Earlier this year, my 21-year-old daughter, Emily, and I went to Germany to visit the Nazi death camp, Dachau. As Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tomorrow evening, I keep thinking about that trip and its meaning. At issue, for me, is not what others might have done, but what do I do, each and every day? Visiting Dachau was heart wrenching. After Emily and I spent a day there, I told her over dinner that night that something deep within me was pulling me back to the death camp, that I still had unfinished business and unresolved issues to confront. And so, with Emily’s encouragement, I decided to return to the death camp the next day – alone.
I arrived at the camp early in the morning, hours before it opened, and thought that I would sit outside the camp’s gate, the same gate the prisoners were marched through from the train tracks only yards away, and write in my journal and get ready for the day ahead of me. But something prompted me to stand up and go up to the camp’s iron-gate – and gently push on it. When I did, it opened. There, looking out over the acres upon acres of the death camp, I was the only person in sight.
I stepped through the door and walked to the center of the courtyard, the same courtyard where the prisoners would stand for roll call each morning and again at night, and I stood there, alone, and said my Hebrew prayers. As I did, I could not avoid the stark reminder that evil does exist; that apathy and indifference sometimes get the best of us; that at times we turn our backs on one another just when another person is most in need; that sometimes we even hide from one another.
There’s much in my experience at Dachau that I want to write about someday, but not today. Instead, on this day, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I simply wish to focus my thoughts on what it means for me to stand my ground.
In Jewish tradition, there is the notion that, “if you save one person, you save the world.” This notion is a simple and powerful entreaty to step forward and engage. To me, its meaning is that each of us, as individuals and collectively hold the innate capacity and responsibility to make a difference in the world. That it is possible.
Rosh Hashanah commences 10 days of reflection and repentance, and leads up to Yom Kippur, when one asks for forgiveness for their transgressions over the past year. This is by far my favorite time of the year. It opens up a space where one must stand alone and reflect on what they have done, and where they believe they must go in the New Year.
This week, as I enter this space, I am reminded of this basic notion – that “if you save one person, you save the world” – and to ask, “How well I am fulfilling it?” In doing so, I am reminded that my main task is not merely to land the next big project, but to make sure that what I do holds meaning. That implementing my work is never enough; instead, the test must be, “Did the work make a difference in someone’s life?” That while I can always find ways to run faster and harder, the real question is whether I will slow down enough to hear the next person?
For me, the world stopped for a very long moment as I stood alone in the middle of the courtyard at Dachau. There, I was reminded that success is not achieving what one desires; rather, it is doing something desirable.