Rosh Hashanah, 5778, Day 1
1 Tishri 5778—September 21, 2017
This past summer, in Jersey City, at a Catholic high school known as St. Anthony, a drama played out that goes to the heart of our lives and our High Holidays.
St. Anthony had had a basketball team, the St. Anthony Friars, that was one of the most successful high school basketball programs ever. Their coach, Bob Hurley, Senior, is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In the 45 years he coached, his teams won 28 state championships. Eight of his teams were undefeated. His teams regularly competed against, and beat, the best high school basketball teams in the country. As a result of all these victories and championships, this tiny parochial school in Jersey City had so many trophies, banners, and memorabilia the school literally did not know where to put it all.
One of the great themes of our lives, and of our High Holidays, is that nothing lasts. Nothing is immune to the ravages of time. Our prophets tell us this. Our psalms tell us this. Our own experience testifies to this. Beauty withers. Flowers fade. Youth flies away. So too for great basketball programs.
The Archdiocese of Newark determined that, for financial reasons, St. Anthony would have to close. Newark is economically challenged. The Archdiocese could not afford to keep St. Anthony open.
In response Bob Hurley invited players and fans to come to St. Anthony on Wednesday night, June 14, for what he called Trophy Night. He laid out on big tables all the trophies and banners and yearbooks of the last 45 years. He encouraged whoever came to take whatever was meaningful to them.
I find this image of a trophy laid out on a table, there for the taking, very evocative. Take the trophy that the St. Anthony Friars won in 1989. 1989 was a good year. That team worked hard. The players trained. They strived. They accomplished. They won their championship. They celebrated. There were pep rallies in the high school cheering them on. Roll the film forward. It is 2017. Where did all that energy go? What is left of it? A trophy on a table waiting to be taken, by somebody, by anybody.
In two hours all the trophies were gone, the building was closed, the archdiocese changed the locks. Everything that was for 45 years, in an instant, is no more.
We are not high school basketball players or coaches, but we share their dilemma.
I was speaking with a friend who was downsizing. Their children had grown, they did not need such a large home any more. Why maintain a house with bedrooms their children no longer live in? In the course of selling their home he rediscovered boxes of his kids’ old fathers’ day and birthday cards and presents, the little pencil holders spray painted gold with macaroni glued on, with a message “I love you Daddy.” What do you do with that? Do you toss it? Do you trash the note that says I love you Daddy? Do you take it to a storage facility and let it sit there for the next 40 years? Do you put the macaroni pencil holder from 30 years ago on your desk today?
The trophy once had an energy it does not have now. The macaroni pencil holder once had an energy that it does not have now.
We ourselves are different. We have a different energy today than we had in 1989.
How do we understand, and respond, to the changes wrought by time?
One approach to this dilemma is embodied by a famous story about Winston Churchill that was captured in the Netflix series The Crown. Members of Parliament had commissioned Graham Sutherland, an acclaimed portrait master, to paint a portrait of Churchill at 80 which would be presented to him at a public ceremony on his 80th birthday, and then hung up publicly.
Churchill sits for this portrait for many hours on three separate occasions. Each time Sutherland is meticulous about not letting Churchill, or anyone in Churchill’s family, see the work in progress. The first time it will be seen by anyone is at the public ceremony on his 80th birthday.
Churchill turns 80 on November 30, 1954. There at Westminster Hall are all the dignitaries and leaders of England. At last Graham Sutherland removes the cover of his portrait. At last Churchill can see a portrait of himself at 80, painted by a master.
Churchill takes one look at it and hates it. Why?
Because it too accurately reflected the ravages of time.
At 80 Churchill was not as thin as he used to be; did not have the head of hair he used to have; did not sit as tall as he once did; did not have the energy or charisma he once had. He looked more old, more tired, more heavy-set. He looked at himself at 80. He did not like what he saw. He and his wife famously had the portrait burned.
That is one response to the ravages of time. Rage against the changes. Burn the evidence. But then you are left with rage and ashes.
Is there a better way?
We chant Jeremiah chapter 9 on Tisha B’av, the day that marks the fact that nothing lasts.
The first temple was built by Solomon, out of the finest materials, gold and silver and copper, the best wood from Lebanon. It was destroyed by the Babylonians. Nothing lasts.
The second temple was built by Herod, out of the finest materials, gold and silver and copper, the best wood from Lebanon. It was destroyed by the Romans. Nothing lasts.
Here is what Jeremiah says about this reality. He says there are some things that we may think are going to last forever, but they don’t.
We may think wisdom lasts forever. But it doesn’t. A wise person should not glory in their wisdom. We all know people who were once brilliant but are then diminished by cognitive impairment. If you want to see a truly terrifying movie, see the movie Alice, with Julianne Moore, about early Alzheimer’s. Wisdom does not last.
We may think physical strength lasts forever. But it doesn’t. A strong person should not glory in their strength. We all know people who were once young and strong and fit who are diminished by the infirmities of aging. What do seniors and their adult children fear above all? Falling. So many stories of diminishment begin with a fall. Physical vigor does not last.
We may think material prosperity is going to last forever. But it doesn’t. The rich person should not glory in their wealth. We all know people who were once extremely affluent and yet they suffered a reversal of fortune. Money does not always last.
If wisdom, physical strength, material prosperity are all ephemeral, what does last?
Jeremiah’s answer is the only thing that lasts is an act of decency. The prophet speaks in God’s name: Ani Adonai oseh chesed mishpat u’tzedakah ba’aretz, I the Lord act with kindness, justice and righteousness, ki va’eleh chaphatzti, for in these I, God, delight.
Your act of kindness is immune to the ravages of time.
Your act of decency never grows old.
To the contrary, your act of decency grows larger with time. Which brings us back to Bob Hurley and Trophy Night in Jersey City.
Coach Hurley was also a probation officer in Jersey City. His goal was to protect his players from the streets, to help them get into college and have a productive life. He posted a sign in the school’s foyer that said: “You are entering a special and safe place…and…the street stops here.”
The Coach insisted that his players be home late at night; nothing good happens on the streets after hours.
One of his star players on the 1989 team was a man named Jerry Walker. All these years later, Walker remembers his coach driving through the neighborhood, checking up on his players, making sure they were safely at home and not getting into trouble on the streets. He remembers sleeping on the Coach’s couch at home and waking up to the smell of home-made pancakes. He remembers the coach caring about him as a person.
But the decency and humanity of the coach would go on to shape his players’ lives. Jerry Walker would attend Seton Hall, where he was a basketball star. After college he came back to Jersey City to open an after school center to keep young people off the streets and engaged in fulfilling their potential as students and athletes. What Bob Hurley did for him, he now does for others. The greatest compliment in the world is imitation.
The trophy from 1989 is a relic grown stale. But the menshlikeit from 1989 inspires menshlikeit in 2017. The kindness from 1989 inspires kindness in 2017. The generosity in 1989 inspires generosity in 2017. The moral example of 1989 shaped character that would last a lifetime.
We are not basketball players and coaches. But we share an opportunity with them. How can we act on Jeremiah’s insight that our acts of kindness, decency and humanity will never grow old, but will become even more important with time?
A woman named Adeline Specktor Sneider tells the story of her parents, immigrants to America after World War I, who settled in a small mid-Western town and eked out a modest existence. Her father did not make a will because he knew that his children would always take care of their mother. He was right. After he passed away, Adeline and her brother took care of their mother after her savings were depleted. Adeline writes:
The money ran out. And it would have been unthinkable for my brother, his wife, my husband and myself to let her know it. So by devious means, we kept her unaware that she was being subsidized. After so many years of struggling, working and selfless giving to us and others, she must never know that she was a dependent. The grandchildren conspired with us, and all was well.
So, she decided to write a will. A dear friend who was a lawyer was let in on the secret that he was collaborating on a useless document, but being the mensch he was, did it with grace and finesse.
Mama and the lawyer spent several evenings and came up with a simple but rather long will. It was put away and more or less forgotten. Until Mama died.
After the week of shiva…, I started putting our lives back in order. I took out the will and cried my first real anguished tears since she died. It was Mama, that will. She had left bequests to many family members long gone. She left bequests to every synagogue she had ever set foot in, in any city she had visited…She had left bequests to every orphanage, school, and home for the elderly that she had a pushke… for–and she had 19!
Crying the whole time, I sat at my desk and wrote checks. Not for vast amounts, but whatever she had wished to leave or thought she could leave. I called a cousin in NY for some of the addresses, and she cried too, telling me that some of the synagogues had been burned out long ago, vandalized, deserted by their congregations.
After a few hours, I was through, through writing and through crying. Instead a great healing had taken place. I was cleansed, inspired, full of love, and always, when faced with my mother’s character, overwhelmed with pride. What a legacy her legacies were to me. She had just, in death, given me one of the happiest days of my life.
What Adeline Specktor Sneider’s mother did every one of us here can do. Which leads to our spiritual homework for the new year.
What act of humanity can you do this year that will stand the test of time?
What act of decency can you perform this year that will transcend our own mortality, that will endure for the generations, that will give the people who love you and whom you love an example of menshlikeit that will never grow old, will never grow stale, will never die, but will be a legacy that lasts forever? Shana tovah.