The haftara reading from this past Shabbat (Parshat Va-y’hi) is one of the most devastating texts in the entire Bible. It describes the once great King David on his death bed, obsessed with the wrongs that have been inflicted on him during his life. With his dying breaths he recites a manifesto of revenge to his son Solomon, literally telling him to kill all of the old enemies that plagued David in the course of his life. What a tragic ending for a great but deeply conflicted hero! At the end of all things, seeing only the hurts and disappointments, remembering only the enemies, feeling only anger and bitterness, wanting not release, but revenge.
Of course we all know people who live their lives in a similar way. Not with the same level of anger or desire for revenge, but viewing their years through the lens of a tragic or hurtful experience and focusing on that to the exclusion of all else. It can be many things – a divorce or a death, a ruptured relationship, an unfulfilled career, a failure in business. Some people come back to that moment over and over again, reliving it, wrestling with it, reflecting on it. It becomes the defining moment, the particular narrative that describes their lives, at least in their own eyes. And in this way a tragedy becomes even more tragic.
Now to the title of this post. Like many Jews, I have been learning and thinking about the Holocaust since I was a little boy, when I first encountered the subject in Hebrew school. But last night, for the first time in my life, I dreamed about it. There was a long, hospital like corridor. I was walking down it, one person in a long line, being guided towards some distant destination. In my dream (as can happen in dreams) I knew what this was, I knew that we were being sent to a sorting area, that many of us would be killed immediately, while others would go to a labor camp. There was an inevitability, no thought to turn and run, to fight or rebel. Just to walk forward.
I was with family and friends, and we were dressed elegantly. There was a child I knew up ahead. He had gone too far in front of his parents and he rounded a corner. He was gone. I knew the time was drawing near, and I wanted only one thing – to see the people that I loved one last time. Just a glimpse. To see them in this world, in sunlight, with perhaps a gentle smile.
I woke up and lay still in my bed. In the quiet of dawn my mind needed to draw itself out of the dream world, to come back to the reality of the present day, my life, this world, the safety of people I care about. Some hours later now, sitting and typing this post, looking out the window at a beautiful blue sky and a bright morning, I am still haunted.
In a way I suppose we are all haunted by the Holocaust. Whether we know it or not, feel it or not, it is something that is under our skin and somewhere in our subconscious minds. I think the challenge that comes hand in hand with that fact is to not let ourselves become David like. To not define ourselves as individuals, or as a people, by the tragic and unimaginable events that took place in Nazi Germany.
Time itself may aid us in this task. There are few left now who experienced the Holocaust first hand. Within a few short years they will all be gone. Then the task will fall on us to remember and recall and reflect. But also to balance the sense of tragedy with other triumphs, both before and after. Experience gives us many lenses to use to view this world, our lives, our people. We should not lay aside any of them. But we also should not use one to the exclusion of all others.