THE CHOICES WE MAKE ON THIS JOURNEY CALLED LIFE
RABBI MERLE E. SINGER
There once was a Rabbi who traveled from Shtetl to Shtetl – teaching, preaching and doing whatever a rabbi of a Shtetl would do. And everywhere he went he was heard saying: “What ever happens, happens for the best - happens for a reason.” Wherever, whenever, and whatever would happen to the rabbi - no matter how challenging - his response was always the same. “Whatever happens –happens for a reason and happens for the best.” In my youth these stories spoke to me… But then came the Shoah, the Holocaust, Genocide, Nuclear warfare, Terrorism; and everything changed. After Auschwitz, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after 911; how naïve it is, dangerous and foolhardy it can be to believe that “everything happens for the best.” Further the ‘why’ events happen is not the most important question. I now believe, more important than understanding ‘why’ is understanding the responsibility we have to ‘what’…” The decisions we make… Our choices about how we will play the hand we are dealt are what make the difference… How often do we find our life - Your life, my life a journey to be on a road filled with potholes roadblocks and detours. A journey to awe-inspiring vistas but also full of rough patches and “dead ends.” Considering the personal challenges many of us are facing in the days ahead - I am convinced, beyond any pain and heartache of today - the future belongs to those who have enough trust and confidence in themselves that despite their fears, they have the courage to just ”go for it” … As one of my sons is often heard saying to his kids…You can do it the hard way, or the easy way – just “do it”! November 18, 1995 – Itzak Perlman’s purported concert at Avery Fisher Hall- Lincoln Center in New York City. For Itzak Perlman getting on stage is no small achievement. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. That night something went wrong. Suddenly one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - There was no mistaking what that sound meant. What would he do? What were his choices? Getting up - himself and getting another violin would be quite difficult… Asking someone to get him a replacement- was the easiest choice.
But he chose - to try to play with what he had!
Of course, most assume it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings.
I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head… Getting new sounds never heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow to quiet them, and then he said, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task at first to make music with all that you have and then when that is no longer possible to make as much music as you can with what you have left."
This story - for me -is what life is all about - of choices made, of challenges encountered…. Today I have a story to tell - my story. As I tell the story I ask only – as you listen – that you examine your own life – looking to those moments when challenges were turned to opportunities – or possibly – when opportunities were left undiscovered. I have told some of you parts of the story, but today when tradition dictates ,naked honesty as “ the gates begin to close”… I tell the whole story with the choices and the decisions that made the difference… It is the spring of 1952. Just weeks before my Bar Mitzvah.
I am in homeroom at East Jr. High School in Duluth, Minnesota waiting for the morning bell to ring. I am thinking about my Bar Mitzvah, only a few weeks away. My speech was done –mother took care of writing that. It was reading Hebrew from the Torah that made me a little more than anxious. How had my older brothers ever survived this? I ‘ll never get through this!
As it turned out, I didn’t! I hit a “dead-end.” At my Bar Mitzvah on Friday night, May 16th, standing on the bema when it came time for me to read from the Torah - usually the centerpiece of a Bar Mitzvah observance - I blanked out! The words of Torah lost all meaning, the rabbi from his seat behind me kept repeating the words to me but nothing helped. Finally I opened my mouth and out came the most “creative reading” of Torah Hebrew the congregation would ever hear. Not a single word of what I said- made any sense in Hebrew or in English…
I know it may be quite unexpected to hear your rabbi tell the story of how he muddled through his Bar Mitzvah…Permit me- to explain how this came to be --- and the why - of a struggle that continues to this day.
My story begins on that spring morning in the weeks before my Bar Mitzvah. That was the morning my homeroom teacher called me to her desk and asked. “Merle, what are your future plans for school?” Somewhat surprised by the question I answered:
“Go to Duluth Central High School where my sister, brothers, uncles, aunts and even my mother who was salutatorian of her class graduated… But I barely got to the words “High School” when she interrupted me saying: “Your aptitude test twhich you recently took was so poorly done – you’ll be lucky if you graduate Vocational Tech School.”
Looking back at that moment I realize how easy it would have been to follow the advice of my homeroom teacher and given up my dreams. What she said made sense…but I couldn’t and NO I wouldn’t do it her way!
“I am going to go to college – I have to!” I answered her. I didn’t know whether to panic or just to walk away. Seeing my distress she suggested I meet with the guidance counselor after school.
Later that day I went to see Mr. Howard Alaspa. He was looking over my file. We sat for a few minutes, then he looked up and said: “I’m sorry Merle, but the results of your aptitude test raise questions about your ability to go to high school and college…” “But,” he added, “as I look through your file I find that the test you took in kindergarten showed much academic promise and we don’t know why, but many times the Kindergarten test is a better predictor of future academic success then later tests which depend on reading....” He then went on to tell me though I needed to be prepared for disappointment, there was nothing wrong with daring to follow my dreams. His encouragement remained with me for the rest of my life.
I learned many years later, just before the completion of my formal studies, 2 university college Baccalaureates degrees, a Master’s in Hebrew Letters degree and ordination as rabbi - I am a severe dyslexic…
Not knowing what it is that was wrong – people said I was careless, didn’t care, wasn’t smart enough,or didn’t try hard enough – anything but that was true. I just knew and accepted, if I was going to be successful, I had to work harder than anyone else.
I had no idea that when I was reading – my problem was not just letter reversal, but in a capricious manner I will add letters - syllables and – words and in just as capricious a manner delete them…And I will NOT be aware I am doing so – until or unless someone calls me on it.
You never overcome being dyslexic; it’s like traveling a potholed, detoured road. At first you concentrate on avoiding the deep and jagged potholes, then comes the challenge of finding the patience to endure seemingly endless detours.
That is where you realize the hard cold truth: You are the only one who can do this job for you. The Israelis have a term for this –ayn’brayra- “there is no alternative”. So it is for those who see the world differently. While an inordinate amount of time and effort may be required,to master the meaning of a written text, with it can come a perspective on life that often is unique: A kind of creative awareness that some like a Steven Spielberg, a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson have found. Perhaps this is why despite the frustration of one’s personal limitations, whether being dyslexic or many worse things and the powerful hold this can have upon you many have found a way to “play the symphony with only 3 strings:” Like a Nelson Rockefeller, Agatha Christi, and a Virginia Wolfe. I believe it was Steve Jobs who said: “…that no matter what happens in your life—struggles in school or an unsuccessful career path—every aspect will somehow help you down the road.”
So it was for me- I sailed through those courses in high school, such as Chemistry that I could feel, touch and hold or history with its stories I could visualize During my first year of college, attending the University of Minnesota in Duluth. I was going to study Industrial Engineering, leading to a career in corporate America with Human Resources. My first quarter at the university– my first math course – college trigonometry – Is where I experienced my first “Detour’’: I didn’t pass… The professor saw how hard I worked and said: “Merle, I’ll pass you IF you promise me you will never take another math course.” She didn’t have to repeat the offer – “Done!” I now had to change my choice of career. – Find a new path – one without so many “potholes”…. Taking a battery of tests at the university counseling center I will never forget the look on the counselor’s face when he announced: “Merle, in all my years as a college counselor, I have never seen this before.” He held out my score to one of the tests I had taken – saying: “you went off the chart on becoming a Funeral Director!”…Well in Duluth I had never known a Jewish funeral home so without giving him time to finish I questioned; “ A funeral director? What kind of job is that for a Jewish boy?” As fate would have it I saw a notice that a Mr. Albert Vorspan would be speaking at the university auditorium.- on career opportunities in the religious world of today. The year was 1959: Al Vorspan was co-director, of the Reform Jewish Commission on Social Action. He talked about how social action was essential to the spirit of Judaism. Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel he said: “Judaism requires a leap of action more than a leap of faith.” Adding: ‘to be Jewish you had to never give in to apathy and smug complacency.’ When he finished I couldn’t contain my excitement. I went up to him and I announced, “I’m going to be a rabbi!” With that I began making plans to transfer to the University of Cincinnati and begin rabbinic school studies at the Hebrew Union College. May 1960 - A day of reckoning came in my second year of undergraduate studies. By then I was well into my classes at the University of Cincinnati…I was even a Sigma Alpha Mu – a Sammy. Minoring in rabbinic Judaism at the Hebrew Union College rabbinic school., I, for a second time experienced “road blocked”. This time - failure could easily mean the feared “ROAD CLOSED” – an end of a dream WITH NOWHERE TO GO. I did not pass my first course of Hebrew studies! My instructor1, an upper classman, said I had done so poorly there was no way he could have possibly passed me. He said he tried every which way to give me a passing score, but he couldn’t. It began to look like my 7th grade teacher was right – higher education was not for me. You cannot be a rabbi without fluent knowledge of Hebrew. Fortunately, later that day, the Provost of the College Dr. Sam Sandmel z’l, saw me standing dejectedly in the hallway outside his office. I had come to say goodbye. He invited me in. As he had already heard what happened, in his famous southern drawl he said: “Boy, you go home and all summer you study real hard then you come back here in the fall and retake the Hebrew readiness test. If you pass, you just plan on staying here until you’re a rabbi ---understand my boy?” “Yes sir” I answered…more out of respect than anything else. Early the next morning I was at Union Terminal in downtown Cincinnati to take the train home. With time to spare I went out on the station promenade to watch the sunrise. While standing there – with tears of sadness, disappointment, and fear of facing my family as a total failure – I wondered if I would ever see this sight again. Standing there I remembered the story of the sage Rabbi Akiva, who once finding a small waterfall noticed how the water falling on the rocks had, over time, carved them out. Seeing this, he said: “If water can soften a rock – knowledge can penetrate my head.” For me, at that time, this story renewed the few shreds of hope I had left. Two years later I completed my undergraduate studies graduating from the University of Cincinnati, and six years after that - 50 years ago this coming June - I successfully completed my graduate studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion graduating with the title “rabbi.” If Steve Jobs was correct, which I believe he was, the brain disorder dyslexia can either sink you or empower you to turn the failure of defeat into successful opportunities... The choice is ours! As the years moved on there was another major challenge – and opportunity for growth – to be faced. Parkinson’s disease. The words of Michael J. Fox – ”Parkinson’s is a gift that keeps on taking – soon became very personal to me And for me another rather large bump – and what was to become a series of increasingly closely spaced speed bumps, come to think of it – on the road. That was 10 years ago. And today, despite those bumps – these bumps – I am here!!! - Speaking to you !…Proof that with, medical help, excellent physical therapy: a special thank you to our Temple member Ed Gray who at his therapy centers keeps me moving and to Sue Levy, my voice coach- who reminds me that I still have a voice to be heard. Ed’s dedicated staff just won’t give up on the likes of us. They along with my amazing wife -Myra, our beautiful children and their families, and indeed, so many of you, who stand by my side and give me the strength to face whatever may come every single day. You all are the ones who deserve the credit for not letting me forget – as we must all not forget – that making beautiful music without all the strings is still possible.. I stand here today to ask What about you? What is your story?
I ask you to take a look at your journey - the detours that brought you to places you never believed would be yours. Detours, which if given the chance - can become for you the pathway to fulfillment..
I ask for those whose who may have experienced major changes or challenges in your life; What are the choices that helped bring you strength and not be left behind?
When you came in here today what were your excuses for not fulfilling your dreams, not following your passions? I know what mine have been – and I sincerely ask you to look carefully at yours.
In our home as the boys were growing up Myra would often challenge them saying: “it's not what you have, it's what you do with it”. Every time they would complain to her that they were not fast enough, smart enough, or cool enough to get through whatever challenge de jour they faced, she would tell them this-- so they could stop focusing on the perceived limitation and start thinking of the solution. So I ask you to think for a moment. What personal wall is in front of you that would benefit from the perspective – “it's not what you have…It's what you do.”
Like Itzak Perlman, you don't need a perfect instrument to make beautiful music - and it certainly doesn't matter what the rest of us, think is possible or practical. All that matters is that you believe in yourself and make the effort – remembering: it's not so much the challenge but your response that counts…. The Choices you make – the decisions you reach…
I ask, What tough choices or decisions have you made? Can you make? Will you make that became – or will yet become – for you and you –and yes you- the sacred ones the paths to greater things than you may have ever thought possible. Choices and decisions that lead you , despite the risks, to “go for it.”
Giving you - all of us - the courage … the will power… the CHUTZPAH… to Dare to Live!