myrunningrabbi

Inspirational /Motivational Speaker
Contact AAE Speakers Bureau 800 698 2536

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Hanging on to Hope Through a Serious Illness

In 1978, I entered the New York City Marathon wearing a T-shirt proclaiming me “The Running Rabbi.” I was just as tireless in my calling as a rabbi in Newburgh, New York. I led a march against the Klan, rallied to free Soviet Jews, and visited our fifty-two Americans held hostage in Iran.

I’d never been sick in my life. I felt indestructible. That was then.
Two years after returning from Teheran I knew something was terribly wrong. Running on the beach near our home in Martha’s Vineyard, I felt strangely tired, and out of nowhere there was a strange telltale black and blue mark on my leg. I tried to ignore it, but soon I couldn’t keep up on the hills with my running buddies. As the days went on I was running out of energy and falling further and further behind. I waved to my friends to go ahead. I was breathing heavily and gasping for breath. Driving my daughters to summer camp, I fought to be alert and it was scary and alarming.

It was time to ask my doctor what this could this be. While waiting for the results of my blood counts, which were delayed, I took refuge in the movies right there. All alone in the back of the theater in the middle of the day I watched as the friendly alien ET reached out with his finger and magically healed a little child. I imagined it was me and I would be instantly healed. But, knowing my body so well, I instinctively felt there was something very wrong. The doctor breezed me off and said my blood counts were a little low but it probably didn’t mean much. A few days later I went to my friend in Poughkeepsie who was a pathologist. My daughter came with me and I asked the doctor to check my blood.

The results came back, and the doctor and the lab technicians had a strange somber look. My doctor even dropped the slides and then nervously apologized. Watching all this, my daughter with her childlike perception looked up and asked: “Is my daddy going to die?” In the privacy of his office Dr. Joseph was telling me that he saw hair like cells under his microscope and he believed I had a rare form of leukemia.

Even though the title of my first book was: “Why Me?” Why Anyone?” I really thought:

Why not me? As a Rabbi visiting patients for so many years I realized that anyone can get sick – the rich and the poor, the young and the old.
My childhood nickname was “Sunshine” and with my bright outlook and positive spirit I asked the doctor: “What can we do?”

But there was almost nothing that would help me. They took my spleen out hoping my blood counts would bounce back and I took oral chemotherapy but to no avail.

I refused to give up, and two years later, shaking with fevers of 105, and wearing a protective mask, I was flown on an “Angel of Mercy Flight” to Chicago where doctors were experimenting with a new drug for my rare leukemia. They even had to get emergency permission, “Compassionate Usage”, to put me on the protocol because I was too sick to be saved and I might ruin their experiment.

I was coughing terribly, and a lung operation showed that I had rare form of tuberculosis that turned out to be fatal for some of my fellow patients. But, miraculously, the injections of the drug they gave me over two months, combined with every TB drug they could think of, saved me. When my doctor and I testified before Congress my doctor said that being one of the sickest patients with this leukemia meant I had a stronger response to my treatment. I held up a pair of my running sneakers in the hearing room and told the congressman: I’m running again!

Yes, it’s a miracle that I was saved in the nick of time. I wouldn’t be the hyper Running Rabbi any more. I wouldn’t run past my congregants any more. I would slow down and really listen.

My illusion was shattered when I was diagnosed with leukemia. For more than twenty years as a rabbi, I had helped others through crises. I was supposed to have all the answers. Yet when I got sick, I discovered I didn’t have them.
I won’t claim to have it all figured out now, but my experience has given me some valuable insights on how to cope with a serious illness, or any adversity for that matter. I want to share some of them with you.

CHEER YOURSELF ON: Ultimately you must learn to comfort yourself. No matter how many people are around during the day, reality can be very hard to face in the loneliness of the night.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF: Don’t think of yourself as worthless, or worth less than you you were before your diagnosis.

DON’T BE PASSIVE ABOUT YOUR MEDICAL TREATMENT: Let your doctors and nurses know what you need.

LEARN TO CHERISH YOUR VERY EXISTENCE: Don’t feel guilty if you’re too sick to do something. You have value simply because you exist, even if you can’t be productive in the ways you were before.

HANG ON TO YOUR FIGHTING SPIRIT: I really believe my fighting spirit meant the difference between life and death for me. My nurses told me that once, when I was delirious, I pounded on my bed rails yelling, “Come on Hirshel!” I was cheering myself on like my wife and daughters cheered for me when I ran in the marathon.

CONVERSELY, REMEMBER THAT ATTITUDE ISN’T EVERYTHING: Having a good attitude can help you make the best of every situation, but it may not help you change your situation. You can’t control everything, only some things.

SET GOALS FOR YOURSELF. No matter how small, reaching any goal helps you feel a sense of achievement.

WRITE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE: Writing a book about my illness gave me something to live for. Some days it took a lot out of me to write even a few words, but completing my book helped me to keep my fighting spirit alive.

KEEP SOME NORMALCY IN YOUR LIFE: If you’re able to use your energy in some capacity, do it, even if you have just five good minutes a day. If physical limitations prevent you from doing usual tasks, try to devise new ways to do them.

DO WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF: When my physicians noticed how depressed I was in the hospital, they said, “Be a rabbi. Go counsel other patients.”Doing that made me feel important again My friends who are fighting cancer tell me the same thing: helping others is one good thing they can do and find real fulfillment in doing.

DON’T LOSE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR: Learn to laugh at yourself and enjoy life. One morning in the hospital as the doctors made their rounds, I said to them, “I think these antibiotics are doing something to me! Something strange is happening to my body!” They burst into laughter. I was wearing a Frankenstein mask!

BE THANKFUL FOR EACH DAY AND GREET IT JOYOUSLY: Live your life to the fullest. Since my diagnosis, every moment has been special to me.

DECIDE WHAT’S IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE: I’m learning to say no to people. I don’t want to fritter away my life letting others tell me how to live. For me, being with my loved ones is most important. And I make a point of telling these people how I feel about them often.

ACCEPT THE SUPPORT OF YOUR FRIENDS: The strong support of everyone who loved me and prayed for me kept me going through my darkest hours. Don’t be afraid to let others know how vulnerable you are; it’s not a sign of weakness to accept help.

SEARCH FOR MEANING FROM YOUR ADVERSITY: We can find meaning and hope even in our darkest days. I didn’t ask for this painful experience, but I can choose to grow from it and shape it into a positive force in my life.

By facing death, I learned how to live. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
My illness taught me the deepest meaning of being a rabbi. It’s who can touch people, who can comfort them. I hope that as you walk your own path through illness and adversity, you let the power within you carry you over the rough spots, and I hope it stays with you too.


My Special Eleven Day Mission to See the Iran Hostages

The BBC interviewed me for a Documentary Special about my visit to the 52 hostages held captive in Iran and released after 444 days in January 1981, when President Reagan invited me to greet the liberated Americans in a White House Ceremony. Below is my blog about my 11 days in Teheran.

This is a A Call From The Hostage Takers airs Saturday June 15 and Sunday June 16th. Click here for more information.

From the BBC: “40 years ago, the Iranian hostage crisis gripped the world, with details unfolding nightly on television. But one story remains untold. Desperate to get their message out, the hostage takers invited 50 ordinary Americans to visit Iran. For the Americans, this high-risk trip held the tantalising possibility of securing the release of hostages. What transpired was a journey quite unlike any of them had planned. Using archive of the visit and fresh interviews with former Iranian hostage takers in Iran and their American visitors, we hear about their hopes and misgivings at the time and their reflections 40 years on.”


Department of Defense
Freed American hostages disembark from a plane at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Jan. 27, 1981, one week after being released.

The year was 1979, and like every other American I was gripped by the hostage crisis. 52 of our guys were captured and blindfolded before the TV cameras when armed Iranian militants, followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, scaled the walls of our U.S. Embassy in Teheran. Members of the Revolutionary Guard managed to seize the attention of the entire world on that infamous November 4th.

I heard the media mention a professor from Kansas who was arranging a humanitarian visit. I decided to call him and I said: “Professor, you don’t know me, and you realize there are four Jewish hostages.” I must have embarrassed him, because he answered defensively, “Thinking about it Rabbi, you’re right!” Then, unexpectedly, he added, “OK, Rabbi, stick around.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but two weeks later I got a phone call: “Was I interested in a special eleven day mission to see the hostages?”
It was February 5th, and we were on a plane to Teheran, praying to see the hostages and the day they would be set free. We landed on a bleak cold day at Mehabad Airport and entered a huge terminal whose walls had been stripped bare and plastered with pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeni.

We were immediately surrounded by the Revolutionary Guard brandishing machine guns. I got a lot of stares wearing a yarmulke on my head. After some tense moments we were driven to a dilapidated hotel in downtown Teheran with sand bags around the pool and machine gun posts. The militants had renamed it “Hotel of the Glorious Revolution.”

The next afternoon we were taken to a mosque to meet with an Imam. He harangued us in a shrill voice that Israel was a tool of America and the Zionists who exploited his Muslim brothers and sisters.

I could hardly contain myself. I stared at the bearded Imam and blurted out, “If you call yourselves Compassionate Sons of Allah, then why don’t you treat my people with compassion?” One of the American ministers touched my shoulder and whispered, ” Hirshel, you must feel very lonely here as a Jew.” I don’t know what stirred within me, but I answered him, “No, I’m not alone. I am accompanied by the souls of my people who have been oppressed throughout history.”

It was February 11th and we were being driven on a bus to a huge anti-American demonstration outside of Teheran University. The revolutionaries had renamed it “Freedom Square .” As we snaked our way through the demonstrators they shook their fists at us and pounded violently on our bus, yelling, “Down with America. Death to President Carter.” We were almost trampled as we struggled to climb the rungs of a rickety platform hastily erected for us the foreign visitors.

The rain was pelting us and the agitated crowd pressed against our platform. Suddenly there was a shudder and the stands started to buckle and collapsed. There were screams and moans of people being crushed underneath us. As the scaffolding came crashing down I jumped instinctively about ten feet to the ground. Luckily I wasn’t hurt but two of my companions were injured in the melee. Someone shouted over the commotion, “Rabbi, get out of here!”

After wandering through the streets of Teheran for hours I finally found our hotel and was overjoyed to be reunited with the other Americans who feared something ominous might have happened to me.

Three days later, on February 14th at 5 AM, there was a sudden knock on our door. It was one of the militants announcing, “You clergy people wait here, because soon we’re going to take you to visit the poor souls who were injured when the stands collapsed at the parade.” I had a gut feeling. Turning to Father Jack, my roommate, I said, “You know Jack, that’s just a ruse, They’re taking us to see the hostages.”

There was a priest with us who was acting strangely. He over-identified with the militants and bought their line that the hostages were somehow guilty of something. There, in the back of the van, I confronted him and asked: “Does it not say in your New Testament -Judge not lest you be judged?”

We came to a screeching halt in front of the towering walls of the American Embassy. There were the armed militants with machine guns perched on the walls high above. They looked like they were 11 years old . We were led to a room with blankets covering the windows and the ever present pictures of Khomeini.

After an anxious wait the militants led in some of the American hostages. We decided to make small talk with them about life back home to ease their fears. So we chatted informally about basketball scores and McDonalds. I was close to tears thinking, my God, when will they ever go free?”

The guards were going to allow us to take letters the hostages had written to their loved ones back in the States. I was sitting right up front and one of the hostages handed me a sheaf of letters, I clutched the letters and gave a final embrace to the hostages, whispering, “The American people are praying for you and you are not forgotten.”
I managed to hand one of the captives a Hebrew prayerbook to give to the Jewish hostages who were kept back in their cells. Ten months later, in the White House, the Jewish hostages revealed to me that the militants had deceived them about my being there. They told me the prayerbook lifted their morale and gave them hope and the will to survive.

As we were preparing to leave the militants suddenly and unexpectedly barred our way and detained us. They said accusingly: “You clergy people can’t leave. We have seen one of you receive a secret message from one of the hostages.” They were pointing directly at me. I thought, my God, did they plant something on me? Am I going to be made a hostage too? I decided to tough it out and call their bluff. So I rose to my feet and said indignantly, “I am here on a humanitarian visit and will not be treated this way!”

Despite my protest they separated me from my fellow clergy and led me into a courtyard out of view. I was made to strip down to my shorts and they searched me and all my belongings thoroughly. It was lucky I had crossed out the names of the Israeli Secret Service who briefed me in New York before I left, because they went through every name in my address book. I was sure they were itching to hold me hostage as a Zionist spy. As they were leading me back to rejoin the other Americans I couldn’t resist tipping up my yarmulke, as if to say: ”You forgot to look under here boys!”

Sadly, our Americans stayed there for four hundred and forty four days. When they were liberated, President Reagan sent his plane for them. Amazingly, they landed first at Stewart Airport in Newburgh. A few days later the President invited me to go to the White House reception to greet the hostages before the nation.

There, in the White House, the Marine band was playing. I was wearing a silver bracelet for one of the hostages. He was a brave American and he was isolated and beaten by the militants, but he never complained. He said, “Rabbi, others had it worse than me.” His mother had given me the bracelet to wear for her son while he was imprisoned. It said very starkly “William J. Dougherty, (taken prisoner) November 4th 1979”. Bill was staring at the bracelet on my wrist. I said, “Bill, would you like to come to Newburgh? We’ll have a ceremony and I’ll present the bracelet to you.” He answered “ Rabbi, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have the bracelet now!”

I’m looking at the letter Bill wrote me after that time at the White House. It’s on the wall of my study in the Temple and it reads. “Rabbi, thank you for all your efforts and for the love shown to us by 250 million Americans while we were held hostage. As far as the bracelet, when you took it from your wrist and put it on mine, the pain began to go away.”
A few years after the ordeal I officiated at the wedding of the son of one of the Jewish hostages. As his father rejoiced I thought of the biblical verse: “Those who sow in tears, shall reap in joy.”

* Originally published on runningrabbi.wordpress.com.



Finding Courage

What does courage look like? Each spring, an award is given to a person who has made a significant contribution to the world. This past spring, a woman was nominated who had spent many years of her life hiding her personal identity, and who had, at last, transitioned to her gender.

One response became a symbol of national discord. A Facebook user posted a picture of two men in military uniforms, one carrying the other over his shoulder away from danger. Beneath the picture, he wrote:”just thought I would remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery look like.

What does courage look like? What is its image?

Does it look like physical bravery, rooted in service to country and friendship, in loyalty and the willingness to live one’s life in the context of a greater, often national, mission and purpose?

We are struggling to know how and when to hide or reveal our personal identities. We are confronting issues of race and racism that force us to ask questions about our history and ourselves that define us – and the generations to follow. We are facing issues of long-term security and peace that require our leaders – and us – to make decisions on some of the hardest questions we have had to ask in many years.

Does courage look like swift, strong response to the potential for conflict? Does it look like patience and restraint?

Does it look like confrontation, arising out of the experience of prejudice and pain? Does it look like resiliency, expressed with prayer and hope?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggested: “We find it easier..to admire physical bravery than moral courage…It’s hard for us to see our leaders as courageous ..Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One man’s hero is another’s villain.”

How do we find courage in the depths of our own souls? Our lives are so fragile. We don’t know who will live or die. Who in their time; and who not in their time. On the Jewish High Holy Days we are asked to stand in complete humility before God.

The truth is, we can be courageous. We have supported families and children, we have take care of parents as they have aged; we have helped patients heal; we have represented those seeking justice; we have sought forgiveness from those we have hurt; we have responded to illness with grace.

We need to ask: can we be courageous?

Can we accept our failings and flaws -and those of others- and decide to love anyway? Can we be honest with our spouse or partner? Can we set a vision for our life’s work and pursue it? Can we ask for forgiveness, and forgive generously?

As we seek to live with courage in a time when its image is not always clear, may we be genuine, even as it means showing our fears and weaknesses to others. May we trust that we will be met with acceptance and loving care; and may we be resilient, loyal and true.

The Hebrew says “Chazak! Chazak! v’nitchazek, may we be strong, bold, and courageous.

This can be Day One. LET’S BEGIN!

My Rescue In The ER and the Faces of Courage

As a Senior Citizen and a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system I am considered one of the most vulnerable in the Covid-19 crisis. Despite our careful seclusion at home I found my self in jeopardy recently and was rescued in the Emergency Room at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The heroism and sacrifice of the medical team was truly amazing and we call them courageous and wonder what we would do if ever called upon.

What does it mean to act with courage?

A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggests:

“We find it easier to admire physical bravery than moral courage. It’s hard for us to see our leaders as courageous. Perhaps we have seen too much, grown too cynical about the inevitable compromises of power. There are no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore. One person’s hero is another’s villain. We no longer easily agree on what it means to be good, or principled, or brave.

When leaders do take courageous steps, there are as many who doubt as approve…courage, nowadays, is almost always ambiguous.”

And yet-just at that moment of confusion or frustration – we witness an act of courage so unexpected, moving and clear, its grace penetrates our souls.

The morning after the violence and terror at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a presiding Elder in the Church gave a rousing sermon.

“I want you to know,” he spoke through tears, “the doors of Mother Emanuel are open.”

The Reverend’s message and the city’s banners echoes the words of Isaiah, whose message of courage reverberates.

In the words of a Rabbi the truth is, we have been courageous.

We have taken care of parents as they have aged, we have helped patients heal; we have represented those seeking justice, we have sought forgiveness from people we have hurt.

Can we be courageous?
Can we accept our failings and flaws – and those of others – and decide to love anyway?

Can we be honest with our spouse or partner?

Can we set a vision for our life’s work and pursue it?

Can we ask for forgiveness, and forgive generously?

LET THIS BE DAY ONE. LET’S BEGIN.

After the Election-from Choosing Our Leaders to Embracing One Another

Said the Rabbi; When Abraham heard of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he didn’t ask God to save his friends. He didn’t make distinctions based on faith or race, ideology or affiliation. Abraham did not discriminate. He sought to save them all, without exception.

God had already told him of the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah, so Abraham could not have been naive. Why, then, did he seek to redeem them all? Was it not enough for him to demand justice for the innocent only?

While others might have made distinctions between good and bad. Abraham saw only fellow human beings. He saw souls in need of redemption.

We, the children of Abraham-Jews, Christians. and Muslims alike-together with all the people who share this great and blessed land we call America, desperately need to reclaim the vision of our founding father: to see each other as sisters and brothers. We need to learn once again to see our neighbors as ourselves, to love out neighbors as ourselves, to acknowledge that our diversity is a blessing, to find unity without demanding uniformity.

Elections, by definition, are partisan. Yet daily life need not be so divided. God made us different and diverse, and yet we are fundamentally all the same-we are all human. We need to reaffirm this truth to heal the soul of our nation. Let his be our focus in the days ahead. Let us move from choosing  our leaders to choosing to embrace one another.

May peace descend upon us and our entire nation, and may it bring wholeness and healing to our hearts.

If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”
In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe:

The true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)


Joan Rivers and the Key to Happiness

Joan Rivers, may peace be upon her, once asked her business manager: “How much money do I have in the bank because I want it delivered to my house by the end of the day. I want to touch it!”

She was also famously quoted as saying: “People say that money is not the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money you can have a key made.”

An ancient Rabbi asked: “Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has and is satisfied with her portion.”

We all know of very wealthy people who are terribly unhappy, and ordinary people who are very happy.

What the sage was explaining is that happiness is the ability to find joy in what you have. Unhappiness is dwelling on what you don’t possess.
This is what we should do every day. Every morning we wake up and it’s a new day. The sacred teaching is that our souls have been restored. We can breath deeply and take in all that is good if we have a roof over our head and family and friends.

And yet we spend too much time dwelling on what is missing. We worry and are anxious and complain about trivial things. We count our money instead of counting our blessings and appreciating all that we have. We are continually dwelling on what we don’t have.

We all think: ” I would be happy if only…”

But the Holy One of Blessing wants us to be happy right now, because if you are not happy with your portion in life, then it does not matter how much you have in your bank account. It is never enough.

Don’t let the imperfections blind you to the blessings you have. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
The real key to happiness is to see the smiles of the ones you love and the beauty all around you.

And may you discover the richness and joy and power within you that you surely possess and deserve.


Overcoming Depression

Pain, medicine, and depression were overwhelming me. The doctors told me I was winning my battle with leukemia, but I felt I was losing emotionally. The depression that had overtaken me seemed worse than physical disease.

As a rabbi I thought I had been trained to deal with depression. I was used to members of my congregation coming to me in times of suffering. People counted on me for comfort and understanding. Yet, here I was, unable to deal with my own depression.

Gradually, I was able to summon the strength within me. “God,” I prayed, “I’m trying to get up this mountain, but every time I get near the top, I get knocked down again. And, I’m not asking you to get me all the way to the summit, but could you hold my hand, and, please, don’t let me fall any further into the abyss?”

As I prayed, I searched for the divine spark within my spirit, for the power that I possessed, and which I believe all of us have. And within myself I found the courage and strength to keep fighting and not give up.
In the Jewish tradition, prayer doesn’t mean somehow finding God’s unlisted phone number or rubbing a magic lamp to bring forth a genie. It means looking into yourself, determining the meaning of your life, finding out what really is of value, and discovering what you believe. Prayer is the “self-judgment” that empowers us to reach higher, search deeper, and be true to ourselves.

Here are my suggestions for lifting yourself up in times of adversity:
LET YOUR SPIRIT SING. You don’t need a designated place or specific words. Sometimes the song we sing is joyous; sometimes it is a lament. Sometimes the song is loud and strong; sometimes it is weak and weary. Be in touch with your feelings and help yourself by opening your heart.

BE YOUR SPECIAL SELF. The story of the creation of the first human being, Adam, reminds us that each of us is unique.

Every human being represents the potential of the whole world. @TheRunningRabbi
(Click to Tweet!)
I vividly recall the time when a young woman came to me talking about taking her life. She was very depressed and felt worthless. I told her that no matter how low a person sinks there is always something special and worthwhile in everyone. I took note of her smile, commented on her touching way of revealing her feelings, and told her that she was special. When she left my study I prayed I had said the right thing. Years later there was a knock on my study door. She had returned to thank me for helping her get through a very difficult time in her life..

REMIND YOURSELF WHAT REALLY MATTERS. When I was depressed in the hospital, I called to mind the good things in my life, what I had to live for. I pushed myself to remember Thanksgivings with my family, vacations in Colorado, running up the ski lift in Aspen, my daughter whirling around the ice skating rink. I thought of my wife and friends who were praying for me. I thought of the nurses who comforted me, and the doctors who struggled to keep me alive.

CONFRONT YOUR FEARS. When one of my congregants asked me, “What do I do in the middle of the night when no one is with me and I’m scared?” I told him, don’t try to run away and hide under the blanket. Sit up in bed and let all the nightmarish things play out before your eyes. Visualize everything that terrifies you. Then, when you have all this in front of you, acknowledge your fears. You have a right to feel frightened and depressed about awful things that have happened. But then realize that despite all that you are still very much alive!

GIVE OF YOURSELF. After my illness, I rededicated my life to helping others, especially those with cancer. Someone is always in need, someone whose plight is worse than our own. By helping others we give meaning to our lives.

LEARN SOMETHING NEW. A young woman, the mother of four children, came to see me. She had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with her chemotherapy treatments, she treated herself to ski lessons. She wanted to experience something new to take her mind off her illness, to reaffirm her life. “There I was,” she told me, “hanging onto the tow rope, climbing that hill, exhilarated by being outside on a crisp winter day – thankful for the day, thankful for my life.”

Through my illness and depression, I learned to see the true worth within myself, to reflect on the meaning of my life, even to find meaning in my illness.
In a sense, my weakness made me a stronger person. I have learned that what “doesn’t destroy me, strengthens me.” Now, I empathize with other people in a way I was never able to before. I look for the goodness in people and in life. I look for the oneness of all humanity, and I find it.

When you are down, may you find strength in all you do and say and feel and think – and then the miracle will happen; the sun will shine for you; the world will once again be beautiful. Look for it. It will happen. I know.


Who is Truly Religious?

These days I wonder if people who choose wounding and hurtful words wrestle with their demons.

In the Jewish tradition, when we wake up in the morning we say: “Let me be swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of the Holy One.”

We realize that every day is a struggle between our good and bad impulses and although many things are predestined we have the innate power and freedom to make moral choices and follow the path of goodness.
What is expected of us, according to the Hebrew prophet, is to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Holy One.” When the Sages tried to distill the essence of sacred teaching they quoted this along with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I believe that you may not call yourself religious or pious or faithful members of any denomination if you hurt others, because as it is said: “God wants heart.”

Often my congregants would approach me apologetically and say: “Rabbi, I’m not religious.” My response was to ask; do you care about others and are you troubled by the pain in our world? Because if you are then you may be very religious even if you don’t belong to a house of worship and despite your lack of ritual observance…or for that matter, even if you have your doubts about God.

And although I am a rabbi and proud of my Jewish heritage, I have evolved spiritually to believe that we are all children of the Eternal, no matter what religion or belief system, because the true heart of “religion” is human goodness and decency.
When the groom breaks a glass at the end of the wedding ceremony I say this signifies that our broken world is not yet at peace and still needs healing. In the Jewish mind a central belief is “Tikun Olam”… Repairing a troubled world…through our deeds of justice and compassion and loving-kindness.

There is a tale about a venerable rabbi who lived in a poor Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe during the harsh pogroms carried out against the Jewish people.The time is just before the High Holy Days. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and a poor disciple enters looking very downcast. “Rabbi”, he confesses, “I cannot direct my prayers to heaven on these Days of Awe in the face of all the suffering in the world and the cruel opression of our people.”

It is getting cold in the hut as the fire dies down and the rabbi gestures and gives an answer without words. He takes the poker by the fireplace and stirs the scattered embers. They burst into flame again and there is warmth and light where the rabbi sits with his student who laments the state of his world and cannot bring himself to direct his prayers to the Holy One.

And the disciple, watching this, realizes the rabbi is giving an answer to his pessimism and he declares: “Oh, now I see Rabbi.”

What does the disconsolate student see? What do we see? We are like the flickering embers when we despair because of all the coldness and indifference and cruelty in our world. But just as the embers bring renewed warmth and light when they are moved closer to each other so do we human beings when we encourage one another with acts of kindness.

“Don’t settle for a spark…. light a fire instead!”@TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)


To Live Without Regret

Joan Didion writes:” “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant. An ordinary instant”. It happened to me when I went from the indestructible “Running Rabbi” to needing a blood transfusion because I was so weak. As I lay in my hospital bed, wondering if I would survive the leukemia that ravaged me, I put on my headphones and listened to Willie Nelson singing: “Maybe I didn’t love you…Maybe I didn’t hold you all those lonely, lonely times…Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time…But you were always on my mind…You were always on my mind.”

Yes, we think there will always be a second chance for that embrace. And we tell ourselves “someday” we will devote more time to those we love and the truly important things that matter. But what if that “someday” never comes?

Jewish wisdom enlightens us that we never know which day will be our last. If we realize that life can be cut short in an “ordinary instant” then the challenge is how do we get our priorities right?
We must never take our friends and loved ones for granted. When I counsel wedding couples I tell them that no matter what conflicts we have with our spouses during the day we should always end the day with a kiss and say ” I love you.” Maybe it sounds corny but I found out it works.

To live a life without regret we must realize that the journey of life is fleeting and not let time pass without embracing those we love with all our heart and soul.

To live a life without regret we must shed the childhood belief that we are unattractive or unintelligent or unlovable. As adults we must rid ourselves of the delusion that we are always right and always the victim.

To live a life without regret we must shed the myths and look at the reflection in the mirror and see ourselves blemishes and all.

A Hebrew prayer cautions us against self deception: “May we ask for honesty, vision, and courage. Honesty to see ourselves as we are, vision to see ourselves as we should, and the courage to change.”
My life has taught me that we have only one brief time on earth and we cannot know what an uncertain tomorrow may bring. So let us get ourselves “a heart of wisdom”.

May we live life to the fullest and without having to regret. @TheRunningRabbi (Click to Tweet!)
“The past is over. The future is a mystery. The here and now is all we have. This moment is a gift! “


myrunningrabbi

myrunningrabbi