“He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.”
That is how Bif Loman, son of the protagonist of Death of a Salesman, summed up his father’s life. Any attempt to measure the life of Arthur Miller, who died last week, will inevitably recall those words, and challenge the person who penned them.
Miller was a colorful character, becoming one of America’s most successful playwrights, despite a particularly unstellar academic performance in high school. He translated his fame into a marriage to Marilyn Monroe, which meant the realization of the American dream, and then some. Honesty was a recurring theme of his oeuvre. This, added to the House Un-American Activities Committee’s distaste for him, gave him a reputation as a moralist, as one who had abandoned the Orthodox practice of his family, but not its core value system.
Fifty years from now, however, it is likely that all of this will be forgotten. If anything endures at all, it will be Willy Loman. Miller’s salesman, seen in the twilight of his years, evoked a pathos that resonated too well with readers. Loman had his commendable side – he was a loyal family man, and in his younger days a hero to his son. But he had made crucial mistakes, including too eagerly embracing an opportunistic view of gaining fame and fortune. When his spirit began to give out as his body declined in older age, all that was left was a pitiable shell of unrealized aspirations. In a sense, he became a monument to the banality of the ordinary, unexceptional American life.
Thoreau may have said it most succinctly. “Most people lead lives of quiet desperation.” For hundreds of years, Jews experienced in especially large measure circumstances that could and should have led to desperation and despair, and capitulation to the banality of life. Living in abject poverty, herded into ghettos, pushed from country to country at the whim of arbitrary potentates, Jews had every reason to sink into a morass of self-pity. While some individuals may have done just that, it would have been the exception, not the rule.
Jews understood that there was nothing banal about life. In the worst of conditions, they recognized and seized opportunities to effect eternity. The most unaccomplished and unremarkable Jewish laborer could feel the “bishvili nivra haolam”/ “the word was created for me” taught by the Sages. He could rise in the morning and bind the Divine Presence to the world by putting on tefillin; he could see existence precisely balanced between good and evil, with his next mitzvah poised to make all the difference in the world. Long before DeBeers claimed that “diamonds are forever,” the average Jew knew that mitzvos and good deeds were the real gems that would survive eternally.
Rav Yaakov Galinsky, shlit”a, is fond of explicating a Midrash on the verse in Koheles that soberly tells us that we leave the earth naked as we enter it. The Midrash offers an analogy to a fox, separated by a fence from the vineyard it would love to raid. its ample body cannot pass through the one breach in the fence it finds. Determined to get in, it fasts for days until its emaciated body is able to slip through. Once inside, it eats to his heart’s content, until he tires of all the good food, and decides it is time to move on again. Once again, the fence proves impassable. Once again, it is forced to starve itself in order to fit through the hole. Emerging to the far side of the vineyard, the fox looks back, and realizes that it came into the vineyard hungry, and left the same way.
It is an effective story, observed Rav Galinsky, but what understanding does it add to the verse? Just what about the verse do we not understand without it?
One detail, taught Rav Galinsky. The fox had a better option available to it. While still on the inside, it should have made a practice of throwing bundles of grapes over the fence to the other side, where it could continue to use them after leaving.
This is what life is about. This is what buoyed up Jewish spirits through hundreds of years of unspeakable oppression. Jews knew that they wouldn’t look very pretty as their remains would be carried off at the end of their lives. But they understood that every moment of life afforded opportunities to throw bundles of mitzvos over to the other side! Bundles of good deeds would amount to an eternal nest egg.
Jews dreamed of these things. They were the right dreams, all, all right.