Virtuosos of the Heart | Congregation Beth Am

Virtuosos of the Heart

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
March 7, 2003

Last May the following obituary appeared: “Suzanne Bloch, 94 years old. Born in Geneva in 1907, she moved with her family to New York in 1916 when her father, Ernest Bloch, began a series of conducting and teaching posts…Ms. Bloch often played chamber music with prominent scientists. One participant was Albert Einstein, who sometimes irritated the other musicians by not coming in on the beat. ‘He couldn’t count,’ Ms. Bloch once said.” [The American Organist, May 2000]

That’s sort of comforting, isn’t it? Albert Einstein couldn’t count. He always came in late on the beat. His playing was irritating to others. Makes us feel better about our own inadequacies. Maybe we have no sense of direction, or no head for figures, or two left feet on the dance floor.

A few months back I received a letter from one of our members that made me think a lot about the idea of inadequacy. Here are some excerpts from the letter:

“I don’t know whether attitudes have changed since my children were in religious school [some years ago], but I will say that none of them have carried any friendships from that association….But I really want to relate what happened to my daughter [whom I’ll call “Amy”]. Amy had some learning disabilities, mostly associated with following what was told to her via spoken words. This made her appear at times to be ‘slow,’ though over the years she learned coping mechanisms and her responses quickened. In actuality she was quite sharp and very observant, with an excellent ability to size up situations and find good solutions. It just didn’t come with a snap of the fingers. She was friendly, good-natured and kind hearted; she liked people, and she always gave them the benefit of the doubt.

My daughter joined a group for young people at Beth Am. She became active in the group and even served as program chair. Very possibly she got this position because no one else was interested in it, but whatever the reason, she was proud of being program chair, and she happily worked at setting up interesting activities for the group to enjoy.

Amy was still serving in that position when she was diagnosed with cancer. After her surgery, she was put on a 30-day regimen of radiation, followed by almost a year of chemotherapy. The tumor shrank, and after she recovered from the treatment, she had several ‘good’ months before symptoms again appeared, and she went rapidly downhill. Nothing further could be done to arrest the progress of the disease.

During the time that Amy was having radiation and chemotherapy, she became very weak and fatigued and could not maintain her activities with the group. She reluctantly resigned from her position as program chair and eventually was no longer able to attend the group’s events. In all the time that followed, no one, not one single person from the group, ever inquired about her, ever got in touch with her or ever contacted me. After Amy died, I never heard from anyone involved. Perhaps I was remiss in not approaching the group myself, but I was Amy’s only caretaker, and I had my hands so full in helping her and trying in vain to find the kind of assistance I needed that I did not think along those lines.

I’ve thought a lot about what happened to my daughter, and I think that part of the problem is that such a high premium is put on intellectual achievement at Beth Am (perhaps among Jews in general) that those who aren’t on an elevated plane, who haven’t gone to a prestigious college, who are not visible leaders, who don’t have an impressive array of achievements, are semi-invisible.

Even without real friends at Beth Am, my daughter had a strong and positive sense of Jewish identity…Rabbi, I felt your recent article in the Builder on ways in which parents could encourage their children’s friendships at Beth Am was an excellent one, but it left out an important component, which is helping children to keep their eyes and hearts open to someone who could be a friend. Amy was not quiet and shy; she was outgoing and liked to be involved. But she was not quick, not ‘with it,’ not clannish and ‘groupish’. She didn’t know all the right things to say; she didn’t know all the ‘in’ things to talk about; she didn’t have ooh and ahh credentials. She was a little out of the mainstream of her peers.”

It makes me cry when I hear a story like that. And when the story takes place at a Jewish institution, it makes me angry. Because a Jewish institution is the very last place on earth where we should prove so deeply inadequate to the task of being human.

We learn in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law: “One who sees an Ethiopian…or an albino, or one whose girth is extremely large, or one who is unusually tall and thin, or a dwarf, or one who is covered with blemishes…recites the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, our God…who creates a variety of creatures” [OH, 225:8]. Here, as often, the law inculcates a moral principle: diversity is a blessing, to be greeted with words of appreciation; the spectrum of human colors, shapes and abilities reflect the Creator who made us all. The core of our religious faith is that all people deserve to be treated with dignity.

I know a boy who is exceptionally bright, musically gifted, funny, creative and affectionate. He’s also considerably overweight. And when he went to one of our Jewish camps a couple of summers ago, the other kids made his life so miserable that he never wanted to go back again. I know kids who have dropped out of our own religious school programs because they’ve been hounded and mocked by their fellow students – or simply ignored and treated like part of the wallpaper.

I’ll go out on a limb here. None of the wonderful social justice projects that our members engage in matter more than the way people are treated within our community. As the congregant who wrote to me said in that letter, “Though we pay much attention to tikkun olam [at Beth Am] and to acts of lovingkindness, we are always talking about the ‘needy,’ about ‘those less fortunate.’ But what about those of us who are not among the ‘needy’ or the ‘less fortunate’? Is it not also tikkun olam to make one person smile; is it not also an act of lovingkindness to be a friend?”

I’d like to believe that a synagogue, that this synagogue, would be the safest place in the world for a boy or girl who has a tough time in the outside world. I’d like to believe that when they came to temple they would know, with absolute certainty, that nobody was going to hurt them here. Nobody would tease them, and nobody would make their life miserable, and nobody would exclude them. I’d like to ensure that this congregation is a sanctuary, a protected space, for every one of our children.

Am I asking too much of our kids? After all, our Beth Am kids are only human, and it’s natural for kids to tease, especially at certain ages, and to be clannish and cliquish, and to exclude people who don’t fit their definition of ‘cool.’

I don’t think I’m asking too much. Because some kids aren’t cruel and dismissive of others who are a little different. Some would never dream of making fun of another person because of the way he or she looks or dresses or talks, or because they have some learning challenges. Some of our kids are kind-hearted and compassionate and generous of spirit; they make an effort to be friendly and understanding; they reach out to strangers. Even at the age of 8 or 12 or 15, you see, it’s possible to be a mensch.

What makes a boy or girl a mensch? I can’t be sure, but I have a feeling that they grow up in homes where they don’t hear people who are different contemptuously dismissed as “weird” or “oddballs.” They see and hear their parents treat others with kindness and respect. When they’re exposed to movies and tv shows that make others the butt of cruel jokes, their parents talk with them about the attitudes conveyed by such jokes. From the very earliest age, they’re schooled in empathy – putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, imagining what it feels like to be somebody else; imagining, especially, what it feels like to be on the margins, to be the one who’s vulnerable and in need. They learn that this is the Jewish way to be. And they never get the message that all that really matters in life is your IQ, or the college you go to, or the prestige of your job, or the size of your income.

This week we come to the end of the book of Exodus. This book, which began in the darkness of slavery, ends in a burst of light. A beautiful sanctuary, constructed with care by the whole Israelite people, is bathed in the radiant cloud of Shechina as the Presence of the Lord fills the tabernacle.

Think of it: a moment before, it was just a room – a room filled with the ordinary furniture of daily life. There’s a lamp and a table and a cabinet; there are curtains and carpets and wall hangings and all sorts of utensils—basins and cups and bowls. And suddenly the Presence of the Lord comes in – and now the room is a sanctuary. The message to us is clear. If the Tabernacle, furnished with all these accoutrements of domestic life, can be transformed into a holy place, so can all the ordinary rooms where we spend our lives.

There’s no mystery about how that happens. This room becomes a holy place not because it’s filled with prayers or because there’s a Torah sitting in the Ark, but because when we’re here we treat each other in accordance with the teachings of that Torah. And our homes become small sanctuaries when we fill them up with loving, respectful words and deeds.

Few of our kids will grow up to be Einsteins – masters of the intellect who change the world with the power of an idea. But all of them could grow up to be menschen – virtuosos of the heart and spirit, who change the world by the quality of their character.

In Brooklyn, NY there is a school called Chush that serves Jewish children with developmental disabilities. At one of their fundraising dinners a few years ago, a father delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by those in attendance. After praising the school and its dedicated staff, he cried out, “Where is the perfection in my son Shaya? Everything God does is done with perfection. But my child cannot understand things as other children do. My child can’t remember facts and figures as other children do. Where is God’s perfection?”

The audience was shocked by his question, and pained by the anguish so apparent in the father’s voice. Then the father answered the question himself. “I believe,” he said, “that when God brings a child like this into the world, the perfection God seeks is in the way people react to this child.” He then told the following story about his son Shaya:

One afternoon Shaya and his father walked by a park where some boys that Shaya knew were playing baseball. Shaya asked, “Do you think they would let me play?” Shaya’s dad knew that his son was not at all athletic and most boys would not want him on their team. Nevertheless, he approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shaya could play. The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands. “We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the 8th inning,” he said. “I guess he can be on our team, and we’ll try to put him up to bat in the 9th inning.”

Shaya smiled broadly and his father was ecstatic. By the bottom of the ninth inning Shaya’s team was behind by two runs. There were two outs and the bases were loaded, with the potential winning run on base. Shaya was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let him bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?

Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible, because he didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it. However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shaya should at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came in and Shaya swung clumsily and missed. Then one of Shaya’s teammates came up to Shaya, and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher. The pitcher again took a few steps forward and tossed the ball softly towards Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya and his teammate swung the bat and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher.

The pitcher picked up the soft grounder. He could easily have thrown it to the first baseman; Shaya would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, he threw the ball in a high arc to right field, far beyond the reach of the first baseman.

Everyone started yelling, “Shaya, run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life had Shaya run to first. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. By the time he reached first, the right fielder had the ball. He could easily have thrown it to the second baseman who would tag out Shaya, who was still running. But the right fielder threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head. Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second!” Shaya ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home. Then he rounded third, the boys behind him screaming, “Shaya, run home!” Shaya ran home, stepped on home plate, and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit a “grand slam” and won the game for his team.

“That day,” said the father slowly, with tears now rolling down his face, “those 18 boys reached their level of God’s perfection.”

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).