Rabbi’s Corner: We Are More than an Empty Breath

I am bereft. My dear friend, colleague and mentor, Rabbi Dow Marmur died in Jerusalem earlier this week. He, along with my father, the late Rabbi Richard J. Sobel, taught me how to become a rabbi and shaped the person who I am today. I feel so blessed to have had his guidance and friendship for over 33 years, from the time I first met him when he brought me to Toronto to be his Assistant Rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto until I spoke to him a few weeks ago.

We learn in Pirke Avot “Aseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver. – Make for yourself a teacher, and you will acquire for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) Dow’s friendship, sage wisdom and counsel always inspires me, guides me and encourages me.

I share this with you, my new Temple Beth Sholom family, for two reasons: First, we’re still getting to know each other. Dow’s teachings, philosophy on life and Judaism resonate from within me and through me each and every day. Each of us can learn something from his life. By learning about Dow, you will understand more about my rabbinate. Second, this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, relates the story of “The Daughters of Tzelophechad.” Tzelophechad died in the wilderness and didn’t make it to the land of Israel. He had five daughters and no sons. His daughters requested that they be given their father’s inheritance in the land of Israel so that their father’s name live on. In Biblical times, daughters did not inherit from their father, they did not inherit land at all. They rightly asked Moses: “should our father’s name be wiped out because he had no sons?”

In modern terms, this section of Torah teaches that we are more than an empty breath when we die. We live on through the impact we made on the world, how we influenced other people and how we continually inspire the actions, deeds and aspirations of those who come after us. Tzelophechad lives on through his daughters standing up for what is right and just. Rabbi Marmur lives on through his families’ beautiful memories and deeds of love. He lives on through those of us who are still living by his teachings and values.

Below is an excerpt of an open letter I wrote for Dow when he turned 80, seven years ago:

“Dear Dow,

Happy birthday! At the age of 80, you have now reached the age of strength, according to our Jewish tradition. (Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – 5:22).

At 80, your strength comes not necessarily from your physical prowess, but from the life experiences and lessons that come with living for eight decades. Each of us has a story to tell, but your particular story is one of triumph over evil [note: Dow is a Holocaust survivor], and success in overcoming extremely difficult beginnings. You have earned the strength of your years, the strength that comes with time and experience. (To read more, you can purchase Rabbi Marmur’s autobiography , “Six Lives” HERE and you can find his other books on Amazon as well).

At 80, your strength comes from the intellect that you have developed and cultivated over the many years of learning, reading, teaching and sharing. You are one of the most gifted teachers I know. People flock to your courses, to learn from your wisdom. Your prolific writing is articulate, concise, thought-provoking and timely. You like to tell people that you have no “hobbies” per se, other than reading and writing. Your goal of reading at least one book/week has always inspired me to broaden my horizons, to stretch beyond my own comfort zone. Your passion for learning has helped to give knowledge, wisdom, learning and strength to so many others over the years.

At 80, your strength comes from knowing that you have done your part to help make this world a better place. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” You exemplified this ideal throughout your life: speaking out for those who could not/cannot speak for themselves. You taught that we have a moral obligation as Jews to speak out for injustice, to speak truth to power, to work toward a world where all God’s children can live with dignity. You taught that we must heed the prophetic call and work for social justice, even if it is not popular.

At 80, your strength comes from the blessings of family and friends who surround you with their love, warmth and caring. Your dear friends enlarge that circle of love because you have been such a good friend to all of us. We all love you so because you have nurtured us and helped us to be the best we can be.”

May Dow Marmur’s memory be for a blessing – Zecher tzaddik livracha.

To learn more about Tzelophechad’s daughters, please join me for Torah study tomorrow morning. My focus: “The Daughters of Tzelophechad: Speaking Up Against Unjust Societal Norms”.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom

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