Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Letty Cottin Pogrebin has written an indispensable guide when a member of one’s family or a dear friend becomes ill or suffers a tragic death, what to do, say and not say, how to respond and be the friend the stricken most needs.
Letty is a founding editor of Ms Magazine, an award winning journalist, a non-fiction and fiction writer (this is her 10th book), a political and peace activist, and a loving wife, mother, grandmother, and friend.
As a rabbi who confronts every kind of illness, trauma, disability, and loss, I have not seen a more complete and exhaustive guide than this book on how we can all help each other when we are in need of a friend.
Letty is insightful, intuitive, generous, kind, empathetic, warm hearted, and loving. She is refreshingly self-revealing in this book and so the book is also an autobiographical chronicle, which gives the reader permission to be vulnerable and to share with our own loved ones our vulnerabilities and needs.
She was moved to write this volume after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. During and after treatment Letty was struck by how her family and friends reacted to her, how awkward some were and how others understood what she needed and how to help, support and nurture her.
In her research she spoke with more than 80 fellow patients, family and friends who had had cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s Disease, diabetes, MS, Parkinson’s Disease, mental illness, dementia, catastrophic financial ruin, and the death of children. She interviewed doctors, nurses, and hospital workers, clergy of various faith traditions, and complete strangers. She learned the Do’s and Don’ts of interacting with the ill and their families, that there is no one template on how to behave, that everyone has different needs, and that sensitive friends will thoughtfully think through what makes sense for the individuals they love and what are their unique needs, and then behave accordingly.
“The stories I collected from others,” she wrote, “helped me understand my own reactions and fueled my determination to be a better friend to my ailing friends. Among other lessons, I learned that it’s not enough to be a good hearted person if you’re oblivious to the pain in someone’s eyes; that friendship can nourish, help, and heal but also disappoint and suffocate. With every interview I marveled at how thin and permeable is the membrane between good intentions and bad behavior, how human it is to be both strong and vulnerable, and how people process the sickness, stress, and sorrow of their friends in many different ways.”
Letty considers every conceivable aspect of how to refine the art of friendship when a dear one becomes ill or suffers loss. She reviews “Goofs, Gaffes, Platitudes, Faux Pas, Blunders, Blitherings – and Finding the Right Words at the Right Time.” She reflects on what to ask of a patient and what to avoid saying. She offers a list of “Ten Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend” and enumerates who should visit and what constitutes a “good visit.” Her list of “Twenty Rules for Good Behavior While Visiting the Sick, Suffering, Injured, or Disabled” is a common sense guide that even those with plenty of sechel are well-advised to review.
Letty considers as well the differences between men and women in their coping with illness, about the importance of being sensitive to a person’s shame and/or need for privacy, and the necessity that friends always “show up.”
She writes: “Entering other people’s truth, I learned that illness is friendship’s proving ground, the uncharted territory where one’s actions may be the least sure-footed but also the most indelible; that illness tests old friendships, gives rise to new ones, changes the dynamics of a relationship, causes a shift in the power balance, a reversal of roles, and assorted weird behaviors; that in the presence of a sick friend, fragile folks can get unhinged and Type A personalities turn manic in order to compensate for their impotence; and that hale fellows can become insufferably paternalistic, and shy people suddenly wax sanctimonious.”
Letty not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2009 requiring surgery and radiation (I am fine now) just before Letty’s own diagnosis, she was an attentive friend from across the country. Supportive, nurturing and kind I felt seen and cared about that inspires my gratitude still.
What she learned subsequent to her own diagnosis deepened her capacity and understanding not only of what she needed, but what others need. Now she has written a book that offers the reader the benefits of her experience, wisdom and love.
I recommend this volume without reservation.
5.23.13 at 9:22 am | The larger question is 'does Jewish tradition. . .
5.16.13 at 4:34 pm | She was too beautiful, magnificent, and inspiring. . .
5.14.13 at 6:26 am | “Initially, I came to seek answers about the. . .
5.12.13 at 7:44 am | “The morning is extremely important. It is the. . .
5.9.13 at 7:42 am | Love for God, one man’s yearning for his bride,. . .
5.5.13 at 8:00 am | “My life isn’t what you care about. It’s. . .
5.16.13 at 4:34 pm | She was too beautiful, magnificent, and inspiring. . . (175)
6.19.12 at 7:13 am | One has to ask why would so many people would. . . (49)
5.5.13 at 8:00 am | “My life isn’t what you care about. It’s. . . (17)
March 24, 2013 | 7:05 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Rabbi Uri Regev, Founder and Director of Hiddush, asked me to write a Passover Supplement for inclusion in your family Seder on themes and values upon which both the State of Israel and the United States are founded. That piece is titled:
“Imagine: Liberation, Marriage and Gender Equality in Israel and the Diaspora”
You can find it here.
Hiddush is Israel’s leading civic organization dedicated to the implementation of the basic values guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence - freedom of religion and equality - without which no enlightened democracy can exist. See for more information - http://www.hiddush.org/
In light of President Obama’s extraordinary address to the people of Israel and his commitment to bring the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians together to negotiate a two-state end of conflict peace agreement, Ba-shanah haba-ah Bi-y’rushalayim – Next year [May there be a real peace] in Jerusalem.
Hag Pesach Sameach from my family to yours.
March 22, 2013 | 6:10 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Nothing in the Seder is as it appears. Each symbol, midrash, vignette, poem, and song evokes layers of meaning that help fashion the Jewish heart, mind and soul. The Seder carries such deep religious, cultural, moral, historical, and political significance that Passover is among the richest and most observed rites in Judaism today.
A little known figure in the Haggadah is worth mention especially in light of the President’s journey to the Middle East this week. His name is Nachshon, the son of Aminadav.
Nachshon is not mentioned in the Biblical exodus story per se (he is cited in Numbers 1:7 as the chief in the Tribe of Judah), yet he looms large in rabbinic literature as a critically important figure in the narrative at the Sea of Reeds.
It is written that as the Israelites fled Egypt they faced before them the impassable Sea and behind them in the pursuing Egyptian army. Terrified, they turned on Moses and cried, “Why did you bring us here to perish?”
“Rabbi Judah says: ‘When the Israelites stood at the sea one said: ‘I don’t want to go down to the sea first.’ Another said: ‘I don’t want to go down first either.’ While they were standing there, and while Moses was praying to God to save them, Nachshon the son of Aminadav jumped up, went down and fell into the waves.’” Talmud (Bavli, Sota 36a), Mechilta (Parashat B’shalach)
What is the meaning?
First, that Moses’ prayers were insufficient to convince God to split the sea. Only when Nachshon took the initiative and jumped into the waters did God respond.
Second, at a very early stage in Israel’s history there was a basic understanding about the mutual relationship between God and humankind, that though the people might have felt alone and abandoned, God was with them all along.
Nachshon’s “leap” was a significant turning point in the Jewish experience. His willingness to take history into his own hands became a fundamental tenet of Jewish religious activism and a defining element in the character of the Jewish hero.
This past week, J Street, a pro Israel pro peace Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C., published an insert on the symbolism of the Karpas. It was written by my teacher, Rabbi Richard Levy, and intended for family Seders this year. What follows is a portion of Rabbi Levy’s moving text:
“On the nights of Passover we celebrate Israel crossing the …Sea from slavery to freedom. In this light, karpas has other overtones: we remember the heroic example of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first to step into the salty sea. As the Israelites faced the raging waters, Nachshon alone plunged in. Because of his courage, the Midrash tells us, God divided the sea in two so that all the people of Israel could walk across. When our karpas represents Nachshon, …the salt water no longer suggests tears, but the grit of heroes.
Nachshon represents those willing to stand up against the raging waters of intimidation, to state what is right and just and reasonable. In our time Nachshon might say: Israel can be freed of her occupying status and survive as a just, peaceful, and secure state only alongside a just, peaceful and secure Palestinian state… if enough people, ordinary citizens like Nachshon, speak enough to the leaders who represent them, they too will understand that the waters can part, that the just and practical solution – a two-state solution – can emerge out of the depths, and the freedom and peace of two peoples can be assured.”
At this critically important moment when hope flickers still that peace can be achieved, I offer my prayers for the success of American efforts to assist Israel and the Palestinians in arriving at a two-state solution leading to an end of conflict peace agreement.
I pray that President Obama and Secretary Kerry will utilize all their wisdom, resources, strength, and stamina to do what must be done.
And I pray that the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority may seize this opportunity together to achieve what should have been done years ago to end this bloody and demoralizing conflict once and for all, thereby allowing two states to flower and thrive side by side in security and peace in a new Middle East.
Ken yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will and ours.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Pesach sameach.
March 20, 2013 | 7:39 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This week I joined with 250 leaders of J Street in Washington, D.C. for a leadership summit. J Street is the largest pro-Israel Political Action Committee in the nation’s capital that gave 50% of all pro-Israel contributions to Senate and Congressional candidates in the 2012 election. (See www.jstreet.org.)
On Tuesday of this week J Street activists held 101 meetings with members of the Senate and House of Representatives. Each delegation made three points:
I personally visited, along with other J Street activists, six House members. All except one were gracious, open hearted and curious about J Street’s understanding of the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what it would take to achieve a peace agreement.
One member we visited, however, was impatient and hostile to our group from the very beginning even before we sat down, despite the fact that several of us, including me, are his constituents. He interrupted us constantly leading me, as the leader of that delegation of eight, to say to him, “Congressman, you have limited time as do we – I ask you to be quiet and give us a chance to explain why we are here.” He demurred and we were then able to articulate our three talking points.
This meeting was disturbing not because of his lack of civility, though his behavior was rude. Rather, we were shocked by what he said to us.
It is important to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered to be among the most complicated, intractable, potentially explosive and destructive, and difficult international problems the United States faces in the world. In order to bring about a two-state resolution, both sides will require extraordinary efforts to listen to each other, grasp the other’s narrative, and appreciate and respect the legitimate fear, distrust and hatred that the other holds (Israeli to Palestinian and Palestinian to Israeli). The nuances of this conflict must be studied and understood by everyone in order to reach a successful resolution of the conflict.
This House member, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and should know better, said, “I’m not interested in nuance. Tell me only the facts I need to know so I can vote. I care what 98% of the population wants and they could care less about nuance. Nuance is a waste of time.”
I was shocked because his attitude is so clearly the opposite of what is needed at this critical time in Israel’s history, and especially from a House member who sits on the very committee that is responsible for foreign relations.
Thankfully, the other five representatives we visited, as well as dozens of other House members and Senators, were very different indeed. They appreciated complexity and wanted very much to do the right thing on behalf of the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.
As we parted each representative we presented an article published in the NY Times by Allen S. Weiner (February 23, 2013) entitled “Why the Middle East Needs America.”
Professor Weiner is the Director of the Stanford Program in International and Comparative Law and co-director of the Stanford Center on International conflict and Negotiation. He is pre-eminent American expert in conflict resolution. His article is an important read for what will be needed to reach a successful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
March 15, 2013 | 11:21 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On behalf of J Street, we are proud to send you Rabbi Richard Levy’s stirring meditation on the karpas, the vegetable dipped in salt water during Seder. Rabbi Levy urges us to become as courageous as Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah and the first Israelite to brave the waters of the sea. The Midrash recalls that he went forward while others hesitated. He demonstrated conviction when others wavered.
Today, our hope for Israel and for peace calls upon us to aspire to Nachshon’s courage. Around us are our many sisters and brothers who vacillate, who hesitate to step forward and act with resolution for peace and Israel’s long term well-being. Deliver Rabbi Levy’s message to your Seder participants and, as they dip their karpas, call on them to act with alacrity. In the year to come may every one of us, in the spirit of Nachshon, eagerly advocate for the end of occupation and the beginning of peace, security, hope and freedom for Israelis and their neighbors. As a supporter of J Street, tell them, “This is our time to lead!”
Click here to download the J Street Seder supplement, Dipping into Salty Waters: A Karpas for Our Time.
Warmest wishes for a sweet Pesach,
Rabbi John Rosove and Rabbi John Friedman
J Street Rabbinic Cabinet
March 14, 2013 | 8:25 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Days before President Obama’s visit, PM Netanyahu has managed to form a new Israeli government with 68 seats (out of 120) for a ruling majority. What does it all mean? That is the question of the hour.
I offer a few observations and Israeli press sites that, hopefully, will not confuse you more than you may already be. After all, Israeli politics isn’t for the feint of heart nor the simple minded:
PM Benjamin Netanyahu (with a total of 31 seats combined with Yisrael Bateinu) has been vastly weakened compared to his standing in the former government, though he continues to hold onto the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministries.
Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) with a total of 31 seats together maintained their uncommon alliance (and growing friendship) and succeeded in excluding for the first time the ultra-Orthodox parties from the ruling coalition. Lapid’s #2 Rabbi Shai Peron will take over the Education Ministry and might be able to force the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot to include English, Hebrew, math, and science in their curriculum or risk losing government support for their schools. Bennett gets the important Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee, which will help him continue to finance heavily the settler movement that elected him, throwing a wrench into any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (Bennett is against a two-state solution - see below).
Lapid and Bennett’s alliance also insures that shivyon b'netel (“sharing the burden of military service”) will force Yeshiva buchers to serve in the military without the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties breathing down their necks. Yesh Atid has announced that a universal military service bill will be submitted to the Knesset, with Bibi’s approval, before the budget is submitted. It is likely that we can expect a sharp reduction of funds flowing to ultra-Orthodox synagogues and Yeshivot going forward.
Lapid will now be the Finance Minister and must come up with a national budget in the next 45 days. Lapid risks losing his image as Israel’s charismatic darling for the poor and middle classes because, as Finance Minister, he will have to make tough choices and propose cuts that might hurt the very people who voted for him and who are the most vulnerable in Israeli society. He is said to dread the prospect of protestors picketing his home.
Religious pluralism may or may not be a winner in this election. Lapid’s children became b'nai mitzvah at Reform Judaism’s flagship Tel Aviv congregation, Beit Daniel, and he is personally close to the Daniel Center’s Senior Rabbi Meir Azari. Though Lapid can, with a stroke of the pen, grant government funds to non-Orthodox religious movements equal to those going to the Orthodox for the first time, Israel’s culture still needs an aggressive non-Orthodox alliance between the secular population and Reform and Conservative Jews (estimated to equal 70% of Israel’s Jewish population) to fight hard to promote civil marriage and women’s rights, against government imposed Shabbat restrictions, separate gender seating on buses, and the ultra-Orthodox dominance of Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall (Kotel) and Plaza.
The right-wing Yuli Edestein was voted as the next Speaker of the Knesset which now retires my cousin, the respected long-time Likud leader, Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin from that seat. Ruby was second behind Shimon Peres for President of the State a number of years ago.
Iran and Palestinian-Israeli Peace Negotiations? Much will be revealed in the coming weeks on both fronts in light of President Obama’s mission to the Middle East starting next week. It is likely that Obama and Bibi already have an understanding on how they will deal with the Iran nuclear issue (I pray!). It is likely that something will begin anew between the Israelis and Palestinians. However, with Bennett in the government, I fear the worst even as I hope for the best – a two-state solution. In a conversation I had last week with one of Israel’s leaders, he does not believe that Bennett, representing a small faction of 11 seats, will greatly influence the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I pray he is right.
For ongoing information, I recommend that you read the English and/or Hebrew edition of Haaretz or The Jerusalem Post, and the Hebrew edition for Yediot Achronot at www.ynet.co.il. You can also check out www.walla.co.il, another Israeli Hebrew language news link.
March 12, 2013 | 2:06 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I have taught children of every age since the early 1970s. In more than four decades I have learned many lessons about how people best learn, why teachers need to teach to the individual child and what is ultimately important in the teacher-student relationship. The Babylonian Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches an important truth: “Amar Rabbi Hanina – Harbeh lamadti m’rabotai u-m’chaverai yoter m’rabotai, u-m’talmidai yoter mikulam" (“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my fellow students/friends, and from my students, most of all.”).
Though this Talmudic passage is generally true for me, nevertheless, one of the most important lessons I ever learned was when I was still a high school student. In the 11th grade I took a class from among the most popular and beloved teachers in my school. He was smart, charismatic, dynamic, devoted, emotionally accessible, and cared for his students - or most of them.
As part of his pre-college English class he required that students read a great deal of great literature and then write and give oral “book reports” on the books he assigned. During one lunch hour I was scheduled to present my report. In preparation, I had read the book as carefully as I could, underlined key passages, organized my thoughts in written notes, and brought all of that with me. I spoke for about 10 minutes during the lunch hour.
It was a custom for many students to congregate in his classroom during lunch, so many of my friends were present. At the end of my presentation he asked me an important question that to this then 17 year-old I did not understand. He asked again, and when I did not respond correctly a second time he exploded, accused me publicly of not reading the book, of relying on the book jacket for all my information, and then threw chalk and paper clips at me in a display that was, to say the least, shocking. I was humiliated, but his rant didn’t stop then. He carried it on into the next two periods accusing me in my absence and to my classmates of cheating.
I am reminded of this story often, and most especially this week when I heard that he was retiring after more than 60 years of teaching, that many students had come to honor him and express their gratitude. I too am grateful, but for very different reasons.
When I have had the urge to express frustration and/or anger at a student, I think of this teacher and credit him for reminding me of the wounds that such behavior caused me and that could cause to my own students. I once failed a student by embarrassing him, and when I did I sought him out to apologize and ask his forgiveness, which he magnanimously gave to me.
Years ago I wrote to my high school teacher to let him know of my experience that day. I had to get it off my chest and confront him directly. I am certain he received the letter, but I did not receive a response.
Rashi (11th century, France) taught that the teacher must always demonstrate patience and kindness towards the student regardless of the student’s academic, intellectual, or emotional ability, and to teach according to every student’s needs. If a student needs extra assistance, the teacher must see to it patiently that the student eventually understands.
Jewish tradition regards humiliating another human being publicly as equivalent to the shedding of blood (i.e. murder). This principle extends to all relationships and especially if there is a power differential (e.g. parent-child, teacher-student, employer/customer-employee, etc.).
Of course, criticism by a teacher to a student, an employer to employee, and within family and among friends and colleagues should be given - but, it should be done privately, carefully, patiently, and with loving concern that the receiver of such criticism understand it and have an opportunity improve and/or change behavior.
Having said all this, I also remember with great love and respect my Talmud teacher, Dr. Abraham Zygelboim (zal) at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. As a rabbinic student in my mid-20s, I had suffered a painful break-up with my then-girlfriend and I was emotionally devastated. Between classes I needed to take a few minutes for myself, so I walked outside and sat against a wall and wept.
Dr. Zygelboim approached me and kissed my forehead without ever saying a word. His sweetness will stay with me all the days of my life, just as the bitter memory of my high school teacher’s humiliation stays with me.
We are, each of us, powerful beings, and we often underestimate our capacity to touch and/or harm others. Indeed, how we treat others and speak to them defines the nature of our character more than anything else we may say, teach or do.
March 7, 2013 | 11:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
This week we learn about Bezalel, the man chosen to design and build the Tabernacle that carried the tablets of the law that Moses brought down from Sinai. (Exodus 38:22-39:31)
On the face of it, these verses describe the matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan. Rather, it’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites, a standard of beauty and meaning that would impress itself upon the soul of generations of Jews to come in the land of Israel and all the lands of the Diaspora.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. The necessary qualities are spelled out in the text:
“See, God has called by name Bezalel ... and filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom (chochmah), with understanding (t'vunah), and with knowledge (da-at) in all work. And God instilled thoughts (lachshov machshavot) [in Bezalel’s mind] in order for him to make designs of all kinds...” (Exodus 35:30-32)
Because of the importance of the Mishkan in the iconography of Jewish tradition, our sages sought to understand the deepest meaning of this passage. Rashi says that chochmah is the wisdom we learn from others; t’vunah - the understanding we gain from life experience; and da-at - mystical intuition. Jewish legend assumes that Bezalel was well-versed in Kabbalah, that he understood the combinations of letters with which God created the heavens and the earth.
From all this Bezalel is presented as a master craftsman and architect, seasoned by life's experiences, open-hearted and open-minded to the needs and insights of the people, inspired with a Godly spirit, and understanding of the fundamental laws and truths at the core of creation.
The name “Bezalel” means "being in God's shadow," suggesting that he had attained the level of tzadik and achieved yihud, unity with God.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says, yes, Bezalel’s function was to be the chief executive of this project to build the Mishkan, that is, in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s words, “someone who would meticulously carry out instructions.” But the next verse adds another dimension when it says “v’lachshov machshavot” ([and God] “made him think thoughts”), meaning that Bezalel was asked not only to carry out God’s instructions, but to contribute “original ideas of his own.”
There are people today and throughout history who have made and do fine work replicating through drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture what they see objectively in nature and in the art and architecture of others. They seek, at the very least, to reconstruct what they see. The great artist, however, does more than repeat. He/she adds something ineffable to the work - a deeper and broader vision that is unique to the artist.
Bezalel was such an artist. Yet, a midrash says that even Bezalel's wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and originality weren’t sufficient to merit his assignment as chief designer, architect and manager of the building of the Mishkan.
A midrash has God asking Moses if he, Moses, thought Bezalel was suited for this holy duty. And, as if stunned by the question from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be God, Moses replied, "Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!" Whereupon God instructed Moses, "Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Bezalel." And Moses did so.
The people, also probably stunned, replied, "If Bezalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too."
From this, our sages concluded that Bezalel wasn’t only God's choice but also the people's choice.
Mark Chagall adds yet another dimension to the task of the artist when he wrote that "the artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art's sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life."
This story reminds us to consider well the nature of our own sacred spaces. They are not meant to be merely functional meeting halls with an ark and Torah scrolls on the eastern wall. Rather, they should reflect the highest aesthetic vision of our tradition and people, and thereby not only enhance our prayer experience in their spaces but construct stairways to heaven.
That is the architectural vision that our own architects at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Hank Koning and Julie Eizenberg of Koning-Eizenberg Architects, Inc. have envisioned for our new chapel to be built.
It is our fervent hope that construction will begin soon thereby fulfilling at last the final stage of what we set out to do as a congregation more than ten years ago, to create a new synagogue upon the old (now 87 years old) as a whole and a new sacred space in which we may celebrate the holy and draw nearer to God.