Shimon Peres – Pursuer of Peace

We think about Shimon Peres as he recovers from his stroke. He is a model of being true to one’s convictions: “In spite of our differences, we can build peace, not just negotiate peace.”

Jewish tradition is full of contradictions.

On the one hand, we are instructed to “be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace.” (Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – 1:12).

Yet, at the same time, we see in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (literally, “When you go out”) a call to violence and war. “When you go out against your enemies, and the Eternal your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive.” (Deuteronomy 21:10).

How can we, as a people, be both “seekers of peace” and called to “violence and war” simultaneously?

Our Jewish tradition understands that one must always strive for peace, one must always actively pursue peace, but at the same time, unfortunately, bloodshed and war are a human condition which must be mitigated against. Evil must be eradicated, and at times, war cannot be avoided.

In recent Jewish and Israeli history, one person who seems to understand this dichotomy best is Shimon Peres, life-long Israeli statesman and “pursuer of peace.” I think of Shimon Peres now, not just because of the message of this weeks Torah portion, but because our thoughts are with him and his family after he suffered from a major stroke a few days ago.

He was born in Belarus in 1923 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 11. Peres was raised within the Labor-Zionist youth movement, embodying the deep belief that a Jewish State was key for the existence of the Jewish people.

And so, following Israel’s Independence in 1948, Peres was willing to fight for its very existence. First he became head of the Israeli Naval services and when he was 29 years old, he became the Director General of the Ministry of Defense. For Peres, war was a necessary evil. All of his family members who remained in Europe perished in the Holocaust.

Peres was so committed to the State of Israel that his entire professional life was one of service: he was first elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in 1959 and served continuously until 2007 (except for a very short break at one point). He served as Prime Minister of Israel twice, Interim Prime Minister and was elected as President of Israel in 2007, eventually retiring in 2014 – at the age of 91.shimon-peres

While Peres was willing to fight for Israel’s safety, security and right to exist, he also felt the moral imperative to actively pursue peace to the fullest extent possible.

He taught us by his word and deeds what it means to reach out to one’s enemies and make them your friends: he initiated dialogue and contact with Jordan’s King Hussein long before Israel and Jordan ever had diplomatic relations; he knew that it was crucial to work towards a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians – even when times seemed difficult.

Thus, he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for the work they did together, even though tensions still exist. His work for peace earned him many international awards and prizes.

I met President Peres a few times, during times of quiet and calm in Israel, during the days of strife and terror attacks. What impressed me most, was that this former military hero, never gave up hope that peace was possible. That two people’s living on one land in harmony could be a reality.

To that end, in 1996, he created the Peres Center of Peace. It is one of Israel’s leading organizations to promote peace building between Israel and its neighbors as well as between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. The Peres Center of Peace focuses on three core areas:

  • Medicine and Healthcare
  • Peace Education (through sports, the arts and technology)
  • Business and the Environment.

Peres said: “In spite of our differences, we can build peace, not just negotiate peace. We can create the proper environment , and not just become victims of the existing environment.”

You can read more about the good and important work they do here: The Peres Center for Peace.

Shimon Peres is a man who lived his life true to his convictions: willing to fight and engage in warfare when absolutely necessary, and even more willing to engage in the difficult pursuit of making peace, because this is more important than anything else.

We keep him and his family in our thoughts as he continues on his journey for healing and wholeness. His courage, conviction, strength and fortitude are models for us all.

 

 

“Got Kindness?!”

“As the sun makes the ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.” – Albert Schweitzer

Sometimes my local bagel shop reminds me of the bar from the TV show “Cheers”: the folks behind the counter know everyone’s name and what people like to order. They schmooze as you wait and catch up on your life.

Everyone chats with each other as we wait in line, whether or not we know one another. It’s a very friendly and welcoming place.

So the other day, as I was waiting for my order, I struck up a conversation with the person behind me and told him I liked his t-shirt.

Got KindnessHe explained he was a special-needs teacher at school and that it was “Got-Kindness T-Shirt Day”. It began about a year earlier as part of an anti-bullying campaign at his school. Since the inception of the campaign, every teacher and every student wears that shirt once/week. They use the t-shirts as an entry point to change behaviors and attitudes about how students and teachers treat each other. It is part of a larger over-all effort involving workshops, dialogue, discussion and so much more to show that “kindness counts.” The campaign has definitely changed the atmosphere at his school – and people ask him about his t-shirt whenever he wears it.

We are living in an era where people have forgotten how to be kind, where the art of civil discourse has been lost, where vitriol and venom spew out of people’s mouths constantly and where hatred and enmity seem to prevail.

When the would-be leaders of our nation are modeling behavior showcasing bullying and disrespect, exhibiting hostility and mistrust, name-calling and slandering others, what does this teach our children?

In a world where every week the news is filled with another incident of discrimination, terror, mass killings, hatred and war, what message comes across as we keep hearing more and more unkind words against one people or another?

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday evening (July 25, 2016), First Lady Michelle Obama stated: “When they go low, we go high.” She was referring to the fact that she and President Obama teach their daughters to take the high road when someone attacks their father and maliciously accuses him or slanders him or says horrible un-truths. Do not lash out. Do not stoop to their level. There’s another way to behave.

As humans, we each don’t need to have the same opinion. We don’t need to believe the same thing. It is perfectly fine to disagree. But we need to do so respectfully. I am entitled to my opinions, and you are entitled to yours – as long as neither of our opinions compromises anyone’s safety and well-being. We can respectfully agree to disagree.

We need to remember that each of us is made “b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.” And we need to treat each other as God’s special and beloved creation, with kindness, love and dignity.

As theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer once said: “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”

I think about these ideas every Friday evening as I read the words from our prayer book, our siddur, Mishkan T’filah which introduce the prayer Mi Chamocha:

In a world torn my violence and pain,
A world far from wholeness and peace,
give us the courage to say, Adonai:
There is one God in heaven and earth…
Let us continue to work for the day
when the nations will be one and at peace.
Mishkan T’filah (CCAR Press, 2007), p. 157

It is my hope, my prayer, my dream that the rhetoric of “violence and pain” will soon end. That people will come to understand so much more can be accomplished by living a life of compassion, a life of understanding, a life of dignity and a life of kindness.

ובִמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁIn a place where there are no human beings, strive to be human.Avot 2:5

Israel Day Parade (June 2016)

Every year, Jews of all denominations and political backgrounds gather together to express our support for Israel by marching in NYC at our Israel Day Parade. We stand stronger together!

Temple Isaiah joined with hundreds of other congregations and Jewish organizations to express our support for the State of Israel in New York City with the Israel Day Parade on June 5, 2016. Even though the weather was wet and rainy, it didn’t dampen our spirits or pride!

Temple Isaiah 2016 Mitzvah Day

Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” As a Jewish community, this is known as “tikkun olam” – repairing the world. Temple Isaiah’s Mitzvah Day is a living example of this concept.

Temple Isaiah, like many synagogues, hosts a congregation-wide Mitzvah Day in the spring. We have activities that take place both inside the Temple building and in the greater community. We engage congregants of all ages from pre-school to “age-of-wisdom” (even those in baby sitting do mitzvah activities).

At the end of the day, we gather together for a communal barbecue, sponsored by our Brotherhood and Sisterhood, to share stories from our day, celebrate as a community and join in friendship, food and fun!

(The photos below were taken by myself, post-Bar Mitzvah student, Cole Bhella; congregants David Lippe, Allison Lebit and a few others.)

Women of Valor – Celebrating the Women in Our Lives

We celebrate the special gifts of the women in our lives, who bring the sense of the sacred to our families, our synagogue, and our communities.

It’s always an honor to address the congregation on our Sisterhood Shabbat. (Sermon delivered on Friday, May 13th, 2016).

On Shabbat, it’s traditional for women to have a special blessing – Eshet Chayil – recited over them by those with whom they share their lives (traditionally, it was their husbands): So today, I offer a modern, liberal rendition of this blessing:

Eshet Chayil: A Woman of Valor

A mother of generations
a woman of valor,
she is precious in the gifts that she has given to our family.
Her children have found trust and truth in these gifts.
We follow in patterns that she taught.
She is robed in strength and dignity,
and she smiles at the future.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
We benefit and learn from her wisdom.
May she always be credited
for the fruit of her labor and her achievements.
May she live on in glory.אֵשֶׁת־חַיִלמִייִמְצָאוְרָחֹקמִפְּנִינִיםמִכְרָהּ׃
בָּטַחבָּהּלֵבבַּעְלָהּוְשָׁלָללֹאיֶחְסָר׃
גְּמָלַתְהוּטוֹבוְלֹא־רָעכֹּליְמֵיחַיֶּיה׃
דָּרְשָׁהצֶמֶרוּפִשְׁתִּיםוַתַּעַשׂבְּחֵפֶץכַּפֶּיהָ׃
הָיְתָהכָּאֳנִיּוֹתסוֹחֵרמִמֶּרְחָקתָּבִיאלַחְמָהּ׃
וַתָּקָםבְּעוֹדלַיְלָהוַתִּתֵּןטֶרֶףלְבֵיתָהּוְחֹקלְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ׃
זָמְמָהשָׂדֶהוַתִּקָּחֵהוּמִפְּרִיכַפֶּיהָנְטַע [נָטְעָה] כָּרֶם׃
חָגְרָהבְעוֹזמָתְנֶיהָוַתְּאַמֵּץזְרֹעוֹתֶיהָ׃
טָעֲמָהכִּי־טוֹבסַחְרָהּלֹא־יִכְבֶּהבַלַּיִל [בַ][לַּיְלָה] נֵרָהּ׃
יָדֶיהָשִׁלְּחָהבַכִּישׁוֹרוְכַפֶּיהָתָּמְכוּפָלֶךְ׃
כַּפָּהּפָּרְשָׂהלֶעָנִיוְיָדֶיהָשִׁלְּחָהלָאֶבְיוֹן׃
לֹא־תִירָאלְבֵיתָהּמִשָּׁלֶגכִּיכָל־בֵּיתָהּלָבֻשׁשָׁנִים׃
מַרְבַדִּיםעָשְׂתָה־לָּהּשֵׁשׁוְאַרְגָּמָןלְבוּשָׁהּ׃
נוֹדָעבַּשְּׁעָרִיםבַּעְלָהּבְּשִׁבְתּוֹעִם־זִקְנֵי־אָרֶץ׃
סָדִיןעָשְׂתָהוַתִּמְכֹּרוַחֲגוֹרנָתְנָהלַכְּנַעֲנִי׃
עֹז־וְהָדָרלְבוּשָׁהּוַתִּשְׂחַקלְיוֹםאַחֲרוֹן׃
פִּיהָפָּתְחָהבְחָכְמָהוְתוֹרַת־חֶסֶדעַל־לְשׁוֹנָהּ׃
צוֹפִיָּההֲלִיכוֹתבֵּיתָהּוְלֶחֶםעַצְלוּתלֹאתֹאכֵל׃
קָמוּבָנֶיהָוַיְאַשְּׁרוּהָבַּעְלָהּוַיְהַלְלָהּ׃
רַבּוֹתבָּנוֹתעָשׂוּחָיִלוְאַתְּעָלִיתעַל־כֻּלָּנָה׃
שֶׁקֶרהַחֵןוְהֶבֶלהַיֹּפִיאִשָּׁהיִרְאַת־יְהוָההִיאתִתְהַלָּל׃
תְּנוּ־לָהּמִפְּרִייָדֶיהָוִיהַלְלוּהָבַשְּׁעָרִיםמַעֲשֶׂיהָ׃
Proverbs 31: 10-31I think of these words every day when I look at the portrait of my late mother, Judith Rosenthal Sobel, z”l, that sits on my dresser. In the photo, my mother sits with a beautiful Shabbat tablecloth and challah cover she embroidered; with brass candlesticks from her grandmoMom with Candlesticksther from the “old country” (which she bequeathed to me). My mother imbued within me a strong sense of my Jewish identity, my Zionist ideals, my independent spirit and so much more. My mother did not have an easy life and yet – she was a survivor. And she found ways to always volunteer and give back to the communities in which she was involved on so many
different levels. She studied Torah and taught Torah. She planted groves and groves of trees in Israel. She bequeathed to me not just candlesticks and things – but my deep sense of spirituality. My mother tried to affirm the words of our parasha this week, “K’doshim t’hi’hu” – be holy – with every fiber of her being. She was a true “eshet chayil”.

I thought of these words this morning as I sat with a dear friend who shared with me that tonight is her mother’s yahrzeit. Her mother was also a true “Eshet Chayil” – a woman of valor. She was the kind of person who only saw the good in people and never complained about anything in life. She was a professional woman, at a time when most women did not work outside the home. This served her well, since her beloved husband died at a young age. Her strength, her resilience of spirit, her zest for living and her keen sense of humor enabled her only child and herself to keep moving forward with living, despite the gloom that death visited upon their home.

She was a role model for her child, her grandchildren, her friends and her community. And when she died in her sleep at the age of 97, everyone who knew her realized they had been blessed by the gift of her presence, the gift of knowing her and having her in their lives for all these many years. This “eshet chayil” has left a living legacy through those that came after her. Their actions and deeds are imbued with all the gifts that she taught and she lives on through them.

I thought of the words of Eshet Chayil as we were busy preparing for our busy weekend with our many activities and Mitzvah Day at Temple Isaiah this week. We are so blessed by the many special “women of valor” (and the men too) who make things happen here at Temple Isaiah. Penny Gentile, Morgan Shapiro, Irva Steinweis and Pam Shulder in the office. Iris Schiff, Shelley Fleit, Sheila Silberhartz and so many others who are working tirelessly to make Mitzvah Day and our day of Tikkun Olam happen.

They are taking the words of this week’s Torah portion to heart:

וַיְדַבֵּריְהוָהאֶל־מֹשֶׁהלֵּאמֹרדַּבֵּראֶל־כָּל־עֲדַתבְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵלוְאָמַרְתָּאֲלֵהֶםקְדֹשִׁיםתִּהְיוּכִּיקָדוֹשׁאֲנִייְהוָהאֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
And the Eternal spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire community of Israel and say: Be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy.
Leviticus 19:1The Torah portion outlines a series of laws detailing what it means to be holy: how to treat other people, how to behave in relationship to God, how to observe Shabbat and the festivals, how to care for those less fortunate. These laws tell us that holiness can be found in daily life, in our treatment of others, in our relationship with the divine.

When we come together on Mitzvah Day this Sunday, we are exemplifying that sense of holiness as a community by working together for common goals, by working together to repair the world, by working together to create community, by working together to build friendships. The key of course, is to remind ourselves that we must be holy each and every day. Our mitzvot don’t take place only on Mitzvah Day – but we need to do these mitzvot every day. Holiness is a way of life.

I think of these words of Eshet Chayil as we celebrate the wonderful women of our Temple Isaiah Sisterhood. In the past few weeks alone, Sisterhood has sponsored a Purim hamantashen baking workshop, led a meaningful Miriam’s seder, organized and hosted a rummage sale which provides clothing and goods for people in tremendous need, provided scholarships for our young people to attend our URJ Reform Movement Summer camps and Israel programs, is partnering with Brotherhood in hosting our Mitzvah Day BBQ and so much more. We know that we can count on the Women of Temple Isaiah Sisterhood to greatly enhance the life of our sacred community. Each and every one of you is an “eshet chayil” a woman of valor. Each and every one of you helps bring a level of k’dusha – holiness – to our congregation. We are so grateful for all Sisterhood does in our community.

On this Sisterhood Shabbat, this Shabbat Kedoshim, may we be inspired by each and everyone of these N’shei Chayil – Women of Valor, past and present.

Jewish women, and women who have chosen to link themselves to the Jewish people through friendship and love, from the women of valor extolled in the Bible, down to each and every one of you today, represents faith, strength, loyalty and love.

We are surrounded by others who share that faith and care as we care.

We know each other, not only by name, but by commitment.

We have experienced the strength we can impart to each other when our hearts are joined in spirit.

We know the impact we can have upon our community and society when our minds are of a single purpose.

We have seen the contribution we can make to our community when our hands are united.

We are adding to the voices of our Jewish history when we translate Jewish principles – and the principles of our Torah portion “be holy – k’doshim t’h’yu” into action and concern.

paraphrased from Covenant of the Heart: Prayers, Poems and Meditations from the Women of Reform Judaism, 1993, New York, page 77May we continue to be enriched and blessed by the gift of your presence, the deeds of your hands, the love of your hearts, the ideas of your minds, as we strive to strengthen our community of Valor, our K’hila K’dosha.Shabbat Shalom.

“Everyone Has a Name” – Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

On Yom Hashoah we keep those who perished in the Holocaust alive by giving meaning and significance to their names.

From the time I was 12 years old, I wore two, and then three different stainless steel bracelets on my wrist – for over 37 years: a Vietnam Prisoner of War bracelet for an American Soldier who went missing in action on June 18, 1968, a Soviet Jewry Prisoner of Conscience bracelet , and then later an AIDS bracelet. My arm would clang wherever I would go. People would ask me about the bracelets and it would provide an opportunity to educate and speak about the different causes. I have always been a social activist, and the bracelets on my arm were just one vehicle for educating about causes that were important to me.

People would say: “The US got out of Vietnam in 1972 – why don’t you take the bracelet off?” I would reply, “This is my way of remembering this person – Sgt. James Ravencraft – who was taken prisoner and then killed.” I have a pencil-rubbing of his name from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

I was able to meet one of the families who was on one of my Soviet “Prisoner of Conscience” bracelets. In fact, I helped make a connection between a young cancer patient at whose Bar Mitzvah I officiated while I was doing an Internship in Hospital Chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital. He was twinned with a young family I visited while I went to the Former Soviet Union in 1989. I facilitated the Bar Mitzvah “twinning” with these two families. What a powerful and moving moment! I was also able to assist with the Russian family’s relocation to Washington, DC.

I now keep these bracelets in a special box in my home as a remembrance. They symbolize something very important and special for me that is critical for us to consider as a community, especially as we approach Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day which began last evening.

For me, my bracelets symbolize not just my deep and abiding connection to social justice and social action. They also symbolize the importance of the power and importance of memory and the importance of the name.

As a people, our Jewish community places great emphasis on the power of the name. In fact we make lists and lists of names. The Torah records lists of names, we compile our own lists of names every Yom Kippur on Yizkor, we list names of donors and benefactors. Why do we find names so significant and powerful?

Perhaps these questions can be answered if we think of other long lists of names and their significance: on Yom Hashoah we reflect on all those who were killed in the Holocaust. In some communities, we read aloud the names of those family members from that particular community who perished during the Nazi regime.

List of names on a Holocaust Memorial
List of names on a Holocaust Memorial

Some might ask – why read all of those names? The name is so powerful because it survives. We don’t necessarily know the people whose names are listed in the long lists in the Torah, or on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, or on the walls of the many Holocaust memorials or any of the hundreds of places where other such lists exist. We don’t know these people but we do know their names. A name which gives them a place in history, a name which gives them an enduring legacy.

The events of the Holocaust are given meaning only by remembering the individuals who died during that time. We gather as a community, we remember the names of those who died and we affirm their lives by how we choose to lead our lives. So, names, indeed, are very powerful.

A midrash tells us about the significance of our names: “All people have 3 names,” the midrash says, “one which their parents give to them, one that others call them, and one which they acquire themselves. And the one they acquire themselves in most important of all.”

The name our parents give us is our special connection to the past, it takes an empty space and fills it with life, life that has been handed to us by those who came before. The name our parents give us tells us that we were not born into a vacuum, but are part of a rich chain of tradition.

So how do we honour those who came before us and those who perished during the Holocaust? By giving our names – and their names meaning through our actions and aspirations and the way we fulfill them. By the deeds we perform, by the way we live our lives and by our connection to God.

Everyone Has a Name: a Poem for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day

“Everyone has a name”

Poem by the Israeli poet Zelda
[translated from Hebrew]

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles.
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.
Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him
by his death.

 

Yizkor – Creating an Enduring Legacy

A gift of memorabilia leads to the greatest gift of all: the gift of family, memory and strong sibling bonds.

Yesterday, I was given a few things that belonged to my father when he was alive: some artwork that he and my mother collected during the years of their marriage (he and my mother had been divorced for over 35 years by the time they both died six years ago), a tallit one of my brothers had worn for his bar mitzvah 36 years ago, old baby photos, his college diploma from Boston University, miscellaneous Judaica, some silver-plate items that belonged to my grandmother, my bat mitzvah invitation that I designed myself, three copies of a Hadassah Yizkor Photocookbook my grandmother had spearheaded (many of the recipes inside belonged to her), tzchachtkes that my siblings and I gave him from our various trips around the world, laminated copies of his obituary, the pages of the memorial book from his funeral – with my mother’s signature (that was the last time we would see my mother alive, as she died 10 weeks following my father’s death).

None of the items are particularly valuable. But as I looked through them, they evoked memories: of my childhood, my parents, my grandmother and my siblings.

As I assessed these things, I realized that the items say a lot about what my father valued most in life: his family, his Jewish heritage, art, cooking, memory and having a sense of fun (there were some humorous items included).

I photographed everything so I could easily show them to my four brothers and my sister. I wanted them to be able to choose what they wanted to keep.

Later in the evening, we convened a Sobel-sibling conference call. The six of us each live in different parts of the country and don’t have an opportunity to see each other often. We stay in touch through email and individual phone calls. We get together when we are able (we had a fabulous family beach vacation this past summer!) but we don’t often speak all at the same time.

The items from my father were really only a pretext for connecting with each other. We briefly caught up on each other’s lives, we spoke about our nieces and nephews. We reminisced about our father, our mother and life in general.

The only thing that anyone really wanted out of everything I received yesterday, was my grandmother’s cookbook. We are a family of cooks. We all relish memories of my grandmother Florence’s gourmet cooking. She was a huge influence on all of us in so many different ways. She cooked for Shabbat and holidays. Her table was where we gathered as a family. The cookbook represents more than just food: it represents hospitality, family, heritage, love of Israel and so much more.

And it dawned on me – the timing of this gift of my father’s things is perfect: we are at the end of Passover and getting ready to observe Yizkor, our time of remembrance of our beloved dead.

My brothers, sister and I remembered and will always remember – nizkor. We laughed, we joked, we shared stories. We continue the legacy of our grandparents and our parents, who no longer walk this earth. And when we honor their memories with our actions and aspirations, by sharing of memories and deeds of love, we are creating for them an enduring legacy.

My parents would be kvelling (bursting with pride) to know that yesterday each of us feels we received a gift that can’t be put in a box, or hung on a wall: the gift of memory, the gift of family, the gift of love for our brothers and sisters – a bond unlike any other. We will continue our regular sibling conference calls. We’ll continue to stay in touch and keep the bond strong. And we will continue to remember in each of their names.

A Yizkor Poem

by Menachem Rosensaft

I used to be part of you
belong to you
the extension of your being
but now
you live within me
are the spark of my consciousness

I say Kaddish for you
with you
sing your melodies
speak your words
hearing your voice in mine
and my eyes
too green
have somehow started to reflect
the blue of yours

I used to be part of you
protected by your presence
by your light
but now
the time is mine
and alone

I must be more than myself:
your child
has become your heir
has become you. Mishkan Tefilah: A Reform Siddur (CCAR Press 2007), p. 581

Whose Life is it Anyway? The Jewish View of Physician Assisted Suicide

Passover is our holiday of liberation. Many people are shackled by the prison of their own bodies. What does Jewish law say about Physician Assisted Suicide?

One of the headlines in last Thursday’s New York Times read: “Justin Trudeau Seeks to Legalize Assisted Suicide in Canada.” The headline and article caught my immediate attention.

On initial reading, the article makes it appear as if the new, young, daring — and brash — Prime Minister of Canada is trying to push the limits of what constitutes “dying with dignity” or what constitutes a “good death” under difficult circumstances. It seems as if he’s trying to allow people to make certain choices for themselves concerning end-of-life decisions.
Trudeau is young; he’s handsome. He has been known to make bold statements. He represents that generation of 40-somethings and 50-somethings who are used to getting things when they want, how they want, on their own terms. Face it, our generation is a very individual-centric community where our own needs often come first. Why should death be any different?

So many NYTimes readers may not have realized that Thursday’s article was misleading. It was written as if it is Trudeau himself who is seeking to overturn the ruling in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (part of the Canadian Constitution) that deems Physician Assisted Death by Suicide unconstitutional. The NYTimes neglects to mention that Trudeau is only fulfilling a mandate of the Canadian Supreme Court (Carter v Canada) from last February 2015.

In February of 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal prohibition on physician assisted suicide, arguing that the old law violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In this rule, the Supreme Court:

  • gave decision makers until February 2016 (later extended to June 2016) to prepare for the decriminilization of physician assisted death by suicide;
  • established guidelines for determining who can access physician assisted death by suicide and how it can be safely administered;
  • highlighted that it be used only for ‘grievous and irremediable medical conditions with enduring suffering.’

Trudeau had no choice. The Supreme Court ruling required that guidelines be established within a certain time-frame. The New York Times did not have all of its facts. The article only referenced the Supreme Court ruling briefly at the end.

Why am I so interested in this discussion? I no longer live in Canada (although I am a dual American-Canadian citizen). The topic of “whose life is it anyway?” and the issues surrounding the topic of physician assisted suicide are part of a debate that is now taking place all around the globe. As of October 2015, euthanasia (withdrawing life support) is technically legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia and Luxembourg. (Although it is practiced in various forms in many other places). Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana and California. A distinction must be made: withdrawing life support is not the same legally as PAD (physician-assisted death-by-suicide). Someone on life support can request that life-support be removed. A person with cancer can stop chemotherapy or radiation. PAD necessitates a physician to do something physically to hasten death, to literally end someone’s life.

The topic of “a good death” first gained traction in the 1970s, when I was in high school. What took place in my hometown left a lasting impression on me that would affect my approach to bio-medical ethics as I pursued my professional goals. I grew up in Succasunna, New Jersey and went to Roxbury High School. It was a sleepy farm town about an hour and twenty minutes from New York City. The most exciting thing that ever happened was that sometimes, the cows and horses would escape from their farms. You’d wake up in the morning to find they had wandered down the road and were grazing in your front yard!

And then suddenly one day, we became front-page national headline news. On April 14, 1975, a young woman who graduated from my high school, Karen Ann Quinlan, attended a party and mixed sedatives and alcohol. She slipped into a coma from which she never emerged. It took five months for her physicians to proclaim that she was in a “persistent vegetative state.”

Her parents did not want her to suffer nor to endure any more physical hardship to her embattled body. They firmly believed that she would never return to a state of consciousness. So they requested that her physicians disconnect her from the life-support machines that kept her alive. When the physicians refused, her parents took the case to court. The “Karen Ann Quinlan Case” became the first “right to die” case in US legal history.

Eventually, the court ruled that “no compelling interest of the state could compel Karen to endure the unendurable” and allowed the life support to be removed. Ironically, Karen lived for 10 more years in a “persistent vegetative state” after she was weaned from the respirator. The remainder of her years were spent in a nursing home in New Jersey.

“The Karen Ann Quinlan Case” is now an important part of every bio-medical ethics book, religious and secular. It has become the historical benchmark for discussions on euthansia and physician-assisted suicide (PAD) world-wide.

This incident in my own backyard sparked my interest in medicine and bio-medical ethics. It compelled me to explore the intersection of Jewish law and bio-medical ethics, to study the intricacies and nuances of the issues — and to figure out how my Jewish values inform medical decisions we confront. It spurred me to pursue pastoral care and chaplaincy work throughout my rabbinate.

I feel compelled to delve into the questions concerning the definitions of “life” and “death.” Who decides those definitions and makes those determinations? Who has the right to make decisions when it comes to our own bodies?

Ethicists fall along a huge spectrum. Depending on how one defines “who gives life,” that will determine the answer of “who determines what constitutes death,” and the ability to make decisions regarding death. For now, we will focus on the religious perspective.

From a classic, traditional religious perspective, all life comes from God. Our bodies are gifts from God. God requires that we, and by extension our physicians, are required to do all that we can care for our bodies and to preserve and prolong our lives. Therefore, by extension, only God has the ability to determine when it is our time to die. We are not allowed to do anything to hasten our death.

The Torah strongly states that God will “require a reckoning” for those who “spill the blood” of humans. For example, we see in the story of Noah:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, For in the Eternal’s image, did God make him. (Genesis 9:6)

And the commandment to “not murder” is a priority as the Torah reiterates the 10 Commandments twice: (Ex 20:13 and Deut 5:17), as well as states this injunction against murder in numerous other places.

Taken at the most basic level, this means that we are not permitted to harm ourselves or others in any way physically (including committing suicide). Physician-assisted suicide would be akin to murder, from a Jewish perspective.

(For a lengthy and more complete discussion of the Jewish view on Suicide and Assisted Suicide, please refer to: “Assisted Suicide,” by Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, in YD 345.1997a, Jewish Committee on Law and Standards).

So what happens when the Supreme Court in the country in which you live issues the following ruling:

The prohibition on (i.e., AGAINST) physician-assisted dying infringes the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. The object of the prohibition is not, broadly, to preserve life whatever the circumstances, but more specifically to protect vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide at a time of weakness. Since a total ban on assisted suicide clearly helps achieve this object, individuals’ rights are not deprived arbitrarily. However, the prohibition catches people outside the class of protected persons. It follows that the limitation on their rights is in at least some cases not connected to the objective and that the prohibition is thus overbroad. It is unnecessary to decide whether the prohibition also violates the principle against gross disproportionality. (From Supreme Court Ruling, Carter v Canada)

This Supreme Court Ruling seems to be in direct contradiction to the traditional Jewish view on PAD!

(For the rest of this article, please click here: Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel writes on the Times of Israel about Physician Assisted Suicide. 

I am honored to have received the request from the TOI Editor to write this article).

 

Seven Life Lessons from An 8-Year Old: Ruby’s Bucket List

“…Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old will dream dreams, your youth will see visions.” (Joel 3:1)

Ruby is eight years old and she already has a “Bucket List.”

A little background about Ruby: both of her parents are Jewish educators. Her mother has been the Associate Camp Director at one of the Reform Movement’s summer camps for many years. Her father is an artist and is a teacher at a liberal Jewish Day School. Her maternal grandmother and step-grandfather are also Jewish educators. And they are all very involved in their local Reform congregation.

Ruby has grown up with Jewish summer Camp as her second home, with the synagogue as her extended family and with her family encouraging her to pursue her passions.

When her father posted Ruby’s “Bucket List” on Facebook, I realized that Ruby’s list has important life lessons for each of us. As we are taught from the biblical book of Joel (3:1):

וְנִבְּא֖וּ בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם וּבְנֽוֹתֵיכֶ֑ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ חֲלֹמ֣וֹת יַחֲלֹמ֔וּן בַּח֣וּרֵיכֶ֔ם חֶזְיֹנ֖וֹת יִרְאֽוּ׃Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old will dream dreams,
your youth will see visions.

Ruby's Bucket ListRuby’s Lesson #1: Pursue Your Passions/Dreams

Ruby wrote her “Bucket List” in her notebook.

Three of the items on her list deal with her professional goals, which are quite lofty for an eight-year old: invent an I-Cube, become a technological engineer and become a famous engineer. Ruby loves science, computers and technology. She’s loves visiting the Ontario Science Center with her grandparents and parents. Her classmates always ask for her help with computer work. She figured out she can channel her passion into a professional goal and do what she loves for her vocation. This will lead to a life of contentment and fulfillment.

Ruby’s Lesson #2: If at First You Don’t Like Something, Try Again

You’ll notice that Ruby has “try creeme [sic] cheese” on her list. While Ruby loves bagels and lox, in her mother’s words, she “detests cream cheese.” Ruby understands that our tastes change. She also intuitively realizes that at times, it might take awhile for us to come to like something new. This applies to new foods, experiences and yes, even people. Just because you didn’t like something the first or even second time, it does not mean you won’t like it the third or fourth time. (You might still not like it, but you won’t know unless you try). What matters most is the effort one invests in trying.

Ruby’s Lesson #3: Protect the Environment & the Earth

One of Ruby’s life goals is to live in a “smart house”. (I would expect nothing less from a famous technological engineer!) The best “smart houses” are also “Green Houses” which are the most ecologically and environmentally safe and friendly. We were given this earth to borrow while we are alive. We must bequeath it to the next generation – and all who come after them – in better condition than we found it. It’s incumbent upon us to take care of our world to the very best of our ability.

Ruby’s Lesson #4: Live Safely in the World

Ruby has three goals that involve swimming: pass the Camp George swim test, dive from a diving board and do a kneeling dive. In our Jewish tradition, we are taught that a parent has five obligations to a child by the time the child turns 13: (Traditionally that child was a boy, hence point #1)

  1. enter the child into the life of the Jewish people through the covenant of circumcision (brit milah) when the baby boy was 8 days old;
  2. teach the child to swim (so that he or she would never drown);
  3. teach them a profession (so that they could always sustain themselves);
  4. teach them Torah (so that they know how to live a Jewish life);
  5. find them a suitable spouse (so that they would never be alone and they can start their own family).

Ruby’s goals involving swimming represent the notion of learning how to live safely in our world. There are so many areas of life where we can figure out how to “life safely”: diet, exercise, financial, internet security. We need to be prudent and thoughtful. Our life is a gift from God and we need to protect it.

Ruby’s Lesson #5: Take Risks and Be Adventurous

While living safely is critical, we can’t wrap ourselves in bubble wrap. There are times that it’s important to take risks, try new things and be adventurous. Eight-year old Ruby wants to go bungee jumping (scares the living daylights out of me!) But good for her! Sometimes, we grow from taking risks. Our adventures will often open new horizons and give us insight to new emotions, new ideas and new ways of thinking. The old adage definitely applies: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Ruby’s Lesson #6: Encourage Others to Achieve Success

Recently, Ruby’s mother has taken up sewing as a hobby. It’s beautiful to see that Ruby’s “Bucket List” includes items for her family as well. It is not self-centered. When we support and encourage our friends, family and community in their endeavors, it not only gives them strength, it strengthens us as well. When we give love to others, we get back so much more in return. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Ruby’s Lesson #7: Family and Community are the Most Important Parts of Our Lives

Ruby expresses a desire to have a daughter. Her parents and extended family encourage her individuality, her sense of inquisitiveness, her passion for learning. They spend time with her alone and time with her and her younger brother together. Ruby has learned to cherish the value of family.

At the same time, she feels safe in the extended family of her Jewish community: her Jewish summer camp (where she can practice all of her different swimming/diving techniques), where she can celebrate Shabbat and the Holy Days and where she can express her own unique Jewish identity.

Family and community make our lives richer, more fulfilling and more complete. With family and community by our side, anything is possible.

What’s on your “Bucket List?”

 

Temple Isaiah’s “Shabbat at the Beach” (2015, 2016)

Temple Isaiah has the perfect scenic spot to hold erev Shabbat services once/month in the late spring and throughout the summer.

“Summer time, and the livin’ is easy…”

Temple Isaiah of Stony Brook, NY is located on the north shore of the Long Island Sound. We have the perfect scenic spot to hold erev Shabbat services once/month at West Meadow Beach. We gather for a picnic dinner, hiking, walking, community and friendship, followed by a beautiful and serene musical Shabbat service as we watch the sun slowly set over the water.