21 January 2011

No Philosophy, Only Compassion

And another thing about Jethro and his Torah portion namesake.

During services tonight, while leading the Kabbalat Shabbat, I began thinking intensely about all the Gentiles in grade school, high school and college who gave me really good advice. 

Steady at the wheel Mrs. Block in fifth grade, right when my own special trademark anxiety really started to kick in and I couldn't still during class because there was just too much to think about---THAT Mrs. Block---who gave me permission to get up from my desk and simply pace the room.  "Some people get that feeling in their legs--just walk around when that happens.  Doesn't distract me from teaching one bit!"

Or Mr. Russell in sixth grade who, when I asked if he thought I could memorize the epic American poem, Casey at the Bat, said, "If you like it, you can do almost anything."  I found that re-assuring. 

In high school, I was turned on to critical thinking by two guys--first Mr. Kessler and then Mr. Jette--with latter practically giving me the keys to the faculty book supply room where I borrowed copious amounts of philosophy and history in order to stop from being bored the rest of the day in school. 

And in college, I'll never forget the kindness of an academic dean who let me drop out after nearly 11 weeks of school without losing credits or failing because "it's okay to admit your failure and then go back and get it right the second time."  Within a year I was at Hebrew University, studying in Jerusalem, and on a very different path in life. 

And finally, the gentle brilliance of my political philosophy professor, Patrick Riley, who bounced between Cambridge and Madison and in whose class I was sitting at the moment that my father had died.   Professor Riley was lecturing on Rousseau and I, who ordinarily paid strict attention, found myself inexplicably doodling in the margins of my notebook, sinking into a deep darkness and leaving class early.  I wandered down State Street, bought some food, slowly walked to my apartment and there was my uncle waiting to share the news that Dad had died.  When I returned to Madison after Shiva down in Milwaukee, I went to see Professor Riley and the first thing he did was bounce around to the front of his desk, throw his arms around me and say, "It's terrible for a son to lose a father.  There is no philosophy, only compassion at moments like this." 

I'll never forget that or many other moments; but those just listed stand out in particular on this week dedicated to Jethro's shared wisdom with Moses.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

This is a very beautiful entry.