For each of the past 15 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle. The holiday is an opportunity to restart the clock and wipe away the mistakes of the past. However, the Yom Kippur prayers and fasting only serve as a vehicle to wipe away our sins against G-d. To clear away our sins against our fellow man, we must secure forgiveness from them directly. And so it is a Jewish custom to ask those whom you may have hurt during the year for forgiveness. It generally takes the form of a short note or a brief question – in my case, I have written a more involved piece each of the past 15 years. You can think of it as a very well maintained, but infrequently updated, blog.
This year’s thoughts are below.
In 1988, an elderly lady in London was rummaging through her attic when she found an old box her 79-year-old husband had been storing there.
Her husband was a man who had had a remarkable career. During his working life, he had served as Assistant Director of the Reparation’s Section of the UN’s International Refugee Organization, he had worked with the World Bank, and then he had served as a Director of a frozen food company. In 1965, he had retired and then devoted his efforts to full-time charitable work. He pioneered the UK’s Adult Training Centres for the mentally handicapped, he was active in the Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults, he established an old age home and he served on the national committee for Abbeyfield Homes – a network of 450 houses and 80 nursing homes for the elderly un the UK. Only a few years before his wife found that box, he was recognized with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his service to the community.
But, as she discovered that day in the attic, her husband had a secret: a list of 669 names in a box.
In 1938, the British Parliament had allowed Jews under the age of 17 to come to England if they had a £50 bond (an enormous amount of money at the time) and a family willing to take them in. Over the course of the next year, 10,000 Jewish children were saved from the Holocaust in the now famous Kindertransport. I know at least one of the children; Kurt Rathner, a Member of the Order of Australia.
That day, Greta Winton discovered that one man had been responsible for saving 669 of those children.
That man was her husband, Nicholas Winton.
From a Jewish perspective, the most embarrassing story of the year was the arrest of the Syrian Rabbis in the New Jersey sting operation. The Rabbis arrested weren’t your average guys running around with smicha (ordination). They were machers, people of no small importance and prominence in their community.
Here we had greatly respected individuals, celebrities in their worlds, who committed dramatic and selfish crimes.
In this, they were hardly alone.
Constantly, we hear of celebrities or figures of authority who undermine themselves in some of the most foolish ways. Prominent recent secular examples might include Mark Sanford and John Edwards. These people have twisted double lives – and lives that can be difficult to understand.
Why do these people behave this way? Are they somehow predisposed to it? Are the qualities of character that lead to success the same ones that lead to this sort of shame? Do they just not know where to draw the line between ambition and sickness? Does the stress of their lives just lead them to ‘break’? Or do these people just fall for their own celebrity? Do they think, somehow, that they are above the laws of men? Or are all of us like this, leading shameful double lives?
I feel that this year, in my own way, I have gained some insight into this behavior.
For those who don’t know, this year Rebecca and I were blessed with an amazing blessing – three healthy (thank G-d – it wasn’t a smooth process) babies: Yaira Merav Cox, Yitzchak Betzalel Cox and Itai Azriel Cox. They join Nava Margalit Cox, our eldest (by 18 months), in the fleet of rugrats running around on our little floor.
It is hard to explain how wonderful this blessing is. But to watch four of your baby children – three of them the exact same age – smiling, or playing, or even crying – is an amazing experience.
But before they played or laughed or did much other than sleep and eat, they were still triplets. Before people got to know them as Yaira, Itai and Yitzchak (assuming they can pronounce the names) – people knew there were three of them. With triplets comes a minor form of that oft-sought American Dream – celebrity.
When you have triplets, people don’t want your autograph, but they all want to stop you, they all want to watch the kids and they all want to comment. Going shopping can take a long time. And people who know you are regularly impressed that you manage it. Which Rebecca and I do (of course, they are also very good kids). Special credit should go to Rebecca, she is a titan of infant management.
Now, this minor celebrity hasn’t resulted in me fighting dogs in the basement, or smoking anything unusual – but it has still had its effect on me.
I’ve allowed the triplets to let me think I’m something exceptional. I can look at myself and say: Rebecca and I made it through a challenging hospital stay, we are successfully raising trips, we’ve been strong, organized and put together. I’ve allowed myself to separate from ‘the pack.’ Minor celebrity has gone to my head.
How does it lead to stupidity?
It starts with making exceptions for your own behavior. After all, I have a powerful excuse. ‘I’ve worked hard.’ ‘I deserve it.’ ‘It isn’t easy having triplets.’ You end up doing things you shouldn’t – or not doing things you should. It is like you begin to live the L’Oreal tag line: L’Oreal, because you’re worth it.
How has this manifested itself in my case? First, I’ve allowed my ‘exceptionalism’ to dull my sharing in the joys of others. You had a baby – bully for you. Have I told you about the triplets? Second, in the process of coping with the risks of the hospitalization, I’ve allowed myself to drift away from the immediacy of other people’s pain. We were at a very serious risk of having very very premature babies. One of the ways you cope with that is by stepping back from it – by accepting that whatever happens you will regard it as a challenge and an opportunity to grow, even if through pain. But in preparing for such pain, you dull your feeling of it. And, because you’re worth it, you don’t make the effort to come back to your humanity. Finally, I have controlled my emotions less than I have in the past – I’ve allowed myself to excuse my own lack of control.
In fact, being a triplet parent isn’t a case for exceptionalism. People may earn the notice (and perhaps respect) of others through effort or happenstance, but that prominence is itself just another challenge. It is just another opportunity to grow.
Once you have achieved the exceptional, you are once again normal – you are only exceptional for as long as you are growing.
When I look at the story of Nicholas Winton, now Sir Nicholas Winton, I see a man who kept growing, despite having already achieved the exceptional.
In 1939 – at the age of 29 – Nicholas Winton saved 669 lives (all while working full-time to pay for his kindness). Those 669 children now have over 5,000 descendants of their own. But he didn’t stop and reflect on his own magnificence. In fact, until his wife discovered that box, not even the people he saved knew who he was. He didn’t let his own remarkable achievements stop him from growing. Instead, he kept going, and kept growing, and kept changing the lives of others.
As he said in 1939, while working to convince British families to take Jewish children: “There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness. The latter is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those who are suffering and in danger and not merely in leading an exemplary life, in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.”
And in the ways that I have done quite the opposite this past year, I apologize and seek forgiveness. I have been remiss.
If there is any slights or sins I have committed against you – whether known or unknown by either of us – I apologize and ask for your forgiveness. And if you have committed any slights or sins, known or unknown, against me – you should consider them forgiven.
I pray that this year we may we all experience a year of life, a year of blessing, a year of health, a year of prosperity, a year of family, a year of honor and a year of joy.
And may those blessings not go to our heads. May they instead serve as stepping stones for ever greater accomplishments – and opportunities to discover and realize the potential within ourselves.
Shana Tova Umetuka (May you have a good and sweet year),
– In my Rosh Hashana message, I didn’t specifically call out Wayne Marshall and Benjamin Cox. I want to mentioned our tremendous gratitude to both of them for their support this past year.