May 8, 2024
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Tribute to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, z”l

Senator Joseph Lieberman, z”l, and Rabbi Daniel Cohen.

This eulogy was given at Senator Lieberman’s funeral on Friday, March 29.

We have heard stirring tributes to Sen. Joseph Lieberman this morning from his family whom he loved so dearly and Sens. Blumenthal, Murphy and Dodd and Gov. Lamont, a spectrum of people reflecting on his personal and public personas. To the senator’s everlasting credit and our benefit, the personas are one.

One of the greatest accolades for a human being is that their inside is like their outside. Senator Joe walked with the world with dignity, grace, faith, courage, honesty, kindness, and love with his effervescent smile in all spheres of his life. Whether as a husband, father, grandfather, statesman, senator and friend to all and stranger to no one.

I want to begin by offering a prayer. Judaism teaches us that Senator Joe’s soul is very much present this morning. He is here. The body is only a vessel but the soul is eternal. No matter how much we say about Sen. Joseph Lieberman, it will never be enough to capture the fact that he was an angel among men.

Yet, the greatest honor we can pay him is not in words alone but in deeds. When we leave today, will we have been transformed in some way by the life and legacy of Sen. Joseph Lieberman?

His soul is like a flame and this morning, we are fueling his light. I pray that when we rise in a number of minutes, we can rise not only in body but in spirit. I pray that the words we heard this morning and that I am about to share which come from the heart enter yours and the legacy of Sen. Lieberman will leave an indelible impact on us personally and as a nation.

I am speaking this morning on behalf of our beloved shul Agudath Sholom, the city of Stamford, the Jewish people and citizens of our country. I am not a family member nor an elected official but his rabbi, one of many, and friend of Senator Joe, a remarkable human being. He was one of the rarest souls who is so universally and deeply admired and loved because he lived a few inches off the ground.

Yes, he was born in Stamford in 1942 to his beloved parents Marcia and Henry, whom he loved and admired so deeply, he had his bar mitzvah at Agudath Sholom, attended Stamford High and then Yale but throughout his life did not lose sight of his spirit.

He was not fully of this world. He never wavered from the mission for which God sent his holy soul to this earth. All of the accolades we are hearing from his family, friends, politicians, world leaders and humanity from every walk of life are a reflection of the fact that he never confused his role with his soul. He was endowed with a Divine spark like all of us. To his everlasting credit and our eternal benefit, he lived with a higher purpose and walked this world with humility and grace.

Leading with your soul and not your body as Senator Joe did is life’s greatest challenge but the rewards for are enormous. When we do not simply exist but seek to live with transcendence, joy, courage, love, kindness and purpose, our souls are on fire. Joe Lieberman lived this life in spades.

He shared with me and today with all of us: “Navigating life with clarity of purpose is not easy but the rewards for leading a life of legacy are enormous. Imagine for a moment if we lived our lives with the awareness of the eternal resonance of our words. Imagine if we harnessed all of our potential every day to improve ourselves, families, community and the world. Leading our lives in tune with this higher calling would infuse our nation with greater civility, unity, happiness, kindness, honesty and realized personal potential.”

As Sen. Lieberman ascends to Heaven, we believe God will ask him four questions. These are the four questions that God will ask each and everyone of us, a litmus test for leading a life of legacy.

The first question is whether you are devoted to your family.

The second question is whether you were devoted to your faith.

The third question is whether you were a person of honesty and integrity.

The final question is whether you never lost faith in the possibility of making the world a better and brighter place.

Sen. Lieberman can answer in the most profound ways — amen, amen, amen and amen.

For the senator, for your father and grandfather and our friend, he was given a Divine kiss at birth. His name, which we believe reflects the essence of his soul, served as a navigational guide for his life. He was named Joseph, reminiscent not only of his grandfather Joseph but of the biblical figure.

As the biblical Joseph, Sen. Lieberman was a man of deep faith. According to Jewish mysticism, Joseph composed the words of Psalm 23, “Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.” He shared with me that his prayers in the morning, afternoon and evening anchored him throughout the day. Rather than ask what I want, he asked as often as he could what God does God want of me. As a man of faith, he fortified our community and people of all faiths to stay true to tradition while embracing modernity. I have heard story after story of how his presence inspires generations of Jews. Even a wink from Joe made a difference.

A recent visitor to Stamford told me, “I will never forget, when I was at a rally for Sen. Lieberman when he was running for vice president, I was the only person with a yarmulke. I caught the senator’s eyes and he winked at me. It was a gesture of affirmation of my Judaism that was unforgettable.” Walking to Congress for a vote, observing kashrut, wearing his yarmulke, is nothing short of the embodiment of the Abrahamic mission not to isolate but elevate our world.

Secondly, like his namesake, Sen. Lieberman was a man of deep principles. He lived by the motto of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who risked his own life to save the lives of thousands of refugees during the Holocaust. “I would rather stand with God against man than man against God.”

Sen. Lieberman drew his strength by emulating the Biblical Joseph. He made God his copilot, answering “thank God” when asked how he was doing and “God willing” when asked about his plans.

In a world increasingly devoid of faith and infused with moral relativism, Sen. Lieberman’s own words must serve as a guiding light for all of us. Now more than ever, he would not cower in the face of pressure but speak strongly of the unbreakable bond between America and Israel and our shared values. When reflecting on his choices, he shared, “When I decide a course of action, it is not for fear of failure. If I lose because I stood for my beliefs, I will always be at peace. I never want to be remembered for playing life safe, I want to be remembered for doing what was right.”

Thirdly, like the biblical Joseph, Joe saw the face of God in another human being. He understood that with a few words you may not be able to change the world but you can change the world of one person. When the Biblical Joseph chooses not to lament his fate while in the dungeon but turns to the butler and baker and asks how they are doing, he changes his destiny and the future of the Jewish people.

I would venture that anyone here who spent any time with the senator felt he was your friend. He would pray, drink scotch, enjoy a good kiddush, offer advice, mentorship, and simply listen, say hello. He was truly a stranger to no one. He saw the Divine in everyone he met regardless of background, faith or political opinion. He walked with humility.

He drew his inspiration from his faith which describes the greatest intellectual adversaries

Hillel and Shamai who battled it out in the Talmud yet whose children married each other. We are all here today, Democrats and Republicans, Independents, to honor a man who believed in the unifying values and vision of our country.

May we hearken to the words offered by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the invitation of Sen. Lieberman in 2011. “Guide the nations of the world, to honor You by honoring one another. So that by reaching out in love, we may turn enemies into friends, and become your family on earth as You are our parent in heaven.”

Finally and perhaps most importantly, legacy starts and ends with family. Joe first and foremost placed family at the center of his universe as we heard so movingly from Matt, Rebecca, Ethan and Hani. Hadassah, our hearts are with you. Your love of Joe and his of you is eternal and we are all embracing you and wishing you so much strength and comfort. In one of the most

poignant scenes in Genesis, the Biblical Joseph merits not only to raise his children but his grandchildren. Joe saw and knew his grandchildren. Each one of you, Nesya and Willie, Maddy and Camilla, Eden, Yitzchak and Yoav, Akiva, Binyomin, Meir, Avrohom Shmuel, Shlomo and Nava Elka are tasked with carrying your grandfather’s legacy forward.

What you may not realize is that he was tasked by his grandmother to do the same. When speaking with Sen. Lieberman about his life, he told me that while at Yale he struggled with remaining an observant Jew. When his grandmother died, he shared, “I experienced a feeling that now that she was gone, the chain in Jewish history was no longer there and that I now had a choice to put myself in the chain and be part of the future. I was compelled to return.”

In this spirit, as Joe physically leaves this earth, we are compelled to put ourselves in the chain and be part of the future. The void in our community, our city, our country, Israel and the world is deep. Yet, we can amplify Sen. Lieberman’s light and be part of a better future.

Let us not leave today only saying we were at the funeral of a remarkable human being. Let us pause and recommit to his values. Our lives matter. Joe believed his life, the imprint of his soul, on earth mattered. God willing, if we refortify our commitment to the values of family, faith, Israel, courage, coupled with a willingness to take the road less traveled and seeing the face of God in every human being as Joe did, we will all make a difference and merit a time soon of greater unity, peace, humility and inspired living.

May the memory of Sen. Joseph Isadore Lieberman be a blessing always.

Rabbi Daniel Cohen is the senior rabbi of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford.

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