Wise Man Of Chelm – Philip Graubart

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For privacy concerns, all the names and some details in this piece have been changed.

 

I. The Letter

About a year before I left Shomrei Torah, I received a letter from Paul Bernstein, our former executive director. He sent it from prison; he was serving an eighteen-month sentence for stealing over $600,000 from the synagogue. The letter was six pages, tightly spaced, handwritten, blue ink, slightly smudged. He asked for my forgiveness. He wrote that he wasn’t sure why he stole, so much for so many years. It was too easy, he wrote. No one was watching him closely. One day he paid for a Disney vacation with a synagogue credit card, made up some story for the accountant, and kept the books away from the volunteer treasurer. He didn’t get caught, so he continued – more purchases: gym equipment, airline tickets (business class), furniture. Then – the big stuff. Cash transfers into his account, once a month, or more. It was like an addiction, he wrote. Once he got used to the money, he couldn’t stop.

And, he admitted, it was probably ego. He was outsmarting everyone. Our super-successful CEO finance volunteers, our intellectual, highly professional presidents, the talented staff. Me. He began to think that he deserved the money, that he was smarter, more effective than anyone else. After all, he wrote, he balanced the budget while stealing $100,000 every year.

He wanted me to know that it wasn’t personal. The theft, he wrote, was not inspired by our occasional feuds, our turf issues, or really by any bad feeling on his part toward me. The problem, he wrote, was that he lost control of his actions, his raging ego took over, leaving no room for moral reflection. He knows now, he wrote, how wrong he was, how he killed his work relationships, destroyed his family, wrecked his life. He wanted to make amends. Would I forgive him?

The letter carried the whiff of a twelve-step communication – the admission that he’d lost control, blaming the ego, the effort to make amends. If I were prone to cynicism, I might have thought his parole was coming up; perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to the authorities that he was working the program. Nevertheless, it was an impressive piece of writing, all six crowded pages. My wife burst into tears when she read it. I asked her if it was because she was suddenly forced to re-live the nightmare time that came in the aftermath of the embezzlement, the six months of non-stop work frenzy that took me away from my family even more than the usual life of a rabbi at a large congregation. She said no, she was simply moved by Paul’s sentiments, his contrition, his plain-spoken honesty, his losses. She was thinking of his two young girls, who’d played in our backyard and sang sweetly every Tot Shabbat. And his wife, a lovely, shy soul whom everyone liked, and was now left with nothing. She wept for his family.

I took a day to think about it. I decided to forgive him. It wasn’t a hard decision. For one thing, forgiveness was one of the central themes of my rabbinate, a topic I’d revisit several times a year, and not just during the high holidays. For me, the most moving passages in the Torah are when Joseph forgives his brothers, when he re-writes the family’s tawdry destiny as a gang of feuding siblings, and claims “It wasn’t you who sent me here, but God.” Later he says, “You planned evil for me, but God planned good. . . to save lives. . . I will provide for you and your children.” I’d taught congregants that Joseph was able to transcend his justifiable bitterness by conjuring a larger narrative context. Through the great power of the moral creativity, Joseph imagines his ordeal not as a narrowly constructed story about a never-ending family feud, but as God’s great plan for the world, to save lives.

If Joseph could do it, why not me? After all, I was doing pretty well. After a year of struggle and chaos, the congregation was growing, and folks credited my leadership. I’d just been offered a senior position at a highly respected international Jewish organization (I took the job). Paul was in jail, broken, defeated, with no conceivable professional future.

I didn’t think of it then, but it occurs to me now that it wasn’t such a big lift for Joseph to forgive his brothers. He was the richest, most powerful person in the word. Things had gone his way. The brothers were frightened, subservient, pathetic. Why not forgive? The astounding act would have been to forgive while he was still a slave, stuck in a dark pit, beaten, alone. Looking up at them instead of looking down. But that wasn’t the case. Anyway, I wrote a letter of forgiveness to Paul. I was conscious that he filled six pages, and I could barely muster one. I threw in some synagogue gossip, some thoughts on how we’d all moved past it. I encouraged him to write back, to contact me when he got out. I mailed it to Paul Bernstein, c/o the Federal Penitentiary.

According to the Talmud, if you renounce bitter revenge towards others, sweetness comes your way. For a while that’s how I felt. A new, better job. Health. Loving relationships, friendships. A rich intellectual life. I didn’t attribute all of my sudden good fortune to my forgiving Paul, but I felt some pride, and also some peace of mind.

I don’t feel that way anymore, for two reasons. One, when I decided to write the letter, I didn’t account for the fact that I hated Paul. Truly hated him, in a way that shocked and worried me. I’d never hated anyone, but, Lord, did I hate Paul. And, two, I didn’t know that in just a few years, Paul would get a high paying job at a large, important congregation. And I would be sick, and unemployed.

 

II.  Chelm

“Chelm!” Ben Michaels – the associate rabbi at Shomrei Torah, and my close friend and partner for twelve years – would spit out the word, throwing up his hands, whenever synagogue dynamics approached the ridiculous, as they often did during the Paul years. And I’d echo it back. Chelm.

Chelm is the mythical city of Ashkenazi folklore where the people are so foolish they think they can capture the moon by trapping its reflection in a rain barrel, or that they could dispose of all the dirt they unearth in building a synagogue by digging an even larger pit, or that they should place the synagogue tzedakah box out of the reach of thieves, but when they realized then that the rabbi also wouldn’t be able to reach it, install a ladder. Chelm, a kind of bizarro version of Vilna, was governed by The Wise Men, who, naturally, were the biggest fools. Ben and I adored these old tales of the The Wise Men of Chelm, until they hit a little too close to home, and became our inside joke. I’d often remind Ben that if Shomrei Torah was Chelm, he and I were The Wise Men.

What made us Chelm? Mostly it was my relationship with Paul, the executive director. The executive director who followed Paul, who bore the biggest brunt in the aftermath of the embezzlement, approached me shortly after she discovered the theft. “One thing I don’t understand,” she said. “I get why he would steal. People steal, it’s a human weakness, and we let him get away with it for so long. But I don’t understand why he was an asshole.”

Yes, that was the puzzle, the key to understanding our own private Chelm. If he was trying to get away with stealing, why did he work so hard to undermine me, to encourage factions among congregants and the board, to torture staff members who respected me, to draw attention to an obvious power play? After all, I wasn’t checking the books. If he wanted to get away with stealing $100,000 a year (or more), wouldn’t he play the good guy, strive to be universally admired, deflect suspicion? Why, then, was he so caustic and unresponsive to at least half the congregation, and so determined to antagonize and undermine me – a rabbi who I have to say, with all modesty, was pretty-well liked?

Here are only a few examples.

About a month after he started on the job, he instructed one of our custodians to take down several publicity posters that I had asked him to put up. When the custodian told Paul that it was “the Rabbi” (me), who’s wanted the posters up, Paul told him never to listen to the rabbi, that the rabbi had no authority to tell him what to do.

The sound system in both the community hall and the main sanctuary was constantly breaking down, with microphones squawking feedback, or not working at all. I asked Paul to look into it. He said he would, but didn’t. I asked the custodians to help, but Paul told them not to listen to me. Finally, I brought sound engineers in for a meeting. Paul reluctantly sat in, but never followed through. The sound remained a problem for the rest of his time (the executive director after Paul solved the issue).

The various rooms and halls were invariably set up incorrectly on Shabbat – our busiest twenty four hour period, with dinners, bar or bat mitzvahs, baby-namings, a variety of worship experiences, etc… Paul didn’t work on Friday nights or Saturdays, so it was left to me and Ben to move tables around, set up directional signs, and convince the custodians, who weren’t supposed to listen to us, to help. When I’d complain to Paul, he’d accused me of disrespecting the custodians and imply that I exhausted everyone with a constant stream of new programming. He’d accuse me of lording it over the staff, and point out that he didn’t report to me.

Lording it over the staff. Expecting too much. Acting as if everyone reported to me, that I was the big boss of the congregation. Was he right? Was the issue here an overworked support staff, and an impatient, manic, insensitive egotistical senior rabbi? In the early months of our conflict, I seriously considered the possibility. Paul knew – as did the volunteer leadership – that I’d quarreled with the previous two executive directors. Actually, I’d gotten them fired. I had valid reasons – I thought. But maybe the issue was the inherent conflict – the clashing responsibilities – of a synagogue’s senior rabbi and executive director. Or maybe it was me, not knowing my place, not knowing how I presented myself to the staff.

I tried to discuss the issues with Paul, but he would only nod slowly, and I’d sense an silent undercurrent of anger in the way he squint and looked away. But the fact is, it’s hard to say that I was in actual conflict with Paul, since we rarely spoke. I’d hear of his complaints from congregants or other members of the staff. Or he’d assure me that everything was fine, that he’d focus more on the sound system, or the set-ups. But nothing would change. For almost two years, it was simply Chelm. Despite our robust support staff, Ben and I – the rabbis – would show up early on Friday night and Saturday, fiddle with the microphones, shlep around books and chairs and tables, put up posters, tape up directional signs, distribute flyers, and hope to finish our chores by the time services started. Then on Sunday I’d email Paul with my list of complaints. Mostly, he wouldn’t write back.

After a while, of course, I involved the synagogue president. The last straw had nothing to do with microphones or posters. It was Paul’s attempt to fire our pregnant education director. Betty started work at Shomrei Torah at age 19, and she was our longest serving employee – the only one who predated me. Paul despised her, even though she was close friends with his wife. I didn’t know why, but the most logical explanation was that she ignored his instructions. On our organizational chart, Betty reported to Ben, and in any case she was a seasoned Jewish educator, while Paul had no experience at all in the field. In the beginning of his fourth year, when Betty was pregnant with her second child, Paul went around me and Ben, and complained bitterly to board members about Betty. He slammed her clothing choices, her work ethic, accused her of mismanaging her budget. When the president approached me and handed me a memo about Betty, I pointed out that virtually every item was either incorrect or inappropriate. Betty managed her budget correctly – Paul had fudged some numbers. We didn’t have a dress code. Her work ethic was excellent, thought she’d recently missed more days than usual because of a difficult pregnancy. I’m not a lawyer, I told the president, but wouldn’t firing her for being pregnant put us in some legal jeopardy? He backed off quickly.

In general, the volunteers looked at my tension with Paul as the natural outcome of two strong-willed individuals, fighting for power. From their perspective, Paul was their first highly competent, professional executive director – he proved his competence every month with his always balanced (doctored) spread sheets. At first, I grudgingly accepted that framing. I was strong-willed, ego-driven, and felt strongly that the senior rabbi should be the senior professional of the congregation. But after the Betty incident I encouraged them to re-frame the issue. It’s not two well-meaning, hardworking professionals clashing for the sake of heaven. It’s right and wrong, I pleaded to individual members of the executive committee. They’d nod, promise to look into it. Or urge me to talk to him, again. The friendlier ones chuckled along with me. Chelm, they repeated – they’d heard the reference from me and Ben. Nothing changed. He’d provoke, ignore, scheme, undermine. Gaslight. Drive me insane with hatred.

But why? Quarrelling with me only drew attention to the details of his work, something he surely would not have wanted. In fact, towards the end of Paul’s time at Shomrei Torah, the president told me I would oversee Paul’s review process, along with the synagogue treasurer, who grew suspicious at Paul’s attempt to fire Betty. This certainly would not have happened if Paul had attempted to placate me, even a little. “Why was he an asshole?” To this day, I don’t why. Paul’s my enigma, my personal Chelm, without the jokes – the unexplained foolishness that lies at the center of human experience, or at least Jewish institutional experience, or synagogue experience, or at least my experience.

He got caught a few weeks after he resigned abruptly and took a higher paying job at a larger congregation in DC. Our bookkeeper was preparing for a board report when she noticed an oddity – a $6,000 cash transfer from one of our credit cards to a private bank account. After some quick checking she noticed that the same amount was transferred every month to the same private account. She called the bank; the private account was Paul’s. Then she called the new executive director, who called me.

At first I was sure it was a mistake, or easily explained. Paul was an asshole – but a thief? Our volunteer treasurer, a CPA, spent half a day on our books and confirmed the worst. Not only was Paul helping himself to $6,000 a month, he was using synagogue credit cards to pay for groceries, vacations, gym memberships, luxury travel. We were able to document approximately $600,000, but in all likelihood it was more. We found dozens of payments we couldn’t explain, but couldn’t attribute directly to Paul.

The next six manic months were the most painfully surreal of my career. It started with two bizarre phone conversations with Paul, where, stuttering and angry, he quickly went from denial, to claiming it had been a mistake, to weepily admitting the theft and begging for mercy because of his children (we all loved his children). We hired communications consultants, lawyers, accountants. We held a packed town-hall meeting with the congregation, where I urged us to stay unified and personally vouched for the remaining staff (“I’d trust them with my life,” I boldly asserted).

Oddly, it took some time before Paul was charged. The local police told us they couldn’t follow through because Paul now lived out of state, in Washington DC. What a great way to get away with theft, I thought. Smash a window, break into a liquor store, empty the cash register – but then leave town. Ultimately our lawyers and accountants had to gather all the information, present it to the local branch of the FBI, and convince them to investigate. I assumed someone in authority would want to talk to me. And indeed one day two swarthy agents showed up at the front desk and asked if I was available. I was, but I was meeting with Ben (we met every morning, and at least three or four more times every day). Our receptionist told the agents I was in conference, but I’d be available soon. They thanked her politely and left, without leaving a card, or even a message. That was it, as far as me and law enforcement.

In general, the new executive director, the president and I worked well together through the ordeal, but with some painful exceptions. The executive director and the president advocated accountability and house-cleaning. They wanted the entire executive committee to resign. I argued that we couldn’t decapitate the lay leadership of our community, plus I wanted to keep the focus on the undisputed wrongdoer – Paul. Yes, the leadership had been negligent, particularly those involved in finance. But Paul had fooled everyone, and now, I felt, was a time for healing and compassion. The new ED and I were good enough friends that we could scream out our disagreement, but it wasn’t pleasant. Ultimately the ED and the president decided, over my protest, that the volunteer treasurer, who was slotted to be the next president, had to go. That lead to the most excruciating conversation of my career. He phoned me one night, hollering, near tears, and demanded to know if I agreed he shouldn’t be president. I didn’t agree, I told him. He didn’t believe me. Wasn’t I the boss? But that was the problem, wasn’t it? I wasn’t the boss. I called the president after speaking with the treasurer. By then it was past 11, but she was up (or I woke her). I asked her to reconsider. She, also close to tears, promised to think it over. She did, but didn’t change her mind. I called back the treasurer, and now we were both in tears. But his were tears of anger. He was raging, Lear-like, furious. At me.

 

III.  Losses

“It’s only money.” That was a common refrain around the synagogue in the wake of the embezzlement. No one was killed. There was no physical damage – to person or property. The community survived, later thrived – it’s still thriving. But there were losses. Gail, the part-time bookkeeper who Paul manipulated and lied to everyday, who discovered the theft just weeks after he finally gave her the account passwords, lost her job. Two other staff members had been laid off earlier by Paul, claiming we couldn’t afford to keep them – when the money he stole could easily have paid their salaries. One of those struggled for years before finding another job. The treasurer lost some measure of community respect, not to mention the hundreds of volunteer hours he spent unraveling the mess. Paul’s wife lost a husband, and his young children lived with the stigma of a jailed father.

And there was me. All through the Paul years, I’d been active in fundraising – from the entire congregation, and especially from our wealthiest members. But I’d been using cooked books in my presentations, provided by Paul. I doubted our donors would ever fully trust me again. Then there were those congregational leaders who supported Paul over me when I complained about his antics. Or those who stayed neutral, or even those who seemed to sympathize with me, but did nothing. My public posture was compassion and forgiveness, and I tried hard to internalize a kind of general amnesty. But, for me, my sermons and stories about moving on were like using Advil to treat a tumor. Roiling resentments grew slowly inside of me, like a slow growing cancer. At first I was too busy to notice, and too distracted by my own platitudes and a desperate, contrived self-righteousness. But I couldn’t imagine ever working closely with those leaders again. The synagogue president took my aside on the Kol Nidrei night after the theft, just before services. I wanted to apologize, she said. I’m sorry. You were right about Paul, and we were wrong. I exhaled slowly. Vindication. For years, during the Chelm era, that’s all I’d been looking for. Someone to tell me – to convince me – that I was right, and Paul was wrong. Such a simple sentence. Of course, I forgive you, I told the president. I was anxious to get to the bimah, to look over my notes, to start the service, to do the job I’d done for almost thirty years. I smiled at her. Is pretending to forgive good enough when you can’t possibly muster true forgiveness? Good question. But it wasn’t the topic of my sermon that night. I’m only contemplating that now.

Shortly before Paul was to be sentenced, our lawyer (why did we need a lawyer?) asked me to write a letter to the judge. There was a possibility that Paul would get off without jail time, he told me, though that was unlikely. A letter from me could go a long way in ensuring a fair sentence, or at least the sentence recommendation he had worked out with the prosecutors. He also encouraged me to attend the sentencing and read the letter out loud. At first, I balked. Paul’s wife would be there, maybe his children. And – jail? Is that really what I wanted for Paul? I opened my laptop, stared at the screen, placed my fingers on the keyboard, and waited to see what might emerge. It wasn’t pretty. I filled the page with expletives. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and for the first time in my life (and hopefully the last) I literally trembled with anger. I quickly slapped down the screen, fled my office, and drove to the hospital to visit congregants. Two days later I dashed off a quick note to the judge, emphasizing the three folks who had lost their jobs because of Paul. I told our lawyer I couldn’t attend the sentencing because I was too busy with work at the synagogue. There was always work at the synagogue.

Two years later, I got the job offer from that important international Jewish organization. Then Paul’s letter from jail arrived. Would I forgive him? I wrote back that I would. But I didn’t. I don’t.

 

IV.  The Carpet Guy

About a year ago, after I’d left the position at the important international Jewish organization, after a string of poor decisions and bad luck left me facing unemployment, and very shortly after I was struck with the illness that would force me into early retirement, I received a call from a colleague, asking about Paul. He’d seen his resume on LinkedIn. Impressive! He read me the highlights. As executive director of Shomrei Torah, Paul had apparently overseen a massive rebuilding of the synagogue campus. He’d raised fifteen million dollars for capital expenses, and eight million for endowment. Balanced budgets every year. Wasn’t that my former synagogue? What did I think of Paul? His schull was looking for a new executive director, one with solid experience with budgets and fundraising. Paul seemed perfect. Should they call him, urge him to apply?

My first thought was – practical joke. Distasteful, sure, but sort of funny. But this guy barely knew me; he wouldn’t have been aware at how Paul still haunted my nightmares, how I blamed him not only for my professional collapse, but also for the loss of many valued relationships. I groaned softly, chuckled, told him “yeah, sure,” then waited for the real purpose of the call.

But there was only silence, too long, uncomfortable. Finally, he said, “so, you do think we should call him? You’d recommend hiring him?”

I exhaled. I’d been holding my breath. “You’re not joking?”

“Joking? Why would I joke?”

“Hold on a second,” I said. I turned on my laptop, and called up Paul’s resume on LinkedIn. It was open to the public. It was all there. The “highly successful” years at Shomrei Torah. $15 million capital campaign. $8 million dollar endowment. Lies. Lie after lie after lie. For search firms everywhere. For my reading pleasure. I took particular interest in his current position, which, as it happened, was accurate. Director of Catering at Beth Simcha, one of the largest synagogues in the country, and certainly one of the most lucrative Jewish catering operations on the West Coast. I felt my heart racing, the distressingly familiar, bilious, black anger erupting.

“Let me call you back,” I said.

Almost every Selichot season, I would study the same essay with a group of congregants: “The Carpet Guy” by Ann Lamott. It tells the story of a church volunteer who purchases a used carpet for her Sunday school class, discovers a large mold spot in the middle, and encounters a lying, cheating carpet store owner when she attempts to get her money back. Through numerous phone calls and visits to the store, cajoling and threatening, she waits fruitlessly for the cathartic release of an apology – vindication, not just her money back, but a just resolution. In the end, frustrated, furious, she astonishes the reader by apologizing herself for her behavior. She even buys the guy flowers.

An inspiring story of forgiveness? I would ask. Or offering apologies? Or – what? Is Ann a role model for the Jewish process of teshuvah? Do we admire her selfless quest for reconciliation and repair?

No! one congregant argued vociferously one year, her eyes bright with an unexpected anger.

“She’s a sap?” I suggested. “Naïve?” That was sort of my opinion, though I often find naivete to be an admirable quality.

“No, no. That would be okay. The problem is the Christian nonsense. She thinks the Carpet Guy is Jesus.”

“Huh?” I said. I hadn’t seen that. But she was right. It’s on the first page of the essay. “He [Jesus] is there in the store.” I’d thought she meant in the store watching her behavior, but the congregant could be correct. For Ann, Jesus might have been the carpet guy.

“And then,” the congregant continued, “she imitates Jesus. She becomes Jesus. Sacrificing herself totally. Buying him flowers, when she did nothing wrong! She takes on his sin, takes on all responsibility, and he doesn’t have to do anything. It infuriates me. That’s not Judaism. That’s not justice, and it’s a sham forgiveness. I despise this essay. Why did you make us read it?”

“Huh,” I said (I was very articulate that evening).

Later, after a few re-readings, I realized that even though the perturbed congregant permanently changed my understanding of the essay, I didn’t entirely agree with her interpretation. This isn’t a benevolent, loving daughter of God bestowing forgiveness on a poor sinner. There’s a darkness to Ann’s character that my congregant overlooked. She’s contemptuous of the carpet guy from the beginning, a contempt powered by snobbishness. She initially describes the store as a “missing tooth.” Then it’s “crummy,” a “place where bad things go down.” The carpet guy himself provokes a rage in Ann that both disturbs and confounds her – he tempts her “into the dark swampy underside of human discourse,” opens the “door to the most primitive place inside of me,” the anger fuels a malignant energy, “like a drug.” She writes him an apology note because otherwise she’d have to murder him. Really, the essay grapples with the question of what to do with a relationship that looms too large in the psyche. What do you do when you hate someone so much you insist that everyone hate him, and it drives you crazy that they don’t, that they don’t see him like you do, as the absolutely epitome of fraud, dishonesty, injustice? In fact, you want God to hate him every bit as much, if not more, than you do – but you know that’s not possible, that to even think such a thought destroys your relationship with the Divine, destroys you. Ann Lamott answers that “you clean up your side the street,” before you drown in your own garbage. You write an apology note. You buy the guy flowers. For a few years, Paul was my carpet guy. He brought out the worst in me, not just the anger, but the contempt, the self-righteousness, the ego. Unlike Ann Lamott, when the time came for a honest reckoning, and a sincere exchange of letters, I punted, scribbled out some platitudes. I threw some dirt over the dark rage, and figured I’d go on with my life, with my new job, new relationships. But life has a way of careening off what can seem like the straight path, and buried feelings reemerge. I don’t blame Paul for my professional blunders or for the sickness that ended my career. But I do connect his rise to my fall, and connections can blur into blame.

 

I stared at Paul’s LinkedIn resume for an indeterminate amount of time. When you’re retired for health reasons, time loses its shape, its crispness, its insistent authority. Let’s say it was half an hour. Then I texted the link to the current Shomrei Torah president. I wrote that this was no longer my business – I wasn’t an employee of the synagogue. But he might want to note Paul’s boast of raising $15 million dollars for the capital campaign, and $8 million for endowment. The true sums for both of those categories was 0 and 0; Paul wasn’t involved in either campaign. The only salient accomplishment of his time at Shomrei Torah was his success in stealing over $600,000, until he got caught. I never heard back from the president. A few weeks ago, a current employee told me that Shomrei Torah’s executive director asked his counterpart at Beth Jacob how they could have hired Paul, a convicted thief. He responded that Paul had served his time, and that he’d assured them that he’d paid back every penny he’d stolen. “But that’s not true, is it?” I asked. “No,” he answered, chuckling slightly as if time had rendered the whole incident unfortunate, but now, with retrospective wisdom, also somewhat humorous. “It’s not true.”

What do I do now? I asked myself. Call the FBI? Write to my congressman? Drive to LA, punch him in the face? Send him flowers? I’m painfully aware that there’s an obvious answer. Let it go. Illness bestows the strange gift of utter powerlessness. Unemployment offers similar benefits. I wasn’t physically up to challenging Paul’s lies, and I wasn’t important enough to do anything that mattered. There was nothing I could do, except grumble to a few friends and to my long-suffering family who all offered the same predictable wise advice.

But letting it go seemed like relinquishing yet another element in my life. I’d already let go of so much: my health, my career, many relationships, several friendships. I thought of the phrase “holding a grudge.” At least you’re holding on to something. For me, maintaining not merely my judgement of Paul, but my bitter resentments toward him, my anger at how our mutual lives had turned out, meant that I was holding the validity of my work at Shomrei Torah in the palm of my hand, even as so much else slipped away. I was grasping a fading truth – that my career at that particular synagogue at that particular time mattered, that I struggled with Paul, and sometimes lost, but the work – the righteous struggle – made a difference, at least to some people. At least to me.

 

V.  The Wise Man

“Holding a grudge is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

A congregant once told me that, and I laughed. “Perfect,” I said.

“It’s a twelve-step saying,” she said. “But I think it works for everyone.”

“It sounds like a Chelm story,” I told her. “The wise man eats and eats, and waits for his enemy to get sick.”

But I don’t think she’d heard of Chelm.

She quoted me the line the night of our first townhall in the wake of Paul’s theft. It was only later that evening that I realized she must have been talking about me. But I’d spoken of reconciliation, of unity, of trusting each other. Where did she hear holding a grudge? The answer, of course is that she sensed it everywhere – in my body language, my facial expressions, the tone of my voice, the way I gripped the podium and cringed every time I mentioned his name. The words said forgiveness, but the music was an operatic call for revenge. Everyone could hear it that night, except for me.

Last month, I ran into several former and present Shomrei Torah colleagues at a Bat Mitzvah celebration. It was a happy gathering of old friends, swapping stories, laughing, gentle teasing. Lots of talk about moving on, of new careers, new challenges, not to mention new babies and spouses. Inevitably, the topic of Paul came up – the incident had colored many lives besides mine. I mentioned the twelve-step line about bitterness and eating poison, and my reinterpretation of the quote as a Chelm story. And here I am, I said. The last Wise Man of Chelm, still eating poison. Well, someone replied. If you were giving a sermon now about holding a grudge, what would you say? I smiled, trying to keep it light. I don’t give sermons anymore, I said. All I do now is try to hold on.

 

Philip Graubart is a writer and rabbi living in San Diego, California. He’s published four novels, a collection of essays and a collection of short stories, in addition to numerous articles, reviews and essays. He is currently director of Jewish life and learning at the San Diego Jewish Academy.

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