As Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Great to see you all back here, some new faces, many old faces. I look forward to seeing you all next year, back again; healthy and happy.
A few months ago, the shul took a trip to the Auschwitz exhibit in New York. It was a moving tour and I learned a lot, but one really thing stuck out. In the corner of the museum, right at the end of the exhibit, there was a picture of a Polish officer, Witold Pilecki, with a short description about who he was. What I read shocked me and so when I got home, I decided to do some more research. What I learned shocked me even more. It was such a powerful and unique story that I thought it appropriate to share with you on this holy day. This is the story of Witold Pilecki:
Pilecki was an officer in the Polish army during the first world war. A few years later, when the Soviets and Germans attacked Poland in World War Two, Pilecki fought back. Of course, as we all know, the archaic Polish army was no match for these two evil superpowers. But Pilecki did not give up. He joined some fellow soldiers and started an underground resistance group called the Secret Polish Army.
In 1940, the Secret Polish Army learned that captured Polish soldiers were being brought to a place called Auschwitz and there were rumors that terrible atrocities were taking place. But they were just rumors. The Secret Polish Army decided they needed to verify this information, but how were they going to do so?
Well, Witold Pilecki was how. He suggested to his superiors that he sneak into Auschwitz. That’s right. He offered to sneak into the most notorious death camp in Nazi territory. And he did. He violated curfew one night, was arrested, and was shipped to Auschwitz.
He spent two years there, again, voluntarily and in that time, he secretly built a radio transmitter with stolen parts, and conveyed to his comrades how bad things really were. He then transmitted a detailed plan for an attack on Auschwitz. Unfortunately, his plan was rejected by the rest of the underground as too dangerous.
And then things got worse. Jews started coming to Auschwitz. You see, in the first year of the war, it was patriotic Poles who the Germans were bringing to Auschwitz, but now they started emptying out the ghettos with the intent of wiping out the Jewish People. The Jews arrived in Auschwitz, first in busses and then crammed into cattle cars. And we all know what happened next.
Pilecki was shocked. Nothing he had seen until this point prepared him for what he now witnessed. He started sending frantic messages to his superiors. “They are not working the Jews! They are killing them! There must be 100’s of thousands, maybe a million being murdered. Do something! Please!” But his superiors assumed he was exaggerating.
And so, Pilecki escaped Auschwitz. It’s a long story, but he got out. As soon he got out, he wrote a 100-page eye-witness report which made its way to the allies. It lay out the daily atrocities; the gas chambers, the crematoria, with uncanny detail. The Office of Strategic Services in London received his report and wrote a note on it – “no indication of reliability.” And the report gathered dust.
After the war, Pilecki fought to keep Poland free from Soviet rule but he was unsuccessful. And so, under Soviet rule, he started documenting once again, what he saw around him; the corruption, the rigging of elections. He sent these reports to the West and was one of the first to inform the world what the Soviets had in store.
Tragically, this time his luck ran out. He was caught, given a mock trial, and on May 25, 1948, he was executed with a gunshot to the back of his head. (Hope, Mark Manson, and Wikipedia)
Now let me ask you something. This is one of the most heroic stories you will ever hear in your life. But tell me – did Witold Pilecki accomplish anything in his life?
Think about it.
He tried to prevent a Russian invasion – and failed. He tried to prevent a German invasion – and failed. He tried to arrange an attack on Auschwitz and save maybe a million lives – but it was rejected. He tried to warn the world about the Nazis diabolical plans – but no one listened. He fought for his freedom under Soviet rule so he could live in peace with his wife and two children – but he was shot in the head and buried in an unmarked grave. What did this man accomplish? What did he do?!
Nothing. He accomplished nothing. And not only did he accomplish nothing, he had the most miserable life possible – He lived through two world wars, in Poland of all places! He was a slave in Auschwitz and was executed by the Russians, leaving his wife a widow and children orphaned.
Miserable life conditions, accomplished nothing, and yet, what would I not give to live a life as glorious as his? Can you think of a more noble life than that? Do you know of a greater hero than Witold Pilecki?
And it begs the question – We stand here today in prayer, and we ask G-d, chasveinu b’sefer hachaim, write us in the book of life, but not just any life – l’chaim tovim, for a good life – what is this good life that we’re after?
Because our lives are far “better” than Pilecki’s. We have food to eat. A lot of food. No one’s trying to kill us or even take away our freedom. We should all be well and live a full life, but when we die, the likelihood of us being buried in an unmarked grave is not even a possibility. And yet – we, and by we, I mean society, we don’t have a good life. We’re miserable. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are on a twenty-year upswing among adults and an eighty-year upswing among young people. Life satisfaction is continuing to drop steadily. Stress levels have steadily risen over the past thirty years. Drug overdoses, a form of self-medication to some of these issues, have reached an all-time high in the US and Canada, affecting every segment of the population… What are we missing that we’re praying for today? More food? Better technology? More exotic vacations? Longer lives? Will any of that really give us the good life?
And then there’s Pilecki, with all his misery, with all his failure, you know what he said to the courtroom after the Soviets decided that they would execute him? This is what he said. He said; “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.”
I want what Pilecki’s on!! He had a good life! Did you hear what he said? He had a joyful life! So again, what is it that we are asking for on this holy day; what is the good life?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of the great moralists of the 20th century, in one of his many addresses, explains what a good life is not. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos states that jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor, remove a person from this world.
Now of course, no one ever died from chasing any of these vices. Honor is not lethal, nor is desire. What does the Mishna mean when it says that these vices “remove a person from this world”?
Explains Rabbi Shmuelevitz, someone who chases these things, someone who is never satisfied with what they currently have or with who they currently are; someone who is constantly disgruntled because they’re not given enough kavod, enough honor, at home, at shul, at work, someone who is constantly seeking out the next opportunity for pleasure, sexually, gastronomically, whatever, someone who looks around and sees what others have and wants it for themselves, why do they have this spouse, that car, this job, those friends – that is not a life, certainly not a life of joy, it’s a life of misery. Motzi’in et ha’adam min ha’olam, having those sentiments suck your life dry.
Ask any teenager what their biggest fear is, and they’ll tell you it’s something they call FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out. They’re afraid to commit to hang out with this friend because in doing so they miss out on hanging out with a different friend and they might miss out. FOMO. But it’s not just a teenage phenomenon. So many of us are miserable because we find ourselves stuck in a situation, imagining that if only things were different, we’d feel better. Not afraid, but miserable, because we feel like we’re missing out.
I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that affluent societies suffer from depression and anxiety more than others do. Perhaps it’s because the more opportunities we have, or that we think have, the more we feel like we are missing out, the more we feel like we are stuck. And it is downright depressing to live such a life.
Let me share with you another story, about a philosophy, a way of thinking, that could help us live a good life.
In the 1960’s there was a group of women who came to New York from Detroit as part of a women’s organization, known as Neshei Chabad. Neshei Chabad is the women’s arm of the Chabad movement. They have this big event in Crown Heights and women of Chabad from all over the world fly in to attend.
The event ended and it was time for them to go home. This group of women get to the airport. They check in, they look at the board and see that their flights were canceled. They don’t know what to do, should they get a new flight? Should they go back to New York? Being chassidim, they did what chassidim do, they called their rebbe to ask him his opinion.
The secretary picks up. “Can you please ask the Rebbe a question for us. We have a dilemma. We’re stuck in the airport. What should we do?”
The Secretary puts down the phone and goes into the Rebbe’s office, comes back and says, “The Rebbe doesn’t understand what you mean by stuck.”
So the woman on the phone explains, “Well, we were supposed to go to Detroit, our flight is cancelled, so now we’re still here. We’re stuck. What should we do?”
Again, the secretary goes to the Rebbe, gets back on the phone. “The Rebbe doesn’t understand what you mean.” She thinks to herself, “I don’t know, the Rebbe is from Europe, maybe he doesn’t know what the word stuck means.” So she explains, “Stuck means we’re here. We cannot move. Stuck.”
Once again, the poor secretary goes to the Rebbe’s office, and then gets back on the phone and says, “The Rebbe understands what the word stuck means. He speaks a perfect English. But what the Rebbe does not understand is why you think you’re stuck. Stuck means that you know where you’re supposed to be and you’re not there. And since you’re not there, you’re stuck.”
“How do you know where you’re supposed to be right now? At this given moment. Maybe you’re not stuck. Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be.” (heard from C. Harary)
Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be.
What a refreshing perspective on life.
You’re not stuck in a conversation with the man or woman who can’t stop talking. Maybe this is where you’re supposed to be. Making this person, right now, feel like a million bucks by listening to them because no one else will.
You’re not stuck in traffic. It’s an opportunity to work on your patience and learn that you do not control your life.
You’re not stuck in shul today, regardless of what time we end. It’s a holy time and place like no other. Stop looking at your watch!
And you’re not stuck in a relationship. There are times that relationships need to end. Yes. But if you’re even considering staying, you cannot love someone while fantasizing about the day you leave. Love is a decision, not a feeling. It’s a commitment, an acceptance of being here, being fully present. Not somewhere else.
This is where you’re supposed to be.
I’d like to believe that Witold Pilecki understood this, that the reason he lived a life of joy, of joy! despite the terrible circumstances is that he accepted his fate – as lousy as it was – and did all that he could wherever he found himself. Whether he accomplished anything concrete or not didn’t matter; he never felt stuck. This is where I’m supposed to be. To the point, that he could turn around in retrospect and say, “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” If we embrace every moment of our lives, in the present, if we could accept our fate and face it head-on, then we too could live a life of joy, regardless of what is thrown our way.
And so to the question of what is a good life, to the question of what we are doing here; what we are asking G-d for, what we are praying for when we ask for chaim tovim, for that good life. I believe the answer is this:
I believe that our prayer for a good life is both a plea and a pledge. We plead with G-d, we ask Him today to take care of us, to give us the best possible life circumstances, please – a good life.
But paradoxically, as we say those words, as we ask G-d for a good life, we realize that so much is not in our control. None of us are naïve enough to think that no one will get ill this year, none of us are naïve enough to think that there will be no tragedy, no setbacks, no difficulties. And here’s where the pledge comes in; “G-d, You give us a good life, but we will give ourselves a good life as well. G-d, we pledge, we commit, that no matter what You give us, no matter the circumstance we find ourselves in, we will live those moments to the fullest, we will embrace whatever you send our way because we realize that no matter how hopeless the situation, we will remind ourselves that maybe this is where we’re supposed to be.” That is the good life; right here, right now. We are not stuck.
I’d like to conclude with one more example of someone who despite her circumstances, never felt stuck, and because of that she was able to live a good life. Julie Yip-Williams was born blind in Vietnam. She narrowly escaped euthanasia at the hands of her grandmother who felt she would be a drain on the family. She fled political upheaval with her family to Hong Kong, and then came to America, where a surgeon gave her partial sight. Working her way from the bottom, she became a Harvard-educated lawyer, married a wonderful man and had two little girls. All was well. And then, at the age 37, she was diagnosed with terminal metastatic colon cancer.
Julie died last year and this is the letter she wrote her two daughters:
“Dear Mia and Isabelle,
I have solved all the logistical problems resulting from my death that I can think of — I am hiring a very reasonably priced cook for you and Daddy; I have left a list of instructions about who your dentist is and when your school tuition needs to be paid and when to renew the violin rental contract and the identity of the piano tuner. But I realized that these things are the low-hanging fruit, the easy-to-solve but relatively unimportant problems of the oh so mundane.
I realized that I would have failed you greatly as your mother if I did not try to ease your pain from my loss, if I didn’t at least attempt to address what will likely be the greatest question of your young lives. You will forever be the kids whose mother died of cancer, have people looking at you with some combination of sympathy and pity (which you will no doubt resent, even if everyone means well). You will ask as you look around at all the other people who still have their parents, Why did my mother have to get sick and die? It isn’t fair, you will cry. And you will want so painfully for me to be there to hug you when your friend is mean to you, to look on as your ears are being pierced, to sit in the front row clapping loudly at your music recitals, to be that annoying parent insisting on another photo with the college graduate, to help you get dressed on your wedding day, to take your newborn babe from your arms so you can sleep. And every time you yearn for me, it will hurt all over again and you will wonder why.
I don’t know if my words could ever ease your pain. But I would be remiss if I did not try.
My seventh-grade history teacher, Mrs. Olson, a batty eccentric but a phenomenal teacher, used to rebut our teenage protestations of “That’s not fair!” with “Life is not fair. Get used to it!” Somehow, we grow up thinking that there should be fairness, that people should be treated fairly, that there should be equality of treatment as well as opportunity…
[But,] Mrs. Olson was right. Life is not fair. You would be foolish to expect fairness, at least when it comes to matters of life and death, matters outside the scope of the law, matters that cannot be engineered or manipulated by human effort, matters that are distinctly the domain of G-d or luck or fate or some other unknowable, incomprehensible force.
Although I did not grow up motherless, I suffered in a different way and understood at an age younger than yours that life is not fair. I looked at all the other kids who could drive and play tennis and who didn’t have to use a magnifying glass to read, and it pained me in a way that maybe you can understand now. People looked at me with pity, too, which I loathed. I was denied opportunities, too… I was sad a lot. I cried in my lonely anger. Like you, I had my own loss, the loss of vision, which involved the loss of so much more. I grieved. I asked why. I hated the unfairness of it all.
My sweet babies, I do not have the answer to the question of why, at least not now and not in this life… I was deprived of sight. And yet, that single unfortunate physical condition changed me for the better. Instead of leaving me wallowing in self-pity, it made me more ambitious. It made me more resourceful. It made me smarter. It taught me to ask for help, to not be ashamed of my physical shortcoming. It forced me to be honest with myself and my limitations, and eventually to be honest with others. It taught me strength and resilience.
You will be deprived of a mother. As your mother, I wish I could protect you from the pain. But also as your mother, I want you to feel the pain, to live it, embrace it, and then learn from it. Be stronger people because of it, for you will know that you carry my strength within you. Be more compassionate people because of it; empathize with those who suffer in their own ways. Rejoice in life and all its beauty because of it; live with special zest and zeal for me. Be grateful in a way that only someone who lost her mother so early can, in your understanding of the precariousness and preciousness of life. This is my challenge to you, my sweet girls, to take an ugly tragedy and transform it into a source of beauty, love, strength, courage, and wisdom.
I love you both forever and ever, to infinity, through space and time. Never ever forget that. (Love,)
Mommy” (The Unwinding of the Miracle, Julie Wip-Williams)
We do not know what G-d has in store for us this year; sickness, setbacks, strife. There is so much that is not in our hands. And that’s why we’re here today to ask G-d for a good year. But we’re also here to remind ourselves what it means to have a good year. So much of having a good year depends on us; not on longevity, not on health, popularity, being clever, or financial wellbeing. A good year and a good life is dependent on living every day with the possibility that maybe this – as terrible as it is, as painful as it is – is where you’re supposed to be. Witold Pilecki understood this and lived a heroic life like no other. Julie Yip-Williams understood this and left a glorious legacy to her children. May we, in this new year of 5780, every single day, at every single moment, through the good and through the inevitable bad, never stop reminding ourselves that we are never stuck, and that this is where I need to be. Shana Tova!