Montreal police: Soap not made from human remains

A lab analysis of a swastika-stamped bar of soap said to be made from Holocaust victims shows no human remains.

The beige bar, said to have been made during the Nazi era and put for sale at a Montreal curiosity shop, made headlines in March when the owner claimed it was made from the fat of Holocaust victims. The shop owner had said he bought it from a former soldier and that it was from Poland circa 1940.

Montreal police seized the item following complaints from Bnai B’rith Canada and a media frenzy. The incident also triggered debate over whether the Nazis made soap from human remains at all. The item was sent to a laboratory near Toronto, which conducted tests for both human and animal DNA. The soap tested negative for both.

“It’s just a regular bar of soap,” Montreal Police Inspector Paul Chablo told the Canadian Press.

Shop owner Abraham Botines said in a March interview with the Canadian Press that he didn’t know whether the soap was actually made of human remains. Botines, who is Jewish, said he had tried to sell the bar to a Holocaust museum. He was asking about $300 for the item.

Police don’t plan to pursue any charges, and the soap will be returned to the shop.

Spectator – What It Looks Like From Here

Biting off more than most of us can chew, husband and wife authors Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams have taken on the enormously ambitious task of tackling that age-old question: How did the world get here, and does our existence really matter? Primack is a professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, and Abrams a lawyer and writer with a life-long term interest in science; their new book, “The View From the Center of the Universe, Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos” (Riverhead Books, 2006), uses cosmology — the astrophysical study of the history and structure of the universe – to meld “Meaning” and science to reach a greater understanding of the origins of life. In the process they also show how humans have long sought connections between their actions on earth and the cosmos.

The book is dense and deals with many complex theories, histories and sciences in layman’s language. After examining the makeup and history of the universe using current scientific data, Primack and Abrams argue that humans hold an essential place in the universe and are not merely inconsequential beings in the great unknown. They argue that our current knowledge of the verifiable scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity gives us a unique understanding of the universe and the opportunity to shape the future destiny of the planet we live on.

The book discusses origin stories and myths from many religions, but it is the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah that best resonates with the authors’ view of our role in the universe.

“The interesting thing about the Kabalistic creation story — particularly the version of it that was developed by [16th century Kabbalist] Isaac Luria — is that it has certain similarities to the modern scientific story,” Primack said in a joint Journal interview with Abrams. “In the Kabalistic story the creation of the universe is connected to the human role in it, and that is what we are trying to do — connect people with the cosmos.”

Nevertheless, their own Jewish backgrounds did not limit their exploration, they say.

“Meaning is not owned by one religion,” Abrams said. “We are Jews, we think like Jews, but we don’t restrict ourselves to the imagery and the concepts that come from Judaism. We try to find the most apt mythological description [from any religion] for these concepts.”

Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams will lecture on “The View from the Center of the Universe” on May 11 at UC Irvine, Room 100 Engineering Lecture Hall at 8 p.m. For more information visit

Mideast Clash Not About Religion

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a dispute over land, it is about an occupation that must end and it is about a people who deserve a state. But it is not a religious dispute.

For too long, the assumption that this is a religious conflict has gone unquestioned, with dangerous consequences. A friend of two British men of Pakistani descent, who set off explosives in London on July 7 that killed themselves, along with more than 50 others, told the Washington Post recently he had seen the bombers watching a DVD that purported to show an Israeli soldier killing a Palestinian girl.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the most jumped-upon bandwagons in both the Arab and the Muslim world, but framing it in religious terms serves no one’s interest, least of all the Palestinians.

The humiliation of the 1967 defeat, or the Naksa, not only dealt a deadly blow to pan-Arabism, which up till then had been the patron father of the Palestinian cause, but it also opened the door for Islamists to claim the Israeli-Palestinian issue as their own. And ever since, they have steadily shaped it to their liking.

The Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist groups in the Arab world used the 1967 defeat to remind the region’s mostly secular leaders that their defeat was because of those leaders’ godlessness. And ever since, the more Islamic you could make Palestine, the more legitimate you became.

So it is no wonder that Hamas has moved to the forefront of Palestinian politics, along with an Islamist ideology that bans cultural festivals and which it uses to act like the moral police of the Palestinians.

Encouraged to flourish by Israel in the 1980s as a counterweight to the secular Fatah — in the same way that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to keep in check Nasserites and leftists — Hamas was all too happy to frame the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in religious terms that pitted Muslims against Jews.

The less democratic and more corrupt Palestinian politics became under Yasser Arafat, the more the Islamist way of doing things moved center stage. And so, suicide bombings, which had long been the bloody signature of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, were adopted by Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Muftis and clerics in the Arab world gave their blessings to suicide bombings, laying another layer of religiosity atop the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These same muftis and clerics today are trying to persuade us that violence in the name of religion is wrong but it is too late — their damage will take years to undo.

Suicide bombings do not come with an off button, and once they were made legitimate against Israelis, what was to stop them from being used against others? Suicide bombings are the Muslim weapon of choice not only in London and Israel but in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They are killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet our imams and scholars cannot condemn them.

For too long, the easiest Friday sermon to give began and ended by cursing the “Zionists,” often interchanging Zionist with Jew, stopping along the way to inflame the worshippers with news of the latest humiliations or atrocities committed against the Palestinians.

So nobody should have been surprised that after years of not uttering a word about Palestine nor about the struggle of its people to be free of occupation and to have a state of their own, Osama bin Laden suddenly discovered the goldmine that lay beneath the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Was anyone paying attention when two young British men of Pakistani descent went to Israel to carry out a suicide attack on a Tel Aviv nightclub on April 30, 2003? Assif Muhammad Hanif, blew himself up at Mike’s Place, a Tel Aviv nightspot, killing three other people. Two weeks later, the body of another British citizen, Omar Khan Sharif, who Israeli investigators say fled the bar after a bomb he was carrying failed to detonate, was found in the sea off Tel Aviv.

Who persuaded these young men to leave Britain and go to Israel to die for Palestine?

Cynical terrorist masterminds who are all too willing to send young Muslim men to their deaths have long exploited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to their own ends. And irresponsible clerics and religious leaders, radical or otherwise, use the conflict to flesh out the victimized-Muslim scenario.

If only they would deliver equally impassioned sermons encouraging our young people in the West to become more active members of their communities and to not live caught between two worlds: a Muslim one at home and in the mosque; an “infidel” one outside.

Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue for the simple reason that it concerns Christians, too. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. Muslims do not own the conflict.

Jerusalem is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Bethlehem is home to the Church of the Nativity. There are plenty of Palestinian Christians also living under occupation, and their plight is not made any easier because they are Christian. Israeli soldiers and Israeli tanks do not distinguish between Muslim and Palestinian Christians.

By allowing Islamists to co-opt the conflict, by allowing it to become an issue that is supposed to inflame Muslim anger around the world, the Palestinian cause loses the sympathy of many people who might otherwise lend support, but feel alienated by the increasingly Muslim terms within which the conflict is expressed.

It is long past time to wrestle back Palestine from the grasp of Islamists who have been all too eager to fly its flag for their own political ends. It is imperative to condemn suicide attacks everywhere — they are wrong when they are carried out in Israel, and they are wrong when they are carried out in Baghdad, London or Sharm el-Sheikh.

And it is about time we said loud and clear that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Muslim issue. It is a human issue.

Mona Eltahawy is a New York-based commentator. A different version of this opinion piece appeared in the newspaper, Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab publication for which she writes a weekly column. Her Web site is

Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling

May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.

Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.

"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.

Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."

Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.

Kids Page

10 Commandments

On Shavuot, we read special sections from the Torah. One of those is the Ten Commandments. The first five are engraved on the right tablet. The second five on the left. The first five, according to the rabbis, fall into the category of commandments “between humans and God” — like: Do not make idols or worship other gods. The second five fall into the category of “between human and human.” But the commandment “Honor thy father and mother” is on the second tablet. Is this a commandment between humans and God?

The rabbis say that although our parents gave birth to us, God was involved in giving us life and raising us. That is why when we honor our parents, we are also honoring God. I am writing this on Mother’s Day, and I can tell you the rabbis are right. I couldn’t have done it without God’s help!

What do you feel about Israel? Send us your poems and writing about Israel. We’ll pick as many as we can to appear on our Kid’s Page! Send your poems to

Jerusalem in My Heart

By Benjamin Ackerman

Jerusalem is a beautiful place,

When you go there you might have tears in your face.

The reason is because of the wars,

They could steal your babies and knock down your doors.

The Golden Dome is a beautiful sight,

When the sun shines on it, the dome looks so bright.

In the Western Wall there are prayers for peace,

When the enemies try and get them, they scare off the geese.

So let’s all pray for no more wars,

For no more stolen babies and knocked down doors.

Benjamin Ackerman is in the third grade at Sinai Akiba Academy

The Birth of Chutzpah

We believe in a God who dreams. The Torah is the story of the transaction between God’s dreams and human reality. God dreams of a world of goodness. God creates humanity – fashioned in the divine image – to share the dream. But human beings betrayed God’s dreams. We filled the world with violence and murder. God despaired of having created humanity and decided to wash the world clean. But one human being caught God’s eye – one good man. So God saved Noah and his family, together with a set of earth’s animals to begin the world again.

And again, humanity disappointed God. We defiled God’s world with idolatry and evil. Once more, God’s dream was betrayed. This time, God pursued a different strategy – God took a partner. Having failed to create the good man, having failed to choose the good man, God endeavored to teach goodness, beginning with one family, one man – Abraham. Through Abraham, God would reach humanity’s heart and share the divine dream. “Go forth… and be a blessing” (Gen. 12:1-2).

This is the Torah’s most radical idea: God needs us. God enlists us as partners. To share the dream of a world of goodness, God establishes a covenant with us.

Partnership is a unique relationship. A partner must disclose himself. God wonders: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … Since I have singled him out that he may instruct his children to keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:17-19). God is bound by the terms of the covenant.

How radical is this? Contrast it with another biblical character. Job lost his children, wealth and health. Out of his agony, he accuses God and despairs of God’s justice in the world: “He destroys the blameless and the guilty… The earth is handed over to the wicked. He covers the eyes of its judges. If it is not He, then who?” (Job 9:22-24) Finally, God responds to Job, “out of the tempest [God] said, ‘Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge?'” (Job 38:1) Displaying the sweep of divine power, God challenges Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you ever commanded the day to break? Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea?” (Job 38: 4, 12, 16) Stunned into submission by God’s awesome power, Job surrenders, “I know that you can do everything, that nothing is impossible for you… I therefore recant and relent being but dust and ashes,” Job says (Job 42:2-6). Job is not part of the covenant. He accepts God’s display of power as the last word and relents before he receives the explanation of God’s justice that he had so adamantly sought.

In contrast, Abraham is God’s partner, and partners can disagree. When God decries the evil of Sodom, “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? … Far be it from you to do such a thing to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that righteous and the evil fare alike. Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?… I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.'” (Gen. 18:23-25, 27)

The language echoes Job. Abraham, too, knows he is dust and ashes, but Abraham is God’s partner, and partners are accountable to one another. Partners share a common moral language. In the ensuing narrative, Abraham bargains with God. For 50 righteous, God will spare the city. For 45, 40, 30, 20, 10. It is breathtaking to witness. Undaunted by God’s power, Abraham assails God in the name of God’s own dream. Thus is born covenantal chutzpah – the quintessential element of Jewish character.

Covenantal chutzpah reflects an unremitting expectation and demand that the world can rise to a higher moral standard. Cynicism, stoic resignation, passivity and surrender are foreign to the Jewish character. Serenity is not a Jewish virtue – not as long as the world is filled with evil and suffering. We share God’s dreams. We are not about to accept quietly the world as it is. We are God’s partner. In that is our highest purpose.

The Neurobiology of Teshuvah

As a scientist and a believer in human progress, I have been concerned about how well the established process of teshuvah (repentance) has worked. Yom Kippur after Yom Kippur – in fact, since the 11th century – we have recited the same confessional prayer, “Al Chet.” If we were any good at repentance, shouldn’t the list have changed in 1,000 years? Even if we don’t want to change the ancient formula, shouldn’t we be able to feel that we had eliminated or reduced at least a few on the list? Yet the list of sins remains the same, as does the ritual for expunging them. Why haven’t we improved?

Perhaps we are genetically stuck. The newspapers and scientific journals are full of genetic determinism. Human geneticists, aided by the massive investment in the human genome project, have identified hundreds of genes in which specific alterations cause conditions that range from mental retardation to dyslexia. Mouse geneticists have created models not only of human disease, but also of mating and mental processing. One recent headline concerned genetically engineered male mice that spent more or less time grooming their mates, according to which piece of regulatory DNA they received. Other transgenic mice were better than their sibs in learning to find an underwater platform.

Or maybe we are stuck with the particular wiring of our brains. A person who suffers a stroke that affects one region of the brain cannot hear; another person can hear but cannot recognize words; another can recognize words but cannot identify a photograph of the President; another can recognize the President but cannot identify the function of a hammer or a screwdriver. Similarly, a range of neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders – many of which have genetic components – affect thought, memory, mood, and even religious experience.

In the face of such powerful biological constraints, can we really hope to change ourselves or our community? The answer is certainly yes.

It is true that genes determine the basic wiring of the brain and therefore the basic processing pathways for external information and internal feelings. But the brain is nothing if not a learning machine.

Neuroscientists talk about the brain’s plasticity, meaning that the brain can not only change but that it can also maintain those changes over time. Genes certainly influence many aspects of the brain’s structure and operations, but – as our everyday experience attests – genes alone do not determine who we are or what decisions we will make about our lives.

Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.

In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively entraining alternate neural pathways.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have been working hard to understand the nature of these changes, in humans and other primates, in mice and rats, even in fruit flies and sea hares. Several lessons have emerged. First, even without changing their circuitry, nerve cells can change the intensity of their communication with one another so that a particular circuit works more or less easily as a result of experience; a sea hare escapes more rapidly from noxious stimulus after several encounters, just as practice modifies our facility on a bicycle or a dance floor.

A particularly exciting recent discovery has been that, contrary to our previous understanding, some nerve-cell precursors preserve their capacity to divide even into adult life. These progenitors can generate new nerve cells in response to environmental stimulation. Putting young rats into an enriched environment (for example, by placing toys and other objects into their normally bleak cages) stimulates the proliferation of these cells, suggesting a cellular basis for the well-known benefits of a rich environment in early childhood. In the not too distant future, these neural progenitor cells may provide a means for repairing brains and spinal cords damaged by disease or injury.

Even without dividing, however, nerve cells can alter their shape and their connections as a result of environment and experience. Some of the most extraordinary such changes occur during the recovery from brain or spinal cord injury. Nerve cells – in both the brain and spinal cord – sprout new connections and make new signaling molecules. More heavily used neural pathways sometimes even take over from unused circuits, for example, in those pathways once connected to a now-amputated limb.

One well-known case involves an impressive man named Craig Dobkin, who was badly hurt in a climbing accident, severing his lower spinal cord so that he lost conscious control of his legs. Craig had some good fortune, however, in that his brother is Dr. Bruce Dobkin, Director of Neurorehabilitation at UCLA, a man who has pioneered new methods for retraining the brain and spinal cord after stroke and spinal cord injury. As a result of this retraining, Craig’s spinal cord has learned to pattern his leg movements even though it no longer communicates directly with the brain. The important result is that Craig can move on crutches, rather than only in a wheel chair.

Since his accident, Craig Dobkin has founded an organization called Play for Peace, which brings children from conflicting cultures together through cooperative play. The goal of Play for Peace is to promote positive relationships among people who have a history of intercultural tension, starting in Jerusalem with Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. By bringing children with unique backgrounds, values, and beliefs together through the seemingly simple act of play, Play for Peace sows seeds of compassion. It is as if Craig Dobkin has adapted his brother Bruce’s method of fostering spinal cord plasticity to the fostering of moral plasticity.

Our capacity for teshuvah is, I believe, a reflection of our neural plasticity. The limitations of our teshuvah do not reflect genetic programs, but the more basic problem of the nature of sin itself. Indeed, many of the sins listed in the “Al Chet” confessional seem to be rather subtle distortions of activities and thoughts that are positive: sinful meditations do not occur in an uncontemplative person; nor does contentiousness or scoffing arise in someone who has separated from the community; and sinful confession of the lips can only happen in someone who is moved to confession in the first place. Our problem then is to unravel the good from the evil. We need to increase our capacity to discern.

How can we take advantage of neural plasticity in making such important distinctions? To the extent that we can choose our experiences Рinternal and external Рwe can consciously change the workings of our brains, just as Craig Dobkin can consciously Рif indirectly Рchange the workings of his legs. Just as we gradually learn to discriminate between creativity and clich̩ in literature, art, movies and music, we must train ourselves to discriminate morally between expansiveness and aggressivity, between involvement and voyeurism, between helpfulness and presumption. In our teshuvah, we must train ourselves to become connoisseurs of our own actions. The bad news is that this task is highly complex; the good news is that our brains are on our side Рintellectually and emotionally. The meaning of the annual repetition of the same sins may be that our tradition recognizes that this struggle inevitably must continue from year to year.

For more information about Play for Peace, visit

Being Perfect

Consider the lyrics of Cheryl Wheeler’s song “Unworthy”:

“I’m unworthy — and no matter what I’m doing I should certainly be doing something else.

And it’s selfish, to be thinking I’m unworthy. All this me, me, me, me, self, self, self, self, self.

I should learn how to meditate and sew and bake and dance and paint and sail and make gazpacho.

I should let someone teach me to run Windows and learn French that I can read and write and speak.

I should get life in prison for how I treated my parents from third grade until last week.

And I should spend more time playing with my dog and much less money on this needless junk I buy.

I should send correspondence back to everyone who’s written, phoned or faxed since junior high.

I should sit with a therapist until I understand the way I felt back in my mom.

I should quit smoking, drinking, eating, thinking, sleeping, watching TV, and work harder at getting along.

I should know CPR and deep massage and Braille and sign language and how to change my oil.

I should go where the situation’s desperate and build and plant and trudge and tote and toil.

I’m unworthy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to feel worthy. Most of us expect an awful lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from our children. They’re pushed, coached, tutored and tested to the point that they feel loved for their performance, not their essence. We expect a lot of our parents and spouses, who, after all, do the best they can, just like we do. Yet we have such a hard time forgiving them their human frailties. Sometimes we have a hard time forgiving ourselves for being human, too.

Stand in line at the supermarket and look at the magazine covers. Then look at the people looking at the magazine covers; comparing themselves, their bodies, their lives, to those described in the glossy pages. Imagine what middle-aged men are thinking when they read about “dot com” kids — young men and women in their 20’s worth tens of millions.

L.A. ranks number one in cosmetic surgery and has the neat distinction of having the highest number of parents springing for breast implants as high school graduation presents so that their daughters can go off to college with “enhanced self-esteem.” We live in a city that manufactures and upholds superhuman images of perfection, raising the standard of what it means to be worthy — to its most ridiculous.

The Torah knew better; all of its heroes are imperfect. Abraham is a lousy father and husband but he’s called “the friend of God.” Jacob plays favorites with his sons. Joseph is arrogant. Moses loses his temper. Virtually every family in the Torah is dysfunctional. When God creates the world it’s called “good,” not perfect, just “good.” For God, good is good enough. God does not expect us to be perfect.

The rabbis make it clear through the special name and Torah reading assigned to this Shabbat. This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. On it, we read one of the weirdest stories in the entire Torah. It has to do with when a person feels contaminated by something he has done wrong and is therefore unworthy of coming into God’s presence. That person can cleanse and purify himself by undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer. A cow with completely red skin, without a single discolored hair or blemish is sacrificed and its ashes made into a paste that is applied to the person to purify him.

What’s this bizarre ritual really about? Here’s what one rabbi thinks. “The Red Heifer represents perfection. It is slaughtered to make the point that perfection has no place in this world. Perfect creatures belong in heaven, not on earth.”

Despite what we might surmise standing in line at the supermarket, L.A. and the rest of the world is for those of us with imperfections. God does not expect us to be God. God does not expect us to be perfect human beings. God only expects us to be humane.

The writer Anne Lamott put it this way: “I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up, I found that God handed you these rusty, bent, old tools — friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty — and said, ‘Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.'”

To Anne Lamott, to Cheryl Wheeler, to all of us who feel unworthy, our ancestors speak across a thousand generations this Shabbat Parah; slaughtering perfection and grinding it to a pulp. Reminding us that friendship, prayer, conscience and honesty might not be perfect, but they’re good, and good is good enough.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House, Inc.

The Only Choice We Have

Sometimes the same thing that got you into trouble can get you out of it. Take for example the fact that in last week’s Torah portion, our ancestors used their gold jewelry to fashion a golden calf. For this act of idolatry and faithlessness, thousands were killed as God’s anger poured down upon them like a river of fire.

This week, just one parashat later, the people donate more gold jewelry, this time for building the Tabernacle; the act and the place that ultimately lead the people to a true sense of religious faith. Last week, it was gold; this week it was gold. Last week, disaster; this week, triumph. It’s not the gold itself that determined the outcome for our ancestors, it’s how they use it.

The same is true for a lot of things in life — especially sorrow. I see a lot of pain in my line of work; all rabbis do. Sometimes it’s a lost job, sometimes a marriage, sometimes a life. What I’ve learned time and time again is, like gold in the hands of our ancestors, it’s not the tragedy itself that determines the outcome, it’s how we use it. For some, adversity marks the end of joy and meaning; it makes them hard and cruel. But there are others to whom trouble comes just as sharp, deep and dark, but who somehow find a way to turn their ache into sympathy, their sadness into love.

Here is a true story about just such a person. It was a miracle witnessed by a clerk in a cemetery office.

Every week, for several years, the mild little man received an envelope from a woman he did not know. The envelope always included a money order and note instructing him to put fresh flowers on her son’s grave. One day, a chauffeur came into the clerk’s office to speak to him.

“The lady outside is too ill to walk,” he explained. “Would you mind coming with me to speak with her?”

The shy clerk walked over and looked into the car where a frail, elderly woman with sad eyes sat in the back seat. A great bundle of flowers was in her arms.

“I am Mrs. Adams. Every week for years I’ve been sending you a money order.”

“For the flowers!” the clerk exclaimed. “I’ve never failed to place them on your son’s grave.”

“I came here today myself because the doctors have told me I have only a few weeks left. I’m not sorry really. I have nothing left to live for. But before I die I wanted to take one last look at my son’s grave and to put the flowers there myself.”

“You know, ma’am, I was always sorry you kept sending the money for the flowers.”


“Yes, because the flowers last such a short time and no one ever gets to see them or smell them. You know there are thousands of people in hospitals and nursing homes that love flowers, and they can see them and smell them. But there isn’t anybody in that grave. Not really.”

The old woman did not answer. She sat for a while and left without a word. The clerk was afraid he had offended her. But a few weeks later he was surprised with another visit. This time there was no chauffeur. The woman sat at the wheel, driving herself.

“I took the flowers to the people myself,” she said to the clerk with a smile. “You were right, it does make them happy. And it makes me happy. The doctors don’t understand what’s making me well. But I do.”

It’s a simple, true story about the same woman using the same money to buy the same flowers for a different purpose, not unlike our ancestors and their gold. It’s a simple, true story about the fact that sooner or later tragedy, sorrow and error come to us all — it’s part of what it means to be human and alive. Often, we have no choice but to experience pain. The only choice we have is how to use it.

Steven Z. Leder is rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

The Truth Hurts

Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, “Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world.” But the angel of compassion countered, “Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world.” The angel oftruth argued, “Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies.” And the angel of justice countered, “Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness.” What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.

The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamentalincompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth.We can’t tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves — ourfailures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur,Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.

Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such apassionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life.Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect ahuman life. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass ofwine.

But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearsedeath. We deny the body — fasting (which, for Jews, is a form ofdeath), abstaining from sexual intimacy, and removing our jewelry andfinery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, todon the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel– a death shroud. In medieval monasteries, monks slept each night intheir coffins, to remind themselves that the wage of sin is death.That’s morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confrontdeath, is cleansing. For, in the face of death, all therationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and weare forced to see who and what we really are.

The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that onYom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or herlife through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, whatin our lives matters? What is real? What is important? What isvaluable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the needlessobsessions and worries that waste our souls and sap ourstrength?

Despite all our evasions, the truth is that wedon’t have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life’sfinitude forces us to have priorities and makes our choicesimportant. Pretend for a moment that you had only 25 hours to live.To whom would you run to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I loveyou”? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair?What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? Whatwould you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbilong enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at thegraveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared,for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.

“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist,”to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But oncea year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage ofillusions and excuses so that we can begin the new year with renewedstrength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May yoube sealed in God’s Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.