Open Letter to My Students 40: Footprints In The Snow

“The snow was building up,” says Claire Keegan, in her beautiful little novel, Small Things Like These, so that Furlong (the story’s hero) could not help but notice how the footprints of people who had gone before and after him stood out plainly on the footpath.” How marvelous (I thought, as I read that line) — how marvelous to be able to differentiate the footprints of those who entered the world before my birth from those who entered it afterward. How would the two measure up?

This question intrigued me especially last week, as Yom Kippur blended into Sukkot, a time, traditionally, when even those Jews who cannot successfully hang a picture on a wall are mysteriously moved to hammer together an outdoor sukkah – that temporary booth whose very flimsiness symbolizes the fragility of life itself. If we can, we eat and even sleep there for a week, meditating on Ecclesiastes for whom, on one hand, everything is futile, while on the other, this is the life we have and we may as well live it the way God would like us to. 

But still, why footprints? 

Well, the thirteenth-century kabbalistic masterpiece, The Zohar, pictures biblical ancestors being invited to rise from the dead to share the sukkah as our guests — ushpizin, in Aramaic. There are seven of them: the three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) plus Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David. Nowadays, we commonly add also the matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) along with Miriam, Abigail and Esther. 

For the kabbalists who hatched the idea, however, the names were mere pretext: they stood for seven aspects of the divine that lend their aura to our simple sukkah. The point of the invitation was to sit for seven days alongside God: to bask in the blessing that comes from being in touch with something higher than ourselves.

What interests me is the relatively recent custom of making up our own list of guests: people whose pathway through life represents something godly. Hence footprints: I imagine myself studying the footprints in the snow of time, looking for worthy exemplars of humanity to share my sukkah as reminders that we human beings really can be godly. 

My invitees need not be perfect, you understand.  To be sure, I draw the line at utter reprehensibility. King David, who had Uriah the Hittite killed so as to marry his widow Bathsheba, would never have made my list, for example. But failing such excesses, and making allowance for ordinary human frailty, I search the footprints in the snow for models of the soul’s nobility – and I discover a problem. 

Like Furlong, from Small Things Like These, I see two sets of footprints: the footprints of those world leaders who were born and reached ascendancy before my time; and the footprints of those who came after me and are still making headlines. I don’t mean friends and family, living or dead: they get automatic invitations. I mean the movers and shakers of history, the people whose fame, influence, and power can sway the world toward the good and the godly or, just the opposite, toward mean-spirited pettiness, small-minded selfishness, self-serving lies, and even downright cruelty.

There are exceptions, of course – there are to every rule of thumb — but still, what shocks me is how easily I come up with invitees from the footprints that came before me; and how hard it is to find them among those whose footprints are much newer, the people dominating the news today. 

From the past, I’d invite Vaclav Havel, for example: author, poet, and dissident for humanity. I’d seat him next to Winston Churchill (warts and all), whose courageous leadership held off the Nazis while America waffled. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have a seat. So too would Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, I grant, is tarnished by the Vietnam War; I grant, also, that he was a tough politician with a reputation for having a filthy mouth (I’d hope he keeps mostly quiet at my sukkah feast); but he gets a seat at the table for championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. Across the table, I’d seat Albert Einstein: brilliant scientist, proud Jew, and humanitarian. Anxious to have at least one Supreme Court justice, I’d welcome Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Thurgood Marshall as well; and David ben Gurion and Golda Meir: founders of a Jewish state to save the Jewish People from extermination get a couple of places at the table. 

You get the idea. I have no trouble finding guests from the footprints of people whose birth preceded my own; but I do not so easily find them among those whose footprints are more recent.

I don’t think my difficulty stems only from the fact that we know so much more about today’s world leaders than we do of their predecessors. I worry that the culture has changed to the point where no one very much strives for moral greatness anymore; or cares very much if they are known for it. People of power and influence should personify the great and glorious hopes for human betterment, especially because their privileged position makes it easy to settle for less.

I’m a firm believer in the Rule of Three, a rule that I confess is only my own, but here it is: “Like pleasing arrangements on a mantelpiece, human thought arranges things best in groups of three.” Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson); thesis, antithesis, synthesis (Hegel); God, Torah, Israel (Judaism); Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Christianity). Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (French Revolution). Our character depends on the triad we choose for the mantelpiece of our conscience.

Marc Fisher (Washington Post , October 17, 2022) reports a study by Moises Naim at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, according to which, more and more world leaders of today live by the triad of populism, polarization and post-truth. By contrast, during the 1930s, as an antidote to an earlier generation of totalitarian strongmen, Superman comics preached, “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Superman was the brainchild of writer Jerry Siegel, who may have encountered the famous Jewish adage (Avot 1:18): “The world stands of three things: justice, truth, and peace.” I have my own triad, influenced by the Jewish one: justice, truth and kindness.  

When the people at the top fail the test of moral stature, the onus falls on the rest of us to fill the vacuum – as in the rabbinic admonition, “In a place where humanity is lacking, strive to be humane yourself.” As Sukkot ends and the guests return to their eternal dwelling on high, I trudge back out to add to my own footprints, with the faith that this era of minimal goodness will pass, but those who look back upon it may wonder what I chose to leave behind. Justice, truth and kindness will do just fine.


2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 40: Footprints In The Snow

  1. Rabbi Howard Laibson

    I have found that Micah 6:8 works for me: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. My interpretation is: always be fair, always be kind, and be humble enough to realize when you haven’t been either.

  2. Thank you for permitting your historical guests imperfection: “My invitees need not be perfect, you understand. … and making allowance for ordinary human frailty,…” Might we be too demanding of perfection for the still living?

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