Delivering eulogies is amongst the most difficult and important work rabbis and pastors do. They grapple with death and try to make sense of life. They give strength to our spirits when we need it most.
I have given some tough ones, but none as powerful and transformative as the one below. This eulogy—delivered by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn—was described by a US Congressman as “second only to the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln as a stirring ode to the principles of democracy that are the bedrock of this country.”
Rabbi Gittelsohn was the first Jewish Marine chaplain. He fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle ended on March 26, 1945, almost exactly 70 years ago. Rabbi Gittelsohn spoke at a memorial services for its fallen soldiers. His words helped remind survivors of the principles for which their friends fought and died. All of us can use that reminder today.
Whenever I pick my daughter up from school, I am amazed by the size of her backpack. It is stuffed with books, and by the time she reaches me, it’s fallen off her shoulders.
I am still mystified about why she has to carry so many books in second grade. Yet, many of us also carry heaven burdens. They may not fall off our shoulders.
But they can weigh us down.
Sometimes we just need to let them go. We need to forgive ourselves. One of the great lessons of the Hebrew Bible is that we are not perfect, and we should never expect to be perfect. Perfection is reserved for God, and God can handle our mistakes.
Letting Go Of Our Heavy Load
We can forget this truth. Sometimes, like my daughter, we think we have to carry it all ourselves. A rabbi from the eighteenth century conveys this lesson with a parable.
A poor man was walking along the road. He carried all his earthly possessions on his back. A wagon driver stopped and offered him a ride to the next town. The poor man declined.
After a few miles, the wagon driver looked back and saw the man sitting there, still carrying the load on his back. The driver approached him again. “Why are you still carrying your load? Put it down in the wagon!” he said.
The pauper replied, “Dear sir, you have been so kind to offer me a ride. I cannot possibly impose upon you to ask you to carry my heavy load as well.”
God gives us a ride, and God can carry our load. That does not mean we have a free pass. It means we are human, and we live with the grace given by a power far greater than ourselves.
Israel has eight million people. On Sunday, in preparation for today’s election, more than 200,000 of them gathered in separate political rallies. That’s almost three percent of the population on one day!
We are a year and a half away from own major election. Yet, perhaps we can learn something from Israel.
1. People Matter: As Americans we tend to pick a president we would be most comfortable “having a beer with.” Political scientists confirm the centrality of criterion. Now this is not a bad criterion. The personality of our leader matters.
But what matters most is the person’s wisdom and worldview.
I don’t think many people would have enjoyed having a beer with George Washington.
My daughter Hannah and I have a ritual. She says, “Daddy, let’s play hide and seek. You count to five, and I’ll go and hide.” “Okay,” I say. I begin counting: “1…2…3…4…5. Ready or not, here I come!”
Then she says, “Okay, Daddy… I’m behind the couch!” The next time it’s “I’m in the dining room.” Or “I’m under the desk.”
For Hannah — and for many young children — the point of the game is to be found. Over time, however, we start to get lost. We hide from ourselves. We hide from what we know is right. We start to hide from God.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ignited some criticism with his remark that he is speaking on behalf of the Jewish people. While he leads the Jewish state, he does not, as he would surely admit in private, speak for all of Judaism. No one does.
The reason lies in a peculiar Yiddish word: Chutzpah.
Chutzpah has no exact English translation. The closest equivalent would be “audacity” or “boldness.”
But chutzpah also contains an element of passion, social concern and self-confidence. Someone with chutzpah knows what she believes, and knows that she is right.
Chutzpah Makes a Pope Impossible
How To Respond When Things Go Wrong
I frequently officiate at funeral ceremonies for veterans. During such ceremonies military officers play taps, fold a flag, and present the flag to a surviving family member. The ritual is extraordinarily precise, even robotic. Yet, I recently witnessed something extraordinary.
One of the officers began folding the flag. When he reached his counterpart holding the other end, however, he had too much flap left over. You could almost hear a gasp amongst the gathered mourners. You could the embarrassment on the officer’s reddening face.
What he did next, however, was what most memorable. He calmly unfolding the flag, motioned to his partner to turn it over, straightened it out and began refolding. We sat with baited breath. By the time he finished, the flag was perfectly folded.
Several of us turned and smiled at one another. The daughter of the deceased veteran even gave him a hug when he presented the flag to her.
The officer’s mistake—and response to it—clearly touched a nerve in many of us. He reminded us we are human. He reminded us we all make mistakes. And he reminded us to have a little empathy. Sometimes it is the imperfection that is most beautiful.
I have been reading the Harry Potter books alongside my seven-year-old daughter. By far the most intriguing character is Voldemort, otherwise known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”
When I first hear that description, I thought of the ways Jews reference God. When referring to God outside of prayer, many traditional Jews say “Hashem” which means “the name.” It is a way of calling upon God without saying God’s name.
God’s name is too mysterious and powerful for human beings to say. In other words, God is the one who must not be named.
Yet, following the tragedies unfolding in Europe and refusal of many in our political leadership and culture to confront it, I think a new understanding is necessary. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism–more specifically, the hatred of Jews and others driven by radical terrorists claiming the banner of Islam–has become the global force so many refuse to name.
Friends, I was a guest recently on the Hannity Show on Fox News. While it was challenging to get a lot of words in, I think you’ll enjoy the discussion.
P.S.: The book is out and is #1 for religious practices on Amazon. Here it is.
Yesterday temperatures in Chicago reached -30. Today is not much better.
I try to look on the bright side of things, even in this frigid world. I came across the quote from Rabbi Harold Kusher, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It describes the combination of fear and awe, exemplified in the weather, that may well come from a power greater than ourselves.
When I have to walk or drive in a snowstorm or a driving rain, I hate it. I find it uncomfortable, even dangerous. but when I am safe and warm inside my home, looking out at the thunderstorm or the falling snow, I respond very differently. I suspect we all do.
For reasons my rational mind can’t fully comprehend, it feels good to feel small and overwhelmed, but at the same time to be safe and protected, during the storm. It is a welcome comfort to know that there is a Power in the world which far exceeds my own.
Six months ago rioters trapped and threatened hundreds of Jews in a two Paris synagogues. At the time I wrote “the rioters in France today and their supporters threaten not only Jews. They threaten anyone who cares about tolerance, decency and democracy.”
Yesterday that prediction proved true. A group of fanatical Muslim gunmen murdered 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.
Aside from wringing our heads in wonder and disgust, how should we understand such acts? What causes them? Can anything stop them?