It would have been my father’s birthday today. He was born in 1921 in the small town of Rawitsch where his father owned a timber mill. Once he showed me the factory sign with ‘Wittenberg’ written large. The photograph was from the fifties or sixties; nobody had taken it down. It evidently never occurred to anyone that the family could have survived or that someone might return. His father also used to lead services, – partly, it was said, because he had the virtue of being extremely quick.
When my father was a small boy the family moved to nearby Breslau, now Wrotslaw; from there they fled to Palestine in 1937, leaving with just the bags in their hands after someone tipped off my grandfather that he was high on the Gestapo list. My father joined the British Army, then the Hagganah, experienced the siege of Jerusalem, and only moved to the UK in 1955. It seems fitting that his Yahrzeit falls on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Naturally I think about him on his birthday. He was far from being a moraliser, but one of his favourite sayings was ‘Ueberlegt sich der Chochem, ueberlegt sich der Narr’ – ‘While the person who thinks he’s so clever is thinking about it, so is the person he thinks is a fool’. On apt occasions he would remind me of these choice and invaluable words.
We live in a culture where much is at stake in not being wrong. ‘Don’t say sorry lest they think you’re admitting guilt’, is applied far more widely than in minor road accidents. We’re in danger of its becoming a proverb, a hallmark of our age.
It is hard to face not being right. Of course there are many situations in which it’s important to consider carefully and then find the courage to go ahead and do exactly what we believe to be correct. But sometimes we also need to be able to be mistaken. To do so we have to release ourselves from our pride, our defensiveness and, behind those shields, from a kind of shame which says ‘I just can’t bear myself if I’m wrong’. I find Shimon ben Zoma’s saying helpful here; he was a younger companion of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century. He answered the question ‘Who is wise?’ by explaining, ‘The person who learns from everyone’. That’s about listening to life with one’s heart, and about humility.
But the Yiddish proverb my father loved concerns something more than, or a bit different from, being wrong. It’s about considering the other point of view, looking from the other side. What’s made the other person adopt that view, harbour such feelings? I may know where it hurts from inside me, but where does it hurt from inside him or her?
When we experience those questions we let go of more than the imbalanced prejudice ofChochem and Narr – wise person against fool. We probably never really thought like that anyway. We let go of a certain view of truth, – that it is always a matter of right against wrong. We cease to be simply defenders of our own position and become listeners to the feelings and perspectives of others. We stop being just protagonists in arguments and find the opportunity to become healers.
That may not mean that we were wrong in the first instance, though we won’t have had the whole truth. It may also remain correct that ‘He was unfair’, or ‘She hurt me’. But three things change once we ask what life feels like to the other person, once we begin to take steps towards him or her, at first perhaps just in the privacy of our own heart. We become more thoughtful; the other person becomes a companion, even if we cannot agree; and the world becomes richer and deeper.

Get in touch...