Mitch Albom wrote a book titled Have a Little Faith. Mitch grew up Jewish, but as he left for college and started a career in sports writing, he left many of his Jewish roots behind. Years later, his rabbi approached him with a special request. From page 1 of his book,
“Will you do my eulogy?”
I don’t understand, I said.
“My eulogy?” the old man asked again. “When I’m gone.” His eyes blinked from behind his glasses. His nearly trimmed beard was gray, and he stood slightly stooped.
Are you dying? I asked.
“Not yet,” he said, grinning.
“Because I think you would be a good choice. And I think, when the time comes, you will know what to say.”
Picture the most pious man you know. Your priest. Your pastor. Your rabbi. Your imam. Now picture him tapping you on the shoulder and asking you to say good-bye to the world on his behalf.
Picture the man who sends people off to heaven, asking you for his send-off to heaven.
“So?” he said. “Would you be comfortable with that?
The book is a great read. Mitch tells the true stories of the interactions with his rabbi, as well as a pastor of a homeless church in Detroit. I wanted to share a few stories that I found especially touching. In preparation for the eulogy, Mitch met with his rabbi regularly for 8 years. The rabbi is a remarkable man. One of their conversations is detailed on page 158,
Soon we had tumbled into a most fundamental debate. How can different religions coexist? If one faith believes one thing, and another believes something else, how can they both be correct? And does one religion have the right— or even the obligation— to try to convert the other?
…[jump to page 159]
Is there any winning a religious argument? Whose God is better than whose? Who got the Bible right or wrong? I preferred figures like Rajchandra, the Indian poet who influenced Gandhi by teaching that no religion was superior because they all brought people closer to God; or Gandhi himself, who would break a fast with Hindu prayers, Muslim quotations, or a Christian hymn.
…[jumping to pages 160-162]
“Ask yourself, ‘Why did God create but one man?'” the Reb said, wagging a finger. “Why, if he meant for there to be faiths bickering with each other, didn’t he create that from the start? He created trees, right? Not one tree, countless trees. Why not the same with man?
“Because we are all from that one man— and all from that one God. That’s the message.”
Then why, I asked, is the world so fractured?
“Well, you can look at it this way? Would you want the world to all look alike? No. The genius of life is its variety.
“Even our own faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates. In Christianity, in Catholicism, in other faiths, the same thing— debates, interpretations. That is the beauty. It’s like being a musician. If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts. It’s the blending of the different notes that makes the music.”
The music of what?
“Of believing in something bigger than yourself.”
But what if someone from another faith won’t recognize yours? Or wants you dead for it?
“That is not faith. That is hate.” He sighed. “And if you ask me, God sits up there and cries when it happens.”
He coughed, then as if to reassure me, he smiled. He had full time help in the house now; his home care workers had included a tall woman from Ghana and a burly Russian man. Now, on weekdays, there was a lovely Hindu woman from Trinidad named Teela. She helped get him dressed and do some light exercises in the morning, fixed his meals, and drove him to the supermarket and synagogue. Sometimes she would play Hindi religious music over her car stereo. The Reb enjoyed it and asked for a translation. When she talked about reincarnation, per her faith, he quizzed her and apologized for not knowing more about Hinduism over the years.
How can you— a cleric— be so open-minded? I asked.
“Look, I know what I believe. It’s in my soul. But I constantly tell our people: you should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say that we don’t know everything, we must accept that another person may believe in something else?”
“I’m not being original here, Mitch. Most religions teach us to love our neighbor.”
I thought about how much I admired him at that moment. How he never, even in private, even in old age, tried to bully another belief, or bad-mouth someone else’s devotion. And I realized I had been a bit of a coward on this whole faith thing. I should have been more proud, less intimidated. I shouldn’t have bitten my tongue. If the only thing wrong with Moses is that he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with Jesus is he’s not yours; if the only thing wrong with mosques, Lent, chanting, Mecca, Buddha, confession, or reincarnation is that they’re not yours— well, maybe the problem is you.
One more question? I asked the Reb.
When someone from another faith says, “God bless you,” what do you say?
“I say, ‘Thank you, and God bless you, too.'”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
I went to answer and realized I had no answer. No answer at all.
I wanted to share one more story, where I take the title of my post. From pages 70-71,
“What’s wrong?” the Reb asked.
Apparently minutes earlier, Gunther had been outside, overseeing the parking, when the Catholic priest came stomping out and began to yell about all the cars parking by his church, because it was Sunday and he wanted the spaces for his members.
“Get them out of here,” he hollered, according to Gunther. “You Jews move your cars now!”
“But it’s High Holiday,” Gunther said.
“Why must you have it on Sunday?” the priest yelled.
“The date was set three thousand years ago,” Gunther replied. Being an immigrant, he still spoke with a German accent. The priest glared at him, then uttered something almost beyond belief.
“They didn’t exterminate enough of you.”
Gunther was enraged. His wife had spent three and a half years in a concentration camp. He wanted to slug the priest. Someone intervened, thankfully, and a shaken Gunther returned to the sanctuary.
The next day, the Reb phoned the Catholic archbishop who oversaw the area’s churches and told him what had happened. The following day, the phone rang. It was the priest, asking if he could come over and talk.
The Reb met him at the office door. They sat down.
“I want to apologize,” he said.
“Yes,” the Reb said.
“I should not have said what I did.”
“No, you should not have,” the Reb said.
“My archbishop had a suggestion,” the priest said.
“What is that?”
“Well, as you know, our Catholic school is in session now. And they will have their recess soon…”
The Reb listened.
Then he nodded and stood up.
And when the school doors opened and the kids burst out for recess, they saw the priest of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church and the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom walking arm in arm, around the schoolyard.
Some kids blinked.
Some kids stared.
But all of them took notice.
You might think that an uneasy truce; two men forced to walk around a schoolyard, arm in arm. You might think a certain bitterness would haunt the relationship. But somehow, in time, they became friends. And years later, the Reb would be inside the Catholic church.
At the priest’s funeral.
“I was asked to help officiate,” the Reb recalled. “I recited a prayer for him.” And I think, by that time, he might have thought it wasn’t so bad.”
I loved the book, and HIGHLY recommend it to everyone. I’ve only discussed the rabbi here, but there’s a fascinating story of a Christian preacher of the “I Am My Brother’s Keeper” church as well. Your heart will be touched, as mine was.
I welcome debate here. Sometimes tempers flare. I hope we can follow the example of the priest and the rabbi, walking arm in arm despite our different beliefs, and I hope we can maintain these friendships, even if we don’t convert anyone to our way of thinking.