The Wonderful Gift of Robin Williams

My friend Linda, teacher to the stars, founded Fone a Friend, which asks celebrities, who are willing, to call sick and lonely children. She told me that of all the famous people Robin Williams set an exceptional example when he went beyond just calling someone and cut short his vacation to invite a lonely disfigured boy to his home to lift up his spirits. Robin extended a lifeline to this lonely child.

I am struck by a rabbi’s take on the game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” When players get stuck for an answer they can use a “lifeline.” In an earlier version of the show, you could call a friend.

In our loneliest and saddest moments, we sometimes overlook the lifelines in real life. So we use a lifeline and ask you the audience. Who are your lifelines? Recall for a moment a time in your life when you lost hope. Maybe you were going through a really tough time and felt like you had hit rock bottom – a setback in your career, a low point in your marriage or relationship; a worry so strong about a child, aging parent or close friend – that you couldn’t see any hope.

Whatever it was, think about the people in your life who became a true lifeline. If you feel that way now just think about the ones who could offer you a lifeline if you would but reach out.

The rabbi played “ask the audience” with his congregation and challenged them to “call a friend.” He said, “Now it’s your turn to “call a friend.” When you have a few moments to yourself, call a friend who came through for you. Tell the people you love how they gave you hope when you needed it most. They may already know this. They may not need your gratitude. They may feel it’s unnecessary. Tell them anyway!

The Jewish mystic and poet envisioned hope as a crimson cord that could reach heaven. So when you are lonely and despair reach out to your friends and family and maybe a total stranger, who were there for you when you felt abandoned and alone!











Reality TV

Recently, as much as 75% of the  television audience is watching reality television. We watch what happens when you put a bunch of people in a house and ask them just to live there.

On the Apprentice we watch competitors vie to be top dog. On an island we watch people  struggling to survive. We look at the people on these shows and wonder why they would want to be watched. Why would anyone have millions of voyeurs watching the intimate details of their lives?

Television and pop culture has gone from “pop culture” to “peep culture” scrutinizing the lives and misfortunes of others. How quickly did the scripted format of Desperate Housewiveget spun off into all the the versions of The Real Housewives ?

Author Hal Niedviecki, in his book  The Peep Diaries, explains how we eat this stuff up: In Peep Culture he writes, “we all have  lives worth SELLING“-not worth TELLING!

While we can criticize a culture where everyone can be an instant celebrity…While we can look askance at the Kardashians, instead of asking why they would want to be so watched – maybe we should ask ourselves: Why are we watching? These shows wouldn’t exist if we don’t binge on them.

Looking at these exaggerated characters on reality TV enables us to avoid doing something we really need to do. We need to be able to look at ourselves blemishes and all.  And watching the supposedly “real lives” of others lets us off the hook from examining our own lives. We are so enthralled with the lives of others, that we never really look at how WE can be better.

There is a teaching that  a person should have two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On the first, we should have written, “I am but dust and ashes.” This is to remind us, when we get too inflated and extreme in our sense of self, that we come from humble beginnings. And on the second slip of paper, we should have written, “For my unique self, the world was created.”  

If we have one slip in each pocket, then as we go about our lives we will realize that we are between two extremes. Real life, not reality TV, is lived with the insight to know our worth, to steer clear of the extremes, and to reflect on how we might live better, humbler, but also stronger lives.


Maybe I had to endure serious illness in order to help people find meaning and strength in adversity. In the words of Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was within me an invincible summer.”  Finding meaning requires that we overcome our self-absorption with material goods. We spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and complain and anxious over trivial pursuits. We count our money instead of our blessings and appreciating all that we have. We are continually dwelling on what we don’t have. We all think: ” I would be happy if only…”

According to Psychology Today, 50 books were published on happiness in 2000 as opposed to last year when more than 4000 books appeared. My prescription for happiness is not sugary promotions. It is not the power of positive thinking. It is not to be beautiful, wealthy and successful.

The key to living a meaningful life is the same as it always was.It is learning to do the tough work of mastering our baser impulses and nurturing our most exalted selves by refusing to indulge in fear or anger and opting instead to feed our capacity for kindness and compassion.

It is to recognize all the gifts that come your way and appreciate those gifts and those around you. My prescription is contrary to much of what pop psychologists preach. I teach that what we do in this world matters. Our words have power: Power to hurt or wound, but also the power to heal and comfort. We wish we could be perfect but we are not perfect. We hurt people we love and we lose our temper. We speak with sarcasm. We can be petty and small minded.

But if we realize what we said, and regret what we did, then words can have a tremendous power. And if we admit the things we have done wrong and change the the way we act then life is not absurd. Our words and actions, our thoughtfulness and compassion, can fill our lives with meaning.

In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be as swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of the Holy One.” We realize that every day is a struggle between our good and bad impulses, and though many things are predestined we have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices.

The Sages made sure to point out that both the bad inclination and the good inclination are essential aspects of our humanity. Whether we like it or not, these impulses are part of us – much like the hemispheres are essential parts of our brain. The point is not to deny or repress the bad inclination, but to channel and master it.

The Sages ask: Who are mighty?  The ones who master their inclination.”


Making Our Lives Matter

When I was diagnosed  with leukemia I thought, “Why not me?”Hirshel%20Jaffe%201 As a rabbi visiting patients for so many years, I realized that no one is immune and anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old. My childhood nickname was “Sunshine”, and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor, “What can we do?”The belief in the possibility of hope is the narrative of the Jewish people. We have historically been geniuses of hope. The gateway to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy has the inscription, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Playwright Eugene O’Neill said, “Human hope is the greatest power in life and the only thing that defeats death.”

False hope is dysfunctional, and can lead to to disillusionment. False hope makes people vulnerable to hucksters and and simplistic “pie in the sky by and by.” But we can believe in the extraordinary around us.

The quality of hopefulness should not be left to chance. Hopefulness comes from immersing our lives in values larger than ourselves, enabling our lives to touch the eternal and leave a lasting impression on the world.

One of the problems of living in a self-centered culture is that we avoid dedicating ourselves to changing the world for the good of others. Why is it that so many World War II veterans are reported to have looked back on their experience as the best part of their lives? Why is it that many people do not start living until they face the end of their lives?

It is because deep within us we want our existence to matter. We worry that we may leave without having and impact, that the fact that we lived will never be noticed ow remembered. That we may have lived for nothing.

If my people could overcome the despair of the death camps, then certainly life can be filled with hope each and every day. The song of the Jewish partisans during the Holocaust proclaims, “Never Say You Walk the Final Road!”

As long as we live and breathe, hope glimmers within; with our every act and encounter we can touch other lives. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” the psychiatrist Victor Frankl describes how he endured the Nazi concentration camps and lost almost all of his family in the Holocaust.

While Frankl was in Dachau and Auschwitz he observed that how the prisoners reacted differently to the same conditions of great suffering. Frankl discovered that he people who had a greater chance of surviving were those who set a purpose for themselves. Their positive attitude helped the to triumph over their circumstances; for example to cling to the hope that they would be reunited with their loved ones.

Frankl says we can’t always chose the circumstances of our ordeals, but we can and must chose how we will react to suffering and adversity. No matter what our plight, we are free to chose our attitude toward the tough times. So we can find meaning and hope even in the darkest days.

In the words of the Psalmist. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”






If I should meet God

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”

In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe the true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency.

Joan Rivers and the key to happiness

Hirshel%20Jaffe%201Joan Rivers, may peace be upon her, once asked her business manager: ” How much money do I have in the  bank because I want it delivered to my house by the end of the day. I want to touch it!”

She was also famously quoted as saying: “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money you can have a key made.”

An ancient Rabbi asked: “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has and is satisfied with her portion.”

We all know of very wealthy people who are terribly unhappy, and ordinary people who are very happy. What the sage was explaining is that happiness is the ability to find joy in what you have. Unhappiness is dwelling on what you don’t possess.

This is what we should do every day. Every morning we wake up and it’s a new day. The sacred teaching is that our souls have been restored. We can breath deeply and take in all that is good if we have a roof over our head and family and friends .

And yet we spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and are anxious and complain about trivial things. We count our money instead of counting our blessings and appreciating all that we have. We are continually dwelling on what we don’t have.

We all think: ” I would be happy if only…”

But the Holy One of Blessing wants us to be happy right now because if you are not happy with your portion in life, then it does not matter how much you have in your bank account. It is never enough.

Don’t let the imperfections blind you to the blessings you have. The real key to happiness is to see the smiles of the ones you love and the beauty all around you.

And may you discover the richness and joy and power within you that you surely possess and deserve.


Be more hopeful!

When the doctors and nurses saw how depressed I was from the fevers and gnawing pain it worried them and they came to my hospital room to challenge me saying: “Why not be a rabbi and offer encouragement to your fellow patients?” But first we want you to get out of bed and go down for therapy to alleviate your pain.” I was kind of embarrassed and said I would try.

There in the basement of the hospital they lowered me gently with a sling into a pool of warm water and it really was helping. I happened to look up and there was a young patient seated in his wheelchair in front of a pair of wooden parallel bars. They were urging him to try to raise himself and calling out his name: “Come on Jerry, you can do it!” And Jerry gritted his teeth and with supreme effort it seemed he lifted himself up almost imperceptibly maybe a couple of inches at most.

At that moment I realized the cancer had probably affected Jerry’s spine and how brave he was. I thought to myself: What guts!  Later, back in my room,  I remembered how the doctors and nurses challenged me to be a rabbi. I thought about young Jerry and wheeled myself down the corridor to visit him. He was all wrapped in blankets, and shivering, but he put himself out and asked me how I was doing.

Thoughtlessly I started to utter a littany of my own complaints and when Jerry inquired if the doctors had seen me I cynically answered: ” No, Jerry, I think the doctors must have bad news about my condition and they’re just avoiding me.”

Jerry looked at me straight in the eye and asked: “Isn’t your name Hirshel and aren’t you Jewish? And didn’t I hear that you are a rabbi?” Then Jerry took me by surprise and said: “Well, rabbi Hirshel, I’m Christian and I don’t know that much about the Jewish religion but aren’t the Jewish people supposed to be an example of hope to us because of how they have survived against all odds. So, Rabbi, why don’t you try to be more hopeful?”  I thought that young Christian, Jerry, knew more about my religion than I did.

Weeks later, after my blood counts recovered, and the fevers abated and I started to gain weight I convinced the doctors that I was strong enough by climbing a little flight of stairs in the hospital and they finally said I could go home. It was a bitter winter in Chicago and I was all bundled up and clutching the experimental medicine that saved me from this rare leukemia. Two months before, with high fever and wearing a protective mask I was transported from my home in New York on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” and that very night the doctors received emergency permission to treat me as a “Compassionate Use” patient.

After my rescue I agreed to fly to the Midwest every month to be studied and tested as an experimental patient so the doctors could learn more about how the drug was working and the side effects. I remembered Jerry who was still there struggling to survive and I went to see him after they drew my blood. I could see he had grown weaker. As soon as he saw me he said: “There’s my friend the Rabbi. You made it and you had alot of courage.

“No, Jerry, you are the one with courage” and I admire you so much. I’ve been praying for you alot.” I left to fly home feeling so bad about my friend Jerry and made up my mind to always see him if he was still there while fearing the worst?

When I returned the next month the first thing I asked the nurses was: “How’s my friend Jerry?”  And they said: “Rabbi, Jerry didn’t make it.” I broke down and the nurses said they though I would be able to hear that because I was used to hearing that as a Rabbi. But of course I was human and they showed me into the Chapel so I could have some moments to recover from the sad news about my friend.

On the way home I resolved to always keep the memory of that brave young man in my heart. But, I thought I wanted to do something more that I had never done before. I would mention that young Christian’s name aloud, along with the Jewish names, just before the “Kaddish” memorial prayer.

That very Sabbath I called Jerry’s name before leading my congregation in the Kaddish Memorial Prayer my people have proclaimed through the ages in memory of our departed along with the martyrs of our people who never abandoned hope in the Holy One.

And, yes, Jerry’s name is there as it will be in every year to come because I have come to believe that my prayers as a rabbi should should be inclusive and reflect our shared humanity. For surely we all suffer and rejoice in the same way and that surpasses all religious distinctions.

Letting go of anger

Hirshel%20Jaffe%201There is an old Jewish tradition that is rarely followed now.  On the most sacred night of the year, just before the prayer asking the Holy One for forgiveness, men and women approach their relatives and friends and neighbors and ask forgiveness for anything hurtful they may have done to one another whether accidentally or with intention.

Asking forgiveness is not easy. Sometimes it feels like a sign of weakness, or acknowleging that we are not as perfect as we pretend we are. We often don’t like to admit that. And asking forgiveness means that we have to take ownership and responsibility for our behavior and that is difficult.

As a rabbi, I have more than once heard from parents and children and brothers and sisters who haven’t spoken to each other in years and so much time has gone by that they can’t even recall what started it all. And yet, the estrangement continues with no end in sight.

I have tried to mediate, but sadly most of the time, whether out of pride, or because it’s just too painful, people don’t want to make the effort. It’s just too much work. The sages asked, Who is a hero? It is the person who has the courage to make an adversary into a friend.

Will you have the courage to take the first step, to swallow your anger and pride and reach out? Then say to your parent or your brother or sister or your friend  through the tears ” I miss you and I love you. I want us to get over the anger and look into each other’s eyes and not be alienated any more.”

May I have the courage to soften my heart and get over my stubborness and pride, and forgive the history of the past. May I take the first step and break through the wall of silence. In the words of the Prophet: “Is not this my beloved child? Even when I speak against him, I remember him with affection. Therefore my heart yearns for him. I will surely have compassion.”

Finding everlasting peace

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1The call came to me in my study at the Synagogue from a young Catholic Priest friend of mine. Father Jim of St. Paul’s was asking me to please visit his parishioner who was critically ill in Intensive Care. He said the doctors held out little hope for Mary. Her children knew this and they were keeping a faithful vigil at her bedside.

Father Jim prayed for me during my battle with leukemia and I knew immediately what he was asking . He was aware of what I went through and how in thanks for my own life I visited critically ill cancer patients to comfort them and pray with them in their final days.

I said, ” Father, just tell me Mary’s room number and I am on my way.” He knew that this difficult challenge had become my highest calling and that I was prepared to do this on his behalf. Soon I joined her daugters in Mary’s room and I realized they were at a loss as to how utter the most important words they would ever say to their mother in the precious time remaining.

Mary was very weak and frail and I strained to hear her, but she recognized me and looked up and asked, “Are you the Rabbi who had cancer?” I said, “Yes Mary I am.” Then she said, ” Rabbi, did you have to wear a mask like me and have chemotherapy and transfusions and all these painful treatments?” When I answered, “Yes Mary I did”, she said, “Then you know…you understand….you know, Rabbi… and I am so tired and all I want is peace and I just can’t fight, anymore.”

At that very moment I knew that we needed to honor Mary’s wish to let go and not endure more suffering, and that her daughters could not bring themselves to speak these words to their mother. Then I leaned close to her and asked gently if she would like me to pray with her. She nodded yes and I said, ” Mary we are here with you and you are not alone. We know of your goodness and you shine a light on us now and always.”

“Mary you are a blessing to your daughters and you have shown them the way…May the God of mercy bless you and be kind to you and release you from all pain and fear. If you feel it’s time to let go then you can find the freedom and peace that awaits you.” I motioned for the children to draw near and and they stroked her and kissed her. Many tears of love were shed before Mary drifted off to sleep.

Mary did not have to struggle any more. She denied more treatment except pain medication to make her comfortable, and she passed away peacefully with her daughters by her side.

May Mary’s soul and the spirits of all of our loved ones be bound up in the bond of eternal life and dwell in our hearts forever.