Each year at the Rabbinical Council of America convention, an award is given to a chaplain. To be honest, it has never been the highlight of the gathering for me. A few years ago, however, I was grateful to be present when the award was given to Rav Zvi Karpel. When he accepted the award, he described what had driven him to work in chaplaincy. His words moved me to tears and touched me deeply.
“And I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great… v’heye beracha.”
In a world of paganism, idolatry and moral depravity, Avraham discovered and chose God and now, in our parsha, at the age of 75 the Almighty reciprocates and chooses Avraham. Hashem promises if you come with Me, leave your homeland, your father’s house and all you know, I will make you a great nation and shower you with beracha, blessing.
Hashem’s proposal to Avraham concludes with an interesting phrase – וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה. It can’t mean “and you will be blessed” because Hashem has just told him, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, “I will bless you.” So what does it mean?
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “It does not say והיית ברכה, or ותהיה ברכה, but והיה ברכה, become a blessing. In these two words the whole moral task is summarized… All others strive, not להיות ברכה to be a blessing, but להיות ברוכים, to be blessed.”
With this charge, Hashem was not only promising Avraham that he would be blessed, but at the same time was challenging Avraham to take the richness of his experience, to learn from his own story and to use it to become a blessing for others. Others pursue being blessed, satisfying their wants and needs and finding their own happiness. To be progeny of Avraham is to take whatever blessing we have and to pursue becoming a blessing in other people’s lives, using it to help others find happiness.
This, in fact, was the true test of לך לך , go forth. The journey was not a geographical one but an existential one. The destination was not a physical address but a journey of self-discovery – לך, go. Where? לך, to who you are meant to be.
Hashem was challenging Avraham and all of us – reflect on your life, identify your talents and skills, and contemplate the lessons you have learned from your life experiences, and then pay it forward. Become a blessing. Help others and enhance their lives.
When accepting his award, Rabbi Karpel shared the following (shared here with his permission):
I lost my father when I was five and a half years old. This coming yahrzeit will mark his 60th. Put in other terms, by the time I was Bar Mitzvah, I had been saying yizkor for half of my life. My mother z”l raised me on her own. She herself became seriously ill my junior year in high school, and passed away my sophomore year in college. I relate these events because in retrospect, I feel that losing both my parents as I did had a tremendous impact on my life and my decision making.
I grew up in Rockville Centre, New York, a town on Long Island void of any Orthodox presence. I attended the public schools there, and received my religious education at an afternoon Hebrew school in the Conservative synagogue. My first real exposure to Orthodoxy was spending a Shabbos at my Kitah Bet teacher’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens.
For college studies, I went away to the State University of New York at Albany. It was that fall that I decided to become Shomer Shabbos, at least as far as I knew how to be one. I emerged as one of five yamulka-wearing students on a campus that arguably boasted 4,000-5000 Jewish students.
I knew that I needed a plan as to what I was going to do after graduation. Since my yiddishkeit is what most prominently drove my thoughts, feelings and actions, I decided I wanted to become a Rabbi. In addition, I realized that having never gone to yeshiva, I needed to accelerate my Jewish education, so I decided to go to learn in Israel. When I returned here to the States, I was accepted into the semicha program at RIETS. Overlapping with the learning in the yeshiva, I matriculated into the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and earned my MSW in conjunction with my semicha.
After working as a social worker for a couple of years in a day program for a Jewish nursing home, I began working as the full-time Rabbi at the Daughters of Israel. There I have remained for the last 32-plus years.
If I were to relate to you the single most significant aspect of my work, I would say it’s providing the spiritual and pastoral care to family members when their loved one is dying. In thinking way back to the experience with my own mother, I can tell you that when I heard her voice over the telephone and sensed she was close to the end, without hesitation I made the decision to leave the university to be with her. It turned out that I was to be at her bedside for her last week.
In reflecting back on that time, I know that I could have really used the support of a chaplain; I also know that I was not only a son at the bedside, I was my mother’s chaplain, walking with her during her final journey. The Shulchan Aruch tells us in hilchos kibbud av v’aim, “Chayav l’chvodo, afilu achar moso”. A person is obligated to honor one’s parents, even once they have passed. I would like to think that my work with residents and their family members at the end of life provides some measure of kavod to my parents, may their memories be blessed.
Rabbi Karpel was orphaned at a young age. He could have reflected on his life experience with a sense of bitterness, anger and resentment. Instead, he decided to become a blessing. He recognized that his personal experiences positioned him to help others and provide for them what he didn’t have. For over 32 years, countless families at Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center in West Orange, New Jersey had support, love, guidance and help when their loved one was transitioning to the next world.
For all of them, Rabbi Karpel is a blessing. היה ברכה – look at your life and figure out how you can become someone else’s blessing.