David Avram Smoller, ז"ל*
Every chance I get, I tell people that it is a privilege to be a rabbi. Most treasured among the opportunities I treasure in my rabbinate are the people who let me into their lives. The more experience I accrue as a rabbi, the more I come to appreciate what I can learn from my "chavrei kehillah" -- the members of my congregation.
A young friend recently told me about an intriguing international program called "The Human Library," in which a group of people with varying life experiences each agree to tell their life story for about fifteen minutes to any individual who is interested. The visitor reads a synopsis of the person's life story on a card and decides to "check out" the human book. They have a fifteen minute slot for the "human book" to tell her or his story and then the "library patron" returns the "human book" and can check out another if he or she finds another potentially interesting story.
Over the course of time, I've acquired a few people who i've added to my permanent "human library." People who have taught me, shared with me, opened vistas for me.
David Smoller was one of those.
If you were to assess the man in the photograph above, you'd probably guess that this was a happy man, a friendly man, a guy, perhaps, with a good sense of humor. You'd be right. What you would not guess from this great photograph of David at a Torat Yisrael end-of-summer barbecue a few years ago, is that David faced his own mortality with courage and determination and optimism and courage and sheer will since he was a teenager.
David would tell me: "There's no other way to do it." David would power through any and all onslaughts to his physical well-being with one single goal: to get back to his real life of loving and caring for and supporting Susan and Michelle. "Life is good." David would say.
Other people in David's circumstances would (and do) complain, whine, suffer under a burden of fear, lash out in anger and frustration, shrivel in helplessness.
David swaggered through every challenge with a smile on his face, putting his faith in God, counting the blessings in his life, embracing every opportunity for friendship, mentschlichkeit, joy, love, generosity and a good laugh.
I sat at his feet; a neophyte in the art of living and loving life.
Parashat Va'et'hanan Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
I have not been alone in my fascination this week with the aftermath of the arrest of Harvard Professor Gates. Yesterday's conference during which the four gentlemen mentioned above each imbibed his favorite American brew was a brilliant move in terms of leadership, of walking the talk, of role-modeling conflict resolution on a human scale and a lot more.
But it was also a very Jewish moment, impressive considering that there weren't actually any Jews at the table!
This past week, we observed the fast of the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av) which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem centuries apart but on the same date. One rabbinic response to this calamity which appears in the Talmud is an admonishment to Israel: the Temple was destroyed because Israel forgot God's values and principles by indulging in bias and senseless hatred . . . or, in a parallel text, by indulging in libelous and destructive speech.
Some human foibles, apparently, never go away.
This Shabbat we read the very moving passage from Isaiah "Nachamu, nachamu ami" / "be comforted, be comforted My people." The healing process begins after the wounds have been opened up by prejudice and slander.
I don't know if life imitates art . . . but this week, life is imitating Torah.
How does this kind of healing take place? By reversing the forces of hatred and bigotry and replacing them with openness, courage and respect. The New York Times reported on the White House "beer summit", emphasizing that the press was not allowed within earshot of the table under the magnolia tree. But Professor Gates reported on a "pre-summit" exchange that, to my mind, reflects those healing characteristics:
"The two men [Professor Gates and Sergeant Crowley] and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.
'Nobody knew what to do," Professor Gates said. "So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you.' That broke the awkwardness.'"
Nachamu, nachamu ami . . . that's how it's done.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.