Parasha Ki Tavo

Regaining our Sense of PurposeThe year was 1936. The Olympics were being held in Germany, and two Jewish men, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were in Berlin to compete as part of the US Track and Field Team. Glickman was eighteen years old at the time, and scheduled to complete on the 4×100 meter relay team. The morning of the event, the seven members of the track team were called into the office of the coach. To a stunned team, the coach announced that Glickman and Stoller, the only two Jews on the team, were to be replaced on the relay event by Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe. According to the coaches, there were strong rumors that the Germans were hiding their very best sprinters to compete in this event and thereby upset the Americans in the race. Glickman spoke up. “Coach, you can’t hide world class sprinters.” At which point Jesse Owens spoke up. “Coach, I have my three medals already. I’m tired. Give Marty and Sam a chance.” Nevertheless, Glickman and Stoller were replaced, and the Americans went on to win the event. The “hidden world class German sprinters” never materialized. Glickman’s story is told in an HBO film that is being aired this Monday evening.  He always maintained that this was a case of anti-Semitism. “In the entire history of the modern Olympic Games, now going into its 100th year, no fit American track and field performer has   missed competing  in the Olympic Games except for Sam Stoller and me — the only 2 Jews on the 1936 team,” said Glickman. Glickman never made it back to compete in the Olympics, but went on to an illustrious career in sports broadcasting. Despite the many outstanding Jewish American and other Jewish international athletes in our era, Jews have never, as a people, been known for  athletic prowess. The Greeks may have been known for their philosophy, the Romans for their magnificent architecture, the Arabs for their advances in grammar and mathematics, Russians for their literature and Americans for the political genius of our Founding Fathers. The greatest Jewish contribution to world civilization lies in our religion. Ineedd we are . a people of religious genius.   In our parasha this week, we have what I can only describe as the conclusion of a marriage ceremony with Moses as the officiant and G-d and Israel as the parties to the marriage. “You, the people of Israel,” says Moses, “acknowledge G-d to be your G-d, that you will faithfully, love, honor and obey.” And you,” says Moses addressing G-d, “promise to treasure this people. You promise to make them renowned among the nations, famous and glorious and acknowledged as a holy people.”  That’s it. The only thing that is left out is the breaking of the glass! G-d is like a groom, who shines His light upon the Jewish people, His bride. The mission of the Jewish people, in turn, is to shine that light upon the world. Our mission is to illuminate the dark places and to live exemplary lives so that others will follow our example. “Throughout the millennia, our insights about the One God, creator of heaven and earth, Source of morality and Seeker of justice, have enlightened the lives and quiet moments of untold millions,” writes Rabbi Bradley Artson.  Yet, there are those who say that in our own time we Jews have abandoned our sense of mission. They say that the messengers of G-d have forgotten the message. Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer wrote an interesting article in the Forward last week. A rabbi of 40 years in the same congregation, Neve Shalom of Metuchen, New Jersey, Rabbi Zelizer writes that he has seen a change in the core question asked by his congregants over the years.  People used to ask, he writes, “How do we serve G-d?” People now ask, he writes, “how can G-d serve me?”  Instead of asking, “How can we bring G-d’s light into the world,” people ask, “How can religion enhance my lifestyle?” Indeed, he points out, surveys have shown that people who consider themselves, “very religious” have less depression and greater happiness than those who do not consider themselves religious. Religion has been shown to be a valuable coping mechanism when dealing with physical impairment. Synagogue attendance has been shown to lower blood pressure and boosts immune system responses.  Religion has become like a consumer product. Like anything we buy, we expect it to be good for us. “I find myself talking less about religious obligation,” writes Rabbi Zelizer, “and more about religion as a means to self fulfillment.” Much has changed for the better in American Jewish life. Marty Glickman recalled not only the anti-Semitism at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but anti-Semitism in his own backyard in New York City. “You went into a hotel in New York and you saw a small sign where you registered that said, ‘restricted clientele’ which meant, in effect, ‘no Jews or Blacks allowed,” he said in an interview. We don’t have that in America anymore. But we have lost something. Speaking of the generation of Marty Glickman and his parents, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg puts it this way: They grew up on gefilte fish; we get sushi. They had chicken soup, we have miso soup. They spoke of Yizkor and Yahrzeit; We speak of Yin and Yang. They saw tattoos on the arms of survivors; we see tattoos on the navels of our friends. They spoke of Israel bonds; we speak of IPOs. A new year is fast approaching. This year, let us commit ourselves to being a little more Jewish. I don’t mean more religious, I mean, let us live more Jewish lives. Eat at a kosher restaurant when you are in the North Shore. Set aside time for Jewish study. Come to our Yizkor service on Shemini Atzeret. Buy a piece of Jewish art for your home. Put up a mezuzah – and if you have a mezuzah already, put up a Sukkah this year. Read a Jewish book.  Join the Spertus Institute in Chicago and attend one of their programs.  Say the Shma before you go to bed at night. If you have not been to Israel, start planning that trip. Commit to sending your children to a Jewish overnight camp. This coming year, ask not what your G-d can do for you – ask what you can do for your G-d. Shabbat Shalom