By Yonoson Rosenblum | MARCH 1, 2022
Life itself supplies us with many invaluable mussar lessons if we just pay attention
One of the hallmarks of wisdom is the ability to learn from experience, both one's own and that of others. As a rule, wisdom grows with age, as experience accumulates. The elderly, the Gemara says, are entitled to respect by virtue of their store of different experiences — experiences that let them extrapolate to new situations, as well as learn from past mistakes.
There are, of course, many very smart young people. But wisdom is not a quality that we associate with the young, simply because of their limited experience. One of the first and most important lessons I learned as a young litigator was how much more valuable was experience over book learning.
Not by accident does the Gemara associate the term for an older person, zakein, with the acquisition of chochmah. As a general rule, it seems to me that most people become nicer as they grow older (though I can think of plenty of exceptions): more considerate of others, less assured of their own virtue. And much of that growth comes from attending carefully to the lessons that life throws one's way.
In recent months, I noticed that one of the most dependable members of my early morning minyan was absent several times for a prolonged period of time. The first time it happened, I assumed that he and his wife were traveling or were closeted at home with Covid.
But after the second or third prolonged absence, I asked him where he had been. He told me that he had been attending nearly every minyan in a shivah house. That same explanation applied to each of his other recent absences. He added that when his parents had passed away, organizing minyanim during shivah had been very difficult, and he had resolved to help ensure that others sitting shivah did not face the same problem.
That sensitivity to others born of one's own unpleasant experiences in a similar situation is one hallmark of wisdom.
Life itself supplies us with many invaluable mussar lessons if we just pay attention. I recently sent an email to a friend with whom I have not been in touch for some time, seeking in the subject line the contact information of a third party. His brief reply read: "Good to hear from you. I miss you!" Only then did he provide the requested email.
I can't be sure if my friend consciously meant to give me mussar, but regardless, I took his response as such: One doesn't write to a friend, particularly after a long interlude, in a perfunctory fashion, without acknowledging in some form the relationship between you. It took my friend only eight words and one exclamation point to get the message across, whether advertently or inadvertently.
One way for younger people to acquire wisdom beyond their years is to immerse themselves in the accumulated wisdom of the past. That, however, requires two things: the belief that there is such a thing as the accumulated wisdom of mankind, and a willingness to read.
Three nights ago, my wife and I had dinner with Pamela and Len Cohen. I have previously written about Pamela's book Hidden Heroes, which chronicles Pamela's 25 years of activism and leadership in the Soviet Jewry movement. (The hidden heroes of the book's title, however, are the Jewish refuseniks, whose example was crucial to the Cohens' own journey to full Jewish observance and learning.)
I commented to Pamela that she must be ecstatic about the rave reviews of the book upon which she labored for so many years. But she responded that great reviews were not her goal. Rather, one of her main goals had been to inspire and fortify today's Jewish university students, who often prefer to hide or ignore their Jewish identity, which is too frequently a barrier to social acceptance on campus.
The example of what the refuseniks had to endure in pursuit of their awakening Jewish identity, she had hoped, would cause Jews on campus to reevaluate their heritage and recognize that it holds treasures worth fighting for. Yet so far that is one group to whom she has not succeeded in breaking through, and it weighs heavily upon her.
I can only pray that many of the younger generation of American Jews somehow imbibe Pamela's message by other means, before there is nothing left of their Jewish identity — or their children's — to resuscitate. If you know any college students, consider sending them a copy of Hidden Heroes.
The Failed Iran Deal — Again
Some people, however, never learn from past mistakes, no matter how old they are. President Biden fits that category. Watching the current nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna is like watching a rerun of a nightmare.
When the US first entered into negotiations with Iran, it possessed overwhelming advantages in both military and economic power. Yet at every step of those negotiations, the US acted as a supplicant, and as if its motto were: "Any deal is better than no deal." From the start, the Iranians understood that the US's greatest bargaining chip — the threat of destroying Iran's nuclear program militarily — was viewed by the Obama administration as worse than a nuclear Iran.
When President Obama was still declaring that "a bad deal is worse than no deal," he and Secretary of State John Kerry enunciated a set of minimal conditions for a nuclear deal. One, anytime, anywhere inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. Two, full disclosure by Iran of its previous weaponization efforts. Three, sanction relief only after International Atomic Energy Agency certification of Iran's full compliance with all its commitments. Four, a decades-long agreement. Five, a requirement that Iran dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.
Two months before the 2015 signing of the JCPOA, a bipartisan group of experts, policy makers, and diplomats — including President Obama's former CIA director David Petraeus; Gary Samore, Obama's chief advisor on nuclear policy; and Dennis Ross, who oversaw Iran policy in Obama's first term — put forth a statement of minimum requirements for an agreement, which tracked the list above. None of those goals were achieved.
Instead, inspections were reduced to "managed access" that allowed Iran time to hide evidence from pesky inspectors before admitting them; all demands for information about previous weaponization efforts (which were subsequently revealed by Israel's capture of Iran's nuclear archives) were dropped; sanctions against Iran for its support of international terrorism and human rights abuses were quietly abandoned; all the centrifuges in Iran's Fordow underground facility remained in place, despite President Obama's observation that a peaceful program had no reason to burrow far underground; and nothing was done when Iran converted only a fraction of its enriched uranium to oxide, as required by a previous Provisional Agreement.
Subsequently, the United States granted Iran numerous exemptions from the JCPOA's requirements, which were hidden from the public and legislators. Walter Russell Mead aptly summed up: "The administration did not want the American people to know how many concessions it made to get the deal."
Meanwhile, every demand on Supreme Leader Khamenei's list of requirements was met, among them the full removal of all arms embargos on Iran; the dropping of all economic, financial, and banking sanctions; and the removal of all Security Council resolutions relating to Iran's nuclear program. Further, the agreement contained sunset clauses that effectively legitimized a full Iranian nuclear program by 2025.
Today, the Biden administration, employing much of the previous Obama team and operating on the same premises, is poised to enter into an even more ineffectual agreement. Despite President Biden's boast that he would obtain a "longer-term, stronger deal," three senior members of chief US negotiator Robert Malley's team have already resigned over the extent of US concessions. According to former Israeli national security advisor Jacob Nagel, Iran will retain all the major advances in its nuclear program in recent years, and gain hundreds of billions of dollars to rehabilitate its economy and fund terrorists throughout the region.
And just as the original JCPOA was concluded while Iran's Supreme Leader continued to assure the Iranian people of the regime's eternal enmity toward the United States, this one will be signed, even as Iran intensifies attacks on US forces in Iraq and Gulf allies.
Ask to be punched in the mouth, you can count on being taken up on the offer.