Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Story of the Trustee Siblings

There’s a short story by Leo Tolstoy that I’d like to share with you tonight.

I know what you’re thinking, “Knowing the rabbi, it’s probably War and Peace!” It’s not, but it has some war and peace in it:

Two brothers set out on a journey together.
At noon they lay down in a forest to rest.
When they woke up they saw a stone lying next to them.
There was something written on the stone, and they tried to make out what it was.
“Whoever finds this stone,” they read, “let him go straight into the forest at sunrise.
In the forest a river will appear; let him swim across the river to the other side.
There he will find a she-bear and her cubs.
Let him take the cubs from her and run up the mountain with them, without once looking back.
On the top of the mountain, he will see a house, and in that house, he will find happiness.”

When they had read what was written on the stone, the younger brother said:
“Let us go together. We can swim across the river, carry off the bear cubs, take them to the house on the mountain, and together find happiness.

“I am not going into the forest after bear cubs,” said the elder brother, “and I advise you not to go.
In the first place, no one can know whether what is written on this stone is the truth –perhaps it was written in jest.
It is even possible that we have not read it correctly.
In the second place, even if what is written here is the truth — suppose we go into the forest and night comes, and we cannot find the river. We shall be lost. And if we do find the river, how are we going to swim across it?
It may be broad and swift.
In the third place, even if we swim across the river, do you think it is an easy thing to take her cubs away from the she-bear? She will seize us, and, instead of finding happiness, we shall perish, and all for nothing.
In the fourth place, even if we succeeded in carrying off the bear cubs, we could not run up a mountain without stopping to rest.
And, most important of all, the stone does not tell us what kind of happiness we should find in that house. It may be that the happiness awaiting us there is not at all the sort of happiness we would want.”

“In my opinion,” said the younger brother, “you are wrong.
What is written on the stone could not have been put there without a reason. And it is all perfectly clear.
In the first place, no harm will come to us if we try.
In the second place, if we do not go, someone else will read the inscription on the stone and find happiness, and we shall have lost it all.
In the third place, if you do not make an effort and try hard, nothing in the world will succeed.
In the fourth place, I should not want it thought that I was afraid of anything.”

The elder brother answered him by saying, “The proverb says:
‘In seeking great happiness small pleasures may be lost.’
And also: ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’”

The younger brother replied, “I have heard: ‘He who is afraid of the leaves must not go into the forest.’ And also: ‘Beneath a stone no water flows.
The younger brother set off, and the elder remained behind.

No sooner had the younger brother gone into the forest, than he found the river, swam across it, and there on the other side was the she-bear, fast asleep. He took her cubs and ran up the mountain without looking back. When he reached the top of the mountain the people came out to meet him with a carriage to take him into the city, where they made him their king.

He ruled for five years. In the sixth year, another king, who was stronger than he, waged war against him. The city was conquered, and he was driven out.

Again, the younger brother became a wanderer, and he arrived one day at the house of the elder brother. The elder brother was living in a village and had grown neither rich nor poor. The two brothers rejoiced at seeing each other, and at once began telling of all that had happened to them.

“You see”, said the elder brother, “I was right.
Here I have lived quietly and well, while you,
though you may have been a king, have seen a great deal of trouble.”

“I do not regret having gone into the forest and up the mountain,’ replied the younger brother. “I may have nothing now, but I shall always have something to remember, while you have no memories at all.”[1]

But the story continues…

Many years later, these two brothers had children that became trustees of a Conservative synagogue in NY.

In the year 2000, they were all happy. Back then, almost half of American Jewish families joined synagogues and of that large group, a third of them joined Conservative synagogues.[2]

But twenty years later the trustee siblings were worried.
Due to no fault of their own, Jewish demographics had changed.
Only one-third of U.S. Jews (35%) say they live in a household where someone is a member of a synagogue. And of that percentage, only 15% belong to Conservative synagogues. [3] With three other, larger competitors in the neighborhood, the trustees started questioning their viability.

So, the siblings began to argue among themselves about how to save their beloved synagogue.
One group found a rock that said they should cross the Suffolk border and merge with another synagogue. Together, their combined finances will guarantee years more of success.

But the other group found a rock that said, “Stay where you are. Reimagine yourselves: do things in fundraising, networking, social media, programming, and education that you never did before.”

In heated debates, both claimed, ‘He who is afraid of the leaves must not go into the forest.’ And also: ‘Beneath a stone no water flows’.

Some of the trustees felt insulted in the discussions and left the family. Others felt hurt but stayed on, and others were happy when finally, only one rock remained.

Like their ancestors, the siblings learned much in their debates and experiences. Their efforts revealed why they loved their synagogue so much. They learned about each other’s strengths, and the long-term leaders made room for the younger generation to take positions of leadership. Things were looking up for the synagogue.

Yet, one thing was problematic: the disenfranchised siblings and the hurt ones that stayed on still felt wronged. Furthermore, they were worried: what if there was ever a time when two rocks would appear again? They wouldn’t want such hard feelings to be felt once more.

Yom Kippur approached and they remembered the teaching of the early rabbis on forgiveness:

For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur atones; however, for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not atone until the one appeases the other person.[4]

Therefore, the trustee siblings called their brothers and sisters asking for forgiveness. They said, “Perhaps in the heat of the discussions we spoke in ways we shouldn’t have or implied things we shouldn’t have, and we’re sorry”.
Those who were hurt accepted their apologies because they all knew that the family became impassioned when it came to the future of their beloved synagogue.

When it came to upcoming discussions, each sibling would always use this guideline in their speech and actions:
Is this a statement of Who I Am? Is this an announcement of Who I Choose to Be?[5] They understood that their communication is not only an expression of their will but a reflection of who they are.

Then the family lived happily ever, knowing that their harmony and combined strengths are truly what keeps their beloved synagogue thriving.

The End.

Shana Tova

[1] https://profrush.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/the-two-brothers-text-by-leo-tolstoy.pdf
[2] https://www.jewishdatabank.org/databank/search-results/study/307
[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/11/10-key-findings-about-jewish-americans/
[4] Mishneh Yoma 8:9
[5] Walsch, Neale Donald. The Complete Conversations with God (Conversations with God Series) (p. 205). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.