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To Love Is To Give – erev Rosh Hashanah

September 04, 2013

Exactly four months ago, on the weekend of May 3rd-4th, we celebrated our congregation’s 18th year of existence: a number that in Hebrew is represented by the word chai – the letter chet plus yud, the numeric equivalent of 18 – the Hebrew word that means “life.” It was an occasion, though not the only occasion, on which I have thought about significant moments in the lifetime of our congregation.

They include memories of experiences shared with you here and in distant locales: Cuba and Israel, where we have traveled as a synagogue, with plans to return to the Promised Land in 2014 on a Family Trip for parents and children in August, and an Adult Trip in October. The historic time line of our congregation can be found on our website, and scrolling through it gives you the opportunity to revisit moments that are meaningful to you much closer to home. I am not going to yield to the temptation to give voice to my own favorites on that ‘stroll through synagogue time’ but rather to share with you two ‘teaching moments’ along the way that you will not find on our website.

From 1994-2006 our Shabbat services were celebrated in the chapel at Gratz College in Melrose Park. Since we did not have our own synagogue, the Torah Scroll accompanied me from home to worship there, and back home again. People were accustomed to see me arrive in the parking lot at Gratz College, take the Torah from my car, and enter the building on my way to the chapel. Every Shabbat, after our morning service concluded, a local church arrived to hold its service in the adjacent auditorium…yes, on Shabbat afternoon…perhaps a Reform Unitarian church. One afternoon, following our Oneg Shabbat, I was standing by my car, reaching for my keys with one hand, the Torah Scroll in my other arm – the colorful mantle adorning it, the silver crowns sparkling on top – and as I paused beside my car to unlock it and place the Torah carefully inside, three of the church elders called out to me in the nicest, friendliest manner and asked with great sincerity, “Rabbi, can you play that bagpipe?”

I took no offense at their question, as humorous as it struck me, and it turned into a wonderful ten minute chat about Torah: what it is, how it is written, and why it is so important to us. They were genuinely interested, and that is what made the moment one that I remember so well because it led to a connection I shared with the three of them for the remaining years we were at Gratz. We greeted each other from that point on and, by then, they had changed their question to ask me, “Rabbi, are you taking good care of that Torah?”

The other moment occurred in March of this year. Sophia Kirk – a three year old in our Nursery School – was having dinner at a Jewish deli in Margate with her parents and sister. The waitress brought menus and a bread basket filled with challah slices. Sophia immediately took a piece of challah, stood up on her chair, held the challah over her head, and shouted to everyone in the deli, “Wait! Don’t eat yet!” and with that proceeded to sing the motzi. Everyone in the restaurant who knew it joined her.

Since these are memories about connections, let’s talk about how we connect with each other, and with others. If I were to ask you to recite the Sh’ma, you could easily do so. I also know that most of you could say the V’ahavtah:

וְאָהַבְתָ אֵת יְיָ אֱלוֹהֱיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נָפְֹשְךָ וּבְכָל מְאוֹדֶךָ

and perhaps not all of what follows, but you would move through the initial Hebrew words or their English translation with ease: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might” by which we mean “passion.”

“What is the theme of the V’ahavtah?” Most people would undoubtedly respond with the word “love.” After all, the word V’ahavtah is the injunction “You shall love.” But love is not enough! One could love in a passive way, responding only when asked, and even then reluctantly.

From where does love flow and find its greatest meaning? The Hebrew word “love” is derived from the verb “to give.” It is in giving of ourselves that we are in greater touch with our humanity. I want to tell you about two people who gave of themselves in ways that touched lives.

Two months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor {December 7, 1941} our government forcibly relocated 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast out of their homes and into relocation camps for the duration of the war. As soon as President Roosevelt signed the executive order in February 1942, certain parts of the West became military zones. In the Sacramento area, many of those who were relocated were farmers who had worked the land in that region since at least the 1890s, and many of them were known to Bob Fletcher, a California agriculture inspector who was in his early 30s. The farmers considered him to be honest and respectful of their work.

Al Tzukamoto, whose parents arrived in the United States in 1905, approached Mr. Fletcher with a business proposal: would he be willing to manage the farms of two family friends of Mr. Tzukamoto’s, one of whom was elderly, pay the taxes and mortgages while they were away, and in return keep all of the profits? Mr. Fletcher and Mr. Tzukamoto barely knew each other, and Mr. Fletcher had no experience growing the farmers’ specialty, flame tokay grapes, but he accepted the offer and quit his job as State agriculture inspector.

For the next three years, from 1942-1945, he worked 90 acres on three farms, taking care of Mr. Tzukamoto’s farm as well. He worked 18 hour days and lived in the bunkhouse that had been reserved for migrant workers. He paid the bills of all three families, and kept only half the profits.

Many Japanese-American families lost their property while they were in internment camps because they could not pay their bills, and most in the Sacramento area moved elsewhere after the war. When the Tzukamotos returned in 1945, they found that Mr. Fletcher had left them money in the bank and that his wife had cleaned the Tzukamoto home in preparation for their return. She had chosen to join her husband in the bunkhouse instead of accepting the Tzukamotos’ offer to live in the family house.

In 2010, Mr. Fletcher was honored for his efforts on behalf of families who had been relocated. As the ceremony was about to commence, he said, “I don’t know that [what I did] was about courage.” I believe it was, especially given the fever-pitch of animosity and suspicion engendered by the government-inspired order of relocation. Bob Fletcher died this past May at the age of 101, and I would like to think that there were angels on his shoulders escorting him to a special place reserved for the righteous in the olam ha’ba/”the world to come.”

The second person was a 24 year old law student, an accomplished mountain climber, who on May 19, 2012 prepared to ascend Mount Everest. In 2009, he read Jon Krakauer’s {1997} best-selling account of his own Everest climb, Into Thin Air. After reading the book, he took a mountain-climbing course in the Alps. In 2010, he went rock climbing in Italy and later that year ascended Ama Dablam, a 22,294 foot-peak 15 miles south of Mount Everest. He ice-climbed in Scotland in 2011. He prepared for over a year to climb the highest peak on the planet, and spent more than two months at base camps on Everest’s flank in March and April of 2012 to acclimatize himself to the altitude before making his push to the summit in May.

Danger lurked all along the way: falling rocks; avalanches; inclement weather that causes changes in snow and rock conditions; whiteouts; snow blindness; high winds that speed the onset of hypothermia; altitude sickness; solar radiation; equipment failure; fatigue that leads to falls; or falls from ice slopes into crevasses.

On the weekend of his ascent, about 200 other climbers were attempting to scale the summit. Between Camp IV and the summit is an area called “the death zone” because of the steep icy slope, treacherous conditions and low oxygen level. On the day of his climb, Nepali mountaineering official Gyanendra Shrestha said, “There was a traffic jam on the mountain. Climbers were still heading to the summit as late as 2:30 p.m. which is quite dangerous.” Climbers are advised not to try for the summit after 11:00 a.m. Shrestha added, “Climbers had a longer wait for their chance to go up the trail and spent too much time at higher altitude. Many of them are believed to be carrying a limited amount of oxygen, not anticipating the extra time spent [waiting].” {The Times of Israel, May 22, 2012}

As the climber ascended beyond Camp IV, he passed two fresh corpses. He recognized them from the color of their down suits and oxygen masks which each had worn overnight at Camp IV. They were unresponsive to his efforts to wake them. They were two of four climbers who lost their lives on Everest that weekend on a route that was said to be “strewn with bodies.” He moved onward and upward. Three hundred yards from the top, he saw another body lying in the snow. Other climbers just above him had seen the body and had kept going, but he stopped. He recognized the inert form by the color of the down suit and oxygen mask. He had spent time with that climber in Camps III and IV. He checked his vital signs and later said, “I had no second thoughts. I knew that I had to save him.” He removed two of the three gloves that covered his right hand to be able to tie the climber to his harness: that act would result in frostbite to four of his fingers. Thirty minutes later his oxygen mask broke and two of his oxygen cylinders froze. The perilous nine hour descent to the nearest camp had barely begun. The man he was carrying was heavy, and would occasionally gain consciousness, scream, faint, and repeat the sequence many times on the way down the icy slope. There was danger that they would fall and that the unconscious climber would drag them both to their deaths, or that he would slip from his grasp. For nine hours he carried a man who was barely alive.

The man he saved had been returning from the summit but collapsed without an oxygen supply, a flashlight or a rucksack. His name is Aydin Irmak. He was born in Turkey. The man who saved him is Nadav ben Yehuda. He was born and raised in Rehovot, about twelve miles south of Tel Aviv. In 1992, Doron Erel became the first Israeli to conquer Everest. Nadav ben Yehuda would have been the youngest. He stopped his ascent just 300 yards from the top. He had delayed his climb by a day in the hope of avoiding the bottleneck of climbers headed for the top, and he thought that Irmak had already descended. When he saw the body, he knew that Irmak had been up there the entire time, overnight.

Recovering in Nepal, Irmak told reporters, “I talked to ben Yehuda’s family today and I told them, ‘You have another family in Turkey.’”

Asked why he did what he did, ben Yehuda said, “A person’s life, any person’s life, is more valuable than anything. I knew that I might lose my fingers, but that wasn’t something I could worry about because that would be immoral.”

A few months ago in Washington, I had the honor of hearing him speak. His presentation included photographs he had taken of Mount Everest, the route toward the summit, and the bodies of the climbers he stopped to help but who were already dead. Other slides showed the interior of his tents at the different camps, and of him in his downsuit and oxygen mask. His talk described his weeks on the flank of the mountain preparing for the ascent, and about his harrowing descent, with Irmak in his arms. It was more analytical than dramatic, though it did not lack for drama. He was candid about the risks climbers face, and the split-second decisions they sometimes have to make. He spoke about the inclination to ignore danger because of the time, energy and money spent to achieve one’s dream, and that is why many die in “the death zone.” He told us that he and Irmak one day hope to stand together on the top of Mount Everest.

Toward the end of his talk, someone asked him if there was anything in his Jewish education or upbringing that he believes might have led him to do what he did to save Irmak’s life, abandoning his own dream to reach Everest’s summit. He replied that Torah study in his childhood helped shape his values, and that his service in the IDF led to his instinctive decision to stop and render aid. As he said, “We are trained to never leave anyone in the field.”

In conclusion, I ask you to consider two questions: “Who inspires you?” and “What inspires you?” Bob Fletcher and Nadav ben Yehuda brought the V’ahavtah to life because in Hebrew the word “love” finds its core meaning in the words “to give.”

I think that the most important word in the V’ahavtah is

וְֹשִנַנְתָּם

”You shall teach them [values and ethics].” The words that follow are “recite them…inscribe them…remember to observe them…be holy.”

On Yom Kippur, we will read these words in the Torah:

הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת…לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא…

כִּי קָרֹוב אֵליךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹתוֹ

“This instruction [to internalize and enact Jewish values] is not too difficult for you, or too remote…[Quite the contrary!] It is in your mouth and in your heart to do it!” {Deuteronomy 30:11, 14}.

The best teachers – at home, in classrooms, boardrooms and wherever else people gather – are those who teach through the example of how they lead their lives. We are not asked to be Bob Fletcher or Nadav ben Yehuda. This time of year – our journey toward teshuvah – calls us to be our ‘better selves.’

It begins with the covenant, Torah, because we are ‘The People of the Book,’ not the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, but Torah: a living, breathing document through which God is made manifest through stories about our people, which is to say, about us.

The Torah Scroll, not a bagpipe, and the motzi – as through Sophia – bringing forth hope, like wheat springing forth from the land. All of it grounded in the belief that the essence of love,

אַהֲבָה

is our response to the imperative

וְאָהַבְתָ

to give of ourselves that we might be blessings to others.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin