God Never Gives Up On Us

The Summer Olympics Games are over, but as it has been the case since 1960, a couple of weeks after the closing ceremony, the Paralympics Games begin. I don’t know how much interest these games draw today, but growing up in Israel in the 1970’s and 80’s I followed them with much interest, as did much of the country. The 1973 and 1982 wars left many young, strong and determined soldiers disabled. The Israeli Paralympic teams were full of these amazing individuals who both inspired us and made us proud with the medals they won for the country.

While the official Paralympics Games started in Rome in 1960, the first organized athletic day for disabled athletes that coincided with the Olympic Games took place during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Dr. Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital hosted a sports competition for British World War II veteran patients with spinal cord injuries. The first games were called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games, also known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, and have been the precursors of the Paralympic Games.

In the 1930’s Dr. Guttmann was considered the top neurosurgeon in Germany. With the arrival of the Nazis into power, Guttmann, like all Jewish doctors, was banned from practicing medicine professionally. In 1939 the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) helped him to escape to England and in 1943 the British government asked him to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire.

The movie “The Best of Men” that focuses on Dr. Guttmann’s early career, shows how at that time of his arrival in England, it was assumed that paraplegics would never be able to live any kind of normal life. The best that could be done for them was to keep them sedated by high doses of drugs, and left hospitalized and bed-ridden until they died.

However, Dr. Guttmann believed that despite their severe disabilities they each had a life ahead of them, and with faith and hard work, they could leave their beds, build families, have jobs, and find happiness. It was a physically and emotionally painful process, for everyone involved, as Dr. Guttman and his team reduced the veterans’ painkillers, made them sit up, and brought in a trainer to make them exercise. The other doctors and the nurses thought that his treatment was out of line, and often the soldiers refused to go on, complaining that the life as they knew it was over. The plans and aspirations they had for the future were all but gone. His response could have been summed up by the Yiddish phrase “Man plans and God laughs.” Guttmann himself, who was tormented by the life he left behind in Germany, and especially his family and friends who were murdered by the Nazis, had to come to terms with his new life, and that was what he taught his patients. From lying in bed all day long he forced them to move to wheelchairs, then to compete with each other and the staff (whom he also placed in wheelchairs) until the idea of international games for disabled athletes came to fruition. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was once asked what question he would ask God when he gets to heaven, to which the rabbi responded, “How come you have never given up on us, why, with all our sins, flaws and rebellions you still believe in us?” Like Dr. Guttmann’s paraplegics we are spiritually and morally wounded.  We look back at the past and realize how big the discrepancy is between our dreams and our reality. The good Doctor, without sugarcoating the truth, demanded excruciating work, and expected his patients to tolerate agonizing pain, yet he never lost faith in them and their ability to build wonderful lives for themselves.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we reflect on our life, we should never forget that God—no matter what we did or didn’t do—never gives up on us, even if we’ve lost faith in ourselves. 

Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Alon Levkovitz