The Olympic Games is a time when the best athletes compete from all over the world to bring glory to themselves, their sport, and the countries they represent. No doubt, the athletes themselves are the main event, with their incredible drive and talent keeping millions of viewers glued to their screens in rapt attention. This year, however, something else took place at the Olympics that captured our hearts as Jews and as lovers of the state of Israel.
Last Wednesday, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach led a mourning ceremony for the eleven Israeli athletes and coaches slain by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Families of the victims of the 1972 Munich attack had petitioned the IOC to hold a public ceremony of this sort paying tribute to these victims for many years. Year after year their request was denied, until this year, forty-four years after the Munich Massacre. In addition to the memorial ceremony held this year, President Bach inaugurated the Place of Mourning, with two stones from ancient Olympia encased in glass in a leafy part of the athletes’ village. This monument will remain a feature at future Olympic events.
Memory is a critical aspect of our Jewish experience. Whether by designating a time to remember or a place to remember, Jewish tradition treats memory as something experiential, not simply an intangible internal state. Rav Soloveitchik has written, “Experiential memory somehow erases the borderline separating bygone from present experiences. It does not just recollect the past, but re-experiences whatever has been. It quickens events which man considered dead and it actually merges past with present – or shifts the past into the present. Judaism has recommended what I would call a “unitive time consciousness” – unitive in the sense that there is a tightening of bonds of companionship, of present and past.”
According to Rav Soloveitchik, we don’t simply remember the past in order to know something, we remember the past in order to experience it. The experience of remembering allows us to not only connect with the past intellectually, but to fuse with it emotionally. Whether we are commanded, according to the Mishna in Pesachim, to imagine ourselves as if we left Egypt on the night of the seder, or whether we have the custom to stand up when we hear the reading of the Ten Commandments on the holiday of Shavuot to try to re-create that event, the goal of Jewish memory is to shape our religious personality. In fact, the entire transition from the beginning of the Three Weeks to the ninth of Av is structured with this intent in mind. From the beginning of the Three Weeks, we read Haftarot foretelling the destruction of the Temple, shaping our thoughts to the tragedy that occurred. When the Nine Days begin, we restrict activities of happiness, further shaping our behaviors so that we may experience the darkness of this time in our history. During the week of Tisha B’Av, many practices of a mourner during sheloshim are observed. Finally, our experience peaks on Tisha B’Av itself, when our observance of the day is in many ways are modeled after shiva. By taking upon ourselves these behaviors of mourning, “remembering” becomes an experiential act, wherein we try to truly feel the loss of the Beit Hamikdash and what that loss means to us today in 2016.
Let us hope and pray that the memorial of the Munich Massacre, when we remember Moshe Weinberg, Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr, Yosef Gutfreund, Yossef Romano, Ze’ev Friedman, Yaakov Springer, Eliezer Halfin, Mark Slavin, Andre Spitzer and David Berger, creates not merely an intellectual awareness but an emotional connection to these eleven lives who were lost simply because they were Jewish and they were athletes representing a Jewish state. Additionally, let us hope and pray that this memorial creates not merely an intellectual awareness but a real emotional understanding for the world community that anti-semitism too often masks itself as anti-Zionism and that terrorism is terrorism regardless of which country is the victim. Failure to understand this reality creates conditions which led to the Munich Massacre forty-four years ago. May we always remember our history, and may the suffering of Klal Yisrael not have been in vain.