Me speaking on Kristallnacht , November 9, 2014 at the site in Leipzig where the great synagogue stood before it was burned to the ground by the Nazis on November 9, 1938
In Leviticus chapter 10 there is a chilling scene: While Aaron was celebrating his investiture as High Priest of Israel, his two older sons, Nadav and Abihu lay dead before him. Just as Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe enjoyed unprecedented economic and social success, Hitler rose to power and suddenly–within twelve years–European Jewry was no more.
Just as the Biblical text tells us that Aaron was silent in the face of the tragedy, so too, the Jewish world was all but silent about the Holocaust for more than 30 years. The enormity of the tragedy belied any attempt to explain, analyze or understand it. To articulate the horror was to relive it.
In the biblical text, though, once Aaron had washed off the anointing oil, and the bodies were outside the precinct of the tent of meeting, the Israelites accepted God’s command to publicly mourn the slain boys.
Our experience with the Holocaust again parallels the Bible. With the passage of time the Jewish community has been able to mourn. Moreover, we have sealed in our collective memory the Holocaust’s enormous reality.
So we commemorate it, we build memorials, we build museums, and we conduct programs and rituals of various types. In so doing we try to make sense of the inexplicable.
Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II survivors are rapidly dying off, and our urgency to remember grows. Pseudo-historians challenge the Holocaust’s validity while we Jews continue to think of each of our children in the words of Zechariah, as “A brand plucked from the fire.” (Zechariah 3;2)
Jews have achieved much since the end of World War II. We are comfortable for the most part, and except in the Arab world, there is no official anti-Semitism anywhere. But anti-Semitism is a chronic disease. We can try to keep it in check, but we cannot cure it. Today it is once again on the rise in many parts of Europe. And if it seems to some that we are a bit too sensitive about it, I would rather be too sensitive than oblivious to a force which history proves can rise up to engulf us. We dare not forget that Hitler was the butt of beer hall jokes in the late 20’s. By 1933 he was the Chancellor of all Germany.
In every country where Jews have lived–since we entered Egypt as protected relatives of the Pharaoh’s advisor Joseph–to the present day, our fortunes have been subject to change.
Our protected status in Egypt gave way to slavery and oppression. England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland–just about every country where we have ever lived–has expelled us from its borders. So if we seem a bit too quick to react to anti-Jewish messages, we trust and hope our friends will understand.
There is a famous Hasidic story of an enthusiastic disciple, who exclaimed to his beloved Rabbi, “My Master, I love you.”
“You say you love me,” the Rabbi replied. “Do you know what hurts me?”
“But Master,” the student responded, “how can I know what hurts you?’
“If you do not know what hurts me,” the Rabbi concluded, “you cannot love me.”
What hurts me? The failure or refusal by so many to acknowledge the reality of history’s lessons and the danger of anti-Semitism today hurt me very much.
The renowned Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, of blessed memory, said it best. For nearly 2000 years the classical Christian message was that Christianity was the only valid religion, and that Judaism was an illegitimate faith.
Because of that belief, Christian governments told Jews in place after place, “You cannot live here as Jews.” And in country after country Christian authorities forced us to convert.
Time went on, and often the message became,“You cannot live here.” And Christian and Muslim authorities expelled us from their lands.
Hitler took the message a step further. He simply told us: “You cannot live.”
Because of him one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1935 had perished by 1945. In Europe it was two out of every three.
Yes, I am indeed concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
I wish I had the cure for this disease, but I don’t. I hope, though, and I pray that being vocal about the lessons of the past and being vigilant each time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head will hopefully keep this scourge from once again raging out of control.