Tolerance in this Season of Tumult

I first met Rabbi Elias Lieberman of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation about 15 years ago, when we tangled on the naming of the annual Falmouth Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade. 

All I remember is offering a somewhat angry pontification on tolerance. We exchanged some thoughts, well really we spoke at each other, then our brief encounter ended. Over the years since, our paths crossed occasionally, as we both maintained positions of leadership in the community, but in all that time, we never really communicated, never uttering more than a forced and polite hello - each of us, I suspect - silently trumpeting our indignation at the intolerance of the other.

The truth, of course, is that we both care deeply about our community and the people in it. That one issue of the name of a parade defined our relationship or lack of one for over a decade.

We met again, the Rabbi and me, and this story has a far different ending. I attended the Bat Mitzvah of a family friend this past weekend at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation and was welcomed into the celebration like a long-standing member of this tightly woven community on Sandwich Road.

As the Rabbi approached me, his somewhat surprised look turned to a warm smile. He extended his open hand, made direct eye contact, and simply said, "It's nice to see you." No fanfare, no reunion of opposing camps, just a simple and sincere welcoming gesture to someone who was both a familiar face and a stranger. At that moment, I felt like I was seeing and old friend - and I guess I was. I listened in wonder as the Rabbi filled the room and the hearts of those gathered with the words and songs of faith. He connected with the assembled members of the congregation and friends and relatives gathered - young and old - and engaged all with songs and stories of unity and peace. I left having learned, realized really, that it was probably me all along that was intolerant that many years ago and that I had allowed that to define my lasting image of the Rabbi.

That lesson is one for us all to consider as we enter this most active and difficult season in our political year. In a few short weeks, we will cast ballots for a variety of important offices, then convene days later to conduct our local business on articles of great significance at Town Meeting.

In these days leading up to those headlining events, we will fill the coffee shops, grocery stores, gyms and barber shops with an abundance of opinions - not only on the issues themselves, but also on the people associated with them. In this political climate especially, as our faith in government at the highest levels is being shaken and tested and our economy teeters on the brink of meltdown, the temptation will be to refocus our anxiety and nervousness to the locals putting forth their version of a good idea. Too often lately, we've seen how not to react.

Our job then locally is to take the lesson of the Rabbi and me and bring it to our discourse and debates. As we discuss the latest bailout plan nationally and the affordable housing plan locally; as we consider for whom to vote for Commander in Chief nationally and Probate Chief locally; and as we gather at Lawrence to consider everything from executive compensation to cranberry cultivation, keep in mind a song shared with me by my friend the Rabbi: "Hiney mah tov umah na'im, Shevet ahim gam yahad."

This simply means, "Behold how good and lovely it is, when people dwell together in unity."

You bet. Thanks, Rabbi Lieberman. Right back at ‘ya.

Troy B.G. Clarkson, a Falmouth resident for 35 years, served for 12 years on the Falmouth Board of Selectmen. He welcomes feedback at [email protected]  This column reprinted from the Falmouth Bulletin.

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