This Veterans Day would have been a moving and important one for my grandfather. A proud veteran he served his country for six years during the Second World War and its aftermath. He made lifelong friends and gathered a treasure trove of stories that would entertain and inspire his seven grandchildren for hours on end.
For Jews, however, this Veterans Day is special. It falls the day after the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On this date in 1938 police offers, civilians and Nazi officials in Germany and Austria attacked Jewish homes and stores, murdering 91 people, burning down 1000 synagogues, and damaging or destroying 7000 stores.
A Deeper Connection
The convergence of these two days made me look deeper at their interconnection. On a personal level, one gives meaning to the other. In other words, Kristallnacht helps explain why the Second World War mattered so deeply to my grandfather.
First, serving gave him a way to express gratitude to this country of freedom. His grandfather had fled anti-Jewish hatred in Poland for the New World of America. He came here penniless and ended up becoming a fruit salesman and raising his family in comfort and freedom.
My grandfather was 26 when the war broke out. As a young doctor he could have received a deferral to attend to the home front. Yet, he eagerly volunteered and spent two years overseas. He told me he simply could not do everything he could do defeat Hitler.
America was special. The new world of freedom, and Hitler represented all of the hatred he had fled.
To Help Those Left Behind
While my grandfather’s parents and grandparents had made it to America, other members of his family did not. They had remained in Europe, and probably lost their lives during the war. Enlisting in the Army was the closest he could get to rescuing them.
It was not only his family that was threatened. The entire Jewish people felt the destructive hatred of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war about one third of the world Jewish population had been murdered. His service was an expression, in part, of his commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.
The Greatest Generation
It also expressed a commitment to building a better world. The group of Americans who served during the Second World War is known as the “Greatest Generation.” They helped defeat Nazism and came home to build the strongest and most prosperous country the world has ever known.
In speaking at my grandfather’s funeral, I noticed his sense of pride in belonging to this group. Yet, he said its true heroes were those who died in its service. Let us remember to honor them, and celebrate the living legends who continue to lead and inspire us.
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What TV show would you rather watch? Tom and Jerry or Sponge Bob? One show is virtually silent and consists primarily of a cat chasing around a mouse. The other is fast-paced, funny and well-animated.
An easy choice? Absolutely. I would watch Tom and Jerry every time. And I would encourage my kids to do the same. Tom and Jerry makes us think. With its lack of constant dialogue, it forces us to imagine what each character is thinking.
Simplicity Begets Creativity
Its simple framework of cat chasing mouse forces the writers to come up with ever more creative ways of telling the same story. And getting the humor demands concentration. The gags usually build up to a crescendo.
Sponge Bob, on the other hand, can be watched mindlessly. Rarely do the scenes build on one another or demand we enter the characters’ heads. The rapid changes in setting make it difficult to concentrate.
Why We Need to Use Our Brains
Why am I sharing this comparison? Because it reminds us of what meaningful learning requires. It reminds us of the skills needed for studying the Bible. As people of faith, we should read texts and experience programs that enlarge the mind.
Texts like the Bible and stories like the Exodus from Egypt are not meant to entertain. They are meant to teach. They are meant to stir the imagination. Like Tom and Jerry, they proceed from a simple framework but illustrate deeper human truths.
In a society that celebrates the mindlessness of Sponge Bob, how do we read and study in a serious way?
1. Ask questions: The Bible is not only an instruction book meant to impart information. Yes, sometimes it does so. More often, however, the lessons and stories demand engagement. Asking why would God inflict the Ten Plagues on Egypt is more important than knowing exactly what those plagues are.
2. Read commentary: Some denominations discourage reading biblical commentaries. They encourage an unadulterated encounter with the text. I vigorously disagree. While we need to choose commentary carefully, learning from the insights of others enriches our experience of the text.
Jewish creativity often came through the literary form of commentary. The edition of the Hebrew Bible studied in most schools places the original text in the center of the page, surrounded ancient and contemporary commentaries. Each page contains a conversation spanning thousands of years.
3. Look for yourself in the text: The Bible remains holy not only because it is the word of God. Its beauty and meaning lie in the truths it reveals about ourselves. Its story is our story.
We journey toward the Promised Land but often fail to make it. We stumble and fall and find strength in God’s promise. Like Adam and Eve we are not perfect, but we bring new life into the world.
The Talmud, an ancient compendium of Jewish law and wisdom, contains the following precept. “Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion.” To that we can only say Amen.
Last week I conducted a funeral service for the matriarch of a large family. Meeting with her children and grandchildren, I learned about the immense acts of kindness she did for so many. They spoke about the hundreds of calls they had been receiving, from her former hairdresser to long-forgotten work colleagues.
The family members said to me, “Isn’t it sad that she didn’t get to live to hear all these wonderful memories? Isn’t it too bad that she did not know what an impact she had on others?
“I understand your feeling,” I replied. “But this is the way life. We never know all of the consequences our actions may have.” Indeed, think about it. When we help another person, we do not know if and how they may repay it. We rarely know the way the little things we do may end up becoming big things.
What does this teach us? We need to grab every opportunity to perform an act of kindness. We never know what benefits it might bring.
Pay It Forward
The hit movie Pay It Forward proceeds on this premise. Each act of kindness is “paid forward” rather than repaid. In other words, we express gratitude to someone by doing a good deed for someone else. Our one act of kindness therefore creates dozens, hundreds and even thousands more.
Two thousand years ago the Jewish sages proposed this very idea. They wrote that the “one mitzvah—good deed–leads to another mitzvah.” They did not describe how it works. They did not try to prove it through any logical formula.
They simply held that as a matter of faith, no sacred act is for nought. Every act builds on the ones that came before it. Every sacred act brings us closer to the world as God intended it to be.
In the end, what we do shapes the way we are remembered. “The best portion” of our lives, as the great English poet William Wordsworth put it, are the “little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love.” To that we can only say Amen.
Once upon a time, a couple came to a new town. On the road they met a man. They asked him, “How are the people in this town?” He replied, “Where are you coming from?” They told him.
He then asked, “And how were the people in that town?” The couple replied, “They were selfish and mean.” The man then said, “And so you will find the people here selfish and mean.”
A few minutes later another couple walked toward the town. They saw the same man. They asked him, “How are the people in this town?”
He then asked them about the people where they came from. The couple replied, “They were wonderful and kind.” The man then said, “And so you will find the people here wonderful and kind.”
What we see is what we get. When we look for the good in people, we will discover it. When we look for the bad, we will find that, too. Which would we rather see?
Am I Naive?
No, I am not asking us to ignore the bad and live with rose-colored lens. Denial is not a solution to life’s problems. Rather, I am suggesting we try to give people the benefit of the doubt.
At a recent funeral I conducted for a beloved family matriarch, her children noted constantly that their mother “always looked for the best in people.” They saw this trait as part of the reason so many loved and cherished her over her 92 years.
Looking for the best in people can take work. Here are some steps to guide us.
1. Check your instincts: Are you the type of person that naturally looks for the negative in others? If so, try to check yourself. When you see your mind immediately looking for what’s wrong, stop and think about what might be right. The power of focus is extraordinary. Use it to shape where you place your attention.
2. Greet people with a smile: A smile not only puts others at ease. It affects our own brains. Smiling releases hormones and endorphins that can put us in a better mood, and naturally make us think better of others.
3. Become more self-accepting: Are we criticizing in others what we do not like in ourselves? This tendency is all too common. We may feel embarrassed about something we do, and when we see it in others, we enact our anger at ourselves. Rather than redirect our frustration, we can name and accept it. We will feel better about ourselves and others.
4. Prepare your mind: I used to dread going to meetings. On some level, I still do. But now, before most meetings, I tell myself I am going to learn something new and move closer to completing an important project. We can apply the same technique to people.
We may notice an annoying trait about another person we are going to see. But if we tell ourselves ahead of time that we are going to look for the positive, we will be more likely to notice it. This one technique–preparing to look for the positive–can help make the dull interesting and boring exciting.
5. Be interested in others: One of my favorite verses from the Talmud is “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.” What better way is there to find goodness in another than to learn from them? Life glows brighter when we have an open mind and open heart.
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