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June 21, 2015 12:34 pm

Strength and Humility: The Paradox of Life

avatar by Ronn Torossian

Email a copy of "Strength and Humility: The Paradox of Life" to a friend
The view at the end of the prism of Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

The view at the end of the prism of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, designed by Moshe Safdie. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

On June 16, 2015, The Carlebach Shul of Manhattan’s Upper West Side held its annual dinner. The following are excerpts from a speech I gave at that event, which I wanted to share. Here is a full video of the speech.

A great Hasidic Rabbi taught that everyone should carry two notes with them every single day, one in each pocket. In one pocket should be a piece of paper which reads “I am dust and ashes” In the other pocket should be a note which says: “The world was created for me.”

This simple parable captures so much of the essence of life, as it reflects the tension between our capacities for humility and pride. When we are feeling proud, one should take the slip of paper from their pocket that reads, “I am dust and ashes,” reminding us of our humble origins.

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On the other hand, when we are feeling down and lowly, we should take the slip from the other pocket that reads, “The world was created for me.” Our challenge is to live our lives recognizing the significance of these paradoxical truths, remembering the world was created for our sake, while at the same time recognizing that we are only dust and ashes.

For me as a father, as a husband, as an entrepreneur, a Jew, an American, there’s so many different challenges and opportunities that we face daily. In the vast universe, we are but a speck of dust; and our days on earth are but a moment. (In my business, I know how ones’ life can change in a single moment.) Yet, at the same time, Judaism teaches that we are little less than divine and that our time here matters.

“The world was created for me.”

With humility today, I remember my hero, my mother, Penny Waga who passed away in 2013. And how I wish she was here with me. She loved Jewish culture, she loved Jewish spirit, she loved Jewish music.

My mother, who was born in a DP camp after the war to a family of Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel as refugees before making their way to New York knew humility. But how she also knew and taught me strength.

My mom didn’t have an easy life. Her parents worked very hard to raise her and her brother. And our family suffered every imaginable, awful fate during the Holocaust – about which my mom spent so much time researching, reading, and studying.

And when I visit Yad Vashem and review the documents at the museum signed by her parents, which they filled out in the 1950s upon arriving in Israel I think of my mother. Walking the streets of Jerusalem together with my family felt like a triumph of Jewish history – even as I cry as we walked the grounds knowing that we were the heritage of what she had studied and learned so much about.

Humility – dust and ashes. And yet, the future – and today tells me the world was created for me.

Of course my mother loved us so much. My mom was bright and tough and taught us values, courage, wisdom, strength, and decency. She told us every single day that we could do anything we set our minds out to do. We heeded and believed her – and knew that our mother would and could do anything and everything for us. And she did. Her unconditional love made us believe that we could do anything. And that the world was created for me.

My mother also taught me to laugh. I was raised in Rabbi Avi Weiss’ synagogue in the Bronx and remember the joy of singing the songs of Shlomo Carlebach. How I remember so many great experiences.

We live as Jews in Israel, as Jews in America, but wherever we are we know that we are Jewish and we know the importance of our people. We recognize the Israel Defense Forces: The Jewish army that defends the existence and sovereignty of the Jewish nation. Humility – and strength. We know that we must always be cognizant of our need to survive as a people. Life is about meaning. Tradition, family, values, decency, and history. These are concepts which we understand.

And do so with joy, with happiness. I bless you and ask that you bless me.

Ronn Torossian is the CEO of NYC based Public Relations firm 5WPR, a leading United States Public Relations company.

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  • Patrick Welsh

    Great Speech. Years ago I had heard that Martin Buber carried the two piece of paper you referred to. Is that a myth – Is there any specific scholar who carried such notes.

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