Acting Through the Painby Rabbi Jacob Rupp March 28, 2018
In the past century, two days during this month were set aside for people to remember. Yom HaShoah is to recall the Holocaust and Yom HaZikaron is to recall those who fell in the many Israeli wars. These days are unique in the sense that they were not added by the rabbis, are not ‘halachic’ in the sense that there are no laws we observe on the day, but resonate with many of the Jewish people because of our proximity to those events.
On the other side, there are many days in the Jewish calendar where we fast or observe some of the traditional customs of mourning in commemoration of horrific events that have happened in our history. For those who observe the fasts, it is a challenge to interrupt our lives, to inconvenience ourselves if we must be so blunt, to not eat. But the point isn’t just to suffer; rather we should think about why tragedy befell us, look into our ways and repent.
There is a clear dichotomy then between the modern days of remembrance and the ancient days; for the modern Jew, certainly the modern Israeli, the pain that surrounds the events are clear. I recall vividly when a birthright trip I would be leading would go to Har Herzl, the Israeli military cemetery in Jerusalem. Our birthright group was joined by six or seven young, dynamic Israeli soldiers, who were the same age as the people in the group. At the cemetery, these amazing young people who only moments before were so similar to the Americans began to point to graves and hold back tears. They would say “my friend is buried here,” and “this is my brother’s grave.”
Suddenly, the Americans didn’t feel we could relate. Most of us didn’t have any proximity to death, and if we did, not like this. For Israelis, the reason why we mourn on Yom HaZikaron is up close and personal. For those to whom it’s not up close and personal, we feel distant and removed.
I’d dare say that for Yom HaShoah, the proximity challenge is even greater. Most of us don’t know Holocaust survivors. We grew up in a world removed from the horrors of the Second World War, and most of us looked at it like it was a terrible chapter or story in our long past. We didn’t feel the enormity of the situation, and so its commemoration also becomes a challenge to internalize.
Alas we enter into the twilight zone of being a Jew. On one hand, we are part of one people, one body, one history, and one destiny. The losses of our brethren are our losses. On the other hand, we are people, and we can’t mourn something that we don’t relate to.
The wisdom of fasting, of being forced to change our daily habits, makes it relevant again. There are extra prayers, and a special part of the Torah we read on fast days. But the theme is the same; distance from G-d and repentance. What is surprising about this selection is that it isn’t sad. It implies (and this is so horrible for us to consider) that our suffering happened because of a national failing. It wasn’t happenstance or on accident. G-d was there. In the gulf between us and Him these tragedies occurred.
And it is within our grasp to fix it, instead of mourning with no ways to repair. Yes, of course, we need to mourn and support those that have lost. But then there’s action; we can create a world where this suffering doesn’t happen anymore. In the messianic visions of our prophets, there is no more Hitler, no more terrorism, no more war.
And the power of the Jewish tradition is that creating this perfect, serene world is within our grasp, not outside of it. It requires us to stop, look into our deeds, and repent. It sounds so far away and ideal. But it demands action. And so often we hear that action is what makes or breaks those people who have faced the darkness by living through the hell of losing those closest to them. Taking action, going out and doing, was their personal salvation so they didn’t get consumed by their tragedy.
Perhaps it is also how we can redeem ourselves and our people, and make our tragedies a springboard to a greater, more peaceful, and tear freeting through the future. Α