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Parshat Acharei Mot

04/28/2022 04:21:02 PM

Apr28

Rabbi Hearshen

Why do we spend a day each year to grieve and remember the atrocities of WWII and the Holocaust? As the years have progressed, and fewer and fewer people who were connected to the war and genocide are still with us, we find the great need to keep it alive. Yom HaShoah, which began last night and concludes tonight, is not only about the victims but about the survivors as well. Our story didn’t end in the gas chambers of the six death camps. Our story didn’t conclude at the hands of the vicious mobile death squads. The Jewish world was robbed of so much but not of our continued journey. While the goal was to end our existence, the perpetrators failure led to our people recommitting to dreaming and believing and building.

Two of the most well-known books about the Holocaust are Night by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank. These books teach us so much about the world of the Holocaust and the victims, and yet they are totally different. Just look at the two most often quoted portions of the different books:

The Diary of Anne Frank

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold onto my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!” (July 15, 1944)

Night

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

Anne Frank’s words were written less than a month before she and the others in hiding with her were captured and sent to prison and then to the camps. It was on August 4, 1944 that they were found and deported. It’s assumed Anne Frank died from typhus in February or March of 1945. The problem with these words is we know how the story ended while the author did not. We know the true depth of the depravity of what was going on at the time she wrote the words of hope and she did not. We all too often project positivity and optimism onto Anne Frank who didn’t have the full picture. In fact, in the dramatized version of the diary, the play, and the movie, these words are spoken by Anne after the Nazis raided the annex and took them away. It’s as if to say Anne Frank was speaking these words from beyond the grave. It’s essential to understand these words in their context and their intended purpose. These were words written by a teenage girl facing a world of uncertainty and danger. Words written by a girl whose family was being saved by people risking their lives to help them. Her hope and positivity are essential to our future. We need to believe people are good. We need to believe the world is good and God is good. To do this means we accept the faults of humanity and the world, and at the same time, look for ways to make it better.

This week we read Parshat Acharei Mot. It’s a portion that picks up from a part of the Torah some chapters back, Parshat Tzav (chapter 10), when two of Aaron’s sons died. At that time, the Torah explicitly mentioned Aaron was silent. That silence is never really altered but eventually, six chapters later, we have an acknowledgement of their death and what it means for Aaron and the Jewish people.

Elie Wiesel spent the ten years after his liberation in silence when it came to the Holocaust. Then he began to pour his heart and soul into fixing our world with his words and his advocacy. Wiesel’s words, originally written in French ten years after his liberation, are very painful and poignant. Elie Wiesel grew up in a deeply religious family. He was gifted with a deep knowledge and understanding of Jewish text and traditions. For a person of faith, the Holocaust was at times seen as a refutation of the existence of the Divine. For others, it was seen as a condemnation of the Jewish people by God for our lack of obedience. For the person of faith, the Holocaust presented an existential crisis lacking any simple solution. How could a benevolent God allow this to happen? How could all our prayers go unanswered? The paradox of this famous quote of Wiesel’s is: “Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.” This quote has Wiesel saying that God is dead and at the same time God is everlasting. The reality is it wasn’t black and white. It was something very different. It was about living in tension and living in struggle. It was about anger at God but not a denial of God’s existence.

In 2011 Elie Wiesel had open heart surgery, and after he was released from the hospital, he wrote one of his last books called Open Heart. In it he addressed his relationship with the Divine. “I know – I speak from experience – even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free in prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor, man is still immortal.” And with those words Elie Wiesel explained the words of a teenage author from 1944 who was killed by the Nazis. Light, hope, faith and dreaming must always be a part of our core. We memorialize the dead by lighting candles to remind us that light is still possible even after our darkest times. We spend time every year to memorialize and honor our past in order to light that candle and move forward with them by our side.

Sun, June 26 2022 27 Sivan 5782