Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yom Hashoah

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, from the book of Leviticus, which tells the story of the Priests taking on their office for the first time and particularly about Aaron, the High Priest. On what should have been the happiest day of Aaron’s life, his eldest sons Nadab and Abihu, themselves priests, possibly having had too much to drink, change an important part of the Service and are killed by God. One commentary says that the moral of this story is “Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Also the commentaries make much of Aaron’s silence in the face of his two sons’ deaths – there is debate over whether it was a silence of surrender or of struggle, but Aaron was, unquestionably, silent. Naturally, given that tonight’s service focuses on the Shoah, the Holocaust, I thought about the Parshah in that context. First of all, clearly the Shoah was a case of “knowing not what a day may bring forth.” Jews in Europe, and particularly in Germany, were happy and assimilated. German Jews were famously certain that “it can’t happen here” and that they were “Germans first, then Jews,” but they were in for a big shock.

Thinking about the Shoah I went back to a talk I gave on Rosh Hashana in 2001, a week after 9/11. I said then:

The world is a bit less than it was a week ago.
· A little less safe
· A little less certain
· A little less civilized
· A little less human.

The same could be said of the Shoah, more than 60 years later – the world is a bit less than it was 60 years ago. The Shoah was not exclusively a Jewish event – as Jews we remember the 6 million Jews who died – perhaps as many as 1.2 million of them children – but we must also remember that others – Gypsies, the disabled, gay people, Communists and other political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, Polish citizens, and Soviet POWs. Taking into account all of the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises considerably: estimates generally place the total number of victims at 9 to 11 million. Still for us as Jews it is Die Endlösung der Judenfrage – the final solution to the Jewish Question – that we remember most.

Yom Hashoah was originally meant to be observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – April 19, 1943, or the 15th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar – but this was the first day of Passover, so the Israeli Parliament set the date at the 27th of Nisan or 8 days before Israel Independence Day on the 6th of Iyar. Its full name is Yom Hashoah v’Hag’vurah – the day of remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism, so it is appropriate that we remember the heroes and survivors as well as the martyrs.

Yet the Shoah was not the beginning nor was it the end of genocide or attempted genocide – the wiping out of a people and its culture. Going back only 500 years we find genocides reported historically in Argentina, Canada, The United States, Australia, Congo, German South-West Africa, Ireland, Tokugawa Japan, Philippines, Russian Empire, Croatia, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), the Soviet Union, Communist China, Bangladesh, Burundi , Cambodia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tibet, Papua New Guinea, Bosnia, Rwanda, and today in Darfur. One could say the history of the human race is a history of our attempting to wipe each other out. In order to do that, we first have to dehumanize those we hate. According to the organization Genocide Watch, there are 8 stages of Genocide: Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Identification, Extermination, Denial. And these proceed sequentially. This means that we can see the beginnings of genocide and catch it early, and the earliest stage is when a society begins to classify itself as “us” and “them.”

As Jews we have always been “them” except in Israel. Over 400 years in the United States we have gradually come to be “us” for the majority of the population, but for a hard core of anti-semites and for some of the so-called religious right in this country we remain “them.” For Mel Gibson and his less well-known tribe, we are still the International Jewish Banking Conspiracy who control the media and start all the wars. For them, the Shoah was not the epitome of evil but a plot by Jews to cause the United States to go to war against the country that could have protected us from the Communist threat – also a Jewish conspiracy.

What nonsense. What unadulterated, hateful drivel. The facts are clear. Fanatics, particularly those who use religion as the basis of their fanaticism, have perpetrated acts of mass murder throughout history, and in so make war on all of humanity that is deserving of the name. No decent human being, regardless of race, religion, culture or ethnicity can fail to condemn genocide against innocent people, without regard to the race, religion, culture, or ethnicity of those victims. No decent human being can fail to condemn an attacks on innocent victims, often using other innocent victims as weapons. No decent human being can fail to condemn the use of suicide bombing as a tactic of genocide.

So if there is a lesson from the Shoah it is that we must not be silent. There is a famous statement by a Protestant Minister, Pastor Martin Niemoller:
In Germany they first come for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me—and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Whatever the source of Aaron’s silence, and I believe with Nachmanides that it was a silence of struggle and contemplation, we cannot afford to be silent in the face of hatred and genocide. Edmund Burke, the 18th century English statesman said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is for us as descendants of the heroes and martyrs of the Shoah to stand up and bear witness – “never again.” Never again not only for Jews but for all humanity. If we have a mission as “a kingdom of priests and a holy people,” if we are “to be holy for our God is holy,” it is this – to bring humanity together under a God whose name is unity and who does not care how he is worshipped – as Adonai, as God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as Allah, as the Tao – God only cares that the human race recognize that it is one people created by one God and therefore all united in our common humanity. There is no “us and them,” there is only us. Paradoxically, that is the lesson of the Shoah – Adonai echad u’shemo echad – God is unity and God’s name is unity.

On a wall in a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where Jews had hidden from the Nazis, there was found an inscription. The anonymous author who perished with his fellow victims left behind these words: "I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent." God may be silent; let us not be.

No comments: