Do you know how many people die each day in the United States?
I didn’t either, but I guessed that the internet does. And sure enough, there’s something called the United States Death Clock.
Here’s what I learned: Outside of the influence of Covid, a person dies in the US every 11.14 seconds. Nationally, that adds up to about 7,755 people every day. In my state of Florida, the average daily total is 580.
When we deal with averages and statistics, the human truths behind them are hidden, out of sight. An entire lifetime is reduced to a number within a statistic. A whole person disappears into a crowd of others who died that day, that week, in that place.
That’s been the problem with the number of Covid deaths. When the total exceeds 500,000 (as it has) it simply becomes a number. Half a million. What does that even mean in real terms? It’s hard to grasp.
So too the number the Jewish community knows so well – six million. This is why every Holocaust survivor’s story is important. It humanizes that which is beyond human comprehension.
Instead of large numbers, what if we think about one person? One person who died this week, one family’s loss. Suddenly the abstract becomes real.
For example, one person who celebrated his birthday just four weeks ago. One person who died quietly in his bed this week, at home, of no specific illness.
One person who was born on March 25, 1920. Whose daughter said to me, “He’s not dying from cancer or another disease; he’s dying from being 101 years old.”
Sheldon Gensler was a lawyer, father of three, grandfather, Jewish. A normal, everyday man. You wouldn’t have given him a second glance walking down the street.
I think that’s true of most of us. We move through a fairly small series of circles during our lifetimes; family, school friends, adult friends, work colleagues. The circles change as we age and relocate to different places.
And each of us is extraordinary, each in our own way. With Sheldon Gensler, the man who I knew and who happened to die this week, it was his extraordinary love of Judaism and dedication to the Jewish community.
He started early; he led services in his home synagogue as a teen, and for his peers in the Navy during the second world war. He continued to preach and teach his entire life, although he never left his chosen field of the law.
He was the first president of the Sarasota Jewish Federation, and afterwards served on many committees there, which is how I met him when I moved to Sarasota 23 years ago to work for the Federation. We became friends, went to the same synagogue for years, and I thought the world of him. He could spin a story like no one else. He was wise, generous, and kind.
His family asked me to officiate at his funeral. When I visited his home to meet with them, the son took me into his office. Browsing through his extensive Jewish library, I picked up a book that had a bookplate with the name George Gordon. “Who is that?” I asked his son, who didn’t know.
But I do. Because that afternoon, reading an article from an old copy of the Jewish News about Sheldon, I found this quote: “My role model was my Hebrew High School principal, Dr. George Gordon, who taught us the importance of studying and following the Torah.”
His son had asked if I wanted the book, and I said yes, not knowing its provenance. Now that I do know, I am deeply moved to give it an honored place in my library. In keeping it, I will be honoring both my friend and his teacher, a man whom I never knew and yet who had a deep effect on the man I did know.
We live on a planet populated by billions.
People are born every day and people die every day. And most of us go on living our lives, not even noticing. But when we meet them one at a time and listen to their stories, we can learn extraordinary things, and be touched in extraordinary ways.
This is a revised version of the sermon I gave tonight at Congregation Kol HaNeshama.