Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover’s journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two observances is thought-provoking: Truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did “arbeit macht frei,” did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world suffered from a form of collective post-traumatic stress disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a judenrein Europe, a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases, the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied forces, the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial — it was all stunning, shocking and too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Exodus and Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: Some Jews found their faith reinforced — only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith — there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives — how does the God described in Deuteronomy as a merciful and caring God remain silent and inactive as that God’s covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered and traumatized for life?
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out. They were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids.
I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can’t say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did “get the message.” Being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2015. World War II started 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 67th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are comfortable and safe here, more comfortable and safer than our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz; where will our journey take us next?
Thirty, 40 years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition, community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler’s dead, we’re still here. Pharaoh is dead, we’re still here. Titus is dead, we’re still here. Stalin is dead, we’re still here.
Surviving is great, but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with kedushah and simchah, holiness and joy.
Rabbi Amy Levin is the interim rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.