Sometimes you read a story, and it just grabs you. In my case that means: It’s going to end up in a sermon. The really good stories end up in the really big sermons—on the High Holidays. Last year it happened not once, but twice. On Rosh Hashanah, you may recall, it was the story of Gus Newman, the young autistic boy whose best friend was Siri. On Yom Kippur it was the story of Zion Harvey, the young boy who became the first child to receive a bi-lateral hand transplant.
Well, back in July, on my birthday it so happens, I read the story of Ben Wichmann. And I knew it would end up in sermon. So here it is.
Ben’s full name was Bernhardt Wichmann III. As the reporter who told his story wrote, "Sounds like an old-money name for sure, but any money ever attached to it was no longer visible." In fact, Ben Wichmann was an indigent Korean War vet who died in Manhattan this summer at the age of 84. He came to New York from Davenport, Iowa and worked for a time as a draftsman. He never married. He had no family. He lived in a tiny third floor room on E. 74th St.
Long ago Ben lost his one sister, lost his job, lost his possessions. And Ben lost one other thing: his voice. In 1983 he had polyps removed from his larynx. He hadn’t been able to speak since. Neither Ben nor his doctors really knew why.
When Ben Wichmann died in his room on July 7th there was no relative to bury him. One might have expected a pauper’s funeral, with no one present. But that was not the case. Ben Wichmann was buried, as a veteran, at Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island, with an honor guard detail. Present that day were Jorge Grisales, the night doorman at the Mayfair apartment building on E. 74th St, with his wife and children. Present was Juan Arias, the day doorman, with his wife. Present were two other women from the neighborhood.
You see, without anything, without even a voice, Ben touched the lives of the people around him, the 200 block of E. 74th Street. Ben, it seems, was a man who radiated happiness. Ben nodded and smiled. Ben petted people’s dogs. Ben gave little gifts, Ben communicated with written notes. He always drew a smiley face after his name. Ben struck up a friendship with Jorge and brought him coffee and a Spanish newspaper. Ben tutored Jorge in English. If Jorge mispronounced a word, Ben would write how to say it. He marked which syllables to emphasize. He wrote down other words that rhymed with it. Ben did all kinds of little things that brightened one’s day.
Jorge and Juan gave Ben shirts and shoes. Jorge had him over for Thanksgiving. Joan Gralla, who lives near the Mayfair, gave him sweaters and hats. She found out that he loved opera. Once a year she got him a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera. Ben would dress up in his best clothes and have the time of his life. "Ben was just magical in bringing out the best in people," Joan said.
Less than a year before he died Ben was having hallucinations and went to a Veterans clinic, where he had an MRI. Nothing was found. Unfailingly courteous, Ben mouthed the words "thank you" to the technician. Except he heard his voice saying those very words! Ben Wichmann could talk again. One of the first things he did was ask to use a phone, He called Jorge Grisales. "Hi Jorge, it’s your friend Ben," he said. The voice was deep and gravelly. A puzzled Mr. Gisales said, "I have one friend with that name, and he can’t talk." "This is him," Ben said. "Your friend. I can talk."
The word spread down E. 74th St. But as reporter N.R. Kleinfield wrote, "Miracles have expiration dates. They can come mercifully fast. For years, Ben had prostate cancer. It had been in remission, but it returned and was spreading." A few months later Ben was in the hospital and then a nursing home. The doorman went to visit to cheer him up. He cheered them up. In a few months he was gone.
It is said that Ben Wichmann was the man who lost his voice and found it again. But in truth, Ben never lost his true voice, just his speaking voice. That’s because Ben’s neshama, his soul, his essence, always shone through. That’s because Ben’s menschlekeit, his goodness, was never obscured.
The title of the July 29th New York Times story was A Voiceless Man Whose Spirit Spoke Volumes. Ben had nothing, yet touched everyone.
The title of this sermon is Finding Your Voice. His story told, permit me a few more minutes to reflect on Ben’s legacy.
There’s a famous story in the Bible about the prophet Elijah. Elijah was a fierce prophet, full of zeal to do battle against idolaters, but also, it seems, very self-righteous. When Elijah is fleeing from the wicked Jezebel he protests his innocence to God, and is overcome by fear and despair. God sends him on a journey deep into the wilderness. Elijah takes refuge in a cave. "Come out," God calls, "and stand on the mountain before the Lord."
We read in the Book of Kings (19:111-12): "And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake—but the lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.”
The still small voice of the Torah has been identified as the voice of God, or the voice of conscience—or both. It was the soft but insistent voice that humbled Elijah and reanimated Elijah to return to his prophetic quest. It is the voice that Ben spoke when he had no audible words. It is our inner voice which gives rise to our outer voice. It is the spark that illuminates our soul and ignites our action.
And of course there is another famous prophetic passage, one that we read this morning, because it is from the haftarah for Yom Kippur. "Raise your voice like a shofar," cries Isaiah. "Unlock the shackles of injustice; loosen the ropes of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free. Share your bread with hungry, and bring the poor into your house."
In treating others in the best way he knew how, and in bringing out the best in those he touched, did not Ben Wichmann awaken us and stir us and raise his voiceless voice like a shofar?
Can we too find our voice and proclaim it like a ram’s horn.
You know, when I was originally typing that last line, a funny thing happened. A typo. Instead of typing voice, I typed vice. There is just a one letter difference. All too often we are adept at finding our vice, not our voice. We are expert at sinking to the lowest common denominator rather than rising to the highest common denominator. We speak when we should be silent; we are silent when we should speak.
When Moses was coming down the mountain with the Commandments, he and Joshua heard voices coming from the Israelite camp below. The Book of Exodus recounts that when Joshua heard "the boisterous voice of the people," the commotion really, he said, "There is a cry of war in the camp." Moses listened and then said, "It is not the voice of triumph, or the voice of defeat. It is the sound of celebration." The problem was, it was the celebration of the golden calf. In the absence of Moses, the people had gone astray. They had listened to the wrong voice, and then given voice to their doubt and faithlessness. How quickly they had forgotten the commanding voice of Sinai. Vice, not voice.
Ben’s story also affirms that each of us has a unique voice. The Torah affirms that too. Remember when Jacob tries to impersonate his brother Esau before his father. He knows that his voice will likely give him away, so he wraps his hands and neck in goat skins to mimic his brother’s rough and hairy skin. Blind old Isaac responds, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau." We’ll never know if the aged patriarch was deceived by letting his sense of feel prevail over his hearing… or if he willingly went along with ruse, knowing full well that the younger was attempting to steal the firstborn’s blessing.
The voice is the voice of Jacob. No two voices are alike. Each of us is uniquely bestowed with the gift of speech. How will we use it?
Allow me to conclude with two final reflections. The first is personal. You may recall that I did something highly unusual at the end of last year’s Yom Kippur sermon, The Work of our Hands, about the story of little Zion Harvey. I dedicated it to my wife Debby, because she is a hand rehabilitation therapist who helps restore the gift of our hands to those who have lost it. I dedicate this sermon to my daughter Talia, who is a speech therapist. She works in the acute trauma unit of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, across the river, She helps restore the gift of our voices to those who have lost it. I am so proud of her.
And this: a coda to the life of Ben Wichmann. At his funeral, with full military honors, an American flag was folded and presented, as is done for all who have served our country, Except... there was no relative to receive it. It was accepted, instead, by his friend, the doorman Jorge Grisales. Jorge has ordered a frame for the flag, with Ben’s name, and his date of birth and date of death. He intends to hang it on the wall in his home, in a place where all will see it. Then, when someone notices it, he will sit them down. And tell a story. The story of a voiceless man whose spirit spoke volumes. The story of a voiceless man who helped us find ours. The story of a man.