The great Rabbi Leo Baeck, for whom our congregation is named, taught that “optimism becomes a demand for the heroism of man, for his moral will to struggle. It is an optimism which strives to realize morality in practice.” And isn’t that the story of Wally’s life? Wally was an unrepentant, stubborn, Leo Baeck-style optimist. He believed in us — in humankind. He believed we humans are redeemable ... that we deserve the benefit of the doubt, that we’re built to transcend our basest impulses, that we all truly want and are ready to be led to live in mutual honor and in peace. And beliefs that noble demand an awful lot of their possessor. If you truly believe that all of that can happen, how can you rest until you’ve done whatever you can to make it be?
And so Wally set out to make it be — first, in the little corner of the world he impacted through his great success as a developer, and then in every other little corner of this city and this world that he could reach as a restless learner and philanthropist and activist.
Wally asked the kinds of big questions that demanded lengthy, thoughtful, reasoned responses ... and then, of course, when I sent those responses to him, he apologized for taking up so much of my time. But that was just his gentle, humble good nature speaking ... for in his heart of hearts, he believed very deeply that there was nothing of greater ultimate importance than weighing and acting on these global matters of life and death, rich and poor, war and peace. He believed that our deliberations and determinations and donations could change the world. And his belief made me believe it, too — just as it did for so many of you.
Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl theorized that God accesses us through our conscience. He wrote: “Conscience is ineffective if it is only me speaking to myself. Conscience is experienced as a dialogue, not a monologue.” Wally was blessedly plagued by that noisy dialogue in his conscience. God would not let him rest. Even when I would visit him during the early months of his illness, he never wanted to talk about his treatment or his prognosis. All he wanted to do was hear about my latest mission to Israel or talk about the Iraq War ... until one day, a few months ago, when he had become very gravely ill. I came to visit, and instead of being peppered with questions about Gaza and Sderot, Wally told me that he couldn’t keep all of the details straight anymore. He could no longer read the books or debate the issues. At first, I was bitterly saddened. It seemed that Wally was being robbed of being Wally. But then I realized ... Wally wasn’t being robbed of being Wally. God was just letting him rest. The raging debate going on in his conscience — about wealth and power, peace and justice — was quieting. He had done his part — more than his part. And as the noisy dialogue of his conscience subsided, Wally’s curiosity shifted to the big question of how to die. And his seeking was now only for a loving smile, an affirming touch.
No one has ever died more graciously or gracefully than Wally did, surrounded in love and deep honesty throughout these weeks and months by his precious Suzy; his sister, Marlene; his children, Laurie and Mark, Wally and Carol, Amanda and John, and Wendy and Gary; and his grandchildren, Ruby, Zoe, Aaron, Jonah, Samantha, Austin, Jackson, Nick, Amy and Mary. Wally left his conscience’s noisy dialogue to all of us — and most especially to all of you — and he knew that it was in most capable hands. He knew that you — that we — inspired by his example, will live our tribute to him, not just think it or speak it to ourselves. With Wally’s simplicity and clarity, we will act on Emily Dickinson’s words:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one’s pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Kenneth Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles. This is an excerpt of a eulogy he delivered on April 17 at Hillside Memorial Park.