Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die

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One of the most powerful themes of the High Holiday liturgy is from the Unetane Tokef prayer: “Who shall live and who shall die,” describing the unpredictability of the year to come. All we can do, according to this prayer, is to live a life of teshuvah (apologizing and forgiving), tefillah (introspection and self-scrutinty) and tzedakah (charity and deeds of kindness). As Rabbi Israel of Rizhin once said: “In the days of the Messiah, people will no longer quarrel with each other, but only with themselves. They will struggle to hold themselves accountable for their own behavior, rather than demanding that others are responsible for it.”

This past summer was a time of great pain. Even for those who took a vacation, it was impossible not to be pre-occupied with the war between Israel and Gaza, Ukraine, ISIS (and the beheading of journalist Jim Foley) and the suicide of Robin Williams. Evil, irresponsibility and personal pain are among the tragedies of life. We cannot avoid or ignore them, but we can proactively try to do something about them.

Two heroes of mine passed away this summer. Reb Zalman Schachter lived to be 89 and used the blessing of his long life to renew Judaism by fusing spirituality, politics and psychology that helped to transform liberal Judaism. He spoke about davenology, eco-kashrut, spiritual saging, meditation, Jewish-Muslim rapprochement and expanded consciousness. Zalman worked with everyone – the Dalai Lama, Ram Das, Allen Ginsberg and poets, artists, theologians and mystics from a variety of traditions. He was the father and then grandfather of New Age spirituality in Judaism and, along with his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, brought Jews back to Judaism through words, melodies, ideas and experiences.

Leonard Fein, who everyone called by his Yiddish name Leibel, passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 80. Founder of Moment magazine and Mazon, author and columnist, MIT professor and American Judaism’s most devoted advocate of Tikkun Olam (improving the world), Leibel was, in the words of the New York Times, “a social progressive, a fierce peacenik, a staunch defender of Israel, a shrewd observer of the American Jewish community…and a state-of-the-art mentsch.”

He spoke at University Synagogue a few years ago and electrified the large crowd with his wry humor, lofty ambitions for American Jewry and powerful intellect.

My life and my rabbinate have been greatly enriched by these two men who I have had the honor of knowing for my entire adult life. Zalman, originally a Hasid, and Leibel, always a secular Jew (who still loved a good Shabbat service – and he said that our Shabbat Alive service was a “great” one) worked, wrote, lectured and inspired people of all ages until the day that each of them died. Age meant nothing to them; they had so much to still say and do and all of us were so fortunate that they never stopped growing and teaching.

Now it’s time for all of us to pass these spiritual gifts on to our children, grandchildren and friends. Bring new people to University Synagogue. Introduce them to spiritual creativity and honest intellectuality, to joyous community and a circle of support in times of joy and sorrow.

Zichronam livracha – may Zalman and Leibel’s memories be for a blessing – and may all of us keep their message and vision alive through our Judaism and personal lives.

Best wishes for a New Year of joy, creativity and peace.


Rabbi Arnold Rachlis


September 1st 2014 |