We pass into this new secular year with high hopes for the changes the new government administration will certainly bring and with prayers for the highest good of all. At the same time, we grapple with the knowledge of the depth of the challenges that face us as a people, as a nation and as a planet. The terrorist attacks in Mumbai several weeks ago and the outbreak of active hostilities in Israel and Gaza this past week have surely shaken us awake, reminding us of the fragility of the balance of energies in our world, of how swiftly smoldering coals can spark into destructive flames.
I want to take a moment here to remember a great mentor of mine who passed from the world last week. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf z"l founded Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois, where I was confirmed many a long year ago. He later served as Hillel director at Yale and then returned to Chicago to become senior rabbi at KAM Isaiah Israel on the south side. One of the prominent covenant theologians of the 20th century Reform movement, he taught by example what it was to be an active, accessible, outspoken, passionate, and proud Jew. Ever controversial, he refused to perform b'nai mitzvah ceremonies at Solel, arguing that, at least on Chicago's wealthy North Shore, any meaningful rites of passage had been overshadowed by a round of competitively ostentatious parties. While he ruffled the feathers of many adults, he knew how to talk to us kids, never patronizing or demeaning, always challenging us to know that our actions and our thinking mattered, that we were each implicated in the ever-developing relationship between the Jewish people and the Holy One of Blessing (whom, in those days, we called "God"). He drummed into us that we had the power to choose to make our Jewish observance and participation in community meaningful.
Arnie never failed to stand for what he believed, going down to Selma to march for civil rights with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King in the 60's, and speaking out on other social and political issues. As recently as last spring he wrote a letter defending Barack Obama from those who sought to smear him through his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Here are a few lines from that widely disseminated letter, "My Neighbor Barack":
"Barack Obama's Chicago home is across the street from KAM Isaiah Israel, the Hyde Park synagogue at which I've served for 27 years. He spoke to our congregation as an Illinois state senator; more recently, his Secret Service agents have made use of our, shall we say, facilities.
"But it's not neighborly instinct that's led me to support the Obama candidacy: I support Barack Obama because he stands for what I believe, what our tradition demands.
"We sometimes forget, but an integral part of that tradition is dialogue and a willingness to disagree. Certainly many who call me their rabbi have taken political positions far from mine - just as Barack Obama's opinions have differed from those of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright."
Rabbi Wolf remained active and growing throughout all his 83 years. I saw him last March at one of Solel's 50th Anniversary celebrations. All the "kids" who'd gone through the Solel religious school--most during Arnie's tenure--and later "grown up" to be rabbis, had been invited to speak. Seven out of nine of us made the trip, and as sat on the bima, talking with the assembled congregation on matters ranging from our relationship with God to the challenges facing American Jewish communities, Arnie sat front and center, beaming and, true to form, occasionally calling out an unsolicited comment of his own. Afterwards, he addressed this graying group of mid-lifers much as he would have a bunch of youth groupers or campers at the Union Institute Reform movement summer camp he'd helped found in Wisconsin (which was where I first met Reb Zalman, whom Arnie had invited for a Shabbaton): "You did good, guys!"
Just a few months before his death he celebrated his 83rd birthday with a second bar mitzvah, leyning from Torah for the first time. Growing up in the Reform Movement, he'd never learned to leyn; I remember his careful Hebrew readings and line-by-line translations every Friday night (no Shabbat morning services in a Reform temple in those days!). He'd told a newspaper interviewer that he was nervous about chanting. I pray that he will now rest deeply and that his memory will be always for blessing and for empowerment of those who seek a wild, alive, and meaningful Jewish spiritual path. Barukh dayan emet.
So this new year's eve, in memory of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf and all the great ones who have passed in this last year, instead of partying or watching the festivities at Times Square on TV, I plan to take a few moments of silence to evoke a vision of the world I wish to be engaged in creating. Perhaps over the next few days you may also want to take some time to focus inward and breathe deeply--to invite a waking dream of what the world could be and to ask for guidance about how you might help bring that world into being.
Let us continue to pray for the well-being of our President-elect and our other public leaders, that they may, with strength of purpose and wisdom, help all of us mobilize to make needed shifts on so many levels--to rebalance our economy, rebuild our ecology, equalize our healthcare systems, repair our relationships worldwide. Let us hold in highest esteem and honor our great mentors and teachers--those who give us the tools to see clearly and inspire us to reach beyond ourselves in the service of bringing that better world to be. And let us all look deeply within, at the inner tikkunim (repairs) that must be made, so that we may remain impeccable in our dealings and courageous in our actions, regardless of what the outcomes may be.
Blessings for a new year of joy and accomplishment,