Embedded in the opening verses of our Torah reading sit cautionary words that apply not only to our biblical predecessors, but to all of us in this week following Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. The name of our Torah reading is Aharei Mot, literally “after the death,” specifically, the catastrophic and inexplicable death of Aaron’s sons, described in a previous parashah. In the wake of the calamity, Aaron was so traumatized that words failed him – Va-yidom Aharon, and Aaron turned silent. The first to speak would not be Aaron, but God. In the opening verse of our Torah reading, God instructs Moses to tell his brother Aaron to keep his distance, to not draw close to the shrine containing God’s presence. God is aware of Aaron’s need, the human need, to make sense of his loss, to put his heartache into words, and maybe even to call God to account. Al yavo, do not come close, God warns. It is still too soon; perhaps it will always be too soon to make sense of your trauma. In the face of unspeakable tragedy, God cautions that we can do harm to ourselves if we try to understand too much. Sometimes it is better to keep our distance; sometimes it is better to keep silent.
And today, just days after Yom HaShoah, we too find ourselves seeking meaning. Every year, as our community did this past week, we remember the six million murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, not only Jews, but homosexuals, mentally impaired, Romani, and others condemned to elimination. We are all, always, and especially at this time of year, a bit like Aaron, trying to make sense of Holocaust memory – to tame the incomprehensible, to cauterize our loss with words, to understand that which can never be fully understood. With great trepidation we draw close, we feel a moral duty to explore, to assess, and to affirm our obligation to remember.
This year, for at least two reasons, the stakes of Holocaust memory seem higher than years before. First, we are acutely aware that we are living through the time of the passing of the survivor generation. I grew up, as did many of you, in active relationship with individuals who had experienced the horrors of the Shoah firsthand – my teachers, my parents’ friends, at our dinner table, and in other settings. This is no longer the case. My daughter came home the other day from a school assembly where a survivor spoke to her grade. My daughter relayed the frail physical and mental condition of the speaker. She shared that it was less “testimony” and more like a final hospital visit to a loved one – significant not so much for what anyone said, but for the sense that you and that person are together in the final moments. Among the three thousand participants in this year’s March of the Living, the annual journey of remembrance from the gates of Auschwitz to Birkenau, only eight survivors were in attendance – likely the final March with any survivors present. There is an urgency to the question of Holocaust memory; we know that one day soon it will be only us, not the survivors, who will be entrusted with the responsibility of remembrance.
Second, Holocaust remembrance feels different this year – and I spoke to this point just a few weeks ago – because we are living through a time of atrocities being perpetrated on a scale unseen since the Holocaust. Ours is a time of a mass graves. The same places that saw our brethren murdered, where the crematoria burned, are now the very places receiving the millions of refugees fleeing Putin and his army. The questions which historians and moral philosophers have become accustomed to debating – Should FDR have bombed the tracks? What did the world know and when? How is it possible that the world stood by? Where is the line between guilt and responsibility? – these same questions are being actively played out now! “Never again!” is no mere slogan of yesteryear; it is a moral threshold being breached in real time! Holocaust memory is never an abstract enterprise, but this year, more than any year that I can remember, it is an urgent moral calling. This year, more than ever, we need to understand, we need to ask how and to what ends the Holocaust will be remembered.
So why do we remember? First and foremost, we remember, as Paul Ricoeur wrote, “Lest we allow forgetfulness to kill the victims twice over.” (“Memory of Suffering,” pp. 2-4) On my desk sits a book, a huge volume, whose only text is the word “Jew” printed six million times. It is a powerful, albeit insufficient, attempt to give expression to the number of souls, each one a universe, whose divine spark was snuffed out by Nazi barbarity. Why is the Holocaust museum in Israel called Yad Vashem? The name comes from the book of Isaiah, who describes the fear of those without descendants that they will be forgotten: “To them I will give within my house and within my walls a yad (memorial) and shem (name).” (56:5) No person, no book, no museum can recall all the names; no number of kaddishes will ever suffice. And yet we remember, we bear witness – through museums, through education, through memorials – we honor our commitment to the victims of Auschwitz. Why do we remember? We remember because it is our moral obligation to remember.
We recall the suffering of those murdered; we remember the defiant spirit of those who refused to be dehumanized by their oppressors. Most of all we remember how they lived. As Dara Horn, who spoke this past week at PAS, has noted, while many of us can name three concentration camps, how many of us can name three Yiddish authors we have read? Ultimately, it is their lives, not their deaths, that we must remember. Given COVID, it has been years since we have had a congregational trip to Poland. We should have one, for adults and teens, sooner rather than later. But that effort must come with a curriculum attached, a curriculum that honors and affirms a millennia-long history of European Jewish culture, literature, music, and learning. Memory deployed properly must reclaim the lives, not just the deaths, of those we solemnly swear to never forget.
When it comes to the Shoah, tears are not enough. We must deploy all our faculties and resources to understand how the Shoah happened. Why do we study the history, ideology, and pathology of antisemitism that gave rise to the Holocaust? Why read about the genteel Nazi technocrats who gathered for ninety minutes at Wannsee in 1942 to devise the final solution to the Jewish question? Why study what happened three years earlier at Evian when the nations of the world turned their backs on those desperately seeking refuge? Because memory is meant to inform our moral character. Remembrance without a moral dimension in the present is meaningless. As Raphael Lemkin wrote: “The function of memory is not only to register past events, but to stimulate human conscience.” We remember so that we don’t fall prey to repeating those misdeeds. We remember the righteous gentiles who risked their lives in order to save Jews because it reminds us of our own moral agency – that from the Garden of Eden onwards we are not only capable of differentiating between good and evil, but we own the choices we make. We remember, as Saul Friedländer observes, to shift the nature of the traumatic memory from “a negative and incomprehensible event to a positive and empowering principle of action for the community.” Holocaust memory is a lament, a lament that must be leveraged for present purpose. As the motto of the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance states: “A world that remembers the Holocaust. A world without genocide.” (Cited in James Loeffler, “The One and the Many” and Michal Govrin, “How to Remember the Shoah.”)
There are, without question, pitfalls that come with Holocaust remembrance. Setting aside the inane conversations about masking and yellow stars, which do not deserve the dignity of a response, there are moments when we must exercise caution in how we remember. There was a time when we were told that the reason to be Jewish was Holocaust memory, that we must live Jewishly so as not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. While I understand the context that gave rise to that argument, it is an argument that has long since run its course. Those of us, like our bar mitzvah, who carry the names of individuals whose lives were traumatized or taken by the Shoah, honor their names by living positive, engaged, and meaning-filled Jewish lives. We will always remember, and we honor them best by living loving, joyful, involved, and committed Jewish lives that stand on their own terms, not by memorializing the Holocaust.
So too Israel. You don’t need to be much of a historian to know that had Israel become a nation in 1938 rather than 1948, millions of lives could have been saved. And yet the argument for Israel should not and cannot be the Holocaust. It should not be, because saying so serves the purposes of those haters of Israel and Jews who would claim that Israel’s existence is merely a by-product of the world’s postwar sympathy towards the Jewish people. It cannot be, because it is historically inaccurate: The claim of the Jewish people to the land dates back to long before the Shoah, to Genesis chapter 12; and modern Zionism dates back to the 1800s. Most of all, we are careful not to link the two too closely for fear of suggesting a theological link, that the greatest triumph of our people in the modern era came somehow as a result of our greatest catastrophe. Grateful as I am to God for the miracle of Israel, humbled as I am at human suffering of the Shoah – it is theologically abhorrent to me that in the calculus of the heavens the two are connected. Every Holocaust memorial does not need “Hatikvah” to be sung; visits to Auschwitz need not be made wrapped in Israeli flags; every “Eili Eili” need not taper off into a “Halleluyah.” There is the Holocaust and there is Israel, and Holocaust memory must never be instrumentalized towards justifying the State of Israel or, for that matter, any of its policies – save those policies that prompt Israel to heed the plight of people seeking the safety and sanctuary denied Jews some eighty years ago.
Finally, and with this we turn to events of the present day, we must be skeptical of the public debates about the relationship between the Holocaust and other atrocities past, present – and unfortunately – future. Is the Holocaust akin to the Syrian refugee crisis, American slavery, or the war in Ukraine? What is the technical definition of genocide and how does it differ from garden-variety crimes against humanity? I recommend to you a recent article on the subject by James Loeffler arguing that such debates on whether to compare or not to compare miss the bigger point that it is all terrible and it all demands a moral response. Acknowledging someone else’s suffering does not diminish mine; just the opposite, as a Jew it is an awareness of my people’s suffering that enables me to have empathy for that of others. As Elie Wiesel taught, while the Holocaust was a unique and uniquely Jewish event, its implications are universal. So too, our own Menachem Rosensaft, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress and Wiesel’s student, has written most eloquently of his refusal to engage in comparative suffering. Cautious as we may be about the risks of moral equivalencies and political opportunism, it strikes me that there is a greater danger in allowing such debates to distract us from our obligation to respond to the present sufferings of humanity.
Ours is not just the Torah reading, but the era of Aharei Mot, after the death. After the death, the murder of six million. This week and every week, we remember. we remember wisely, judiciously, and with sorrow-filled hearts. We remember, most of all, with purpose. Next week’s Torah reading is, after all, K’doshim, containing the charge to live a life of holiness: to love our neighbors, to care for those in need, to call the world to account when it is in breach of our obligations to one another. What comes after death? A calling. A calling to aspire to be kadosh, God-like in our actions. “Never again” may be an aspiration, but it is that to which we aspire nevertheless. The agony of humanity and the moral imperatives of our memory are too great to have it any other way.
Govrin, Michal. “How to Remember the Shoah.” Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas (Fall 2021).
Loeffler, James. “The One and the Many: On Comparing the Holocaust.” Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas (Spring 2022): 17-26.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul “Lament’s Hope.” In Catastrophe and Meaning. The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, edited by Moishe Postone and Eric Santner, 250-256. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Ricoeur, Paul. “Memory of Suffering.” Criterion, Spring 1989, pp. 2-4.
Rosensaft, Menachem. “Holocaust education is essential for the survival of humankind.” The Hill (February 23, 2022)