It is an unusual day indeed when The New York Times, not always considered sensitive to the concerns of the Jewish community, publishes a front-page obituary for a rabbi. But the Times did just that a few short weeks ago, when it noted, with appropriate pathos and respect, the death of Rabbi Hershel Schacter, of blessed memory.
Under any circumstances, Rabbi Schacter’s death would have been noteworthy. He was a major figure in the reconstitution of Orthodoxy here in America following the Second World War, serving a large congregation in the Mosholu Parkway section of the Bronx, and also a noted communal leader, having served as the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But neither of these great accomplishments accounts for the Times’ remarkable interest in Rabbi Schacter’s death.
What made Hershel Schacter’s life, and death, significant to The New York Times was the role he played as a military chaplain towards the end of the Second World War. He was one of the first Americans to enter the Buchenwald concentration camp upon its liberation, and to encounter, in all of its horrific and grisly reality, exactly what had been done to European Jewry by the Nazis.
For months thereafter, Rabbi Schacter remained at Buchenwald, ministering to the basic needs of those who had somehow survived, and providing religious services for those Jews whose faith- and bodies- had been starved and tortured in every conceivable way. In times of war, military chaplains often find themselves in close encounter with the very worst that humanity has to offer. Yet surely, encountering Buchenwald had to be an entirely different and unprecedented experience for even a battle-tested chaplain.
As the Times reported it, Rabbi Schacter was asked the same question by prisoner after prisoner: does the world know what happened to us here?
Since I read the obituary, that question has stayed with me in a very conscious way. Under any circumstances, the power of that question, asked, as it was, by men, women and children who had suffered so terribly and in such total isolation from the rest of “humanity,” is overwhelming. Enduring the suffering was much more than bad enough. But being unsure if anyone “on the outside” knew enough about their reality to even care about their release must have been even more crushing.
But the force of those survivors’ question was made even more powerful for me by the fact that I read of it just as the festival of Passover was about to begin.
Obviously, on the simplest of levels, the metaphor of enslavement and redemption, so key to understanding the existential significance of Passover, resonates with meaning in the aftermath of the Shoah. Our people have known no greater enslavement than the concentration camp, nor have we experienced a more powerful sense of redemption than the creation of the State of Israel. Indeed… mei’avdut l’herut!
What most people don’t recognize is that one of the most important mitzvot (literally, commandments) to emerge from the Passover experience of our ancestors is the mitzvah of Haggadah… literally, telling the story of what happened. The booklet that bears that mitzvah’s name is, essentially, a script whose singular purpose is to insure that the story be told, in the proper way, and at the proper time. But the root of that booklet is a Biblical text that says V’higa’d’ta L’vinha– when your children ask you about the ritualized celebration of the Exodus, tell them the story! Explain not only what happened, but that it happened to us. We are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus in every generation, since the farther away we get from the experience of the Exodus itself, the less likely people are to believe that this is our communal history, and that it has implications for their lives, and their commitments.
As the ancient rabbis might have said, al ahat kammah v’hammah… how much more so is this true with regard to the Shoah. Jews of the post-Shoah world are obligated by a new iteration of the mitzvah of haggadah. It is, for us, no less of a religious imperative to tell the story of what happened to our people during the Holocaust, and to make sure that we tell it regularly, in the right way, not only to our own people but to all people.
I can think of no other way to be faithful to the searing question of the survivors who so persistently challenged Rabbi Schacter. If they know, we must remind them. If they don’t know, we must tell them. And if they doubt the veracity or extent of the truth, we must educate them.
That is the meaning of Yom Hashoah. And that is the sacred task that confronts us all. Tell the story…