TODAY WE COMMEMORATE THE MILLIONS OF JEWS WHO PERISHED IN THE HOLOCAUST, BY RABBI GILAD KARIV, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF IMPJ
In Hebrew years that do not have the extra month of Adar II, such as the present year, “Memorial Day for the Shoah and Heroism” takes place close to the Shabbat during which we read from the Torah, Parshat “Shemini”.
This Torah portion opens with a description of the day of dedication of the Holy Tabernacle and how it became a tragedy and disaster when Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, die in front of his eyes after they sacrificed “strange fire” on the altar (which they had been commanded not to do). Only two words are used to describe the reaction of Aaron their father, when the day of joy became one of sorrow: “and Aaron became silent” (Leviticus: 10; 3).
For many long years, most of the refugees and survivors of the atrocities of the Holocaust chose silence. Moses, Aaron’s brother, did not try to penetrate the silence of his brother on that day. Today we have the mission of respecting the silence of those survivors who chose to continue that path, but at the same time to invite them with love and sensitivity, to find the key to their hearts and memories and end their silence. Unlike Moses, we have to convince them that we are more attentive than ever and that their experiences and stories will be treated as a rich treasure, rather than a mere footnote of history.
Throughout the book of Leviticus, the ritual and spiritual role of the Kohanim (High Priests) is described. At the same time, we learn about the material remuneration they receive for carrying out their mission. This teaches us that we cannot ask the survivors of the Holocaust to raise their voices, to bear witness, and to bestow their legacy, without being totally committed to their wellbeing and dignity.
Yom HaShoah is commemorated this year in the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic. Not all of the senior citizens who lost their lives in assisted living facilities and homes for the aged were Holocaust survivors; but many were and are. Regardless of this terrible crisis that we are all dealing with, it has had an increased impact on the elderly.
The lack of effective measures in those locations, especially at the beginning of the pandemic (and, to a great degree, to this day) must be prominent in our minds this week when we remember the Shoah. Holocaust survivors are living the past months with heightened anxiety and are in significant danger. The same is true of their cohorts, the generation who founded the state of Israel who didn’t suffer the terror of the Holocaust, but who laid the foundation for life here in Israel for all of us. Like Aaron HaKohen, many of them cannot raise their voices – it is our responsibility to do it for them.
Reform Rabbi and Professor Emil Fackenheim, coined the phrase: “the 614th Mitzvah” – the commandment obligated by all Jews not to give the Nazis victory after their defeat, to guarantee the continuation of the Jewish people, to renew our ability to give hope and to act towards Tikkun Olam; and most of all not to be silent and close off our hearts.
We must maintain the ability to listen to what the survivors have to tell us during their last years of life and have the wisdom to help them and their counterparts escape the silence and feel protected and respected during normal times, and especially during days of crises – this is the foundation of the 614th Mitzvah. Regardless, this terrible crisis has had a devastating impact on the elderly. We must each do our part to take the lessons of past generations into future ones.
I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy during this unsure time.
IMPJ President & CEO Rabbi Gilad Kariv