Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Never Forget - Why We Can't Just 'Move On'©
We have developed some phrases over the years to summarize our mission for Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, mainly, Never Forget, and Never Again. The question is, what do these words mean to us as Jews, and can they mean different things? I would like to start with the words, Never Again. Never Again has developed to mean two things: never again will we as Jews let millions of our brothers and sisters be exterminated, but also, never again will we allow genocide of any kind to occur in the world. Its double-edged meaning has evolved along with our evolution in the way we see ourselves in the world, and the way others see us. Perhaps never before have our people taken the role of Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations, as seriously as we have in recent decades. For example, whenever there is a catastrophic event that occurs in the world, Israel is often the first country to send field hospital units to help the affected populations. Two prime examples of this were following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2006, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2010 (you can find a list of examples courtesy of Jewish Virtual Library). However, it is not just Israel, but Jewish organizations, especially in America, who stand up for injustice and against genocide, not just for Jews, but for others. An example is American Jewish World Services who was instrumental in the Save Darfur movement, by organizing a rally in Washington, DC in 2006 (which I attended as a rabbinical student) to stop the genocide in Darfur. As modern Jews, we have expanded the definition of ‘neighbor’ when we think of the commandment to not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor (Leviticus 19:16).
The question that might be more relevant to us as modern Jews is: why is ‘never forget’ still relevant? I was recently at an interfaith clergy event when one of the Christian spiritual leaders said something that truly shook me to the core. She asked the rabbis in the room, “Why do you guys focus so much on the Holocaust and never forget? Isn’t it time to just move on? I mean, this wasn’t the first, or last genocide that has occurred in the world, what makes you so special?” After her statement, there was a long moment of silence in the room, and the rabbis around the table looked at each other in disbelief. Perhaps this statement hit me the hardest of all others in the room. I am a grandson of four holocaust survivors. Almost our entire family was in Europe during the Holocaust, where the Nazis and their helpers murdered the overwhelming majority of them. Yom HaShoah is a deeply personal holy day because it is the Yahrtzeit for much of our family. It was in that silence that their memories came to me again, and it was in that silence when I felt utterly helpless.
It is interesting that we our people will read the story of Nadav and Abihu this week. In chapter 10 of Leviticus, we read the following:
1 Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people." And Aaron was silent.
Isaac Abravanel, a famous thirteenth century commentator writes that Aaron’s heart turned to lifeless stone, and he did not weep and mourn like a bereaved father, nor did he accept Moses’ consolation for his soul had left him and he was speechless.
Just last week, we recited a passage that is a central part of the Hagaddah, and the holiday of Passover – “In every generation, one must look at oneself as if he/she had personally left Egypt.” It is my belief that Yom Hashoah u’Gevruah is a time for all of us to look at ourselves as relatives of those lost, as if we had personally lost someone special in the fires of the Shoah. It is a time when we must stand in Aaron’s shoes, speechless, as if our hearts, for a couple of brief moments, have turned to stone. Arguably, the most moving commemoration of Yom Hashoah u’Gevruah occurs in Israel, when the entire population, whether they are in the market, studying in schools, or driving on the road, stops what they are doing as a siren blasts, and stands in silence. It is an acknowledgement that the loss of 6,000,000 Jews is not just for the survivors to bear alone but for all Jews, for the rest of time. Together, we as a people are silent.
This is why ‘Never Forget’, unlike ‘Never Again’, might be an even more deeply personal mantra for us as Jews. Aaron loved his sons, Nadav and Avihu, like any other father, and thus his response of silence, of his heart turning to stone, is immensely authentic. As Jews living 70 years after the most horrific genocide in human history, we must also view ourselves as if we have lost our sons and daughters, for the 1.5 million children murdered, in addition to the millions of parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends.
After some moments of pregnant silence during our interfaith meeting, we spoke up against this pastor, explaining to her why the Holocaust is so deeply personal to us, and why we talk about it so often, not just because we never want it to happen again, to anyone, but also because it is our tragedy, our families, that we lost; our 6,000,000 who were silenced.