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Wisdom of the Generations

04/20/2020 06:21:48 PM


How are we measuring up in these difficult times?  How do we compare to previous generations? Are we as strong, as meritorious, as righteous as the generations that came before us?

If you look at Jewish tradition, one answer is no.

There is a longstanding theme in our tradition that the present generation cannot live up to the generations that came before us.

I have absorbed this message.

For example, when I consider the “greatest” generation: those who lived through the fear and deprivation of the Great Depression, those who fought in World War II, and those who survived the Holocaust, I wonder: how could my coddled, spoiled generation possibly measure up to the greatest generation?

Yet every generation has felt this way about the heroism of previous generations. I know of no generation that has said of itself: “We have truly reached the pinnacle of human evolution. No future generation could possibly be better than we are!”
We don’t know how our generation measures up until the times that we live in put us to the test.

Three months ago, did the nurses and physicians and first responders in our community ever imagine that they would find the courage to put their lives and the lives of their families in danger in order to help those suffering with the coronavirus?

Yet these nurses and physicians and first responders are doing exactly that, every day.

Three months ago, did the people who stock the store shelves and check out the customers, did the pharmacists and mail carriers and truck drivers ever think they could find the courage to go to work each day knowing they might come into contact with the invisible enemy virus? 

Yet every day, they go to work so that we can have what we need. 

We don’t know our own strength until we find ourselves in the in the position to discover it.

One of the things I have discovered in reading our oldest Jewish texts is that from generation to generation people don’t change all that much. We can recognize our own human needs, our own human searching, in the earliest stories of our people.

Since people don’t really change all that much, that means that each generation can measure up to the previous ones. It is not out of our reach.

Millie Jasper, a former president of our congregation, is the executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains. In Millie’s role, she speaks to survivors of the Holocaust regularly. Millie told me that during these days of the pandemic, she has found wisdom in the perspectives of these survivors. 

The generation of the Shoah lived through terrible suffering. Where did these survivors find the strength? The strength to endure, the strength to overcome bitterness and depression? The strength to keep on living?

Each individual has his or her own answer.

I offer you one perspective captured in a story told by survivor Hugo Gryn and published in our prayer book’s commemoration for Yom HaShoah.

 It was the cold winter of 1944, and although we had nothing like calendars, my father who was my fellow prisoner there, took me and some of our friends to a corner in our barrack.  He announced that it was the eve of Chanukah, produced a curious shaped clay bowl, and began to light a wick immersed in his precious, but now melted, margarine ration.
 Before he could recite the first blessing, I protested at the waste of food. He looked at me – then at the lamp – and finally said: “You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food.  We once lived almost three days without water; but you cannot live properly for three minutes without hope.” 


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782