“Life’s heaviest burden is to have nothing to carry.”
- 1001 Grams -
HAVE BAGGAGE, WILL TRAVEL
My father was a survivor of Auschwitz. The baggage my father carried out of that place must have weighed a ton, but you’d never know it. He spoke of his ordeal in the camps, but he never made mention of the artifacts he held on to. He was a stoic man and I always thought he left more of himself in the camps than he took out. Perhaps his silence on the matter made me feel, in someway, responsible for his baggage. Heck if he wasn’t going to carry it, someone had to. And so I did.
The trouble with carrying someone else’s baggage is you never know when to put it down. It’s not yours, its contents, if it has any, don’t belong to you, so you don’t dare open it. You are a Shomer Chinum / unpaid guardian. If it is stolen or lost you’d never miss it, but that doesn’t permit you to be negligent with it. I didn’t have to pick it up, but like I said, he didn’t seem to want it; what was I to do?
Maybe it wasn’t so much that my father didn’t want to carry his own baggage, but that he couldn’t. One’s own baggage is always heavier than someone else’s. I carried his baggage, but I did not carry the weight of the contents therein. The individual contents weigh significantly more than the total weight of the baggage. The only weight I bore was the responsibility. For me, that manifested in a heaviness to life. As his caddy, I felt I owed my father something. If he survived, the least I could do was try to thrive. To coast through or squander my life was, in my mind, to disgrace my father’s survival.
The Holocaust is a tough act to follow. It is hard to make something of yourself when you are carrying around reminders of how close you came to annihilation. The baggage I carry is not a badge of honor or a medal; it doesn’t shine bright or smell swell. No, the baggage I carry is an ugly one, it’s a constant reminder of how horrible life can get, it has a stench that permeates everything I touch. That’s the baggage I carry for my dad.
For the longest time my father’s baggage got in my way. It kept me focused on living a meaningful life, but what meaning could life have when you are lugging around a reminder of genocide? Fortunately his bags weren’t the only legacy my father left me. He also left me with a choice he made. My father had no control over his survival -- he credited God for his salvation. But what my father did control was whether or not he’d come out alive. Whether he could start over and carry on. The bravery inherent in that choice inspired me to appreciate the baggage I was lugging around -- to embrace the responsibility I had assumed. I was not burdened with my father’s past; I was ennobled by it. It was my honor to carry the bags of a man who walked through the fires of hell as they scorched everything and everyone he had come to know and love and emerge a gentle, caring, loving man.
This exhibit is based on the teachings of Shlomo HaMelech. In the 10th century BCE he wrote Koheles* -- a book plagued by so much nihilism that the Rabbis thought it best to leave it to the Apocrypha. It seemed to have been granted canonization reluctantly. Like the Holocaust, Koheles is a hard pill to swallow and it is easy to get lost in all its negativity, until... you realize that all the ugliness, every foul smell, each derogatory comment is directed at a superficial life. A coasting, uninspired life warrants Solomon’s outpouring of disgust. One might harbor a similar resentment towards a superficial life having survived an ordeal as traumatic as the Holocaust. Koheles really asks, “Were we born for this?” The Holocaust asks, “Did we not die for this?” Both the Holocaust and Koheles demand that we rise above superficiality and strive for a life of meaning and purpose.
To live as if we are going to die and to behave as if our actions will live on; to view this world as the next and to recognize the next world unfolding in this.
As we view the infinite hour-glass we can embrace the unity of it all. Feel the weight of the lower chamber as its overall size dominates but does not detract from the focus and preeminence of the upper pivotal chamber, where we see ourselves isolated, wedged, trapped; where we think ourselves safe – immortal. We haven’t the mental capacity to truly fathom our own deaths, hence, the twisted and constricted pass between the two chambers – between this world and the next – reflecting the convincing illusion that this may be all there is; that there is no next and that we are here to stay. And so we live as if we always will – as if we are permanent fixtures on that wall, permanent residents among the living.
But the evidence is clear: we will pass on – and, we will also carry on. The two worlds are one infinite unit and as hard as it may be to conceptualize, we must embrace our position in both worlds. This one ends in the next but the next begins in this one.
Mystical teachings compare this world to the letter ‘Hey’ because of its small opening towards the top and a wide-open gap at its bottom. These openings represent divergent ways out. The upper opening for the righteous and the lower gap for the rest. In ‘Continuum’ the bottom of the ‘Hey’ (the upper chamber) is pulled together – legs crossed -- to create only a tiny opening. Again, this reflects the illusion man has that he is safe. There will be no fall and if there be, all will be well, there will be no price to pay for the life he leads. As Humpty Dumpty articulates: “Why, if ever I did fall off — which there’s no chance of — but if I did … ‘the King has promised me … They’d pick me up again in a minute, they would!”*
This is the message of Koheles. As we sit comfortably atop our walls never anticipating the eventual fall, Koheles pushes our minds off that ledge and in the process reminds us why we are on that wall to begin with.