How will we be remembered?
Recently, I attended a speech by the person to whom I invariably turn whenever I need advice. His subject was the human relations aspects of creating a successful organizational team.
My friend drew liberally on his own experience founding and running a number of highly successful institutions, as well as some failed ones – the latter providing an equally rich lode of valuable experience. Many of the points were sealed with the wisdom of two figures: Rabbi Elyahu Lopian, zt”l, my friend’s Mashgiach as a young man, and his father. My friend has himself passed the halfway mark to 120, and his father has been gone for many years. Yet one could hear in the way he pronounced the words “my father, alav haShalom” a reverence undiminished by the passage of time.
Though he himself is someone whose counsel is sought by a wide-range of people wherever he travels, with a vast wealth of his own life experience, it was clear that he continues to treasure each word heard from his father as a pearl, and that his father’s image remains ever before him, like that of Yaakov’s before Yosef in the house of Potiphar.
Listening to the way my friend spoke about his father – which is pretty much how I think of my own father, alav haShalom – it struck me that we would all do well to constantly ask ourselves, “What will my children remember most of me? What will they take away for their own lives?”
That feeling was reinforced by a manuscript I received in the mail this week entitled Miles Away . . . World’s Apart. I do not normally have time to read unsolicited manuscripts, but after a few pages, I could not put this one down. The author, Alan Sakowitz, is a frum attorney living in North Miami Beach. Last year, he was the whistleblower on a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme, directed by a Fort Lauderdale attorney named Scott Rothstein. Sakowitz juxtaposes the disregard for others of Scott Rothstein to the countless, unsung acts of chesed of the members of his North Miami Beach community.
At a crucial juncture in the book, Sakowitz is weighing how to put a stop to Rothstein’s fraud. The latter had made huge contributions to almost every major politician in Florida, and had extremely close connections to all branches of law enforcement in Fort Lauderdale. In addition, one member of Rothstein’s law firm had already been murdered. Sakowitz realizes that as soon as he reports his suspicions about Rothstein, there is a good chance that someone will tip-off Rothstein, and that he will have no choice but to send his wife and children out-of-state to protect against possible reprisals.
Yet it never occurred to him that he might just keep his suspicions to himself because of the images of his parents that he carries with him. One powerful memory involves a family vacation to Mexico City. Sakowitz and his siblings were walking down the street with their parents, when they spotted a gang of young men pounding a man on the sidewalk across the street. Theodore Sakowitz did not hesitate before rushing across the street in the direction of the gang. To his son’s amazement, the gang took flight.
Later, Alan asked his father whether he had not been scared to endanger himself like that. His father answered simply: “Unless today is well-lived, tomorrow is not important.” The senior Sakowitz headed one of the first federal public defender programs for many years. After he passed away, Alan came upon many letters from those he had defended thanking him for his efforts. One, in particular, made a huge impression. The writer, who had spent many years in jail, wrote to Theodore Sakowitz that he was the first person in his life who cared him, and that as a consequence of that concern, when he was freed from jail he would begin caring about himself and others.
Alan’s mother moved to Miami Beach from the North when she was 12, and she suffered a major cultural shock upon being exposed for the first time to separate facilities and water fountains for whites and “colored people.” She insisted on drinking only from the water fountain for colored people. Years later, after Florida schools were desegregated by court order, many white teachers went on strike.
Though Mrs. Sakowitz was then a housewife, with young children still at home, she volunteered to teach. She was assigned to a school in a particularly dangerous neighborhood. The first thing she noticed was that many of her students came to school hungry, and she began bringing cereal to school so that they could at least start their day with a proper meal.
Alan Sakowitz’s in-laws also provided examples of courage and concern for others that compelled him to put himself at risk to attempt to expose what he was sure was a Ponzi scheme. Towards the end of the war, his father-in-law Benzion Leibowitz devised a plan to escape from the Nazi work camp to which he had been assigned. The chances of success were much greater if he made his escape alone, but he felt he could not just leave behind fellow Jews, especially when people were dying from the brutal work or being shot regularly for falling behind on their quotas. He shared his plan with others, and they succeeded in escaping together.
Mrs. Leibowitz suffered even greater hardships after passing under the rod of the infamous Dr. Mengele, ym”sh, at Auschwitz. In one of the slave labor camps to which she was sent, she volunteered to clear the kitchen every night until 1:00 a.m. because the job provided an opportunity to smuggle out cooked potatoes to her fellow prisoners.
As he contemplated these examples and the impact upon him, Alan Sakowitz realized to what a great extent the way his children respond to the challenges they face in life would depend on “how my wife and I live our lives and respond to the situations we encounter.”
At one level, it is an obvious lesson. But if we reflected often enough on the model we are setting for our children and asked what memories we will leave them with, it would have a powerful effect on our own behavior.
The generation of the depression and holocaust was truly a great generation. There were many people – Jews and gentiles alike – who cared more for their fellow man than they did for their own safety. US entry to WWII generated an unpreccdedented rush of volunteersim to serve in the armed forces or in other ways. I believe that to date – the numbers remain unmatched. Today’s generation is more worried about what’s on TV tonight than they are about their fellow man. There are some heroic figures in our day like the subject of your post. But unlike our parents and grandparents generation I think it is today more the exception than the rule.