Parsha Vayechi Judge Eugene Lerner's 75th Birthday and Haftorah January 6, 2007 16 Tevet 5767
Welcome everyone, Shabbat shalom.
Life grants us some moments of inspiration and happiness. These moments lift our spirits, energize us and provide a lifetime of memories. Our journals and diaries are replete with entries about the various ways we manage to pursue happiness. After all, it is our right to do so. America’s founding fathers specifically provided for us in 1776, with the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights, "that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." The terminology is quite specific when it refers to thepursuit of happiness, not just happiness. We find that it is in those moments of inspiration, when we are in pursuit, is when we truly find happiness.
Let’s look at the story we read this morning of our forefather, the biblical patriarch Jacob. His life was filled with ups and downs. Beginning with the relationship of his parents, then his brothers, his father-in-law, his wives and then the painful stories with his children, we see that Jacob experienced a myriad of disappointments and heartaches. Nevertheless, the biblical chapter that we read today highlighted the special moments of inspiration in the life of Jacob and his family. Those moments of happiness are expressed by having his children, his grandchildren, other family members and friends assembled around him. Happiness didn’t just drop in Jacob’s lap, instead, he pursued it.
In life, we are faced with crucial decision making, immediate and long-term planning. We experience the trials and triumphs, like the precedents and landmark cases we find in this week’s Torah portion. Major decisions by the grandfather Jacob were articulated and important rulings and blessings were proclaimed. Each situation was carefully analyzed to arrive at the momentous verdicts that would carry the weight and ramifications for generations to come. As the head of a family, Jacob had the enormous responsibility to steer his family in a certain direction. With this vital position came tremendous introspection and the synthesis of wisdom, ethics, and accountability.
Jacob went through a great deal of strife in his life. By understanding these stories, read by Jews and non-Jews alike, we learn about true happiness, as well as disappointment and turmoil. Eventually, Jacob reached a moment of contentment which he expressed to his heirs. Our lives are also filled with similar ups and downs, like those Jacob shared. We experience happiness, simchas and joy, but we also encounter sorrow, problems, disappointments, hurtful family issues that we can only pray will be minimal.
Well, my dear friends, there are special moments in life, gifts that G-d grants us. A paragon of those exceptional moments is expressed in this Torah portion. Jacob had one important goal for his family, the same one I believe we strive for, as well. He wanted there to be love, peace, harmony, and continuity among his children and their families. Even though Jacob’s family had personality clashes and mayhem, he was able to attain a truly inspirational moment when he saw his entire family - the mishpacha- gathered around him for blessings. Surrounded by his three generation family, Jacob realized his goal. The ramification of this inspiration time in Jacob’s life, not only was felt by him, but affected all the generations of people that came afterwards.
Yes, life is filled with ups and downs. Similarly, in the Haftorah portion that Judge Lerner read so beautifully for us today is another example of a moment of inspiration and happiness experienced by biblical king David. At the time that David transmitted the kingship to his son Solomon and gave him the instructions on how to lead the Jewish people, David experienced his moment of inspiration. Not only did this affect the father to son relationship, but had impact on the future generations of the Jewish nation.
Throughout history, judges have played a prominent role in Jewish communal life. Some famous ones include King David, his son King Solomon, Boaz, and Deborah. We also have an entire book known as the Book of Judges, depicting many important leaders and their equally important decisions. Today we have modern judges, like Louis Brandeis, of blessed memory, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and our very own Judge Lerner, a well-respected and prominent member of our Annapolis community. We just heard the beautiful chanting by Judge Lerner in HaftorahVayachi. Thank you. We are moved by you, Judge Lerner.
I remember vividly, seven months ago when I approached Judge Lerner to ask him to chant the Haftorah. His response was, "Rabbi, my Bar Mitzvah was 62 years ago. Do you think I can still do it?" Well, Judge, you demonstrated to all of us that perseverance prevails. Judge Lerner, we are very proud of your achievement today.
In Ethics of the Fathers (2:19), it states: "Be diligent in the study of Torah and be armed with knowledge." There is also a Yiddish saying: "akluger farshtait fun ain vort -tsvai." This translates to a wise man hears one word and understands two. You Judge Lerner, are a wise man.
We witness and share in another moment of inspiration and happiness this morning, as Judge Eugene Lerner and his wife, Lenore, are surrounded by their beloved families, who have gathered together from all over the country, to honor them here at Knesset Israel. We have here, the entire Lerner family, the children, grandchildren and the many relatives and friends, all of whom play an important role in the life of Lenore and Eugene Lerner. Like Jacob surrounded by his own family, today we experience in our Kneseth Israel extended family an exceptional moment of happiness and spiritual inspiration. We should take this opportunity to thank G-d for this special occasion.
Wait. It gets better! This morning the Lerner family shares with us another simcha. We bless Paula and Stanley Frank upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Paula is Lenore’s sister. At this time, I would like to call upon Paula and Stanley Frank to bless their special moments of their lives. Join with me in the blessing ofShehechianyu and Mazal tov. Let us continue to learn from the lessons of our biblical heroes Jacob and David that we may cherish these special moments of happiness.
The pursuit of happiness and love, is not only an inalienable right, it is a mitzvah, a commandment. But, how exactly does one pursue happiness? We recite in the chapter of the Shema that "you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, soul and all your might.'' How do you command people to love? The answer to love is found inside our hearts. We have to work hard on ourselves to overcome those moments of sadness that plague our daily lives and strive to replace them with love, inspiration and happiness.
My dear friends, there are many people who are happy with their lot in life. However, there are those who constantly see their glass as half-empty and nothing makes them happy. No matter what joy comes their way, it is never enough or they are consumed with finding the flaws in life. When their family and friends try to please them, it is never enough.
We find that the beauty in the character of our biblical ancestors is that they share with us those moments of inspiration in their lives and they strive to be positive. It is not that they are without moments of sadness and disappointment, but they are able to look past them and enjoy the happiness, not become jaded and bogged down in the misery.
Like them, we should try to overcome our sadness and troubles and strive to be happy. I know it is not always so easy but it is an important task for all of us. We can take a lesson from Jacob and David, our forefathers as well as look upon our very own Lerner family for similar inspiration.
It is also the custom that when the Torah reader finishes the last sentence of each of the five books of Moses, the entire congregation stands and encourages one another with the following proclamation "Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek"; Strength, Strength and become strong. May we be blessed to share many more inspirational simchas in our lives together. Shabbat shalom.