From Rabbi Lieberman

  • Ten Years After

    Posted ‍‍כג אב ה תשעא - August 23, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    Anticipating the arrival of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on our country, I began to look back through pieces I had written in the first days and weeks after that tragedy. I have reproduced below remarks that I offered at a memorial service on 9/14/01.



    “In Jewish tradition, the rhythm of our scriptural calendar brought us this week to the portion of the Torah called Nitzavim: Chapters 29 and 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses speaks to the Israelites at the very end of their forty years of wandering, preparing them for what will follow their crossing over into the Promised Land. They, like us, are poised on the threshold of a new world, radically different than what they have known before. They do not know what to expect, how they will cope with a new reality. Through Moses, God says to them:

    See, I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore, choose life– that you and your children may live––by loving Adonai your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God. (Deut. 3O:19-20)

    It always comes down to making choices, every day, every hour, every minute of our lives. On September 11, innocent choices…to leave for work early, to catch a later flight…meant the difference between life and death. Those who masterminded and executed this horrific act of terror made choices as well, consciously and callously choosing evil. The selfless individuals who pursued careers in the fire, police, or emergency services departments made choices which were life-affirming and life-saving. We honor their sacrifices, pray for the recovery of those who were injured and mourn with the loved ones of those who perished trying to save others. We are diminished by their deaths but heartened by the legacy of courage they have left behind.

    We who stand at a remove from this disaster, who have felt the shock waves wash over us as we begin to hear more and more stories of victims connected to people we know…we have choices to make as well. Will we choose to succumb to anger, fear, and anxiety? Or will we choose the response which affirms life–holding fast to God–as we strive to create a world established firmly on justice, a world in which scape-goating and suspicion have no role to play, in which innocent choices will not become deadly choices.

    A story is told of a rabbi who had a student who felt that he had been humiliated. Seeking to embarrass  the rabbi in front of his fellow students, he took a small bird and hid it cupped in his hands. Confronting the rabbi he said, “Tell me, rabbi…if you are so wise, is this bird alive or dead?” Had the rabbi said “Alive”, the student would have crushed it; had he said “Dead”, the student planned to open his hands and release the bird. Either way, he felt he would have succeeded in humiliating his teacher.

    “So tell me, rabbi,” said the student. “Is the bird alive or dead?”

    “That, my son, is in your hands to decide.”

    The choice to move forward, to courageously confront a world forever altered by this week’s events, is in our hands. May we choose wisely.”


    The intervening decade that has elapsed since I wrote those words has not given me much cause for hope. Our nation is still engaged in two deadly, costly wars whose ostensible purpose is to keep us safe from Islamic terror; the recent slaughter of innocents in Oslo, fueled by anti-Muslim fanaticism, suggests that the legacy of 9/11 is still yielding the most bitter of fruits.

    As I anticipate the arrival of 9/11/11, the tenth anniversary of a day seared in our collective memory, I retain the very same anxieties I experienced ten tears ago…that our desire to honor the lives lost in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA will be subsumed by a call to a “patriotism” that shields us from complex realities; that the long-smoldering fires of vengeance, only partly-appeased by the death of Osama bin Laden, will be stoked again into white-hot flame; that the infinitely complex lives of the thousands who died will, once again, be manipulated in the name of something that is the very antithesis of sacred memory.

    We will, as a congregation, have an opportunity to commemorate 9/11 on Sunday, September 11th at 10:00 A.M. While the nature of that gathering is still being finalized, one thing is certain: it will incorporate time for what may be the most appropriate of  all responses to 9/11 and its legacy….silence.

    Reb Elias

  • “I am not done with my changes”

    Posted ‍‍טז תמוז ה תשעא - July 18, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    The Layers

    I have walked through many lives,
    some of them my own,
    and I am not who I was,
    though some principle of being
    abides, from which I struggle
    not to stray.
    When I look behind,
    as I am compelled to look
    before I can gather strength
    to proceed on my journey,
    I see the milestones dwindling
    toward the horizon
    and the slow fires trailing
    from the abandoned camp-sites,
    over which the scavenger angels
    wheel on heavy wings.
    Oh, I have made myself a tribe
    out of my true affections,
    and my tribe is scattered!
    How shall the heart be reconciled
    to its feast of losses?
    In a rising wind
    the manic dust of my friends,
    those who fell along the way,
    bitterly stings my face.
    Yet I turn, I turn,
    exulting somewhat,
    with my will intact to go
    wherever I need to go,
    and every stone on the road
    precious to me.
    In my darkest night,
    when the moon was covered
    and I roamed through the wreckage,
    a nimbus-clouded voice
    directed me:
    “Live in the layers,
    not on the litter.”
    Though I lack the art to decipher it,
    no doubt the next chapter
    in my book of transformations
    is already written.
    I am not done with my changes.

    -Stanley Kunitz  (1905 – 2006)

    I am reading this powerful meditation on life, death and perseverance, written by the late poet Stanley Kunitz, on one of those picture-postcard-beautiful Cape summer days, the kind of day when life seems pregnant with possibility and death an unimaginable fantasy. I am struck–and touched–by the words with which Kunitz ended this poem, “I am not done with my changes”. It is an affirmation that life, with all of its challenges, blows and sweet rewards is precious and that each of us, until we draw a final breath, is capable of change and growth.

    Over the course of the past few months several members of the congregation came to speak with me about end-of-life issues. I have always welcomed such conversations because, in my role as rabbi, it is not unlikely that I will officiate at the funerals of many of the members of our community and I am helped tremendously when I gain a clearer sense of how congregants are thinking about the end of their lives. Frequently these conversations go hand-in-hand with purchasing cemetery lots or making pre-need arrangements with a funeral home.

    I understand that this is not the kind of conversation that all of us are prepared to have, that the thought of our mortality is one that we usually keep well-hidden with all manner of tools of denial. I would suggest, however, that there is much to be gained from prying open the armor of our psychic self-defense and giving some thought to end-of-life considerations. It was with this in mind that, some years ago, I created a form that I offered to the congregation. It requests practical information about next-of-kin, funeral arrangement that have already been made, location of cemetery plots, etc. But it moves beyond the pragmatic, asking one to respond to a series of questions about one’s life, one’s goals and accomplishments, one’s legacy.

    While the practical utility of such information is to assist whomever will officiate at your funeral, the more important function of this document is to prod you into considering the arc of your life, to “look behind”, as poet Kunitz suggests, “before [you] can gather strength to proceed on [your] journey.”

    Biz a hundert undt tzvantzik…May you live to be a 120!” goes the traditional Jewish wish. And may I be long retired from my rabbinic career before someone would need to access that form! But, just in case, I hope that you will give serious consideration to requesting a copy of this form from the temple office. Even at the end of his life Stanley Kunitz averred “I am not done with my changes”. I hope that each of us can say the same. After all, this “end of life” document can always be amended and appended!

    Reb Elias

  • Angels of Reunions

    Posted ‍‍ח סיון ה תשעא - June 10, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    You are probably aware that Judaism provides us with opportunities to imbue with sanctity virtually every experience through the recitation of a b’racha–a blessing. There are b’rachot to be recited upon hearing thunder, encountering a person of unusual stature or extraordinary beauty or seeing a head of state. There is a b’racha to be recited when one encounters a friend that one has not seen in more than thirty days. That blessing is known as Sh’hechianu, a formulation that praises God for giving us life, sustaining us and enabling us to reach special moments…such as reunions. Rabbi Levi Cooper, of Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, writes: “This blessing is generally recited at festivals and upon other seasonal events, such as tasting a new fruit. The benediction is also mandated for moments of personal joy, for instance upon the acquisition of significant new possessions. In this spirit, seeing a friend after a lapse of 30 days warrants the recital.”

    There is extensive debate in rabbinic literature over the obligation to recite this blessing. Understandably, the rabbis are concerned that, in certain situations–such as a monthly market-day–one would be so involved with reciting that blessing that one would never be able to engage in commerce.

    There is another b’racha mandated by Jewish tradition when one encounters a friend that one has not seen for a year. It praises God for “giving life to the dead”. Rabbi Cooper continues: “It sounds somewhat strange to recite the blessing over the revival of the dead just because you have not seen a friend for a year; an extended absence is hardly akin to the finality of death. One early hassidic master – Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz (1726-1791) – explained the blessing in mystical terms: The joy of two people meeting creates an angel. This angel has a limited life expectancy of one year. If within this period the two meet again, the angel receives a new lease on life. Alas, after a 12-month separation between friends, the angel is no more. When friends meet again after a year-long absence, the angel is resurrected. The blessing is pronounced over the miraculous revival of their joint angel and thus the benediction over resuscitating the deceased is appropriate.”

    I love that image….loving reunions engendering angels!

    I had two occasions in recent months to think of the blessings that are recited, and created, by reunions. In the first instance, I received a phone-call from a first-cousin of mine whom I’d not seen in at least twenty-five years. It turns out that he has been living in Falmouth for the past six years and only recently discovered that we live in the same town! We had a wonderful reunion.

    On the second occasion, I reconnected with a dear friend I had last seen in 1979. We had met when we were both unemployed, living in New York next door to one another. He was a talented young Brazilian musician and we spent many an evening on the stoop of our apartment building, making music together.

    I lost touch with my friend, wondering often through the decades what had become of him. Then, last year, I opened the Boston Globe to see a photo and an article about my long-lost friend! It seems that he has been a globe-trotting street musician in the intervening decades and he often spends the summer in Boston, entertaining tourists with his music. Through a time-consuming and convoluted process we reconnected by e-mail and finally, in early June, we had our face-to-face, angel-birthing, reunion. It was extraordinary, deeply-moving and spiritually uplifting for us both.

    In a Googling, Facebooking, Twittering age, it is easier than ever to track down those we’ve not seen in years. Not every long-lost friend wants to be found and not every formerly-healthy relationship can be resurrected. But I can personally attest to the power of such encounters and the potential therein to give birth to “angels” of holiness and blessing.

    Reb Elias

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