The Holocaust is a black hole in human history. There was never anything like it before, and if humanity is to be worthy of its existence, there will never be anything like it again.
At some time in the spring or early summer of 1941, Hitler issued an order for a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a brutal euphemism for the planned, systematic destruction of the Jewish people. Four years later, as World War II came to an end, the first soldiers to enter the concentration camps began to realise what had been done, and they did not believe it. Six million human beings, among them one and a half million children, had been shot, gassed, burned, or buried alive for no other reason than that they were Jews. Where once there had been community after community of sages and scholars, poets and mystics, intellectuals and visionaries, there was the stench of death. As Jews, we mourn and, still today, we refuse to be comforted.
The Holocaust raises many questions. In an essay entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek,” the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made a profound distinction between two Jewish responses to suffering. There is the metaphysical question, “Why did this happen?” But there is also the halachic question, “What then shall I do?” The halachic response invites us to react to tragedy not as objects, but as subjects, not as figures of fate, but as masters of our destiny. We are not defined by what happens to us, but by how we respond.
Judaism has never sought to deny the existence of evil. But, equally, it has not sought to come to terms with it by explaining it away, mystically or metaphysically. “There is,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “a theological answer to ‘Why did this happen?’” But it must always elude us, for we are not God, nor can we see events from the perspective of eternity. Halachah summons us not to understand and thus accept the existence of evil, but instead to fight it, as partners with God in the process of redemption.
In this mode of Jewish spirituality, there is a profound insistence on human dignity, often in the face of immense and unfathomable suffering. The halachic response is not naïve. It does not hide from questions, but it is courageous. It says: we must continue to affirm Jewish life even in the absence of answers. In that, there is a faith that defies even the Angel of Death.
One of the most important halachic responses to tragedy is the act of remembering, Yizkor. More than it has history, the Jewish people has memory. There is no word for history in the Tanach, and modern Hebrew had to borrow one, historiah. But the word zachor (remember), occurs no fewer than 169 times in the Hebrew Bible. The difference between them is this: history is someone else’s story; memory is my story. In history, we recall what happened. Through memory, we identify with what happened so that it becomes part of us and who we are. History is the story of a past that is dead. Memory is the story of a future. We cannot bring the dead to life, but we can keep their memory alive. That is what the Jewish people always did for those who died as martyrs al kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name). They never forgot them, as we must never forget the victims of the Holocaust.
But there is a specifically Jewish way of remembering. When the word yizkor is mentioned in the Torah, it refers not to the past, but to the present and to renewal. “Va-yizkor Elokim et Rachel” (God remembered Rachel) and gave her a child, and thus new life.
“Va-yizkor Elokim et berito” (God remembered His covenant) and began the process of rescuing the Israelites from Egypt. When we remember as Jews, we do so for the sake of the future, so that those who died may live on in us.
Commemorating the 70 years that have passed with 70 days of study, linking individuals with Holocaust victims, and communities with communities that perished – this is the Jewish way of remembering. Few things could do more to give those who died a living memorial.
At the core of Judaism is an affirmation of life. Unlike other religions we do not venerate death. In Judaism, death defiles. Moses asked the Israelites to “choose life,” and his words still echo today.
One-third of our people died because they were Jews. The most profound Judaic affirmation we can make is to live because we are Jews – to live as Jews, affirming our faith with courage, our identity with pride, refusing to be traumatised by evil, or intimidated by antisemitism.
Whenever, through indifference or fear, we drift away from living as Jews, the Holocaust claims yet more belated victims. Hitler’s antisemitism was not accidental. Hitler declared that “conscience is a Jewish invention,” and he was right. Nazi Germany was intended to demonstrate the triumph of everything Jews had fought against since the days of Abraham and Sarah: might as against right, power as against justice, racism as opposed to the respect for human dignity, violence as opposed to the sanctity of human life. Jews have always lived by and for a different set of values and, as a result, we have always been called on to have the courage to be different. We need that courage now. It is not too much to say that humanity needs it now.
If each of us in the coming year makes a significant personal gesture to show that Judaism is alive and being lived, there can be no more momentous signal to humanity that evil does not have the final victory, because Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lives.
Rabbi Sacks is honoured to be the International President of 70 Days for 70 Years, an inspiring Holocaust remembrance initiative that will see thousands of individuals around the world embark on a 70 day programme of educational learning in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust. For more details on how to participate and purchase a book of 70 thought-provoking questions, ideas, stories and articles written by world-renowned authors and scholars, visit www.70for70.com or follow the project @70days70years. This is Rabbi Sacks’ introductory essay and is republished here with the kind permission of The United Synagogue.