The optimist says, “This is the best of all worlds.”
The pessimist says, “You’re right!”
As we enter 2015 there is much for which we can be thankful: our lives, our health (hopefully), our families, friends, and community, the people of Israel, and our friendships with peoples of all faith, ethnic and national traditions.
Of course, there’s much about which to worry as well: hard-heartedness, selfishness, alienation, polarization, poverty, inequality, injustice, violence, and war.
A thousand mourners filled the Sanctuary of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles last Sunday to memorialize the congregation’s founding Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman, which they did with uncommon love and respect for his brilliance, wisdom, kindness, love for Jews, the state of Israel, all people, and a higher moral order.
Throughout his life, Leonard’s dogged determination to keep the fires of love, compassion and justice burning elevated the rest of us by virtue of the nobility of his spirit. So many people from a variety of religious communities depended upon Leonard to help them set the direction of their moral compass. He was a spiritual and moral “north star” that pointed his community in the direction he thought it ought to be traveling.
Surely, Rabbi Leonard Beerman was a unique human being and an exceptional rabbi, and I for one feel lonelier in our world now that he is gone. As I indicated in my remembrance last week, I didn’t see Leonard all that frequently (much more in recent years than before), but I knew he was there holding a moral and spiritual torch high for so many of his chassidim, who may not always have agreed with him on this position or that, or who thought about ethics a bit differently than he did, but who took him and what he once called his “notions” very seriously indeed.
Leonard was laid to rest during this week in which we are reading Parashat Vayechi, the final portion in the book of Genesis when Jacob blessed his sons and grandsons.
The portion opens while Jacob’s family is in Egypt, a constricted place defined by injustice, slavery, brutality, insensitivity, and exile. Among the darkest of Torah portions, it begins unlike any other portion in all of Torah.
Rashi asked, “Why is this section completely closed? Why isn’t there a space of nine letters between the end of the preceding parashah and the beginning of this one, as it is in every other Torah portion?”
Rashi says: “When Jacob our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage with which the Egyptians began to enslave them.”
The Midrash explains that “Jacob desired to reveal the end (i.e. the time of the final redemption) to his sons, but it was closed from him.” (B’reishit Rabba)
This suggests that the hardship, distress and violence of Egypt (or any constricted life) blind the eye, harden the heart and oppress the soul. Torah reminds us that we can never become resigned to a world of dog-eat-dog. Rather, because we were created “b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image” every human being is infused with infinite value and worth. As such, we are meant to dream big dreams, to climb Jacob’s stairway to heaven, to reclaim our best angels, and to remember who we are and what is our purpose on earth as Jews – namely, to sanctify life, to walk humbly before God, and to care with compassion for all of God’s creatures.
Parshat Veyechi is a story about opposites – impending hardship vs blessing, despair vs hope, hard-heartedness vs elevated dreams. Tradition teaches us Jews to embrace both extremes, but to reach higher than what circumstances seem to allow.
Such was the nature of Jacob’s times. Such is the nature of our times. Such was the nature of Rabbi Leonard Beerman’s life.
Jacob wanted so badly to reveal the end of days to his children, but “nistam mimenu – it was closed to him.” Sadly, It remains closed to us as well.
“Lamrot hakol – despite everything” Leonard sought the light as we Jews seek the light, and he prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and for justice and security for Israel and the Palestinians, for common decency for all humankind, as we Jews must also pray.
Next week begins the reading of the book of Exodus when we witness the beginnings of the spiritual nationhood of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai as we entered into a sacred covenant with God.
Because we see reflected sparks of divinity in the human condition, we Jews are essentially optimists who regard the half-full glass and seek to fill that which is empty.
May this secular New Year 2015 be a time when we continue the work to help facilitate greater kindness, compassion, justice, healing, and peace for us in our own lives, families and communities, for the Jewish people and for all of God’s children.