Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
My grandfather was my Google before there was an internet. Luis Gutierrez
First, some context. This Luis Gutierrez is not the congressman from Illinois.
Joe Schifrin thought he would be a bachelor his entire life. He was especially devoted to his elderly mother despite the fact that his childhood had not been a halcyon time. Later in life, he met Nancy, and before they married, she embraced the Judaism that was so important to him. Nancy’s daughter had a complicated life, so when her two oldest children were still little, Joe and Nancy took them in and raised them as their own. So there was Joe – just a few years earlier quietly resigned to life as a single man now raising grandchildren he hardly knew.
I know it was not always easy for Joe. Though he was possessed of a gentle demeanor, he never had a good role model for dealing with frustration. I was the family rabbi, and Joe and I had many discussions about childrearing. He was reluctant to believe he was doing as good a job as I assured him.
Luis is one of those children. His gentle and beautiful sister Jacqueline died tragically young as his grandmother Nancy declined into dementia. In the end, Luis was all the family Joe had. When Joe died, Luis had become the remarkable and successful young man Joe had raised him to be. And in paying tribute to him, he said these words: My grandfather was my Google before there was an internet.
If you have children or grandchildren, you know there is a period in their lives, beginning when they first learn to talk and continuing until you die, when they have a proclivity to ask questions. (Our family favorite came during errand-running from the back seat: Mom, how do they make car seats?) Until and unless you put a computer screen in front of them, the major source of information they have is you. You can tell them to look it up or ask their other parent or figure it out for themselves. You can answer them with the letters introduced to our family by another one of my kids: LMGTFY (let me Google that for you). But they will ask you anyway.
And that is something to celebrate.
As Luis discovered, when a person knows a lot, there is a lot to learn from them. And when that person is willing to share that knowledge, conversations take place that deepen not merely learning, but relationships. All the challenges that persuade a parent (or someone acting in loco parentis) that they are failing at the job melt away from a child’s memory if you just take their questions seriously.
Joe was a pretty smart guy, but you don’t have to be. Nobody knows everything, even if someone small thinks you are Grandpa Google. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. In those circumstances, adding “that’s a great question” makes it better and “let’s look it up together” makes it best.
The old aphorism that necessity is the mother of invention is only partially true. Curiosity, though perhaps fatal to the cat, is really what impels a person to learn and then to apply that learning. A parent who can help a child cultivate curiosity offers a skill set that can last a productive lifetime. A curious child who becomes a curious adult asks questions that are answered not because of practical necessity, rather because of a longing for broadening and deepening understanding of the world around us.
I am part of that generation that had to develop research skills if I wanted to know something, and so I have a basis of comparison with the speed and comprehensiveness of the internet. I am glad for Google, but I yet contend that when you do research online, you never learn things accidentally. You get what you ask for…and nothing else.
But in a conversation between younger and older people, you get the best of both worlds. And, honestly, if it turns out Grandpa Google is wrong every now and then, it is a small price to pay for the appreciation that builds between two people, one flattered to be asked and the other thrilled to be answered.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s the damnedest thing: the dead abandon you; then, with the passage of time, you abandon the dead. Jennifer Senior
In the last episode of the Israeli television series “Shtisel,” the father quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer, a secular Yiddish writer. It is a bit of a stretch for even a fictional ultra-orthodox rabbi to be quoting Bashevis Singer, and all the more so to be quoting the real author of the quote, Romain Rolland. Rolland was a French Nobel laureate and Stalinist. Here is what Shtisel quoted: Everyone, deep down within, carries a small cemetery of those he has loved.
Those words were going to introduce this column originally, until I encountered the formulation of Jennifer Senior. She is more correct, at least in my experience.
Among the occupational hazards of being a rabbi in a congregation is a long and intimate relationship with the dead. A friend of mine recently lost his mother, who was 104. A long time ago, another friend lost a child at nine days. And, twenty or forty times a year, I became acquainted closely with someone whose age was in between.
I have been personally bereaved of friends and family of all ages. A first-grade classmate was killed in a riding accident. A high school classmate was a suicide. My two best friends from high school died young and unexpectedly. One of my dearest friends of four decades was felled by a rogue disease. Great-grandparents, parents and in-laws, friends of an older generation and my own – I have eulogized them all. It is no surprise that as I struggled to put into words what I learned from their lives and deaths, I resolved to cling to the important place each one held in my own life.
I have been introduced to so many more people who anchored the lives of their surviving family and friends. Sitting around a table, people have shared with me remarkable stories of otherwise ordinary people. A sweet older man for whom English was a late-life third or fourth language turned out to be a most respected and generous member of the community from which he was forced to flee. A father and grandfather was so skilled a percussionist that he could play “Happy Birthday” on a kettle drum. A Hadassah lady who survived three husbands had turned down Flo Ziegfeld personally when he tried to recruit her for her piano skills. A fastidious and elegant woman had survived a childhood eating bugs and rats and sleeping on the forest floor while searching for her mother and avoiding the Nazis.
It is rare for me to hear survivors describe a loved one – even one they didn’t like so much – without regretting not having had the chance to get to know them a little bit better. As Senior says, they abandoned me, even when it was me least of all who was abandoned.
In fact, it is this lament I hear most often from the freshly bereaved. Even among those who feel relieved that a loved one’s suffering has ended or that they did not need to face an enervating struggle to cling to life-in-name-only, those who grieve most often feel left behind. There was another question to be answered, another piece of advice to seek, another interpersonal issue to resolve. Small or large, there is a dose of anger at being abandoned, and a resolve to cling to the vitality of memory in both protest and tribute.
But is it true that we abandon the dead in return? That small cemetery of the heart is almost always left to neglect. I don’t mean that we forget the dead; my mother died six months ago and my father more than thirty years before that and neither of them is ever far from my thoughts. But the intensity of remembering diminishes and all the vows and obligations, pledges and promises that seemed so compelling in the freshness of grief are, with the passage of time, more or less abandoned. The gaping hole in life we noticed begins to close and, eventually, scabs over, and then remains a tiny scar.
It is as true of the most profound of our losses as it is of the people I came to know intimately only in preparation for their funerals.
You may think I am being cynical or critical. I am not. At the other end of life – birth – there is a similar sense of trauma for mothers, the pain of childbirth, that is likewise forgotten, or we would be a human race of only children. There is too much joy in life to be held captive to inevitable pain.
But this piece of wisdom reinforces for me the rituals of remembering that exist in so many traditions – not the large memorials for the many, the famous and the wealthy, rather the candles and flowers and headstones that exist for the sole purpose of reminding us not to abandon the dead entirely.
In my own tradition, that includes the annual recitation of memorial prayers on the anniversary of a death and the dedication of a space in most every synagogue for a small plaque that recalls a loved one’s name. But most especially, on the most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur, when Jews rehearse their own deaths, a time is set aside for all of us collectively to remember our dead individually. For a moment, we return to that exact point when neither of us has abandoned the other in a visit to the small cemetery of the heart.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
You’ve got a mouth. Use it. Carol Davidson
Carol Davidson was my mother-in-law. She was born and raised in the badlands of New York City and managed to maintain her accent, her elbows, and her pithy observations despite being exiled to Virginia as a young bride. She was a mere slip of a thing, as much a function of a childhood illness that damaged her heart as anything else. Her face was graced by two distinctive features – a wide smile and a set of very expressive eyebrows, both of which she could deploy effortlessly.
In her life, she never used the expression “y’all” nor lost the additional “r” at the end of certain words. She was adept at finding her way to the head of a line or the front of a crowd, when necessary, with a special affinity for navigating Loehmann’s (which closed at the same time as she died, too perfect to be accidental). And she had no patience for whining. If someone had an issue that was generating empty complaints, she had this response: You’ve got a mouth. Use it.
She gave that command to her friends, her children and even her grandchildren. (She never had to give it to me.) And she took her own advice.
At first blush (and because I set it up this way), you might think this is just some sort of New York edginess. But this piece of wisdom is not some line of dialogue that sounds like it came from “My Cousin Vinny.” It is, instead, an understanding that words level the playing field. Spoken or written, eloquently flowing or passionately firing, speaking up is the great equalizer. Words are power, and power should not be squandered or misused.
Carol would not have called herself a Jewish scholar, but her lesson is thoroughly Jewish, even foundational to the Bible. After all, according to the Book of Genesis, our entire world exists because God has a mouth and used it. Let there be this, let there be that, let there be these other things and, oh yeah, the humans in God’s image. The very first action God takes is speaking, and out of that speech everything happened.
It doesn’t matter whether you understand that narrative literally or figuratively, it puts using your mouth at the very center of life. Speak up and create a world. Stay silent and live in darkness and chaos. Whine and complain about the way things are and they things will remain the way they are. Take your issue to the source of the problem and repair the world around you.
I’ve been told that I was born talking and haven’t stopped since. My college roommate once described my course of study in communications as a major in talking. For me, words come pretty freely. I expend a few hundred of them like this almost every week. Not everyone has that proclivity.
And, to be sure, there are people who, though they have a mouth, are not always able to use it. For some, there is a physical impediment. For some, there are legal impediments. For some, instead of a bully pulpit, they only have a bully. But this bit of wisdom is no less important figuratively than it is literally – just like the Bible.
Each of us, in our own way, has the capacity to make our circumstances better. We also have the inclination to accept the status quo as a grievance. It’s a choice at every step along the way. Sometimes your voice is spoken and sometimes written and sometimes sung. Sometimes it is a vote and sometimes a contribution and sometimes an invitation. Sometimes it is just showing up.
Any way you look at it, if you don’t like what’s going on, there isn’t much to be gained by wallowing in misery and muttering about your lot in life. Arch your eyebrows, smile your widest smile and then – you’ve got a mouth. Use it.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Thirty years ago – thirty – on the other side of that corn we filmed a movie that stood the test of time. Kevin Costner
I will admit that the quotation that begins this week’s column makes no sense out of context. At the end of my words you will find the link to a video of a little more than seven minutes that includes those words, but you will already know them and, I would put money on it, you will be crying.
The movie in question, “Field of Dreams,” is a work of fiction. It imagines a down-on-his-luck farmer, played by Kevin Costner, who converts a section of his cornfield in Iowa to a baseball field after hearing a voice tell him, “If you build it, he will come.” If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot. If you have seen the movie, you know the rest.
More than once, from among the cornstalks growing high beyond the outfield, a team of ghost ballplayers emerges to return to a game they were forced to leave behind. The first time it happens, like so many others in the film, is as moving as it is incredible. Baseball fan or not, the subtexts of the story about the enduring power of love, faith, history, and (most important) redemption create impressions on the heart that thirty years later – thirty – can be summoned with a phrase, an image, or a summer day.
Every spring, just as the baseball season starts up again, Jews gather around a table to retell a story of love, faith, history and (most important) redemption. From out of the imagined world of darkness and death, the ghosts of our enslaved ancestors emerge liberated into a wilderness without a horizon. Sitting in our comfort, recounting stories we mostly know by heart and elaborating in ways we hope are brand-new, we seem to be responding to the disembodied voice saying, “If you tell it, they will come.”
And not just Jews. Every time communion is served, if you take it, he will come. Every hajj that is undertaken, if you complete it, he will come. Every rocket’s red glare we launch on the Fourth of July, every turkey we carve in November, every vote we cast. Each one resonates with the power of love, faith, history and (most important) redemption. You can fill in the blank as to who “he” or “she” is.
Thirty years is not really the test of time, at least not the way 250 or 2000 or 3000 years is, but the phenomenon that W.P.Kinsella, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, and John Lindley, the cinematographer who created the image of the ballplayers among the corn, illustrated does not need to be old to stand the test of time. We all need it. We all need to feel that connection to a time in the past when everything seemed possible, especially if in our immediate situation the most important things seem unlikely.
I am a Chicago Cubs fan and a partisan of the National League, so you might think that a ballgame between the White Sox (my brother’s team) and the Yankees (no comment) would hold no interest for me. But on a clear summer afternoon, in a ballfield on the other side of the corn from where the movie was filmed, Kevin Costner walked across a pristine outfield to a microphone just beyond the pitcher’s mound and, flanked by the current iteration of those two teams, began with the words at the top of this column. I wouldn’t call him a spokesperson for love, faith, history, or redemption, and I am guessing he was not responsible for writing all his words. I will admit to sobbing in recognition regardless of the uniforms being worn by a decidedly diverse group of players so different from the original teams they represented.
Do I know why I was crying? An old friend of mine once told me that people only cry out of a sense of loss, and maybe that’s true. But I was gobsmacked by a sense of discovery, or maybe re-discovery of something I refuse to lose. Whether it is religious ritual, civic observance or, yep, baseball, I need to be reminded every now and then that the dreams of the past find expression in the fields of our hearts and lead us to love, faith, history, and (most important) redemption.
Which leaves only one question. But, as you know, a whole lot of right answers. And one response.
Yes it is.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
My values are deeper than the culture of the moment. Tony Beam
In today’s political climate, Tony Beam’s words may be a dangerous and divisive statement. Indeed, there are plenty of people on the right and the left who may take them as fightin’ words. I consider them wise.
The culture of the moment has a lot to teach us all, whether we are being challenged or doing the challenging. Any adult alive today remembers a time when homosexuality was treated as aberrant and cause for derision. And thanks to streaming services, we can see just how ensconced that attitude was in the 1990s – spend a little time with “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and compare the fearless way race and class were critiqued with the constant stream of demeaning jokes about being gay. You may be persuaded that sexuality is a continuum or that “male and female God created them,” but the respect due to all people, however they identify, has permeated everyone to the left of Westboro Baptist Church.
At the same time, some immediate cultural norms have allowed for very bad behavior directed at people who are out of favor with some thought leaders. Just about everyone agrees with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream to judge people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, but there are plenty of judgments being passed on people based on their age, income, privilege, or ethnic/religious identity unapologetically. The notion that the culture of the moment has the authority to exclude an individual from society by consensus of the aggrieved does not pave the way to a better world for us all.
Tony Beam and I do not share an identical set of values. In fact, we may have fewer values in common than most, all things being equal. But he understands that the evolution of values must be thoughtful and deliberate, resting on deep-set foundations, not swift and impulsive as a response to what is momentarily in favor – even if motivated by a desire for a more just society.
Impatience is a hallmark of contemporary social change. As I have noted before, patience is something too often urged on the oppressed by the oppressor. Yet I also contend that decisions made out of pain are as impermanent as those made out of pleasure – both are fleeting and almost always result in overreaching. The better solution, though not the immediately popular one, is reached by a process that seeks to understand causes, not merely address manifestations.
Most faith traditions rest on values that are deep and long-standing. People who hold to those traditions – Beam to his, Moline to his – find that a sense of grounding is essential to embracing change. After evaluating it.
And there, of course, is the rub. Whatever metaphor you choose – roots, bedrock, foundation, age – carries with it a presumption that persistence equals worth. If it has borne fruit, remained unmovable, kept the roof over our heads, lasted this long then there is a logic to offering the presumption of merit
The counter argument comes from those without food, permanence, shelter, or a place in history. And they are, of course, correct.
Is it possible to redress those material and cultural grievances without demanding that deep-set values be abandoned? I think – mostly – the answer is yes. The process is neither so dismissive as those who hold uncompromisingly to the status quo would desire, nor so facile as those for whom change is the only important thing would contend. It is hard work to prevent today’s people of advantage from merely swapping places with those lacking advantage, thus beginning the cycle all over again.
The mandate of the culture of the moment – any moment – is to persistently pose questions to the deep-seated values that brought us to our current resting point and thus cause, forgive the pun, unrest. The purpose of deeper values is to challenge the culture of the moment to provide more than slogans as answers to those questions.
It is, I admit, exhausting. But in the end, the only way to reach higher is to go deep.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were killers besides. And so what should we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties, whatever they may be worth, our symphonies however seldom they may be played, our peaceful acres however often they may be converted to battlefields, our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk, but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses. Robert Ardrey
These are pretty dreary times, when you think about it. It is hard for producers of news programs to decide which fatal circumstances to put at the top of the hour – a runaway virus, a sociopath with a gun, a collapsing building, fires on one coast and floods on the other with tornados in between, heads of state, journalists, political activists and just hungry people who lose their lives to angry people who just don’t want to hear it. By the time you get to the happy story about the kid or the dog at the end, it is easy to wonder if it’s even worth it.
For the individual who begins with a sour view of humanity as the point of origin, none of this is a surprise. Imagining that the human species was created fully-formed as inherently and inerrantly good only to be sullied individually and perpetually by the momentary bad judgment of a single common ancestor makes beheadings and assassinations and murdered children something to be expected. We need an intervention – maybe daily, even hourly – to prevent us from slipping further downward into a pit filled with vice and vermin.
Ugh. Who wants to believe that?
I know what the adherents of that world-view say: you can believe it or not believe it, but it doesn’t change whether it is true. We have an authoritative document that describes our pitiful state, the stains on our souls, the marks on our foreheads, the sin crouching at our door. Paradise is lost, and it cannot be regained in this woeful world.
Without abandoning a realistic view of the challenging behavior of the human race, we can choose to aspire. I don’t care if we were dropped from the heavens or evolved from the “lesser” creatures. It is when we do not succumb to our worse instincts that we rise above our proclivity to misery. That’s a choice we can make and being able to choose against those instincts is what makes us different from murders and massacres and missiles.
I know and admire lots of people who devote almost all of their time to resisting the wrongs in the world. My wife sums them up in three words: they’re just mad. A beautiful Sunday afternoon is made for carrying an angry sign about a political cause. A night at the theater must be only to see a brilliant work by a marginalized playwright. Your brand of ice cream is a political statement. And do not laugh at the foibles of others, especially if the humor is at the expense of people unlike yourself. I am not a righteous enough person to live a life so principled. And I don’t know if I am a hedonist or just lazy, but I spend plenty of time hoping that when the history of this blue marble is discovered by the residents of some other planet, I will have been witness to and celebrant of what they find to admire.
Some very rich men who likely could have eradicated some scourge or disease if they had so chosen decided instead to spend ten minutes in weightless rhapsody beyond the pull of gravity. In fact, they did privately what governments have done with public funds since everyone alive today can remember. They used their privilege to reach for the stars, carrying their symphonies and their poems and their dreams.
Against good evidence, I am a person of faith. I don’t mean faith in God – I have that, too. I mean faith that there will come a time that we will be known among the stars, as Ardrey said, not by how far we have sunk but how magnificently we have risen. So I am doing my part by limiting the time I spend fretting and fussing and fixing so that I make sure there is time enough to love.
(PS – Yes, I know where the phrase comes from!)
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
Just because he says he is sorry doesn’t mean they have to believe him. Jemele Hill
This is serious business, but it may not seem that way at first.
It has been fifty years since I graduated high school (New Trier East) and I am fortunate still to have some friends from those days. Bob Elisberg is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. He has a blog and writes about me sometimes, always telling me about it afterward. The blog can be found at www.elisbergindustries.com. I serve on his board as Executive Vice-President, Telecommunications, which means we talk on the phone.
Nell Minow lives nearby me. If you like movies, you know her as “The Movie Mom” (moviemom.com). If you work in corporate governance, you know her as an attorney so smart it is scary. As Bob said about her, the seven words no CEO ever wants to hear are “I have Nell Minow on Line Two.” Bob writes about a lot of his pals.
In their spare time, Bob and Nell formed the International Society for the Study of Apologies. No, it is not a real thing, just some musings on whether the apologies by people who have behaved badly are really apologies. Generally, when someone begins an apology with “If I offended anyone…” or “It was never my intention…,” they are offering an explanation or an excuse, not an effective or genuine expression of contrition. Same thing if after “I’m sorry” comes the word “but.”
It is pretty easy to apologize if you are genuinely sorry. You acknowledge your culpability, declare your remorse, offer to restore the injury if possible and ask for forgiveness. It helps also to vow not to repeat the offending behavior. Then…you are finished! In Jewish tradition, you might have to repeat the cycle twice more if the injured party withholds forgiveness, but after that you have officially done your best.
Where the ISSA does its work is that fertile field where vagaries and deflections are sown. Public apologies in particular are often designed to allow the offending party to save face and establish plausible deniability. Both things diminish the integrity of an apology. The apologizer ought to be shame-faced and relinquish the notion that there was nothing they could have done otherwise. When a person who has behaved wrongly tries to dance around the flat-out expression of regret, it is almost always because they have forgotten how easy it was for them to see through similar evasions by others.
However mild your prurience is, you are hoping I will share an example or two of public figures who have issued apologies that are not apologies. Sorry. You can Google that, or visit Bob’s blog where you will find many dissections of failures and a few examples of genuinely great repentances.
My purpose here is to inspire you to consider the very wise words of journalist Jemele Hill. She is a woman who knows how to apologize. She flippantly made a Hitler joke on national television some years ago and then, having realized how awful her momentary judgment had been, owned it and learned from it.
I know she learned from it because she called herself out again when she reacted to an antisemitic expectoration from another public figure. That individual offered a textbook example of the fodder for the ISSA and was then offended when the “apology” was criticized. That’s when her column concluded, “Just because he says he is sorry doesn’t mean they have to believe him.”
Therein is the cautionary tale for us all. The purpose of an apology is to set things right with an injured party, not to soothe the offender’s ego. It means being vulnerable and at the mercy of the victim of your actions, at least for a moment or two. For those who fear even the appearance of weakness, it feels like too high a price. But in the end, it is only true forgiveness that takes away debilitating pain of guilt. And most people – especially those accomplished at avoiding apologies – can tell when somebody is just sayin’ but not believin’.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
A man’s character is his best collateral. James Manson “Manse” Patton
The picture that accompanies this column is not of the source of the quotation. It is instead my long-time friend David Currie, who is the grandson of “Manse” Patton. David’s grandfather, from Paint Rock, Texas, ran a bank. He ran it on this principle.
I am not going to try to interpret or deconstruct these seven words, and I most certainly do not have the background in business or human nature either to attest to its validity or its naivete. Mr. Patton lived by those words and shared them with David, and he remembers the man and his values. And David lives by them. And it is to that fact I focus my attention.
I happened to choose a field of endeavor that suited my penchant for telling other people what to do. I recognized early on that my bossiness was not such an asset without a credible philosophy to back it up. So, I undertook to study the faith tradition that had always been an essential part of my upbringing and the context for my family of origin’s rhythm of life.
During my first year of seminary, I met Rabbi Henry Fisher, now of blessed memory. He had a long career as the rabbi of a synagogue in Chicago, not terribly far from where I grew up. His task was to teach the first-year students how to preach – sermons, eulogies, wedding talks, all the various ways we would be expected to give frontal presentations during our careers. Rabbi Fisher was delightful and possessed of a generous spirit, as well as a unique public persona that included surprising observations about life.
During that first year, the seminary was undergoing its cyclical accreditation, and I was among the students being interviewed. Rabbi Fisher was the faculty liaison. At the end of the interview, I was asked a question about a matter of Jewish law regarding lip gloss on Passover (it’s a thing, don’t worry about it). I did not hesitate to offer my opinion and received a lovely compliment on how I articulated my position from my questioner.
Afterward, Rabbi Fisher took me aside and said, very gently, “I want to share with you two things privately. First of all, when your teacher is in the room and you are asked to offer an opinion on a matter of Jewish law, the right thing to do is to defer first to him. I don’t mind what you did, but others might.” I was, rightly, a little embarrassed. “What’s the other thing?” I asked. He replied, “You were wrong.”
I am now almost as old as Rabbi Fisher was when we had that encounter. I am no less inclined to be bossy than I was in those days, but that encounter helped me to understand that cultivating the right qualities was far more important than indulging my impulses. Maybe a few people come by what some of us (like David Currie and I) still call character as a natural process, but mostly it is developed by experience and by paying attention to people who can offer you a character-forming lesson.
I don’t know how many people walked into Manse’s bank with the thought in their head that they would borrow money first and worry about how to pay it back later. But when the guy who is willing to lend it to you offers you his life lesson that a man’s character is his best collateral, I am guessing that at least in and around Paint Rock that was as much an opportunity as an observation. In any event, the bank did well and there is now a fifth generation counting this principle as a life value.
I am guessing that most people have at least one (and maybe many) memories of encounters with parents, teachers and friends that helped to determine their character. I have plenty of others, and plenty I likely overlooked. In my case, Rabbi Fisher taught me to be conscious of my own arrogance, a very personal lesson. In David’s case, his grandfather offered him a remarkable way to create an expectation in any transaction that benefits both parties. In both cases, a couple of old guys – one from West Texas and one from Chicago – remember these lessons with gratitude.
And probably wonder how we can pay them forward.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Introspection is also interpersonal. Benjy Forester
Any system of personal belief worth its salt includes a demand of true self-awareness. In religious language, the believer with integrity wants to be conscious of sin and, awakened to personal shortcoming or transgression, moved to contrition and repentance. That vocabulary of faith is merely a fancier way of what your parents said when you did something wrong: You know what you did, so say you are sorry.
In Jewish tradition, the process of introspection is called “accounting of the soul” or perhaps “inventory of life.” It is meant to lead to repentance, called “teshuvah” in Hebrew, from the word that means “to turn.” In other words, having done an inventory of your conduct, you turn away from bad conduct. You know what you did, so say you are sorry. (And, don’t do it again.)
The medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote a comprehensive guide to Jewish life a thousand years ago in which he discussed (among many other things) this process of teshuvah. He identified the twenty-four hardest things facing a person intending to live a better life, and it was one of those things that prompted Benjy Forester to make his remarkable observation.
Some of the twenty-four are predictable – intentional and habitual misbehavior, public disparagement of others, gaming the system by saying it’s easier to apologize than to ask permission, and more. But the one that caught Forester’s attention was this: the person who refuses to listen to reproof. As Maimonides says, a person who discovers that his faults are known to another should rightfully be ashamed, which opens the path to regret and repentance. But if the person has closed his ears and his heart to the criticism of others, he has also closed a way to being made whole again.
The Bible actually expects each of us to act as a lifeguard to others by offering compassionate criticism when we notice them taking a self-destructive path. While you may have just conjured an image of a harangue being offered from pulpit or street corner, I prefer to think of it as an intervention, large or small. There ought to be no self-righteous posturing in saying to someone you love that you are concerned about their habits or behavior. Indeed, it is far more loving to offer concern than to ignore or enable conduct that endangers the well-being of a friend or family member.
Maybe all of this resonates with you and maybe it doesn’t, but the point of these four words of wisdom is not to endorse or critique the Bible or a thousand-year-old application of it. Instead, it is a remarkable insight about the importance of being in community. The notion that introspection is exclusively a solitary act is as frightening as it is inaccurate. Who wants to be left alone with their conscience? Who wants to wonder if anybody actually cares about what kind of person they are? Who wants to serve as an unforgiving judge of their own soul, likely more harsh than necessary, just to feel goodness again?
The voice of criticism is the voice of love. No, of course not gratuitous or angry criticism which serves no purpose but to compound feelings of smallness. Rather, the voice of someone who cares enough to travel the path of repentance with you, ready to toss a lifeline before you drown in self-pity and remorse.
In the public realm, criticism has become cruel and usual. Umbrage, rather than compassion and sadness, has accompanied reproof. It has made people fearful for all the wrong reasons, worried about being marginalized or excluded without hope of redemption. The same might be said about entertainment, where bickering and verbal combat have always been the source of comedy and drama alike. Eyes and ears on more screens for more time reinforce the conflict over the embrace.
An instruction like Benjy Forester’s, channeling Maimonides’ teaching, is a reminder of why loving admonition is the source of rescue from the despair of self-isolation. Criticism alone serves only to further isolate. But when someone cares enough to accompany you to the place of personal growth and improvement, you are halfway to forgiveness. You know what you did, so say you are sorry. I’ll be right here with you.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I can’t know your pain, but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child. Sen. Tim Kaine
I first met Tim Kaine when he was the mayor of Richmond, Virginia. He showed up at the City of Alexandria’s annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was standing alone, eating a cookie, so I introduced myself, and he told me who he was. “What are you doing here in Alexandria?” I asked. He replied, “I hope to be Lieutenant Governor, so I am getting out to meet folks all over the Commonwealth.”
Kaine has lost only one election in his life (it was a big one), and he has done an admirable job in every office he has held. Here is something he told me: It was when he was mayor that he faced what he thinks is one of the biggest challenges of his life in public service. Gun violence was claiming lots of lives in the city. Trying to address the mechanics of gun ownership and use was frustrating, but it hard as it was, it was a far second to what he described as the thing he was least prepared for.
He visited the families of the victims.
In Jewish tradition, we would colloquially describe that as a “shivah call.” During the seven (shivah) days following the funeral, community members, whether friends or not, go to the home of the bereaved family and offer comfort by their presence. The guidelines for conduct include not speaking until the mourner greets you – one should not presume that a grieving loved one wants to chat. The first words after that should be those of comfort. There is a sort of mantra of solace, but sometimes just, “I am so sorry” suffices.
After that, the tension is broken, and respectful conversation is the norm.
Tim Kaine is not Jewish, and he did not walk into homes where the conventions of mourning were at play. Though personally religious – he was raised a Christian and became a Roman Catholic – his job before elected office was as a civil rights attorney. The victims of gunplay were mostly Black, mostly men, mostly young. What could he possibly say to a mother who had lost the son that was the repository of her future?
If you gave me a million years, I could not imagine something as appropriate as he intuited. “I can’t know your pain,” he said once (and then too many more times), “but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child.” From within the ethos of Christianity, there may be no better way to open the possibility of God’s comfort than those words.
I remain a rabbi, a faithful Jew and a deliberate non-believer in Jesus. But when Sen. Kaine told me that story, I began to cry. I knew in the moment that such was the God I would want in my time of loss, of pain, of grief. I would want a God who understood what I was going through.
The Scriptures of most of the theist religions contain narratives of a deity who stands with the believers in an hour of need, arguing their case, enacting their judgments, avenging their grievances. When the believers feel small, their deity nonetheless delivers the mighty to the weak, the many to the few, the scoffers to the loyalists. When critiques are leveled at religions, they are often based on these promises, doubters snarling “Where’s your God now?” when the righteous are unredeemed.
I can’t argue with those people who find their path to faith blocked by evidence to the contrary, nor with those who point out that conflicts between adherents of different religions are to blame for so much that seems the antithesis of the religious vision. But just as they refuse to consider belief, I refuse to consider disbelief. And the deep sensitivity of Tim Kaine is part of the reason.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified the notion of an empathic God. He read the mission of the prophets to act as spokespeople for the divine pathos – God’s intimate concerns for humanity, part angry frustration at the one who shoots the gun, part broken heart for the mother who weeps.