Extracting meaning from the madness

April 24, 2017
A flower is placed by next to the name of a former concentration camp inside the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

Rabbi Harold Schulweis wrote 30 years ago that the way we work through the memory of the Holocaust, the Shoah, the way we extract meaning from the madness, would be the most critical question of post-Holocaust generations.

That question remains the premiere challenge of our generation.

Today, on Yom HaShoah, the day of remembering, here are three ways to wrest meaning from the madness.

First, we remember. Remembering is not the same as not forgetting. Not forgetting is driven by fear. Remembering is driven by love. Read survivor testimonies. Watch a film. Feel something. Remember the human capacity for depravity, cowardice and complicity, and remember human courage and compassion. Active memory is a gesture of hesed—it is equal parts an act of grace and an expression of loyalty toward those who lost everything and persisted in breathing and loving and rebuilding nevertheless.

Second, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the quiet heroism of the righteous gentiles, hasidei umot ha-olam, who jeopardized everything to protect, support and save the lives of Jews. Their stories remind us not only that good exists even in the heart of evil, but that the demands of human decency call us to stay vigilant to the dangers of bigotry, racism and discrimination even when we are not directly in the line of fire.

In this moment, in America, many minority communities feel like endangered species: diminished, scapegoated and targeted. The threat doesn’t have to rise to the level of Holocaust horror for us to mobilize against it. The Jewish community honors, indeed venerates the Righteous Gentiles who risked and often gave their lives to defend our people. The best way to honor their memory is to strive to be like them. Today we are called to become Righteous Jews. To use whatever resources we have—political, financial, spiritual—to stand up and speak for those whose rights or safety or dignity are threatened. The memory of our suffering calls us not only to hold compassion, but to actively stand in solidarity with those who today are vulnerable to racialized hatred.

Finally, we must stay awake and discerning. Anti-Semitism is a real and present danger. Over the last several years, we’ve seen a spike in violent incidents directed against the Jewish community, the vicious trolling of prominent Jewish leaders and journalists on social media, cemetery desecrations, and—perhaps most ominously—the elevation of unabashed hate mongers—including those who traffic in racist and anti-Semitic tropes—to the highest offices. In France today, the daughter of an avowed Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite, someone who herself argues that French Jews ought not be permitted to wear kippot or hold dual citizenship with Israel, is emerging as a lead presidential candidate, again raising the terrifying specter of state supported anti-Semitism in Europe.

And still, the reality of anti-Semitism and the aching truth of the Shoah must not distort our judgment or weaken our discernment.

Not every criticism of Israeli policy, not every analysis of Jewish power or privilege is evidence of anti-Semitism. To turn every critic into an enemy is not only wrong, it is disingenuous and dangerous. It diminishes our ability to respond effectively to the real threat of anti-Semitism, to protect our communities and live by our core Jewish values. We must remember this.

Yom HaShoah is a day not only to mourn, but to rededicate ourselves. Let us remember the past in a way that transforms the present. In a landscape of increasing incivility and cruelty, we honor the memory of those whose lives were tragically cut short by living more compassionate, more purposeful, more meaningful, more dedicated lives.

Zikhronam livrakha– may their memories be a blessing.

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