Category Archives: Baltimore

The Gift

It was a beautiful silver kiddish cup, contemporary in design.  They gave it to me as a gift, hoping to thank me for some help I had given them.  Their son had maintained a long running feud with them, not even speaking with them for a number of years.  They had come to see me about it before, desperate for any suggestion that might help things improve.  In reality I didn’t do anything new.  Just a simple, logical suggestion that I think I had made to them before.  This time, for whatever reason, it worked.  The lines of communication opened, the relationship began to heal, the skies brightened.  They were so grateful, and the kiddish cup was just a token of that gratitude.  Would I please accept it?

I loved that kiddish cup.  I often used it on holidays, and it brought an added sense of sanctity to our table.  Hiddur mitzvah is a term the rabbis often use – the beautification of a mitzvah.  You can fulfill the mitzvah of kiddish using a paper cup to hold your wine, or a beer stein for that matter.  But a nice kiddish cup adds to the sense of doing the mitzvah right.  And a beautiful kiddush cup?  A gorgeous kiddish cup?  Sterling silver, carved design, polished and shined – now that is the proper way to say kiddish on a Yom Tov eve!

But things went awry.  The son became angry with his parents again, the relationship soured in the course of a year’s time.  He dropped out of their lives entirely, moved away, and they weren’t even sure where he was living.  To make matters worse, the parents were upset with me.  They felt I had sided with their son, that I had perhaps even encouraged him to sever the relationship.  It wasn’t true, but the idea was formed in their minds.  It was bad enough the rabbi had failed them, but he had also, in their eyes, betrayed them.

The kiddush cup sat on a shelf.  The sense of sanctity it had once contained seemed diminished.  Instead of reminding me of my great wisdom, of my rabbinic gravitas, it instead brought to my mind my foibles and failures, my inadequacies, both personal and professional.  The object itself hadn’t changed – it was just as beautiful as ever.  But it was tainted, no longer holy, no longer fit for use.

And yet I keep it.  I glance at it now and again.  Sometimes I even pick it up, remembering how the cold silver felt when the cup was filled with sweet wine.  I wonder if it will ever become sacred again.  Is there some way to repurpose it, to metaphorically smelt it into liquid silver and create it from scratch so that it no longer contains its bitterness and complexity?

Only time will tell.  Perhaps in some future year the ragged harshness of it all will somehow fade away, and the cup will be restored (in my mind) to its former beauty.  But for now it sits quietly.  What did Cassius say to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar?  “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Act I scene ii)  I might say the same thing about my cup, which of course has done nothing wrong except to be freely given as a gift.

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Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, dysfunctional family, holidays, Jewish life, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Shakespeare, Uncategorized

Summer Reading List 2017

Enjoy the books!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  Roz Chast – Chast, a cartoonist at the New Yorker for years, published this graphic novel in 2014.  It is a poignant and brutally honest confrontation with what it means to age, and what it means to care for aging parents.  And it is definitely presented through a Jewish lens.  228 pages, and the first time a graphic novel has made the list.

The Handmaid’s Tale  Margaret Atwood – This chilling novel from 1986 describes a world where women have been subjected to a secondary role in society, where fundamentalist religion rules, and where the elected United States government has been forcibly removed via a military coup.  To read it today is to understand how great fiction both unpacks the past and warns about the future. 300 pages (give or take!)

American War Omar El Akkad – The second dystopian novel on this year’s list.  El Akkad’s debut work of fiction explores a near future where a second American civil war between blue and red states takes place.  If our partisan political divisions grow even greater, if terrorism becomes a regular occurrence on American soil, if climate change continues to escalate, what will our world look like?  El Akkad has created a stunning vision of one possible answer to that question.  333 pages

Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance – Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Vance writes movingly about the world he grew up in, the culture that defined it, and the experience of watching that world slowly but surely fade away.  This book explores the dynamics of the poor, white, working class world in rural America at a time when its culture is in crisis.  260 pages

All Creatures Great and Small James Herriot – This beloved book from 1972 takes you back to a simpler time.  The author chronicles his ‘adventures’ as a veterinarian in the remote Yorkshire Dales, tending to the various animals (and sometimes humans) who need his help.  It is a powerful page by page reminder of the great beauty that exists in God’s world that we all too often fail to see. 425 pages

Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders – In this debut novel a grief stricken Abraham Lincoln visits the grave of his recently deceased 11 year old son Willie.  While in the cemetery he encounters the ghosts of others who are buried there, and listens to their life stories told from beyond the grave.  The novel is a meditation on national loss and an acknowledgment of the pain and heartbreak that are inevitable components of living a human life.  343 pages

Measure for Measure William Shakespeare – This late comedy explores themes of justice, mortality, and mercy, as well as the fine line that sometimes exists between corruption and purity.  The line “some rise by sin, some by virtue fall” (Act ii scene 1) reads as fresh and contemporary commentary given today’s political climate.

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Some Election Thoughts – or Maybe Not

This is one of those Shabbats where a rabbi is darned if he does, and darned if he doesn’t, if you know what I mean.  If I decide not to talk about the election some of you will be happy, probably feeling, as my wife Becky warned me, just simply exhausted from the whole business, and not wanting to hear any more about it.  On the other hand, some of you will be upset, wondering why I chose not to deal with what without question is a significant moment in the history of our country.  That being said, if I decide to talk about the election those of you who don’t want to hear about it will be disgruntled, while others might not like what I have to say.  As I said, darned if I do, darned if I don’t.

It is perhaps no coincidence that we are reading Parshat Lech Lecha this week, the Torah portion that tells of God’s initial call to Abraham and the beginning of his journey.  I often think of how Abraham must have felt during those moments.  First going to Sarah, and saying to her ‘we have to pack, we are going to leave the one place we’ve ever known.’  They readied their possessions, took their nephew Lot, their flocks and herds, their servants.  And then a morning came, and as the sun began to rise, Abraham turned his back on the dawn and looked into the darkness of the distant west.  He looked out at that moment on an unknown future, and I imagine he was filled with trepidation, wondering what would happen in the course of his journey.

And there are many Americans this week who feel much like Abraham did so long ago, looking out on an unknown future with trepidation, wondering what that new landscape will mean to their lives, to their families, to their country.  The simple truth at this point is that no one knows what the future will hold – if the election taught us anything, it surely should have taught us that.  And one of the striking things about the Abraham narrative is that as unsure as he was of his future, he stepped out into it boldly, and with faith.  I don’t think that was because he believed it was going to be easy, and in fact we know, because we know his entire story, that he would have more than his fair share of trials and tribulations along the way.  Instead I think that Abraham was able to begin that journey, take that first step, because he knew he was not taking it alone.  He had Sarah with him.  God also was with him.  He was not alone.

Neither are we.  We will travel the next years together, together with our families, together with our friends, and together as a sacred community, as a congregation.  We will share the road with our fellow travelers, some of whom we agree with, some of whom we disagree with, some of whom make us a bit crazy, some of whom we’ve known for years, some of whom we’ve just met.  But all of whom we care about, all of whom we will support and respect.  Our journey will not be physical the way Abraham’s was, but Abraham’s journey was also, and perhaps more so, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, and it was also a journey of personal growth.  And God willing that is the kind of journey we will all be blessed with in the months and years ahead.

Of course we have a say in that, we have the ability to at least in part determine our own destinies, the quality of the journey we take.  That is one of the chidushim, the new ideas, that Abraham brought into the world as the first Jew, and over time that idea would grow into one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world.  Our actions matter, they make a difference in our own lives, and even in the world we live in.  The classic commentators note that Abraham is the first person in the entire Bible to call God by the name Adonai, a name we still use for God today.  It happens in this morning’s Torah portion, toward the end of the sedra, in the context of a conversation that Abraham has with God.  God assures Abraham that he will one day be in possession of the land of Israel, Abraham responds to God by saying this:  Adonai Elohim, במה עדה כי אירשנה  – literally, how will I know that I will possess it?  But you can hear in Abraham’s address to God the word Adonai – the very first time it is used by a human in the Bible.

What does the term mean, literally translated, the word Adonai?  Literally translated it means ‘my Lord.’  Lord in the sense of a master, like in the Middle Ages, the Lord of the Manor.  And the Talmud teaches that Abraham uses this term for God intentionally because he had an insight that no other person had had, namely that religion, at least Judaism, is less concerned with belief in God, and more concerned with serving God, with doing God’s work.  And so Abraham called God Adonai – my master, my Lord – the One I will serve.

And that is something I’ve come to understand over the last few days.  My service of God is not dependent upon who sits in the Oval Office.  It is something that is independent of politics, or elections, or the way the country may or may not be divided ideologically.  The issues I care about, the concerns that I have, the way that I live Jewishly, the mitzvoth that I engage in, would remain the same regardless of what state I lived in, what country I lived in, or who the leader of that country was.  These come out of my understanding of what kind of world God wants us to build together, and what my role in that building process is, and what responsibilities are incumbent upon me in terms of living a committed Jewish life.

For me that is a fairly long list.  It includes rituals I engage in every day, like tallit and tefillin and daily prayer.  It includes study of our sacred texts and traditions.  The celebration of Shabbat and the festivals.  And it also includes heeding the words of the great prophet Isaiah, to care about the downtrodden, to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to stand up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in our world, to ensure that hateful speech and hateful actions are not tolerated, and to cry out when any one group – whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender oriented –  is singled out because it is different.  And my service of God consists of some complicated stew of all of those things, the values and the practices and the traditions and the texts and the ideals that together make up a full and meaningful Jewish life.

As presidents come and go, as congressional seats change hands, as stentorian senators speak, my sense of what it means to serve God stays the same.  In that I take comfort – this week, in all the weeks gone by, and in all the weeks yet to come.  There is much work to do to make this a Godlike world, as there was, as there always will be.  And I have a responsibility to engage in that work, as I always have.  To paraphrase the great words of our sages, I don’t have to finish the job myself, but I am not permitted to walk away from it either.

So there you have it.  Darned if I did, darned if I didn’t.  In a way I suppose I did both.   Or maybe neither – you’ll tell me.

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23,500 Words

Just one way of telling the tale of my last 6 weeks or so.  Here is how I arrived at that number:  5 High Holiday sermons, about 1800 words each (a total of 9,000 words);  3 Shabbat sermons and 1 Sukkoth sermon, about 1200 words each (4,800 total);  7 eulogies, some 1,10o words each (7,700);  plus 8 ‘bar/bat mitzvah charges’ which come in around 250 words each (total of 2,000) – all of which adds up to 23,500.

A lot of words, any way you slice it.  The average number of words on the page of an average book is 250.  So the 23,500 words I’ve written over the last weeks would make the first 94 pages of a book.  What tale would those 94 pages tell?

Perhaps a bit about the times we live in, the anxious state of our nation, weary of a bitter (and long!) election process, fearful of clouds that grow darker on the horizon.  Maybe a thing or two about the state of Jewish life in America in 2016, its challenges and bounteous blessings.  Certainly the narrative of the lives of those whom I eulogized, the habits and hobbies, quirks and passions, connections and professions that made up their lives.  A few things about the b’nai mitzvah, just beginning their journeys, looking out on a future that is bright and filled with possibility.

And also, I suppose, reading carefully, a thing or two about me.  In part what has been on my mind, what were the thoughts that were nudging me in the fall of 2016, my concerns, worries, interests, and opinions.  But also who I am.  I hope that too comes through in all of those words, the thousands upon thousands of keyboard strokes, the verbs and nouns and adjectives, the sentences and paragraphs, the metaphors and textual references.

You know the old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words.  That would make 23 and a half pictures.  Maybe it is time to take up painting!

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Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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Your Choice

This a text version of my Kol Nidre sermon from 5777 –

Our cool fall weather is reminding me very much of the HHDs of my youth in upstate New York, and going to services at the small Reform synagogue where my family belonged.  Kol Nidre night was a special night for me.  My mother would stay home with my little sister and brother, and my dad and I would walk to shul, just a few short blocks from where we lived.  When the service was over we would walk home together along the quiet streets, able to see our breath in the crisp air and truly feel the beginning of a new year.

Just this past Shabbat I marked the 39th anniversary of my bar mitzvah, celebrated at that Temple which was the focal point of my family’s Jewish life.  A small synagogue bar mitzvah is very different than it is at Beth El.  I studied one on one with my rabbi to prepare, meeting with him weekly in his office.  My synagogue had an unusual tradition in terms of how the Torah was read.  We did not learn to chant the text, we just read the Hebrew word by word.  But we were required as we read to translate into English.  From the Torah itself!  This meant that I understood every word that I read from the Torah 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah, and still to this day many of those phrases stand out in my mind.

The most memorable of them all comes from the end of the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy.  It is a well known verse, and you may recognize it.  I’ll read it the way I did 39 years ago at my bar mitzvah:  העידותי בכם היום – I call to witness against  you this day –   את השמים ואת הארץ – the Heavens and the Earth – החיים והמות – life and death – …- ובחרת בחיים – and you shall choose life!  I can assure you that 39 years ago when I read those words from the Torah I had no idea I would one day be a rabbi, but those are the words – particularly that last phrase – ובחרת בחיים – choose life!  that I would like to talk about with you this sacred Kol Nidre eve.

Certainly the idea of choosing is something we encounter every single day as we are constantly surrounded and confronted by choices.  Have you been down the aisles at Wegmans? They’re just endless. Paper or plastic for your groceries? But bring your own if you’re an environmentalist. Been to Starbucks lately? There are at least 20 different ways to order a cup of coffee. Walk into a liquor store and it seems you can find a single malt from every town and village in Scotland. If you want to order new sneakers on Nike’s website, there’s an almost infinite  – and I mean that literally – infinite number of combinations from which you can choose.  And if you’ve tried surfing to watch something on TV, you’ve had the experience of navigating hundreds and hundreds of available channels.

But while we may find all those material choices either liberating or frustrating, they are nothing like the Torah’s call to choose life. Why would the Torah need to tell us that in the first place?  It seems obvious – almost everyone is going to choose life!  And what exactly does that mean, to choose life, how do we do that?  I think there’s a vital message or two in the Torah’s words not normally on our minds, but worthy of consideration this KN eve.

Think, for a moment of the ancient Greeks, contemporaries of that Deuteronomy text.  Their idea was that every facet of our lives is predetermined, that the gods or blind fate controlled the destiny of each person, and that regardless of how hard you try, regardless of the choices you make, there’s nothing you can do about it.  Remember the story of Oedipus – he did everything in his power to prevent himself from killing his father, but in the end it happened anyway, because it had been decreed by fate.  This idea of the inevitability of life’s direction can also be seen in  Freud’s belief that our inner drives and urges control us.  In modern times the same argument continues, with geneticists who claim that our destiny is determined exclusively by our genes, that every decision we make and action we take is predetermined by our DNA, by our genetic code.

But Judaism says no.  In fact, precisely the opposite is true.  We have freewill.  We can choose our course of action, and when we do, we can control our own destiny.  That’s precisely the point of the Book of Jonah that we’ll read tomorrow afternoon. And I think that’s why the Sages chose it as the very last scriptural text we encounter, as the sun sets on yet another HHD season we’ve been granted.  The people of Nineveh are examples of the power of human freewill to change an apparently predetermined destiny.  When the book begins the Ninevites are doomed.  God has decreed that the entire city will be destroyed, in fact, Jonah’s mission is to tell them that they are about to die – עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת – in forty days time Nineveh will be destroyed! That they as individuals and the society and culture they’ve created are doomed.

But the people of Nineveh choose a different path. They fast. They turn aside from their sins. They cry out to God, weep in the streets, d0 everything in their power to repent.  And the choices they make, change the decree.  Some of you remember the Santana hit song from 1969 – “You’ve got to change your evil ways!”  That’s what the Ninevites did  – and they chose well, because it worked, and they and the animals in their care were spared.

It’s exactly that challenge – and that opportunity – that the tradition puts before us each year on the HHDs.  It reminds us that we can choose, that we do have power, and that the choices we make can have a real impact on our lives, on the lives of those we love, and on the world beyond.  Just as we can undo inappropriate vows on YK eve, we can correct unworthy actions each day of our lives.  And that’s one of the ways I understand the phrase from my bar mitzvah portion – choose life means that we can determine the kind of life we want to live, that we have a measure of control over who we are and what we do, and if we are not yet who we want to be, we can choose to be better.

But when the Torah says “choose life,” there’s an inherent question bound up in those words – what kind of life shall we choose?  If we have that power, if our choices do make a difference, what kind of life should we prefer, what choices should we make?  And what I would like to suggest this evening is that our options are not just about choosing a good life, doing the right thing, being a good person, kind and caring.  It’s more than that.  It’s choosing a particular kind of life.  It’s choosing a Jewish life.

I know that it’s not so simple to choose a Jewish life today.  We live in a  secular world, with all its demands, opportunities, temptations, challenges and yes, its attractive choices.  And often – more and more often, in fact – our secular lives come into conflict with our Jewish lives, presenting us with difficult challenges.  When Hebrew school conflicts with soccer practice, where should a parent choose to bring a child?  It is a choice.  When a yom tov day and a work day conflict, will it be work, or celebrating the holiday with family?  Should we engage in Jewish life, by choosing Jewish books to read, studying Jewish texts, celebrating Jewish holidays, contributing to Jewish charities, living by Jewish values?  Shall we make the  synagogue our spiritual home?

ובחרת בחיים – “and you shall choose life” means that also is our choice, and it is up to us to acknowledge the struggle in which we are engaged and to know when the choice for faith and tradition, for culture and values is the one we should be making. And we should not allow the onslaught of secularism to unravel the spiritual and cultural texture of our Jewish lives.  And maybe the beginning of a new year, maybe on a Yom Kippur, maybe on a cold Kol Nidre night, we can decide that in the year to come we’ll choose Jewishly more often.

Kol Nidre is a night of annulling vows and promises, but I want to make one promise tonight I think I can keep.  In all the choices that are ahead of us in the year to come, each time we choose Jewishly our lives will be enriched, our connection to our history and tradition will be strengthened, and we will grow in spirit and in soul.

May we do that together – as family, as friends, as a sacred community, in a sweet new year –

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Father and Son

IMG_3497 (1)It just happened to catch my eye. I was there to watch the synagogue’s Hebrew school choir. The children were performing at a nursing home (elderly care facility? supported living environment?). The residents gathered in the common room, eager for a change in their daily routine, happy to see the faces of children and to feel the energy and optimism of youth.

The children sang, so strikingly un-selfconcious. I stood at the back, leaning against the wall. Just in front of me was an old man sitting with his son. The ‘boy’ was probably in his mid 50s, gruff, tense, uncomfortable in his duty. He sat by his father’s side and his eyes darted around the room. I imagined he performs this task often, forces himself to walk through the doors, to find his father, to once again be confronted by the long years and inevitable wearing down of life, and perhaps even by his own future.

As the children sang the man reached over to take his father’s hand. There they sat, hand in hand, father and son. I was surprised by the tender gesture. What a powerful statement and striking promise! You are not alone. I am here with you, I care about you, I love you. I hope I can give you even a little bit of what you’ve given me all these long years.

Then another surprise. The children began to sing Oseh Shalom and I saw the man’s face soften. He held tighter to his father’s hand and his eyes moistened, just that welling up of some deep feeling made of memory and mystery. I turned away, not wanting him to suddenly realize a stranger was intruding on his private moment. The singing ended, the children said their goodbyes, giggling and smiling and shuffling their feet back and forth. As I turned to go I glanced one last time at the man. Still he held his father’s hand, and a sad smile rested on his lips. What the visit meant to his father. What the visit meant to him.

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