COMMENTARY: If I Could Give You Anything

It’s a tradition during a bat or bar mitzvah ceremony for parents to deliver specific blessings to their child. I wrote a poem for my daughter Abrielle a few years ago. I want to share it with you as I think it captures the sort of thing most parents wish they could give their children.

If I Could Give You Anything

If could give you anything, anything at all,

I would give you all the things the poets write about – deep blue skies, pure white clouds, warm sunshine, cool breezes, stunning sunsets, glorious rainbows, and grand waterfalls.

I would give you something to smile about every day.

I would surround you with true friends to share your joys, comfort you through tough times, and bring out the best in you.

I would give you great teachers to fill your mind with wondrous facts, unanswered questions and a love for learning.

I would give you the wisdom to know your heart and the courage to follow it.

I would fill your days with carefree play and meaningful work.

I would give you challenges worthy of your talents and achievements worthy of your pride.

I would fill your heart with gratitude and teach it to forgive.

I would give you genuine self-confidence, fearless enthusiasm, and grand expectations.

I would give you a life filled with hugs, laughter, love, and the wisdom to be happy.

And when you are ready, I would give you a life mate worthy to be your lifelong partner and the father of your children.

And I would give you a daughter as good as you.

Sadly, I don’t have the power to give you all these things.

But I can remind you that you have the power within you to find, make, and keep all the things I wish for you.

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  1. Hi Michael,

    True to your name, Michael, this poem can only be written by an angel for his daughter!
    Yes, it brought tears to my eyes as well and my wife is reading a printed copy of it and with a box of tissue by her side. As parents we understnd your sentiments.

    We follow you regularly.

    As a friend and a person who grew up far from his home and many time in lonliness, I WISH the following from my fellow men. My wish is for my fellow men to understand and tolerate me and my faith of Islam. Here…

    Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
    Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation

    In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons, it shows Lucy at her school desk telling Charlie Brown, “I missed school because I had a cold.”
    Charlie responds, “There must have be something going around…lots of kids have had colds.”
    “Mine was worse,” Lucy retorts.
    A bit taken aback, Charlie Brown asks her “Why was yours worse?”
    “Because,” Lucy answers, “it happened to me.”

    Yes it’s always more personal, more powerful, more real when it happens to you. That’s why we Jews have always been like the canary in the coal mine – the first to recognize bigotry, the first to understand that prejudice toward any religion inevitably leads to prejudice against our religion.
    So given all the passionate pro and con rhetoric that has been filling the airwaves, newspapers and blogosphere about the proposed community center in downtown Manhattan, I wasn’t surprised when one of our congregants asked me at a Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat, “Are you giving a political sermon on Yom Kippur?”
    “Hmm,” I thought. “Good Question.” So the next day I asked someone what they thought a “political sermon” was? “Any sermon that talks about current events where you take a position,” they answered. “Don’t you want your rabbi to have the courage of his convictions and speak out and take positions on important social issues?” I asked. “No,” they answered. “I just want my rabbi to inspire me.”
    So for today’s inspiration, I’m going to share what the Rabbis of the Talmud believed were the two most important ideas in the entire Torah. When the authors of Leviticus wrote Chapter 19, they began with God challenging us to “Be Holy.” It’s a nice idea, but what does it mean to “be holy?”
    So we don’t have to guess, the Torah goes on to give us a long list of exactly what we have to do to “be holy.” It’s God’s “to do” list for us, and two of the items on that list are what the rabbis called the two most important ideas in the Torah, and they are found just two verses apart.
    The first is Leviticus 19:16 – “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” And the second is Leviticus 19:18, which every one of you knows, “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” There they are. Seems so straightforward – almost simple. You’ve probably heard me teach about it before – how “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” means there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander” in Judaism. If you are standing by while another is being exploited, standing by while another is being denigrated, standing by while another is insulted, or abused, or assaulted, and you do nothing, then you are not innocent at all.
    If a fellow Jew is attacked, a synagogue defaced, or Israel defamed among the community of nations and we remain silent and say nothing, the Torah judges us as guilty of complicity in the act itself.
    And if a taxi driver is stabbed merely because of his religion which happens to be Islam, and we do not cry out in his name, the same Torah teaches we are equally guilty. If a minister threatens to burn the sacred scriptures of another religion and we say nothing, knowing that our own holocaust survivors can still remember Krystalnacht and the burning of Torah scrolls by the Nazis, yes, we too are guilty.
    “The stranger in your midst shall be as the home born,” says the Torah. And so it commands, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
    Simple, but very, very hard to do. Especially when the Torah commands us to love that same neighbor as we love ourselves. Beautiful words, not so easy to do. Not so easy to embrace the stranger as a neighbor worthy of loving, when the shadows of fear and anger have fallen over our hearts.
    Not so easy at all, to look at that stranger and see our own reflection within. I have had many, many difficult, painful conversations with many of you and I really do understand the suspicion, the distrust, the fear that our “neighbor’s” intentions are for evil and not for good.
    I was at a meeting a few weeks ago with a select group of people that included some very passionate Jews. In light of all the anger and controversy that has been going around this summer about Islam and the proposed doings near Ground Zero, someone at that meeting challenged me, “How can you ever make peace with a religion that teaches you to murder your enemies and kill others for even the most trivial of transgressions. Any religion that is grounded in such bloodthirsty cruelty is beyond tolerance and its followers impossible to trust.”
    Coincidently that same day several KI (Kehillat Israel) members sent me a very popular youtube video of a man from England who was claiming that, “Any religion that endorses violence is incapable of delivering spiritual enlightenment and has no right to even call itself a religion.” They sent me the video and said, “This guy has it exactly right!”

    As proof of the fundamental evil and bloodthirsty nature of the religion they were discussing during that rather disturbing meeting they passed out the following direct quotes taken from their sacred writings for us to read and ponder. And they are disturbing:

    1. “Cursed be he who holds back his sword from blood.”

    2. “Any prophet who claims to give a message from another god…must die.”

    3. “Go up, my warriors, against… the land of rebels, a land that I will judge! Pursue, kill, and completely destroy them, as I have commanded you. Let the battle cry be heard in the land.”

    4. “You must destroy all the nations…Show them no mercy…. I will drive those nations out ahead of you little by little… you will erase their names from the face of the earth. No one will be able to stand against you, and you will destroy them all.”

    5. “When I …hand these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, and don’t let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters…lest I destroy you.”

    6. “Be patient; the time is coming soon when I will stand up and accuse these evil nations. For it is my decision to gather together the kingdoms of the earth and pour out my fiercest anger and fury on them. All the earth will be devoured by the fire of my jealousy.”

    7. “In that day the…slaughtered will fill the earth from one end to the other. No one will mourn for them or gather up their bodies to bury them. They will be scattered like dung on the ground.”

    Then they read me story after story from that same sacred text where tens of thousands of men, women and children were murdered in the cruelest of manners because they wouldn’t worship the right God or follow the commandments of his prophet.

    It was awful and of course embarrassing, because every one of those quotations I just shared was taken from our Torah, from the Jewish Bible. (Jeremiah 48:10; Deuteronomy 18:20; Jeremiah 50:21-22; Deuteronomy 7:16-24; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Zephaniah 3:6-10; Jeremiah 25:33)
    I was sitting reading them in a study session with a group of Muslim religious leaders who were trying to understand how they could ever trust Jews when our most sacred scriptures are so clearly filled with hatred, violence, murder and absolute intolerance of anyone who doesn’t worship our God.
    What could I say? Really? I am not making this up. It was a powerful, life-changing experience for me to see my own tradition through the suspicious religious eyes of another who was totally ignorant of the fact that I didn’t take those words literally. All they saw was a Torah filled with bloodthirsty admonitions to utterly destroy our enemies, to wipe non-believers from the earth and worse. Don’t forget the same Torah literally commands us to kill anyone in our midst who violates the Sabbath, or eats forbidden food, or is a man who has sex with another man. There they were, all those hideous, terrible, frightening commandments to utterly destroy and murder all blasphemous infidels who don’t worship our God – right there in the Torah.
    And we do exactly the same thing to them. Obviously you and I know we pay no attention to those sections in the Torah. We realize they were written at a totally different historical time, and anyway, that’s not how or why we read the Torah – yes we take it seriously but at least we non-Orthodox Jews don’t take it literally.
    Even to suggest it seems ridiculous to us, but it’s not ridiculous to them. They read our sacred scriptures literally, and selectively, just like so many of us are so quick to read their sacred scriptures exactly the same way. How eager are we and the political pundits we listen to, to take individual passages out of their historical context skipping right from the 7th century when the Koran was written to today without missing a beat. There we are, reading it literally as if we get to choose the quotations that define the religion of Islam, any more than those texts I just read from our own Torah define the religion of Judaism.
    Both assertions are foolish, naïve, simplistic and feed the very fears that keep us apart, undermine the foundation of liberty and justice for all that is our birthright as Americans, and keep us from even the possibility of discovering that Muslims, too, are our spiritual neighbors.
    Of course there are Islamic fundamentalists who are hell-bent on destroying us. But their extremists don’t define their religion any more than ours define us. Would we want to be judged or have all Judaism judged by the actions and beliefs of Jews they get to pick? Are we defined by Yigal Amir who murdered Yitzhak Rabin in the name of Judaism, or Baruch Goldstein who opened fire with a machine gun murdering 29 Muslim worshippers simply praying inside the “Mosque of Abraham” in Hebron in the name of Judaism, or Meir Kahane elected to the Israeli parliament on a platform calling for revoking the Israeli citizenship of all non-Jews, banning all interfaith marriages, making Jewish-non-Jewish sexual relations illegal and expelling all Palestinians by force?
    I doubt that most of you see your Judaism like that, or of the ultra-orthodox at the Wall who arrest women, beat them and throw them in jail simply for wanting to pray with a tallit or read from the Torah. Do you want your Judaism to be judged by the worst of us or the best of us? By Albert Einstein or Bernie Madoff, Sigmund Freud or Son of Sam David Berkowitz?
    The same goes for Muslims who brought the world among other things, coffee, chess, checks, the discovery that we see by light entering the eye, astronomy, poetry, mathematics, physics, soap and an attempt at constructing a flying machine a thousand years before the Wright brothers.
    There are 312 million people in America today. Could anyone make one, sweeping generalization about those 312 million that would reveal the truth about Americans? Which of them represent what “Americans” really are? The holy rollers in the hills of South Carolina, the extremist Mormons who sexually abuse children with multiple wives in Utah, the snake spirit voodoo worshippers in Louisiana, the Skin Heads and Christian Identity Movement of Timothy McVeigh, or the pastor who said we should have a public burning of the Koran “to send a message to the Muslim world.” What kind of message was that going to be? That we are as intolerant and bigoted as Nazi Germany? Is that what represents America or you or me?
    So who are the real Americans? Whose beliefs are the beliefs that define what Americans stand for? With 312 million of us, it’s impossible to simply paint all Americans with one brush stroke. Well Muslims are part of a religion with more than FIVE TIMES the population of the entire United States – all over the world, in nearly every single country. It is the second largest religion in the world, and our ignorance of Islam and what it teaches and how it is practiced, especially as it is emerging here in America, is, frankly, embarrassing.
    Many people don’t even realize that the largest Muslim population in the world isn’t in the Middle East, it’s in Indonesia. So I have asked Rabbi Bernstein to create a series at KI this year called, “What every Jew should know about Islam.” We will have both Jewish experts on Islam and speakers from the Islamic Center of Southern California. Look for the announcement of the first class soon.
    Given the vastness of Islam throughout the world, how could anyone who paints all Muslims with the same brush be taken seriously? Particularly knowing that we have Muslims right here in our own community, our own congregation? I have officiated over the years at several Muslim-Jewish weddings and like so many of our interfaith families, they, too have chosen to be contributing members of our community and congregation.
    What do you say to them, our own congregational family when we turn on the television, log on to the “jihad-watch” blog, or any number of youtube rants and hear them claim that “Islam rejects and despises everything America stands for including freedom and diversity and anyone who denies that is a liar?” Tell it to the thousands, yes thousands of Muslim Americans who fight every single day as proud members of the US military throughout the world, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or tell it to Rima Fakih who became the first Muslim American to win the Miss USA title this year.
    I have a feeling that even after this sermon I will receive a letter or two…or three, that say something like, “Rabbi, I lost a dear friend or family member or a dear friend of a family member in the 9/11 attacks. It’s hard for me to make peace with people who could do something so heartless and cruel.”
    And yes, who wouldn’t understand the anger, and the pain and suffering of the friends and family of the innocent victims of 9/11? So what about the friends and family of Abul Chowdhury, a 36-year-old Cantor Fitzgerald analyst. Or the friends and family of Jamal Desantis, a 28-year-old maintenance worker in World Trade Center Tower 1. Or Syed Fatha, 54-year-old Pitney Bowes employee; or 21-year-old Aisha Harris of General Telecom; or 30-year-old Mohammed Jawara of MAS security in Tower 2; or Sarah Khan, 32-year-old employee of Forte Food Services; or Mohammad Chowdhury of Windows on the World, father of one of the first 9/11 orphans, born two days after the attack. All of them, Muslims.
    They too are Americans. They too have the right to the same respect and dignity of their own religion and beliefs as any other Americans who died that day. To do less is to denigrate and diminish the very values they and every other American died for.
    A five-year old had been learning the pledge of allegiance in his public school kindergarten class. One afternoon, he went with his mother to the post office and as they left the building, he noticed the American flag flying out front. He pointed to the flag and said, “Look, there’s the United States of a miracle.”
    Indeed, the United States is an on-going miracle. The first country ever founded on an ideal – the ideal of religious freedom.
    Do you know that the earliest documented case of a Muslim coming to the United States is Dutchman Anthony Janszoon van Salee, who came to New Amsterdam around 1630.
    The first Jews in America came to New Amsterdam twenty-four years later, in 1654. Governor Peter Styvesant wanted to turn us away, calling the Jews “deceitful,” and “very repugnant,” “hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ.” He never allowed them to build a synagogue and it wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that Jews in New York won the right to worship in public.
    It wasn’t until 1865, nearly two hundred years after the first Jews landed in America that we were given the right to have a synagogue in Washington DC. Two hundred years and it took an act of Congress and President Franklin Pierce to sign it before merely having our own synagogue in which to pray became a reality. That’s how powerful prejudice is – that’s how powerful, and how irrational fear of the other can be. And “the other” has so often been us.
    Look at us, here we are celebrating our 60th Anniversary of the establishment of Kehillat Israel in the Palisades. And we were fought at every turn. Someone even took a shot with a gun into the congregation on a Friday night during services from across the street in the 1950s before there were houses on Sunset.
    Just thirteen years ago it literally took an act of the Los Angeles City Council to approve our conditional use permit to build our new synagogue because of neighborhood opposition, and the dream we had of 8 acres in Los Liones canyon with a combined synagogue and YMCA community center was defeated with the excuse of zoning, and inappropriate land use by a community committed to stopping us at all costs. But we survived, and we thrived and we are still here 60 years later stronger than ever.
    So we know how difficult it can be to love your neighbor as yourself, because we have had others see us as the enemy and not their neighbor deserving of respect, or trust, or love.

    On this most sacred day of the Jewish year when we affirm that every human being is created in God’s image, how can we stand idly by where there is bigotry and prejudice? This is the day to appeal to the noblest impulses in our hearts, not the basest, to hold ourselves up to the highest standards, not drag each other down to the lowest.
    Yes, of course there are real enemies in the world who would still bring us to our knees if they could, but they can’t. Of course there are enemies who exploit our very freedoms even as they despise them, who reject our values and demean the liberties we cherish most. But we of all people know how foolish and dangerous it is to condemn an entire religion and all who practice it – we have 6 million reasons to reject such prejudice.
    Civil rights never need to be protected for the majority – it’s always the minority who needs protection, the minority who needs to be safeguarded. That’s why Martin Luther King Jr. said injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Because if any group can be subject to discrimination, then no religious group is safe.
    Sadly, just like we Jews have experienced time and again, in city after city across America today, there are voices calling out to deny Muslims the right to build Mosques in which to worship – as if every Mosque is, by definition a training ground for Islamic radical terror, and every Muslim is suspect. Could you really tell that to the Muslims who are here today, part of the KI community, proudly raising their children as members of the Jewish people?
    Over 2,000 years ago the prophet Micah cried out, “It has been told you what is good and what God requires of you. Only to do justly, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your God.”
    “To do justly” means just that. Not just when it concerns us. Or Israel. Not just when it is easy or safe. We know more than most the sting of collective scapegoating for the sins of a few. Yet too many of us do the same to Muslims without a moment’s hesitation. History has surely taught us how immoral and indecent it is when an entire religion is held culpable for the acts of few.
    One of the most touching stories to emerge from the devastating attacks of 9/11 was told by an American Muslim, formerly from Pakistan, Usman Farman, who was employed at the World Trade Center. Fleeing north as the first tower was collapsing, he was felled by a missle of glass and debris. Stunned, he laid on his back as frightened safety seekers stampeded by him. The pendant he wore, inscribed with an Islamic prayer for safety written in Arabic, gleamed through the darkness.
    Suddenly, a Hasidic Jewish man bent over him, took the pendant in his hand and read the Arabic out loud. He looked at Usman and said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us, grab my hand, and let’s get out of here.”
    When we remember the tragedy of that day and the many acts of heroism and sacrifice that made us proud to be Americans, one such act was that a Jewish man who looked past centuries of fear and religious intolerance, saw another human being in danger and recognized his neighbor as the image of God.
    That is how we pay tribute to the values we cherish. And that is what will make us proud to be Americans in the years ahead. That is what our ancestors meant when they wrote, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
    Two hundred years ago, the Hasidic rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotsk asked his students “When will the messiah come?” When no one could answer, he responded, “The messiah will come when we look into the face of the strangers in our midst, and we see the neighbor we are commanded to love.” Ameen!

    Thank you for reading this. God Bless you all.

    Merry Christmas

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  2. Very special, Michael, and I know this to be so true of your caring and your sensitive feelings. And, belated Happy Birthday wishes to you, dear friend. You were in my thoughts and prayers in the 10th. Mazel tov!

  3. Michael,
    Such a lovely post…Thank you so much for your beautiful mind and for publishing your art for all to enjoy. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to seeing you in my mailbox and reading it 🙂 I’m hoping you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.

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  4. Is there a way I can get a copy of this What Will Matter to be played at a funeral; or can I copy it myself? It is so beautiful…Thank you!!!

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