What a wonderful world!

What a wonderful world!

By: Rabbi Alan B. Lucas Posted: September 27, 2020

Kol Nidre, 5781

In tribute to Rabbi Adam Feldman z”l

“What a wonderful world”

I see trees of green,
Red roses too
I see them bloom
For me and you
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world

I see skies of blue
And clouds of white,
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world

The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces
Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands,
Saying: “How do you do?”
They’re really saying
“I love you”

I hear babies crying,
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more,
than I’ll never know
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world

Yes, I think to myself,
What a wonderful world

I love that song. It has special meaning to me for two reasons – one I’ll share with you now – the other I’ll get to.

I love this song, because in addition to being beautiful, “What a wonderful world,” was the song my daughter Michal and I chose for our father/daughter dance at hers and Uri’s wedding some 9 years ago – we danced to the original version by Louie Armstrong from 1968.

But I fear that this song that I love has not aged well.

“I see trees of green and red roses too – I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself – What a wonderful world.”

“What a wonderful world?” Hard to sing that song in 2020.  For many of us this past year didn’t seem like such a wonderful world. People have joked in one way or another that they will not be sad to see 2020 end – that in fact for many of us, it can’t end too soon.

I must have seen a hundred meme’s about how bad 2020 has been and how much people will be glad to put this year behind us. One just said: “Remember Restaurants?” Another showed an eerie picture of an empty Oracle Baseball Park in San Diego with the caption: “Cardboard people filling an empty stadium during a baseball game under a blood red sky. Apocalypse? Nah – just 2020.”  In yet another Bart Simpson bemoans – “This has been the worst month of my life!” His father,Homer, ever ready to be the sage voice of experience corrects him by saying: “the worst month so far…”

“I see skies of blue and clouds of white – the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night…”

Skies of blue? Not this year. How about skies of bright orange – as so much of the West Coast is burning – it literally lights up the skies for hundreds of miles – even here in New York – 3000 miles away – we had a few days of not being able to see those blue skies because the smoke from those fires created a haze that blotted out the sky and the sun. With hundreds of thousand fleeing for their lives – how do we sing about this being a wonderful world?

And no “clouds of white” either – – no it is rain clouds that fill our skies – as hurricane after hurricane batters the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast – even reaching here with the tropical storms of Fay and Isaiahs this year – memories of Sandy, as we lost power for days.  It is still not possible for me to take a walk in my neighborhood without circumventing giant trees that had uprooted themselves in the strong winds.

“I see friends shaking hands..”  Yeah – no chance of that in the year of the coronavirus – who would have imagined a High Holy Days like this where we feared to be together in large numbers? And even when we do permit ourselves to be with people we have to keep our distance and wear a mask. The image of my grandchildren – little one’s heading off to school with backpacks and masks – is still something I cannot get used to.

And what a summer of social unrest it has been. Our streets are filled with protesters and counter-protesters – we carry images of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man and another of a man caught on video walking up to police innocently sitting in their cars and shooting them through the window.

And if all this was not enough – we now have to deal with images of Ruth Bader Ginzburg’s coffin lying in state. Images of thousands coming to pay their last respects.  Her death seems to mark the passing of so much we valued and cared about. And the fight that has ensued to replace her threatens to overwhelm our most important democratic institutions.

Our politics are filled with anger and hate –

“they’re really saying… I love you?” I don’t think so.

2020 – how dare I sing about a wonderful world?

My comments tonight are dedicated precisely to those of you who have lost faith in the wonderfulness of our world.

My comments tonight are also dedicated to the memory of a dear friend and colleague Rabbi Adam Feldman who died in a tragic accident last winter while on vacation in Hawaii with his family. For 7 years Adam was our Associate Rabbi here at TBS – and many of you share my sense of loss as you came to love him as much as I did. Adam saw me as a  mentor and I was proud to call him my student. He called often with rabbi questions and to discuss sermons. I miss those calls, I miss Adam. Can you imagine a sadder moment for a teacher than to have to give the eulogy for your student?

I told you that there were two reasons I was singing this song – “It’s a wonderful world?”  Well Adam z”l is the second reason.  In one of the last High Holy Day sermons Adam gave to his congregation in Princeton NJ, last year, Rabbi Feldman started with this very song and that sermon inspired my words tonight.

Adam opened as I did, with those words sung by Louie Armstrong; he told his congregation that Louie Armstrong was one of his all time favorite musicians. His sermon was a message of hope to his congregation – to help them to sing of the beauty of the world even when skies don’t seem so blue.

Little did he know, as he sang of the beauty of the world last Rosh Hashanah, little did he know what lay ahead in the new year that was just beginning. How could he know that in addition to all the terrible challenges that 2020 would bring – it would also bring a tragic end to his own life – and a gaping hole for the rest of us who knew him and loved him – especially his beautiful family – Sara, Talya, Dena and Ilan.

Had he known what was coming, do you think he would have still sung that song? Do you think he would have still given that sermon about blue skies and the colors of the rainbow?

I do. I really do.

You see my comments tonight are not only dedicated to Adam’s memory, they are inspired by him. In a way – 9 months after his passing – he is still teaching torah. Isn’t that remarkable?  “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

Adam, in his sermon, pointed out that, “It’s a wonderful world” was written by two Jewish songwriters, Bob Thiele and George David Weiss, and it was released in 1968. If you are old enough to remember, 1968, you may remember that it too was a tumultuous time in American history, a time of division and anger. Thiele & Weiss wrote the song in response to what they were seeing around them and they looked to Louie Armstrong to be their “ambassador of peace.”

When Armstrong first sang the song, he was criticized by members of the younger generation who were angry and distraught at the bigotry, hatred and discrimination that was everywhere.

Once Armstrong responded to his critics by saying: “Some of you young folks have been saying to me: ‘Hey, Pops – what do you mean, what a wonderful world? How about all them wars all over the place, you call them wonderful?’ He then continued, “But how about listening to old Pops for a minute? Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it, and all I’m saying is – see what a wonderful world it would be if only we’d give it a chance.”

Armstrong himself had a pretty challenging life. He had a difficult childhood and faced many obstacles throughout his life. The grandson of African American slaves, Armstrong faced abandonment, poverty, and racial discrimination. As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, he even had a bomb placed on the doorstep of his house during those racially tense times.  And yet, through his music he spread optimism, joy, beauty and hope.  The fact that he could still sing this song with such honesty after the life he lived, and the injustices he endured, is what enables us to feel and be moved by his words. That he could do so in his challenging times should inspire us to sing that song in our own challenging times.

Do you recite Psalms?  Psalms is the go to book of the bible that we Jews turn to for any and all occasions. There are Psalms of celebration for the times we are happy and Psalms of sadness and despair when we want to express our own sadness and disappointment. There are 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms – they express the entire range of human emotions. One of my teachers Rabbi Jacob Petakowschi once characterized Psalms as “love letters to God.” Indeed while much of the bible is couched in terms of God speaking to us – teaching us, commanding us – the psalms are from an entirely different perspective. They are our prayers to God, our expressions of hope and anger – and yes joy. Many of these psalms are part of our daily prayer service – you are probably familiar with more psalms than you realize – from the 23rd psalm where “we walk through the shadow of the valley of death..” to the hallelujah psalm we sang on RH – bursting with joy and triumph.  But my absolute favorite Psalm is Psalm 8. I would like to share it with you as I think it is even more beautiful than the Louie Armstrong song.

It opens and closes with the same words:  adonai adonaynu – ma adir shimcha b’chol ha’aretz – “God, Oh God – How marvelous is Your name in the whole universe -Your majesty fills the heavens…  And I think to myself… what a wonderful world.

Ki ereh shamecha… When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you set in place — ma ehnosh ki tizkarenu; u’ven adam ki tifkadenu – what is man that you have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him? You have made him little less than divine and adorned him with glory and majesty – adonai adonaynu – ma adir shimcha b’chol ha’aretz – “God, Oh God – How marvelous is Your name in the whole universe -Your majesty fills the heavens…  And I think to myself… what a wonderful world.

You see, we Jews have been singing this song for thousands of years. And I hope we can still find a way to sing it now.

It is my contention that Judaism is the art of singing about the world’s beauty even when the skies are not so blue. The very Sukkot, those fragile huts we will gather in next week, are an exclamation point to these High Holy Days. To eat in a “Sukkah” during the summer is not a great demonstration of anything. We have all been enjoying our meals outdoors all summer. But to leave the security and warmth of our “permanent” homes  and dwell in these “fragile” huts, precisely as the weather is turning – is an affirmation of faith. The truth is that our homes – as we have learned, are not so “permanent” and our sukkot are still standing after thousands of years. Sukkot is called, chag simchateynu – The Festival of our Rejoicing! To experience the vulnerability, the fragility and the precariousness of life and be able to rejoice is the secret to our survival. Yes, we Jews have been singing this song for thousands of years.

I don’t know if you saw an article written by one Elliot Dallen in The Guardian titled: “Terminal cancer means I won’t see the other side of lockdown.” In the final stages of a deadly cancer – his doctors made it clear that this young man, living in England, did not have long to live.  Unlike Adam Feldman – Elliot saw what was coming. And yet… here is what he wrote:

“[After my diagnosis but before the pandemic] Whenever I had thought about the last few weeks of life, I always pictured them being surrounded by friends and family. I’d eat at my favourite restaurants, go to south London parks where I’ve shared kisses and lazy days. I’d get to watch the bands that soundtracked my life in London’s festivals, and frequent the bars and beer gardens that, for better or worse, have defined my adulthood. Crucially, I’d spend time with the people whom I had shared those experiences with; who made me the person I am today. When I became sicker, we would watch films, listen to music, laugh, cry, talk – about both the big things and the little things. It would be a period that maybe only tends to come in times of tragedy, where vulnerability and urgency create connections at a higher level. Where the bittersweet feelings of love and loss exist simultaneously and we are at our most human.

But none of this can happen right now, this “good death” is being denied to me due to the pandemic, and instead I face a steady decline into nothingness, alone. Currently I am cut off from my family; my sister, who I live with is temporarily staying with friends to avoid bringing home any infection. I am one of the many vulnerable people being protected for their own benefit. Just stuck in my flat, alone. Waiting.

Politicians and medical experts talk about the light at the end of the tunnel. People will eventually open their doors again and restart their lives as the country attempts to move back to normality. For me, and I’m sure plenty of others in a similar position, there is no light to give me hope. The tunnel is all that there is, and I’m having to find my way in the dark.”

Elliot Dallen lived long enough to write a second article for the Guardian. He wrote, “Five months later, I’m still here, but much has changed.. And I’m hoping impending death now grants me the licence to sound prematurely wise and overly grandiose. Because I’ve had time to think about the things that are really important to me, and I want to share what I’ve discovered.

First, the importance of gratitude. During my worst moments – the shock of cancer diagnosis, the mental lows and debilitating symptoms of chemotherapy – it was difficult to picture any future moments of joy, closeness or love. Even so, at those times I found comfort in remembering what I have: an amazing family, the friends I’ve made and times I’ve shared with them, the privilege of the life I’ve had.

Second, he goes on to say, a life, if lived well, is long enough. This can mean different things to different people. It might mean travel. I’ve had the good fortune to be able do this, and can confirm that the world is a wonderful place full of moments of awe and amazement – soak up as much as you can.

Knowing that my life was going to be cut short has also changed my perspective on ageing. Most people assume they will live into old age. I have come to see growing old as a privilege. Nobody should lament getting one year older, another grey hair or a wrinkle. Instead, be pleased that you’ve made it. If you feel like you haven’t made the most of your last year, try to use your next one better.”

Elliot had other things to share, and I’ll help you find his articles if you want to read more. Elliot Dallen was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma in 2018 at the age of 29. He died last week at the age of 31.

I have a confession to make – on this day of confessions. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of my last birthday. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of getting old. It was over the summer, in the midst of the pandemic – my kids and grandkids couldn’t join us – and truth be told I was pretty happy just to downplay the whole thing. I was wrong.  I suspect both Elliot and Adam z’l would have given so much for the privilege to celebrate such a birthday. I promise to do better this year. And I promise not even to wait for my birthday – but to make every single day a celebration – I hope you will join me. On this day of sacred vows – I make this vow: For the balance of this year (and beyond) – no more complaints. I vow to proclaim the wonderfulness of the world.

Oh I know, sometimes it is not an easy song to sing – but if Elliot and Adam and our ancestors for thousands of years – if they found a way – I hope we can as well.  adonai adonaynu – ma adir shimcha b’chol ha’aretz – “God, Oh God – How marvelous is Your name in the whole universe -Your majesty fills the heavens…

It has been over 50 years since Louie Armstrong first sang his incredible ballad and it has been thousands of years since we Jews first began singing Psalms and yes, we are living in challenging times. We Jews have in our long history often found ourselves in such times – many far more difficult than the ones we are living in and yet we always managed to find a way to sing about  beauty in the darkest of worlds.

I pray that as we begin a new year, we find awe and wonder in the daily miracles that surround us, the beauty of nature, the satisfaction of a professional accomplishment, the love of our family and our friends. I hope we can find many ways to express our sincere, personal gratitude and find opportunities to do our part to perfect our world.  I hope we can find a way to sing about the beauty of the world and the privilege of having today to embrace it – because as Adam would caution us – today is really all that we have.

“We hear babies crying,
We watch them grow
They’ll learn much more,
Than we’ll ever know,
And we think to ourselves
What a wonderful world

Yes, I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.”