Having spent the last week in Israel to tend to my ailing mother, a patient in the ICU at Hadassah Medical Center, I prepared to return to my home in Sacramento. Last night before I boarded my El Al Flight from Israel to Newark,NJ, I fired up my laptop to check my email. The first of many new email messages was from Rabbi Elie Spitz telling me that he tried calling me in Sacramento to inform me of the death of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer. I read no other emails. I sat at Gate D-7 in shock. The funeral would be tomorrow (Friday) at 11am in Jerusalem. At that moment I heard the announcement for last call for boarding flight 0027. I boarded the plane and took my seat, still in shock by the news. Finally I said to the gentleman sitting on the aisle in row 51, “I need to get off the plane” and explained that I just received word that a remarkable teacher, dear friend, ‘my rabbi’ had died and was being buried in Jerusalemin the morning.
The El Al Flight Attendant called Security and when she finally understood the reason for my needing to deplane, she and her colleagues were compassionate and consoling. Somehow within minutes they retrieved my one piece of luggage and escorted me back to Passport Control to ‘re-enter’ the country.
I last saw Moshe and Margie last summer when I asked to come over to visit just before I returned to the States from leading a synagogue tour of Israel. I knew that Moshe’s medical condition had deteriorated; he wasn’t able to speak. But when I unveiled my two gifts, his face lit up. I brought him an authentic Sacramento Kings Jersey with the name Casspi on the back and the number 18 on both the front and back of the jersey. Because of Moshe’s medical situation I don’t think he was aware that Omri Casspi is the first Israeli to play in the NBA. But he immediately took the jersey and began putting it on. I then gave him a Sacramento Kings Hat which he placed on his head. Margie took a photo of the two of us.
How I will never forget when he called me some years back to tell me that he had a scholar-in-residence gig in the San Francisco Bay Area and that he would love to come to Sacramento to have dinner with me. I knew that he had an ulterior motive; you see the Los Angeles Lakers were playing the Sacramento Kings that night. I told Moshe that I would find two tickets to that game. I called Arlen Opper, a dear member of my congregation and told him about Moshe and his passion for basketball. Arlen graciously arranged for Moshe to sit with him in his seats in the first row on the court. I watched Moshe from above, like a kid in a candy store, relishing every shot, every steal, every rebound, every pass (during his playing days Moshe had remarkable vision on the court and could thread a pass to a teammate with the adept grace of Larry Bird or Magic Johnson). As we drove home after the game, he was doing his post-game commentary and I was enjoying every minute.
When I asked him if he would be our synagogue’s scholar-in-residence and install me as Mosaic Law’s new rabbi in 1995 he didn’t hesitate for a moment (of course part of his honorarium included tickets to a Kings Game). He always was there for me with his wise counsel which has helped me to become a better rabbi. His love of serving congregations as an interim rabbi gave him such joy. Moshe was indeed instrumental in healing congregations and helping to prepare members of those synagogues to warmly welcome and embrace their next permanent rabbi.
In two hours Moshe will be laid to rest here in Jerusalem. It began raining yesterday in Jerusalem and that rain continues today, the day of Moshe’s funeral. I think I know why. God is crying because one of the finest, most creative, innovative rabbinic teachers, one of the most charismatic and influential Jewish leaders of our day is no more. Moshe’s suffering is over. But his legacy continues. His devoted wife Margie, his loving children Nahum and Ronie and his grandchildren will carry his torch. And so will Judy Finkelstein-Taff, Felice Resnick, Rabbis Allan Gonsher, Joel Oseran, Elie Spitz and countless other Phoenicians who were caught lovingly in Moshe’s net and have made Moshe and Margie so proud. These are Moshe’s disciples and they serve their respective Jewish communities in very important positions, teaching Torah and spreading Yiddishkeit just as Moshe did during his career and life.
After 9/11 Rabbi Tutnauer wrote a beautiful moving interpretation of the U’netaneh Tokef Prayer which we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One of the lines in the prayer includes the words: “Who shall live and Who shall die?” Let me conclude with Moshe’s words, an excerpt from the poem he wrote:
“…May each of us
Find the way
To cleanse our souls of bitterness
To raise our spirits to Godliness
To open our hands to righteousness
Touch the ones you love…”
To those of us who were touched by Moshe’s teachings and example and to those of us who didn’t have the z’chut (merit) of knowing him, if we want to honor Moshe’s memory, then let us be more forthright in emulating his desire to make the world a better place as he did when he stood up for the less fortunate in our society. He just didn’t speak about doing the right thing; he backed up his words with deeds, whether it was risking his life to help Soviet Jews, marching with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or protesting with Cesar Chavez. His righteousness ascended to Godliness.
May the soul of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer always be for a blessing.