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If You Can't Remember, You Can't Forget Or Forgive - 10/6/2008

I only met Sam once or twice, but on each occasion, I could not help but be struck by his gentle, kind, caring nature.  When he spoke to you, he seemed totally and genuinely concerned about you.  When you looked into his eyes, you could feel his emotions without him uttering a word.  Because of that, you knew that he was a special kind of human being.  Although he was small in stature and passive in nature, there was a silent strength about him and a depth of feeling that made him a formidable individual, one you couldn’t and wouldn’t want to readily forget.  He was truly a man who left a lasting impression on everyone he touched and he touched everyone he met.

Sam was my best friend’s father.  At his funeral, my friend, in his eulogy, described Sam’s life.  He spoke about Sam growing up in a Jewish stettle in Europe.  How his father and grandfather were rabbis and Sam’s goal was to follow in their footsteps.   His heritage was one of learning.  Knowledge of the Torah and the Mishnah were essential components of his upbringing, but his rabinical goals were thwarted by WWII.   Eventually, he found himself in Auschwitz with his father and brother, who were both marched to the German showers that ended in their deaths.  He survived years  of incarceration, backbreaking work and demeaning treatment from fellow human beings.  Much more could be told, but suffice to say, years later, when Sam arrived in the United States, he brought with him his love of God, his continuous desire to search for meaning and truths from Jewish literature and history, and a fervent calling to repeat the story of the Holocaust and his experiences to generations of youngsters, who he felt had to know and remember what took place in nazi Germany, so that it could never happen again.  

Throughout the years prior to his death, Sam expressed no hostility, no resentment, no criticism of the people who had mistreated him.  Instead, he “turned the other cheek”.  Not out of weakness, but out of strength.  He had the wherewithal to forgive and show compassion to others, possibly because he never forgot the mistreatment he experienced in his own life.   Needless to say, Sam was loved by everyone he met, no matter what profession, what level of society or what ethnic or religious background they were from.

I tell you all this because a strange thing happened at Shiva services the first night.  Prior to the service,  a member of the family took a small picture of Sam and his granddaughter and placed it on the table next to where the rabbi would be standing.  I, however, suggested that there was a much larger picture of Sam, with his arms folded, in the living room and that, perhaps, that was the one that should be there, since everyone could see it.   The individual, in all sincerity and kindness said, ‘No, that picture kind of creeps me out, because, in plain sight, you can see his concentration camp number tattooed on his forearm.”  I understood where he was coming from, but I thought Sam wouldn’t have been ashamed of those numbers.  Instead, I imagine that Sam could look down at them and say, “That’s part of me, part of my past, part of my heritage, part of my history.  When I look at it, it reminds me of how cruel human beings can be to one another and it says to me, ‘there’s  a better way to treat our fellow human beings’.”  In a way, I believe that his acceptance and remembrance of what took place in his past enabled him to profit from it, to never lose sight of the goodness and kindness and generosity we each have within us, feelings that we can share with one another during the time we spend our lives on earth.  

I know that, psychologically speaking, those of us who can’t openly look at their pasts, their hurts and their emotional scars never have the opportunity to deal with their feelings.  As a result, the past they effectively hide on the surface eventually erodes them on them inside.  It affects the way they interact and deal with others in their world and often results in negative, nonconstructive behavior.  In contrast, those individuals who can face their feelings, experience their  hurt, feel their anger and resentment and  forgive and let them go, behave in ways that demonstrate that they profited from their past.  They can be considered the healthy individuals in the world.  

I also know that, following my friend’s eulogy, many individuals at the service went away feeling, “Here was a man who was known for his good deeds.  Here was a man of whom no amount of words could adequately describe the mitzvahs he demonstrated  throughout his life.  Here was a man to be emulated, whose life was, in itself, a lesson for how everyone should live their lives.  

But, there’s one problem.  Similar to so many resolutions people make, we tend to forget them.  That being the case, perhaps we all need a “Sam” to remind us, by example, to do kind deeds, to love, care and share warm emotions and concern for others.  Someone to help us remember that good intentions aren’t enough, we must express feelings verbally, act kindly and give of ourselves to others.  

Sam was a man who lived in accordance with the words of Jacob Philip Rudin:  When we are dead and people weep for us and grieve, let it be because we touched their lives with beauty and simplicity.  Let it not be said that life was good to us but, rather, that we were good to life.

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