SPIRIT Matters; Selections from Forthcoming Books, Articles, and Talks; REDISCOVERING JUDAISM

Tikkun, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

SPIRIT Matters; Selections from Forthcoming Books, Articles, and Talks; REDISCOVERING JUDAISM


Excerpt from The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage by Mark Klempner. (March 2006, The Pilgrim Press)

What is the point of trying to do good at all? That was the question that troubled me after hearing Ted's tale of Vos, the man who had been broken by the Nazis, attacked by the Resistance people he'd made great sacrifices to help, and then brutalized by Dutch prison guards. I knew, of course, that heroes aren't indestructible and that good deeds often go unrecognized, but I guess that somewhere in my mind the comic book heroes and fairy-tale endings I'd absorbed in childhood--the ones I had relied on to assuage my fears as I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust--were still exerting their influence. Or perhaps I was still recovering from my ten years as a studio guitarist in Los Angeles, thinking that everything one does, even if it appears to be for others, should finally yield some personal reward. The rescuers, however, didn't think about personal rewards. They simply recognized a desperate need and took action. It's a bit like the midrash of how the Jews came to be the "chosen people": every other nation was offered the responsibility, but only the Jews accepted (Avodah Zarah 2b; Sifra; Brachah). Like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, the rescuers accepted first, and only later fully understood what would be involved. On the other hand, by doing what they deeply believed to be right and just, there was a reward, one that blurs the distinction between the "altruistic" and the "selfish" gesture: by acting on behalf of others, they were safeguarding their own humanity.

Hearing how the rescuers became involved in their resistance activities had a particular resonance for me because when I first went to the Netherlands I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. Joseph Campbell's exhortation "follow your bliss" sounded good, but what could constitute bliss? It wasn't until I met Gisela and Hetty, who made up songs to entertain the other inmates in Ravensbruck, did I realize that it might mean a state of contentment and self-respect that has nothing to do with outer circumstances--a sense of satisfaction at having done the right thing, at having stood up for what one believes, at enjoying a good reputation with the people who most matter, including oneself.

During those months in Holland of getting up early every morning, taking the train, and ringing the doorbell, something passed between me and those who welcomed me into their homes that was more than just words. Henry James may have described it best when he wrote about "those invisible, molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual." The love that permeated my time with the rescuers made it clear to me that the path they have taken is far superior to the crowded superhighways of ambition and consumption that many people in the U.S. imagine will make them happy. Though most of them live modestly, the rescuers are rich in chesed, in loving kindness.

After returning home, I discovered that part of me was still gazing at the vistas that had opened under the rescuers' expansive influence. As I traveled on a Trailways bus from New York City to Ithaca in December 1996, I tried to hold on to my memories of them, even as the sight of acres of cars parked in front of huge shopping malls reminded me of a life I knew well, but no longer wanted.

It was my last semester as an undergraduate at Cornell, and suddenly the emphasis on achievement and grades seemed out of balance. I knew that I was in the midst of a moral and vocational sea change, but with graduation fast approaching, I felt pressured to quickly decide my next move, so as not to be left behind in the "real world" I would soon re-enter.

And yet the rescuers' choices--both during and after the war -- suggested that finding one's way in life is not so much about using the will as it is about willingness; not so much about setting goals and pursuing them as it is about being open to life and able to respond to it: response-ability. …

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