Rabbi Karen Citrin
January 2, 2015
As Jews, we are doubly blessed, or cursed, to notice the passing of time. We get to celebrate not one but two New Years. Maybe it’s since I’ve entered my fifth decade of life, that I seem to notice the brevity of life and the passing of time more and more. Of course tonight is extra special, the first Shabbat of the new secular year 2015.
I am reminded of the words of British Author, Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period…” (A Tale of Two Cities)
Although Dickens was speaking of the year 1775, it is amazing how some themes are eternal. We could all look back on the past year and deliver a similar message.
This past year we have witnessed our share of bad, dark times: Fergusen, MO and Staten Island, NY, the brutal murder of three Israeli teenagers and a Palestinian youth, the outbreak of the deadly Ebola disease, millions of people seeking refuge and shelter from violence in their countries, lockdowns in American middle and high schools.
This past year we have also witnessed good times filled with light: peaceful protests supporting racial equality across our nation, religious pluralism advances in Israel including access to the Western Wall, the appointment by President Obama of Rabbi David Saperstein, longtime director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to the post of U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom,
the number of states which sanction same-sex marriages nearly doubling in 2014 including Oklahoma.
The turning of each year gives us perspective on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. From the Jewish perspective, I prefer to switch the order of the famous Dickens quote. Rather than saying, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I believe our Jewish tradition would prefer to say, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” Our Jewish story has always been one that moves from degradation to redemption. Think of the Passover seder. Judaism always affirms the significance of light and hope. Think Chanukah. HaTikvah is our motto and anthem. We always prefer to end with and embrace a message of hopeful goodness.
Tonight, I would like to reflect on our year from the perspective of a reversal of Dickens’ statement. In many regards, it has been a hard year. Let us take a moment to remember the lives of some of those we lost this year.
Many people who made a difference passed away last year – people remembered by millions the world over. We remember Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mickey Rooney, Pete Seeger, Ben Bradlee, Cornelia Kennedy, Shirley Temple Black, Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Casey Kasem, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Ariel Sharon. We also remember the lives of those we lost in our community, members of Temple Israel, beloved family and friends.
As Jews, we tend to look at the loss of life through the lens of the values and legacies a person passes on, the qualities of a person’s life which long endure. I would like to take a little time now to look at two people who are perhaps not as well known, two exemplary lives, two individuals lost to us this past year, who deserve our attention and our honor, and who’s legacies can continue to influence our lives for the good.
Both individuals were writers and activists in their own right. These are their stories.
The first is Maya Angelou, born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. Maya Angelou was a literary voice revered globally for her poetry and her commitment to civil rights. She lived through horrors as a child. She was abandoned by her parents and raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She was homeless and became a teen mother. After being stunned into years of silence, she bore witness to the brutality of Jim Crow South, portraying racism in stark language, in her lasting contribution to literature, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The book became a mainstay of student reading lists.
Angelou spent years studying dance and drama. She was nominated for a Tony. She delivered a poem at Clinton’s presidential inauguration. President Obama named her a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou counted Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among her friends.
A matriarch of our generation, Angelou believed that “we are more alike than unlike.” In CNN’s 2009 interview, Angelou spoke the following, “Our country needs us all right now to stand up and be counted. We need to try to be great citizens. We are necessary in this country, and we need to give something – that is to say, go to a local hospital, go to the children’s ward and offer to the nurse in charge an hour twice a month that you can give them reading children’s stories or poetry. And go to an old folks’ home and read the newspaper to somebody. Go to your church or your synagogue or your mosque, and say, ‘I’d like to be of service. I have one hour twice a month.’ You’ll be surprised at how much better your will feel. And good done anywhere is good done everywhere… As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”
Maya Angelou left us with her lasting message, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya’s lasting message.
The second individual is Leonard Fein, born in New York in 1934, the son of two Jewish public school teachers. As a young boy he contracted polio, which left him with muscle weakness and fatigue. That did not hold him back. He taught political science at M.I.T. and taught Social Policy and Jewish studies at Brandeis University. When I was in college, I helped organize a Shabbat weekend for Hillel students with Leonard Fein. He made a lasting impression on me.
Fein was a prolific writer, authoring several books and hundreds of articles and essays. In 1974, together with Elie Wiesel, he founded Moment Magazine, which became one of the most influential voices on the American Jewish scene, and remains in publication today. He was a passionate lover and defender of Israel, a pursuer of peace, and a champion of social justice.
In 1984, during a terrible famine in Ethiopia, Leonard Fein founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. The organization, whose name is the Hebrew word for “sustenance,” was based on a simple premise. Fein learned that party caterers were earning half a billion dollars a year from Jewish weddings and bnai mitzvah. He launched a campaign to ask Jewish families to contribute 3% of what they were spending on their family simchas to MAZON, which makes grants to feed the hungry in America, Israel and the developing world. MAZON has now disbursed more that $66 million dollars to organization working to end hunger.
And that wasn’t all. In 1997, after President Clinton declared that every American child should be able to read by the end of third grade, Fein created, The National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, designed to mobilize American Jews to provide 100,000 volunteer tutors for the Read America program.
Fein is most known for challenging status quo assumptions. He said, “The truths of religion are not contained in the answers it offers, but in the questions it asks. The assertion is that religion does not come to answer our questions; it comes to question our answers… Here then, is religion’s most insistent, most urgent question: What will you do? That question does not call for speculation; it calls for commitment, it calls for action… What will you do?”1 Fein’s lasting message.
I hope that remembering these two precious lives, lost to us this past year, will help inspire our own lives going forward. Each New Year, Jewish or secular, presents us with the opportunity to reflect on the passing of time, and to resolve to hold onto what is most important and essential.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard observed that life “must be lived forward but understood backward.” The turning of the year gives us this perspective. In the Torah verses read tonight, our patriarchs gave their blessings especially when they were about to leave the world. But we don’t need to wait until the end. Especially at the turning of a new year, we are reminded to embrace each moment. It was the worst of times and it was the best of times. As we look backward and ahead, let us resolve to make our mark and leave our legacy. With blessings for 2015, Shabbat Shalom.
1 I am grateful for Fein’s biographical information and message in Rabbi Janet Marder’s sermon, “Equal Start: Erev Yom Kippur 5775”.