Approaching Holocaust Remembrance Day

Some thoughts about Judaism, tradition and values ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day.

A CROSS is seen in the German death camp Auschwitz II Birkenau. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A CROSS is seen in the German death camp Auschwitz II Birkenau.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Holocaust Remembrance Day is without doubt the saddest day of the Jewish year. To my mind it is more sorrowful than Tisha Be’av because Tisha Be’av emphasizes the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, while Holocaust Remembrance Day mourns the murder of some six million individuals, one-third of the Jewish people. Not that we need a contest for which is the day of greater mourning. We have more than enough to bewail in our tortured past, but the life and death of so many individuals outweighs all else.
Our tradition teaches, “If anyone saves one life, it is as if he has saved an entire world. If anyone destroys one life, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world” (Sanhedrin 4:6). Six million worlds were destroyed in the Shoah, each one precious beyond description. One day of mourning cannot be sufficient to convey that fact, which is beyond belief and beyond human comprehension.
I am aware of that this year more than ever, having recently visited the sites in Poland where the vast majority of the victims were murdered, and having stood by countless mass graves in forest after forest, as well as at the sites of gas chambers where millions were murdered and the ovens where their bodies were destroyed, so that they have no grave at all. All that remains of them is what exists in our minds and our hearts.
This can never be forgotten, but it is also important to remember those brave souls who saved Jewish lives and thus saved entire worlds as well. The Shoah demonstrates how low human beings can sink and how easy it is to simply ignore evil and let it triumph. But it also demonstrates how good human beings can be when they endanger themselves in order to combat evil and save human lives.
One thing that I dread each year as Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches is the fear that the memory of the six million will be trivialized or cheapened by those who use the Shoah for political purposes. Unfortunately, this is all too common.
There should be a rule that outlaws such usage of the Shoah. It is not a political tool, no matter what the cause for which it is invoked.
The same is true of those who believe that they know what sins of our people brought about the Shoah, and who try to justify it or to explain God’s role in it.
When Aaron’s sons were consumed by fire and died at the dedication of the Sanctuary, the Torah says, “And Aaron was silent” (Leviticus 10:3). As Rashi remarks, “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Would that our politicians would be silent more often, and that the Shoah would be mentioned only in solemn memory and not be used flippantly or trivialized.
Of course, it is important to study the Shoah and to try to understand how it came about and what can be done to keep such things from happening to our people and to any group in the future, but that is very different from cheapening it and using it for political gain.
The Shoah has made it clear for all time that any teaching that places human beings in an inferior position, that makes one group superior and another group inferior and less than human, can only lead to evil. In view of the fact that the 20th century was the time when Jews in particular suffered and were murdered as a result of doctrines of racial superiority and racial inferiority, we must be especially careful regarding anything that can lend credence to such beliefs.
It is therefore incumbent upon all religions and all cultures to eschew any such doctrines and to reaffirm the Torah’s basic belief in the inherent equality of all humankind created in the Divine image.
As Rabbi Akiva taught, “Beloved is the human being, in that he was created in the image.
Even greater love was shown to them, in that it was made known to them that humans were created in the image, as it is said, ‘In the image of God was the human made’ (Genesis 9:6)” (Avot 3:18).
The former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, wrote that the one belief more than any other that is responsible for the slaughter of so many is that “those who do not share my faith – or my race or my ideology – do not share my humanity... [they] are less than fully human.... From it... ultimately came the Holocaust.”
What is true for others is true for Judaism as well. Any belief within Judaism that those who are not of our group are less than fully human will inevitably lead to acts of violence and to the taking of life by extremists who believe that they are acting in the name of the God of Israel. For this reason, if for no other, we must reject such beliefs. They have no place in Judaism and no place in any religion. That, too, is what Holocaust Remembrance Day must teach us.
■ The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is an author and lecturer. Two of his books were awarded the National Jewish Book Prize as the best scholarly book of the year. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS), which is soon to be published in Hebrew.