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counting to remember the shoah


Shabbat Shemini 5778 | April 14, 2018

After the death of two of his nephews, Moses is angry with his brother Aaron. Moses questions what went wrong, how could these young priests of Israel, Aaron’s sons, act improperly in the Mishkan – the portable wilderness Tabernacle? They brought a “strange fire,” the Torah tells us, and lost their lives.
Inquiring about what went wrong, Moses asks his surviving two nephews what they know about other ritual matters. “Then Moses inquired and asked about the goat of purification offering…he was angry with Aaron’s remaining two sons Eleazar and Ithamar.” Moses’ anger in this instance stems from his belief that Eleazar and Ithamar acted hastily and neglected a prescribed ritual.
This verse containing Moses’ question of Eleazar and Ithamar is the half way point of all 79,976 words in the Torah according to the Soferim, an early generation of Torah commentators who counted the letters, words, and verses of Torah to preserve its accuracy and continuity.
The actual middle word is darosh, meaning ask, explore, or understand, as in Midrash. The legends and lessons we derive from Torah study and discussion. In the verse, the word darosh is written twice to emphasize the urgency of Moses’ concern.
We, too, carry with us urgent concerns on this Shabbat when we gather two days after Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in 1953, anchored in a law signed by the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and the President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi.
The original proposal was to hold Yom HaShoah on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Because of Passover, this got complicated. The date was moved to the 27th of Nisan, this past Thursday, eight days before Israeli Independence Day.
Each year, marking this sacred and tragic memory, I ask myself. Who am I to observe this date? How can I speak with any authenticity? I was born in Chicago to American parents many years after World War II. Gratefully, my family lost no immediate relatives of whom we know. My personal experience with the Holocaust is as a Jew who lives in sync with the memories of Jewish history, as a student, as a tourist to Concentration Camps and historical sites, and as a friend to many survivors.
Each and every survivor story I learn touches me deeply, shocks me when I think no more about the Shoah can, and leaves me with this awareness. The survivor generation manifests among us courage and resilience, a commitment to life and goodness. It is the horror and truth of their experiences I feel duty bound to honor.
From so many different walks of life, the survivors you and I know tell us by their example and in their own words about the power and promise of redemption. Ours is a time and moment when we require people of character around us. We need people who knowing the truth about human nature’s horror and beauty can teach the rest of us how to build personal lives of love, hope, and achievement.
As Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum writes, “Survivors are perceived not as victims but as heroes, as symbols of resilience and of the ability to overcome and even to triumph over adversity. They speak with an authority uniquely their own.” An authority I can’t and won’t pretend to misappropriate.
Researchers at the United States Holocaust Museum have documented all of the places where the Nazis carried out their crimes. If it’s possible to imagine, their findings are more devastating than previously understood. Historians now identify 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe from 1933 to 1945.
The numbers are as gruesome as they are unfathomable: 30,000 slave labor camps, 1,150 Jewish ghettos, 980 concentration camps, 1,000 prisoner of war camps, and thousands of other horrible places where indescribable evil acts occurred. Not 6 million, but more than 15 million people died or were imprisoned in these sites.
Our concern is urgent. We have to make a choice. We can wallow in the depths of human cruelty and shake our heads in despair as we monitor world events that continually demonstrate inhumanity and sow fear. We read in the news how countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Poland lean again toward fascist regimes. In response, we can decide there’s nothing we can do.
That’s why I count. Like that early generation of Torah scholars, the Soferim who counted the letters, words, and verses of Torah to preserve its accuracy and continuity. I seek to understand what the numbers, the memories, the lived experiences of the Holocaust, and the ever-present questions about humanity’s evil proclivities mean.
I reject history’s pattern and affirm the possibility and necessity of goodness in our lives and for our world. If not for far-away places my influence can’t reach, certainly right here. Like the survivors you and I cherish, with all of our hearts, souls, and might let’s affirm the possibility and necessity of goodness for ourselves, for our families, and for our community.
© 2018 Rabbi Ronald J. Shulman
Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784