Sinai and Auschwitz Memories

Of all the times in life we could have been born, we are lucky ones, fortunate enough to live in the time of, or the inherited memory of, the most eventful period for the Jewish people.

In our lifetime orbit, we witnessed the very worst thing to ever happen in the series of tragedies, misfortunes and attacks against the Jewish people – the Shoah. Millions of our sisters and mothers, brothers and fathers were uprooted from their home and stripped of their clothing, possessions, dignity and for ⅔ of the Jewish population in Europe, their lives.

In 1948, a messianic like dream of redemption happened before our eyes in the founding of the State of Israel, only to be underscored by the reunification of Jerusalem 19 years later. For my grandmother, L’shana Haba’ah at the end of the Seder and Yom Kippur, was a dream no different than praying for the resurrection of the dead. When I told her I would study in Israel when she was in her late 80s and I was just a teenager, her eyes welled with water. For her, it was a miracle in her lifetime beyond explanation. I was drinking the nectar of her prayers.

David Hartman, of blessed memory, would regularly ask people – where is your Judaism? Are you a Sinai Jew or an Auschwitz Jew? Which event shaped your Yiddishkeit and connection to our people, our history and our destiny?

He asked the question to decode which of those two postures would influence the shaping of the Land and State of Israel.

All of us as Jews have each ingredient of Sinai and Auschwitz in our Jewish composite. But which one dominates? For many people today who link their history and destiny with the Jewish people, one of these events shapes them more than others.

Are you a Sinai Jew? An Auschwitz Jew?

Sinai Jews say that we all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Torah and its laws and teachings bind us.

An Auschwitz Jew teaches that we are targeted not by a teaching or a moment in history rather, because of who we are and we are a different people.

A Sinai Jew says our laws and our lore are our North Star, reminds us of the obligations of freedom and the need to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Auschwitz Jew holds memory closer than aspiration and postures themselves defensively.

Are you a Sinai Jew? An Auschwitz Jew?

In pictures, a Sinai Jew is wearing tefillin and praying in a stodgy study hall.

An Auschwitz Jew is a young boy in tattered clothes with a yellow star sewn to his chest and his hands in the air, trembling with gear.

One is a picture of continuity and vigor while the other is of victimhood.

On this day of remembrance and perseverance I turn to our texts to synthesize these two forms of connective tissue to Jewish history and memory.

Tractate of Sotah 49b

משמת רבן יוחנן בטלה החכמה ת”ר משמת רבי אליעזר נגנז ס”ת משמת רבי יהושע בטלה עצה ומחשבה משמת ר”ע בטלו זרועי תורה ונסתתמו מעיינות החכמה

The mishna taught that from the time when Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai died, wisdom ceased. The Sages taught: From the time when Rabbi Eliezer died, it was as if the Torah scroll had been interred, as he had memorized many secrets of the Torah. From the time when Rabbi Yehoshua died, council and deliberate thought ceased, as he had the sharpest mind in Israel. From the time when Rabbi Akiva died, the powerful arm of Torah, meaning the exposition of all the details of Torah scripture, ceased, and the fountains of wisdom were sealed.

משמת רבי אלעזר בן עזריה בטלו עטרות חכמה (משלי יד, כד) שעטרת חכמים עשרם משמת רבי חנינא בן דוסא בטלו אנשי מעשה משמת אבא יוסי בן קטונתא בטלו חסידים ולמה נקרא שמו אבא יוסי בן קטונתא שהיה מקטני חסידים

From the time when Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya died, the crowns of wisdom ceased, as “the crown of the wise is their riches” (Proverbs 14:24), and he was both a great Torah scholar and a very wealthy man. From the time when Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa died, the men of wondrous deeds ceased. From the time when Abba Yosei ben Katonta died, the pious men ceased. And why was he called Abba Yosei ben Katonta? Because he was among the diminished [miktanei] of the pious people, i.e., he lived in an era when the pious had become few.

משמת בן עזאי בטלו השקדנין משמת בן זומא בטלו הדרשנין משמת רשב”ג עלה גובאי ורבו צרות משמת רבי הוכפלו צרות

From the time when ben Azzai died, the diligent ceased; from the time when ben Zoma died, the exegetists ceased. From the time when Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel died, locusts ascended upon the land and troubles proliferated. From the time when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, the troubles multiplied.

משמת רבי בטלה ענוה ויראת חטא אמר ליה רב יוסף לתנא לא תיתני ענוה דאיכא אנא אמר ליה רב נחמן לתנא לא תיתני יראת חטא דאיכא אנא

The final line of the mishna states that from the time when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

Rav Yosef said to the tanna who reviewed the mishna: Do not teach that humility ceased, for there is still one who is humble, namely me. Rav Naḥman similarly said to the tanna who reviewed the mishna: Do not teach that fear of sin ceased, for there is still one who fears sin, namely me. D’Eekah Anah.

Rabbi Yosef and Rav Nachman rejected the teaching of the anonymous author of this piece from the Talmud. He said, in fact, how dare you say that characteristics and values and personnas and traits died with these special souls. I am here to perpetuate memory, D’Eekah Anah. I am here to shape our future, D’Eekah Anah.

Because of Sinai – I am here, D’Eekah Anah.
Because of Auschwitz, D’Eekah Anah.
Because of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, D’Eekah Anah.

I am here D’Eekah Anah. …..we are links in a chain from the time of Miriam and Aaron and Moses at Sinai, to Janusz Korczak to Adam Czerniakow to Hannah Senesh in Europe and to Golda Meir and Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett in Israel to you and me in our communities across the globe.

D’Eekah Anah. We are here.

The greatest gift we can give to the collective memory Sinai and of Auschwitz – to our shared history and shared future is our presence, our prayer, our voice, our feet and our proclamation of D’Eekah Anah.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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