Shabbat Shuvah Remarks
Sep 21 , 2018/Category

Shabbat Shuvah is the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and is called “The Shabbat of Return” with sense of returning to God and healing.  We always feature a congregant speaker at Shabbat Shuvah and are pleased to share the wonderful offering of congregant Steven Beer. Thank you, Steven!

Steven Beer
Shabbat Shuvah Presentation – Congregation Rodeph Sholom, September 14, 2018

Shabbat Shalom. The Clergy asked me to say a few words tonight on the occasion of Shabbat Shuvah—the Sabbath of turning, returning and change. While I was humbled by this honor, I also had some concerns. As my family understands, change does not come naturally to me. I listen to the same few stations on satellite radio, support the same hapless hometown sports teams, watch my favorite films repeatedly, sit in the same section in synagogue and resist my wife each time she seeks to replace the furniture in our apartment. Life is sweet, so why rock the boat?

With an open heart and a desire to reach beyond my comfort zone, I read the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah and thought about the meaning of turning, returning and change as we begin a New Year and prepare for Yom Kippur. The texts speak about Teshuvah—repenting, reconciling with, and ultimately returning to God. Climbing on board the “Teshuvah Train” is easier said than done, however, mainly because reconciliation begins with critical introspection—a determined willingness to dig deep within ourselves.

Ironically, change is the only constant in life. It requires accepting loss and moving forward with renewed purpose. My eyes were opened to the true meaning of change when I lost my father six years ago. I was not present when he died, but I adored my father and think about him daily. While far from perfect, my dad was a remarkable man with a warm, old school charm and a generous spirit. My Yiddish-speaking grandparents raised my father in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—well before it was trendy.

While he did not receive a traditional education, my father had a yiddishe kop and achieved considerable success within the schmatta business. Together with my mom, he owned and operated two successful manufacturing plants near the Ozark Mountains. This “made-in-America” spirit sparked the attention of Sam Walton of Walmart. Sam befriended my dad and became one of his greatest champions and customers.

My dad loved America. Although not devoutly religious, he was a spiritual man who strongly advocated for civil rights in the 60’s and, in 2008, celebrated Obama’s victory. Growing up, my dad played Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary and Harry Belafonte records. He appreciated how these artists spearheaded change and the value of music as a unifying force.

The doctor diagnosed my father’s stage four lung cancer in 2010, but his fierce spirit did not decline. He never missed a family event or an opportunity to spend time with his grandkids. Sadly, in the spring of 2012, my father’s health diminished precipitously. We prepared an impromptu Passover Seder at his bedside at North Shore Hospital. Although conscious, my dad was weary, restless, and in no condition to actively participate in our well-intentioned ritual. He mostly slept as we softly plodded through the Haggadah, so we were alarmed when my dad opened his eyes, interrupted our Seder and turned to my sons with an urgent plea: “We were once strangers in a strange land. We must never turn away our less fortunate neighbors,” he said. Following this remarkable bedside lesson, my dad closed his eyes and tried to rest. That was the last time he engaged with us before he passed on serval days later. I will never forget, as my father contemplated his imminent return, how he summoned the strength to impress these words on my sons.

My dad lived each day with a song in his heart. He understood the transcendent power of song – the way it calms us in the most difficult of times, and brings us together when words alone are not enough; this may have been one of his greatest gifts to my sons. Our oldest son Alex played guitar at his bar mitzvah and confirmation ceremonies, and Max, our middle son, composed and performed the music for the Midrash Hour, a collaboration of the Rodeph Shalom Day and Religious School programs; and I will always remember the joy of watching our youngest son Gabe sing with his confirmation class on this bimah several years ago.

Gabe discovered Bruce Springsteen when he was nine years old. He loved the way Springsteen’s songs spoke from his heart and embraced the human spirit. The Springsteen song that resonated most deeply for Gabe, and one he shared with me, has always been “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Springsteen’s spiritual lyrics spoke to us:

Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rolling down the tracks
You don’t know where you’re goin’ now
But you know you won’t be back
Darlin’ if you’re weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We’ll take what we can carry
And we’ll leave the rest
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

Gabe and I imagined that we were all on this train together. Although there will surely be hardship and pain, God would welcome us home if we have faith. This promise is offered to everyone — saints and sinners, losers and winners, the broken hearted and sweet souls departed. On this train, dreams will not be thwarted. On this train, faith will be rewarded.

Several days following our Seder, my family gathered at the hospital as my dad’s condition rapidly declined. As fate would have it, the tickets purchased months ago for Gabe to see his first Springsteen show were for that same evening. We feared the worst and did not want to leave my dad’s bedside, but my family insisted that I take Gabe to the show. They convinced him that Grandpa surely would have wanted this. Before Gabe could change his mind, we jumped on the train and arrived at Madison Square Garden just as the E Street Band opened the show.

Gabe and I high-fived each other when Springsteen began to play “Land of Hope and Dreams” as the opening song to the first encore. He dedicated the song to his saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, who passed away the year before. Springsteen sang:

I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

The live performance was incredible. We danced triumphantly and sang along, until, as the song ended, I felt the ominous vibration of my cell phone. It was Bonnie texting me: call her ASAP. I ran into the lobby only to confirm my worst fears: My dad had just passed away. Gabe suspected the same, but I falsely assured him that everything was fine when I returned to my seat. On the train ride home, I told Gabe the truth and he wailed upon hearing the news. The train, filled with jubilant Springsteen fans, fell silent.

My world turned upside down that night. My perception of my mortality became clearer, as did my role as a parent, husband and son to my now single mother. Thankfully, my Peter Pan spirit of suspended adolescence has been constructively relegated to the ice hockey rink. It was my time to step into my father’s shoes, to grow up, assume greater responsibility and be more accountable. My dad’s passing also changed my relationship with God. I found comfort in reading the Mourner’s Kaddish and attending services regularly, where our prayers and music caress me like a tallit.

One’s ability to adapt and be willing to surrender what you are, for what you could become, is the ultimate challenge when presented with change. On Shabbat Shuva, we understand the possibility of reconciliation—that when we meaningfully atone and recalibrate our divine path to God, we can move forward—stronger, wiser, and happier. In contemplating my return at this time, I will strive to embrace change and find peace while realigning with myself and God.

Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Someday, if we are truly blessed, may we all meet in the land of Hope and Dreams.

Thank you and Shanah tovah.