Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, January 24, 2024

MY LAST CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER


Illustration: New York Times, Jan. 27, 1991, Section 1, page 26: Obituary, Rabbi David Panitz

 

            As a Jew living in the modern western world, I live with two calendars co-existing in my thoughts: the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian. I observe my father’s yahrzeit according to the Jewish calendar (the 10th of Shevat--- this year, that took place already). But the English date of his passing, January 25, also resonates within me. The day before—January 24— was when I had my last conversation with him.

            This took place on January 24, 1991.  Let us remember the news background to that moment in time: Half a year earlier, Saddam Hussein had captured Kuwait. He was torturing and killing the local opposition and threating the stability of the entire region.  The United States had assembled a coalition of nations demanding the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  Saddam Hussein refused to meet the deadline of January 15, 1991, and two days later, the coalition began the recapture of Kuwait.  Saddam Hussein’s response was to fire SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv.  Israel had not attacked him.  The United States lobbied vigorously and successfully to prevent Israel from responding.  Saddam Hussein had hoped to unite the Arab world into a jihad against Israel, and the United States moved to prevent that by restraining Israel from retaliating.

            My father was in the last stage of his three-year-long battle with leukemia.  He had gone downhill quickly in the past month. I went to St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown Paterson, NJ, on the 24th, fully expecting it to be the last time I would see him.  As it happened, he survived the night, but passed away early in the morning before I could get back to the hospital.

            When I saw him on the 24th, he was still lucid—the morphine had not yet rendered him too sleepy to speak.  He was eager to advise me as to the sermon I was going to preach that coming Shabbat.

            The weekly portion was Beshallach—the same as it is for us right now, this year. In that portion, the Bible relates the unprovoked and vicious attack of the marauding tribe, Amalek, upon the Israelites as our ancestors were heading out of Egypt.  There is a sober Jewish tradition that Amalek endures from generation to generation. While Joshua dealt them a setback in the battle narrated in Exodus 17, they remained a thorn in Israel’s side throughout the early history of the Israelites. Beyond the main frame of biblical history, there is a tradition that the wicked Persian Prime Minister, Haman, was also of Amalekite descent.

            From that prompt, Judaism teaches that Amalek endures throughout time and that the most vicious enemies of the Jewish people are from the stock of that antisemitic nation. Torquemada? Khmelnitsky? Tsar Nicholas II? — Amalekites, according to Jewish reckoning.

            Based on that tradition, my father told me: “When you preach this shabbat, tell them [your congregants] that Saddam Hussein is the Amalek of this generation.”  I promised him that I would, and I fulfilled that promise.

            My father’s work as a rabbi was his calling, his means to idealistic ends.  He wanted to serve the Jewish people, and also secure blessings for the general society in which our people live and work. In his early career, as an assistant rabbi at New York’s Bnai Jeshurun congregation, he lobbied for the United States to amend the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 so as to admit larger numbers of Jews.
 


Illustration: New York Times, Jan. 16, 1949, page 3: “Revision of DP Act Called for by Rabbi”

 

            He took on numerous missions: to assist Jewish refugees from Nazism arriving in this country, to work for the freeing of Soviet Jews, to find ways to help the impoverished elderly Jews of our inner cities, to deal with the then-unacknowledged problem of alcoholism within Jewish society. He was a leader in the growing dialogue among Jews and Christians, a stakeholder in the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He cared deeply about public-school education in the various communities where he served. He was an activist lobbying for civil rights. After the assassination of MLK, he walked the mean streets of Paterson, NJ, together with his clergy neighbor, Rev. Albert Rowe, pastor of the largest African American Baptist church in the city, to urge the outraged and angry youth of the slums not to riot. He was proud of his lifelong support for the laborer.

But always, the defense of Israel was central to his sense of sacred responsibilities. And it was the last one to preoccupy him, in the final hours of his consciousness.

            I have no doubt that if he were alive today, he would be telling me: “When you preach to your congregants, tell them that Hamas is the incarnation of Amalek in this generation.”           

            It’s been a third of a century, and still, I miss him.  A third of a century, and still I pray: may God grant him repose, among the souls of the righteous and the pure of all generations, who shine with the splendor of the stars in the heavens. Amen.