General Douglas McArthur wrote the following spiritual legacy to his son, “Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget his past.”
I shared those words with Governor Mario Cuomo the last time I spoke with him at a public event. I told him that the word for inheritance in Hebrew has as its root the word for river because we believe that the real bequest of a parent to a child is not that which is transmitted upon death, but taught throughout life. Thus, Governor Mario Cuomo and his loving wife Matilda were able to see a living legacy of commitment to community pass from generation to generation. He taught us look forward, and still look back at a glorious past.
At the funeral, Governor Andrew Cuomo gave a most moving tribute in which he spoke of the love and respect of a child to a parent. I thought to myself that it is expected that parents are proud of their children. How touching it is when we hear children are proud of their parents. It is said that children want three things from their parents: “a hand to hold, a shoulder upon which to lean and above all an example from which to learn.”
When I spoke with the Governor at the wake of his father, I mentioned to him that we spend much time expanding our professional resumes, but ultimately our kids remember most, not the hours we spent in the office, but the concentrated hours we spent with them. As the late Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts said, “No one at the end of life ever says, I should have spent more time in the business.”
His wife, Matilda, reminded me of her husband’s close friend, the man the Roman Catholic Governor called his rabbi, Israel Mowshowitz, my predecessor at the New York Board of Rabbis, and Cuomo’s neighbor in Queens–who was the pulpit rabbi at the Hillcrest Jewish Center and the first Jewish community liaison appointed by a governor in the State. Cuomo gave him the title of special assistant for community affairs in the governor’s office, where he negotiated issues between the state and religious groups. The widow told me how much they miss the good rabbi, and how closely intertwined their families still are.
The Governor’s funeral was both simple and elegant, personal, and yet, far reaching. I think that each of us attending the funeral hoped that our children would speak of us one day with the depth of love expressed at the service. Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Schumer came to the wake; Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill DeBlasio were at the funeral, as were the Clintons and other dignitaries…as well as the working people of New York that he cared about so much.
It is said that at the end of our lives, the question will not be how much have we taken, but how much have we given, not how much have we saved, but how much have we served because the real measure of life is not duration, but rather donation.”
As Governor Andrew Cuomo said of his father, who passed just hours after his son was sworn in for a second term: “For Mario Cuomo, the purpose of life was clear–to help those in need and leave the world a better place–Mathew 25. Tikkun Olam, to heal the divide. Tzedakah, to do justice. It’s that simple and yet that profound. It’s that easy, and yet that hard. By any measure, Mario Cuomo’s voice inspired generations, his government initiatives helped millions live better lives; he left the world better than he found it. His list of opponents goes on and on. Leading opponent of the death penalty, electing the first African American to the Court of Appeals. His Liberty Scholarship Programs. His pioneering child health insurance program. A leader in AIDS treatment research.
“New York is a better state thanks to Mario Cuomo.”
The world is a better place thanks to Mario Cuomo. I believe that the lasting legacy of Governor Mario Cuomo is that we should always have hope in a great tomorrow–remembering how he pulled the city together in the worst of times, and that we should have pride in glorious past accomplishments.
We will find that vision when parents and children walk together with love for and loyalty to one another.
By Rabbi Joseph Potasnik
(Executive Director of the New York Board of Rabbis, special to JLNJ)