Yom Hashoah, Pittsburgh and Poway

I was asked to deliver a dvar torah at our annual Oceanside community Yom Hashoah event.  The title of this particular Yom Hashoah event is “6,000,011… Never Again.” 6,000,011 recognizes the loss of the 6,000,000 who died during the Holocaust as well as the eleven people who were recently killed in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting.  I understand the goal of this title, which is to connect to the events of the Holocaust with current events.  After all, the six million people who died in the holocaust were killed because of antisemitism and the eleven in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting died because of antisemitism as well.  But can we really compare any occurrence in our recent history to the tragedy of the Holocaust? Given the magnitude of that event, is it even appropriate to utter anything else in the same breath?

For thousands of years, we contextualized all tragedies that befell our people, from the destruction of the Temples to the failed Bar Kochba revolt to the Crusades, as punishments for our sins.  However, the Holocaust was seen differently.  The fact that the genocide of the Holocaust was premeditated by the supposedly most “cultured” nation in the world, compounded by the sheer magnitude of the destruction and the efficiency by which it was carried out, convinced many religious Jews that this tragedy must be different.  We could not attribute this tragedy to our sins.  Practically, we set aside one day in the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’Av, to commemorate all tragedies that occurred throughout our national history and reflect on those tragedies as consequences of our sins.  However, the tragedy of the Holocaust was given its own commemorative day as well.  With the addition of Yom Hashoah as a national day of remembrance, we recognized that the tragedy of the Holocaust was different than any other tragedy, and that the six million holy martyrs of the Holocaust were different than any other holy martyrs in our history. That being said, while the magnitude of recent events in no way approaches that of the Holocaust, thank God, there are real commonalities that cannot be ignored.

First, the tragic events of this year, both the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the recent terror attack in the Chabad of Poway, point to the unfortunate reality that we just read at the Pesach Seder, that “bchol dor vador omdim alenu l’chalotenu,” that in every generation our enemies will rise to try to destroy us.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has aptly referred to antisemitism as a mutating virus.  This virus has attacked us in the name of pure monotheism when it was convenient to do so, it has attacked us in the name of religion when it was convenient to do so, it has attacked us in the name of race when it was convenient to do so, and it has attacked us in the name of Zionism when it was convenient to do so.  So, yes, it is true that the tragedy of the Holocaust was qualitatively and quantitatively different than any other type of antisemitism that we have ever experienced.  However, the terror attack in Pittsburgh and most recently the terror attack in Poway, in houses of worship no less, convey very clearly that even in one of the most enlightened and cultured societies in the world, this mutating virus of antisemitism is unfortunately very much alive and well.

Second, the tragedies in Pittsburgh and in Poway have awakened us from our slumber of complacency, serving as an urgent reminder that our response to the Holocaust of “Never Again” must not become a hollow slogan.  We must not retreat in the face of rising antisemitism.  We must fight back against this hate.  Initially, today was not called Yom Hashoah.  It was originally called Yom Hashoah U’Mered HaGetaot, the Holocaust and Ghetto Revolt Remembrance Day, later to be renamed Yom Hashoah VeHagevurah, Devastation and Heroism Day.  Our response to this tragedy must be in the spirit of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, that we will never again allow Jewish blood to run freely.  We must continue to protest antisemitism to our neighbors, to the media and to our politicians.  Whether it’s a terror attack or a New York Times antisemitic cartoon, we must not be complacent. We must fight back and make our voices heard, for the 6,000,000 victims of the Holocaust who cannot. And for Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger, the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.  And for Lori Gilbert Kaye, the victim and heroine of the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting, and the countless other victims of antisemitism who cannot fight.

In his opening speech in April 1961 in Jerusalem as the lead prosecutor in the case of Israel v. Adolf Eichmann, the Honorable Gideon Hausner said, “When I stand before you here, Judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are six million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger towards him who sits in the dock and cry, “I accuse.” For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out but their voice is not heard. Therefore, I will be their spokesman, and in their name, I will unfold this awesome indictment.”

Fifty-eight years later, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the Rabbi of the Chabad of Poway who was injured in the recent attack, echoed that sense of responsibility and strength.  He said, “From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish.”

Our Rabbis explain that strength is not only found in physical might.  The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states, “Aizehu gibor hakovesh et yitzro,” or “Who is mighty?  One who conquers his impulse.”  Today, our impulse may tell us that when our enemies attack us for being Jews, we should retreat and we should hide our Jewishness.  We should practice Judaism, but not in the public square.  We should pray, but not in the synagogue.  We should wear a kippah, but not in the streets.  That is what our impulse tells us to do.  But we must be strong.  We must fight that impulse.

Today, on Yom Hashoah, we remember a time in the history of our people that is unparalleled in its terror, both qualitatively and quantitatively.  Today, on Yom Hashoah, the tragedies in Pittsburgh and Poway have reminded us that the antisemitism that bred this tragedy is alive and well even in America.  Today, we are awakened us from our slumber and shaken from our complacency.  We say “Never Again,” and resolve to meet the challenges that face us.  Am Yisrael Chai.

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