You Shall Be Holy: Remembering a Dear Friend
My closest friend died on Tuesday at the age of 93. He was an angry, profane man who had survived incredible pain – an abusive father, childhood anti-Semitism, and being on the beach for the first day of Normandy. When I met him 20 years ago, he had just lost a son to AIDS.
Bernie took all of his anger and all of his grief and channeled into the decision that, somehow, he was going to get our tiny congregation to build a building. Only this enormous project, this outpouring of communal vision and communal support, could help him find meaning in his son’s death. He hounded us for years – urging, cajoling, complaining, and insisting that “If you will it, it is no dream” (a quote by Theodor Herzl, founder of the State of Israel). And when the building was completed, he insisted that we could not put his name on the cornerstone. “All it should say”, he told us, “is l’dor v’dor, a gift from one generation to another.”
The kids in the congregation loved him. He respected them enough to tell them the truth, to be honest about the brokenness in the world, and to insist that they had the power to repair it.
Bernie was a regular in our Torah study group until a month before his death, and parashah K’doshim was one of his favorite Torah portions. “Speak to the entire congregation of Israel,” God says in this portion, “and say to them: you shall be holy for I, Adonai your God ,am holy.” We would begin to study and immediately, a discussion would break out. What does it mean to be holy? But we all knew the answer: to be holy is to be a person who helps God, who does a tiny fraction of what Bernie did for our community.
The Chassidic master Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, loved to teach about the Mishkan, the portable worship space that the Israelites carried throughout the desert. For Bernie, and for the Nativat Shalom, all of Judaism was summed up in a single verse from the story of the Mishkan: and they shall build me a holy place that I may dwell within them (Exodus 25:8). In the Netivot Shalom, he wrote:
Every Jew must build a place within himself where God can dwell. And how do we do this? By bringing a gift to the Holy One. Each of us was born with some pain to repair – some wrong or injustice that only we can repair. We give of ourselves to make the world a better place, and God comes to dwell within us.
Holiness is not about wearing flowing robes and living alone on a mountain. Holiness is about living in the muck and the mire of the world, about taking our pain and using it to create a better world. And holiness is about giving a gift to the next generation.
In all those years, Bernie never acknowledged being holy, but look what he gave us – and more importantly, look at what he gave to our children. May Bernie Lieberman’s memory be for a blessing.