“At times,” wrote Hans Zinnsser “the dead are closer to us than the living, and the wisdom and affection of the past stretch blessing hands over our lives, projecting a guardian care out of the shadows and helping us over hard places.” Last month we were are reminded of this truth by an extraordinary man and tragic ending .This man, Donald Liu, was a pediatric surgeon at University of Chicago.
In early August Dr. Liu was at a beach with his family in Berrien County on Lake Michigan when he saw two children fall out of a kayak. He went out to rescue them. He succeeded in helping them get above water. As he did so, he got caught in the undertow. He drowned. Both children lived.
A Chinese Jewish Doctor
As a rabbi, I had a particular interest in Dr. Liu. Born in Shanghai, he came to the United States and converted to Judaism upon marriage to his wife Dana. The family had just returned earlier in the month from Shanghai, where they celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of their oldest daughter Geneviece. He also had a 10 year old son Asher and seven-year old daughter Amelie.
Dr. Liu’s extraordinary impact was noted by colleagues and friends, who called him a brilliant surgeon and compassionate physician. One of his colleague described him as “a world-class pediatric surgeon who made innovations and advancements in minimally invasive surgery for children and cared for trauma victims.”
What struck me most, however, was an article his oldest daughter Genevieve wrote for the Jewish newspaper, The Forward. It testifies to what we would call in Jewish tradition Dr. Liu’s ethical will, the way he is remembered and honored by his children.
An Ethical Will
Genevieve wrote, “My father passed away as he was saving two drowning children in Lake Michigan. The tragedy was shocking and devastating, but in some ways it was not out of character, because he died being the savior that he was when he was alive, saving hundreds of thousands of kids from life-threatening diseases through his discoveries and surgical brilliance.”
“To me, he was the best father anyone could ask for. For example, he sent me to a very expensive camp for four weeks, only to drive there four days later to make sure I was okay. He brought me home that same day and did not make me feel shame or embarrassment. (Not to mention the camp was a 9.5-hour drive there and back.)”
“I still remember on my bat mitzvah day, the way dad approached the bimah. He put his arm around my shoulders. ‘Genevieve,’ he said, his eyes teary and his nose stuffy, ‘you taught me eternal love, and I have a story for you: There was a time when one of my greatest mentors was dying. He sat me down and told me: ‘Don I’m dying, I need you to do one thing for me.’ Being the young resident that I was, I anxiously nodded my head like his little puppy dog.’
‘Anything, anything,’ I said. ‘Please,’ he asked, ‘take this letter and put it in the Wailing Wall for me.’
“I took the letter, and a month later, your mom and I went to Israel to put the letter in the Wailing Wall, but I was always curious what it said, so I opened the letter.”
The Meaning of Life
“It said two things, the first something along the lines of, ‘I hope my children are successful in life,’ which all parents hope for, and the second that ‘I pray that my children know that I love them.’ That’s what I always want my children to know, that I will always love each one of them eternally.” He gave me a big fat kiss and a tight squeeze and left the pulpit.”
“What devastates me the most is the fact that some people are so great, so much bigger than all of us, that we can have them in our lives for only so long. I feel as if it should be the other way around: Some people are so great, they should live forever.”
“It’s a hard fact to accept, but in some ways — actually in all ways — my father cheated death. He will live eternally through his memory and his model for living.”
Genevieve’s poignant words echo an ancient Jewish teaching. In the death, the sages taught, the righteous are called living. How is this possible? Even after they’ve died, we continue to measure ourselves by their standards. We try to live up to their ideals. We strive to fulfill the promises they made to the world.
By Evan Moffic,
During the Olympics this year, a video caught my eye.
It begins with a woman biking in the rain. Then we hear snippets of different languages as mothers begin to wake up their groggy children in bed. The same moms prepare meals, drive their children to the gymnasium, to dance practice, to the pool and to the volleyball court.
As the underlying piano music grows in volume, we see the children practicing their strokes, their dance routines and their volleyball spikes. Moms and dads watch them with bated breath, and then the video flashes to crowds erupting in cheers as the same children compete in front of massive audiences. It closes with tears streaming down the faces of parents and children, as they hug and smile.
Love Makes It Possible
The children did not automatically become great athletes. The love they received helped them become the people they are. All of us need such love. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, rich or poor, athletes or couch potatos. When we experience love–when we give and receive it–we find God.
The Jewish sages make this quite explicit. In interpreting the verse that human beings are created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God, they ask the question: where did God place that image? Where is it? In our face, in our mouth, in our nose? No. God stored it in our hearts. The heart is where we find God.
In the Jewish Bible reading cycle, we just read about the first major leadership transition. Moses hands over the reins to Joshua, and he challenges him with a noble goal. “Be strong and of good courage!”
As I was teaching this passage, someone asked about the meaning of courage. It is a word we use often, but it can mean different things to different people. I started to explore various its various meanings and usages, and encountered several inspiring examples.
1. “It requires moral courage to grieve; it requires religious courage to rejoice.” Soren Kierkegaard
2. “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Winston Churchill
3. “Memory can’t change the past; but it can help us have the courage to change the future.” Leonard Fein
4. “Without character and courage, nothing else lasts.” David Brooks
5. “God does not reach down to remove tumors. But God grants courage, helps us to hope, strengthens our souls, and stiffens our spine.” David Wolpe
6. “Faith is not uncertainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. “ Jonathan Sacks
7. “God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr (The Serenity Prayer)
8. “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” Steve Jobs
9. “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.” John Wayne
10. “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” ― E.E. Cummings
Do You Have Any Other Favorite Quotes on Insights on Courage?
The next thing you do can change the world. Maimonides, the great sage of the 12th century, uses a powerful metaphor to teach this lesson.
At this cusp of the New Year, imagine that the scales of the universe are perfectly balanced between good and evil. What happens next will cause God to tip the balance.
The Power of Imagination
Perhaps this idea seems absurd. “Come on, rabbi, that’s fantasy,” you may be thinking. “God doesn’t care what I do right here and right now.” You may be right.
But imagine if we lived with this perspective? Imagine if the next words we said to our spouse tipped the scales of the world from hostility to kindness. Imagine if the way we treated the next stranger we meet tipped the scales from indifference to empathy.
In fact, some people don’t just imagine. They do.
The Porter Who Saved a Life
Earlier this year a member of my synagogue told me a story. It happened during the the late 1960s, when the former Soviet Union began to allow a tiny number of people to leave the country. She and her family were fleeing from Romania. When they arrived in Germany, they had to pay an admittance tax.
It was not an exorbitant amount, but they had absolutely no money. It had been confiscated. If they did not pay the tax, their papers would not get stamped. They would be turned back.
They talked with the customs official. They cried. They pleaded. Frustrated by the delay, people in line began to shout at them to move out of the way.
Then something happened. The airport worker who had carried their bags to the customs office set them down. He took some money out of his pocket. He paid the clerk. He turned around and walked back toward the airplane. He never said a word. They never saw him again.
Would you say this was a miracle?
A miracle does not have to violate the laws of science. A miracle happens when the veil behind which God is hidden is lifted and our perspective changes. A miracle happens when God works through human hands.
By Evan Moffic,
(This is excerpted from my Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year’s sermon, 2012)