SPOILER ALERT: These are the remarks that I will deliver this coming Saturday at Minyan Ohr Chadash, my synagogue in Seattle, Washington. If you intend to be there, you may want to skip this post.
What do we talk about when we talk about the Holocaust?
Today is Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. We are only 71 years from the end of World War II and the murder of six million European Jews. The proximity, the closeness of the event, makes our pain acute, blurs our vision with tears. We are survivors, children of survivors, grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors. Some of us biologically; others of us spiritually. It is our job to shape how future generations will talk about the Holocaust.
The mantra of “six million” is important, but the human brain cannot comprehend its meaning. It is too vast, too overwhelming a number and the idea of it all – mind numbing.
I believe that when we talk about the Holocaust, we must tell the stories of real people that survived and those that did not. It is through the particular stories that we can begin to fathom the tragedy and begin to make sense and find our way forward.
The Torah is guide on this journey. This week’s Torah Portion – Acharie Mot – begins as follows:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן–בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD, and died.
What is the story we tell after the death of Nadav and Avihu? After this personal and national tragedy? Fifty percent of the sons of Aharon, who would in that generation and future generations be the Cohanim, the Priests, to serve the nation – wiped out in a blink of an eye.
The message conveyed in this week’s Torah Portion, is one of warning and hope. Warning – not to enter the Kodesh – the holy space – haphazardly – at any time. But when the Cohen, the Priest, enters the holy space, he has the opportunity to conduct the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) service, bringing atonement and life to the whole nation.
Yom Kippur signifies G-d’s desire and capacity for forgiveness and our capacity for change and hope in the future. Yom Kippur is an affirmation of life, even Acharie Mot – after the death. With each Yom Kippur, we build on the last year and we start anew. With each generation, we build on the last and we start anew.
How did Aharon go on after the death of his sons? At first – Vayidom Aharon – Aharon was silent – he could not comprehend the tragedy and he could not talk about it. But then he moves forward in his life to serve the nation and to teach his disciples to bring peace, love and hope, bringing the people closer to the Torah. We see this in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, which is traditionally read in the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Mishna 12 of the first chapter states –
“Hillel and Shamai received the tradition from them. Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”
This is what so many survivors have done. Some could not talk about it – at first – or ever. But they went on to build lives filled with love and hope teaching their disciples how to move forward.
Acharei Mot – after the deaths, we carry on Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur. We tell the story of Nadav and Avihu year in and year out. We tell the story of Yitziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt – year in and year out. WE shape how we tell the story to our children. The Seder is standardized, yet, each family does it their own way.
Bchol Dor Va’dor – in each generation – it is our responsibility to talk about it and tell the story, over and over.
I will close with a quote from a piece written by my daughter, Esther Goldberg (named for my mother-in-law) published today on the Bronfman Fellowship Blog for Yom Hashoah.
“In each generation we have the chance to construct our own narrative of the past, to build the architecture of our memory. Through this we can revitalize our story, not the hazy yesterday of history but the vivid and tangible now.
So that in each generation, each person will herself as if she personally came forth from Poland.”