Last Saturday, I was in temple and came across my friend Bruce. I hadn’t seen him for a while because we’ve taken, of late, to attending different services. I asked him how he was doing. He smiled, like he always does, in lieu of an answer. It wasn’t polite or evasive. It was his answer. It said: “what could be wrong?” It was the same smile he gave me when I knew he wasn’t so great. When the weight of a world that he carried upon his shoulders seemed too great to bare. Even then, “what could be wrong?” A smile that spoke volumes.
He asked, as he always did, how I was doing. I wasn’t in the mood for prevarication. It was too early in the day and too late in the movie.
“Honestly, not so great.” He dug a little deeper and I instantly regretted opening a conversation that belonged neither then nor there. I pivoted and just like that, we moved on to other topics. I was instantly cheered by his outlook and world-view. Many years ago, while discussing the well-being of a common friend, I asked him whether he was the sort of guy who saw the proverbial cup as half-empty or half-full. He said: I see it as full. I protested. That was not one of the options. He said, and I’ll never forget this: “why not? If we are talking about perspective, it should always be an option.” That was Bruce.
Later that night, I got a call. Bruce. “What’s wrong,” he wanted to know. It was too complicated to explain. He persisted. I demurred. He told me he was going out of town but upon his return, he’d get to the bottom of it. “Let’s plan a dinner.” I acquiesced. Just to avoid any further discomfort.
He died 5 days later.
I’ve never met anyone like him. Growing up, I was indoctrinated with stories of ancient divine messengers who appeared on earth as mortal men. They performed some unimaginable act of kindness then disappeared. I never bought into it.
Until I met Bruce Weinrib.
Suddenly, every apocrypha seemed possible. A sweet man, raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Like he had a mission to cure the world. No matter the cost.
I am blessed to live in a community that comes together at the faintest breeze of despair. Most are willing to sacrifice of themselves to shoulder the burden of those in need. Some ask nothing in return except the quiet admiration of their peers. I say that without snark. I really don’t care why you’re motivated. Your ledger records your actions, not your motivation. But, Bruce, if he had a defining characteristic, it was his adamant insistence on anonymity. He cared not a single iota about his personal standing, often allowing others to accept the credit for his good works. His measure of self-worth lay not in his standing among others but in the success of those around him.
16 years ago, we accepted an invitation to break Shabbat bread at his house. We barely knew him. I was apprehensive. What would we talk about? Nary 5 minutes into the meal when he popped the question. “Tell us about some of the more interesting lawsuits you are working on.” His children stared like they cared. I stuttered because I’m not used to people actually asking about my life. My pithy answers apparently did not satisfy, so, he took matters into his own hands. With the active participation of his children, he kicked off a round-table by raising ethical and philosophical issues implicated by the brief set of facts I disclosed. He understood the law, and its human impact, in a way that challenged my arrogant perception of the cases I was handling. In minutes, he isolated considerations that I had never considered. That my bosses overlooked. Without exaggeration, it changed the way I looked at those cases. And, every one since.
How do you repay someone who literally changed the way you think? Who, without pretense, taught me that every decision, every strategy, every act or omission, impacts other people’s lives. Even when the connection may be elusive, it’s there. For anyone who cares to look for it.
For me, it was transformational. For Bruce? Another day in paradise. When we left, I thanked him. I teared up and then felt silly. He just smiled. “What could be wrong?”