“It was not until college that I was introduced to the writings of the great British philosopher, who had an impressive Jewish yichus, Isaiah Berlin.
He wrote a precious little book entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title is drawn from a proverb of the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, “A fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The hedgehog has one means of defense, his quills. The fox, on the other hand, has countless ways to outsmart his pursuers.
Isaiah Berlin expands this distinction to writers and thinkers. He contrasts those whose work focuses upon one single defining idea versus those who draw on a wide variety of areas of knowledge and life experiences. He includes Plato and Dostoyevsky in the former category and Aristotle and Shakespeare in the latter. Note that he makes no claim that either of these writers and thinkers is superior to the other.
Throughout my life, I have encountered many great leaders of the Jewish community. Some have been “hedgehogs,” and others have been “foxes.” I have also found that many of my friends are attracted to, and prefer to identify with, those who “know one big thing.”
My own tendency is inclined toward those “who know many things.” Some might call me a fan of the “foxes”, but I prefer to be considered a fan of the tachash.
During this past year, the year of the pandemic, we have suffered the loss of many great men and women who have “known one big thing,” known it well, and taught it well. We have also suffered the loss of other men and women who have “known many things,” known them well, and taught them well.
Not quite two weeks ago, we lost a man who was more than a mentor to me and more than a dear friend. I speak of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, zecher tzaddik l’vracha, a “fox” in the best sense of the metaphor.
Named for ancestors who were called Avraham Yehoshua, and known informally as Reb Shia, he was a chasid in every sense of that often misused term. He was pious, devout, and meticulously observant of every ritual and every minor custom. He was a chasid in his dress, on the Sabbath and festivals and on every day of the week. He knew Hasidic tales and knew how to tell stories in an inimitable fashion and in a manner designed to reach the hearts and souls of every audience he addressed.
He knew well, better than almost everyone I have known, the “one big thing” that is Hasidisim, Chasidus.
But he knew so many other things. He attended medical school and received tuition assistance from the famed non-Jewish comedian Danny Thomas. He was trained as a psychiatrist and went on to become a world-renowned expert in the fields of alcoholism and addictive behaviors. He founded one of the most prestigious centers in the world for the treatment of alcoholism. He worked closely with nuns and archbishops of the Roman Catholic faith.
His interests were far more colorful, to use the tachash analogy, than his faith and profession, although they too had plenty of “color” to them. He was an avid fan of the famous Peanuts cartoons and appreciated far more than their humor. He perceived their profound wisdom and eventually collaborated with the cartoonist himself, Charles Shultz.
He was the author of more than sixty books, and although he maintained that they were really all about “one big thing,” namely self-esteem, I insist that they were about “many big things.” I urge the readers of this column to sample but several of his works, and I am certain that you will agree with me.
There are many other “big things” that I could enumerate: his generosity, his openness, his authenticity, his friendliness, his ability to get along with his adversaries and often convert them to his side, and, perhaps above all else, his courage to confront the issues of abuse in the Jewish community.
I close my remarks with one other “big thing,” his soulful musical compositions. How appropriate it was to have been escorted to his final resting place with a song he composed, Hoshea et Amecha.
How apt is that tune as an antidote for our ubiquitous despondency!
How apt are its words: “Deliver Your people, and bless Your heritage. Tend to them and uplift them, forever.”
And how well do the words for the tachash describe the persona of Rabbi Dr. Twerski: “Happy, and proud of his many colors”!”
Thanks to the Orthodox Union.