The smallest blessings

The eve of another new year on the Jewish calendar is hours away, a time that beckons one to look forward in hope and prayer for health, happiness and prosperity and to look back at what one can improve upon. Judaism often goes big and the new year blessings are one example. Just this morning however, I was reminded that it’s okay and maybe desirable when wishing for the future, to go small.

I was leaving a store in an industrial area and was taken aback to see a man on a corner near the main street sitting in a wheel chair with a hand written sign. He must have driven there. There are no homes nearby and no bus service that I’ve seen. The man has no legs, neither a right nor a left. He was smiling and his face looked happy and healthy. This was not a homeless man but probably a veteran I considered who was very healthy with two legs until he was not.

His sign said “Be happy, you’re alive. Jesus loves you”. I could quibble with the end of his message but I can not argue with his premise. I froze, locked eyes with him, smiled and he smiled back and waved. I wanted to rush out and speak to him but traffic was building behind me. He was a man with a message important any day but resonant on the eve of Rosh HaShana. As I drove away I wondered about the days after he lost his legs and whether he had a positive outlook from the beginning of his tragedy when the doctors delivered the terrible news or whether he grew into his happiness with years of therapy, battling anger and depression.

He reminded me of a patient I was asked to see in the hospital, a large man, paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a permanent tracheostomy. That man, in middle age, had also been able-bodied until he was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. He lay there and breathed and spoke a bit. He wanted to give me encouragement. He recited the final sentence in the final chapter in the book of Psalms, “Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah” and he shared the Talmudic explication: Praise God and be grateful for every breath you take.

It takes a man who lost all his abilities save the ability to breathe to proselytize about the gift of breath. It takes a man who lost his legs to proselytize about the gift of life. It takes someone who has healed in some fashion after suffering a searing personal tragedy or an unthinkable loss to look around with a sense of awe at what remains.

“Be happy. You’re alive”.

There exist rare moments in our busy lives when that slimmest glimmer of light cracks through the thick wall that separates reality and hope, where the mundane and holy bump against each other in the darkness and where the person we are and the person we can be come so close to each other they can almost kiss one another. But never do. These are the moments when for the briefest moment we appreciate just being alive.

One of my sons was out for a walk this week in a forested area and met a seasoned birder. She was spending the morning peering into the trees. It is the fall migration of warblers, the small colorful songbirds that fly thousands of miles back and forth. The birder had binoculars. He didn’t. It is Corona times so not the time to ask to borrow a stranger’s binoculars. He strained to see the warblers with his naked eyes and decided to return soon with his own binoculars. He will need them to see these birds that are quite small, what the woman called “our tiny travelers”. When you begin to celebrate just being alive, seeing a “tiny traveler” is a moment of pure joy.

While in these Corona times we need to hope and pray for health for ourselves and for peoples around the globe, we hopefully can also learn to appreciate and find deep joy from the uncelebrated moments of life, a painless footstep, an easy breath or a chance encounter with a tiny traveler.

Howard E. Friedman

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Migration and a new year

The ultimate trek continues for thousands and thousands of men, women, children and families. Not an adventure trek, like an American family took last year hiking the entire 2,100 mile Appalachian trail. Rather, an escape from unlivable countries, a trek for survival.

Human migration has dominated the national news of late, with daily stories of despair and desperation as families flee either their war- ravished homes or their economically disheveled countries and attempt to relocate in a stable European city. And images of migrants’ failures to reach their destination have made even more of an impact. The troubling and terribly sad picture of a toddler face down, dressed in a shirt, shorts and little sneakers, washed ashore like a dead fish, lying still on a Turkish beach, dominated this past week’s pictures. The dead boy, Aylan Kurdi, was one of two brothers who drowned, along with their mother, fleeing from Syria.

Migration is neither new nor novel. In fact, here in America, question many people about their families’ background and it often includes a story of immigration. Humans have been migrating from close to the beginning of human history. Anthropologists have traced human migration from Africa to the Levant, specifically the coastal plains of Israel, into Europe, Asia and the Americas. And human fossils dating back 42,000 years have been found in Australia, most likely from migrants who boated from other Pacific islands when the sailing distance was shorter than it is today. That distance was estimated to be less than 100 miles then, but has grown to more than 300 miles since sea level rose after the melting of the ice at the end of the last ice age.

Migration is well-known in the animal kingdom. Birds migrate regularly; even the common American robin has the term “migratorius” as part of its scientific name.  Many mammals such as wildebeests and gazelles stage visually stunning massive annual migrations. And in the insect world, the fragile monarch will travel thousands of miles to its breeding grounds.

Yet nation after nation seems to become apoplectic with a large influx of unexpected human migrants. Of course, such a response is understandable, as countries need to be able to provide resources for migrants, including shelter, food, medical care and if the migrants stay, ultimately jobs and education and permanent housing. But the intensity of discomfiture with the arrival of migrants who, by the time they arrive are in a desperate state, is surprising, as if people’s desire for safety and security is unnatural.

Migration is natural and in no way an aberration. It is, in fact, ancient. American Indians often shifted between highlands and lowlands depending on the seasons and the availability of food supplies; thousands of years earlier, their own ancestors crossed from Asia via the Bering Strait. What has changed in the global picture however, is not migration, but the presence of countries’ borders and the imposition of the rule of law around those borders. We have all grown up with distinct countries and therefore accept that this construct is as it should be. In fact, against the backdrop of human and modern-human existence spanning several hundred thousand years, nationality and borders are a recent phenomenon on planet earth.

So how do we, as a world with countries and borders and immigration laws, deal with the natural desire of tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, who want to migrate to a safer or more prosperous land? First, I would suggest that we remember our own humble roots as descendants of immigrants, especially those who were ‘strangers in a strange land’.  In fact, Prime Minister of Israel Netanyahu recently addressed the migrant crisis, since the Jewish people are no strangers to their own history of forced migration, either due to expulsion, from Spain in 1492, or due to fleeing the progroms and crematoria of the second world war. Israel has already absorbed thousands upon thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, even flying to retrieve immigrants from Ethiopia. Israel, he explained, is unable to absorb a new wave of immigrants. But at least he has spoken out and acknowledged the problem.

Second, we should recognize that the need or desire to migrate is not sinister but natural. Third, we should work toward a path to immigration that should be universally provided by all countries, acknowledging that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not virtues bestowed upon one by merit of place of birth but are universal ideals.”Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as Emma Lazarus wrote, should not only be a slogan on the Statue of Liberty.  Fourth, more countries should model the exemplary behavior of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is taking the world lead in the Syrian migrant crisis. Fifth, with respect to the Syrian crisis, we should question why more Arab countries are not opening their doors to accept Syrian refugees and why more world pressure is not being brought to bear to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria that is at the root of the current crisis.

We are now a global community, albeit with myriad national histories and unique identities. Our economies are interdependent. Many developed nations are now an amalgam of multiple nationalities. And while I do not advocate for the total homogenization of the global population and a borderless world, we do need to allow for occasional population shifts. They should not be a burden to any one country and all stable countries should participate in opening their doors. For if we do not work out the mechanics of this challenge now, with a world of nearly 7 billion inhabitants, the distribution of people across the globe will certainly be one of the preeminent issues facing the world in the very near future, as we grow toward the estimated 9 billion people this planet is projected to host in the not-so-distant future.

In one week, the Jewish people mark the end on one year and the beginning of another, declaring that “hayom harat olam”  (today marks the birth of the world). We acknowledge the ‘world’ as one global entity while at the same time praying for our destiny as a people as well as for our individual health and prosperity. The individual is intertwined with the national and both are citizens of the world. And while the message of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, is decidedly about our personal welfare, our place as individual cogs in the cosmic big wheel is implicit. A subtle but present subtext of the holy new year’s day echos the oft quoted maxim of Hillel the Elder from about 2,000 years ago that appears in Ethics of the Fathers and so brilliantly condenses the challenge of balancing the personal with the communal. Hillel wrote, “If I am not for myself, than who will be for me, but, if I am only for myself than what am I, and, if not now, than when?”

“When” of course, must be now.

Whatever calendar you keep, whatever holidays you celebrate, here is a wish for all to have a healthy and happy year, wherever you are around the globe.

Howard E. Friedman

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