June 25, 2019

A rabbi’s eulogy for Steven Sotloff

“Is there a sorrow greater than this?” Rabbi Terry Bookman, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Miami where I grew up, asked as he opened Friday's memorial service for slain journalist Steven Sotloff.

“Where’s our consolation?”

In his tribute to Steven, who was my friend, Rabbi Bookman asked the hard, rhetorical questions that often accompany grief:

“Can there be a lament greater than for a young life lost?”

During the 90-minute service, Bookman called upon the community to support Steven’s family – Arthur, Shirley and sister, Lauren Sotloff – as they begin to cope with their loss, and confront “joys unrealized, tasks undone, hopes aborted, growth arrested, love blighted, challenges still unmet,” according to notes taken by my sister, Jessi Berrin, who attended in my stead.

Through a relative, it was revealed during the service that Steven was able to smuggle two letters to his parents, through other captive journalists who were later released. In his final note, written last May, Steven wrote, “Stay positive and patient. If we aren't reunited, my hope is God will be merciful enough to reunite us in heaven.”

After the service, I wrote to Rabbi Bookman and asked if he would share his eulogy for Steven with Jewish Journal readers. He heartily agreed. 

It is customary in the Jewish tradition to follow the name of someone deceased with the phrase zichrono livracha (zichrona, for a female), abbreviated in writing as Z”l. It means “may his/her memory be a blessing. After my mother died, I learned from Leon Wieseltier’s “Kaddish” that the phrase was originally meant to be articulated, “May his/her memory be a blessing for life in the world to come.

Modern Jews, Wieseltier argues, shortened the locution and changed its meaning, so that the living would be blessed by a person’s memory. But really, Wieseltier writes, the rabbis meant the locution to be a blessing for the deceased — where they are; in the world to come.

Steven Sotloff was taken from the world too soon. He was too young to meet his ending. And with all the countless wonders he will never experience, I believe he needs that original blessing – the blessing for life in the world to come – so that his legacy and his light will shine and sustain him, as well as those who loved him, always.

EULOGY for Steven Sotloff
By Rabbi Terry Bookman
September 5, 2014

In June of this year I wrote, “ The Muslims of the world need to root out the cancerous jihadists in their midst…and until that time, I am afraid, the rights of minorities and women will be suppressed, terror will reign, and innocent blood will continue to be shed.”  On Tuesday of this week, though as a community we prayed for a far different outcome, we were horrified, anguished, and immensely saddened to learn that this cancer took the life of our Steven Sotloff.

For those of you who have suffered through this deadly disease, or watched a loved one ravaged by it, you know that cancer is truly evil.  It strikes randomly, young and old, male and female, rich and poor;  cancer does not care who you are or who you love; what you do, or what you stand for.  It grows, stealthily in our bodies and unless it is caught early, and fought with everything we have at our disposal, it will gradually take over until there is little left, and we are gone.

It is a bitter irony that Steven was their victim.  Of all people, Steven, whose smile was as big as his heart, was an idealistic young man whose only desire in his journalistic efforts was to bring a human face to the conflict.  Shored by his Jewish values, schooled by his beloved grandparents who survived the greatest genocide in the history of our people, nurtured by his family, and taught by our Day School and this synagogue, Steven believed deeply that ALL people were created in the image of God, the One God of all humanity.  We may call him Adonai, while others call upon Him as Jesus or Allah, but Steven knew we all have one Father, which makes us one family on earth.

Steven had deep respect for Islamic culture.  He became fluent in Arabic and read the passages in the Koran that call for peace on earth and the establishment of just communities that truly watch out for and care for everyone.  He felt the suffering of those who lived under despotic dictatorships which is why he wanted to tell their stories.  Which he did.  He went to places we only read about in the headlines, sought out people, became their voice.  And what a beautiful voice it was.  Honest, compassionate, empathic.  I was so proud of him.  He saw no barriers between himself and those about whom he wrote.  Truly.  And though aware of the danger, his confidence in the goodness that lies at each person’s core, helped him overcome his anxiety and fear. In the end, Steven was taken from us, not because of who he was, but because of what he represented—freedom, the acceptance of others, and the equality of all people regardless of race, creed, religion or national identity.

Steven was living his dream, his passion.  He loved to write, he loved people, and he loved to travel the world.  He was a proud and committed Jew, a loyal American and a citizen of Israel.  He felt at home wherever he went, and wherever he was, people felt comfortable with him.  Knowing Steven, I believe that while he was aware of the severity of his situation, that he was certain his captors would see the light and return him to his loving family.  That he would come home, settle down, marry, give his parents some grandchildren, his sister Lauren some nieces and nephews, and with that beautiful smile and slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye, tell stories of the days in which the world was in turmoil but where he found his inner peace.