Parshat Bo – shadows of the past

As I sit here in Syracuse, caught up in the COVID isolation and limitations, I have been thinking back on two short trips that I took in the last years before Shelley, and I left Japan; one to Berlin and the other to Hiroshima.  Both spoke of the horrors and challenging choices made during the twentieth century.  Humanity, unfortunately, still faces similar decisions in the beginning years of the twenty-first. Will we again make the wrong decisions and learn the wrong lessons?

Walking in the environs of my centrally located Berlin hotel, past and present merged, reminding me of the challenges we all face in the new century.  The Judisches Museum was a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.  A menorah, a letter, and a few photographs called to mind people cut off with no possible justification as they lived their everyday lives.  Millions were killed, most forgotten, with but a few objects to call them to mind.

For the most part, the museum looked to the past. It also raised questions for me about the world that we are creating today.  Have we abandoned genocide, bigotry, and persecution? Have we been silent too often when we needed to speak out?  One museum installation provided a stark answer.  In his work “Shalekhet – Fallen Leaves,” an aptly named Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, created an emphatic rejection of silence in the face of injustice.  Over 10,000 metal faces (reminiscent of Munch’s Scream) fill a pathway. As they lie there, their voices are silenced. But, as one walks the path, it is impossible not to create a loud screaming noise, reminding us of the pain of persecution, as the metal faces move one against another.   Through our creation of the noise, the artist calls on us to hear their silenced voices and speak out for the innocent victims of war, persecution, injustice, and violence.  We cannot be silent at the separation of families, the killing of protesters, and genocide.  He reminds us that silence is consent.

Hiroshima had similar resonances and challenges.  As one of the only two cities devastated by atomic bombs, Hiroshima challenges humanity to look at the destructive power that we have created and face the horrors of war squarely.  The memorials and museums stand in a modern city center, with few buildings (beyond an impressive rebuilt castle) to speak to its pre-war stature.   Yet, one domed ruined building, standing under the location of the very epicenter of the blast, is a symbol of the horror and devastating power of a nuclear explosion.   This ruined building remains as a silent remnant and reminder. It was one of a very few buildings which in any way survived the blast.  After the bombings on August 6, 1945, it was surrounded by a vast area of rubble.  Ninety percent of the city was destroyed, and more than 140,000 people were killed.

Nearby the Museum exhibitions well conveyed the destructive power of a nuclear blast and radiation sickness horrors. For Shelley and me, our most potent and personally devastating experience in the memorial was viewing a short documentary, including parents’ testimony, whose children died during the bombing.  Parents never saw some children again after leaving for school, while others were found after the blast, only to die from burns or radiation sickness.  This film showed the human cost of war and the atomic explosion without a political overlay. It was a human tragedy, not just a Japanese disaster.  War destroys lives, whether through nuclear weapons, gas chambers, bullets, disease, or starvation.  Therefore, it is perhaps instructive that past mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki founded an organization in1982, not called mayors for disarmament, but rather Mayors for Peace.

Parshat Bo also describes tragedy, both the tragedy of the continuing enslavement of the Israelites and the tragedy of Egypt’s devastation through the ten plagues.   The horror of slavery and the horror of the plagues are human tragedies that call out to us thousands of years later.   Here there were many failures.  Pharaoh disregarded the needs and failed to recognize the humanity of both his people and the Israelites, acting only when the final plague hit his own home.  To me, God also failed.  Was the horror of the plagues the only way to free our ancestors?  Was the suffering necessary?  Was it fair to punish the innocent Egyptian peasants along with the guilty who enslaved the Israelites?

Maybe there are no easy answers to these questions, but later, rabbis were challenged by them. The command to pour off ten drops of wine, one for each plague, is an explicit recognition that we regret the Egyptians’ suffering.  Indeed, the Midrash teaches that God commands the angels not to rejoice as the Egyptians drown in the sea, saying, “My children are dying, and you would sing songs.”

The Torah also recognizes the universality of the Exodus experience, especially the experience of slavery.  Over and over, we are commanded to treat people fairly — especially strangers – because we were strangers and slaves in Egypt. Therefore, our slavery experience is universal, as is our liberation.  It is not coincidental that the exodus has been a model and a symbol of hope for oppressed minorities over the ages.

Tragedies, especially those caused by poor human choices, are not the property of any one group of people (and often, though we may not remember it, affects many different groups). When a tragedy is claimed and seen as sui generis, it can lose its power, as it becomes a totem and therefore is inured from teaching broader messages about human suffering.  When we say “never again,” it cannot and should not only be a peon against anti-Semitism and genocide against Jews but like the lessons of Hiroshima, “never again” must be a global commitment against genocide affecting any group. When we say “never again,” we should not allow it to blind us from making the same mistakes that we seek to prevent.  Nor should we think that a tragedy is only ours, and therefore not allow anyone else to use its language and lessons. Kadishman’s installation is a reminder that silence in the presence of any persecution or genocide is assent.

Our tradition teaches that our history, especially our tragedies, must be a learning experience, teaching us both not to make past mistakes and to positively act to create a better world in which such disastrous choices are impossible.  Our slavery and exodus, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima are global events that shape all of us.  They teach global lessons of horrifying human choices made and dreadful human decisions that we (not as Jews but humans) must prevent from ever being made again.

About the Author
David serves as rabbi of Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in DeWitt, NY. He was formerly the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan and a past chair of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. He works closely with the emerging Jewish community in Indonesia. He has a strong commitment to interfaith relations, exemplified by, "Beyond the Golden Rule: A Jewish Approach to Dialogue and Discourse."
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