Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

Why Israel Matters to Me

As tension rises once again in Israel, I share with you a most powerful story. It is told by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

A Tour Guide

It begins with Wiesel describing a visit he made in to Saragossa, Spain. Saragossa was a center of Jewish life around the year 1000 C.E. When Wiesel visited, however, no Jews had lived there in over 500 years.

As Wiesel toured its magnificant cathedral, a man approached him. He started speaking to him in French and offered to be his tour guide for free. He was proud of his town. After a while they started talking. It soon came out that Wiesel was Jewish and knew how to speak Hebrew.

The man exclaimed, “I’ve never met a Jewish person but I have something I want to show you and you can tell me what it is.” The two men walked to the guide’s small apartment on the third floor of nearby building. The man took out a fragment of a yellowed parchment and asked Wiesel if it was Hebrew. It was.

A 500-Year-Old Parchment

Wiesel took the parchment, and as he read it, he began to tremble. He realized that it was not only Hebrew, but the words were more than 500 years old. He started to read and translate for the man. This is what it said:

“I, Moshe Ben Avraham (Moses, the son of Abraham), forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and theirs, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, it’s head held high under the sun without fear and without remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written at Saragossa, the 9th day of the month of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.”

A Family Treasure

The man then explained to Wiesel that this letter had been passed on in his family. It was treasured, so much so that his parents and all those before him had said if it was lost, a curse would come upon the entire family.

After hearing the words of the letter, the man realized that he was in some way connected to a Jew named named Moshe Ben Avraham. He asked Wiesel  to read it again, which he did. He then asked Wiesel to explain what it might mean.

Jews in Spain

Wiesel described the Jewish history of Spain. After several centuries of persecution and torture, Jews were forced to either convert or leave. On the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av in year 1492, the day referenced in the letter, all Jews were expelled from Spain. His relative Moses, the son of Abraham, must have been forced to convert in order to avoid expulsion.

The guide couldn’t believe it. He had Wiesel write down the translation before he left.

A Trip to Jerusalem

Fast forward five years. Wiesel is visiting Jerusalem. He is accosted by a man on the street. The man says, “Hello! Don’t you remember me, Saragossa? Saragossa?” Wiesel hesitated. The man was speaking Hebrew, not French. He couldn’t place him.

Then the man said “I have something to show you.” He took Wiesel to his apartment. They walked up three flights of stairs. He opened the door.

There in a picture frame was the yellowed parchment. But this time the man read it to Wiesel. “From Moses Ben Avraham, to his descendents….” He had learned Hebrew. He had left Spain and moved to Israel. He had reclaimed his Jewish heritage.

Alive After 500 Years

Wiesel said, “You know I’m ashamed. I didn’t recognize you.” They spoke for a while, and soon Wiesel got up to leave.

As he was leaving, the man stopped him. He said, “You forgot to ask me my name. I want you to know my name. It is Moshe Ben Avraham, Moses, son of Abraham. He is alive after 500 years.”

Israel is the place that keeps my faith alive.

By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.

To Read More from Rabbi Moffic, subscribe to his free weekly blog of uplifting Jewish wisdom.

Did General Petraeus Need to Resign?

“Who is strong? One who conquers his own impulses.”  Ethics of the Sages, 4:1

David Petraeus was hailed as the greatest soldier of his generation. His abrupt resignation as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has led to more questions than answers. How could someone renowned for his discipline make such an impulsive choice?  Can he be forgiven? Did he need to resign?

A Lack of Discipline

When Bill Clinton admitted to extra-marital affairs, few were surprised. It was not out of character.

For General Petraeus, however, it went against the image most had of him. From his five-mile daily runs in Afghanistan to his detailed analysis of what worked in combatting militias, he conveyed buttoned-up discipline.

Yet, as all religions teach, appearances often conceal more than they reveal. In Hebrew the word for deception is begidut. The word for clothing has is begedim, which comes from the same root letters. How we appear does not always reflect who we are. The forces that motivate our behavior are complex and rarely fit easy categories.

Furthermore, as psychologists often teach, we sometimes do not even know ourselves. People make decisions they know are wrong, and afterwards wonder how in the world they could have done so. I suspect this may be true of General Petraeus.

Can He Be Forgiven?

Of course. Even as investigators determine whether he violated military or civil law, General Petraeus can find forgiveness. The speed and manner in which he does so depends upon his sense of contrition, his self-evaluation, and relationship with his family.

Indeed, Judaism holds out the potential for forgiveness for all those who seek it with sincerity and resolution. Faith and forgiveness go hand in hand.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “Forgiveness demands real change on the part of two people. The perpetrator needs the courage to acknowledge his or her wrong. And the victim needs the courage to let go of animosity and revenge. It’s the supreme test of human freedom, and it’s one of the greatest gifts Judaism and Christianity brought to the moral imagination of humankind.”

Did He Need to Resign?

I think so. First, he believed he needed to do so, and that understanding may reflect his own assessment of what he needs to find reconciliation and forgiveness.

Second, in Jewish law, leaders are held to the highest standards. While having an affair may not disqualify someone from doing a job well, the loss of credibility or reputation affects one’s influence. What a leader does communicates much more than what a leader says.

Some may suggest that General Patraeus had such a unique set of skills that accepting his resignation undermines American security. While I am not qualified to assess this view from the perspective of the military, I can say that America’s greatest security does not lay with one particular individual or insitution. It ultimately rests in our sense of right and wrong, and the moral framework we sustain.

As Alexis de Tocqueville put it so beautifully 200 years ago, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.

To Read More from Rabbi Moffic, subscribe to his free weekly blog of uplifting Jewish wisdom.

What Do You Think? Did General Petraeus Need to Resign? 

How One Speech Changed 1000 Hearts: A Veterans Day Inspiration

This past Friday we observed Veterans Day at my congregation. Several dozen veterans were joined by our youth choir, which sang America the Beautiful in gratitude and tribute. The past, present and future inspired one another.

Also inspiring was a famous sermon we discussed. In 1945 a Jewish chaplain named Roland Gittelsohn accompanied a Marine division onto Iwo Jima. After the fighting had ended, he was asked to deliver a eulogy at a memorial service for fallen soldiers. He agreed, but then was forced to withdraw after a group of chaplains objected to the presence of a Jew.

A Response to Bigotry

Gittelsohn spoke, instead, at a separate Jewish service. Several other chaplains, incensed at the bigotry shown Gittelsohn, attended his separate service. His remarks so impressed them that they had them reprinted and distributed across several divisions.

Then an American congressman got a hold of them and them reprinted them in the Congressional Record. Time Magazine excerpted parts of it. It was read aloud on US Amry Radio.

Today the words remain as poignant and inspiring as ever. I share an excerpt with you in gratitude to the living and in memory of all those who gave their lives in freedom’s cause.

Rabbi Gittelsohn on Iwo Jima

“Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding. And other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, Negroes and Whites, rich men and poor, together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews together.

Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy…

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery.

To this then, as our solemn sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: To the right of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of White men and Negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price…

We here solemnly swear this shall not be in vain. Out of this and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come, we promise, the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.”

By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.

To Inspire Yourself and Discover More, check out Rabbi Moffic’s free weekly digest of spiritual wisdom

 

A Serenity Prayer for America

Whatever our politics, the end of a two year campaign brings relief. Many of us probably empathize with the four-year old who became a Youtube sensation when she tearfully moaned that she was “tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney.”

As President Obama said in his victory speech, we have a long road ahead of us. The road will feel smoother if we travel closer together. Some are thinking about the next election. Let us, rather, think about each other and what we can do to address the challenges we face.

Reinhold Niebuhr composed a prayer made famous though its adoption by AA. It asks God to “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

To that let us all say “Amen.”

By Evan Moffic, Rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park.

To Inspire Yourself and Discover More, check out Rabbi Moffic’s free weekly digest of spiritual wisdom

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