Three People; Rosh haShannah 5756

I recently had a chance to learn with Rabbi Jack Riemer (who had a pulpit in La Jolla a few years back and even now, though he lives in Florida maintains a home to retire to in Rancho Bernardo (where his mother lives)).

He asked us three questions and offered three example responses that I want to share with you now.

  1. What do you do at the moment of your greatest joy?
  2. What do you do at the moment of your greatest loss?
  3. What do you do at the moment of your greatest testing?

These are real questions with which we struggle many times during our lives. Rabbi Reimer offered three examples of how others had answered them. Rabbi Reimer said that the answers come from very simple people, but other than the fact that they are not educated in the way you and I are, I think you'll agree with me that these are unusual people. Nonetheless, the responses the offer are, in a sense, simple and straightforward. These events I report here took place on the same day, less than a year ago. I find it important to consider that significant events occur all around us in our own day. Many of these events seem to be of the greatest ordinariness.

The first is George Foreman. Most of us remember his name, even though it had been almost completely forgotten.

Twenty years ago, before some of us were born, George Foreman went to Africa, to the Republic of Zaire where he fought Mohammed Ali for the Heavyweight Championship of the world. He lost. For twenty years, thereafter, no one heard anything about him. He reached the ripe old age of forty-six (an age I've already passed), which in boxing is the equivalent of eighty-six for people like you and me.

And then, less than a year ago, on November 12, 1994, he stunned the world by doing what no other boxer in history had ever done. He came back out of obscurity and knocked out Michael Moore in the tenth round and regained the heavyweight championship title of the world.

That's amazing and it makes him more than a simple individual, I'd say rather outstanding. But that's not the part of the story that makes him significant for us today on Rosh haShannah. The sports analysts can study how likely it is for a 46 year old to come out of retirement and win the world heavyweight championship.

For us, the significant part came after he won.

I've only seen prize fights in movies, never live or televised live. But I have a sense of the pandemonium that occurs. The crowd goes wild. The people in the winner's corner go crazy. The new champion prances about the ring in glory. The referee comes over and picks up the winner's arm and holds it high, and announces at the top of his voice, over the sound of the cheers and screams, "the next heavyweight champion of the world is..."

However, this time, something different happened. Did anyone here see it? Before the referee came over, George Foreman got down on his knees, and quietly said: thank you, God. And then he got up and took the referee's hand and acknowledged the crowd.

Think of it... the moment of your greatest glory.

The crowd is cheering your name. You have worked for this moment for years. Would you pause and get down on your knees and thank God first? I don't know if I would.

Forget the knees... most of us Jews are not as comfortable praying - in public or in private- as Christians are. We are more cerebral. We begin a board meeting with a 'dvar torah.' Christians begin with a moment of silent prayer. When in Christian services, the minister says: "let us pray," I know that the congregation starts to pray. They don't read a paragraph from the prayerbook. I know that is a big generalization and there are a lot of exceptions both ways. No generalization is always true - including this one - but still, I am impressed by what George Foreman did

Now, think about his model, I hope that I would.

From George Foreman, we can learn that at the moment of our greatest joy, we should pause and thank God.

Second question: what should you do at the moment of your greatest loss?

Once again, the model is a man with whom we don't have a lot in common as individuals. Ronald Reagan. Whatever you think about his politics, though, you have to admit that this man is a survivor. He has endured and survived cancer and scandal and ridicule and attempted assassination. Yet he is still standing, and he still has a certain quiet dignity and optimism and confidence and... faith in God.

What is the greatest loss that any human being can experience? It is hard to say, for there are many losses that can be excruciatingly painful and devastating. The loss of a spouse, the loss of a child, these are awesomely difficult amputations. Perhaps the greatest loss of all, or surely one of the greatest of all possible losses, is the loss of one's self, the loss of one's identity, the loss of who you are.

On November 13, 1994, one day after George Foreman's victory, we learned that Ronald Reagan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which means that he is now going to lose his self, his identity.

What would you do, what would I do, if 'Chas vishalom,' that happened to us? Here's Reagan's response.

He wrote a letter to the American people:

My fellow Americans,

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether, as private citizens, we would keep this a private matter, or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had my cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures that we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that, as a result, many more people underwent testing.

They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives. So now, we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clearer understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's Disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience.

When the time comes, I am confident that with your help, she will face it with faith and courage.

In closing let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America, there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.

Sincerely, Ronald Reagan.

You have to be moved by the dignity, by the quiet confidence, and by the simple, unsophisticated genuine faith in God that it reflects. If anyone else wrote a line about "going into the sunset of my life" or about "planning to enjoy the great outdoors," it would sound corny and unauthentic, but coming from him, it sounds real. He really does talk and think like a cowboy riding off into the horizon.

And when he writes, "I intend to live the remainder of the years that God gives me on this earth" or "when the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be," or when he closes "may God always bless you," it rings true. Ronald Reagan may not be the most sophisticated theologian or metaphysician in the world, but he is a man of faith, of real and honest faith, and that comes through in this letter that he wrote.

May God be with him and his wife, Nancy, and their family in this last, most difficult stage of his incredible life. May we learn from him how to live with faith as our response in the time of our greatest loss.

The last question Rabbi Reimer posed was: what would you do, what would I do, if we were tested by life, more than any human being deserves to be tested?

I don't know how I would respond. Who can predict?

Nobody can know in advance how they will react if and when they are tested. Our Torah portion tells us of the testing of Abraham and how he responded. An old Yiddish saying suggests: no one should ever find out how much pain a person can endure.

None of us are Abraham, nor are we ever expected to face the testing he had. If, however, we are someday tested, suggests as a model a woman named Zoe Koplowitz.

Zoe participated in the New York marathon back in November 1994. By coincidence, same day that George Foreman won his fight and Ronald Reagan published his letter.

Twenty six thousand people ran in the New York marathon. Zoe came in last and yet, there is no doubt in my mind that she was the real winner!

Zoe is forty-six years old and suffers from a debilitating disease, multiple sclerosis. She has had it since 1973, more than twenty years. She walks on two crutches, one slow, painful step at a time.

Zoe walked for twenty-seven hours and thirty-four minutes... and she finished the marathon! She came in last... but she finished. The crowd went wild with applause, as she limped across the finish line. And rightly so. Her left leg dragged by the end. In twenty-seven hours and thirty four minutes, walking on two crutches, she got to the finish line.

As far as I am concerned, and I think that as far as many of the people who watched the race are concerned, she is the real winner of the marathon, even though she came last.

Why did she do it. Listen to her answer.

She said, "When you are born, God gives you a television set with a hundred channels. Ninety-nine of them have wonderful programs on them. One has static. Everybody - with no exceptions - everybody has that channel with the static on their set. You have a choice. You can sit in front of that one channel for the rest of your life and look at the static, or you can get up and change the channel. My commitment in life is to change the channel as frequently as possible."

Wow. What a great line that is, and what a wise one!

Who is there in this world who doesn't have a channel with static on their TV set? The choice is clear. You can sit and watch the channel and complain about the static and wish that life had given you a better set to watch... or you can change the channel.

That is what Zoe Koplowitz has done. Again, like George Foreman, she is not an intellectual, like Ronald Reagan, she is not a sophisticated theologian or metaphysician or philosopher. Nonetheless, she knows a great truth that many people who have more graduate degrees that she does don't always know.

May all of us, in our time of joy, learn from George Foreman to pause before we boast and dance and prance and celebrate and say, thank you, God. May all of us, in our time of loss, whatever the loss may be, even if it be the loss of our very selves, learn from Ronald Reagan, to have confidence and dignity and optimism and faith in God. In our time of testing, may all of us learn from Zoe Koplowitz that if our broadcast from God seems to have static, we still have the ability to tune in to another clearer channel.

May God bless all three of these wonderful people, and may we learn from their lessons for our own lives.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon.

©Mark Hurvitz