Turning 92 — With Gratitude

I lived my younger years with three anchors: to live in service, in adventure and in love.

My service was 60 plus years in many fulfilling projects in Israel and numerous community and political leadership roles in the US.   My adventure with long treks in exotic countries, climbing mountains in the Himalayas and elsewhere, constant tennis and bicycle touring everywhere.

My love was always a growing path with dearest Lois, three sons, then their wives, then grandchildren and ever-widening circles of relationships.

But now as I near 92, my service and adventures are only wonderful memories, never to be lived again at those levels.  Today there are new experiences like arthritic aches, knees a little weaker, a few strange pains in my back, and a serious loss of balance.

But my aging days are filled with much love and joy.  My wife of 69 plus years is still my true love, and I will never understand how I was so smart at age 22 to grab her for life.  My family is well. I love and feel loved, and I am aware of having lived a life filled with much excitement, a reasonable success, and feel I have given my contribution to tikkun olam – repairing the world.  I still support the liberal humanistic causes as in the past, only today this support is more financial and less physical.

A gift of my senior years has been a contentment level I had never felt when younger.  I had always been too busy, constantly on to the next thing. Never stopping to meditate and revel in the life I had created.  Now age and perhaps a little wisdom have directed this change in how I live.  I have time to read for pleasure and not just for data.  Time to watch a beautiful sunset over the Pacific.  To move slower and open my eyes to so much of what I had been missing.

For me the overriding emotion at this time in my life is a magic word —gratitude.  A deeply felt satisfying joy for all the blessings that fill my heart.

Growing old ain’t so  bad.

Lessons of gratitude

In the course of a lifetime, we encounter any number of friends.

Some are friends by happenstance — friends who happen to attend school with us, happen to work where we do or reside near us. When we graduate from school, change careers or relocate, most such friends slowly disappear from our lives — and we from theirs.

But there are others, fewer, whose friendship lasts a lifetime. They are the friends we invite to our child’s bar mitzvah or wedding, even though we have not seen each other, or perhaps even spoken, for years.

In the soul of the permanent friendships that account for such deeper love, we very often find rooted some unspoken aspect of gratitude — a friendship built within the trenches and foxholes when we faced unremitting attack, the friend who opened a door and welcomed us when we were alone, the person who was “there” when others were not.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see glimpses of the phenomena that lie beneath the love and gratitude. As so often happens, gratitude is not always consciously expressed. But in deeds and life behavior, the importance of gratitude — hakarat hatov — is a Jewish value that is at the core of our societal being.

Moshe is born into a world that has condemned him to death. In desperation, his mother instructs Miriam, Moshe’s sister, to place him in the river and to stand watch. Miriam stands guard faithfully. When Moshe is received and effectively adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam rapidly reports to her mother, and Yocheved appears at the palace to nurse and rear Moshe in the ways and values of the Hebrews (Exodus 2:2-8).

In time, Moshe becomes a young man at the palace — some midrashic sources say he is 20, some say 40 — when he sees a horrible persecution. As discussed in Midrash Tanchuma, an Egyptian taskmaster has raped a Hebrew woman in her home and now is torturing the life out of her enslaved husband, who has learned the secret.

Moshe looks both ways — some say that he simply is assuring that there are no witnesses; some say he is desperately looking for someone else to stand up and do what must be done, but “he saw there is no man. And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). Soon after, at the first of many unpleasant encounters he will endure with Datan and Aviram, he is compelled to flee Egypt for his life.

He reaches the wilderness of Midian, where he will remain in relative solitude for the next 40 or 60 years. In that wilderness, as Rav Avigdor Miller has observed, he will have time to contemplate his life’s purpose and to weigh the meaning of his extended isolation from his persecuted people, continuing to withhold the unique life gifts and skills he gained while he was reared amid nobility and power.

At a well in that wilderness, he meets a shepherdess, Tzipporah, whom he first protects from attackers, then marries at the behest of a grateful father-in-law, Yitro, the high priest of Midian (Exodus 2:15-21). In so doing, he perhaps unknowingly continues the nascent Hebrew tradition that saw two of our patriarchs marry women found at the wells — Rivkah and Rachel. All’s well that ends well.

Soon, Hashem will reveal to his brother, Aharon, that Moshe will lead the nation to freedom, and Aharon — rejoicing in his heart (Exodus 4:14) — will come to draw Moshe back to Egypt.

And thus the background. Here is how the Torah value of gratitude will play out over the next 40 years. Moshe will never forget that Miriam stood by his basket floating in the water.

When she later will speak adversely about him and his relationship with his wife, eliciting on her Hashem’s punishment of biblical leprosy, Moshe patiently and lovingly will pray for her recovery and then will do as she did, waiting patiently with the nation he is leading until her status is restored (Numbers 12:11-16).

Aharon, who responded with joy to news of Moshe’s elevation over him, will be rewarded with the crown of the kehunah (priesthood) for all his generations. Unlike the contretemps that so gravely prevailed amid the jealousies of older Yishmael toward younger Yitzchak, older Esav toward younger Yaakov, and the older brothers toward Yosef, Aharon’s unilateral love and joy for Moshe’s elevation will seal the bond for a lifetime’s fraternity, transcending genetic brotherhood.

Hashem will repay Yitro for hosting and feeding Moshe, just as He did Lavan, who hosted and fed Yaakov — notwithstanding that each conferred hospitality for their own particular reasons — with sons who will continue their dynasties (Genesis 30:35, 31:1; Judges 1:16). Moshe will honor Yitro repeatedly, first demonstratively asking his permission to return to Egypt, even though Hashem has commanded Moshe to depart from Midian (Exodus 4:18). And later Moshe will welcome Yitro into the Hebrew nation’s midst, even adopting counsel Yitro offers.

Moshe, too, will demonstrate a fascinating gratitude toward the water that saved his life in infancy and the sand that hid the Egyptian tormentor whom he slew. Years later, when the first plagues hit Egypt in its water and earth, Moshe will not use his staff to strike those inanimate resources but instead will delegate that task to Aharon (Exodus 7:19, 8:2, 8:12).

These are the lessons of gratitude — and the wonderful impact with which this Torah value enriches the lives of those who perform great acts of friendship — and those who know how to carry hakarat hatov within their souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.

But Who’s Complaining?

Imagine there is something you have worked and hoped and longed for your whole life. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine.) Just when you are on the cusp of
achieving/getting/doing/being it, a door slams in your face, and you learn that you will never live out what you dreamed. What occurs to you in that moment? What do you do next? What do you say — or wish to say — to the one slamming the door?

This is where I am supposed to tell you that answers to those questions appear in this week’s Torah portion. But they don’t. The answers appeared four Torah portions ago.

In Parshat Pinchas, God clarified that, despite speaking to Moses about how property should be allotted in the Promised Land, Moses would never lead the people there, nor set foot in the land himself. God’s harsh decree at Mei Merivah, where Moses hit the rock, would stand. Decisively, finally, God closed the door on Moses’ dream.

Moses’ immediate response was: “Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s community will not be like sheep who have no shepherd” (Numbers 27: 16-17). Please, Moses asks, choose someone who can lead the people with loving care; find someone to carry on the work and the vision; make sure the military, spiritual and emotional needs of my flock are met, so that they can go to — and remain in — the Promised Land.

Twelve chapters and 426 verses later comes our Torah portion, Vaetchanan. Moses finally does what most of us would have done immediately: he complains. He blames the people: “Adonai was cross with me on your account.” (Deuteronomy 3:26). He rehashes history and pounds on the closed door. The meaning of the word “Vaetchanan” is “he pleaded.” Moses petitions, praises and pleads. However, he quickly realizes that God’s decision will not be overturned. He will never have his dream.

Moses is not at his most generous in this Torah portion, but his accusations and disgruntlement humanize him. His appeal to God makes him accessible to us humans. Moses wanted something for himself. He asked, in effect, “What about me?”

This question should come as no great shock. The shock is that it took 12 chapters and 426 verses to get there.

What took so long? Moses was busy doing God’s work, imparting to the people the information they would need to know in this new land, negotiating apportionments, designating cities of refuge. Pleading his own case simply had to wait.

How many of us put the tasks and ideals of our work ahead of our own personal status? How many times, when faced with a crushing disappointment, do we think first of others and how they will bear it? How often, how quickly and for what duration do we complain? Within two verses of his complaint and God’s rebuke, Moses is back to the business of imparting God’s word to the people.

Have you followed the story of the Rev. Will Bowen, who asked his parishioners to take a 21-day “complaint fast”? To cultivate gratitude, he suggested that people voice no complaints for 21 days. As of this writing, 5,907,266 requests have come in for the “complaint-free world” rubber bracelets that the reverend gave out to his congregation as a learning tool. He distributed them with the recommendation to switch the bracelet to your other wrist every time you complain. When the bracelet stays on one wrist for three weeks, you will have formed a new habit. So far, out of almost 6 million people, 231 report a successful 21-day run of complaint-free speech.

Yes, there is something natural, human and probably inevitable about complaining. As the people who raised murmuring to a high art during the desert trek with Moses, Jews may have more precedent to complain than others. I once invented a game called “alphabetical kvetch,” and I have rarely had a problem getting Jews to play along.

I don’t think we can eliminate complaining. Not only do we need righteous protests against inequity, we need, sometimes, to plead, carp, cry or just vent. Bowen himself felt the need of a phrase that he and his wife could use to express irritation without feeding it. Whenever tempted to complain about anybody, they say instead, “I bet he sure can whistle.”

Abstinence from complaining for some period of time is a noble spiritual exercise, but I wouldn’t ask, long term, that people stop complaining entirely. I would ask — and I personally aspire — to shift the energy and the odds. On any given day, let us express more gratitude than complaints. Let us wait longer to complain and jump in faster to thank, praise, and give. Let us remember our dreams and serve them — even if we can’t experience them exactly as we might like. Let us be a little more like Moses and a little less like that neighbor of yours — you know the one, the very close neighbor — who sure can whistle.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana (www.makom.org). She aspires to achieve 21 days of complaint-free living before Rosh Hashanah and to preach on the High Holy Days about how to crowd out complaining with an overabundance of gratitude and peace.

Farewell, my beloved Mom

My mother’s body laid lifeless in front of me, wrapped thickly in a sheet and resting on a table in plain view. Her head and her feet were nearly indistinguishable.

I approached the rabbi to perform the traditional keriah, the ritual tearing of a mourner’s garment. He cut a small piece of my shirt with a blade and instructed me to rip it further. The sound was jarring, and it echoed throughout the crowded chapel at Eretz Hachayim, a cemetery just outside of Jerusalem.

Choking back tears, I approached the lectern to deliver my eulogy, one of several that day. After the eulogies, we said the Kaddish prayer and my Mom’s body was lifted by the men of the chevrah kadisha, or burial society, and carried in a somber, solemn procession to the gravesite she selected several years ago.

It was a mere 13 hours after she died at Hadassah Hospital following a three-week coma.
In Israel, burials happen quickly. They are stark, intimate, raw affairs. There is no casket, no hearse, no funeral-goers in fancy outfits; rather, everyone desses simply. The sheet-wrapped body of the deceased is within sight of everyone, and at the conclusion of the service it descends straight into the earth with no protective casing.

Just three weeks earlier, a call came in the middle of the night that my ailing 91-year-old mother had a seizure and fell into a coma. I took the first flight out from Los Angeles and was at her bedside every day throughout her coma, along with my three siblings who live in Israel.

Mom lived in Israel for 12 years, moving there at 79 after my father, Rabbi Benjamin Groner, had died. For Rebbetzin Frances Groner, living in Israel was a lifelong dream come true. She thrived and flourished in the Holy Land, making new friends, creating a wonderful community, and volunteering and fundraising for numerous causes like Amit Women, Hadassah, Herzog Hospital, Bikur Cholim Hospital and the League of Special Children, to name a few. After more than 50 years serving alongside my father at pulpits in Chicago, Windsor, Omaha and New Orleans, she had finally come home.

I visited her often in Israel, and watched her grow older and frailer over the years. She had suffered a stroke in late 2004 and subsequently declined in health, particularly in the last few months. It was sad to watch such a formerly vibrant woman full of energy and life — a woman who thrived on doing good deeds for others, especially hosting countless guests for Shabbat and holidays — looked after by a caretaker.

Suddenly, Mom’s life was but a memory as her body was swiftly lowered into the ground and shovelfuls of earth were placed upon her. We, the mourners, said Kaddish again, then turned and walked away to begin shivah, the week of intense mourning.

Several hundred people visited during the shivah — friends and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances, even several Los Angeles friends who were visiting Israel. It felt as if the entire nation was mourning with us. Everybody knew just what to say.

In Israel, visiting a shivah house is commonplace and everyone experiences it. Large posters in big, bold type announcing a person’s death and surround a shivah house, so it’s impossible not to feel the loss.

The shivah visitors shared their poignant stories and wonderful memories of Mom. Although I knew about her many admirers and how people adored her, I didn’t know how many lives she’s touched.

“I really want to emulate your mother, her kindness and her concern for others,” said one 19-year-old fan who just began his service in the Israel Defense Forces.

The shivah experience was draining at times, exhausting on occasion, but also invigorating — it was, essentially, a celebration of Mom’s life. Then suddenly, when the shivah ended, we were all thrown back into the real world. Of course, life will be rather atypical this year, as I’ll be saying Kaddish during morning, afternoon and evening services at synagogue every day in memory of Mom.

After returning from five weeks in Israel, I’m grateful for many things, including the caring, professional Hadassah Hospital staff and fellow hospital visitors — Jews, Arab and Christians — whom I befriended. We shared similar fears and concerns about ill family members, and we supported one another. I’m thankful for all the chessed, or lovingkindness, bestowed upon us by volunteers who provided complimentary daily and Shabbat meals.

I’m also indebted to many caring friends, acquaintances as well as my fellow congregants at Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, all of whom supported me during this crisis. They shared their concern and offered much-needed hope and sustenance during some very bleak days. Every e-mail and call I received lifted my spirits and consoled me in the midst of much difficulty and pain.

Finally, I’m grateful to the Almighty for having given me such a remarkable mother who, by example, taught her many offspring about the beauty of Judaism, how to lead meaningful lives and how important it is to do chesed for others. May her memory be a blessing.

Lewis Groner is director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. He can be reached at impactcomms@earthlink.net

L.A. Rabbis Voice Praise for John Paul II

Pope John Paul II died at 9:37 p.m. in Rome, which was 11:37 a.m. Saturday in Los Angeles — in the middle of Shabbat — at the same time that Rabbi David Wolpe talked to his Sinai Temple congregation about a pope who deserved the gratitude of the Jewish people.

“Although we are not without grievance, we are surely with thanks,” Wolpe said before the assembled at the Conservative temple in Westwood. “Considering the world from which he came, the church in which he was raised, the teachings that he heard — as did every Catholic in Europe for a thousand years, day after day, year after year — that he grew up to be the person who apologized to the Jewish people, who traveled to Israel, who visited Yad Vashem [the Holocaust museum in Israel], who went to the synagogue, who embraced rabbis, who spoke the truth, is an extraordinary feat. For that, he deserves our tribute and our thanks.”

Similar praise of John Paul II’s papacy and of his historic outreach to Jews echoed from bimahs throughout Los Angeles. Despite their disapproval of some Vatican decisions, Jewish leadership generally echoed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s CNN comment that John Paul II “will have a very important place in Jewish history — never have the relations between Catholics and Jews been as good.”

Praise also emanated from the pulpit at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox shul in the Pico-Robertson district.

“Everyone recognizes that no one is perfect, that there is no perfect record, but on the whole, there is a feeling of appreciation for what he accomplished, specifically for the Jewish people,” Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky said.

The pope met with many Southern California religious leaders during his 1987 visit to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, including Rabbi Emeritus Harvey Fields of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf.

“It was a very thoughtful and constructive meeting; it must have gone on for about an hour and a half,” Fields said. “The pope listened very carefully. He was most gracious.”

Fields, a Reform rabbi, added that the pope was most interested in hearing about the interreligious tenor of the town, and how religious groups worked together on behalf of the city.

“‘No matter what their religion, they are serving the same God,’ — those were almost his exact words,” Fields recalled.

“I thanked him for coming to Los Angeles. He shook his head and said, ‘We’re all brothers and sisters.'” The passing of a leader like the pope, Fields continued, “is a real loss.”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis had a private audience with the pope in Egypt in 1979. “All we did was basically greet each other, but I recognized in him one of the deepest friends of the Jewish people and a man of tremendous heroism,” said Schulweis, a longtime leader at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation.

Schulweis added that Jews should not be disappointed at Pope John Paul II’s interfaith missteps, “any more than I was disappointed that it took 2,000 years for the Bishop of Rome to pray in a synagogue. Jews have to learn patience and gradualism. It’s important for Jews to know that Mel Gibson does not speak for the Catholic Church.”

Among the clergy attending a Tuesday interfaith memorial at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels was Reform Rabbi Steven Jacobs, from Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. The longtime liberal activist saw a kindred soul in John Paul II, despite the pope’s opposition to abortion, the ordination of women priests and gay marriage. Because John Paul II just as fervently supported human rights, labor unions and global debt relief.

As the spry, athletic pope — who used to climb staircases two steps at a time — became stooped with Parkinson’s disease, Jacobs’ admiration deepened.

“He triggered a deep spiritual reflection on the meaning of my own life,” Jacobs said. “We rabbis are in the public all the time. He let the whole world see him struggle physically, and he maintained his dignity and his passion. That’s a great gift. Millions of people who suffer relate to him. He just empowered me as a human being and as a rabbi.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein said he drew strength from the blemish-free personal life of the pope, who began his papacy as an almost macho pontiff, excelling at kayaking, mountain climbing and skiing. He could take center stage and charm millions with the ease of a rock star, yet without rock star excesses.

“We live in a time that chews up heroes and spits them out,” said Adlerstein, adjunct professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. “Here’s a fellow who lasted in the public limelight for 26 years, and no one could attach a hint of scandal to him. No one could come up with a way of diminishing his integrity and his goodness. There are very few people in the world today who can restore the notion of the modern hero.”

Jews have a particular connection to John Paul II, because of his deep, personal remembrance of the Holocaust and because he saw to it that the Vatican officially recognized the State of Israel. But some criticized his private Vatican meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who served with Nazis units during World War II.

There also was discomfort with the Vatican’s continuing refusal to make public the baptism certificates of Jewish children who were raised as Catholics to save them from the Holocaust. Many of these children, now elderly Catholics, don’t know they were born Jewish.

“But it would be churlish, foolish, narrow and ungrateful,” Wolpe said, “not to realize that this pope’s position [regarding Jews] was different from that of his church and that of his predecessors.” In describing the pope, Wolpe alternated between the verb “is” and the verb “was,” even as the pope was passing from one state of being to the other.

Outside the Sinai sanctuary, a 90-year-old man wrapped in a prayer shawl stood among an overflow crowd. He listened as Wolpe’s tribute emanated from a loudspeaker mounted on a table.

In Yiddish, the elderly man said he came to the United States in 1939 from the Polish city of Krakow, where Karol Wojtyla served as archbishop before becoming Pope John Paul II in 1978. When asked after the sermon how he felt about his fellow Pole, the man gently waived away the question, pointed to his eyes and said, in English, “Cry.”

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A Priceless Day

You have three goals for your Sunday: wash your car, wash your clothes, wash yourself.

You’ve accomplished two of the three when you find yourself driving by the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax. You pull in and find a parking place right away, which you think is a good omen. This must be where you’re supposed to be.

You wander in and, before you know it, you’re totally lost and turned around, but you don’t mind. You just go with it. You walk through a narrow hallway and find yourself surrounded by produce, grapefruits on the left, long stalks of asparagus to your right. You walk by a crepe stand and inhale the smell of toasted nuts. You wander by a glass case that’s filled with wheels of cheese and jars of Nutella.

A guy asks for a quarter, and you give him a dollar.

You hear people speaking French, and you walk by a table of senior citizens, two of them reading The Jewish Journal. You smile.

At this point, you have no idea where you are in relation to your car. You set a goal for yourself, and it’s a simple one: deciding what to eat. You browse a shrimp salad the size of a human head. You flirt with the idea of a sub or an ice cream sundae. Secretly, you know those crepes are going to call you home, but you look, nonetheless.

Passing by a schlocky tourist store, you spy a stack of Chinese silk purses. You fiddle with them, testing the zippers and imagining yourself with each color before choosing an off-white coin purse and a turquoise wallet. You pay the man $4.79 and call him “sir” in your most polite voice.

Back in the fray, you pass a candy stall and notice rows of baggies, all $2, each filled with a different variety of gummy candies. You choose a bag of Swedish fish, carefully selecting the bag with the most red ones, because everyone knows the red fish are the best. You chew one as you find yourself back at the crepe stand.

You read the sports section as you wait for your tuna-and-swiss cheese crepe. It’s taking a while, but you don’t get annoyed, because you’re only goal is to eat, and you’re well on your way.

You sit in the sun, munching your crepe and remembering why canned tuna should never be served hot. You push aside the fish and eat the crepe shell, which is chewy and amazing. You understand at that moment why most religious faiths pray over food. You’re not really up on the correct prayer for a crepe, but you feel a sense of gratitude all the same.

You notice that other people are in couples, but you don’t feel jealous. You know that no one would have put up with all this wandering and purse shopping and painstaking Swedish fish selecting and endless, pointless staring at piles of beans and rice. You make a point of smiling at absolutely everyone who will look at you. You notice the candle shop will be giving out henna tattoos next week, and you vow to return.

You think about those credit card commercials: bag of gummy fish, $2; tuna crepe, $6; two silk purses, $4.79; fleeting sense of grace, priceless.

Teresa Strasser is a twenty something contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.