I Am Nothing Without Them© Rabbi David Baum, Yom Kippur 5777/2016

I Am Nothing Without Them©
Rabbi David Baum, Yom Kippur 5777/2016
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Do you know that last year marked the largest number of pictures ever taken?  1 trillion.  We are fond of saying, a picture is worth a thousand words, but some pictures say more than others.  For example, the pictures taken at the Rio Olympics this summer.  Who can forget that picture of the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt, looking to his sides to see his opponents, as if he was strolling, on his way to win another gold medal.  Or the picture of the two marathon runners, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino, picking each other up after they knocked into each other.Michael Phelps had a couple of iconic pictures.  Do you remember when he was taunted by a shadow boxing South African swimmer Chad le Clo during a warm up?  Phelps stared at him the entire time with an intense look, and went on to defeat him and everyone else in that race.  Of course, there was the picture of Phelps kissing his gold medal with a tear in his eye, this likely being his final Olympics ever, capping off the greatest Olympic career in history.

But in my humble opinion, the most significant picture taken in these summer Olympics was of Fabien Gilot.  I’m sure very few of you have ever heard his name.  Fabien Gilot is an Olympic swimmer for the French team and he won the Gold Medal for the Freestyle Relay.  But he didn't become famous for winning the gold.  As Gilot raised his arm out of the pool as he completed the race, a picture was taken:  it was of a tattoo on his arm of the following words in Hebrew: “Ani Klum Biladeihem,” which translates in English as “I am nothing without them.” 

Here is the interesting thing about this story – Gilot is not Jewish, he’s not Israeli either, and to be honest, I don't think he knows any Hebrew except for those three words.  So you might be asking, why would he get a tattoo in Hebrew and who are the ‘them’ that Gilot is nothing without?  The person he could not be anything without was named Max Goldschmidt.  He was not Gilot’s biological grandfather, but he married Gilot’s grandmother and played the grandfather role in his life.  Max was a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz.  His stories of survival and his love of his adopted grandson fueled Gilot to become the fierce competitor that he was.  He got the tattoo in the language of Max’s ancestors while his grandfather was alive. 

The question is, why did Gilot choose to honor his Jewish grandfather with a tattoo?  Perhaps it was because he wanted a permanent reminder – something to make time stand still – like a photograph.  But we know tattoos do not do this – and please, if there are any children out there – do not get a tattoo.  There are better ways to make sure that we can remember the people who we are nothing without – better ways to make time standstill. 

In Judaism, we make time stand still through holy moments and we store them as memories.  Yom Kippur is a day when time stands still – it's as if we are living in a still photograph.  Today, memory is not about the past, its about the present and the future – today, we re-enter memories of the past and live in them.  Memory is a big part of Yom Kippur.  If Yom Kippur is the Shabbats of all Shabbats, then the Yizkor on Yom Kippur is the Yizkor of all Yizkors.  Not only do we pray for our individual family members whom we have lost, but we also collectively pray for our martyrs during the Ella Azkarah service in Musaf – literally, those we remember.  But we must never forget this – we can still ‘remember’ those who we are nothing without while they are still alive. 

So today, on this Yom Kippur morning, I’d like to share my answer of who I would be nothing without, someone who is, thank God, still alive – my grandfather, my Zayde and then, I’d like to share the story of two people whom we as a people would be nothing without – two Zaydes we lost this year – two men that we would be nothing without – and I want tell you about the picture of their lives. 

On Facebook, as we approach the secular New Year, they have a feature which shows you the pictures that received the most ‘likes’ for the year.  I already know which picture that will be for me.  As many of you know, I have a very special relationship with my grandfather Frank.  We were both born on the same day, August 25th, although he was born just a couple of years before me.  But our connection doesn’t stop there.  It seems with each passing birthday, and as I lose more hair, more and more people tell me: you look just like your grandfather.  Honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about, until a couple of months ago, I was visiting him at home and I found a picture of my grandfather giving the priestly blessing to my uncle at his bar mitzvah.  He was a couple of years older than me at that point, but we looked exactly the same.  It was uncanny.  I took a picture of that picture, and a picture I had of me giving the Birkhat Cohanim to a bat mitzvah – and they looked almost identical.  I posted the picture on Facebook – those who didn’t know my grandfather asked why I put two pictures of myself up – they couldn’t tell the difference.  It seemed the only thing that was different about our faces were our eyes – his are sky blue...mine are forest green.  I'll come back to that later.

But there's more to our birthday and appearance as to why I am nothing without him.

As many of you already know, my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor.  During those years, which must have seemed like an eternity, he fought every day to survive.  Without his strength, and the strength of all of my grandparents who were also survivors, I would literally be nothing today.  Not only did they survive, but they rebuilt their lives – started new families, and built strong Jewish homes.  They taught me what it means to be a Jew, and a human being. 

Ani Klum Biladeihem - I am nothing without my grandparents. 

But my question is, who is my grandfather nothing without?  I found that answer out this year. 

During our daughter’s baby naming, I asked our inner circle of family members to offer our daughter Layla a blessing.  What do you hope for her?  What words do you want to say on her behalf to God?  Everyone had beautiful things to say – it was quite moving; and then, my 92 year old grandfather held my daughter.  What blessing would he bestow upon her, what would he ask God for on her behalf?  And here’s what he said as he locked eyes with her:  “You are my 11th great-grandchild.”  He choked up and could not say a thing after that – a couple of weeks later, we took a picture of him holding his 10th great-grandchild Max, our nephew who is just a month older than Layla, and our his 11th great-granddaughter, Layla.  The smile on his face is simply divine – his sky blue eyes lit up the picture. 

For my grandfather, life is no longer about the past – it is about the future.  There comes a point when we experience a shift – when we start realizing that we are nothing without our descendants. 

We are nothing without our future, the next Jews who will come after us.  While we must look to the past for gratitude and strength, we must also look to the future and say – I am nothing without them. 

This year, we lost two Zeydes, Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres.  They were more than men – they represented the past to us.  Elie Wiesel was the voice of the Holocaust survivor.  His books gave an eloquent voice to those who could not speak about the horrors of their experience.  The day after Shimon Peres passed away, PM Netanyahu sent the following tweet: “Today is the first day where Israel will not have Shimon Peres.  Shimon Peres was the last remaining voice of the founders of the Modern State of Israel.  Wiesel was our modern day Moses, the unrelenting prophet.  Peres was our Aaron, the Rodef Shalom, the pursuer of peace.  And they played these roles not just for the past, but for the future.  Moses and Aaron were the Zeydes to their people – the last remaining of their generation. 

To us, Moses and Aaron, Wiesel and Peres, seemed to live for the past, but nothing can be farther from the truth.  All four of them lived for the future. 

When I think of Wiesel, I am taken back to a specific picture –  the famous picture of him in the barack of Buchenwald, emaciated at 16 years old.  For many of us, Wiesel was immortalized by that picture, just as the tattoo on his arm that he had – A-7713. 

Every picture of Wiesel, even of him smiling, revealed a man with intensity, and dare I say, a tortured soul.  He worked tirelessly to speak truth to power.  He was never silent – like Moses – he challenged everyone.  Who can forget when he scolded the President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, who was planning on visiting a German military cemetery in Bitburg: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”  He even challenged God famously saying, “I rarely speak about God. To God yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him.”  He devoted his life to fighting anti-Semitism and the perpetuation of human rights.  He swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endured suffering and humiliation. He said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

He spoke those words in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.  He began his words speaking as his teenage self, a boy who discovered the kingdom of the night – and then, he said, that boy is turning to me: "Tell me," he asks. "What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?"

As much as his life was devoted to the destroyed past, it was even more devoted to the future. 

With that in mind, if Wiesel were here, I think he'd want us to remember him by a different photograph:  It is a picture of him laying in bed with his young son Elisha, but he's not looking down at him, he's looking up at him.  In the article, Elisha talks about the few promises his father made of him for after he passes – and I want to share one of them with you:  Say Kaddish for me everyday after I die. 

The Kaddish didn’t start as a prayer for the dead, it was a short summary of our entire tradition.
God’s name should be great, and how do we make God's name great?  Through Tikkun Olam, perfecting the world...and when it’s perfected, when it is full of life, and those lives are supported with all of their dignity, then our job will be complete.  But, the previous generation could never complete the mission, so the next generation took on that mission, and that is why we say these words. 

Kaddish is an affirmation of life, the life of your loved one, the life of our people!  And that is why Elie Wiesel asked his son Elisha to say the Kaddish – because he knew that he was nothing without them – without his child and that next generation. 

We are nothing without him, our prophet who shook us to the core...but he is nothing without us taking on his legacy; a legacy dedicated to human rights and the perpetuation of the Jewish people. 

And we lost another Zeyde this year – a man just as important, and yet, so different than Wiesel, not the prophet, but the priest. 

There is a blessing we thank God for in the morning – for giving sight to the blind – Pokeach Ivrim.  The second Zayde we lost this year, Shimon Peres, taught us how we must also open our eyes to see the possibilities of the future. 

We think of Peres as being a pursuer of peace, just like we think of Aaron the high priest, but both were warriors in their early days.  Aaron was the mouth piece against Pharoah, and he supported Moses through battling Amalek. 

Peres was the person who oversaw the development of Israel's nuclear program, purchasing the first uranium from France, and he was the defense minister when Israel made the daring raid on Entebbe.  
Peres was not always a dove. He liked to say, "I believe that in foreign policy, it is better to talk like a lion in a sheep’s skin rather than a sheep in a lion’s mane."  Like Aaron the high priest, Peres was almost always impeccably dressed – even when most Israeli leaders dressed down – he would be seen in a suit, and even a tie.  Like Aaron, he and Yitzhak Rabin chased after peace with the Palestinians. 
He famously said:  "For peace, one must remember: As a bird cannot fly with one wing, as a man cannot applaud with one hand, so a country cannot make peace just with one side, with itself. For peace, we need the two of us."
Alas, he never saw peace between Israelis and Palestinians in his lifetime.  But he never gave up.
When he retired as president of Israel, he famously said, “I am leaving the office but am not leaving the battle for peace.”

The pictures I most admire of Peres are not his pictures as a young man with David Ben Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin.  There is one picture that I think of that signifies what Peres was all about – but it wasn't a picture, it was a video of Peres sky-diving in his 80's (don't worry, I'm pretty sure it was a stunt double):

Upon his retirement as president of Israel, his granddaughter made a video in his honor.  It a video of Peres interviewing for jobs.  Peres famously said that he could never stop working. 

In the final scene, he is skydiving with a young Israeli man who could have been his grandson.  As they are falling, the man pulls his parachute and he says to him, you're not falling, you are rising!  As if to say, get back to work!  They land in an empty desert, and he says to the young man, Kadima, forward, there's a lot of work to do!  The man looks at him and says, “but there's nothing here.”  And Peres says, “When there's nothing, anything is possible.” 

Peres could see things that others just could not see. 

Peres performed one final act of loving kindness in his death:  he donated his corneas to someone who cannot see, he literally opened the eyes of someone who was blind.  After his death, a poet named Sharon Shinar penned the following poem titled someone will get your eyes:

Someone will get your eyes,
The eyes that saw a nation, before the nation succeeded in seeing itself,
The eyes that saw Ben Gurion stand on his head,
And Golda, in the seat of the Prime Minister.
Someone will get your eyes,
The eyes that saw wars, terror and bereavement
And saw Independence and a flag, with a blue Star of David
Eyes that saw a Prime Minister assassinated
But also saw peace treaties
Eyes that under no circumstances
ever agreed to see the End.
Someone will get your eyes,
Eyes that saw innovation, even before the word had an entry in the dictionary
Eyes that saw losses but refused to see defeat
Eyes that saw worlds, and saw leaders
Eyes that taught, each day anew, to have faith.
Someone will get your eyes
And how symbolic is it that you specifically chose to leave them behind
Eyes that saw so much of everything, and insisted that, 
no matter how dark things looked in the tunnel of the moment,
there was always at least a little point of light at the end.
Someone, will get your eyes, 
And that is so much more than everything else
For history always remains behind
But if we succeed in looking forward, like your eyes
Then perhaps, even for just a moment, we will succeed in believing in all of this
For ourselves,
For you.

Shimon Peres never stopped looking to the future.  He was often asked: ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?’ His reply: “There was a great painter named Mordecai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer.”

We are nothing without them, without our Zeyde's – and they are nothing without us – without their grandchildren, their future.

I mentioned at the beginning of this talk that when my grandfather was my age, we looked exactly alike, except for one thing:  our eyes.  I have green eyes, and he has blue eyes.  None of his children or grandchildren have his eyes – until my son Harrison was born, and his 11th great-grandchild, Layla who both have blue eyes.  Whenever Harrison hugs his Zeyde, he says, “Grandpa Frank, I have your eyes.”  I will always cherish those pictures of my Zeyde with his great-grandchildren and their sky blue eyes.
The eyes of someone who despite suffering so much, never stopped looking toward the future – like all of our Zeydes. 

You know what Grandparents have in common with their grandchildren?  A common enemy.  But they also share another bond – they are nothing without each other. 

My blessing for us all is that we recognize the people whom we are nothing without – that we see their pictures – that we take advantage of them when we have them in our lives.  My blessing for us is that is that we live for them not only when they are alive, but also, when they are no longer here.  My blessing for us is that we too see our grandchildren, and look at them the way our Zeydes and Bubbes look at us – as the photographers and painters of the pictures of tomorrow. 

[1] http://www.momentmag.com/elisha-wiesel-remembers-father/


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