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
IS THIS HEAVEN?
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.
TIME ENOUGH TO LOVE
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’.
HOW WILL I BE REMEMBERED
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.