Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Yom HaShoah Commemoration
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
April 12, 2013
Rabbi Larry Freedman

Where do we begin with a Holocaust commemoration?  Do we rehearse the rise of Hitler?  Do we retell stories of atrocities?  Do we offer silence in the face of what should be unimaginable?  Do we try to find something novel from the never ending flow of stories that detail the astounding horror and resistance during that time?  The depths of evil and the heights of bravery are still being discovered.  There is a new documentary called “No Place on Earth” about two families, 38 Ukrainian Jews in all, who lived deep underground in a cave for 502 days and survived.  This is an amazing story that I find astonishing and not at all surprising.  The more I learn, the more I learn not to be surprised.  The unbelievable becomes real time after time.  There are more stories yet to be discovered, yet to be shared that speak of heroism amid the horror.
How to speak at a Holocaust commemoration?  First we begin with history.  We honor the survivors, we grieve over the murdered.  We bring back some classic minor key East European liturgical melodies.  But then I have to look to the present day.  Is there anything more to these commemorations than history?  If they are just about history, then soon enough we will one day no longer have them.  People will forget.  Decoration Day was fading and so turned into Memorial Day.  Armistice Day was being forgotten and so became Veterans Day.  These things happen.  There are a number of Jewish holidays that commemorate an historical event which are remembered by very few.  The Fast of Gedaliah, anyone?
But there are other holidays that transcend their original intention.  Purim and Pesach are hardly just about what they are about.  There are many, many levels of meaning to these holidays and that is why they maintain their power to this day.
What will be the enduring power of Yom Ha-shoah?  That lesson was brought home to me in two episodes these last two weeks.  At the last minute, a chief master sergeant at the guard base called me up.  “Hey chaplain,” he said, “I just received this DVD with instructions from headquarters to have an Armed Forces Holocaust Remembrance program.  Can you say a few words?”   Um, sure, of course.  I did not know that there was such a thing as an Armed Forces Holocaust Remembrance program but indeed the Department of Defense has sponsored them for quite some time.  The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington sends out a DVD with some short videos that feature American military members past and present along with the memorial museum’s educators and so forth.  They were quite good.  But what would I say?  About 30 people attended including almost all of the command leadership which, given the short notice, was very good.  I asked, why should we have an Armed Forces Holocaust Remembrance program?  One woman started nodding her head as if to say, yeah why exactly am I here?
I offered a variation of the message of “never again.”  Those in uniform are granted the privilege of harnessing tremendous power that can bring astonishing violence.  I was taught by the Air Force itself that we are responsible for the professional application of violence in the service of our national interests. To see other men and women in uniform commit war crime after war crime and unleash their tools of violence on a scapegoat ought to make those of us in uniform today wince.  Those in uniform must remember that the power we hold is to be carefully guarded and honored.  And yes, we must follow our training and yes we must follow orders but always, in the back of our minds there must be a moment where we ask, is that a legal order?
The Air Force was very clear in teaching that we are not to follow illegal orders.  We are to stand up against them.  And yet, bad things are still happening.  When I talk to young people going to basic training, I tell them, don’t lose your head, don’t engage in hazing, don’t let some superior officer cow you into doing things that are wrong.  We can no longer accept “just following orders” as an excuse.  Yes, do what you are told but always keep in mind, in the back of your head, is this right?  Is this legal? And then find the courage to stand up against it.  Hazing, belittling, religious coercion, racial “jokes.”  These things are no Holocaust to be sure but they speak to a culture where those with more power can bully those with less and those with less rank assume that these things are acceptable if the higher ups are doing them.  And they are not.  And we with the higher ranks need to teach the new recruits to maintain one’s morality always.  “Never again” ought to be invoked much earlier than waiting for a full blown genocide. 
Currently, there is an awareness campaign and other efforts to combat sexual assault in the military.  It’s a problem.  I reminded them that we cannot offer pious bromides against sexual assault if we don’t also combat the problem of the bystander being silent.  The Shoah could never have been as devastating without the silence or help of bystanders.  The crimes of sexual assault are often not prosecuted because the victims have few people to turn to.  The bystanders are scared to intervene.  Again, it’s hardly genocide but the lesson of the Shoah shouldn’t be just for catastrophe.  We can stop catastrophe well in advance when we create a just culture.  Acceptance of sexual assault leads to a culture that accepts brutality and a culture that accepts brutality is a culture that accepts war crimes.  It is just that simple a line.
And that lecture in front of my base commander colonel was my nerve inducing resistance for the day.
Last week, I had another experience.  I’ve been teaching kitah zayin while our B’nai Mitzvah teacher Nava Herzog is recuperating from a broken foot.  The students and I got into a conversation about anti-semitism in their schools.  Apparently, penny throwing is not uncommon.  Apparently, it happens often.  Sometimes the kids told the teachers, sometimes they did not.  Sometimes they felt they couldn’t and that they just had to deal with it. 
“Never Again” is the slogan we chant but what it really means is, “we don’t have to take that crap anymore.”  We don’t have to put up with people who think picking on Jews is funny.  We don’t have to allow an atmosphere of bigotry develop even as the perpetrators say, “just kidding.”  We don’t have to let anti-Semitic parents be the role models.  Rather we need those children to go home and explain to their parents that school doesn’t think it’s “just kidding.”  Let the parents be embarrassed.  Let them take their hatred underground while the culture at the school retains its moral high ground.  Let them be ashamed of who they are, not us.  We don’t have to take that anymore. 
During the Holocaust, German Jews would be flabbergasted.  They would ask, “How could these hateful things be happening in Germany of 1939? “ Today, we don’t ask.  Today we demand:  These things must not happen in America in 2013.  End of story.  It is hard to stick your neck out like this but it is better that we do so and so we must. There are many things short of genocide that must happen never again.  We have to remember that.
This Tuesday is Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  It is a festive day in Israel celebrating a country but also a people who has survived and thrived.  It is paid attention to here more or less.  But we should acknowledge what the State of Israel has done for us.  The internal politics there can be difficult, the problems never ending but politics that will decide the nature of the Jewish State have nothing to do with the meaning of the State of Israel to all Jews anywhere.  There will be no more Jewish genocides.  We have a place to go to, a government that will watch out for us and an army that will defend us.  We don’t take crap anymore.  That is a lesson of the Holocaust re-affirmed by the existence of our own state.
This is all a little bellicose for a moment of remembrance, no?  Perhaps, yes.  But sometimes all this remembering makes me angry and frustrated that so many had to die for nothing more than hatred and bigotry and a refusal of most countries around the world to care.  So I take that anger and turn it into vigilance and remind those in power to behave and remind those under the thumb of a bully to push back.  That is my response.
To make our transition from devastation to strength, let me close with a famous poem by Natan Alterman.  Chaim Weizman declared that, מגש כסף אין מדינה נתנת לעם על  “No state is ever given on a silver platter.”  Reeling from the Shoah, Natan Alterman saw the heroism of those who fought for and died for the creation of the State of Israel.  He wrote this poem in part to acknowledge the recent events and to acknowledge what Never Again requires.  Here is the The Silver Platter.
...And the land will grow still
Crimson skies dimming, misting
Slowly paling again
Over smoking frontiers

As the nation stands up
Torn at heart but existing
To receive its first wonder
In two thousand years

As the moment draws near
It will rise, darkness facing
Stand straight in the moonlight
In terror and joy

...When across from it step out
Towards it slowly pacing
In plain sight of all
A young girl and a boy

Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime
On the path they will climb up
While their lips remain sealed

To change garb, to wipe brow
They have not yet found time
Still bone weary from days
And from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue
And all drained of emotion
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head

Thus like statues they stand
Stiff and still with no motion
And no sign that will show
If they live or are dead

Then a nation in tears
And amazed at this matter
Will ask: who are you?
And the two will then say

With soft voice: We--
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews' state
Was presented today

Then they fall back in darkness
As the dazed nation looks
And the rest can be found
In the history books.1