Rabbis Without Borders
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This summer my family and I visited one of my great-uncles. I’m not sure exactly how old he is, but he must be in his mid- to late 80s. He’s German, and not Jewish. I know he wasn’t old enough to have been in the army in World War II, from what he’s told me. His wife, my great-aunt, died this past year.
It’s always a pleasure to see him. He and his family are lovely people, just very nice. He has always been very interested in people and ideas, and his mind is still sharp. On this visit there was a theme that kept coming up in the conversation, that was clearly very much on his mind.
It was revealed through a story he told us. When he was a child, he and his family lived in what later became East Germany, which means that at the end of World War II it was in the Russian zone. The Russians put in place a requirement that all honey from beehives in the town had to be given to them, and in exchange they would give the beekeepers sugar to feed the bees with, so they would survive without their honey. (Why the Russians wanted the honey and gave sugar in exchange is not clear to me, but this was the story.)
My great-uncle’s father, a beekeeper, was put in charge of this program, responsible for getting the honey from all the beekeepers and giving them sugar in return. One day a man came to him and wanted to get some sugar. He didn’t have any honey to give, though, so my great-uncle’s father told him he couldn’t have any sugar. That was the way the system worked: You bring honey, you get sugar. No honey, no sugar. Those were the rules.
That man went and denounced my great-uncle’s father to the Russians, and he (the father) ended up in a Russian prison. I don’t know for how long, and I believe he eventually was released again, but it was, of course, a terrible ordeal for him and for his family.
“He couldn’t know that was what would happen,” my great-uncle said. “How could he know? And what else could he do? He did what he was supposed to do. What would have happened to him if he had broken the rules?”
For my great-uncle, the lesson of this story, and the theme of our conversation that day, is that we make decisions in our lives, and we never know if those decisions will end up being to our benefit or to our harm. He made no moral judgement on this, didn’t draw any conclusions about how this should affect our decision-making. Just simply this: We never know how the decisions we make will end up affecting our lives.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe, are approaching. This is the time of year when we look back and consider where we have gone wrong in the past year, what we need to atone for, and how we’d like to do better in the coming year. When we consider the decisions we’ve made, which have ended up being good for us and which have not been so good for us, it might be wise not to be too quick to either congratulate or berate ourselves.
There are bad decisions, decisions for which information is available to warn us away from certain choices. If we ignore that information, we are culpable for those decisions and must atone. There are good decisions, for which we have knowledge that points us toward the best path. If we use that knowledge to make good decisions and benefit, we are to be congratulated.
Sometimes, though, we do the best we can with the information we have, and a decision ends up being to our detriment. If we can honestly say that is the case, we may need to atone to others who may have been harmed, but we should let ourselves off the hook for the decision itself. There are times when we do everything right and it just doesn’t work out.
Let us judge ourselves honestly but kindly this year. Let us recognize what we could have done better, and what we couldn’t have known would be damaging. Let us atone where we should, and not blame ourselves where we weren’t at fault. May the coming new year be a good year and a sweet year.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.