Recently I picked up Elie Wiesel’s Somewhere a Master: Hasidic Portraits and Legends from my bookshelf, settled into my reading chair and opened its pages. Elie begins with the story of a young Hasid in great distress and confusion over life. He has tried to study the Hebrew texts and prayers, but they mean nothing to him. A renowned Hasid, Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, tries to comfort him and tells him that he is not alone in this struggle. It is one that can sometimes be eased by finding a teacher who has experienced the same distress and confusion.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When I was younger I had interminable spells of similar internal distress. In my anxiety, it was hard to identify what I needed to learn and impossible to extract and absorb the wisdom I sought. I despaired that I never would. Even when I stumbled across wisdom, I often left it untouched, unable to hold on to it or truly grasp it.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at learning, and at recognizing teachers. We never know who our teachers will be. Sometimes they are people you would expect to learn from, such as parents, grandparents, rabbis, schoolteachers and professors. Sometimes they are not. As in many Jewish parables, the most humble person may be the one who speaks the truth. Greater understanding can come at any moment and from any direction.
Teachers don’t always know that they are our teachers, unless we have the presence of mind to tell them. Only in recent years have I begun to do so, but as Joni Mitchell has written and sung, “Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” You then slowly realize how this person has been one of the teachers of your heart.
I have been blessed with a universe of teachers. Many are still alive—and I need to remember to thank them. But more and more are gone, including my mother, Ruth, who died five years ago this May. Every day I come to have more respect for her love, her spirit, her intuition, her creativity, her inspirational leadership and her reflex to help people of all kinds. On a bulletin board on a wall in my office I have pinned letters and notes from other teachers, among them Leonard Fein and Elie Wiesel, the cofounders of Moment. Most of the other letters are from people you may not know, but who continue to dwell in my heart. In the last months, I lost two more dear teachers, both of whom I became close to in their latter years—Robert Schattner and J. Zel Lurie. Bob, who died at the age of 91, invented a game-changing sore-throat spray and shepherded it to success. I tried to learn from his entrepreneurial example, but it was his modesty and kindness that left their mark. Zel, 103, was a pioneer in Jewish journalism covering the Arab revolt for The Palestine Post (now The Jerusalem Post) from 1934 to 1937. He passed along his sweeping perspective on Israel’s creation, as well as his search for the missing Cairo Codex, which he inspired me to locate and then write about in our January-February 2016 issue.
I am always shocked when someone dies. Even if they were frail and ill, I still find it hard to imagine that this thing we call life will vanish with their last breath. First, there is that unbearable sense of loss that we all have to make somehow bearable. Then, in the next days and months, even years, come the waves of sadness and memory, alternating with those of new understanding.
You never know when the waves of understanding will hit you. Perhaps when you pick up a book and settle into a reading chair, or reread a letter pinned to a bulletin board, or replay a conversation in your head you will discover something a teacher was trying to tell you but you were not ready to appreciate. Occasionally a wave breaks during a conversation. For some it may occur during prayer or ritual. More often for me, it’s when I am alone. When I am walking. Or when I wake up at night and there is space to think. Or when I am swimming. The waves can only wash ashore when there is time and space for them to break, and a sturdy shore to break upon.
The always-breaking waves make me, I hope, a fuller and better person, and a wiser steward of Moment. This is easier said than done. Editing and writing are a struggle. In a recent lecture at Connecticut College on Elie’s legacy, I spoke about how hard it is to find thoughtful clarity in a world in which evil sometimes seems a matter of opinion. For clarity to form, we must recognize why we think the way we do. Which wisdom, from which teachers (in person or in book or lyric form), shaped us and how? What are our biases and why? We need this kind of honest accounting to break free of habitual responses and move toward mature critical thinking—and greater understanding.
The wider our circle of teachers, the better. Which brings me back to Moment. We don’t expect you to agree with everything we publish; we don’t ourselves. For those of you who send us exasperated letters (see “The Conversation” on page six), please remember that in every issue there will be at least one opinion, perhaps more, expressed in a column or symposium with which you will vehemently disagree! Moment’s contributors are a purposefully diverse group with a wide range of perspectives that we constantly strive to express in ways that are accessible to as many people as possible.
Read as a whole, Moment will make you think. We do our work in the hope that some sentence, some new wave of understanding, will break upon your shore.