After the US Capitol was purged of the crazed mob incited to seditious violence by a pathologically narcissistic president, shaken congressional leaders reflected on events of the day. Assessing the insurrection unleashed by a chief executive lacking regard for his office, the citizenry, or democracy itself, one lawmaker called it “a day from hell.” Another alluded to President Roosevelt’s description of the attack on Pearl Harbor. January 6, 2021, he asserted, would be another “date which will live in infamy.”
The atrocities of January 6, 2021 did not occur in a vacuum. It has long been evident that the president lacks what Jewish tradition considers attributes of legitimate leadership: Compassion, humility, integrity, truthfulness, slowness to anger, readiness to forgive, and menschlikheit, common decency. And the past four years have revealed his disrespect for social norms and laws, his lying and deceit to advance his own interests, and his incapacity to feel guilt or remorse – hallmark characteristics of sociopaths. Still, his role in fomenting anarchy on January 6 was shocking and appalling even by comparison to past conduct.
Having sat transfixed and horrified while watching the real time assault on a sanctuary of American democracy, “hell” and “infamy” strike me as apt descriptions. Nonetheless, for me personally, January 6 will always be a date of blessing.
Therein lies a tale.
On January 1, 1946, at 8:30 p.m., the 23 year old commanding officer of US Navy minesweeper YMS 129, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, sat to write a letter to Marian, his bride of 15 months. It began, “My Darling Sweetheart…,” and announced the exciting news that his replacement had arrived that evening, so he would soon be released from active duty and return to her. Showering her with endearments and expressing his eagerness to start a family, he closed, “I love and adore you with all my heart, mind, and body, my darling. You’re my whole world….Your adoring Hubby, your Bob.” The young couple’s first child, born January 6, 1947, is the author of this blog.
If my father hadn’t been assigned to that particular vessel… If we had invaded Japan rather than dropped the atomic bomb… If dad’s successor had arrived a day earlier or later… If my parents hadn’t felt like intimacy that night… If a different sperm reached the egg first – If, if, if, if- and countless other if’s, neither I, nor our children or grandchildren would exist, nor would any of our family’s future generations come to be. Yitzchak Tabenkin, a founder of Israel’s kibbutz movement, put it beautifully: “New worlds are born within us, and they endow our evanescent efforts with the feeling of eternity”. On January 6, 1947, I was among the new worlds born that day.
Our parents are our first and most important teachers, and that is how Judaism intends it to be. V’shinantam l’vanecha, “And you shall teach them diligently unto your children.” The word shinantam comes from the word shen, meaning “tooth.” With respect to its essential values, the Torah commands us not just to teach these lessons or expose our kids to them, but to leave an indelible impression. That’s what v’shinantam means.
My parents were not perfect, but they fulfilled abundantly the mitzvah of teaching their children and they helped me become a better person, Jew, and rabbi than I would otherwise be. One of their lessons was the importance of family and of Judaism. My father was a certified public accountant, so we saw little of him during tax season. But every Friday evening, without fail, we ate dinner together as a family. Our typical Erev Shabbat dinner was not elaborate, but it was special. We simply welcomed Shabbat with blessings over candles, wine, and challah and my father asked “God’s blessing upon Ricky, Steven, Mother and Father.” The spiritual sincerity in this heartfelt prayer was obvious even to a child. The absolute priority Dad placed on our family being together for that meal, and the brief, but distinctive rituals that marked the occasion, impressed me deeply. They contributed enormously to my Jewishness.
My parents reinforced the centrality of Judaism in another way, one I resented tremendously at the time. Like most boys my age in Seattle, I played little league baseball, and every year the tryouts conflicted with Religious School. My parents always saw to it that I was assigned to a team, but insisted that Religious School came first. Nothing I could do or say changed their minds, not even slamming doors and temper tantrums. So, I skipped the tryouts and went to Temple. My little league career was undistinguished, and I can’t say I loved my childhood Jewish education, but, as an adult, I cherish the gifts my parents gave me, lessons that have lasted a lifetime: the gift of their being unafraid to be temporarily disliked by one’s kids, the gift of standing by their principles, the gift of teaching me that baseball is fun, but Judaism is fundamental.
My father taught me about integrity. He was the fairest, most honest person I have ever known. A consummate professional himself, Dad taught me professionalism, something from which my congregations and I have benefited greatly. And Dad taught me to be physically and verbally expressive of love and feelings. I am everlastingly grateful not to be among those who say, “My father never hugged me. He never told me that he loved me.” Mine did all the time, and as a father I do that with our kids, too.
On January 6, 2006 at precisely 4:00 a.m., my father, Bob, and a whole world passed into eternity.
My father-in-law, Vic Garfinkle, and my dad had much in common. Vic, as a young dentist, served with the U.S. Marines in Okinawa in WWII. A distinguished career as an Oral Surgeon followed, both in private practice and as a teacher and mentor. After the war, he and his bride, Henrietta, who had met as teenagers in their synagogue youth group, raised two children, Ricky and his sister, Susie, my wife of 51 years. Though different in temperament, personality, and interests, Vic, like my dad, was a mensch – community minded and philanthropic, honorable and forthright. For many years, he chaired his temple’s cemetery committee, enabling fellow congregants to perform the sacred mitzvah of laying their loved ones to rest in a place of beauty, tranquility, and dignity. Vic made a good living, but he and Henri weren’t the least bit ostentatious. Their selfless generosity enhanced our life, and their gracious, unselfish acceptance of my decision to leave the law and become a rabbi, which entailed our moving away and taking two of their beloved grandchildren with us, still fills me with awe and gratitude.
On January 6, 2013 at precisely 4:00 a.m., my father-in-law, Vic, and a whole world passed into eternity.
When Donald Trump was elected, many, including me, feared for our country, but I consoled others and myself with the belief that America’s democratic institutions and traditions were strong and enduring enough to withstand and survive even what we worried would be a terrible presidency. As time went on, my confidence was shaken, but remained intact. For a few hours on January 6, 2021, our democracy teetered on the brink, and I was not at all sure of its durability. As Congress resumed the sacred task of confirming the election of our next president, my relief was palpable, but my anxiety about the future remained. The toxins in our political system and society are far from eliminated. Racism, anti-Semitism, and other hateful pathologies continue to surge. Malignant conspiracy theories and extremist groups proliferate. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Yes, January 6, 2021 was a day from hell, a date of infamy, but it was also a day and date when democracy defeated demagoguery, order overcame anarchy, and determination conquered despair. Even as the yawning chasm of polarization was revealed anew, precious rays of hope for a new beginning and a more United States pierced the darkness, giving proof through the night that our flag was still there.
So for me, as an American, Bob Block’s firstborn son, and Vic Garfinkle’s son-in-law, January 6 is a date that will live in blessing.