman turned pale and asked the exact date. The Arab woman named the date and the hour, and the Jewish widow told her: "My husband was one of the Israeli troops that entered Jerusalem. He came into this house and found a baby on the floor. He asked if he could keep the house and the baby, too. Permission was granted."

At that moment, a 20-year-old Israeli soldier in uniform walked into the room, and the Jewish woman broke down in tears. "This is your son," she cried.

This is one of those incredible tales we hear. And the aftermath? The two women liked each other so much that the Jewish widow asked the Arab mother: "Look, we are both widows living alone. Our children are grown up. This house has brought you luck. You have found your son, or our son. Why don't we live together?"

And they did.

Again, I cannot say with certainty that this story is true, but I do know that as sweet and as wonderful as the ending is, that story is anything but neat and tidy, just as any ultimate peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be anything but neat and tidy.  It is, however, filled with hope, embodied by human beings who chose to live with hope, who chose to move forward in life, as we commit to doing this day. 

But friends, the question of what we have to do for others, what we have to give ourselves, is not limited to nations, nor just extraordinary moments.  Everywhere we walk can become admat kodesh, can become holy ground.

So let me share a larger story with you that I believe will provide some of the reminder of what we can all do in the year ahead.   It also happens to be a true story.  But let me warn you in advance: while much of it is, not all of what I am about to share is softness and light.  And I want to ask you to keep the story we just read from the Torah, the story of the Akedah,  the binding of Isaac, in the back of your mind as I share it.

Perhaps you heard of Jay Feinberg .  He was 22 years old In 1991, a recent college graduate with plans to attend law school, when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was told he had about three-and-a-half years to live. Maybe less.

The only thing that could help would be a bone marrow transplant, requiring a compatible donor, the chances of which were very small.  Ethno -geographic and genetic  similarities are critical for such a transplant.  When he was diagnosed, the compatibility rate for Ashkenazi Jews such as Jay was about 5%.  His family and friends went into action mode, raising money and setting up drives to find a donor for Jay, which would invariably identify other potential donors, as well.  Over the next four years, almost 60,000 people were tested.  The results were astonishingly successful, finding donors for more than 100 others, but not for Jay.  He lived beyond the 3 1/2 years that he was originally given, but time was running out.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a young man whose friend's life had been saved by a transplant from one of those donors identified in the many drives held in Jay's name insisted they were on doing one more drive in Milwaukee, at which about 125 people were tested.  As they were packing up, literally, as their packing up, a friend who had come along to help, but had not been tested, came forward.  At the time, the test required a blood draw - nowadays, it is done with a swab of the cheek - and she was afraid of needles.  She decided that she wanted to do it, that she would overcome her fear, and so they unpacked the supplies, and tested her.

Her name is Becky Faibisoff.  She was the last person of almost 60,000 to be tested for compatibility with Jay Feinberg.

The test results came in. 

She was, by far, the best candidate to donate bone marrow for Jay.

16 years later, the organization once known as Friends of Jay Feinberg is now known as The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.  It is run by Jay Feinberg, who is and has been for the last 16 years, cancer free.

Listen to what Becky Faibisoff  said: "I never thought it would be me, not in 1,000,000 years.  It's  weird, though.  I realized that I was vital to someone else's existence.  My life mattered so much to someone I had never met.  I realized how important we all are, through this."

Whether we know it or not, everyone of us is vital to someone else's existence, often someone we do not even know.

A few minutes ago, I asked you to keep the story of the Akedah in mind.  Imagine Isaac, bound on the altar, realizing that his life is about to end… Until an angel appears, unexpectedly and unimaginably, seemingly out of nowhere, at the very last moment.

I wonder: when Jay hears this story, can he relate to Isaac, praying for a last-second miracle that would save his life?   I wonder: does Becky realize that she is the angel that we read about in that story?  I wonder…… Do we all realize that we, too, with are angels in waiting?

 Thanks almost entirely to Jay Feinberg's tireless efforts, the number of matches found for Ashkenazi Jews has skyrocketed since the days he was first diagnosed.  Back then, as I mentioned, there was about a 5% chance of finding a donor; today, there is about a 70% chance.  That is still not high enough.

There are at least two members of our congregation who have needed and/or received bone marrow transplants.  Many of us who are here today knew and loved Mike Dohan, who was a precious, deeply active member of this congregation for decades.  Mike needed and had a transplant, and though things looked good for many months, Mike did not make it.  His legacy lives on, though he is still missed terribly by so many in this community, most of all, his beloved Mimi, who is here today, as well as his children and grandchildren.  Yehi zichrono livracha -- may his memory continue to be an abiding blessing.

Evie Goldfine,  another precious member of our congregation, also needed and received a transplant.  Her donor was identified from a drive at the Maimonides school in Brookline, run on behalf of a beloved teacher.   613 people participated in that drive - that is right, 613 - the same number as there are commandments.  Sadly, that woman, too, had a transplant which was ultimately unsuccessful.  Before she died, though, she said that if one person was ultimately saved because of that bone drive, her life would be worthwhile.

Someone was.  And she is here today. 

Evie, would you please stand up?

Evie is here, has lived to see her daughter get married, to witness the birth of her three grandchildren, and now, to be an active part of their lives.

There happen to be at least two people in our congregation who got the call to fulfill the role of Angel in just this way: I want to ask Lisa Greene and Stephen Kaye  to stand in their places.  Steve and Lisa are both bone marrow donors.  Steve made his donation about eight years ago, to a man his age, with two children the same age as his own.  He confirms that every time he looks at his own children, he can know that there are two more that have their father in this world because of him.  The recipient of Lisa's donation is of a different  generation: she was nine years old 15 years ago when she received her donation, and is now a dynamic, active, 24-year-old woman living in New York City with her whole life in front of her.  She and Lisa remain close to this day.

There is no other day of the year that we have more souls in this building than on Yom Kippur,  and in the spirit of that day, we are going to invite those souls who are eligible to do so and wish to do so to do as I did, to be tested as potential bone marrow donors.  Temple Israel in Boston will be running a drive that day, as well.  The process is simple, and takes just a few minutes.  Before we leave today, I will share more details about logistics.  Statistically, a donor is identified for every 1000 tests taken.  We may or may not identify one or more potential donors for current needs through our drive.  We may well register one or more who are not needed now, but will be called upon at a future time.  But even if we will have done nothing more as a community than creating awareness and just trying, we will have done a lot.

Not everyone can be a bone marrow donor, but there are, of course, many ways to help including, if you choose, supporting the Gift of Life registry, for which Jay Feinberg works full-time without a salary.  You know the other ways.  They are not so extraordinary.  Visiting and caring for the sick.  Feeding the hungry.  Sheltering the homeless.  Comforting the bereaved.  Smiling at a stranger.  Letting someone in ahead of you on the highway or on one of our local streets  - I know, that is a tough one.  You know what the rest of them are.  If you need a refresher, made a home, look at Leviticus, chapter 19, or come back on Yom Kippur afternoon, when we read it together.

Whenever I give a tour of our synagogue to a church group, I always explain that unlike some religious traditions, there is nothing inherently sacred about our building.  What makes it holy is what goes on here, and what that inspires us to do when we leave here.  In that sense, every place we strive to do those things, no matter how small that make the world better, that make someone's life better, every place we act that way becomes holy ground. 

It would be nice if we could all be angels in dramatic fashion during the coming year.  But really, just remembering that everywhere we walk can be holy ground is enough……

In the words of the poet (Craig Taubman):

Everything every one every place every way

Where you walk where you stand

Where you love where you praise

All of life is holy ground.”


Ken Yehi Ratzon -- may it be so, oh God


And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say, Amen

(Cantor sings song, Holy Ground)

Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782