William Hamilton
William Hamilton

The battle for historical truth never stays won

A parent shared a story from last week’s dinner conversation.  She told her children “If a minute of silence were held for every Jewish victim of the Holocaust, the silence would continue for eleven-and-a-half years.”  One of her daughters immediately responded, “Mommy that’s as long as I’ve been alive.”

Rescuing Holocaust memory is so important today.  We live in times of Holocaust minimization (6 million is an exaggerated number), Holocaust equalization (the Holocaust is no different from other genocides and ethnic-cleanings), Holocaust reversal (what the Nazis did to the Jews, the Jews now do to others), Holocaust marginalization (others were also killed in the War), Holocaust by association (the Palestinians are the secondary victims of the Holocaust), and also Holocaust politicization (the immediate threat of another Holocaust defines every public policy).  This week’s witnessing of Holocaust memory seemed to collide with a whole new vocabulary for efforts to defile and disfigure it.

What to do?  Portions of Torah we learn this Shabbat touch upon a lesson which may be utilized in the service of an honest reckoning with history.  The skin-deep affliction, often described as leprosy, is consistently called a nega (affliction).  Elsewhere the Torah associates nega with plague (Gen. 12:17, Ex. 11:1).  And there is an entire Talmudic Tractate (negaim) devoted to the bodily ailments that are diagnosed, treated, and healed in this week’s passages.  A reason why the Torah is so concerned with containment of this nega has been expressed by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.  “To enter sacred space…in which we feel close to the presence of infinity and eternity, we must divest ourselves of any consciousness of mortality, disease, and decay.”  Most remarkable, however, is the impermanence of these ailments.  An affliction is often fleeting.

The word nega literally means to touch (Lev. 15:7,10,19,21,22,23) – a nogea ba-davar is someone who is deeply interested in a matter.  Perhaps this alludes to ‘high-touch interactions’.  In the Torah, the personal examination of the Priest was such an interaction.  For us, the most impactful or touching engagements we can know are the products of meaningful relationships and poignant experiences.  True enough, we tend to see what we’re looking for.  But it is also the case that deep relationships and experiences can bring us to new acquaintances with reality and with history.

Elie Wiesel taught: “Never say that society will not do this or that; it will.  Never seek shelter in convenient illusions that history will know when to stop so as not to destroy itself; it will not.”

May we seed and grow high-touch contacts, particularly with those who are susceptible to a rewritten history that is so toxic to Holocaust memory.  And may our vital labors remain undimmed and undiminished.  Alas, the battle for historical truth never stays won.

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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