My remarks from our Yom HaShoah commemoration, Wednesday night, April 27th
Special Shabbat service this week! Haftarah class presentation!!
Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah
Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day
April 28, 2022
As the war in Europe rages on, as Putin’s forces rampage through the Ukraine, brutalizing civilians, targeting children and the infirm, literally raping and pillaging and torturing their way westward, we are reminded, yet again, of how easy it is for one group of humans to dehumanize, and then justify the decimation of another group of humans. As in Europe of the 1940’s, a single despot was able to construct a machinery that ended, or upended, countless lives.
It is important to remember, though, that Ukraine is not the holocaust. We’re not quite sure yet what it is. President Biden has declared it a genocide – I’m not sure if that’s right. But the images that we’ve seen and the stories that we’ve heard certainly evoke something of the suffering that we all know too well of our own people in those terrible years.
Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, is at once a call to memory and a call to action. We look back, in unspeakable shock, in terror, in horror, at the crimes perpetrated against our people – the attempt to obliterate us from the world’s story. At the same time, we look back at the extraordinary efforts of the brave men and women, both Jewish and gentile, who exhibited unimaginable bravery at great personal risk: Jews who rebelled against the Nazis and their henchmen – who fought and organized and wrote and painted and published and defied in a host of ways. And non-Jews who stepped up and consciously made a statement that they would not participate in the evil that engulfed them – that they would stand against it, even at the cost of their lives. That is the call to memory: we set this day aside to honor them all: the victims, the martyrs, the heroes.
But Yom HaShoah is, and must be, something else too: a taking stock – a looking forward. “Never again,” we declare – this is the watchword of the Shoah. But it begs the question, Never again what? Is it a circling of the wagons? “Never again will we Jews allow this to happen to us?” Is it a cry against genocide? “Never again will we allow a holocaust to occur anywhere?” Is it a general cry to ourselves and the world about human behavior? “Never again will stand by as one group dehumanizes and perpetrates violence against another?”
If the second or the third, we have not fared well. In the 77 years since the end of the war, the world has seen multiple conflicts, some of them clearly, definitionally genocide, and many, many others where in wartime, people – fighting forces – were allowed to behave like animals, little different than the Nazis: the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s, which took as many as 3 million lives; Idi Amin’s genocide against the Acholi and Lango people in the 1970s, with 300,000 victims; the genocidal massacre of the Hutus in the 90s; Darfur, East Timor, Burundi, Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Guatemala, the Rohingya, Bosnia, the Yazidis – all of these since 1945!
There’s a joke you might have heard me tell before: a holocaust survivor dies and goes to heaven. When he gets there, he tells God a holocaust joke. God doesn’t laugh. The survivor says, “I guess you had to be there.” This dark joke speaks to one response to the Shoah – God was simply absent. But it also speaks to another crucial idea (the source of which escapes me right now): that we will go to God and say “where were you?” and an echo will come back: “Where were you?”
The task, in other words, falls to us – to humanity – it is we who are to police ourselves. The vexing problem of God’s presence or absence, impossible to solve, fades into the background in the face of humanity doing what God wants: there will always be good and evil in the world. The question is, how does the good respond to the evil? God has given us the tools: it is to us to construct the house.
Right now, the world is trying to solve complex geo-political riddles: what are Putin’s aims? Is Moldova next? If so, then what? Where does he stop? What threat does the current conflict present to liberal democracy? Are we witnessing an attempted re-shaping of the global world order? These are all pertinent questions – the answers have the potential to affect our lives profoundly. But they are not the questions that God would be asking; they ignore the questions that we should be asking in God’s name: how do I prevent systematic rape as a tool of terror? How do I keep that orphanage, that hospital, that senior center, from being treated as a military target? How do I prevent the roundup and mass-murder, in mass graves, of innocent civilians? How do I get Russian soldiers, behaving like rabid animals, to locate their humanity? How do I prevent the displacement, the uprooting, of millions upon millions of people from what were, only weeks ago, comfortable, normal lives?
Never again: what does it mean?
Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah presents us with our annual re-set. Just as on Yom Kippur, we are meant to take stock of our personal shortcomings, so on this day are we meant to take stock of our global shortcomings. We must look backward, never forgetting. But to truly honor the dead, and those survivors of the Shoah that are still with us, we must look forward too.
The famous partisan song, the anthem of resistance, Zog Nit Keyn Mol, speaks to this. It declares the struggle vi a parol… fun dor tzu dor – as a password for generations to come. But most importantly, it cries out, defiantly, mir zeinen do! – WE ARE HERE! On this Yom HaShoah, let’s us pray for the strength to internalize this lesson. Let us “be here.”
Zog Nit Keyn Mol
Poem by Hirsh Glik
Never say you are going on your final road, Although leadened skies block out blue days, Our longed-for hour will yet come Our step will beat out – we are here! From a land of green palm trees to the white land of snow We arrive with our pain, with our woe, Wherever a spurt of our blood fell, On that spot shall spurt forth our courage and our spirit. The morning sun will brighten our day And yesterday will disappear with our foe. But if the sun delays to rise at dawn, Then let this song be a password for generations to come. This song is written with our blood, not with lead, It is not a song of a free bird flying overhead. Amid crumbling walls, a people sang this song, With grenades in their hands. So, never say the road now ends for you, Although skies of lead block out days of blue. Our longed-for hour will yet come – Our step will beat out – we are here!
Haftarah Class Presentation this Shabbat!!
This winter, we ran a class on haftarah chanting. Around 15 people took the class, and this Shabbat we will get to hear them all share their new chanting skills! This is a thrilling moment for many of them, and a significant moment in the life of our congregation. Readers’ ages range from pre-teens to 70s. They have studied and worked very hard to prepare for this inaugural moment. Thirteen readers will split the haftarah in a round-robin reading. Please join us for this very special occasion. There will be an enhanced kiddush after services to celebrate this great simcha. And to add to the festivities, the Acosta-Molina family will join us for services, so please come and say hi to them – the girls are thriving!