The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Monday, January 21, 2013

Maxwell Shenk Genshaft • Aug. 3, 2011 — Jan. 18, 2013

I share these words online so that more people may know at least a glimpse of the person and personality Max was.

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
January 21, 2013

Remembering Max Genshaft

Sometimes, when someone dies, it fits within the order of things. There is loss, and sorrow, and grief, but we say, “It is natural.” “Death is a part of life.” Sometimes, we even say, “He is in a better place.” “He lived a long, full life.” “It was his time.”

But today ... is not one of those times. Today, nothing fits, nothing makes sense. It is not natural. Today, as we face the reality of the death of Maxwell Shenk Genshaft, the platitudes we utter those other times feel empty, insulting, blasphemous.

Today is the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the not-supposed-to-happen. Today is chaos, it is upside–down, and it is dark.

We gather here in remembrance of Max. Our hearts go out in sympathy and compassion to his parents Alyssa and Ben, to his sister Sophie and brother Eli, his grandparents Joyce and Chuck, Nelson and Carol, to his aunts Andi, Lindsay, and Tracy and uncle Scott, and to his great-grandmothers, Grandma Shenk and Gigi -- who are all living this nightmare.

We see on your faces the shock of this loss, the pain of this grief. We know you are mourning not just those precious 17 months, but also the days, weeks, and years with Max that you looked forward to, but will never be.

It is beyond words. There is nothing we can say to fix it, though everyone here wants nothing more than to bring him back.

On your faces and in our hearts there are many questions.
Why is this happening?
How can this be?
What kind of God would allow this?

Know that you are not alone in your questions, in your doubts and anger. We cannot fully know your pain, but you are not alone. There are no good answers to these questions, but you are not alone.

We ask with you: Who wants to live in a world where this can happen? Where an innocent child can be taken from his loving parents, who wanted and ensured nothing but the best for him?

Every fiber of our being wants to say, “No one” -- no one wants to live in such a world.

But perhaps there is another answer: “Max.”

Max wanted to be here. In his pure, determined, warm, inquisitive way, Max loved living in this world.

He was such a great, happy kid. Whether he was ferrying things back and forth, or trying on shoes far too big for him, or eating -- he loved to eat! -- he was always smiling. He never had to be asked to smile. In fact, he was the only kid who would always smile for pictures. He liked having his picture taken, although when Alyssa would see him doing something cute and ask if she could take a picture, he would smile and walk toward the camera -- not quite getting the point, but enjoying himself nonetheless.

Max loved water, just being in water. Ben remembered a time when Max was so relaxed in the pool, that he fell asleep in Ben’s arms. He did this during his baths in the sink, too -- water had that effect on him.

One of the ways Max liked to spread his happiness was by being the jokester of the family. He knew how to make everyone laugh, such as the time he put Eli’s underwear on his head -- and then paused and looked at his audience, waiting for the laughter to commence.

Max was a smart and independent child. He was an expert at Grammy Joyce’s game of “go get Winnie the Pooh” or “go get the red blocks” -- he understood everything. Alyssa would ask him if he needed a diaper change, and he would say, “Yeah,” and then run and get a clean diaper. When Ben or Alyssa would ask him if he wanted to take a shower -- he loved showers! -- he would take off his diaper and stand there, naked and ready to go. He never had a baby toy phase -- he went straight to iPads and iPhones. And he loved chatting with his family on them.

I mentioned he loved to eat, but it bears repeating. He was a big eater. He knew where his snacks were, and how to open the childproof locks on the cabinets. He was happy to help himself.

At each stage of development, Max gave up everything on his own when he was ready to move on: nursing, the pacifier, and bottles -- which he threw at his parents when he was done.

Even with his independent streak, Max loved people and was very social. When out to lunch with friends or family, he was always curious about the people at the next table. He was a charmer, and even a little flirt.

He loved going to see Sophie at school. The other kids adored him, even (or maybe especially) when he made a mess of their classroom by mixing and matching their snow-boots as he tried them all on. But he was helpful, too. If the adults nearby were standing around looking for something, he would say, “Umm...” as if he was thinking hard about where it might be.

Mostly he wanted to do what the other kids were doing, and he loved his big sister Sophie and big brother Eli, who took very good care of him. He was their doll, and sometimes they would drag him around the house, which he didn’t seem to mind. Other times they’d play “family” -- Sophie as mom, Eli as dad -- and they’d drop Max off at daycare...that is, the other side of the room. And he would wait there until it was time for them to pick him up. Many mornings he would hold out his arms for Sophie, and she would take him to the kitchen, give him a snack, and entertain him until Ben and Alyssa got up for breakfast.

Max showed a special love for his family. He wanted to be with Ben and Alyssa, and Sophie and Eli, wherever they were.

He had a special bond with Ben. When he heard the garage at the end of the day, he would run to the gate at the top of the stairs -- often with Eli at his side -- and say excitedly, “Dada!” His face shone when Ben walked in. When Max learned to walk, he would wander from room to room, looking for Dada.

Max was blessed to know so much of his extended family, including great-grandparents, and they were blessed to know him, through visits and video-chats. As Ben said, “Everyone loved him. They all wanted to see him grow up. We miss him.”

Max was a special and amazing soul. Though he was only with us for 17 months, he filled his days, and ours, with hugs, kisses, and laughter. His death is heart-wrenching, incomprehensible, tragic.

On behalf of this community, I pray for help in bringing comfort to Alyssa and Ben, and to all the bereaved. Let their tears fall on us. Let their anger break against us. Let their grief rest in our loving arms. As so many stepped forward to watch over Max’s body this weekend, so he would not be alone, may we now extend our sheltering wings over the grieving family. Then may the memory of their beloved Max return gently, peacefully, to their hearts.

Give us the strength and gentleness to remind them -- even as we remind ourselves -- that in the depths of this darkness, there may yet be light. May Max’s spirit shine through this night of desolation and bring the dawn of another day.

May his memory teach us to embody his happy, sweet, bright presence, so that this world without Max -- where he once walked the earth, and smiled, and brought joy and love to so many -- might again be, somehow, Max’s world.

zichron tzadik livrachah
may the memory of the righteous be a blessing

read Max's obituary here

Friday, January 4, 2013

Standing Up for Self and Other

Rabbi David Segal
January 4, 2013
Parshat Shemot 

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthseat: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live." The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-17)

In this scene, we witness a moment of great courage. Shifrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh's cruel order. In the history of genocide, we hear too often about decent people, bystanders, who just follow orders. But here we have an ancient example of civil disobedience, a refusal to participate in a murderous decree.

This scene is also a moment of great ambiguity. M’yaldot ha-ivriot means either "Hebrew midwives" or, possibly, "midwives of the Hebrew women." So Shifrah and Puah are either Israelite women fighting for their people, or Egyptian women -- "who feared God" -- standing up for the Other.

Not surprisingly, voices of our tradition support both interpretations. Rashi, following the Talmud, considers them Israelite women, even naming them as Yocheved and Miriam. Abravanel and others as far back as Josephus consider them Egyptian midwives. Shadal supported that interpretation thus:
“How is it conceivable that Pharaoh would order Jewish women to kill their own folk and imagine they would not divulge the whole plan?”
Also, the text mentions an important detail: the midwives "feared God" (Elohim). Why state that fact if they were Jewish women? They'd be expected, in that case, to look out for their own people. But for Egyptian women to look out for Hebrew children required a belief in something higher.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, speaks of this episode:
We do not know to which people [the midwives] belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a "crime against humanity," and they refused to do so. . . . All we know about them is that they "feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded." In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.
*    *    *

Last month I took a group of high school students to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I thought about that experience as I read about Shifrah and Puah this week. What is always so moving to me, for some reason, are the stories of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, motivated by something that transcends ethnic and familial ties.

That museum explicitly connects the Holocaust to modern-day genocides, and the message is clear: we all must learn the lesson “never again” to work to stop genocide in our time, whether against our own people or our fellow human beings.

Yad VaShem, the Israeli Shoah museum in Jerusalem, sends a different message. As you pass by the displays about Nazi evils and Jewish resistance, you come out of the relative darkness of the museum to the light of the Jerusalem sun, and a panoramic view of the surrounding hills. There the message is also “never again,” but with a profoundly different interpretation:
because of Israel, “never again” will another people victimize Jews the way they did during the Shoah. “Never again” will we Jews allow ourselves to be defenseless and stateless in the face of our persecutors.

There is growing tension today between these two versions of “never again” -- Jews who emphasize group preservation versus Jews who emphasize universal human rights, going head to head over which is the more Jewish way. As the old joke goes, the most Jewish approach is probably to have these two groups arguing with each other.

The truth is, neither approach is authentic without the other. A story:

Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, was speaking at a synagogue about her organization’s work in the developing world, much of which benefits non-Jews, especially in Africa. During the Q&A, as often happens, a man in the audience criticized her for devoting resources and attention to non-Jews when so many Jews are in need. Before she could answer, a diminutive older woman got out of her seat and marched over to the man. She shook her fist at him and said:
I am a Jew, and a Holocaust survivor. It is because of people like you that my entire family was murdered in the camps.
At that point, Ruth Messinger didn’t need to say much more.

That ethos of “take care of our own” -- a natural and healthy sentiment that leads to protection of one’s family and group -- can also be twisted into a rationalization for ignoring the suffering of others. How often do we bemoan the fact that so many otherwise decent Germans turned a blind eye to what their countrymen were doing to their Jewish friends and neighbors? In order not to be hypocrites, don’t we also need to remember to direct our moral attention to those who are “other” to us, just as we wish others had done, and will do, for us?

On the flip side of the coin, the universalist attitude of looking beyond our own familial and ethnic boundaries can, if taken to a superficial extreme, lead us to neglect our own while pursuing the very noble cause of reaching out to the other. It can lead us to forget that the place where we learn those universal values that reach beyond ethnic boundaries, is the very family and community that those values teach us to transcend.

The Jewish way is to embrace that ambiguity, that duality. Jewish wisdom teaches us that we are to live for ourselves and for others. Either side of that equation alone would diminish us, would weaken our impact on the world, would be less than the fulfillment of both our humanity and our Jewish identity.

As Rabbi Hillel so famously said,
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

Shabbat shalom.

Many thanks to Lisa Exler for the inspiration behind this d'var Torah, and several of the sources as well, including the essay by Rabbi Sacks.