Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
Tales of Two Cities
One of my great delights over the years has been leading Temple Emanuel missions to Israel, six missions all told. If you are among the one-hundred or so people who have traveled with me to Israel, you’ve heard me claim that one of my life’s cherished blessings is that I know much of Jerusalem like I know the back of my hand. Another blessing that I treasure is to be a Jew dreaming in Jerusalem. Both are blessings that countless generations of the Jewish people could only yearn for and dream about. All the more reason that I thank God for these blessings in my life.
Every time I go to Jerusalem, I wonder what I’ll dream about. Everyone dreams, every night. Dream studies indicate that dreaming is the sine qua non of restful sleep. Whether or not we remember our dreams is a different matter. Some people never recall their dreams. I recall some of my dreams. The Talmud teaches that “Just as there is no wheat without chaff, there is no dream without nonsense.” Sometimes my dreams seem nothing but nonsense. But the dreams I recall generally make sense and convey some hidden meaning when I think about them or keep them in mind through the day until something sparks an insight. Then there are a handful of dreams which have profoundly impacted my life. When I’ve understood that some of these dreams may also profoundly impact your life, I have shared them with you.
These are the Jerusalem dreams that I’ve shared with you over these High Holy Days. On Rosh HaShana morning, I introduced a 1973 Jerusalem dream about the future that will come to pass here next June 3. This morning I told you how that 1973 Jerusalem dream already came true, in part, on October 28, 2006. But when that dream came true, in part, on that October evening eleven years ago, it also held forth the realization of a dream far more amazing, sometime in the future, foretold in the distant past.
As that 1973 dream was coming true on that October 2006 evening, I realized that something was there for me to discover that my life had been destined for ever since I dreamed the dream in Jerusalem in 1973, now coming true thirty-three years later in Weehawken, New Jersey. Our host, Michael, dressed as a Genie for his Halloween party, gave Alice and me a tour of his house. Built around 1874, the house is an historic landmark sitting high above the Hudson River with the spectacular Manhattan skyline gleaming on the other side.
As soon as I saw it, I knew that this is what a dream thirty-three years ago was leading me to. It was a Mizrach, a Jewish prayer poster, parchment three feet by three feet, painted in the three holy colors of the Torah: blue, purple and scarlet. In the middle of this Mizrach was a kamea, a Jewish magic square made of the letters of God’s Name, Elohim. The Kamea was surrounded by a Jewish star with the name of a different angel in each point. The Jewish star was then surrounded by a circle with the Gevurot prayer inscribed therein. The Gevurot praises God’s power. We sing it all the time here at Temple, as it is sung across the Jewish world, except for one word. In translation, the traditional prayer begins, “You are mighty to save, Adonai, you give life to the dead.” In our Reform version, the translation is “You are mighty to save, Adonai, you give life to,” and then our prayer books give us choice between “all” or “the dead.”
To me, that God gives life to “all” is self-evident, but the theological notion that God is so powerful that God can even give life to the “dead” is something worth praying and praising God for. What if God is this powerful? What if the resurrection of the dead is more than merely a belief, a possibility, a probability, an astounding fact?
Yet before such a thought transforms from a belief into a fact, it first must contend with another fact: death. And even if we aspire to the belief in the resurrection of the dead, the fact is that we will die first. For the living, the death of a loved one is a pain like no other. All of us know this pain. The extraordinary thought that our loved ones who have died will one day live again offers only so much solace. Even if we should be so blessed to meet them again in a resurrected life, the fact is that they are gone forever from this life. Hence this incomparable pain, a pain that is better alleviated when it is shared with someone in this life.
Thus, we come to the special Jerusalem dream I dreamed this summer.
Many of you knew that David Weisberg, our president, lost his sister Lauri last June after a long fight with breast cancer. Lauri had been in my daily prayers of healing every day since she was first diagnosed. David and I are close, as I have thankfully been close with every Temple president whom I have served. This is another blessing in my life that I cherish. Over the many months of Lauri’s illness, it was only natural for her status to come up in conversation with David. Lauri died on Thursday, June 29th, while Alice and I were in Jerusalem. The time difference and the distance made the communications between David and me difficult, plus I was relying on Alice’s phone for overseas communications. Friday morning Jerusalem time, I texted David the following message.
“Your message came through at 1:15 am Israel time. Alice’s phone was off. We were asleep. So I didn’t see your message until this morning. But I woke up around 1:30 after having a dream about you.
You were sitting in a gold station wagon-looking vehicle with the windows rolled up, which hindered me from talking with you. But somehow I managed to reach through the window, hug you and tell you how I prayed for Lauri every day, and how sorry I was that I couldn’t have done more. We then cried together.”
When I returned from Israel a month later, David and I then had the opportunity to make the dream come true.
An old Hasidic tale is about two friends sitting in a tavern one evening. Their hearts as well as their tongues loosened by a few schnapps, they talked about their friendship. One said to the other, “Do you love me?” The other said, “I do.” The first one then said, “No, do you really love me?” The other then said, “I really do.” So the first one then said, “If you really love me then you know what pains me.”
No gesture is sweeter than sharing someone else’s pain, even if only in a dream. And no dream can be sweeter. In dreams or in reality, may all of be a source of such sweet solace, and in our moments of pain, may all of us receive such sweet solace.