Monthly Archives: April 2013

A Bar Mitzvah Present to cherish: 45 years later

When I arrived at the synagogue this morning, there was a letter waiting for me. The envelope indicated that it was “personal” for me. As I have received several letters from friends and colleagues in recognition of tonight’s celebration in honor of my 25th year as Rabbi of Beth Israel, I opened it expecting to read a letter similar to the others.

However, this letter was different.

The writer of the letter identified himself as the son of friends of my parents from Boston. I definitely recognized his name and remember the family. He wrote in the letter that his father had recently passed away and that, in the process of going through papers for his estate, he found a savings bond made out to me. He assumed it was meant to be a Bar Mitzvah gift and he wanted me to send it to me. He kindly wrote that after 45 years it probably is worth more than face value.

When I opened up the accompanying gift envelope, yellowed with age, bearing the words: “A gift for you…A Share in Freedom” in a late 1960’s style font, I found a $25 US Savings Bond dated the day before my Bar Mitzvah made out in my name “or Gertrude Dobrusin”.

My first reaction was to laugh and to marvel at the coincidence of a $25 bond arriving on the day of my 25th anniversary celebration and, in fact, 6 days before the 45th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. For the fun of it, I went to the US Savings Bond Website and found that it is now worth some $135 , quite a Bar Mitzvah present for one whose younger child celebrated her Bat Mitzvah more than 5 years ago.

I started to write something about this on my Facebook page. I wanted to write how the celebration of a bar mitzvah continues for many years, how sometimes good things happen to us long after they were intended and how kind it was for this man to take the time to look me up and find me after all of these years.

But, as I was writing, it hit me. Even though all of that is true, there is much more to this story.

Over the past few years, I have begun to believe much more deeply in the afterlife and especially because of one experience coinciding with another milestone in my life, to believe that those with whom we were closest in life do in fact send us signs that they are still with us. So, as I sat in my office a few hours before this wonderful event celebrating a milestone my parents would have been so proud of, I can not simply believe that this letter was a coincidence.

Before we went to sleep last night, remembering the incident before that other milestone event, I said to Ellen: “I wonder if there will be some kind of sign tomorrow to show my parents are celebrating this event with me.”

Now I know the answer to that question. And the evening will be even more of a celebration.

 

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A Favorite Thought To Consider

In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote a piece about one of my favorite subjects: the consideration of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. I have always been fascinated by this subject and, in fact, three of my favorite movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Contact all are based on this idea.

Douthat brought the subject up in connection with the news this week that scientists had discovered two planets which they feel are “promising candidates” to contain water and thus, perhaps, some form of life. As he points out, these were not the first of such planets to be identified but they have risen to the top of the list of prospective locations for life based on some criteria that I do not completely understand but am willing to accept without argument.

The columnist raised the issue to encourage us to expand our horizons and to look beyond the tragedies of the past week. Truly, one of the ways that human beings have endured difficult times or continued to have faith despite acts of unspeakable evil is to look to the heavens and realize that we are part of something bigger, allowing ourselves to imagine and to dream. We can not allow such speculation and search to divert our attention from the work we need to do to advance the causes of goodness and to seek justice and peace in our world. But, such visions of exploration and or imagination can inspire us to better things.

I was particularly interested in one specific point that Douthat raised. Writing about the theological implications of discovering life elsewhere, he alluded to the negative view: that even considering life existed elsewhere would be to doubt the uniqueness of human beings created in the “image of God” and would in some way diminish our unique standing in the eyes of our Creator.

But, he also considered the supportive view. A believer in God might hope to find life elsewhere because the idea “that the cosmos might be as empty as it is vast raises troubling questions about what, exactly, its Designer had in mind”.

This is an intriguing thought and one which was captured in very simple language in the movie Contact. “if it is just us…seems like an awful waste of space.”

I am drawn to that idea. I have no theological qualms about believing that could be “others” out there. It is  difficult to imagine why God would create such a massive universe and have only one intelligent being populating one infinitesimally small corner of one galaxy. It is somewhat arrogant to think that God would choose to share his “image” with only one creation.

While I do believe that such life exists and that we should continue the search for another form of intelligent life in the universe,  the thought that we could communicate or even just relate in any way is, in many ways, a fantasy and I say this despite how much I love those movies I referred to above. But, it is an important fantasy because it derives from  the loneliness we feel as human beings alone in the vast universe.

As our scientists search for that intelligent life, we, as human beings, God’s creations on this earth, should search for another way to feel we are not alone- and that is by seeking God’s presence in our life.

It would be a terrible waste of space if we are the only “intelligent” being created by God. But, maybe that space is not empty after all. To believe in a God whose presence fills the vastness of the universe helps us realize that we are not alone in this universe. Whatever is happening on some other planet in some other galaxy is a fascinating question to consider and to research. Maybe, we’ll discover intelligent beings out there some day and, despite my doubts, be able to communicate with them. But, one way or the other, it is also worth considering with great seriousness and equal or greater dedication the search for a relationship with our Creator who might or might not have created other intelligent beings as well.

That is most certainly not a waste of time.

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To Love A City

The tragic, uncivilized act of terror which took place in Boston on Monday has left us all shocked, saddened and angry. And,  it should leave us determined to continue to live life as we want to live it in this country in defiance of those who wish to undermine our hope, our freedom, our optimism for the future. We grieve for those who have been killed, reach out in compassion and comfort to their families and to all of those who have been wounded. And, we are once again filled with awe and appreciation for those who have bravely and tirelessly done all that they can do to protect and to heal. May we learn from the courage and compassion shown in the last 48 hours.

So much has been written and spoken over the two days about the attack and I have found myself listening less and less to the endless news stories and reading the paper more quickly than I usually do. As the hours have gone by, one thought keeps coming to my mind and it is that thought that I want to write about. It is not about violence, terror and pain or even about the uplifting actions of the brave law enforcement and medical personnel. It is about love: the love of a city, the love of this city.

I don’t question for a moment that any city can inspire love and dedication among those who were born there or lived there. Hopefully, all of us feel a strong, inspiring connection with the place of our birth or the place we call home. But, I also believe that there are some cities which inspire a greater sense of connection: a pride, a uniqueness, a more intense sense of belonging. And, Boston is one of those cities.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never lived there, you might pick up some of that sense by listening to the incessant ramblings of Red Sox fans or picking up on the elitist academics who talk about the intellectual environment of the city. But, if you have lived there, and even more importantly, if you were born there, you know that it goes much deeper than that. To be a Bostonian means to believe without apology that you were truly privileged to call such a place home.

So, over the last couple of days, I’ve asked myself why we feel this way.

It is not because the city is perfect. While I was growing up, we saw more than our share of racism and bigotry in this “Athens of America”. There is poverty such as you would find in any city. On a lighter note, the accent can be maddening and the drivers can cause you to want to leave town immediately (but you wouldn’t be able to find your way since the roads are impossible to follow). Still, there is no place like Boston.

Maybe it’s the mixture of history and contemporary life. The “Freedom Trail” which features revolutionary war era graveyards and buildings winds its way through the middle of the main shopping district. Maybe it’s the beautiful views like the one from Storrow Drive coming out of town when you come out of a “s” shaped curve and find yourself for a moment looking right down the Charles River. Maybe it’s the many institutions which are the “oldest” this and the “first” that that are all over the city from the world’s oldest subway to the nation’s oldest public school (yay Boston Latin!) to the oldest ballpark still being used in the Major Leagues. Maybe it’s the way everything has to be just a little different than the rest of the civilized world- candlepin bowling, milk shakes made without ice cream to name just two. Maybe it’s because one of the greatest attractions in the city is taking a ride on the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens, the most “low tech” and least exciting ride you will take in the 21st century but one you will never forget.

Why do I love this city so deeply?

Maybe it is all of these things.

Maybe it’s one I haven’t mentioned.

But, maybe it just is because it is home.

That’s the most important reason of all.

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Patriots Day

I  wrote this posting before the tragic, horrendous events which took place at the Boston Marathon today. My thoughts and prayers go to the families of those who were killed and to all who were injured and to their families.The day of the Boston Marathon is a holiday in Boston and throughout Massachusetts and a day full of activity and celebration. What a terrible tragedy.

 

 

I know that today, April 15, is “tax day” But, in Massachusetts, today, the 3rd Monday in April is Patriots Day, celebrated as the anniversary of the battles of Concord and Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Patriots Day is marked by two major events in the Boston area, the running of the Boston Marathon and the annual Patriots Day Red Sox game at Fenway Park which begins each year at 11 a.m. The reason for the early starting time is that back several decades ago, there was a doubleheader played on this day and the idea was that people would leave Fenway Park after the first game, walk a couple of blocks to Kenmore Square, watch the lead runners in the Marathon as they approached the finish line and then go back to the 2nd game. But everything changes over time. The marathon times keep getting faster and baseball games take longer. So no one can get out to see the marathon runners (unless the game is a rout). And yet, the 11 a.m. starting time stays. Such is the value of tradition.

When you grow up in Boston, you have to at least have a passing interest in American History and I have found that my interest in the subject has grown over the last years especially as a result of a hobby I picked up. I have always been interested in the Presidents and decided I would try to read a book about each of the Presidents and learn a lot of history in the process. I’m actually making good progress through my list although I have a long way to go.

I loved David McCullough’s biographies  John Adams and Harry Truman and found Robert Caro’s volume on LBJ’s presidency: The Passage of Power to be fascinating. I’ve read books about the alleged fraudulent election of Rutherford Hayes, the attempts to hide the illness of Grover Cleveland, the assassination of William McKinley and others. It’s been a great project and I’m glad I took it on.

But, one of the reasons why I wanted to do this is because I am fascinated by some of those men who have held the office of President who are less well known to try to understand more about these somewhat “footnote” characters in our history.

It was with this in mind that I recently read a short biography of Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st president, written by Zachary Karabell. Arthur was the surprise “compromise” choice for vice President to run with James Garfield, one of the most unexpected of all Presidential nominees in the election of 1880. The Garfield/Arthur ticket won and Arthur became President when Garfield was assassinated. He is perhaps best known for the comment made about him by one of his allies from New York who upon hearing that Arthur had become president said: “Chet Arthur, President of the United States? Good God.”

But, in his biography, Karabell presents a sympathetic and appreciative portrait of this man who never wanted to be President, was derided by friends and rivals alike, faced severe issues of loneliness and depression in the White House and battled an illness that grew worse as his presidency went along. The author notes that Arthur made significant decisions on which legislation to support and which to veto and was able to rise above the issues of party loyalty to conduct an honest administration.

I was particularly moved by the final sentences of the book. Karabell writes; “For those who want presidents to be heroes, and, failing that, villains, for those who expect them to be larger than life figures, Arthur’s tenure in office isn’t satisfying…And yet, in spite of what Shakespeare wrote, some men are neither born great, nor achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them. Some people just do the best they can in a difficult situation, and sometimes that turns out just fine.”

Think about that quotation. While we honor the heroes of our history as Americans, we also recognize that many many people have played their part in the story of our great nation who are not as well known. Arthur, at least, is “on a list” and his name will not be forgotten. But, there are so many others who are not on any list but who have done the best they can in a difficult situation and they deserve our praise and respect. That final quotation in Karabell’s book has stuck with me since I read it and I think will stay with me for a long time.

Happy Patriots Day!

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