Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned To Repeat It

munich olympics jewish

A Jewish wedding ceremony is deeply symbolic. Its most famous customs comes at the end. A glass is placed on the ground. The groom raises his foot and smashes it. Everybody yells mazal tov (Congratulations and Good Luck).

Various explanations have been given for this practice. Among the most common is the idea that the breaking of the glass recalls the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. That event shattered Jewish history. It led to exile from the Promised Land and 2000 years of wandering.

When we break the glass, we remember that life is not always easy. Even at this most joyous moment–a wedding, a coming together for two people–we remember the past. It is part of who we are.

An Olympic Memorial

How I wish the International Olympic Committee could recognize this truth. The past month has seen a flurry of activities urging the committee to take one minute of silence to remember the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

That event changed the world. It turned a celebration of unity into a time of hatred and indifference. It was not only the murders that shocked the world. It was the symoblism. Munich was where Hitler got started. Germany was still living in the shadow of the Second World War. Jews were beginning to struggle with the memory of the Holocaust. Israel was on the brink of the Yom Kippur War.

The ramifications of Munich continue to this very day. The hundreds of millions of dollars in heightened security comes directly out of the environment of fear that began at Munich.

Consider the terrorists targetting of civilians that culminated in 9-11. That started in Munich. And consider the Israeli and now American policy of targetted assasinations of terrorists. That started after Munich. That tragic day looms in the background of our world.

Why, then, would the International Olympic Committee would refuse to dedicate a moment of silence to the athletes’ memory? I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt and not conclude that it’s antisemitism, external pressure or indifference. But it may well be.

The Power of Symbols

What I do know is that symoblism matters. Memory cannot change the past. Yet, it can shape the future. When we refuse to remember, we forget. When we try to deny the past, we often repeat it.

Memory can create hope. Memory can create change. And as the families of the Munich athletes can attest, memory can comfort and console.

As prepare for two weeks of international competition–of a coming together that honors the best in the human spirit–let us remember those who were murdered as they sought to honor that spirit. Perhaps you will find inspiration, as I do, in the prayer of memory by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

Almighty God:
We, the members of this holy congregation,
Join our prayers to the prayers of others throughout the world,
In remembrance of the eleven Israeli athletes
Brutally murdered in an act of terrorism,
At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich,
Because they were Israelis,
Because they were Jews.

At this time in the Jewish year,
When we remember the destructions of our holy Temples,
And the many tragedies that have befallen our people throughout history,
We mourn their loss
And continue to protest against those who hate our people.

We pray to You, O God:
Comfort the families and friends of the Israeli athletes who continue to grieve
And grant eternal life to those so cruelly robbed of life on earth.
Just as we are united in grief,
Help us stay united in hope.
As we comfort one another under the shadow of death,
Help us strengthen one another in honouring life.

The Olympic message is one of peace, of harmony and of unity,
Teach us, Almighty God, to bring reconciliation and respect between faiths,
As we pray for the peace of Israel,
And for the peace of the world.
May this be Your will and let us say: Amen

How to Discover the Meaning of Your Life

“The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death. It’s learning how to live after birth.” Steven Carr Reuben

meaning of life

Cats don’t ponder it. Elephants don’t wonder about it. People, however, fret it about it. Why are we here? What are we to do with our lives? We ask these questions of life in general, and of our lives in particular. We do not live by instinct. We live with questions.

And it is through asking certain questions that we can arrive at AN answer. It will be AN answer  (not THE ANSWER) because we differ from one another in skills, temperament, interests and backgrounds. Yet, the search for an answer unites us as human beings.

Discovery

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote the classic text on this search, Man’s Search for Meaning. Dr. Frankl said that we do not decide the meaning of our life. Rather, we discover it.

“We discover meaning in life,” he writes, “by doing a deed; by experiencing a value; and by suffering.” These three are not indivisible. In fact, they often coincide.

A Life of Meaning

Consider the story of Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, an extraordinary leader who passed away a few years ago.

He was the President of Hebrew Union College, a Jewish seminary, for 25 years. Dr. Gottschalk told the story of how he grew up in Oberwessel, a small German town. He was eight years old when Nazi storm troopers burst into his school room and shouted for the Jewish students to leave.

Soon thereafter came Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass.” Synagogues were destroyed and Torah scrolls burned.

The next morning, Dr. Gottschalk’s grandfather took him to the stream behind their desecrated synagogue to retrieve the torn fragments of the congregation’s Torah scroll. ““Alfred,”” his grandfather said, “Someday, you will put the pieces back together.””

In that moment, an eight-year-old boy found his purpose. He transformed an experience of suffering to a life of deeds grounded in service. (I am grateful to Rabbi Richard Block from whom I heard the story of Gottschalk’s life)

A Dream Not Yet Realized

We do not always need to suffer, as Gottschalk did, to find meaning. But we do need a yearning, an unfulfilled desire, a dream not yet achieved.

A story is told of Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, the leader of a famed 19th century seminary. As a boy he was an indifferent student. One day he decided to abandon his studies and enter a trade school. He announced the decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced.

That night the young man had a dream.  In it an angel held a stack of beautiful books. Whose books are those, he asked. “They are yours,” the angel replied, “if you have the courage to write them.” That night changed the young man’s life. Reb Chayim was one the way to discovering who he was meant to become.

The meaning of our life is not waiting to be found. It is created by what we do.

Is Work-Life Balance Really Possible?

Even though I’m only 33, I know that people today work harder than ever. During my childhood, my dad had a highly-professional job and still made it home by 5:00 pm. Today my own life and those of my friends and congregants suggest that this is a rare occurrence.

Has technology simply meant that we work more? Has globalization meant we are competing with the world? Yes and yes. Does that mean that finding a true balance between working and living is impossible? No.

Looking at the life of one of history’s busiest and most successful figures, we can find a framework and tips for doing so. That figure is Moses. Consider his successes and his failures.

Successes:

1. Led Israelites out of Egypt

2. Received 10 Commandments

3. Taught the Torah to the entire people

Failures:

1. Paid little attention to his wife and kids

2. Got impatient when people did not to live up to his standards

3. Lost his temper with his boss (God)

As is often the case, we can learn more from his failures. What can we learn?

1. Integrate Life and Work More Closely: Aside from his siblings, the only family member Moses let into his work life was his father-in-law Jethro. Rather than send his wife and children off to live in Midian while he led the Israelites across the wilderness, Moses could have made them part of the journey. We can let our kids know about our work and feel part of what we are doing.

2. Respect Other People’s Priorities: Moses responded to the death of his brother Aaron’s sons by stating simply that God has His reasons for what happened. Rather than dwell on this loss, he needs to focus now on achieving the mission God had assigned them. Aaron responds to Moses with silence. The implication was that Moses’ words did not bring comfort. While Moses could focus solely on continuing their mission of reaching the Promised Land, Aaron needed to mourn for his children. Moses did not grasp Aaron’s concerns.

3. Keep Perspective: Our work can feel all-consuming. We can begin to think the our whole lives rest on the next decision we make or meeting we attend. 99% of the time, it does not.

Rabbi Larry Kushner writes of his friend, an Episcopal Minister, who threw away every piece of paper on his desk at the end of every month. “What about the important ones?” Kushner asked him. “Not to worry,” he explained. “If it’s important, it’ll come back.” We need not adopt this exact practice to recognize that every single piece of paper does not require urgent attention.

Work and life can never be completely in balance. As we grow and change, our priorities and needs shift. What does not change is our need for meaning. We seek meaning in our work and our families. To be in balance is to express our best selves and find deep satisfaction in them both.

Have You Declared Your Interdependence?

Which is the more American holiday–Thanksgiving or July 4th? I used to say July 4th. America is about independence. It is about the free spirit of adventure and progress that built our country.
interdependence dayMy view hasn’t changed. Yet, my understanding of July 4th has. Today we do not only celebrate independence. We need also, if we are to be true to history and to the way life works, recognize our interdependence.

No matter how successful, how intelligent, or how powerful we are–we depend on others. Albert Einstein put it well when he said, “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of others, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have been received and am receiving.”

We Depend on Others Every Day

Think of when we turn on the water faucet. To get that glass of water, we depend on plumbers, chemists, engineers, upon the manufacturers of pipes and spigots, and also on the people who build the reservoirs, water meters and generators.

One of the great achievements of the environmental movement is that it has helped make us more aware of the ethical and global implication of the work that goes into producing the food we eat, the coffee we drink and clothes we buy. We depend on others, and with that dependence comes a sense of responsibility.

Every Room Needs a Window

An obscure Jewish law teaches this truth. Any room in which people gather for prayer must have a window. We are not permitted to isolate ourselves from the world around us.

Technology today makes us ever more interconnected. Yet, it also gives us ways to escape into our own worlds. Perhaps it’s time to declare our spiritual independence. We do not need devices and distractions to entertain us all the time. We need hope. We need dignity. We need one another.

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