From Redemption to Despair, and Back Again

Although the transition from the High Holidays to Sukkot certainly brings with it more than a little cognitive dissonance, going from the solemnity of Yom Kippur to the joy of Sukkot, it pales in comparison with the cycle of Passover, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and then Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). These communal observances fall but a few days from each other, and take us from the exhilaration of redemption to the utter despair of the Holocaust and then back again to the redemptive joy of the establishment of the modern State of Israel.

It is, of course, true that Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut are both modern observances, and Passover is biblically mandated. They are separated by thousands of years, and they don’t really have anything to do one with the other. But historical experience has placed them in close calendric proximity, and left us to contemplate the significance of that juxtaposition.

Under any circumstances, moving from a celebration of the transition from enslavement to redemption to memories of deportations and death camps has no conceptual framework for us to work with. Auschwitz was the ultimate enslavement, and the ultimate absence of any sense of a redemptive power intervening to save us. There are, certainly, some incredible and inspirational stories that have emerged of Jews finding ways to have a Seder under the worst possible circumstances during the Shoah, and one can only be in awe of both the faith and the courage that made those “celebrations” possible. But still, the manifestation of God’s saving power, so essential a theme of Passover, stands in stark and utterly distressing contrast with the absence of that manifestation at the hour of our people’s greatest possible need.

This is never an easy time of year, as we are reminded of our chronic vulnerability to the excesses of history. But this year, more than others in recent history, that vulnerability once again raises its ugly head as the tentative agreement between America, the P5-plus-one powers, and Iran over Iran’s nuclear ambitions stirs up powerful anxieties and emotions in the Jewish community.

The media focus on the battle of wills between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has contributed to this becoming a time of unprecedented anxiety and conflicted allegiances for American Jews. It is, in a very real and immediate sense, a version of our worst-case scenario: the President of the United States, Israel’s strongest and most dependable ally, in open and often bitter conflict with Israel’s Prime Minister. More than at any time in recent memory, the political dynamics that have informed the lives and security of America Jews are not so subtly changing. The fundamental bipartisan support of Israel, so long a given in American political life, is no longer as sure a thing as it has been. Political allegiances are changing, and traditional alliances are re-forming. It is not at all clear what this all of this will look like by the time of the next Presidential election here in America.

But even more troubling than the political triangulation of American Jews are the implications of Iran’s intentions, and the possibility of this process going terribly wrong. For most of the world, a nuclear Iran might be a disturbing idea, but it's not something that too many people are likely to lose sleep over. For Israelis, whose country the leadership of Iran has repeatedly vowed to wipe off the map, even during these negotiations, the implications of failure are terrifying in ways that most of us cannot possibly understand. Americans lived under the fear of nuclear war during the cold war years, and for a few weeks during the Cuban missile crisis, Americans understood what it meant to be on the edge of a nuclear holocaust. Israel and her citizens are challenged enough, surrounded as they are by implacable hostility in virtually all sides. But the so-called “good deal” negotiated with Iran carries with it the highest possible stakes for Israel. There is no higher anxiety than a nuclear Iran.

As we segue from Passover to Yom Hashoah, it is not only the calming message of enslavement and redemption that we carry with us. It is also the realpolitik message of the Haggadah, telling us that, in every generation, there will be those who arise against us to destroy us. The Haggadah says that God saves us from those who would act on those evil intentions. But if there is a single lesson that we are obliged to learn from the Shoah, then surely it must be that we cannot afford ourselves the luxury of relying solely on God’s redemptive powers. God is manifest in history through us and our actions. Yom Hashoah of 5775 reminds us that we must be the agents of our own redemption, and of Israel’s security. Any celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut will be seriously incomplete without the internalization of that message.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.