William Hamilton

From headwinds to higher ground

According to a survey released on Thursday, 41% of millennial Americans (ages 18-34) believe that fewer than two million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.  The same percentage of Americans (all ages) cannot say what Auschwitz was.  And 52% of Americans wrongly think that Hitler came to power by force.

Better history instruction is only part of the answer to these troubling findings.  Indeed, 93% of same respondents in the survey prioritized the importance of Holocaust education.  Personal visits to museums and encounters with survivors are necessary.  But given how often miss-impressions are shaped by wrong-headed groupthink, what else can help?

An insight from this week’s portion of Torah offers another approach to rising above a herd-mentality.  At the conclusion of the Torah’s discussion of dietary norms, God self-identifies: “I am God who brought you up (ha-ma’ale) from the land of Egypt to be your God” (Lev.11:45).  Normally the action-verb associated with the Exodus is to bring out (ha-motzi).  Why is bringing up preferred here?  The sages focus on context.  The prior passage rules out the eating of swarming creatures that creep on the earth.  This gives rise to the need for extra-terrestrial elevation, so God brings us up.

Perhaps swarming creatures symbolize the allure of following the masses.  Jews are veteran contrarians.  We realize there is more than one way to resist strong headwinds.  The very term exodus indicates liberation through transporting, or bringing out.  Yet there are times when liberation happens by way of elevation.  A fresh vantage point can help us glimpse like-minded others who bring a spacious curiosity to their learning which can help generate a more hopeful momentum.  Resisting the downward pull becomes more possible with the help of a herd more attentive to the holy, a groupthink that is more generous.

Striving to make lessons from the Holocaust more vivid in a world so hungry for them, may we forge a welcome setting that encourages more to meet us on higher ground.

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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