Jonathan Muskat

What is the appropriate day to commemorate the Holocaust?

What is the appropriate day to commemorate the Holocaust?  Our initial answer might be this coming Wednesday evening and Thursday, which is Yom Hashoah. The State of Israel designated the 27th day of Nisan as Yom Hashoah, a date that is connected to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  (Technically, the uprising began on Erev Pesach, but the 27th day of Nisan ended up as a political compromise between secular and religious leaders of the fledgling State of Israel.) However, there are at least two other days in our calendar to commemorate this unprecedented tragedy in the history of our people.   The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This date is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  Chazal, our Sages, designated Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of Av, as a national day of mourning for all Jewish tragedies including the Holocaust.  In fact, in most communities we recite a special Kinah (lamentation) on Tisha B’Av to commemorate the Holocaust.  Now that we have three separate days to commemorate the Holocaust, in practice when should we actually commemorate the Holocaust?  I think that we need each of these days to commemorate a different aspect of the Holocaust.

On January 27th, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.  On the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) website, International Holocaust Remembrance Day is defined as a day when “UNESCO pays tribute to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and reaffirms its unwavering commitment to counter antisemitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance that may lead to group-targeted violence.”  It is a day when we stand with nations across the world shoulder to shoulder pledging to fight all types of racism.  Our collective memory of the Holocaust eighty years ago, just like our collective memory of our slavery in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, reinforces our commitment to fight hatred and genocide against Jews and non-Jews alike throughout the world.  It is a day when we utilize our national tragedies for the purpose of tikkun olam, to help fix the broken world in which we find ourselves.

On Tisha B’Av, we confront all Jewish tragedies theologically by acknowledging that these tragedies will not cease until we are redeemed by God and our redemption is dependent upon our behavior.  We do our best on Tisha B’Av to motivate ourselves spiritually to better ourselves so that we will be worthy of God’s Divine presence permeating a rebuilt Beit Hamikdash once again.  Truthfully, it is probably easier to confront all Jewish tragedy as a whole rather than the singular tragedy of the Holocaust as a response to our sins.  When we confront the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust specifically and the proximity of this tragedy to 2022, it becomes very difficult to fathom how any sins, as great as they may be, can justify the murder of six million Jews.  For many of us, we can only confront the Holocaust theologically with a series of unanswered questions.  That being said, Tisha B’Av is a time to confront the Holocaust and all Jewish tragedy, for that matter, from a theological perspective.

However, we need Yom Hashoah, as well.  We need Yom Hashoah, as well, because we need to confront the Holocaust and antisemitism from a non-theological perspective.  We need to confront the Holocaust and antisemitism by proclaiming “never again” on our uniquely Jewish Holocaust day because the international Holocaust day of January 27th is not enough.  Unfortunately, history has proven that we cannot rely on the nations of the world to proclaim “never again” when that statement becomes an empty, hollow slogan. When Israel and anti-Zionism are singled out in the United Nations for delegitimization and demonization, when global antisemitism is on the rise and when classic antisemitic tropes are freely expressed publicly, we cannot rely on January 27th pledges and assurances of “never again” by the nations of the world to protect us.  On Yom Hashoah, we recognize that as Jews we must remain vigilant and make a lot of noise whenever antisemitism rears its ugly head and not simply quietly accept the “new normal” of rising antisemitism.  On Yom Hashoah, we recognize that at the end of the day, the State of Israel and only the State of Israel will be responsible for its safety despite the promises that it receives from world powers about stopping the Iranian nuclear threat.

On January 27th, we partner with the world to fight hate, intolerance and racism, and we pledge, together with the nations of the world, “l’taken olam b’malchut sha-dai,” or to perfect the world as the kingdom of God.  On Tisha B’Av, we engage in a national day of spiritual reflection in response to countless tragedies throughout our history.  But this coming Wednesday evening, we once again reaffirm that we are an “am l’vadad yishkon,” that we are a nation that dwells alone and that we are solely responsible to ensure that never again will we allow Jewish blood to run freely.  On Yom Hashoah, we proclaim that “am Yisrael chai” is ultimately our responsibility.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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