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Teach Us To Number Our Days — Tuesdays With Morrie and Messages From My Father — Yom Kippur

September 30, 1998

Among the several books that I read this summer, two are significant because of the memories and messages that they provide. One book is entitled Tuesdays With Morrie – An Old Man, A Young Man, and Life’s Great Lesson {Doubleday, 1997} written by Mitch Albom, and the other is Messages From My Father {Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996} by Calvin Trillin.

Tuesdays With Morrie is written by a highly regarded sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press who was accustomed to covering Dennis Rodman and Latrell Sprewell – if you don’t know, don’t ask – and was astonished one night in March of 1995 while watching `Nightline’ to hear Ted Koppel introduce that evening’s segment with these words:” Who is Morrie Schwartz and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?” {pages 22-23}. Schwartz had been Albom’s professor of sociology at Brandeis University and they shared a close student-teacher relationship in the late 1970s. Now Albom learned via `Nightline’ that his mentor was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a brutal illness that attacks the neurological system. Schwartz was given the diagnosis in August of 1994, and when his doctor spoke to him about the terminal nature of the disease, he felt “as if he were dropping into a hole” {page 8}. In due course, he gave up driving, then walking, and then his privacy. In excruciating phases, the disease conquered his body, but Morrie refused to relinquish his mind.

Keeping a vow that he had made to his professor while in college that they would keep in touch, Albom decided to visit Morrie in his suburban Boston home one Tuesday afternoon. Most of his courses with him were on Tuesdays, office hours were on Tuesdays, and it was on Tuesdays that they met to go over his senior thesis. Now they began meeting for a series of “last classes together,” fourteen Tuesdays in all, and the resulting book, Tuesdays With Morrie, is the final paper. It is about Morrie’s journey and thoughts about living, not dying. That concept is very Jewish because in our tradition a dying person is to be treated with the same concern and respect accorded to a living person. That both the author and his subject are Jewish strikes me as more than coincidence.

Life is as much about timing as it is about anything else, and it was certainly fortuitous for Albom that arriving stateside from England after covering Wimbledon, he awoke to learn that the unions at his newspaper had gone on strike. Now he suddenly had time on his hands. Hearing Morrie’s name on `Nightline’ reminded him of the time when he was in his early twenties and his favorite uncle died of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-four: “After the funeral,” Albom writes, “my life changed. I felt as if time was suddenly precious, water going down an open drain, and I could not move quickly enough” {page 15}

Mitch and Morrie met, talked and reflected about years gone bye. Albom describes the first time that he saw Morrie in sixteen years: “Morrie was in his wheelchair by the kitchen table, wearing a loose cotton shirt and even looser black sweatpants. They were loose because his legs had atrophied beyond normal clothing size – you could get two hands around his thighs and have your fingers touch. Had he been able to stand, he’d have been no more than five feet tall, and he’d probably have fit into a sixth grader’s jeans” {page 48}. But in a short amount of time, an awareness of Morrie’s physical disabilities would give way to awe for his philosophic insights. The first Tuesday that they were together, reunited in Morrie’s home, he asked Mitch, “Can I tell you the thing I’m learning most with this disease? The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in” {page 52}.

Morrie felt sorry for himself whenever he realized that he was losing more of his physical sensations. He cried when he felt the need to do so, but as he said, “I don’t allow myself any more self-pity than that. A little each morning, a few tears, and that’s all” {page 57}. Then he added, “There are days when I am depressed…I see certain things and I feel a sense of dread. What am I going to do without my hands? What happens when I cannot speak? Swallowing, I don’t care so much about – so they feed me through a tube, so what? But my voice? My hands? They’re such an essential part of me. I talk with my voice. I gesture with my hands. This is how I give to people” {page 70}. That exchange made me think that I would find it terribly difficult to lose voice and motion, to say nothing of loss of mobility and independence. But I also think that some of the most eloquent times in our lives occur when we are silent and motionless. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I think of the words in Psalm 65:2 – Lecha d’miyah t’hillah/”To You, [God], silence is praise.”

There are times when it is just our presence in someone’s life that matters most: not what we say, but how attentively we listen. I am reminded of this every time I visit someone in a hospital or make a condolence call. Sometimes when people are in need or in pain, it is the human touch that conveys more surely than words the depth of relationship. What was the first thing that happened when Jacob and Esau saw each other after an absence of twenty years? “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” {Genesis 33:4}. When Joseph, second-in-command only to Pharaoh, was reunited with his brothers, we read that he “could no longer control himself…his voice burst into sobs” {Genesis 45:1-2}. Then the first thing he said to them are among the five most poignant words in all literature: Ani Yosef ha’ode avi chai?/”I am Joseph. Is my father alive?” {Genesis 45:3}. But before the words, tears. Lecha d’miyah t’hillah/”To You, [God], silence is praise.” To be here for each other is a blessing; beyond that, words are gifts.

It is Morrie’s observations about dealing with pain and fear that bring the greatest insights, because while all of us have felt love and have been enriched by friendship, few of us have felt the pain that Morrie experienced: “Morrie talked about his most fearful moments, when he felt his chest locking in heaving surges or when he wasn’t sure where his next breath would come from. These were horrifying times, he said, and his first reactions were horror, fear and anxiety. But once he recognized the feel of those emotions, their texture…the shiver down the back, the quick flash of heat that crosses your brain, then he was able to say, ‘Okay. This is fear. Step away from it. Step away” {pages I04-I05}. Sometimes we feel trapped by our fears and doubts, and we elect to stay in the darkness of our panic or despair because we are even more afraid, or reluctant, to face our fear and tell ourselves to “step away from it.”

The author writes, “If aging were so valuable, why do people always say, `Oh, if I were young again.’ You never hear people say, ‘I wish I were sixty-five.'” Morrie smiled and replied, “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more {page 118}. It is impossible for the old not to envy the young. But the challenge is to accept who you are and revel in that. This is your time to be in your thirties. I had my time to be in my thirties, and now is my time to be seventy-eight. You have to find what’s good and true and beautiful in your life as it is now” {page 120}. In essence, Morrie was articulating the Jewish concept of focusing on the present: yes, look back and reflect on the past with the purpose of learning from it, and plan for the future, but the present moment is precisely where you are! Cherish it! Touch people with your love. The week before he died, Morrie told Mitch, “As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here” {page 174}.

Toward the end, Morrie offers us a story “about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. ‘My God, this is terrible,’ the wave says. ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!’ Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’ The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’ The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean’ {page 179-I80}.

We are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Call it God. Call it life. Know it as family, friends and loved ones. We are interdependent. We need each other. We can have a profound effect on one another’s lives. We can touch, teach, cry, commiserate, celebrate, learn and love. On the Jewish calendar, Tuesday is the third day of the week. The Torah tells us that on the third day, “God said, let the waters under the heavens be gathered to one place and let the dry land be seen!’ God called the dry land earth and the gathering of the waters He called seas…God said, ‘Let the earth sprout forth with growth, plants that send forth seeds, fruit trees that yield fruit’…[and] God saw that it was good. There was evening, there was morning: a third day” {Genesis I: 9-13}. That which is created is for the purpose of giving sustenance to other living things. Tuesdays With Morrie is one man’s reflection upon a life well lived because how he made other people feel about themselves.

There is a different kind of wisdom found in Calvin Trillin’s book entitled Messages From My Father. Trillin is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a columnist at Time and The Nation. When excerpts of Messages From My Father first appeared in The New Yorker, it reportedly drew more mail that anything else Trillin had written. His father, Abe Trillin, was born in Russia, near Kiev, and grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, arriving there at the age of two in 1909. He began as a grocer in Kansas City, but after the Second World War, when he was in his early forties, he sold all his stores. He subsequently bought and ran a restaurant, and was briefly the part owner of a tavern as well as the owner of a small residential hotel, and in the last years of his life he worked in commercial real estate. For many years, his father would get up “at four in the morning six days a week to go to the city market for his produce. When people…heard of his [father’s] schedule, they almost always said to him…, ‘Well, I suppose you get used to it after a while, don’t you?’ and he always said, “No” {page I5}. To his son, his father was primarily known for his advice and his repeated refrain, “You may as well be a mensch.” Reflecting upon this, Trillin writes, “It has always interested me that he did not say, ‘You must always be a mensch‘ or ‘The honor of this family demands that you be a mensch’ but ‘You might as well be a mensch‘, as if he had given some consideration to the alternatives” {page 25}.

Mensch is a German word that means “person” or “human being,” and in Yiddish it has the sense of being a real human being: an honest person, a decent individual, someone whom you could trust. In a revealing aside, Trillin writes, “I always took it for granted that his strict notion of honesty was central to the way he ran his grocery stores, although at home it sometimes manifested itself in rules that seemed to approach the loony side of upright: a child who was small for his age not paying full adult fare at the movies a day after his twelfth birthday would be cheating a movie theater; a boy driving the day before his sixteenth birthday would be breaking the law. He raised me not to be him, I once wrote, but it has occurred to me more than once that a reporter could do worse than aspire to a standard of behavior reflected in my father’s approach to being a grocer: give good weight; refuse to buckle under the pressure from the chain stores; treat with contempt the wartime temptation to get rich by cutting a few corners” {pages I9-20}. His father had a different perspective from most other Jewish immigrants about the place of Jews in America. Calvin Trillin informs us of this in mentioning a book of “connected short stories, Where The Road Bottoms Out [by Victoria Redel], about someone growing up in a comfortable suburb of New York in a family of cosmopolitan Jewish refugees, some of whom had made stops along their way in places like Belgium and Constantinople and Mexico. Most of the stops presumably ended badly, and it is assumed by the adults in the book that America, however comfortable and however tolerant, is just another of those stops…When the daughters of the family in the book engage in some conventional suburban activity like marching with the school band, their father says to them, ‘You are not American.’…When I read that [Trillin continues], it occurred to me that my father’s message, delivered with such assurance that it did not require articulation, was precisely the opposite: ‘You are American” {pages 54-55}. Trillin’s father said this not just with assurance, but also with the conviction that as an American you could create your own destiny. His belief was the polar opposite of other immigrant Jews who concluded their Seders in America not by offering the final prayer “Next year in Jerusalem: but, rather, in Yiddish, Iber a yor nischt erger/“Next year no worse”: but as Trillin said of his father, “[In America] he saw no limitations” {page 57}.

At the age of forty-nine, his father suffered a major heart attack from which he recovered. Eleven years later, in August of 1967, at the age of sixty, he was felled by another and died. At the end of the book, Trillin writes, “I suppose someone could add up the facts of my father’s life and come to the conclusion that he was an unfulfilled man. There were, after all, plenty of immigrants of his era who made privileged Americans out of themselves rather than their sons or daughters. He was happy in his family, but he never had the pleasure of work that truly satisfied him…I’d like to believe, though, that he didn’t think in those terms. I’d like to believe that he thought more in terms of…a sense of continuity. I’ve felt his presence most intensely at those landmarks of continuity” {page II6}, by which Trillin means life’s rites of passage that are family-centered.

What fascinates me the most about the two men is the difference between them. Morrie Schwartz asked us to live our lives to the fullest, while Abe Trillin lived a life defined by self-constraint. Calvin Trillin writes of his father, “He didn’t drink coffee because at some point in his childhood he had sworn that he never would…He swore off liquor before he was old enough to taste any…I sometimes imagine my father as swearing off things just to keep in practice – the sort of person who looks at himself in the mirror after shaving one day and, for no particular reason, says to the image he sees, ‘You have hit your last bucket of driving-range balls’ or ‘No more popcorn for you, young fella’ {page 4}. That is hardly the image that fits Morrie Schwartz: undoubtedly influenced by his chosen field of sociology, he pushed the envelope, asking himself and his students to test limits.

The variable, of course, is that Morrie had time to take stock of what he knew were the dwindling months of his life while Abe Trillin, suffering a heart attack at the age of forty-nine, died suddenly from another at the age of sixty. Morrie literally knew in his bones that his days were finite. Abe, like all of us, knew that life is not eternal, but presumably thought that he would live a good many more years, perhaps decades. Morrie eloquently echoed the words of the Psalmist, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” {Psalm 90:I2}, and in his fourteen Tuesdays with Mitch Albom he shared his philosophy about life: a life well-lived, and knowing that it was about to cease. Abe Trillin did not think of the need “to number [his] days” because he did not know that the end was near. Morrie asked us to consider how each of us might live differently if we knew that it would soon end.

Two weeks before he died, Morrie offered Mitch this almost-final­-parting-thought: “Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others” {page 164}. He told Mitch about a friend of his named Norman. They spent a lot of time together: swimming, traveling to New York, visiting each other in their respective homes…and then came a falling out. “Over the years,” Morrie said, “I met Norman a few times and he always tried to reconcile, but I didn’t accept it. I wasn’t satisfied with his explanation. I was prideful. I shrugged him off…A few years ago…he died of cancer. I feel so sad. I never got to see him. I never got to forgive. It pains me now so much…” {page 166}. Then he said, “It’s not just other people we need to forgive…We also need to forgive ourselves…for all the things we didn’t do. All the things we should have done. You can’t get stuck on the regrets of what should have happened. That doesn’t help you when you get to where I am. I always wished I had done more with my work; I wished I had written more books. I used to beat myself up over it. Now I see that never did any good. Make peace. You need to make peace with yourself and everyone around you” {pages 166-­167}.

As the Psalmist said, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin