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
Haven’t you ever longed for a witness? “Katrine Fonsmark”
I apologize for the explanation that must accompany this quotation. It was spoken by a character in the Danish series “Borgen,” a version of “West Wing” set in Denmark (on Netflix). The writer of the series, and therefore likely this remark, is Adam Price, who authored it in Danish and put it in the mouth of Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, the actress playing the role. The plotline is powerful, but too long to recount. The English words that begin this column are from a subtitle. If you got this far, thank you.
This much you should know: it is spoken to someone who has hidden a secret from the woman he purports to love. After he tries to win her back, she complains that he keeps secrets from her, clearly insecure that if she knew them, she would no longer love him back. But without that honesty, she insists, she does not have confidence in his love. He balks. She says, “Haven’t you ever longed for a witness?”
And so, we have art imitating life. From Biblical times to today, the desire we frantically pursue – to be loved – is challenged by our concern that if the object of our affections knew the truth about us, the love would disappear. Cain tries to hide his fratricide from the God whose favor he seeks. Jacob deceives his father to get a blessing. Kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, ordinary couples, best of friends hide essential beliefs, experiences, and identities for fear of losing love.
I’m not talking about mere embarrassment, like the time I discovered that my zipper was down throughout my first interview as a rabbinical student. (I got the job.) I mean secrets that live inside a well-constructed artifice designed to present to the world the image of who I would like to be instead of who I am.
I cannot pretend to know what goes on in the heart of someone who holds such a secret. I barely know my own. I have managed to rise above most of my self-inflicted insecurities and to pick myself up and stand again on those occasions that I have flopped. But I would not have been able to do so if I had not taken a chance that the love directed my way was genuine and unshakeable.
That’s the nature of real love. It is not a favor bestowed on the recipient. It is not an affection that must be earned, bought, or justified on a continual basis. It is instead an affirmation that you are valued for the wholeness of who you are.
As you read this, if you are like every human being (and you are), you imagine that there is some part of you that could break the love on which you have come to rely. Perhaps it is some aspect of your identity that you imagine is anathema to friend, partner, or parent. Perhaps it is a bad behavior in your past, distant or recent, you are striving to put behind you (not always successfully). Perhaps it is something which befell you that presses on your heart though it is over and done.
The result is a place of loneliness to which you exile yourself when companionship is what you need the most. The isolation you feel is something you would not wish on anyone else. You hope, at the deepest level, that given the opportunity you would free anyone about whom you care from similar anguish.
And that’s why a failure of genuine love is a shortcoming of the person who withdraws it. Love is not always approval. Love is not always endorsement. Love is a witness to the wholeness of another. When we are blessed with it, the door to self-imposed solitary confinement is slammed shut before entry.
I think it is no wonder that every religion – that is, every imagining of the human relationship with the divine – insists on the primacy of love.
I am not a therapist and I have no training in the sciences of behavior and emotion. Please do not take these words as advice to suddenly bare your soul to someone who says they love you. And, even more so, if you have no such love in your life at this moment, please do not consider radical self-disclosure to be the way to inspire it.
Rather, be the witness. In doing so, you will fulfill the longing of the people whom you love to know they cannot break that connection.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it. Stephen Colbert
Maybe you know his story and maybe you don’t. Long before Stephen Colbert became the Broadway and television star he is, he was the youngest of eleven children of committed Roman Catholics, loved and cared-for by his stay-at-home mother and his very successful physician/academician father. When he was ten years old, his father and two next older brothers were killed in a commercial airplane crash. The bottom fell out of his world.
Colbert remains a practicing Catholic with a deep faith in God. Asked in an interview how he can look back on the tragedy he suffered and the hard times that followed and still profess a faith, he responded, “If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it.”
So many of us, myself included, find it difficult to imagine the world around us as cause for unflagging gratitude. To be sure, as Americans we live with far more cause to appreciate the circumstances around us than so many others in the world who face daily challenges to mere subsistence for themselves and those they love. However, as I learned from Rabbi David Aronson, of blessed memory, on my very first day of seminary, a rich man with a stone in his shoe hurts just as much as a poor man with a stone in his shoe. You cannot comfort a ten-year-old by pointing out that he still has one parent and eight siblings left.
Being grateful for all of your life does not mean deflecting the bad by appreciating the good. It is an extraordinary feat of affirmation to be thankful for the sting of the bee in the same measure as its honey, and yet a person of such perspective understands the richness of being human that is present in every experience.
My own tradition affirms this approach as well. In the Mishnah, the collection of legal teachings derived from the Bible, there are instructions about acknowledging God’s beneficence in expected circumstances – upon seeing something majestic in nature, rediscovering a separated friend, enjoying a meal, acquiring new household goods. But a general principle also applies: One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him. That instruction is derived from a teaching familiar to Jew and Catholic alike: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might. That is, not only with the happy parts.
I don’t know that in the moment of bereavement, little Stephen gave thanks for his life and all it had just become. When I was much, much older – at a time when I might have simply glided to the end of a long career and retired – I made a decision write a new chapter instead. The year that followed was an unmitigated disaster. I was unsuccessful in my new endeavor. I found myself marginalized in my former community. Beloved relatives died. There was a roster of lesser and greater challenges that felt amplified by their sheer volume and context. I was one miserable human being.
I was dared by my wife to be happy. With her help, I looked around and understood I had a choice about how I reacted to the turmoil around me. I could be defined by it, or I could work my way through my troubles with an appreciation that I indeed had that choice. I am grateful to her as well.
I caution you (and myself) against considering this attitude first-world privilege. Of course, Stephen Colbert is on the other side of his tragedy, and I am on the other side of my significantly lesser challenges. Gratitude is not dependent on overcoming the obstacles put before you; it is a conscious decision to live in a state of appreciation for the very fact of life, no matter its trials and tribulations, even as you feel the pain. That’s why adherents of different faith traditions respond with some version of gratitude to any situation. I most appreciate the call-and-response in charismatic Christian circles where one person proclaims, “God is good” and the listener responds, “all the time.” But I equally appreciate the simple declaration in Hebrew to any moment – “Barukh Hashem,” Praise God – the truncated version of the instruction in the Mishnah.
With a table of bounty spread before us and a day set aside for giving thanks for it all, it is easy to consider them the fruits of being alive and sustained and arriving at this moment. The virus has not disappeared, the challenges of society have not evaporated, and troubles and tragedies, as always, lie ahead. But whether you take your cue from Stephen Colbert, the Mishnah or the teachings of your own tradition or philosophy, this much is true: If you’re grateful for your life, then you are grateful for all of it.
Wisdom Wherever You Find It
Democracy is not an a la carte system. You must value the common good. Peggy Noonan
Liberal democratic politics is dependent on our other identities. Michael Walzer
I had a hard time choosing between these two pieces of wisdom to inspire this column, so I chose them both. It seems to me they express the same essential insights, though from different perspectives.
Peggy Noonan is a Roman Catholic, Michael Walzer is a Jew. Noonan is conservative, Walzer is liberal. She is a capitalist, and he leans toward socialism and communitarianism. She is mostly Republican, and he is more likely to support Democrats. Both are proud to be Americans.
They see eye to eye on an essential truth that is melting in the heat of our current rhetorical intensity.
One of the blessings of the American ethos is the lifting up of the worth of the individual. When the Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal,” we understand (today, after processing this claim for hundreds of years) that it means “each person is created equal.” In legislative and judicial halls and in political contests, we have debated and refined the notion of equality. In fact, I might even claim we have come to appreciate what my colleague Rabbi Jeremy Winaker calls “radical equality.” I know that for some folks, the word “radical” is a red flag. But here, I mean it in its generic meaning – taking the concept of equality to its logical limits.
In recent years, equity has been added to the concept. Many claim (and I agree) that before people can claim to guarantee equality, the playing field must be level. An illustration I saw showed two kids standing behind the fence around a ballfield, watching the game. The ground was flat, but the kids were of different heights. In that sense, they were equal. But the short kid couldn’t see the field. So, a box was place for the short kid to stand on. That’s equity that leads to equality.
All of that is well and good in theory, and few among us would object to such simple measures to ensure equal opportunity. Yet the circumstances that Noonan and Walzer talk about are not so easily resolved. Those that feel entitled to their rights and privileges are sometimes unwilling to create equitable and equal circumstances for others if they fear losing the full measure of those rights and privileges. Before you get too judgey about others, consider that we all have those tendencies – the very few among us would elect to live in reduced circumstances as a way of making things more even. However, the idea that saves us from devolving into a dog-eat-dog society is the common good, the by-product of liberal democratic politics.
To their dismay – and mine – that commitment to promote the general welfare is what feels like it is slipping away. Everybody, I think, endorses the notion of the general welfare (as long as it’s not what some people call subsidized unemployment), but the hyper-individualism that afflicts us makes each person’s definition of it more a reflection of the life they want to live rather than the common good.
Peggy Noonan suggests that the democracy we seek to preserve is not divisible into component parts which any given person sorts into like-and-dislike piles. The ability to live your best life is dependent on equitable opportunities for others to do the same. You might get away with a me-first approach for a while, but it is the fool who doesn’t recognize the fragility life that ignores the totality for the sake of the particular.
Michael Walzer insists that our society, a liberal democracy (liberal, like radical, in its generic meaning) demands that each of us bring the whole self to the party, needs and gifts alike, commonalities and distinctiveness together. The individual has, in turn, the rightful expectation that such wholeness will be embraced. Denying or concealing the unique aspects of identity shortchanges the body politic and disables the interactions that allow our democracy to thrive.
I think Noonan and Walzer would laugh if I suggested they had the same message on any level other than general principle. But I will take the chance at causing them a little entertainment. Equality, leavened with a commitment to equity, can be achieved in different ways (which may be their point of mutual departure). However we get there, the destination for each of us is a place of commonality that values the essence of who we are.
Wisdom Wherever You Find it
The moral utility of history lies in its capacity to remind us of our duty to stand vigilant against and to take action against perennial and pernicious forces that lead to discrimination, to genocide, to hunger, oppression, and injustice. Jon Meacham
My little black book of quotations has multiple entries from multiple people. Often it is because a speech or essay contains more than one observation that demanded residence in my memory. Sometimes it is because a person has an astonishingly consistent talent for sharing insight. Jon Meacham is one of those people, and even though it has been a mere four months since he provoked one of these columns, he becomes the first repeat contributor because this quotation gobsmacked me.
I have written before about how history is a human construct that chooses among a myriad of events to create a narrative from the past to inform the present. (I will pause while you reread that.) That notion does not make history illegitimate as a concept or a discipline. It only makes it less objective.
If you need evidence of how history and its lessons can be manipulated to change fiction to fact, I will point you to the belated awakening to the fabrications of the “Lost Cause” explanation of the Civil War. Until very recently, the capital of my home commonwealth, Richmond, Virginia, boasted of the prestigious Monument Avenue over which enormous statues of Confederate war heroes presided. They were promoted, erected, maintained, and protected by descendants of the Old South who rejected the legal definition of someone who conducts armed insurrection against the United States government: traitor. The sore losers of the Confederacy, in addition to including in textbooks from which Virginia schoolchildren learned the redefinition “the war of Northern aggression,” sought to make noble cause out of the attempt to keep human beings enslaved for both economic and racial purposes.
In that context, I am inspired by the observation of Mr. Meacham that history has a moral utility. “Utility” is ultimately practical. But “moral” is all about values. The narrative we construct out of the loose pieces of the past is used to justify the present and guide our path to tomorrow and the next day. Right now in our country we are witnessing a scramble to use the tiles and stones of yesterday to create a mosaic that represents today. For someone who considers themselves at least modestly informed, the picture that emerges is enlightening not only for what is included but also for what was left in the scrap heap.
That is the case with the folks who are digging their heels into the contemporary manifestations of “Lost Cause” thinking, imagining a great America past that can be great again. It is also the case with folks who have bet the farm on various theories about how the flaws of the past have become systemic and must therefore be plucked out of today’s narrative and ground to dust. In both cases – and many others – the utility of history is to create a today of their choosing. If I had hope of a constructive conversation (and let me admit that the lack of such a hope is my problem, not theirs), I’d love to ask about the values being served by that utility and what it means for people who do not subscribe.
It is worth noting that Meacham’s formulation came almost incidentally (in an unbelievably well-crafted presentation) as he introduced a panel to pay tribute to Elie Wiesel on the occasion of the dedication of a tribute to him in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. The cathedral has quite literally constructed a mosaic out of selected tiles and stones to create a narrative. It has also been reevaluating some of those pieces and removing or replacing ones that tell a story that does not represent their values.
I take a small amount of pride that I was able to move past being impressed by the phrase “the moral utility of history” to what followed it in Meacham’s formulation. It was a statement in the midst of his acknowledgment of the failings of the church (not just Episcopal) regarding outsiders (not only but especially Jews), and of the United States government in acting on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust (not just but including Elie Wiesel). The moral utility of history, please notice, is to caution us to stance and action consistent with our values: preventing discrimination, genocide, hunger, oppression, and injustice. I don’t think he meant it as an exhaustive list, but I’d be pretty happy to start with those successes.
As I think of history in the context of this insight, I hope I can remember to give up the fruitless arguments about what is relevant or not, what is accurate or manipulated, what is important or negligible. Everything is both. At least as important is that moral utility. What are the values any telling of history promotes, and what does that telling do to get them realized.