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.

A tale of adoption gone wrong

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1“Theresa Orzechowski prayed. She prayed for a little girl disabled as she herself had been as a child, a little girl named Nelli abandoned in a hospital in Manhatan. Theresa’s lips did not move. God always knew what was in her heart, she believed, so she fell silent and let God listen”. (NY Times reporter, Ralph Blumenthal writing in Family Circle Magazine in an article entitled “The Rabbi, the Bishop and Mrs. Orzechowski”.)

I was an admirer of Terry, a staunch and activist Catholic. My Temple had given her our Humanitarian Award for her tireless work in the community on behalf of homeless and battered women. One day she suddenly appeared in my study in tears, because the New York Diosese had placed obstacles in her way to adopt a very special girl named Nelli. Terrry and her husband had gone to see her in the NY Catholic Sisters of Charity Foundling Hospital in Manhattan three months before. Nelli had languished there since infancy waiting in vain for someone to adopt her.

She was born with spina bifida as well as a clubbed foot, several fused toes and fingers, a heart murmur, fluid in her skull and disfiguring lesions around her mouth. When Nelli was not quite three her Jewish parents had decided to move to Israel and give her up for adoption with a strange proviso. They wanted Nelli to be placed in a Jewish home except not in a home of Chassidic Jews. The inference was that they disapproved of that particular sect.

Terri and Ken always dreamed of having a child but had not been successfull in 23 years of marriage. Nelli was described in NY State’s “Blue Book” for adoption as charming and active, although delayed in learning from all of her hospitalizations, The Book said Nelli would thrive in a loving family where she would get greater stimulation. Terry, like little Nelli was born with congenital defects: clubfeet, dislocated hips and a dislocated hip socket which resulted in eighteen operations beginning when she was three. In 1986 she was diagnosed with breast cancer followed by a lumpectomy and radiation.She told a friend: “Look-you can make cancer your enemy or your friend. It has let me face death. Now I understand how precious time is. Most people don’t have an opportunity to see that.”

One day Terry and Ken were looking through the official NY State adoption Blue Book and they saw Nelli, the little girl with the disfigurement in her face, and just then little Nelli had been freed by her Jewish parents for adoption. They went to the Catholic Foundling Hospital in Manhattan and they were allowed to spend some precious time to begin bonding with little Nelli. Nelli was using a walker and galloped ahead of Terry and Ken and when she tripped and fell they came to her aid but little Nelli shouted, “Don’t help me!” and she got up by herself. When they had to leave Nelli asked plaintively: “Are you coming back?”

But sadly Terry and Ken never saw little Nelli again. Her Bishop advocated for her and she went before the NY State Supreme Court represented by a lawyer who battled for the homeless and the disadvantaged while the Foundling Hospital had a team of powerful attorneys. I held her hand as she approached the Judge with a noticable limp.The court spectators became very silent as the sight of this brave little figure. It was to no avail and her arguments fell on deaf ears.

Despite Terrry’s heroic efforts battling the Church’s hierarchy and her solemn promise to raise Nelli in the Jewish faith, Nelli was given to Jewish parents and shockingly, we heard later that Nelli succumbed to Infant Death Syndrome while under the care of a baby sitter. Terri always believed in her heart that Nelli would have lived if she had watched over her. Fortunately a social worker heard about their plight and found another handicapped girl for them to adopt.

Terry died of breast cancer before she had a chance to see her little child grow up and Ken is left caring for her on his own. I will always remember Terry’s courage in the face of adversity. Remarkably, after she was unable to adopt Nelli, Terry called me and said she wanted to pray for Nelli’s future in the synagogue. Terry said to me afterward, “Well, Rabbi, at least we’ve adopted each other.”

 What I believe as a Rabbi is that the heart of true religion is human decency, and it far surpasses parochial lines and religious differences. In the words of my favorite phrase from Jewish tradition : “God wants heart.”

Donald Trump and the Heart of True Religion

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1These days I wonder if Donald Trump wrestles with his demons when he chooses wounding and hurtful words. In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be 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 although many things are predestined we have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices and follow the path of goodness.

What is expected of us, according to the Hebrew prophet, is to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One.”  When the Sages tried to distill the essence of sacred teaching they quoted this along with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I believe that you may not call yourself religious or pious or faithful members of any denomination if you hurt others, because as it is said: “God wants heart.”

Often my congregants would approach me apologetically and say: “Rabbi, I’m not religious.” My response was to ask; do you care about others and are you troubled by the pain in our world? Because if you are then you may be very religious even if you don’t belong to a house of worship and despite your lack of ritual observance…or for that matter, even if you have your doubts about God.

And although I am a rabbi and proud of my Jewish heritage, I have evolved spiritually to believe that we are all children of the Eternal, no matter what religion or belief system, because the true heart of “religion” is human goodness and decency.

When the groom breaks a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony I say this signifies that our broken world is not yet at peace and still needs healing. In the Jewish mind a central belief is “Tikun Olam” …Repairing a troubled word…through our deeds of justice and compassion and loving- kindness.

There is a tale about a venerable rabbi who lived in a poor Jewish settlement  in Eastern Europe during the harsh pogroms carried out against the Jewish people.The time is just before the High Holy Days. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and a poor disciple enters looking very downcast. “Rabbi”, he confesses, “I cannot direct my prayers to heaven on these Days of Awe in the face of all the suffering in the world and the cruel opression of our people.”

It is getting cold in the hut as the fire dies down and the rabbi gestures and gives an answer without words. He takes the poker by the fireplace and stirs the scattered embers. They burst into flame again and there is warmth and light where the rabbi sits with his student who laments the state of his world and cannot bring himself to direct his prayers to the Holy One.

And the disciple, watching this, realizes the rabbi is giving an answer to his pessimism and he declares: “Oh, now I see Rabbi.”

What does the disconsolate student see? What do we see? We are like the flickering embers when we despair because of all the coldness and indifference and cruelty in our world. But just as the embers bring renewed warmth and light when they are moved closer to each other so do we human beings when we encourage one another with acts of kindness.

“Don’t settle for a spark…. light a fire instead!”

To live without regret

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1Joan Didion writes:” “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. An ordinary instant”. It  happened to me when I went from the indestructible “Running Rabbi” to needing a blood transfusion because I was so weak. As I lay in my hospital bed, wondering if I would survive the leukemia that ravaged me, I put on my headphones and listened to Willie Nelson singing: “Maybe I didn’t love you…Maybe I didn’t hold you all those lonely, lonely times…Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time…But you were always on my mind…You were always on my mind.”

Yes, we think there will always be a second chance for that embrace. And we tell ourselves “someday” we will devote more time to those we love and the truly important things that matter. But what if that “someday” never comes?

Jewish wisdom enlightens us that we never know which day will be our last. If we realize that life can be cut short in an “ordinary instant” then the challenge is how do we get our priorities right?

We must never take our friends and loved ones for granted. When I counsel wedding couples I tell them that no matter what conflicts we have with our spouses during the day we should always end the day with a kiss and say ” I love you.”  Maybe it sounds corny but I found out it works.

To live a life without regret we must realize that the journey of life is fleeting and not let time pass without embracing those we love with all our heart and soul.

To live a life without regret we must shed the childhood belief that we are unattractive or unintelligent or unlovable. As adults we must rid ourselves of the delusion that we are always right and always the victim.

To live a life without regret we must shed the myths and look at the reflection in the mirror and see ourselves blemishes and all. A Hebrew prayer cautions us against self deception: “May we ask for honesty, vision, and courage. Honesty to see ourselves as we are, vision to see ourselves as we should, and the courage to change.”

My life has taught me that we have only one brief time on earth and we cannot know what an uncertain tomorrow may bring. So let us get ourselves “a heart of wisdom”. May we live life to the fullest and without having to regret. “The past is over. The future is a mystery. The here and now is all we have. This moment is a gift! “

What to wish for

A Russian short story portrays an aristocrat who has only a few days to live. When he replays the tape of his life in his mind he realizes he has wasted most of his life in the pursuit of wealth and power devoid of real meaning. He is desperate to rewind the tape but it is too late.

So, think of the time you have until the tape runs out and contemplate how you spend your precious time. The Rabbis said: “Change for the good one day before you die”, and since we never know when that is we must treat every new day as an opportunity to measure the goodness of our deeds.

This reminds us to be careful of how we spend our time and to value life and enjoy it, because once it’s gone it can never be retrieved.

A nurse named Bronnie Ware devoted herself to working in Hospice care in Australia. She wrote a book about what she witnessed first hand: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”. When she questioned those entrusted to her as to whether they had any regrets and if they would have changed anything, these are the themes that emerged.

1. I WISH I’D HAD THE COURAGE TO LIVE A LIFE TRUE TO MYSELF, NOT THE LIFE OTHERS EXPPECTED OF ME.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

2. I WISH I HADN’T WORKED SO HARD.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been  breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I WISH I HAD THE COURAGE TO EXPRESS MY FEELINGS.
“Many people supressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocore existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I WISH I HAD STAYED IN TOUCH WITH MY FRIENDS.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

5. I WISH I HAD LET MYSELF BE HAPPIER.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habbits. The so called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have stillness in their life again.”

Yes, death can instruct us how to live. We can follow the examples of others to live more meaningful and fulfilling lives. We can summon the strength and courage we have within to enrich our lives.

Whatever time you have remaining may you be true to yourselves and make every day a blessing.

Overcoming depression

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1Pain, medicine, and depression were overwhelming me. The doctors told me I was winning my battle with leukemia, but I felt I was losing emotionally. The depression that had overtaken me seemed worse than physical disease.

As a rabbi I thought I had been trained to deal with depression. I was used to members of my congregation coming to me in times of suffering. People counted on me for comfort and understanding. Yet, here I was, unable to deal with my own depression.

Gradually, I was able to summon the strength within me. “God,” I prayed, “I’m trying to get up this mountain, but every time I get near the top, I get knocked down again. And, I’m not asking you to get me all the way to the summit, but could you hold my hand, and, please, don’t let me fall any further into the abyss?”

As I prayed, I searched for the divine spark within my spirit, for the power that I possessed, and which I believe all of us have. And within myself I found the courage and strength to keep fighting and not give up.

In the Jewish tradition, prayer doesn’t mean somehow finding God’s unlisted phone number or rubbing a magic lamp to bring forth a genie. It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value, and discovering what you believe. Prayer is the “self judgement” that empowers us to reach higher, search deeper, and be true to ourselves.

Here are my suggestions for lifting yourself up in times of adversity:

LET YOUR SPIRIT SING. You don’t need a designated place or specific words. Sometimes the song we sing is joyous; sometimes it is a lament. Sometimes the song is loud and strong; sometimes it is weak and weary. Be in touch with your feelings and help yourself by opening your heart.

BE YOUR SPECIAL SELF. The story of the creation of the first human being, Adam, reminds us that each of us is unique. Every human being represents the potential of the whole world.

I vividly recall the time when a young woman came to me talking about taking her life. She was very depressed and felt worthless. I told her that no matter how low a person sinks there is always something special and worthwhile in everyone. I took note of her smile, commented on her touching way of revealing her feelings, and told her that she was special. When she left my study I prayed I had said the right thing. Years later there was a knock on my study door. She had returned to thank me for helping her get through a very difficult time in her life..

REMIND YOURSELF WHAT REALLY MATTERS. When I was depressed in the hospital, I called to mind the good things in my life, what I had to live for. I pushed myself to remember Thanksgivings with my family, vacations in Colorado, running up the ski lift in Aspen, my daughter whirling around the ice skating rink. I thought of my wife and friends who were praying for me. I thought of the nurses who comforted me, and the doctors who struggled to keep me alive.

CONFRONT YOUR FEARS. When one of my congregants asked me, “What do I do in the middle of the night when no one is with me and I’m scared?” I told him, don’t try to run away and hide under the blanket. Sit up in bed and let all the nightmarish things play out before your eyes. Visualize everything that terrifies you. Then, when you have all this in front of you, acknowledge your fears. You have a right to feel frightened and depressed about awful things that have happened. But then realize that despite all that you are still very much alive!

GIVE OF YOURSELF. After my illness, I rededicated my life to helping others, especially those with cancer. Someone is always in need, someone whose plight is worse than our own. By helping others we give meaning to our lives.

LEARN SOMETHING NEW. A young woman, the mother of four children, came to see me. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with her chemotherapy treatments,  she treated herself to ski lessons. She wanted to experience something new to take her mind off her illness, to reaffirm her life. “There I was,” she told me, “hanging onto the tow rope, climbing that hill, exhilarated by being outside on a crisp winter day – thankful for the day, thankful for my life.”

Through my illness and depression, I learned to see the true worth within myself, to reflect on the meaning of my life, even to find meaning in my iilness.

In a sense, my weakness made me a stronger person. I have learned that what “doesn’t destroy me, strengthens me.” Now, I empathize with other people in a way I was never able to before. I look for the goodness in people and in life. I look for the oneness of all humanity, and I find it.

When you are down, may you find strength in all you do and say and feel and think – and then the miracle will happen; the sun will shine for you; the world will once again be beautiful. Look for it. It will happen. I know.

ISIS and the voiceless cry of the soul

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1Like all of you, I am angered and disheartened by the horrifying  atrocities of ISIS. It is hard to be optimistic about a world seemingly gone mad. As a rabbi I am supposed to offer hope and comfort but I have to be honest. How can I offer hope in the face of such premeditated evil?

How can these terrorists  justify their killing in the name of their twisted beliefs?  When will we ever feel safe?

Our ancient sages once contemplated the evil of which human beings are capable, and they argued that it probably would have been better if God had not created us in the first place.

And then, with a whisper of hope,  they said that since we have been created we must measure our deeds. Quite remarkable in the face of all the atrocities committed against my people throughout history.

My heritage instructs me to have compassion for others by teaching the importance of loving and caring for all who are created and it upholds the value of human life. This is what I asked the Iranian militants when I visited our American hostages in Teheran: “How can you call yourselves Compassionate Ones, the children of  Compassionate Ones- when you treat the hostages in such a way?”

Surely, there are moral principles which should be shared by all religions. The great saying in my tradition, which signifies the real meaning of true religion I believe, is: “God wants heart.”

Our  Bible says: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

In the light of all the senseless violence suffocating our world, how can I feel anything but anger.

Every day, in the month before the Jewish High Holy Days, we sound the Shofar, the rams horn, with it’s piercing sound, to remind us of the Day of Judgement and the eternal voiceless cry of the soul.

May the cry of the Shofar remind us of all the lives that were taken in San Bernadino and Paris and everywhere lives were taken so heartlessly.

May the plaintiff call of the ram’s horn remind us how fleeting and fragile this life is.

May the voice of the Shofar serve to comfort all who are wounded in body and spirit; those who lost loved ones and friends, and all whose hearts are broken by witnessing the pain of others.

May the loud blast of the ram’s horn drown out the shouts of cruel extremists who threaten us and who would destroy our lives and our freedom.

Now and every day yet to come may we find hope and act with strength in a world that is broken and needs healing.

And let us pray that all caring and compassionate human beings will not surrender to evil and will summon the courage and resolve to repair our fractured world.

Finding inner strength

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1
In June 2013, feeling great, I was on a family vacation, walking in the Adirondacks, when my oncologist called with the alarming news that a routine test showed that my lymphoma had returned in a more agressive form. My wife and I sat anxiously holding hands in his office and I had no choice but to begin chemotherapy immediately before it was too late. This would be my fourth battle with cancer and maybe my last.

On the very eve of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, lifegiving drugs were infused into my body through a port implanted in my chest. If you wonder why a Rabbi would be in the hospital and not in his Synagogue offering prayers it’s because our our God is a God of life and we are taught that saving a human life supercedes almost all of the commandments.

With the medicine coursing through me I was offering fervent personal prayers. These were not exactly the literal words of the Psalm which begins: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence cometh my help…”  I  learned to personalize my prayers many years ago when I first faced leukemia and my Christian friends held my hand and prayed with me at my bedside and said: “Lord, please help our friend Hirshel; he wants to live to see his children grow up and rejoice in happy times.”

Yes, my friends taught me how to pray,  and one night when I was all alone in my hospital bed, and shaking with awful fevers and chills, instead of praying  “I lift my eyes to the mountains” I said: ” Dear God, please help me. I’m not asking You to get me all the way up the mountain, but could You hold my hand and keep me from falling all the way down the mountain into the abyss.” And those words were comforting to me.

Friends, when you pray for strength, may the words that come from your heart give you the strength you surely possess.

Clinton’s “Sin”

Hirshel Jaffe 1-1It was an engraved invitation from the White House for Roselle and I to attend the 46th National Prayer Breakfast with President Bill Clinton held yearly on the first Thursday of February since 1953. Originally called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast it was organized for Christian members of Congress by a conservative Christian organization known as “The Family”.

Over the years the Breakfast was supposed to be transformed into an interfaith gathering of world leaders and the political elite who would affirm commonly held religious values and put aside political differences.

Of course Clinton made no mention of accusations that he had an affair with a former White House intern. Rather, in his remarks, he asked us to consider the words of King Solomon: “I am only a little child and I do not know how to carry out my duties …so give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…” This was as close or as far as he came to addressing the elephant in the room.

Then Clinton received a kind of an affirmation from Billy Graham. He suggested that “when we point a finger at the President, let’s point another finger at ourselves for our sins” with the implication that all Americans are equally guilty of sin, and should not judge one another harshly.

I thought how different was the prophet Nathan’s direct confrontation of King David’s sin in lusting after Bathsheba when he said to David, “Why did you despise the word of God by doing what is evil in his eyes”?

I thought also of how different were Clinton’s parsed words “it depends on the meaning of what “is”-is.” from the forthright confession of David,the anointed king over Israel, who said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Divine King.”

When we broke up into groups and I found myself in a room where the speaker was a member of the French parliament. She related a dramatic story of her transformation from an atheist to a believing Christian when a member of her family seemed to be miraculously cured.

After launching into a fierce denunciation of American guns and violence and the barbarity of executions in Texas she turned to a subject I wasn’t expecting. Jacques Chirac, the President of France, had just apologized for French complicity in a roundup of Jews during the 2nd World War.As depicted in the movie “Sarah’s Key”, French police and civil servants, not the Germans, carried out a raid aimed at reducing the number of Jews in occupied France.13,000 souls were confined in the midst of winter in squalid conditions in a bicycle stadium, the Velodrome, and then shipped off to Auschwitz, where they perished.

Now this member of the French Parliament paused and fixed her gaze directly on me. I was seated in the back and wearing a yarlmeka . “Rabbi”, she asked, “Do you forgive us”? What was I to say at that moment?

In the famous moral drama, “The Sunflower”, the author, a young Jew named Simon facing death in Auschwitz, is brought before a fatally wounded S.S. soldier who requests forgiveness for participating in atrocities against the Jewish people.

Viewing Simon as a representative of the Jewish people he begs for a response. In vain, he desperately awaits the comforting words that might offer him a peaceful death. Young Simon, torn and confused, himself still captive in a living hell, holds his silence.

There, in the Hilton, I felt that there are some sins so hideous as to be beyond the realm of human forgiveness. I could not bring myself as a representative of my people to respond to the speaker affirmatively or to even nod my head, and, after a painful pause, she averted her glance and I breathed a sigh of relief.

There was yet a memorable meeting awaiting me and it was not at the Hilton. Our host Congressman Ben Gilman found me and he said, “Rabbi, come with me. As important as this event at the Hilton is I want you to meet a truly great man.”

Soon we were in a Congressional meeting room along with Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi and we were introduced to the famous Chinese human rights activist and political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who was released from a harsh Chinese prison after 18 years. Wei Jingsheng was celebrated for his human right efforts and given the title of “Father of Chinese Democracy” and the “Nelson Mandela of China.”

I admired Wei for speaking bluntly and telling us that the United States should be at least as firm in its position on human rights in China as the Chinese government was.

In a speech at Amnesty International Wei Jingsheng recalled a discussion with his Chinese prison guard in which he discovered his purpose in life: “I suddenly realized that my determination to help others was the great cause which had been helping me maintain my optimism and strength. Once I realized this I became aware that I could not shake off my life-long responsibility to others.”

As Roselle and I drove back to our 1750 Farmhose near Washington’s headquarters in Newburgh on a snowy February day I thought of President Clinton and Billy Graham and Madame Rousseau and Wei Jingsheng.

I would soon conduct the Passover Seder at my Temple, commemorating our freedom from slavery. I would tell my congegation only of one person I met in Washington. It was not Bill Clinton or the others dignitaries at the Hilton Hotel. It was Wei Jingsheng who found his purpose in life. It was to help others and to free those who are imprisoned of body and spirit. To me he represented the heart of my calling as a Rabbi.

May it be everyone’s calling.