Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Carrying Your Own Weight

It was a heartbreaking trip. A pair of bus bombings in Beersheva had killed 16 and wounded 107. I was one of four representatives from Montreal that went to visit our sister city, Beersheva, immediately following the bombings.

The horrors related to us were overwhelming. A reporter who was at the scene told me about bodies strewn all over the place, and the awful smell of burnt flesh and blood. Members of ZAKA, a volunteer organization that recovers body parts, related to us the gruesome details involved in gathering 12 large sacks of body fragments for burial.

We went to funerals, visited shivas and the hospital. What can you say to the woman in the burn unit who just lost a three year old son? What words of comfort are there for parents sitting shiva for their 23 year old daughter? It was an extremely depressing trip.

But I did salvage something from the trip. I learned the Jewish definition of carrying your own weight.

Teddy Roosevelt, who coined the phrase “carry your own weight”, used this phrase to describe a philosophy of self reliance. But for Jews, self reliance is simply not enough. To us, “carrying your own weight” means to carry your family, your community, and even the world with you.

I learned this insight from Olga, a 15 year old Russian immigrant who was on the bus with her 12 year old brother Boris. A ball bearing from the bomb pierced Boris’ midsection, and he was bleeding profusely. Olga took Boris and carried him on her back a quarter mile to the emergency room. Boris was operated on and stabilized, and now he’s doing well.

Olga understood the Jewish definition of carrying your own weight. It requires taking the less fortunate along with you, and if necessary, to even carry them on your back.

This story gave me a new perspective on a Midrash. The Midrash relates that one day Moses was watching his sheep, and a young lamb ran away. Moses finally caught up to the lamb when it stopped at a stream to drink. Moses said to the lamb: “ I’m sorry; had I known you were thirsty, I would have given you to drink myself. Now, after this long run, you must be tired, so I will bring you back myself.” And Moses lifted the lamb on his back, and carried it back to the herd. God, upon seeing Moses’ compassion, said “he is the one to lead my people”.

Now I understand this Midrash. It is teaching us is that before being called to lead the Jewish people, Moses had to demonstrate that he knew the true definition of “carrying your own weight.” If he understood this principle, he could inspire the Jews to transform the world.

Moses taught us well. 15 year old Olga already knows what “carrying your own weight” means. It means you carry your brother on your back when he needs it, no questions asked.