On Tuesday, the world marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was the end of one of the blackest moments in the history of humanity. Auschwitz has come to symbolize the depths of evil to which human beings can descend. One million people were gassed, burned and tortured at Auschwitz.
Walking out of Auschwitz were survivors. Some could no longer stand. Some would die shortly thereafter. And there were others who courageously created new lives. Some of them and their descendants are amongst us.
What can be said about Auschwitz that has not been said or written? I use this space this week to honor the memories of those who perished. And I use this space to salute those who survived and became a tribute to human resiliency.
Coinciding with this anniversary was a review of a book in Tablet Magazine that caught my attention. The review was by an important thinker, Shaul Magid. The book was by a giant of 20th century Jewish scholarship, Jacob Neusner. Neusner claims that we cannot forge a productive identity on the memory of mass murder and extinction, suffering and death. He writes that we need to remember, we need to honor and sanctify memory, and we need to place that memory in a proper perspective. Too often, he claims, the memory of destruction becomes the center of identity. His book, and Magid’s review, are a challenge to the organized Jewish community, to Jewish educators, and to Jewish programming. Almost 40 years ago, Rabbi Harold Schulweiss wrote an article in Moment Magazine where he referred to “Holocaust mania,” and he feared the outcome of a generation that attaches their identity to a people because of destruction.
I think this is an important conversation. And I believe that we, of the post-Holocaust generation, must take it very seriously. Certainly, we cannot forget. Absolutely, we must remember the lives, the events, and keep the memories alive. But surely, we know, that we need positive images of Jewish life, we need compelling reasons to observe and celebrate, and we need to understand how our freedom in the world today presents us with new opportunities to express and live out the best and most positive dimensions of Jewish values and Jewish aspirations.
That brings me to this week’s Parsha, B’shallach. It begins after the redemption from slavery. At that moment, God decides that he won’t bring the people out by the straightest path. Rather, He brings them out through a roundabout direction. Why? Because He was afraid that when the people faced adversity they would want to return to the place they knew. Their new-found freedom created insecurity. And even the condition of slavery was more desirable. In the text, God understands human nature. It is very hard for us to shed the profound impact of the past as we move toward the future. But God promises a bright future. Only the people had to believe it.
I think this creates a metaphor for our existence today. Do we see the past as returning, or do we understand today’s challenges as different, and our potential to live with a sense of hope, embrace our freedom, and feel secure in our strength?
Each one of us has to answer that question. And each one of us has to determine how we allow our experiences of the past to determine our future. There’s no doubt that overcoming trauma is extraordinarily difficult. There’s no doubt that we need proper vehicles for memory. And, there is no doubt that we must emerge reaffirming life…that’s our only option.
I wish you Shabbat Shalom…
See you is shul,
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l