2011-04-20 / Religion Column

We must continue to remember the Holocaust and its victims


Not long after we celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt during Pesach, we turn our attention to the spring holy days that soon follow on the Jewish calendar. Just one week from the seventh day of Pesach we honor the victims of the Holocaust with Yom Hashoa.

The Knesset set the date for the Yom Hashoa for 27 Nissan in 1951. There is no official ritual created for Yom Hashoa except the sounding of a siren, which blows at sundown and once again at 11 a.m. Since there is no official service or custom for this sacred day, each community observance evolved and many suggestions were made, including lighting yahrzeit candles and the writing of a Holocaust Scroll. In present-day Israel, on Yom Hashoa the siren sounds, traffic stops, and pedestrians throughout the State of Israel observe two minutes of silent devotion.

During my year in Israel, the first year of my rabbinical program, one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences was this very day. We stood on the steps of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, listening to the siren. People stopped their cars in the middle of the street, got out, and stood in memory of the millions lost. (For those of you who have been in Israel on this day, you know what a powerful experience it is).

It was also during my year in Israel that I read the book “To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought” by Emil Fackenheim, one of the preeminent modern Jewish philosophers. In this work, he proposes a religious and philosophical principle for a 614th commandment in Judaism: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him.” Fackenheim charges the Jewish community to not only maintain faith but to rejoice in it. Many struggled, and still do, with such a radical suggestion.

I recently had lunch with a colleague who teaches about the Holocaust at a local university. He asked me if I thought there was “Holocaust fatigue.” After considering my response, I said that I believe there is, but that we are responsible for combating any such thoughts or feelings. Our people endured a tragedy of epic proportions, beyond the likes of anything seen before, and the Jewish community must continue to reflect on, and speak of, the Shoah without hesitation so that the world not only remembers what happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but also will draw upon this world crisis to prevent it from happening to others.

Long ago, Rabbi Hillel taught us an important lesson: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot 1:14). These words still instruct us today, as we recall and honor all those who perished during the Shoah, and carry on their—and our—precious faith and traditions.

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