A great children’s song starts with the words, “I have two eyes to see with, two hands to wave with, and two ears to hear with.”
I have one objection. In my experience, we may hear sounds with our ears. But we hear people with our hearts.
Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century, illustrates this truth in a story he told about himself.
Listening For The Unspoken
Buber was a young university professor, in the midst of his studies, when a young student knocked on his office door. The student looked troubled. He asked Buber if he could speak with him for a few minutes.
Buber grudgingly agreed, with a clear signal of impatience. He nodded as the student talked, though it was clear his mind was on other things. When the student finished speaking, Buber shared some thoughts and reflections, and then got up and wished the student well.
That evening Buber realized something. He had not been fully present with the student. He listened with his ears but not his heart. Later he learned that the student had taken his own life.
Are you there?
We often fail to be fully present. How often do we talk with our friends and family and listen only for what we want to hear? How many times are we seeming to listen to someone when we are really thinking about where we are going for dinner later? How many of us have talked on the phone and read e-mail at the same time?
To listen attentively is to be truly present, and it can be a struggle. It often depends more on one’s heart rather than one’s ears.
A Burning Bush
The Jewish sages teach this truth in a story about the burning bush. This was the bush covered in flames but not consumed by the fire. Many people, the sages said, walk by that bush. And the God’s voice spoke out continuously from it.
It was only Moses, however, who had the heart to stop and hear it. As one rabbi put, “the miracle was not that God called out to Moses from a burning bush. The miracle was that Moses heard Him.” So may we.
A friend once taught me a powerful saying: “The Perfect is the enemy of the good.” This pithy piece of wisdoms speaks to those of us who worry about everything. When everything has to be perfect, we dwell on each detail and never get anything done.
In preparing of the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I realized this saying also contains a deeper pearl of wisdom. Sukkot is a holiday in which we build a temporary outdoor dwelling place called a succah, and eat and celebrate and welcome guests into it for seven days. Jewish tradition has and extensive set of instructions detailing the way in which a succah is to be constructed.
Yet, the laws for building a succah have an unusual caveat. An imperfect succah is still a “kosher” succah. Even if the walls are not the right length, or the door is not in the proper place, we can still use the succah in the same way we would use a perfectly constructed succah. (Personally, I am grateful for this exception, because my handyman and building construction skills leave much to be desired!)
Peace Needs Flexibility
This kind of exception is rare in Jewish law. Usually, an item used in Jewish ritual needs to be perfect. A Torah scroll, for example, is meticulously written and rewritten until every letter precisely formed. The number of tassels on a Jewish prayer shawl is non-negotiable. A sukkah, however, even without any of the necessary decorations, can still be used for ritual purposes.
This flexibility is the reason the Jewish sages consistently refer to the “Sukkat Shalom, the Dwelling Place of Peace.” Peace demands flexibility. Is any relationship always perfect for both partners? Is any business deal absolutely perfect for both parties?
Perfection is not only the enemy of the good. If we insist on perfection, we will always focus on what’s wrong rather than what’s right. As Rabbi Avraham Kook, one of the great mystics of the twentieth century put it, “peace can never exist when we insist on perfection.”
“At times,” wrote Hans Zinnsser “the dead are closer to us than the living, and the wisdom and affection of the past stretch blessing hands over our lives, projecting a guardian care out of the shadows and helping us over hard places.” Last month we were are reminded of this truth by an extraordinary man and tragic ending .This man, Donald Liu, was a pediatric surgeon at University of Chicago.
In early August Dr. Liu was at a beach with his family in Berrien County on Lake Michigan when he saw two children fall out of a kayak. He went out to rescue them. He succeeded in helping them get above water. As he did so, he got caught in the undertow. He drowned. Both children lived.
A Chinese Jewish Doctor
As a rabbi, I had a particular interest in Dr. Liu. Born in Shanghai, he came to the United States and converted to Judaism upon marriage to his wife Dana. The family had just returned earlier in the month from Shanghai, where they celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of their oldest daughter Geneviece. He also had a 10 year old son Asher and seven-year old daughter Amelie.
Dr. Liu’s extraordinary impact was noted by colleagues and friends, who called him a brilliant surgeon and compassionate physician. One of his colleague described him as “a world-class pediatric surgeon who made innovations and advancements in minimally invasive surgery for children and cared for trauma victims.”
What struck me most, however, was an article his oldest daughter Genevieve wrote for the Jewish newspaper, The Forward. It testifies to what we would call in Jewish tradition Dr. Liu’s ethical will, the way he is remembered and honored by his children.
An Ethical Will
Genevieve wrote, “My father passed away as he was saving two drowning children in Lake Michigan. The tragedy was shocking and devastating, but in some ways it was not out of character, because he died being the savior that he was when he was alive, saving hundreds of thousands of kids from life-threatening diseases through his discoveries and surgical brilliance.”
“To me, he was the best father anyone could ask for. For example, he sent me to a very expensive camp for four weeks, only to drive there four days later to make sure I was okay. He brought me home that same day and did not make me feel shame or embarrassment. (Not to mention the camp was a 9.5-hour drive there and back.)”
“I still remember on my bat mitzvah day, the way dad approached the bimah. He put his arm around my shoulders. ‘Genevieve,’ he said, his eyes teary and his nose stuffy, ‘you taught me eternal love, and I have a story for you: There was a time when one of my greatest mentors was dying. He sat me down and told me: ‘Don I’m dying, I need you to do one thing for me.’ Being the young resident that I was, I anxiously nodded my head like his little puppy dog.’
‘Anything, anything,’ I said. ‘Please,’ he asked, ‘take this letter and put it in the Wailing Wall for me.’
“I took the letter, and a month later, your mom and I went to Israel to put the letter in the Wailing Wall, but I was always curious what it said, so I opened the letter.”
The Meaning of Life
“It said two things, the first something along the lines of, ‘I hope my children are successful in life,’ which all parents hope for, and the second that ‘I pray that my children know that I love them.’ That’s what I always want my children to know, that I will always love each one of them eternally.” He gave me a big fat kiss and a tight squeeze and left the pulpit.”
“What devastates me the most is the fact that some people are so great, so much bigger than all of us, that we can have them in our lives for only so long. I feel as if it should be the other way around: Some people are so great, they should live forever.”
“It’s a hard fact to accept, but in some ways — actually in all ways — my father cheated death. He will live eternally through his memory and his model for living.”
Genevieve’s poignant words echo an ancient Jewish teaching. In the death, the sages taught, the righteous are called living. How is this possible? Even after they’ve died, we continue to measure ourselves by their standards. We try to live up to their ideals. We strive to fulfill the promises they made to the world.
By Evan Moffic,
During the Olympics this year, a video caught my eye.
It begins with a woman biking in the rain. Then we hear snippets of different languages as mothers begin to wake up their groggy children in bed. The same moms prepare meals, drive their children to the gymnasium, to dance practice, to the pool and to the volleyball court.
As the underlying piano music grows in volume, we see the children practicing their strokes, their dance routines and their volleyball spikes. Moms and dads watch them with bated breath, and then the video flashes to crowds erupting in cheers as the same children compete in front of massive audiences. It closes with tears streaming down the faces of parents and children, as they hug and smile.
Love Makes It Possible
The children did not automatically become great athletes. The love they received helped them become the people they are. All of us need such love. It doesn’t matter if we are young or old, rich or poor, athletes or couch potatos. When we experience love–when we give and receive it–we find God.
The Jewish sages make this quite explicit. In interpreting the verse that human beings are created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God, they ask the question: where did God place that image? Where is it? In our face, in our mouth, in our nose? No. God stored it in our hearts. The heart is where we find God.