Joy and Terror and a Walk in the Woods

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 21st, 2016 – 19 Tishri, 5777


Have you caught your breath yet? Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and regular life. There’s something so exhilarating–and exhausting–about the Jewish autumn holiday cycle. As the end approaches, with Shimini Atzeret and Simchat Torah just around the corner, I want to alert you to a few upcoming events.

This Monday, October 24th, we’ll enter into our Simchat Torah celebrations with Oktorahfest. While we all know the horrors our people suffered in Germany in the middle of the last century, we also enjoyed many centuries of successful Jewish life, culture and scholarship there. We’ll begin the evening with a reservation-only dinner featuring some typical German Jewish fare, then move into a full on celebration for everyone with live music (a Polka band), beer and our annual completion of the Torah.

You can tell a great deal about a person by what excuse they use to throw a party. Parties, you see, are as much a statement of our values as more somber occasions. It’s rather wonderful that we celebrate finishing a book with a party! Or rather, we celebrate finishing the Torah by starting it right over again.

We all know the saying that when one door closes, another opens. Yet when push comes to shove, most of us struggle with endings. There’s some worthwhile wisdom in how our tradition melds the old and the new, the ending with the beginning. I knew a person who threw a party on the day of her divorce. It wasn’t meant as a statement of “thank God that’s over and done with!” Rather, she wanted to honor what was and what was yet to be. We do that every year at Simchat Torah, and I hope you’ll come and celebrate with our community. It should be a fun evening (and following day) for kids and adults of all ages.


This past March, we lost one of our own. Yoni Suher was murdered in an Istanbul suicide bombing. While Yoni was born into our CNS community, his family made aliyah to Israel when he was but one. Many congregants of long standing may better remember his father Randy and his grandmother, Ethel Katz Briller, who were regular parts of our community. Yoni was also the nephew of our friends and congregants, Brian Suher and Barbara Atlas.

As Brian and I discussed Yoni’s tragic death, it became clear that we needed to mark his life and redeem his memory. Out of those conversations was birthed a new scholar in residence program. The first annual Yoni Suher Scholar in Residence weekend will be held on November 11th-13th and will feature the remarkable Arnold Roth as our inaugural scholar. Mr. Roth lost his own daughter in the well-known terrorist bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria, in 2001. Laura and I know that pizzeria intimately. We made a point of dining in its rebuilt incarnation after I survived my own close call with death in the 2002 bombing of the Frank Sinatra cafeteria at the Hebrew University. We ate there because we had to. We ate there as an affirmation.

As I see it, one has only two real choices after terror touches your life. You can let yourself be corrupted by it, and end up a diminished individual, haunted by the evil and horror which are part of existence. Or you can redeem your encounter by pledging yourself to embracing a life of worth and dignity. Although Arnold Roth lost his daughter Malki in one of the most devastating ways a person can lose a child, his faith and remarkable character led him to choose the path of life. I think you will be moved and impressed by this gentle man who has dedicated himself to love and understanding. Hundreds of politicians and diplomats have been touched by his unique and positive perspective in numerous talks around the world.

I trust you will join us to hear this remarkable person speak from a place of hope, and learn how he has also built a foundation dedicated to providing home health care for families with severely disabled children.

A Walk in the Woods

What does it mean to be a good person in today’s world? Interestingly, most people define ourselves as good, without spending much effort asking what goodness is. Indeed, I recall a study where convicted murderers on death row where asked if they were good people. The overwhelming answer was affirmative. Now certainly we ought to judge a person’s life in its totality, and a single episode, as gruesome as murder is, shouldn’t end up defining us. But still, “goodness,” like “niceness,” often seems to be a bit too self-congratulatory.

Against these easy claims that we are all good, the Musar movement that began in 19th century Lithuania had a different goal. This spiritual practice and movement was less concerned with the question “are we good” and more interested in “how might we be better,” or “how might we deepen our characters.” And isn’t it improvement that we long for in most areas of our lives?

There is a part of Judaism’s call for excellence that seems at odds with a coarsened culture. Yet it seems the proper response to such coarseness is not to join in, but to labor to refine ourselves. Speaking personally, when I consider my father’s accomplishments of character, I am reminded of what is possible and the work still in front of me.

Given all this, I want to invite you to join in an upcoming series of classes that begin in early November: “Walking Our Talk- A Musar Meander.” We’ll gather for a brown bag lunch and learn of an evocative musar text at the synagogue, then literally take those words into the world as we enjoy a crisp and most likely rainy autumn walk.

Please bring comfortable walking shoes and appropriate rain gear as we’ll be wandering outdoors regardless of the weather. The details are below. I’d simply request that you let us know that you are coming by sending an email to Karen Wilkins so we can make sure we are prepared.


Rav D

Dates: November 2nd, 9th and 16th.

Time: 12 noon-1 pm

Lunch and learn: 12:00-12:30 pm

Meander: 12:30~1:00 pm