Pittsburgh Yahrzeit: How You Can Participate

Image: Tree of Life Memorials (White House Photo)

A year has passed since the murders of Jews in Pittsburgh. I was glad to hear that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has come up with a way for those of us who live far from Pennsylvania to participate and honor their memory.

The JFNA are calling on all Jews and allies to take a moment to pause on this coming Sunday, Oct. 27 to mark one year since the Tree of Life Congregations shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were murdered there on Oct 27, 2018.

Use this link to sign up to participate.

We will remember their lives and their families in a virtual service around the world. Anyone signing up will receive a text at 5 p.m. Eastern Time (2 pm Pacific Time) with a video reading of a prayer for mourning and the names of the 11 individuals who were killed. Following the prayer, subscribers will be able to tune into a live stream of Pittsburgh’s public memorial service and submit a message of support by text.

Memorial Day, 2019

Image: A military cemetery. Photo by Jackie Williamson /Pixabay.

I’m a citizen of the United States. Today, on the day when we remember those who have made a great sacrifice for this country – the loss of life itself – I have to ask myself: what sacrifices have I made for my country?

Have I ever made a sacrifice for my country?

I pay my taxes every year, and I don’t cheat on them or hide anything. But is that a sacrifice, or just paying my dues? Especially when I compare it to sailors and soldiers who have given their lives for this country, it seems pretty paltry.

I have done volunteer work in my community, but is that really much of a sacrifice? I don’t sign up to dig ditches, after all – I volunteer mostly for safe, relatively clean things, things where my life is never at risk.

When I have been overseas, I’ve done my best to represent the United States. As far as I know, I haven’t left anyone thinking worse of Americans than before they met me. Still, that consists of basic good manners and civil behavior, not exactly the stuff of sacrifice.

Our country has been at war since 2001, when President Bush ordered troops into Afghanistan. That war expanded into an invasion of Iraq, and it drags on without many Americans paying attention to it at all. But here is the sacrifice, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University:

The number of United States troops who have died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had passed 6,900 at the end of 2018.

They died in a host of ways. The causes of death include rocket-propelled grenade fire and the improvised explosive devices that have been responsible for roughly half of all deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their deaths were also the result of vehicle crashes, electrocutions, heatstroke, friendly fire, and suicides in theater…

Official Pentagon numbers do not include the many troops who return home and kill themselves as a result of psychological wounds such as PTSD. The DOD does not report suicides among non-active duty reservists.

–“Costs of War

Let those numbers soak in. That is what we are remembering today. Those 6,900 deaths were sacrifices not only for the people who lost their lives, but for their families and friends. Those who died after they came home made no less of a sacrifice, dying of psychological wounds that tortured them and their families and friends for months or years, leaving scars that will never, ever heal.

I pray today for all the mourners who will never again see a beloved son or daughter, a wife or husband, a parent or friend. I pray for the decision makers who have the power to involve us in future wars, that the Holy One will visit them with the wisdom and strength to make war no more.

I have made no real sacrifices for my country. With our volunteer armed forces, that is true of most Americans. Let that fact keep us humble; let it make us willing to do whatever we can for those who make sacrifices for us. May the day soon come when such sacrifices will be rare, indeed, unknown.

Until then, let us be humble in our gratitude.

Al Vorspan z”l: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Image: Al Vorspan, image from ReformJudaism.org.

I don’t often use the word “tzaddik.” A tzaddik (tsah-DEEK) is a person who seems almost to embody Torah, his righteousness is so great. A true tzaddik is also a person with the humility to laugh at himself and to laugh with others. There just aren’t many of those people, so it’s always sad when we lose them.

Al Vorspan was one of those rare individuals, and I was sad to hear of his death on February 16, 2019. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, when I worked for the Union of Reform Judaism (at that time it was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) but I remember his broad smile and his warmth. He leaves a multifaceted legacy, the most tangible part of which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which he helped to found.

I did not know him well enough to do him justice, but I can recommend two articles that include some great stories about the man, by people who knew him well:

Al Vorspan was a Jewish Giant of Justice by Rabbi Jeff Salkin

Remembering Al Vorspan z”l: The Prophet who Loved to Laugh by Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Zikkrono livracha: May his memory always be for a blessing.

Ecclesiastes is Making Sense

Image: A brass hour glass sits on its side in the sand. (annca/Pixabay)

Three people dear to me died this past week. One was a friend, one was a teacher, and one was my brother.

The friend was Maureen Logan. She was the clergy assistant at Temple Sinai in Oakland. Maureen and I bonded over our shared Irish American heritage, something not all that common in Jewish communities. She reminded me of my grandmother and her friends: kind and wise, with the cheerfulness that comes from spiritual depths. I’m sad that the doctor has forbidden me alcohol, because I’d like to raise a glass of Guinness to Maureen.

The teacher was Sister Rose Marie Masserano, O.P. Sister Rose Marie was my seventh grade teacher. She was not a lot older than her students when she taught my class. My main memory of her is that she was the first person to encourage me as a writer. She called me up to her desk one day, and I saw that she had a story I’d written in her hand. “Did you write this?” she asked me, in a very serious voice. “Yes, Sister,” I said, wondering if I was in trouble. “It’s very good,” she said, “I think you might have a talent. If you work on grammar and spelling, I think you could do very well.” I lit up. I was a fat, awkward child who felt like a misfit everywhere I went, but now I had a talent. Better yet, she had given me a gift: she told me what I needed to do to improve.  She rescued me from the malaise of middle school by offering hope and a plan. And unknowingly, she fostered the teacher within me, showing me that a good teacher looks with discernment on every student, seeking the spark in them. As I said back then, I say again now: “Thank you, Sister.”

And the third is a heart-breaker: my brother Albert Menefee passed away from complications of injuries he sustained in a horseback riding accident almost two years ago. I wrote about it in An Unusual New Year at the time. Since then he has suffered terribly from his injuries, as have his family, and now death has released him from that suffering. His wife and children and all of his friends already miss him very much. As for me, he was my little brother, and I have the vague feeling that I should somehow have protected him.

Life is such a roller-coaster. I have been on the east coast to celebrate the wedding of a young man who is “chosen family” to me. The call that Albert was dying came just before the wedding began. But Josh has been like one of my own sons since he was about 14; I was there not as a friend but as an adopted mom, so I put anticipated sorrow aside and put my heart into that celebration. I am overjoyed that this wonderful young man has found a life partner who is his match in goodness. That wedding was a nechemta, a strengthening comfort that I needed. Life is renewed.

The wheel turns, the generations pass. I know I’m getting older when the Scroll of Ecclesiastes begins to make sense.

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; and the earth remains for ever. The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arises. – Ecclesiastes 1: 4-5.

Speaking of the Dead

Image: A single narcissus blossom (Fauren/Shutterstock)

Today’s New York Times has a great opinion piece by Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.” He makes the point that Americans have developed the habit of making the death of public figures an opportunity to talk about themselves. The President does it, other public figures do it, and reporters do it, and it’s a bad habit all around. I recommend you click on the link and read the piece; it’s good.

Many of us don’t fully appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s a damned good reason, among plenty of others, to pay closer attention to it. It undermines what should be our goal, which is to put someone else in the spotlight. We can’t do that if we’re crowding the stage. – Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.”

Agreed, but I have a minor disagreement with his thinking. Obituaries and eulogies are not for the dead; the dead cannot hear them. Public speech after a death speaks to the public, and to the mourners.

This is one reason that speaking of the dead immediately after death, the rule “if you can’t say something good, say as little as possible” applies. The dead leave behind living people who are in pain. Jewish tradition is so firm on this subject that we are taught to say, “Blessed is the true Judge” when we first hear of a death, any death.  That provides a moment to restrain any wild impulse to say something cruel or ignorant. In a Jewish eulogy, the hesped, rabbis are taught to tell the truth but to put it gently.

“But what if it is true?” I hear someone asking. “What if Dead Person was a terrible person and there are victims?” That’s another topic – one I would like to address separately soon. At this point, I will still say that it is very thin ice and I still believe the less said in public about the flaws of the dead while the grave is fresh, the better. Immediately after a death, there are mourners, and they must be treated with kindness.

Mourning is a time of terrible vulnerability. The spirit reels with loss; it is in no position to process unkindness, however truthful. Just as we know we will all die someday, it is also true that at some time in our lives, we will be mourners. Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person” suggests that we should extend to mourners the kindness we ourselves want at such a time.

Mr Bruni is correct, up to a point. The goal of speech about the recently dead is to shed light upon their lives, but one may never forget that just outside that spotlight stands the widow and the orphan. Whatever the dead did will remain for discussion at another time; funerals are for the mourners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

September 11, Again.

Image: 9/11 Memorial, Manhattan, NYC. Photo by MonicaVolpin via pixabay.com

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.