William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Faithful to Holocaust memory

Some years ago I introduced Rabbi Ben-Zion Gold (z”l) – a Holocaust survivor who led the Harvard Hillel community for decades – to present his book The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust.  I spoke about the behavioral phenomenon known as projection.  What we see in others is often something that is familiar inside ourselves.  The world saw those who perished in the Holocaust as passive.  This was because they, the international community, was passive.  Victims of the Holocaust, rather than being lambs limping to slaughter, resisted, fought back, and defied the Nazis with force and courage.

Rabbi Gold began to speak by respectfully challenging my assertion.  Although he affirmed that spiritual and physical resistance were pervasive, he added: “I was a yeshiva bocher.  If someone had handed me a rifle, I wouldn’t have had any idea what to do with it.”  He reminded me of the need to be cautious about projecting a post-1948 Jewish self-image onto those who came before.

Holocaust remembrance annually coincides with resistance.  The date selected for Yom HaShoah is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when heroes fought against the Nazis for four weeks, longer than the entire Polish army lasted before being defeated in 1939.  Memory is dated to might.  Projecting activism and agency onto those who were slaughtered by the boundlessly wicked is appropriate as long as it is done in a measured and faithful manner.  We honor them best by being faithful to how they lived, not just to how they died.

The faith we keep with the Six Million feels covenantal.  It must not be misappropriated.  It may never be exploited.  The biblical number associated with covenant is the number 8.  This is because covenant’s require mutuality, the active commitment of both parties.  God creates and rests over the course of seven days.  The eighth day is when humans respond to concretize the covenant. This week’s portion of Torah, named for the covenantal number eight, is more than a story about priestly ordination, the sudden death of two of Aaron’s sons, or the dietary laws.  The text has the number 8 woven meticulously into its form.  The three chapter unit from the beginning of chapter 8 through the end of chapter 10 consists of 80 verses.  And from the first word of chapter 8 through the final word of chapter 9 – up until the death of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu and its aftermath – there are precisely 888 words.

Unbreakable covenants need not be rigid.  A bris must be rescheduled if the health of a newborn boy requires it.  Promises can be nimbly kept.  What makes a promise a covenantal commitment is its capability to weather uncertain times; its capacity to transcend immediate circumstance.  May our fidelity to the House of Israel – those who perished in the Shoah and those who today build the State – be revealed in the commitments we keep on the day after Shabbat, the 8th day.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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