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Rabbi: During Transition, Look Back On Accomplishments


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for Faith Matters. That's another part of the program that listeners have told us they very much appreciate. That's where we talk about matters of faith, religion and spirituality.

Today we hear from a trusted faith leader who we've turned to many times throughout the years - Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He is the Senior Rabbi of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue here in Washington, D.C. And for those interested, I do want to emphasize that we are speaking to Rabbi well in advance of the Sabbath. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

SHMUEL HERZFELD: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: We do want to talk about transitions, but we cannot ignore the horrific violence in Israel and Palestine in the Palestinian territories. And it's been affecting many people here in this country and certainly sort of there. And many people have relatives in both places. And I just wanted to ask how do you see your role at a time like this? Is it to comfort the people closest to you - the people you know? Do you feel - is it to offer some other voice or vision of how to be in the world? What's your job at a time like this?

HERZFELD: I take it very personally, and I feel that I have two roles here. First, you know, there is - obviously whenever an innocent person dies, it's a tremendous tragedy. But I feel closest to those who are my own family. And it's a time for me to be with my family. And I have many brothers and sisters and relatives in the land of Israel who I feel at one with. And so it's my time to stand in solidarity.

But second, on a more global sense, I have a responsibility as a faith leader, as a religious leader, to speak in a voice of universality - to speak about common values that we share together, to speak about speaking against efforts to dehumanize people. And when there's violence, the worst side of people's rhetoric comes out. We have to try and remind our friends and our congregations that now is the time to speak in a voice of God and remember that the fundamental teaching of religion is that we're all created in the image of God.

MARTIN: What do you feel - we call this segment Faith Matters, and you have been very kind to join us for that segment a number of times over the years. I mean, in part, you know, explaining customs, practices and beliefs and also just to share some wisdom from your faith perspective. Why do you think faith matters? I go back to the ongoing violence. And for some people, this is a sign where faith is destructive as a force because this, you know, these conflicts are obviously animated in some ways by faith, by religious beliefs and commitments. There's obviously politics involved. But some people say this is why faith shouldn't matter as much. And I wanted to give you an opportunity to tell me why you think it does or why it should.

HERZFELD: Well, I think this is exactly why we need your show, Michel. And why we need more of your shows in this world because you have taken an approach to faith which is so much different than what I see out there in the media. You're trying to not caricaturize faith and to really understand why it's so meaningful to so many people.

We are not going to get anywhere in the world by saying, oh, this is the problem with faith. Faith is so important to so many people, especially in the Middle East. I believe deeply that peace will only come to that area when leaders of faith are able to speak to each other and build common ground. And so it's all the more reason why we have to get together with faith leaders who speak a common language.

Recently in downtown, D.C., I was able to gather with many other leaders of different faiths and speak about a common cause and common grounds and remind ourselves as people of faith - of different faiths - what unites us is so much greater than what divides us. And these are messages that we've said in the past. But we need to keep saying it especially, especially when there's violence in the world.

MARTIN: How can other people do that? I mean, I would - you know, you are a leader. You know, you are entrusted by your training and by the confidence of your faith group to lead on their behalf, but how about other people? If they feel themselves moved to try to have that kind of conversation, how can they? Is there a way they could do that? What should other people do?

HERZFELD: Well, I - you know, Michel, you know this better than anybody. When it comes to activism, think globally and act locally. I think every single word matters when everybody has social media. What we say, even a flippant comment, is really important. And it matters on Facebook and Twitter. And how we carry ourselves is out there forever. And that's an important thing to remember.

So I appreciate you calling me a leader, but it starts - everybody is a leader of one. And it starts that way. And if your voice is - if you take yourself seriously, as we all should, then we'll start speaking a language that's responsible. It's also a language that's welcoming and inviting rather than a language of hate.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Senior Rabbi of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue here in Washington, D.C. We've turned to him a number of times over the years for contributions to our Faith Matter conversations.

I wanted to switch it around and talk a little bit about transitions. You know, this is a time of transition, you know, for us. And I'm assuming, you know - for many people are going through transitions - whoever is hearing us. And I just wondered if you had some wisdom about how to handle a transition? Is there some scripture or something that you return to time and time again that helps you counsel people or think through these matters in your own life?

HERZFELD: Well, it's not my wisdom, but there is the wisdom of the Talmud. And I - when we sit here today in this wonderful audience, and I have all of these memories of all the great shows that I've heard and all the teachings you've given me and all of the groundbreaking approaches to media that I've seen from this show, I'm reminded of the teaching from the Talmud - from the book of Ethics Of Our Fathers.

(Hebrew spoken) Which means, in Hebrew, it means it is not your responsibility to complete the task, but yet you are not free from beginning it. And that means that all of us have a job in this world. None of us are going to complete the job. None of us are going to finish our task, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't start it. And it doesn't mean we shouldn't recognize that even though we have not completed our task, we accomplished amazing things. So the first step in a transition is to take the context, look back at what we've done. For example, on the show, it's accomplished amazing things over seven years. And now it's on for the next step.

We - over the past seven years, we've done amazing things here. I - if you'll allow me the privilege of including myself in this group - but we've done amazing things. We've talked about issues in a serious way. We brought in voices that have not been heard before, and we've moved people. But we have a lot more to do.

MARTIN: Is it true that seven is a number of some spiritual importance? Is that true or is that one of those myths that we just keep - we just put on the calendar and take off...

HERZFELD: It is. It is absolutely true. Seven is the most important number in the Jewish faith. Seven is a spiritual number for many different reasons. And seven is, by far, the most important number. Seven is the Sabbath. Seven is the sabbatical year. All these are biblical ideas. So without question, there's a mystical element here, Michel.

MARTIN: (Laughing) Oh, well, good - maybe there's something here. We'll hold onto that. Do you have any final words of wisdom - not just for us but for other people who may be undergoing times of transition?

I'm thinking - also it gives - as you said, you know, there's so much going on in the world, and it can sometimes be hard to know how much time to apportion to one's own pains and struggles and then you - while still being mindful of what else is going on in the world. I don't know. I'm not giving you a lot to work with here. So just, you know, take it and run with it. Go wherever you want to go with that.

HERZFELD: Michel, you've given us an enormous amount - over of the past seven years - you've given us an enormous amount to work with. And the basic - I think the basic message of religion - one of the reasons why it's so important is it's here to inspire us. It's here to remind us of who we are.

One of the fundamental teachings of the Bible is that God created us in God's image, and God wouldn't have created us in a bad image. So therefore, each of us are great. Each of us have a purpose. Each of us has a mission, and everybody who's been involved with this show has been involved in an amazing mission. And we have a lot more to do. But our mission is to spread the fundamental core values of the show - which is that we want to tell me more. We want to hear more. We want to listen. We want to be a part of the story, of the narrative and building it together. That's my blessing to you and to your staff and to your wonderful team together.

MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the Senior Rabbi at Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue based here in Washington, D.C. He's also the author of a number of books. I'm sorry I didn't think to mention that - but a regular contributor to our Faith Matters conversations. Rabbi, thank you so much for being with us. And thank you for your contributions to this program through that - I now understand - spiritually important seven years. Thanks you so much.

HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.