It was a trifecta of sermons. The three sermons that I read in the wee hours this morning took on greater significance because of the special circumstances of last night's Shabbat service, but each was powerful in itself.
Yesterday was November 11, 2011—the 37th anniversary of my father’s death. We went to shul to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. In addition, there was a guest speaker, a brilliant and devoted young man who now heads up our region of AIPAC—the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He spoke passionately about the need to continue to communicate with our legislators about supporting Israel. He was introduced by a politically active member of the shul who inserted a few words about the significance of Veterans Day and honoring those who have served to defend our country.
After services I got into a conversation with one of the congregation's leaders about the joy I have experienced reading my father’s sermons. I mentioned that it was one reason I don’t dread insomnia—because I always have some great reading to turn to until I tire enough to fall back to sleep. That notion was realized at about 4:30 a.m. when I awoke with a very active mind. I needed to jot down a few ideas lest I lose them. Then I turned to the bins of sermons. I have been reading them in reverse chronology for the most part. This morning I withdrew a file folder simply labeled in penciled capital letters: PRE-LEX—meaning an unsorted collection from the years before my father’s 1948 move from his first pulpit, Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina, to his subsequent position at Temple Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky.
I took the yellowed folder and placed it on the dining room table where I sat for about an hour absorbed, once again, by his heartfelt messages. Three sermons stood out—not only for their rhetoric or historical significance, but also because they so closely connected with the themes established earlier in the evening.
In chronological order, the first was dated December 12, 1941. It’s opening words—
Since last we met for Sabbath worship, a great shock has come to our nation. As a result of a sudden and treacherous attack by the navy of Japan, as a result of the declaration of war upon us by Germany and Italy, our government has been left with no choice but to declare war in return and to throw itself fully and actively into the world struggle which began a little over two years ago.
What ensued, in part, was an expression of his regret that the nations did not see fit to disarm after the First World War. His ardent pacifism was clear. At the same time he realized that the current call to arms was unavoidable. He urged his congregants to remain calm, to be prepared to make great sacrifices to protect our “precious heritage” such as “the foundation and guarantee of American democracy” afforded by the Bill of Rights. These were not empty words for he later served as an Army Air Force Chaplain first stationed at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi and later traveling from base to base across North Africa.
To read his words of patriotism and service were a true reflection of Veterans Day.
The second sermon, dated January 30, 1948 began with the reading of an urgent telegram that he had received:
SYNAGOGUE COUNCIL RECEIVED FOLLOWING AUTHORITATIVE MESSAGE PALESTINE “SITUATION FAR MORE SERIOUS THAN GENERALLY BELIEVED IN AMERICA. INDICATIONS ARE ARAB WARFARE WILL INCREASE AND LIKELY TO ASSUME LARGE PROPORTIONS. IMMEDIATE SHIPMENT EQUIPMENT AND ESTABLISHMENT INTERNATIONAL FORCE FOR IMPLANTATION ASSEMBLY DECISION IMPERATIVE. TIME FACTOR MOST VITAL.” UNDER CIRCUMSTANCES WE SUGGEST YOU ASK ALL PEOPLE YOUR CONGREGATION AND COMMUNITY TO WRITE WHITE HOUSE, STATE DEPARTMENT AND YOUR SENATORS URGING U.S. GOVERNMENT TAKE INITIATIVE SUPPLYING ARMS TO YISHUV AND ESTABLISHING INTERNATIONAL FORCE TO ENABLE YISHUV TO DEFEND THEIR LIVES AND UPHOLD UN DECISION. FURTHER REQUEST YOU DEVOTE NEXT SERMON TO THIS AIM.
He decried the “hypocrisy and treachery” of the British and the complicity of our own government in arming the Arabs and denying the same for the Jews of Palestine who had been granted statehood by the United Nations. His words—“It is the duty of American Jewry to keep public opinion informed and to make its exertion of feeling known to its congressional representatives and the State Department.”—were strikingly similar to those we heard last night, sixty-three years later.
The third sermon is one that literally had me in tears as I read parts of it to Debbie this morning, for it was a reflection of a third aspect of last night’s service—the recitation of the Mourners’ Kaddish. His words:
My dear friends, during the Middle Ages it was the custom for dying fathers to leave their children not only a will disposing of the physical assets of the parent, but also something called an ethical will in which the parent offered to his offspring some advice with regard to their future behavior and some thought about life in general....
He offered these words on March 26, 1948, the evening of his final Shabbat in Columbia, South Carolina. He continued, “A departing rabbi, I believe, is likewise expected to leave some profound last words—an ethical will to his congregation.” Then he modestly expressed doubt about his own profundity though it was very present. He touched on three traits of Jewish character that he wanted to call to the attention of his congregants. The first was to love one’s fellow Jews, with special attention to the needs of the tattered post-war Jewish community abroad. The second was to maintain a loyalty and strong sense of identification with “the sweep of Jewish history as it has traversed the centuries.” He added, “The good Jew feels strongly his roots in dim antiquity. He cherishes deeply his ancestry going back to the days of Abraham....” He feels a connection to and identifies with the entire journey of our people—past, present, and future. My father's third concern was about American Jewry. The great centers of Jewish life of the past—Babylon, Spain, Poland—had given way to America, and that we “must carry the torch” and “accept the responsibility” of sustaining our “intangible values of culture and religion.”
These were valuable messages, but the coda was what moved me the most.
As I leave these thoughts with you I should like to add a word of caution of a more personal nature. I should like to refer to a number of remarks I have heard from good people who are my friends and who think they pay me a great compliment by these remarks, but who actually leave me somewhat saddened by them. On several occasions I have heard the remark that now that I am leaving they would not have such great responsibilities [within] the Synagogue, because they really had either joined or contributed or were active out of a sense of friendship for the rabbi personally. ... I appreciate the friendship and I cherish it, but if all that I have been able to leave with you is a sense of personal friendship then I have failed, because my ministry has sought to instill in you...the qualities and the feelings that I have already described to you.
He went on to implore them to support and learn from his successor. Then added,
Build your new Temple and fill it with your prayers and your love. And carry on for your sake, and for your children’s sake, and for the sake of all Israel. I would hate to think that I have given to you these years of activity only to have these efforts go to waste. And you will be paying me much more of a tribute by carrying on your efforts than by informing me that after all, it was only for me. Carry on I say to you as my parting wish. Carry on—remembering always that:
It is a tree of life to them that lay hold of it
And all the supporters thereof are happy.