Friday, May 26, 2006

Are We Running in the Right Direction?

We are born to run. Man is an ambitious being, created to get things done. In fact, without a good challenge, we start to fall apart. Boredom is not only frustrating, it’s downright dangerous, and without challenges, people get depressed. Elderly people who are inactive tend to die at a younger age than those who are busy and challenged.

Because we are born to run, we try to run as fast as possible. Since the beginning of time, man has competed to see who is the fastest. The ancient Olympics were at first a 190 meter race, and later expanded to include chariot racing and other sports. Man has raced camels, horses and dogs, just to see who has the quickest animals. We run marathons and sprints, and race on bicycles and on skis. And in the 20th century, with the arrival of motor technology, we have begun to race motorcycles and cars and motorboats.

As history moves on, all of us run faster. There is no question that as technology progresses, the pace of life speeds up. Today, we can fly off to Europe and China at a moment’s notice, and order what we need off the internet. We have Palm Pilots to make us more efficient, and we can dash off phone calls from our cell phones and e-mails from our Blackberrys in a moment’s notice. Mankind continues to move faster and faster, achieving bigger and greater victories every day.

Now, the ultimate race, The Grand Prix, is coming to Montreal, and along with it a great deal of glamour and glitz. It attracts the international jet set of the wealthy and successful, people who are considered winners in the race of life. It is the perfect symbol of the 21st century: speed, wealth, accomplishment.

While I salute the accomplishments of the swift and successful, and appreciate the need for speed (I’m a blackberry addict myself) I feel there is still something missing. As we run and rush, we neglect to ask a simple question: are we running in the right direction?

There is a small prayer recited when a book of the Talmud is completed. In it, we remind ourselves to build meaningful lives, and not to follow those who live selfishly and foolishly. The prayer says “we run, and they run; we run to an eternal life, and they run to an empty pit”. Anyone can run; the problem is that sometimes we can run in the wrong direction.

Running the wrong way gets you nowhere fast. There’s the famous story of the Minnesota Vikings football player Jim Marshall, who mistakenly ran the football the wrong way, and scored for the opposing team. Imagine if we’re doing that in life? What if we’re doing all of this running, only to land up in an empty pit!

We need to run, but we need to run in the right direction. In Pirkei Avot, it says one should “run like a deer….to do the will of God.” A real champion crosses the right finish line.

Unfortunately, there is no Grand Prix for those who run in the right direction. You don’t have TV cameras following those who devote their lives to spirituality and kindness. But every time a person runs to help the poor, every time we hurry home to hug our spouses and children, every time we squeeze our schedules so we can study Torah and pray, we will be winning the race of life.

Moving fast is not enough. To be a true winner, you have to be moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The March of the Future

It’s a bizarre place to take a group of high school students. On this year’s March of the Living, I traveled with the teenagers to Poland and Israel. Frankly, it is a gut wrenching journey. An itinerary that includes ghettoes, concentration camps and death camps is gruesome, even for people with thick skins; so why were sixteen year olds visiting these sites in Poland?

We went because we had to go. No one wants to visit some of the most horrific places on earth. But for Jews, history is current events. Year after year, we sit at the Seder and recount the exodus from Egypt. Even though 3,300 years may have passed, the exodus is still our story, one that reminds us who we are. Certainly the most recent chapters in our story, the Holocaust and the State of Israel, cannot be ignored. And so we traveled to Poland and Israel, on a journey to reconnect with our history.

In some ways, 60 years ago could not be more distant. Here they were, a group of comfortable 21st century teenagers armed with ipods, cellphones and digital cameras, confronting the unimaginable. At first, many of the students found it difficult to feel sadness; they simply could not grasp what they were seeing. It was too foreign, too unbelievable.

That changed when the survivors began to speak. Traveling with us were six survivors, eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. As we heard their stories of suffering and survival, everyone’s tears flowed.

The survivors, all senior citizens, did not come along to serve as guides. They came back to Poland, one last time, to offer testimony on behalf of the six million. This was their last chance to make sure that future generations do not forget.

Our digital era teenagers may not have realized it, but they are the last generation to hear eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. As time marches on, there are fewer and fewer survivors. Ultimately, we will be left with witnesses of witnesses; our ipod wearing teens are the ones who will retell the story of the Holocaust in the future.

When I returned, a student asked me: will there be a March of the Living 50 years from now? Will people still care about this story?

My answer to her was simple: It’s in your hands. You will decide whether future generations remember the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracles of Israel. You will decide if future generations know what it means to be a Jew. The future of the Jewish people is in your hands.

On the March of the Living, I saw the Jewish future. I saw a group of ordinary teenagers learn about Judaism with idealism and intensity. I am proud to have gotten to know them. To be honest, I can’t think of better people to entrust with the Jewish future.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In Poland, I was Thinking of Darfur

On the map, Poland and the Sudan are a continent apart. Yet, when I visited Poland three weeks ago, my mind continually wandered off to the Sudan. What I saw in Poland reminded me how today, in the Sudan, history once again repeats itself.

I did not go to Poland for a holiday. I was traveling with the March of the Living, an educational program that brings teens to visit the concentration camps. We toured the sites of awful atrocities: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We stepped inside a gas chamber; the thought of what had occurred there was overwhelming. We viewed a display of children’s clothes, taken from toddlers before their death. A survivor spoke to us about the time when a few Nazi thugs went to his barrack, took a two by four, walked over to a bunk, and pressed it down on the necks of four sleeping inmates until they choked.

And then we arrived at the greatest monument to man’s inhumanity to man. In the concentration camp of Majdanek, there is a dome of ashes. Inside the dome is a mound of human ashes over fifteen feet tall, the horrific proceeds of burned victims. The sight is simply too hard to bear. Our students were immediately overwhelmed with grief, and began to weep. They had come face to face with evil.

It was here that I remembered Darfur. Intellectually, I understand the human capacity for evil, yet it is difficult for my heart to accept it. Living in an open and tolerant country like Canada, it is difficult to imagine the hatred necessary to perpetrate these crimes. Our shining record on human rights leaves us blind to the reality: human beings can be exceptionally evil. They can slaughter other humans by the million, and burn their bodies into a pile of ash. And this sort of evil didn’t just happen 60 years ago. It continues on today, in the Darfur region of Western Sudan.

For the past three years, the Government of Sudan, along with allied militias, have been massacring black tribes in the region. Tens of thousands have been murdered, countless women have been raped, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes. Various estimates peg the death toll at somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000. Today, thousands of miles from Poland, a genocide marches on.

It is critical to remember that without indifference, the Holocaust could not have occured. During the Holocaust, the world ignored the plight of the Jews. At a conference in Evian in 1938, and at a later conference in Bermuda in 1943, the entire world community refused to help Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust. The United States refused numerous requests to bomb Auschwitz, and Canada refused Jews entry during the Holocaust, sticking to a policy of “none is too many”. The Holocaust amply demonstrated, as the famous quote goes, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

The same pattern of indifference has repeated itself with Darfur. Until recently, there has been a virtual media blackout about Darfur. Media studies show that in June, 2005, TV news spent 50 times more coverage on the Michael Jackson molestation trial than it did on the Darfur tragedy, and it devoted 12 times the coverage to the tomfoolery of Tom Cruise than it did to Sudanese oppression. Obviously, celebrities matter more than mass murder. In addition, most members of parliament have kept a wary distance from this issue, afraid that a proper resolution to this humanitarian crisis will require Canadians to make costly commitments. So, as diplomats debate and discuss this issue, a genocide ensues. Only recently has the government of Canada, as well as a multiparty group of parliamentarians, started to pay attention to Darfur.

After visiting the concentration camps, many of the teenage students I was with began to search for a way to respond. They wondered if the slogan “never again” really had any meaning, if after the Holocaust, the world stood by during subsequent atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. They wondered if they could make a difference for the people in Darfur.

As their Rabbi, I felt responsible to do something. Before leaving to Poland, I had explored the possibility of a lobby mission to Parliament about Darfur. But I was afraid that no one would pay attention, and it would be a waste of time.

After coming home from Poland, I realized I had to go to Ottawa, no matter what. How could I do otherwise, after seeing the dome of ashes? There were now 6 million voices in my head, shouting “never again”. And prodding me was the passion of these students, wondering if they could make the world into a better place.

At the end of June, I will visit Ottawa with a group of students from the March of the Living, and talk to anyone who will listen. I have to. I cannot ignore what I saw in Majdanek, and I will not disappoint the students.