November 16, 2018

Kindness to Animals

The other day we found this little fellow sitting in the driveway at work. He was not moving, breathing heavily, and clearly struggling. My heart just broke for him and I never once thought about his being a rat, just that he was an animal in trouble. I wanted to help him and wasn’t sure how. By help him of course I mean take him home, introduce him to the cats, teach him how to speak English, and have him cook ratatouille for me. He was a sweet boy and I was on a mission to help.

He was trying very hard to walk, but kept tipping over. Bless him. We put him into a box and gave him some seeds and fruit. He was weary, but started to eat and seemed to be quite happy with his meal. He slowly started to regulate his breathing and within a half hour was walking around the box. He may have simply been in shock and terrified, rather than seriously hurt. We thought perhaps he had fallen off of the driveway gate and broke something, but he was getting better.

While he was eating and catching his breath, I called my local vet to see what I should do. I was placed on hold and then told by the receptionist she had spoken to the vet and he said to bring it in and he would take care of it. I was thrilled, until she clarified that by taking care of it, he would be euthanized. Not on my watch he wouldn’t. I get he is a run of the mill rat, but his life has value. I sound like the bleeding heart, liberal, vegetarian that I am, but whatever. He mattered to me.

The beautiful little rat ate his seeds and chilled out, then became restless and was trying to get out of the box. He got his footing back and was ready to go home, so we took him away from the street, up into the canyon, and let him go. He was given a stockpile of food, and simply sat there and ate. I think he was appreciative and counting his blessings. He looked at us with gratitude and it was special. I thought about going to check on him later in the day, but decided against it.

Mother Nature is powerful and she needs to take care of things in her own way. My job was to give another living creature comfort during a trying time, and I would do the same for any creature. Except perhaps a roach. I would not give a roach comfort. I would also not kill it, just run away screaming. I love animals, don’t eat them, and my heart breaks when they suffer at the hands of a human. Mother Nature can do her thing, but we must be kind because we are all in this together.

When you see an animal in trouble, help it. When you want to get a dog or a cat, get one from a shelter and give an animal who is sad and lonely, joy and comfort. Animals are truly wonderful and I am grateful for the interaction I had this week with a rat. I never thought I would say such a thing, but that is the great thing about kindness. It comes up in unexpected ways and will bring you profound happiness if you are willing to pay attention and are keeping the faith.


The Privilege of Gratitude

Photo from Flickr/Shannon Kringen.

About a decade ago, when I was trying desperately to conceive, I read an essay by a woman who was traumatized by the fact that her obstetrician had to use last-minute medical intervention during the delivery of her baby. She had spent months, she explained, taking every measure to ensure that she would have a natural childbirth. And then: She had to succumb to “Western medicine.” The fact that she ended up delivering a healthy baby was only one sentence in her 3,000-word essay.

At the time I read this, I hadn’t realized how her essay was emblematic of a much larger victimization culture. I just remember thinking: Wow, this woman is truly ungrateful.

Today, of course, victim status has become a privileged achievement. Forget innovation or helping to improve the world. What gets you published on the cool websites is being able to detail a horrible thing that “society” has done to you, and nursing those wounds for as much empathy (pity?) as you can get.

Leaving aside the potential harm to their targets, I have come to feel sorry for our modern-day victim junkies. For one, they have confused theory for reality. They appear to have learned — perhaps at an esteemed university? — that the world is divided into oppressors and oppressed, victimizers and victims, and every encounter can classify you — “privilege” you — as a victim, a revered member of the oppressed class.

What they don’t seem to have learned is that Marxism failed precisely because Marx forgot to take into account human nature. Human nature is complex. Life isn’t perfect. Bad things happen.

Victimization theory has been trying to create a fabricated world where humanity can be perfected. Humanity cannot be perfected, only improved. And, of course, one victim’s oppressor is often another person’s savior. The same “Western medicine” that this woman bemoaned enabled me to deliver a healthy boy two years later.

But there’s a more essential point: Why would you want to be a victim? My older brother tormented me for nearly 15 years. He caused my first set of stitches. I could have wallowed throughout my teens and 20s; instead, at 16 I started dating his best friend. That ended that.

My brother went on to become a successful doctor who loves and respects me. He also went on to go through two massive tragedies that put my childhood victimization instantly into perspective. His first wife was run over by a car. His second son died during delivery. He too could have wallowed in a victim state. Instead, he grieved deeply, and then gently moved on.

If we’re going to be honest about human nature, let’s acknowledge that embracing a victim status can be tempting. I was tempted myself recently, when I was working on a book project and someone tried to sabotage it. For months, I got so caught up in that mindset that I didn’t allow myself to fully enjoy the project, and the positivity it was generating.

When you wallow in victim status, there is no room to feel gratitude.

Which leads me back to my initial point: When you wallow in victim status, there is no room to feel gratitude, and it is the ability to feel gratitude that is one of life’s great privileges. It is the ability to stop for a few minutes each day and appreciate our children, our friends, the beauty of life. Even those of us who have not been brainwashed by victimization theory often forget to feel gratitude. Yes, we do after sickness or tragedy, but the elevated life is to find gratitude in the mundane.

I have a Facebook friend in India who sends me a meme of gratitude every night. Initially, I found it odd (I had never interacted with him), and then, when life wasn’t going well, I’d find it annoying. But I’ve come to think of these memes as welcome daily reminders.

And you know the funny thing about gratitude? When we allow ourselves to feel it, the fact that we and life are not perfect becomes an afterthought. Life, however messed up it is at times, is indeed beautiful, and each moment is indeed a blessing. And when you learn to look for the light, it will find you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

A Debt of Gratitude

Autumn Fall rustic background on aqua blue vintage distressed wood with autumn leaves and decorations.

To mark Thanksgiving, the Journal asked some of its staff members and others to recall people in their lives to whom they are grateful.

Five years ago, I worked in Uganda as a Global Health Fellow. I met a 12-year-old named Conrad when I went out with my Frisbee after work one day.

I came to learn that “Connie” experienced friendships with an open, trusting heart. He asked after my family with great sincerity. He appreciated my being in his life, but more so, appreciated everything in his life, bearing hardships with grace and shamelessly admitting his fears, hopes and cares. He was guileless in his emotions. Once he admitted that he was hungry and it was hard to concentrate.

By that time, I was in New York, trying a three-day cleanse, intentionally limiting my food intake.

Yes, I’ve learned a lot from Connie.

We Skyped last week, just after he celebrated his 18th birthday. He soon will take his final school exams, and, he hopes, begin college next fall. I am grateful to have had the privilege these years of being in his life, cheering him on for his next steps, but more grateful for him being in mine, unknowingly teaching me how to be a better person.

Nedra Hoffman

Whenever I bake a chocolate cake, it’s in honor of my friend Doly, who lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. I make sure to put candy hearts all over it because Doly always served me chocolate cake when I visited and her friendship got me through some of my hardest years.  Doly hated baking and was of the belief that “true talent lies in knowing how to buy well.” And she did. In the first year after she died, if the cakes I baked were true to the way I felt, all the little hearts on them would have been broken. Now, all that remains are my memories of her and my gratitude that she was in my life, even all too briefly.

Yamit Wood, Food Editor

When I was a little girl, visits to my Aunty Gwen on the summer holidays were a highlight. She was the wife of my uncle and she was warm and welcoming. We did things like decorating a cake and making furniture for her period-decorated dollhouses. When I grew up and traveled, she sent me letters full of family news that kept me connected to my cousins. She was the hub of the family, keeping everyone informed and connected. I am so grateful that my family had such a center. She is one of my “special people.”

Naomi Brewster, New Zealander living in Australia

I lived with my aunt while my husband was in Vietnam. Florence asked me to help her prepare dinner for very special guests. The doorbell rang. Two wrinkled people shuffled in, Ruth and David. Her hair was gray, and his was gone. They were Holocaust survivors. Ruth said she never sat at table without wondering whether her family was alive somewhere, and whether they had food and a place to sleep. As she revealed her faded tattoo, I realized how much I took for granted. I looked at my life differently from that day on, with gratitude.

Sharon D. Walling

I was driving in Southern New Jersey when I realized I was lost. It was a time before Facebook and Twitter, and my Nokia 5160 had run out of juice. I tried to find a gas station — which is how lost people used to get directions before GPS — but the best I found was a random New Jersey diner. I had barely asked, “Where am I, exactly?” when I spied a group of people I knew from Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. As I laugh-cried in relief, they told me where I was and how to get to where I was going. Years later, I realized that Ramah was my first social network, my first lesson about the value of a wider network: how in unknown places, finding the familiar can seem like a miracle.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

It was on April 20, 1939 — Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday — that my mother, sister and I left Berlin to find refuge in the United States.

At the Tempelhof Airport’s customs office stood a stern-looking man, in uniform and wearing a swastika armband. Behind him, a sign warned that no departing passenger was allowed to leave with more than 10 German marks — about $4 at the time.

Trained from boyhood to obey all official regulations, I fished in my pocket and, nestled next to a 10-mark bill, found a 10-pfennig coin, worth about 2 1/2 cents. Dutifully, I turned over the coin to the customs official.

He looked at me soberly, while I feared the worst, then returned the coin and wished me a good trip.

The incident has stuck in my mind for close to 80 years as a sign of hope and gratitude that in the worst of times, and under the most fearful uniform, there may yet lurk a human heart.

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Make America Grateful Again

America is in a lousy mood.

Everything is a mess. This is how Matthew Continetti describes the state of the nation in National Review Online:

“Riots and the suppression of freedoms on campus, drug addiction, deadly clashes between white nationalists and left-wing radicals, increasing numbers of hate crimes, mass shootings, bitter arguments over the national anthem … a cascading stream of allegations of sexual impropriety against figures in entertainment and in politics, the slow-motion disintegration of our major parties — it’s as if America itself has been thrown into the midst of a demolition derby, with every one of our prominent figures and major institutions targeted for destruction by Monster Truck.”

Given this chaos, how are we supposed to feel grateful this Thanksgiving?

I have a friend who says you can’t feel grateful until you first take a deep breath. This breath helps us relax so we can meditate on the big picture. So, what’s the big picture?

Well, first, there is our tradition. In Judaism, gratitude is a core virtue. The very root of the word Jewish in Hebrew means gratitude. The Talmud instructs us to say 100 blessings a day. And each morning, no matter how horrible the news is, the first blessing we make is Modei Ani — we thank God for returning our souls to us.

Beyond our tradition, though, there’s also that thing called happiness.

As psychologist and author Melanie Greenberg writes in Psychology Today, “Gratitude is an attitude and way of living that has been shown to have many benefits in terms of health, happiness, satisfaction with life, and the way we relate to others.”

If gratitude is so connected to our happiness and well-being, why doesn’t it come to us more naturally?

Maybe we’re simply not hardwired to seek happiness. “Our brains’ natural tendency,” Greenberg writes, “is to focus on threats, worries and negative aspects of life.”

In a way, that makes sense. How can we improve if we don’t worry about our mistakes? How can we repair the world if we don’t look at what’s broken?

The problem comes when negativity turns into a state of mind. The media have an inherent interest in focusing on the darkness — on the threats, the chaos and the crises. If we allow this negativity to permeate our consciousness, we won’t see much hope. We will wallow in the  world’s brokenness rather than working to repair it.

I sense that this is happening in much of the country right now. We have little faith in our leaders. The problems feel endemic, not fixable. We’re hopelessly divided. On top of that, when the media remind us all day long of this brokenness, our brains’ tendency to focus on “threats, worries and negative aspects of life” goes on overdrive. The urge to repair turns into an inclination to despair.

Enter Thanksgiving.

Divided or not, broken or not, once a year America forces us to grapple with gratitude. This is our national “deep breath.” Of course, when the nation is in such bad shape, it can feel awkward to imbue ourselves with gratitude.

The easy thing to do is ignore the darkness and count our blessings, at least for this one day. Many of us like to go around the Thanksgiving table and share the many things we are thankful for — and God knows there are plenty. You can never go wrong doing that.

But this year, because things are in such turmoil, we thought we’d go deeper.

So, we’ve come up with a Thanksgiving Haggadah, put together by Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles working with our community and religion editor Tom Fields-Meyer.

The idea was to borrow from the Passover seder and offer four questions around the theme of gratitude. These are not easy questions. They’re meant to provoke thought and meaningful conversation. In combination with blessings and commentaries, we hope this little discussion guide will elevate your Thanksgiving experience.

One thing I’ve learned in working on this issue is that gratitude is not as simple as it seems. On the surface, it’s such an obviously good idea. Looking at the glass as half full, taking nothing for granted, counting our blessings — all of those clichés are meaningful and true.

All too often, though, life gets in the way. How do we focus on gratitude while also focusing on our mistakes? How do we feel grateful while also feeling outrage at the world’s indignities?

Balancing polarities always has been the great Jewish dance. We don’t pick one imperative over another. We don’t wallow only in gratitude or only in fixing our lives. We don’t look only at the full part of the glass or at the empty part. We look at the whole glass at all times. The full part gives us hope; the empty part gives us the drive to go forward.

Maybe, in the end, the deepest expression of gratitude is to be thankful for the very fact that we are able to move forward, that we have the opportunity to make everything around us just a little bit better.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Say “Thanks” This Thanksgiving!

Photo from Pexels.

For our Thanksgiving issue, the Journal is collecting stories of gratitude. Tell us about someone who did something that changed your life for the better — maybe without even realizing it. Perhaps it was an elementary-school teacher who recognized something in you, or a friend who was there in a time of need. Maybe it was a stranger who helped when you were lost, or that guy in the Tesla who let you switch lanes on the 405.

Tell us in 100 words or less about how someone did something you’re thankful for (you don’t have to share the person’s name). What did they do and why are you grateful? We’ll include the best of these in our Thanksgiving issue. Remember: no longer than 100 words.

Please send your 100-word story to or click on this link to submit directly.

An Attitude of Gratitude

Richard and Lois Gunther. Photo courtesy of JFILA.

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

My service consisted of 60-plus years participating in many fulfilling community and political projects in the United States and Israel. There were thrilling adventures, too, with long treks, mountain climbs and bicycle tours in exotic countries. And then there was love — rooted in my dearest Lois, our three sons, their wives, our grandchildren and ever-widening circles of friends.

But now I am 92. My service and adventures are only wonderful memories. Today, there are new experiences — like arthritic aches and a few strange pains in my back.

Still, my aging days are filled with much love, gratitude and joy. My wife of 69-plus years remains my true love; I will never understand how I was so smart at age 22 as to grab her for life. I can look back on a life filled with excitement and a reasonable level of success. And in my efforts to promote tikkun olam, I continue to support social justice causes as in the past, only today this support is more financial than physical.

One gift of my senior years has been a contentment level I never felt when younger.

One gift of my senior years has been a contentment level I never felt when younger. I was always too busy, always on to the next activity, never stopping to meditate and appreciate the life I 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 see beauty that in the past I ignored. Time to move slowly and open my eyes to so much of what I’d been missing.

For me, this contentment has re-birthed the dominant emotion at this time in my life — gratitude, a deeply felt satisfying joy for all the blessings in my life.

But why did I not learn about the joys of gratitude until my later years? Did I miss a valuable lesson along the way? Could an enlightened elder have showed me a path that could have brought to me the joys of gratitude in my youth? Could I be that elder for others?

Years ago when traveling with our children, we saw incredible poverty in many places around the world. Now I wonder: In talking with our sons, did we reflect enough on life in one of those villages compared with our lives in Beverly Hills? Did we consider their food, their clothes and toys, their dwellings and schools? Did we ever talk about how lucky we were to be born in the United States?

One path to learning gratitude is comparing our life with what might have been, but it doesn’t take foreign travel to accomplish this. There are examples everywhere, such as the inspiration offered by the heroic people in our lives.

Consider my grandmother, who left her tiny shtetl in Ukraine at age 17. She came alone to this country to live in freedom and escape the rampant anti-Semitism of the czar. What if she had lost her courage and didn’t complete that trip? Or if the odds were too great and she failed? Would we ever have left that part of the world?

How different my life would be. What a debt I owe that courageous 17-year-old. I never told my grandmother how grateful I was for her daring, and how she determined the future of our whole family.

As I grew older, gratitude came more naturally. I learned to be more thankful for having such a full life — call it a heightened awareness of the vitality and beauty of my everyday surroundings. There grew a joy in living beyond myself, as I continued to be active in community service and the world around me.

This might be tough to teach, but through the conversations we initiate and our own actions, we all can model this lifestyle for the next generation.

Richard Gunther has lived the life of a social entrepreneur.

Eyal: My Brother, My Best Friend, My Hero

Eyal Sherman, center, with family (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Erez Sherman)

I received an note from a rabbinic e-mail list last month that read, “Please send in your names for notable deaths in 5777.” Carrie Fischer, Sen. John Glenn and even Hugh Hefner made the list.

I responded publicly, “I have learned that every life is a notable death.”

I had been officially an avel, a mourner, for 24 hours. My brother, Eyal David Sherman, 36 years old, passed away, on Sept. 24, my birthday. He had been a quadriplegic for the last 32 years, after suffering a brain stem tumor and subsequent stroke at the age of 4.

Just two days prior, I stood with my congregants of Sinai Temple, and recited the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, who should live and who shall die. Each year, the absence of those lost makes their presence more noticeable. These words were now my reality.

My brother accomplished more in his 36 years than most of us do in our entire lives. He graduated kindergarten, high school and college, even when the doctors told them he would not live past his fifth birthday. He became an accomplished artist, drawing and painting with a mouthstick wedged between his lips.

My father, my sister and my wife are all rabbis, but it was Eyal who became our rebbe.

Our tradition teaches us about shevirat kelim, the breaking of the vessels. The vessels that contained God’s light could not contain them and were shattered. We must put them back together.

Eyal’s death broke the vessel, but the light has emanated out. During this heartbreak, we have also experienced a tikkun, a repair, for as we continue to share Eyal’s story, so many have shared their stories with us.

During shivah, we were honored to host Dr. Mark Helfaer, an ICU attending at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who saved Eyal’s life multiple times. Born in Niagara Falls, Mark was orphaned at the age of 10. He was taken in by his uncle and aunt.

Unfortunately, Mark never celebrated his bar mitzvah, and he carried that resentment through his life. This year, at the age of 60, he marked that rite of passage. My father, Rabbi Charles Sherman, always one to throw in a joke, asked, “Mark, what was the theme of your party?”

His response: “Rabbi … the theme was gratitude.”

Today, Dr. Helfaer, so vibrant and robust and brilliant, my brother’s personal miracle maker, suffers from multiple sclerosis. He walks with a cane and slurs his speech. At shivah, he explained that Eyal was one of his most intellectually stimulating cases, and Eyal’s story inspires him to find meaning in his own battle with a disease that has stopped him from working, but has given him the gift of gratitude.

Yes, gratitude is the ability to say thank you. But gratitude is the gift to acknowledge the blessings around you. Gratitude is the gift of being noticed … gratitude is the gift of a notable life.

For 36 years, Eyal led a notable life. Very few individuals could be so inspirational without saying a word. Eyal was the definition of the kol demama daka, the still silent voice whose actions blasted like the shofar. Just scroll down Facebook and read the thousands of tributes of those — many who never met Eyal in person — have been motivated to make this world a better place.

Every Shabbat, Eyal had an assigned part of the birkat hamazon. He would silently mouth baruch atah adonai boneh yerushalayim, asking God to rebuild Jerusalem. Eyal is the builder of our spiritual Jerusalems.

While Eyal was a miracle, the most miraculous part was that Eyal was simply my brother. A lover of Syracuse University basketball, a passionate sports fan, an unbelievable artist and a lover of family, our righteous parents turned the extraordinary into the ordinary.

Thankfully, it was this ordinary brother that inspired every sermon I crafted. In fact, as I dated my now wife, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, the first gift I gave her was the transcript of my father’s book about the story of Eyal, “The Broken and the Whole.”

Several years ago, my father and I toured the country telling Eyal’s story. The most common question was, “Is Eyal a burden?” They were in awe, as we answered, “Eyal is a blessing.”

Nothing for us will ever be the same with Eyal’s death. He is and will always be my tzadik, my righteous brother. Yet, we know that each and every day on this earth will be guided by Eyal’s still small voice, guiding us on the right path.

Donations can be made to:

The Eyal Sherman Foundation

c/o Estate Bookkeeping

Cozen O’Connor

1650 Market St, Suite #2800

Philadelphia, PA, 19103

Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.


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 ( 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

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.