When the past is unpredictable

Holocaust remembrance takes on renewed urgency as we mark the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Tribunals next week.  The Seder’s four children are likened to four successive generations which depict a slippage from personal memory into detached history.  A thoughtful member of our community, Paul Greenberg, shared with me this week a sobering paradigm . 

  • First generation: lived through Holocaust — our grandparents’ cohort (wise child)
  • Second generation: afraid it might happen to them too so they often downplayed their Judaism — our parents’ cohort (rebellious child)
  • Third generation: not always so well-educated about it — our cohort (simple child)
  • Fourth generation: our children’s cohort — (child who often does not know how to ask)

This erosive challenge can be collapsed into a much tighter window of time.  Between the Exodus and the Red Sea redemption (7th Day of Passover reading), a generation that intones, “this is my elevating God, the praiseworthy God of my ancestors” (Ex. 15:2) does not take long to audaciously doubt, ““Is God with us or not?” (Ex. 17:7).

And yet the reverse spiritual trajectory is also possible.  In the fall of 1997, Elie Wiesel offered an unforgettable confessional prayer.  “Master of the Universe. In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy.  I would not repeat them today.  But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being.  Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children?”  Yet, Wiesel concludes his stirring reflection, “In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.” Sometimes a single lifetime can be spacious enough to contain all four generational responses.

God’s Torah anticipates the four generation challenge when it references accountability unto the third and fourth generation (Ex. 20:4, 34:7).  Third and fourth generational impact (shilaishim and reebaim) is the only part of the Ten Commandments that is repeated within God’s thirteen Essential Attributes.   Simply, God’s direct messaging to us is profoundly cognizant of the implications of events on a third or fourth generation.

Our generation’s urgent responsibility is to prevent Holocaust realness from becoming too vicarious or remote.  Pervasive revision of Israel’s first sixty-eight years, along with our historic bonds with our ancestral Homeland,  continue to be a threat by purveyors of a past that is unpredictable.   May Passover’s final day, which includes Yizkor, keep memory from becoming history.

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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