We must of course do our best to remember. We might think this doesn’t even need to be said, that it is too obvious to state, but the facts tell us otherwise. Fewer and fewer survivors are here to tell their stories. In just a few years they will all be gone. Communal Yom Hashoah memorial programs are less and less compelling, fewer and fewer people go. We teach the Holocaust in Hebrew school, even in public and private school today, but more and more it is an historical event, something to be read about in the pages of text books, or ‘experienced’ in the halls of a museum. But does the Jewish community still feel it in the same way? Emotionally, existentially, on the ‘kishkas’ level?
Being honest, the answer is no. How can it be otherwise? The depth of pain, horror, anger, confusion, loss, grief, that brutal tearing of the soul, simply cannot be maintained through decades and decades of memory. That is human nature. That is living in the suspended state of disbelief that we all live in, our fundamental assumptions that the sun will come up in the morning, that we will get out of bed, that we will have a normal day, see our loved ones, go to bed at night expecting the same from tomorrow. Of course the Holocaust shattered all of that, pulverized the fundamental assumptions we build our lives and psyches on. But we build those assumptions back up, we take them from the ashes and gradually, over time, discover that when we put our foot forward to walk there will be something to walk on. And hope comes. And light. Optimism. Creativity. Even faith.
Would we really want it any other way? Would we say, ‘forever we will be defined by one moment in history, by that greatest of tragedies in a long list of tragedies that have befallen our people?’ Is that what we want our children and grandchildren to know about being Jewish? Is that the reason we want to give them for living a Jewish life? Not the moral power and grandeur of the Deteronomist? Not the astonishing contributions to the Western world, to art, science, literature, music, academia? Not the gift of Shabbat, or the Torah itself? Are not these more powerful, more compelling, more profound – more joyful – reasons to live as a proud and committed Jew?
And yet one informs the other. Despair is linked to hope. The darker the one, the more beautiful, miraculous, and powerful the other. The simple truth is Jewish history is weaving of both, of darkness and light, of many tragedies, horrible and unforgivable, and countless triumphs. And we must remember the former, even as we celebrate the latter. It is our charge, our task, our responsibility. If we do not, not only will we forget, but the world will as well. The question for us today is what is the best way to fulfill this responsibility? Perhaps the answer to that question is changing. The old way, a speaker, six candles, a musical interlude, the Memorial prayer, the kaddish, perhaps that will fade away, and a new way may emerge.
Silence may be a start. There is no more powerful commemoration of the Holocaust than in Israel, when at 11 in the morning on this day a siren sounds throughout the land, every city, every town, every community. Cars stop, the drivers emerging to stand still on the street. The cafes and restaurants grow quiet. Lines at the cashier, the bank, the cafeteria, all pause. Heads go down, or perhaps up to the brilliant blue sky. Tears come. And silence ensues. As it says in the midrash, ‘no bird chirped, no cow lowed, no angel whispered, no person said a word.’ In that silence is sadness and despair, anger and guilt, horror and fear, and also hope and light, vision and faith, determination and strength. And memory.