Monday, November 30, 2009

Saying Sorry

Is there anyone you need to forgive at this point? I asked him.

"I've forgiven them already," he said.



Have they forgiven you?

He looked away.

"You know, we have a tradition. When you go to a funeral, you're supposed to stand by the coffin and ask the deceased to forgive anything you've ever done."

He made a face.

"Personally, I don't want to wait that long."

I remember when the Reb made his most public of apologies. It was his last High Holiday sermon as the senior rabbi of the temple.

He could have used the occasion to reflect on his accomplishments. Instead he asked forgiveness from his flock. He apologized for not being able to save more marriages, for not visiting the homebound more frequently, for not easing more pain of parents who had lost a child, for not having money to help widows or families in economic ruin. He apologized for teenagers with whom he didn't spend enough teaching time. He apologized for no longer being able to come to workplaces for brown bag lunch discussions. He even apologized for the sin of not studying every day, as illness and commitments had stolen precious hours.

"For all these, God of forgiveness," he concluded, "forgive me, pardon me..."

Officially, that was his final "big" sermon.

"Grant me atonement" were his last three words.

And now the Reb was urging me not to wait.

"Mitch, it does no good to be angry or carry grudges."

He made a fist. "It churns up inside. It does you more harm than the object of your anger."

So let it go? I asked.

"Or don't let it get started in the first place," he said. "You know what I found over the years? When I had a disagreement with someone, and they came to talk to me, I always began by saying, 'I've thought about it And in some ways maybe you're right.'"

"Now, I didn't always believe that. But it made things easier. Right from the start, they relaxed. A negotiation could take place. I took a volatile situation and, what's the word...?"

Defused it?

"Defused it. We need to do that. Especially with family."

"You know in our tradition, we ask forgiveness from everyone--even casual acquaintances. But with those we are closest with--wives, children, parents--we too often let things linger. Don't wait, Mitch. It's such a waste."

He told me a story. A man buried his wife. At the gravesite he stood by the Reb, tears falling down his face.

"I loved her," he whispered.

The Reb nodded.

"I mean... I really loved her."

The man broke down.

"And... I almost told her once."

The Reb looked at my sadly.

"Nothing haunts like the things we don't say."

Later that day, I asked the Reb to forgive me for anything I might have ever said or done that hurt him. He smiled and said that while he couldn't think of anything, he would "consider all such matters addressed."

Well, I joked, I'm glad we got that over with.

"You're in the clear."

Timing is everything.

"That's right. Which is why our sages tell us to repent exactly one day before we die."

But how do you know it's the day before you die? I asked.

He raised his eyebrows.


-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, pages 210-212

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Which Marriages Will Survive?

As just as harvests make you wise to farming, so did years of matrimony enlighten the Reb as to how a marriage works-- and doesn't. He had officiated nearly a thousand weddings, from the most basic to the embarrassing garish. Many couples lasted. Many did not.

Can you predict which marriages will survive? I asked.

"Sometimes," he said. "If they're communicating well, they have a good chance. If they have a similar belief system, similar values, they have a good chance."

What about love?

"Love they should always have. But love changes."

What do you mean?

"Love--the infatuation kind-- 'he's so handsome, she's so beautiful'-- that can shrivel. As soon as something goes wrong, that kind of love can fly out the window."

"On the other hand, a true love can enrich itself. It gets tested and grows stronger. Like Fiddler on the Roof. You remember? When Tevye sings 'Do You Love Me?'?"

I should have seen this coming. I think Fiddler on the Roof was pretty much the Reb's worldview. Religion. Tradition. Community. And a husband and a wife-- Tveye and Golde-- whose love is proven through action, not words.

"When she says, 'How can you ask me if I love you? Look at all I've done with you. What else would you call it?'"

"That kind of love--the kind you realize you already have by the life you've created together--that's the kind that lasts."

The Reb was lucky to have such a love with Sarah. It had endured hardships by relying on cooperation-- and selflessness. The Reb was fond of telling young couples, "Remember, the only difference between 'marital' and 'martial' is where you put the 'i.'"

-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, pages 142-144

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Makes a Man Happy?

Can I ask you something?

"Yes," he said.

What makes a man happy?

"Well..." He rolled his eyes around the hospital room. "This may not be the best setting for that question."

Yeah, you're right.

"On the other hand..." He took a deep breath. "On the other hand, here in this building, we must face the real issues. Some people will get better. Some will not. So it may be a good place to define what that word means."


"That's right. The things society tells us we must have to be happy-- a new this or that, a bigger house, a better job. I know the falsity of it. I have counseled many people who have all these things, and I can tell you they are not happy because of them."

"The number of marriages that have disintegrated when they have all the stuff in the world. The families who fought and argued all the time, when they had money and health. Having more does not keep you from wanting more. And if you always want more-- to be richer, more beautiful, more well known-- you are missing the bigger picture, and I can tell you from experience, happiness will never come."

You're not going to tell me to stop smelling the roses, are you?

He chuckled. "Roses would smell better than this place."

Suddenly, out in the hall, I heard an infant scream, followed by a quick "shhh!" presumably from its mother. The Reb heard it too.

"Now, that child," he said, "reminds me of something our sages taught. When a baby comes into the world, its hands are clenched, right? Like this?"

He made a fist.

"Why? Because a baby, not knowing any better, wants to grab everything, to say, 'The whole world is mine.'"

"But when an old person dies, how does he do so? With his hands open. Why? Because he has learned the lesson."

What lesson? I asked.

He stretched open his empty fingers.

"We can take nothing with us."

For a moment we both stared at his hand. It was trembling.

"Ach, you see this?" he said.


"I can't make it stop."

He dropped the other hand to his chest. I heard a cart being wheeled down the hall. He spoke so wisely, with such passion, that for a moment I'd forgotten where we were.

"Anyhow," he said, his voice trailing off.

I hated seeing him in that bed. I wanted him home, with the messy desk and the mismatched clothes. I forced a smile.

So, have we solved the secret of happiness?

"I believe so," he said.

Are you going to tell me?

"Yes. Ready?"


"Be satisfied."

That's it?

"Be grateful."

That's it?

"For what you have. For the love you receive. And for what God has given you."

That's it?

He looked me in the eye. Then he sighed deeply.

"That's it."

-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, pages 100-102

Thursday, November 26, 2009

He Sleeps in a Storm

"A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, 'He sleeps in a storm.'

"The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.

"Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.

"Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

"So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed.

"He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins.

"He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.

"And then he understands. 'He sleeps in a storm."

"My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of 'I could have, I should have.' We can sleep in a storm.

"And when it's time, our good-byes will be complete."

-- "Have a Little Faith" by Mitch Albom, page 93, From a Sermon by the Reb (Rabbi Albert Lewis), 1975

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Citizenship of the Republic"

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

-- Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, April 23, 1910: Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, France