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Coming to Terms,continued

 

It is the process of “coming to terms with one’s own past.” It is what Wolpe has been doing to prepare for this sermon and for this year, when there will be a last time for everything he has known as a pulpit rabbi.

He talks about looking at pictures of himself as a child, and notes that there is nobody left alive who knew him then: his last boyhood friend recently died, and he officiated at his funeral. And there is, he says, one Picasso-esque vignette that repeats itself over and over in his mind. He is a youngster, sitting on a large windowsill in the third-floor apartment where he and his mother lived in Roxbury. From there, he can look south over the rooftops all the way to Dorchester Bay. The apartment was once part of a house that had been built by a clipper-ship captain, and this very window overlooked the outdoor platform where the captain’s wife kept watch for his ship. It was called “the widow’s walk.” And he recalls sitting on that windowsill and reading and listening, nothing escaping him; novels and poetry, philosophy and plays, and sounds classical and modern, Shakespeare and Browning, Mozart and Cole Porter. He gulped Tennyson’s King Arthur and the Dixieland jazz of Pee Wee Russell, along with sages Rashi and Sholom Aleichem. It was exciting and strangely comforting to think that these important voices “were talking to me, trying to comfort me.” Occasionally he would look up from his book, trying to see the masts of the ships in Dorchester Bay. He knew his father would never return, but he would never stop waiting and searching for him.

He segues into a diatribe against the new spiritualism in Judaism—which he says parallels trends in Christianity as well. He believes some of it is heartening and admirable, but “so much of it has a frightening, simplistic quality about it. It is seductive but avoids the hard questions.” And, to him, that isn’t what Judaism is supposed to be about. “I have discovered,” he says, “that life is volatile and the Torah only makes sense when it is used as a brutal guideline to living in a world that does not always match up to expectations.”

He pauses for effect, steps back a bit and rechecks his typed script. It is as if he is taking in air for his last solo. His head starts to sway, and he’s ready …

I will accept God only if I can confront God. Not benign acceptance, but the eternal wrestling of the soul. Jacob wrestled with You and he came forth limping from the arena. I am damaged as well, and I understand completely the Yiddish lament, “Oh, Lord, You help complete strangers, why won’t You help me?”

There’s a Midrash where this question is asked with the addition of a poignant cry, “God, it is such a difficult world, why don’t you send someone who can change it?” and God answered, “I did send someone. I sent you.”

So on this day when so much comes to an end in my life’s commitment and there is still so much left to be desired, I have my answer. The world and I clashed many years ago and I felt that God wanted me to help change it. The first time God talks to a Jew, He speaks to Abraham, He tells him to journey to a different place. “Lech Lecha—go from here.” God is the Lord of journeys and that should be the destiny of every Jew and it has been mine. It is not going from one place to another; it is the journey of the soul and the journey of the spirit.

God tested me every step of my journey. He tested me in ways that I could never imagine. He beat at my soul, my stamina and my faith. He demanded things from me when my own personal needs screamed for my attention, and I was torn between need and duty.

Yet, I kept one personal vow. I never allowed myself to accept the easy answers; I wanted to struggle with each one even when they tore at my heart, mind, and soul. I would never compromise with my own spiritual standards. I can only pray that by the honesty of that vow, I made a difference in the lives of other human beings even in the moments when I rebelled and agonized over the inexplicable in His rulings.

And I can only hope that those of you who have listened to me have realized how lonely were the long and brutally demanding hours so necessary to make all the words sound as if they came so easily.

Almighty God, I pray that I have challenged them, Your children, and that I have challenged You with the very justice You proclaimed to the world. Each day I lifted the tears of my soul and have begged that the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart might be acceptable to them, and to You.

Every night of my life, after I recite the Sh’ma Yisrael, I have closed my eyes to recite a prayer that my father taught me when I was a child. It is a simple and almost childish prayer but it is comforting. It has allowed me the connective serenity of a long silent touch to my father so I could journey with you in your lives to think, to dream, to cry, to hope, to accept and, yes, even to shout to the very gates of Heaven. Each night I have said words left to me by Benjamin Wolpe and have some blessed moments in the task I have chosen.

Lately, however, as I have grown older something remarkable has happened. When at night, as sleep begins to overwhelm me, in the child’s eye that still remains I climb once again on that window sill and I look over the surrounding roofs. And I can see it. I can really see it. I can see my father’s ship enter Dorchester Bay.

For those of you who were part of my journey, thank you, God bless you, Shalom.

His sermon made me cry. I would be embarrassed except that everyone around me is crying, too. But as I wipe my tears, and my wife, who came with me to Har Zion this time, rubs my back, the cantor begins to chant the next prayer. And I am reminded that we are gathered here for something much bigger than this sermon. We are here to pray for ourselves, for our lives.

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/02/02