Harry Nelson

In Memory of Ben Grossman: On the Ultimate Humility

On Monday, my friend, Ben Grossman, died.  He was 37.

Ben taught everyone around him many lessons in the way he lived and in the way he responded to getting sick.  I’ve been reflecting the last couple days  in particular on what I will remember most.

Ben had a calm, patient energy. He had an easy smile. Living across the street, seeing him throughout the week, the memories I will hold onto all share the thread of his kindness. I will remember Ben walking with his kids to synagogue. I will remember Labor Day afternoon hiking with our families in Franklin Canyon, just 10 months ago, before illness took away his mobility.

I will remember the seriousness with which Ben took prayer and connecting spiritually. I will remember the countless times when I got to hear his beautiful voice singing, on Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons, at gatherings with friends. I will remember Ben’s devotion to the rabbis around him, and the way he was moved by stirring words of Torah. I will remember Ben preparing himself physically for treatment by first preparing himself spiritually, getting on a plane to Israel to visit the most learned, holy teachers he could find.

I will remember specific moments: davening with Ben on Rosh Hashana a few years ago, his voice full of emotion with a terrifying understanding of the life-and-death content of the liturgy.  It was hard not to be moved by his purity of intention, advocating not only for himself but for a whole room of people who were with him.  And I will remember the many moments when Ben, in turn, was moved by the kindness of people around him, even little things.

More recently, I will remember dinner this past Rosh Hashana, when we sat with our families until the physical challenges made it hard for him to stay. I will remember hoping against hope that there would be a miracle and that there would be good news.

Ben was so positive that it was easy to get the misimpression that things were going well, that he had a chance to beat a disease that no one seems to beat.   I remember his same positivity even when he shared the story of his younger brother, Avinoam, an 18-year-old boy who lost his life tragically, swept away by a wave. What I remember is not the dark story, but the positive hope that filled Ben as he talked about naming his son after his beloved brother.

What I will remember is that, at all times, Ben lived in reality, accepting and dealing with what was. Even when he was struggling and as the disease was taking his words away, he was worried about everyone around him. It was little surprise that those who eulogized him talked about how, even as people tried to support him, Ben was the one who strengthened all of us.

There is so much to learn from Ben.  Personally, I will carry his lesson about the ultimate humility.

What does it mean to be humble? The Torah recounts that “the man Moses was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)  Why was Moses, the celebrated leader and prophet, described in this way?

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad, read in synagogues across the world this past week, offers a clue.   “Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad . . . . And they stood before Moses . . . and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying: `Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ And Moses brought their cause before the Lord.”  (Numbers 27:1-5)

Moses had received the Law at Mount Sinai and delivered it to the Children of Israel.  The daughters, whose father suffered an ignominious death, are the first people with the audacity to challenge the content of the law and speficially their exclusion under the laws of inheritance. And how does Moses respond?  He listens and, without delay, brings their case before God, leading to the first explicit amendment of the law given at Sinai.

What can we take away from this?  The daughters are unafraid to assert themselves in the face of an unfortunate circumstance. Moses, in turn, does not hesitate to bring their petition before God.  How many of us respond the same unflinching way to the challenges we encounter?

As human beings, we are born storytellers.  Stories help us make sense of the world and keep memories alive.  We tell ourselves stories all the time, and share some of them with the people around us.  Sometimes we are right. Sometimes we are deceiving ourselves.  There is a natural temptation to convince ourselves we are in control or that we know what is true. We believe our own stories and discount other people’s stories, especially when they conflict with our own. No, that’s not the way I remember it.  That’s not what was really happening. The truth is …

Sometimes we go beyond just telling ourselves stories and tell stories that put on a show for other people. There is a Chasidic story told of a king who, in an effort to show his humility, refused to ride in his royal carriage. Instead, he would walk behind it — until a wise man taught him that the proper way was to be humble riding inside the carriage.

The highest form of humility is not the external action on display for everyone else, but the internal: how we think and encounter the terrain inside ourselves. True humility is an awareness of and sensitivity to the limits of our own perspective. It is about accepting that we are not in control, avoiding the mistake of taking for granted that our stories are true, and not worrying about trying to persuade ourselves or others. Ultimately, the core is epistemological modesty — appreciating the limitations of our own finite perspectives and being unafraid to admit that we don’t know, that we are uncertain, that we are even wrong, that we have a limited ability to know what is really going on or why anything is happening. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin quoted Joseph Schumpeter on this challenge: “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions, and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.”

I think Ben’s humility grew out of his emunah, his faith, in the only One who knows what is true. Psalm 93 begins, “The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty.” The word for “majesty” applied to God in the Hebrew is ge’ut. When the same root is applied to human beings, the quality is not ge’ut, majesty, but (in the more familiar Yiddish) gai’vah, arrogance. In other words, that which is regal and fitting for the Holy One is unbecoming for us. God knows everything.  We, on the other hand, only make the mistake of pretending or thinking we do.

As someone who gets riled up easily over petty conflicts and minor setbacks, I will carry forward the inspiration of Ben’s steadfast way of dealing with what was happening.  When I catch myself deep in the act of telling myself stories, when I feel victimized or righteously indignant, I will think of Ben and do my best to remember that anger does no good, and that all we can do is think about where we could do better, where we have gone wrong, and where we can be more modest about what we know.

Ben, Dorit and I are just two of the countless people who will carry your lessons and your memory forward in our lives.  I write this with tears in my eyes that time ran out on the opportunities to connect.  I hope you know how much we loved you and how grateful we were for your love. Above all, I hope your children and your family know how much you loved them.  For my part, I will honor your memory by doing my best to keep you in mind and live with more equanimity in the face of the things I can’t control.  Goodbye, my friend.  


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