“The projector showed a peculiar image of a man in a faded hat and overcoat” writes Tara Westover in her breathtakingly compelling memoir Educated. Raised by Idaho survivalists, she had not stepped foot into a classroom until her Freshmen year at Brigham Young in 2003. “I opened the picture book I’d purchased for the class so I could take a closer look. Something was written under the the image in italics but I couldn’t understand it. It had one of those black-hole words, right in the middle, devouring the rest.”
“I’d seen other students ask questions, so I raised my hand. The professor called on me, and I read the sentence aloud. When I came to the word, I paused, “I don’t know this word,” I said. “What does it mean?” There was silence. Not a hush, not a muting of noise, but utter, almost violent silence. No papers shuffled, no pencils scratched. The professor’s lips tightened. “Thanks for that,” he said, then returned to his notes.” When the dismissal bell rang, a classmate approached. “You shouldn’t make fun of that. It’s not a joke.” She abruptly walked away before Tara could reply.
“I stayed in my seat until everyone had gone, pretending the zipper on my coat was stuck so I could avoid looking anyone in the eye. Then I went straight to the computer lab to look up the word “Holocaust.”
As Tara read further, she wasn’t sure what shocked her more: learning about something so horrific or learning about her own ignorance. Many years later when Tara earned her Ph.D in History from Cambridge University, her thesis advisor’s specialization would be in Holocaust Studies.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day takes place this Sunday under the shadow of ominous findings from this fall’s CNN Poll on antisemitism. Nearly one in five Europeans believes that antisemitism is a response to Jewish misbehavior. And one in three says that Jews use the Holocaust to advance their goals.
Last week’s portion of Torah concluded with the battle with Amalek, antisemitism’s founder. This week’s portion, in which God will give the Ten Commandments at Sinai, begins with the story of Jethro who represents a reverential spirit, the opposite of Amalek. The language of the Torah makes comparisons between Amalek and Jethro intentional. Both Amalek and Jethro “come” (vayavo): the former, to make war (Ex. 17:8), the latter for mutual greetings that lead to peace (Ex. 18:5-7). In both stories, Moses sits (vayeshev). First he prays for assistance in battle (Ex. 17:12), then to dispense justice (Ex. 18:13). Both stories involve ‘choosing’ (bachar) able soldiers and judges, and both describe ‘heaviness’ (kaved): of Moses’s elevated arms, and of the burden of dispensing judicial rulings.
If the legacy of Amalek became Auschwitz, the legacy of Jethro became advice that made Moses a learner. He teaches Moses how to delegate and more effectively manage his time. The Torah seeks to introduce ‘Moses our teacher’ at Sinai, by first revealing ‘Moses the learner’. The best learners make the best teachers.
This Sunday the important new film Who Will Write Our History will be screened in hundreds of settings all over the world. May a learning that inspired Tara Westover’s education, redeem the potential of learning for all. And may the urgent lessons from the Holocaust become more pervasive and persuasive in the years to come.