A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 1.28.22

January 27, 2022

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On Jan. 27, 1945, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp was liberated by the Red Army. The particular notoriety of that place made it iconic, and so that date was chosen as a symbol of the unparalleled terror, evil, and murder perpetrated by the Nazis. The day was established only in 2005, by the United Nations General Assembly.

My inclination has always been to favor our memorialization of the Holocaust to the day chosen by Jews – Yom HaShoah – which is marked on the Jewish calendar and falls every year on 27 Nisan. Yom HaShoah was first commemorated in 1951, in the nascent State of Israel, as our people were still reeling from the trauma of the Shoah. It was made official by an act of Knesset in 1959. Still, the establishment of a day on which the world takes some steps to acknowledge the horror that it allowed to happen must be seen as a net positive, and IHRD gives the entire world a moment to take pause.

Of course, these last years, there’s been good reason to do just that. An article in the Forward this week reported that Barnes and Noble Booksellers only yesterday removed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion from their catalogue (with a predictable apology). With Colleyville, and Poway, and Pittsburgh, and countless other anti-Semitic acts large and small in our immediate rear-view mirror, and political and White-nationalist extremists gaining traction in many quarters, a gentle reminder about the consequences of silence and inaction is well in order.

The task of finding and holding on to our God-partnering humanity, the corrective to silence and inaction, is, in the Torah’s scheme, monumental. The Torah portrays for us the wickedness of surrounding nations as a warning of what might happen if we stray from the moral teachings that God and Torah have erected (n.b. we also see instances of moral exemplars from other peoples, as with Jethro the Midianite in last week’s parasha). The Torah provides the antidote to, or the vaccination against, such instinctual moral turpitude. The God of the Torah understands that it is not, generally speaking, human nature to “not wrong a stranger or oppress him” (22:20); it is not everyone’s first instinct to “not ill-treat any widow or orphan” (22:21); it is a natural human impulse to want to “curse a judge” or a prince when they do not rule in your favor (22:27). Humanity, it seems, is always teetering on the brink of collapse. An unimpeachable (God-given?) “guide-book of morality” is all that stands between a functioning society and the abyss.

Parashat Mishpatim, our weekly sedra, follows on last week’s presentation of laws (the 10 commandments, for a start) that are meant at once to guide our behavior and to bolster our relationship to the God who demands this behavior and keeps us on the path. Now that the people are free from the inhumanity of Egypt, they are in a position to construct a society where humanity prevails; and lest there by any question of what the demands of “humanity” are, God reminds us, in 22:30, that “You shall be holy people to Me;” the true essence of humanity is inextricably connected to God. Humanity may always be at war with human nature, and the Torah and mitzvot are the armory of a nation called to holiness.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is one day out of 365. It’s a day that the world is meant to remember a time in living memory when humanity did fall into the abyss, in an unprecedented way. But it is not only the “nations” that need the reminder; we too must always be on guard against our own “ungodly” inclinations, against our yetzer hara. The Torah does not protect us against our human failings – it requires us to actively engage with them and to actively choose to fight them. Parashat Mishpatim gives us our first deep dive into how we might don the breastplate of the better angels of our nature.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine