National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis
Jan. 3, 2015
Parashat VaYechi ויחי Rabbi Stanley Davids
My friend and teacher Mark Winer wrote the following when he addressed the 40th reunion of his Harvard class: “We once were the future, we became the present and soon enough we will be the past.”
Such wisdom is not always satisfying for those who cannot imagine a world within which they will not be exercising control. King David, that sweet singer of Israel and a first-rate adulterer, was quoted this morning as saying to his successor-son Solomon: “I am going the way of all the earth. Be strong and show yourself a man.” And then, in a scene straight out of “The Godfather,” the red-headed, harp-strumming monarch explains that his understanding of what it would mean for Solomon to be a man involves assassinating a select list of David’s enemies. David had no intention of letting a little thing like revenge killings get in the way of seeing his vision for the future secured.
And Jacob, aging patriarch of a world-class dysfunctional family, also revealed this morning an agenda that was intended to reach hundreds of years beyond his own imminent demise. According to the Sfat Emet, based upon a text from רבא בראשית, Jacob was aware that slavery was in his family’s future — and he wanted to make that slavery easier to bear by revealing what he alone knew: that following the period of slavery there would be freedom, שבח would follow גנות. But God denied Jacob the right to share this secret. It is the divine intention, the Sfat Emet taught, that each generation must struggle to shape its own future. Needless to say, Jacob wasn’t very happy about his loss of control. After all, isn’t that the point of being a patriarch? To be in charge?
One week before my 75th birthday this past October, I read an article that Ezekiel Emanuel had written for The Atlantic, an article lovingly entitled, “Why I hope to die at 75.” Now a moderately sane person who was 74 years, 11 months and 3 weeks old might be expected to have the SAYCHEL not to expose himself or herself to what Dr. Emanuel had to say about 75th birthdays. Right. You would think.
This brilliant brother of Ari and of Rahm held nothing back. You see, my colleagues and friends, it’s all over by 75. We will have no more contributions to make to our world. We will have lost clarity of mind and agility of body (though quite frankly I have never been blessed with agility of body). We will have at best a few high-quality years left. Disability lurks in our near future.
Extended years for most of us are really no more than an extended dying process, with the minefields of dementia and Alzheimer’s awaiting us; 75 is in no way the new 50!
Of course, there are the outliers, those exceptions to whom we can all point, but such outliers do not contradict the accumulating data. And even in the best of circumstances we will still end up on the receiving end of the tender concern of others. That tender concern will forever change how we will be remembered. Not as the vibrant, creative and active individuals we once were, but rather as dependent and diminished old-timers. Thus concludes the Emanuel analysis of what being 75 really means.
As with most if not all of you, my jubilee classmates, my friends, my colleagues, life has brought me much undeserved joy: Resa, my life partner who shares with me a nurturing, forgiving, healing, joyous love; children for whom I am still a desired part of their world; grandchildren who regularly turn to me with challenging questions and unsolicited hugs; and a career of meaningful, often satisfying sacred service, rich with human interactions.
As with most if not all of you, life has also brought me much undeserved pain: sitting by my young mother’s bedside, helpless before the malignancy that was consuming her brain; confronting a professional failure that challenged my too-fragile self-worth; bearing the agonizing burden of deciding whether my sister should be administered sufficient morphine to quiet her pain, morphine that would also stop her heart; trying to internalize what it meant, what it really meant, when for over 10 years — every six months — my physicians would tell me that I had only three more months to live.
In the pursuit of meaning in the presence of such a mixed bag of life experiences, I have dedicated my rabbinate to what our conference theme this year calls “The Evolving Jewish People.” It wasn’t a conscious choice. It just happened. You see, I came alive to our world in the ’60s. I embraced the anti-war movement while still in uniform. I entered into the black struggle for human and civil rights, feminism, choice, yet through all of that I found myself inexorably drawn to my people’s right and obligation to secure its own future. The Six-Day War. The Soviet Jewry movement. The birth and flowering of Reform Zionism. High school kids at Kutz. College kids. Israel. Aliyah.
For four decades as a congregational rabbi and now for one decade as a retiree, the meaningful survival and evolution of the Jewish people have been at the center of my day-to-day concerns. Over the years that struggle somehow became a unifying theme around which I could organize my thoughts and actions. Even today, even now, it ignites within me hope and purpose. To put it simply, that struggle keeps me alive. Perhaps it is not the most worthy of causes, but it infuses my being with a shot of metaphorical adrenaline.
Maybe that is why I find myself today still trying, like a kippah-wearing Energizer Bunny, to shape our tomorrows. Maybe that is why so many of you sitting here this morning have made similar choices in your own ways, in your own lives, refusing to give up on trying to have an impact on the future. And that is why I suggest that we regard Ezekiel Emanuel’s scenario as naive, elitist and hopelessly narcissistic. I can even understand where King David and Jacob were coming from, even though I probably would not choose to embrace the king’s tactics.
It’s not that I see better or know more than anybody else. I know that I don’t. But I believe, based upon what I have seen and learned and experienced, that the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is a sine qua non for the survival of North American Jewry, even as the reverse is equally true. And that belief for me is a mandate for meaningful action.
So when I received a call from Gilad Kariv several weeks ago, asking me to help him raise some funds quickly so that he could effectively compete for a position on the Labor slate in the forthcoming Knesset elections, I could not refuse. That election has a real possibility of overturning what I consider to be an intransigent government incapable of launching positive initiatives which might, just might, move us closer to a two-state solution. If a new government is formed this spring linking parties of the political right with the ultra-Orthodox parties, many of the recent groundbreaking achievements in easing the stranglehold of the Rabbanut over matters of personal status and lifecycle events will be reversed. To shape the future, outspoken advocates for religious pluralism like Gilad are needed by the Knesset. My being over 75 is simply irrelevant to such a worthy challenge. There is a job demanding to be done. I can still help. We can still help. We are very much alive. We are relevant and needed.
And so elections for the World Zionist Congress begin in two weeks. A victory for ARZA in these elections will pour more than $20 million into the activities of the IMPJ and the Hebrew Union College over the next five years. Israeli Reform Judaism now tracks support from more than 7 percent of the population. We are growing, evolving, changing. We offer new definitions as to what a synagogue could be; we demonstrate how the manner in which we treat the stranger in our midst helps determine our relationships with an increasingly hostile world. With a Western understanding of democracy and with a liberal and embracing vision of Jewish identity both embedded in our Reform DNA, Israel needs us to win and to win big in the Congress elections. Another job yet to be done. By us. We can still help. We are very much alive. We are relevant. We are needed.
I don’t know how many quality months or years that I have left. The door to that mystery is firmly shut. And I am painfully aware of my own personal limitations and weaknesses. But like David and Jacob and like many of you, I am not yet willing to turn my back on how the future will emerge. Being in a struggle the outcome of which will not be known for many years after I am gone doesn’t diminish the vitality that I feel today because I am still engaged. Isn’t it the same with you?
So whatever the worthy issues that command each of us — Israel or environmentalism or racism or economic justice or the strengthening of our families or writing that book that really needs to be written — we who are growing old can continue to find what Frank Bruni recently called in The New York Times “slices of opportunity” awaiting us. So long as our hands can reach, so long as our souls can yearn and our minds can comprehend, so long can we yet have a vital role in shaping what tomorrow will bring. We who were once the future and then were the present are not ready to lay down our burdens. Not yet. Not now. We have too much to do. We are needed.
By the way, at the end of his essay Ezekiel Emanuel added the following: that he is currently only 57 and thus reserves the right to change his mind. Good move, Dr. Emanuel. You see, there is life to be lived. And we are choosing to live it.
רצון יהי — May God grant us the courage of David to challenge those who would threaten our people.
רצון יהי — May God grant us the vision of Jacob to see into our future and there find comfort.
ונתחזק חזק חזק