Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
Today is Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we remember in mourning and power the 6,000,000 Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. It has been almost 75 years since the end of the Shoah, the whirlwind of destruction that took the lives of the majority of the great Jewish population of Europe. Most of the survivors who lived through the camps have passed on—and so, increasingly, the responsibility for remembering falls on us. It becomes a requirement of living a moral life to know that the attempted genocide of the Jews was carried out by a modern, industrialized first-world European nation, and was supported by allies throughout the “civilized world.”
Last Saturday we read the Torah portion of Shemini, which includes the dramatic incident in which the High Priest Aaron’s two sons, priests of God serving in the holy Tabernacle, offer strange fire and are consumed in fire themselves. Aaron is distraught, and his brother Moses comforts him in God’s words, saying “bikrovai ekadesh, v’al p’nai chol ha’am ekaveid—by those brought close to me I am sanctified, and before all the people I am honored.” In other words, those who die before their time, as martyrs, are made holy to God, and their sacrifice brings honor to the Lord and to the people.
It is, in a way, a rationalization for loss. But it is also a sanctification, a way of finding and preserving holiness and meaning in a world in which things sometimes simply don’t make sense. This what we seek to do with Yom HaShoah, our Holocaust remembrance day; and this is what we can do in our daily lives, through honoring the memory of those we love by acting in ways that create holiness, goodness and blessing.
Paul Celan was a great poet of the Holocaust, who survived the Shoah although most of his fmaily did not. He wrote:
Threadsuns above the grey-black wastes.
A tree-high thought grasps the light-tone:
There are still songs to sing beyond
I take a small issue with the great poet: the songs that remain to be sung are not beyond mankind, nor humanity. They are songs of remembance through which we bring to life again the memory of those sacred souls who perished at the hands of a brutal regime that believed only in its own power and rectitude. It was that horrific Nazi Reich that created the concept of the Big Lie, that believed that strength, married with evil and corruption, could conquer all.
That evil was defeated and we believed for a time eradicated. Three quarters of a century later we have learned that the truth is that in every generation we must remember the lessons of the Holocaust: that the sacred memory of those destroyed must be revived regularly to inspire us; that evil must be countered in every age and era; and that if we wish to be worthy of the marvelous world that God has given us, we must strive daily to affirm the good, to cultivate the beautiful, to nurture holilness.
May we be reminded of these lessons tonight and tomorrow on Yom HaShoah, and every day.