Sunday, April 11, 2010

Remembering the Holocaust and Going Beyond “Never Again”

Never again. It was a popular saying amongst the Jews after World War Two. What happened during השואה (the Holocaust) was one of the most, if not the most, repugnant and immoral acts that man has ever performed. Hitler’s perverted sense of racial purity to get rid of the Jews, along with the mentally disabled, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others who were deemed racially inferior, is most assuredly engrained in the Jewish psyche.

It is something that the Jewish people have remembered ever since. Remembering is part of the Jewish experience. It is no accident that לזכור (to remember), or some derivative of the word, is mentioned in the Tanach no less than 169 times. It’s a daily mitzvah to remember the Exodus of Egypt (Exodus 13:3). We are even to remember what Amalek did to us (Deut. 25:17). The experience of השואה has also come under the Jewish tradition of זכור. Recently, a day on the Jewish calendar was set aside to remember the Holocaust, which is celebrated on this day, the 27th of Nissan. There have been multiple Holocaust museums erected to tell the stories embedded within this dark period of man’s history.

Even though remembering such events is a part of being Jewish, is remembering sufficient? Rabbi Emil Fackenheim is famous for coming up with the “614th commandment,” which was “thou shall not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” Let’s leave the controversy of whether it should literally be added to the list of 613 commandments for a moment. Knowing what the anguish that Nazi Germany has caused, Fackenheim is certainly correct in securing Jewish survival. After the Six-Day War, Israel certainly proved itself to the world that she can hold her own. And considering that 40% of Jews are located in America, and that America has the best track record [out of all non-Jewish states] of protecting Jews’ rights, it’s safe to say that a bulk of Jewry has a fair amount of security. As for remembering, I’ve already illustrated that point. Fackenheim’s point of denying G-d is of interest, one which I will have to discuss at later time.

What I do want to hit home is how Judaism traditionally copes with loss of life. In Judaism, we don’t mourn the death of somebody so much as we remember their life and how that person lives on through us. That message is all the more important when applied to those lost in the Holocaust. There is certain space for grieving, and Judaism leaves ample space to grieve. But ultimately, we are meant to live our lives and carry that person’s memory on with us. That way, the person lives on, even beyond the physical life—it’s much more enduring when we remember them, thus the Jewish tradition of placing a pebble on a tombstone, as opposed to flowers.

With that in mind, I will take Fachenheim’s “commandment” one step further. Rather than merely not granting Hitler a posthumous victory, how about granting the Jewish people the victory? Let’s go beyond remembering. Every time we, the Jewish people, observe the Sabbath, study the Torah, say a blessing before eating kosher food, or give tzedakah, we embolden ourselves. Every time we do a mitzvah, we don’t just say “never again”; we posthumously deliver a striking coup to Hitler. Every Jewish deed we perform, we bring the light of goodliness in this world.  If you want to partake in the ultimate form of remembrance, honor the memory of those who died by living more and more Jewishly. That way, the evils in this world can finally be vanquished by the good we do in this world.

כן יהי רצון!

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