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Five years ago yesterday, my father passed away.
He had been up on a ladder, trimming "one last branch", preparing the house for our visit a week later.
One leg of the 4-leg ladder was over the dirt. As you go up a ladder, your center of gravity moves towards the back. The right rear leg did not have solid ground under it to support his weight.
When my father died so suddenly, many hundreds of people felt that they had lost a father or a brother. They lost a person who was not just central to our lives, but essential to our lives and to the community. The shock we felt was the shock that someone would feel if he woke up without his left arm.
When people start talking about my dad, certain qualities come up again and again:
These are all words that described my father and probably only the tip of an iceberg. They were all true, and just about any anecdote you tell about him shows that.
In my father's memory, I'm going to focus over three weeks on three qualities that are not on the list, that you did not hear people say, but I think that when you hear the depth of the concepts, you will agree that this is who my father was, and what we should all strive to be.
My father had a very Talmudic way of discussion. He called it Socratic. But you know, he didn’t realize how very Jewish he was. (Or did he? The beard – so he claimed – was because it was so much easier than shaving every day — that’s what I claim too.)
So at his funeral, in my father's own Talmudic fashion, I asked the hundreds of mourners about these three qualities:
Was my father a wise man?The first one’s easy to answer – climbed too high on a ladder? Mmm, no, not wise. Scratch that one off the list.
Was he a strong man?
Was he a rich man?
No really, what’s wisdom in the Talmudic sense, not according to Webster’s?
There were mourners that day, five years ago, who remembered him as a kid.
His 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Marsh, had a different perspective on his social skills, writing that he “could show more initiative and exercise leadership by looking ahead and anticipating situations,” in other words, he was short-sighted, not able to see the outcome of situations. However, Mrs. Marsh was also confident that he would develop those qualities as the elected class chairman….
By the spring, she reported that he indeed had.
The Talmud asks, “What does it mean to be wise?” and of course when a rabbi asks you that question, you know that the right answer is not “knowing a lot of stuff.”
The Talmud gives two answers.
The first is: “Someone who foresees the outcome.”
This ability was my father’s strong suit. He was the kind of person you love to have on your committee and you hate to have on your committee at the same time. You love to have him there because he asks the tough questions. You hate having him there because he asks the tough questions. He had not only the ability but the all-important tenacity to ask the tough questions, to push us – believe you me, his children included – to consider all the possible outcomes. He taught this to us, and those who were good disciples learned to do so naturally.
The Talmud’s second definition of wisdom: Someone who learns from every other person.
It’s a remarkable statement, if you understand Hebrew. The language is clear, it doesn’t mean every other man, nor every other Jew, nor every other adult: it means every other human being.
Is there a better description of my father’s relationship toward other human beings?
All he wanted from people was to hear their ideas, their beliefs, their hopes and dreams – from the elderly to young children. My father was a feminist before anyone talked about feminism (although I suspect he may have picked some of this up from someone he met in college), he was the trailblazer whose equal treatment of others was so natural to himself that it disarmed you if you weren’t used to it. Even when two of his children went by Tacoma standards completely nuts, if he was judgmental, he kept it to himself, he certainly didn’t ever make us feel ashamed of having chosen a different path than his own.
His ability to learn from others was a key to his successful relationships, because of all people, my dad had so few, if any pretensions. He was not impressed by anything that Madison Avenue would have impress us. Money didn’t impress him. Status was irrelevant to him. His definition of success was hard work, strict ethics and a good heart.
I remember when Jerry Seinfeld came to Tacoma. It was 1984 or 85, I think. Dad couldn’t care less that Jerry was a comedian – what mattered to him was that here was another Seinfeld and we didn’t know of any other Seinfelds before then. So he went to meet the guy, and years later flew down to LA for a taping of the show, because he was family.
This wisdom I think is what drove his passion for Tacoma Community College. I don’t remember him more proud than when he told me about the award ceremony where they would honor students who had come from nothing – no education, no money, no support – and graduated from TCC. Displaced people, people with no direction, who found their way. He loved getting to know the student, finding out their story.
Finally, he set up a scholarship fund there, not at one of his own prestigious colleges but at TCC where he felt he could help the most people.
The point of recalling the greatness of a person is to remind us that if he could do it, so can you and I.
“It is always wise to look ahead, but difficult to look further than you can see.” – Churchill
(PS – one word about tzedakah – my Dad and Mom raised their children with this value from a very young age: Give a substantial portion of your income – even 10% - back to the community. He was quite pleased when I told him one day that that’s a recipe right out of the Torah.)