“It is completely inappropriate to mark Yom HaShoah during the month of Nisan,” says a man in shul. I can’t help but stare at him – here he is, in the same month of Nisan, coming to shul on Shabbat with stubble on his chin, a “sefira beard.”
So, why the sefira beard? “Aveilut (mournign custom) for Rabbi Akiva’s students. They were great tzaddikim. We cannot just forget their untimely deaths.”
Many tzaddikim, unfortunately, met many untimely deaths along the path of Jewish history. Rabbi Akiva’s students received special recognition because Hazal gave us a reason that they all died – they did not show respect to one another.
Perhaps in response to that, Rabbi Akiva made three words from yesterday’s Torah reading into The Main Component Of Torah – “ve-ahavta le-re’acha kamocha”. As much as you want others to show you respect and appreciation -, do for others.
So, here we are in sefirat ha’omer, and on the 27th day of Nisan, we DO keep some form of mourning customs (those who do not wait until Rosh Hodesh Iyar) , such as not shaving and not getting married , as well as various additions like not listening to music. Jews are EXCELLENT at observing and enhancing customs to do with mourning.
But, are we at all interested in the message? Do we WANT to continue mourning forever? Or, perhaps, maybe, we have a dream that we will one day truly learn the lessons of the mourning periods, and make the personal and national changes that will make us no longer deserve the destruction that we now mourn?
Yom HaShoah was set by some secular folk, who wanted to commemorate the fact that many Jews in Europe fought back against the Nazis, and did not go as sheep to the slaughter. They did this on the middle date of the Warsaw ghetto Uprising, which was a truly miraculous effort. It is hard for us, who come to an Israel of cars, technology and fancy restaurants, to understand that Israel at that time was still a desert, and that the Sabra then needed to feel strong against the elements – natural and human – that seemed to make the task of settling the land impossible.
The rabbis were opposed to commemorating the holocaust in Nisan, and , in fact, the fast of the Tenth of Tevet is officially marked in Israel as the day of Kaddish for Holocaust victims whose yahrzeit is unknown.
But, Yom Hashoah is still here- and it is not only a day for remembering the heroes who fought back. There is no way to appreciate their superhuman efforts without a true understanding of what they were up against. So, one has to use the day for holocaust education. Against the horrible backdrop of the murders of millions of individuals, one can be amazed at the belief that allowed each person to try to fight back, whether with weapons, with prayers, or simply by attempting to stay alive.
So, is there a conflict between this commemoration and the prohibition against eulogies and mourning in the month of Nisan? First, I must answer the question with a question: Is there any more of a conflict here than in the case of not shaving in memory of Rabbi Akiva’s students? (Or in the case of reciting Av HaRahamim as a remembrance prayer in Nisan, even on Shabbat Mevarchim, for communities destroyed in the crusades?) And, second, when we mark the heroes, as the day is meant to do – Yom haShoah Ve’haGevura, are we mourning death? Or are we commemorating life, appreciating that our religion believes in Life. That my great-grandfather told his daughter upon arrival in Auschwitz, “Don’t ask if it is kosher. Eat whatever you can, so that you should live.” We are a nation of “V’chai ba-hem,” which our rabbis explain as: desecrate one Sabbath so that you may live to keep many more. And she did.
But there is more to it than that. Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did not show respect to one another. They might have even FELT respect for one another, but they did not show it.
The lesson is so clear. Someone, a few someones, among those who put their lives and energies into rebuilding the Jewish Nation (for whatever that meant to them) set a day for all of Am Yisrael to commemorate our nation TOGETHER. They set it by the Jewish calendar, and they did it to remember Jews. Even if we think they made a mistake, can we not show respect for them, and for those to whom the day is so important?
What we teach about Sefirat Ha’Omer has to be re-evaluated and rewritten, with the main focus on the main issue. The “sefira beard” and changed wedding plans are the reminder, they are not the essence of the time period. If we truly believe that one day , at the end of the Geula process, the times of mourning will become times of joy (as per the prophet Zecharia), we have to make ourselves deserve that change – partly by careful observance of the rules and customs, and partly, the main part, by improving in those very areas that Hazal connected to the specific mourning period. In the case of Sefirat HaOmer, the lesson is Respect.
When you stand at the siren this Yom HaShoa, think about the people whom you are respecting – those who died, those who fought, those who survived, and those who are ensuring that we remember. May it be haShem’s will that the respect we show one another in this time period be a merit to the victims of the holocaust and to all of Am Yisrael.