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Marking Yom HaShoah: Calendars And Memory, God And History
Tue, 04/26/2011 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week

The Orthodox Chief Rabbinate decided in 1949 that the Shoah (the Hebrew, literally meaning "catastrophe," that is now used for the Holocaust) should be commemorated on the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day already established in the Jewish calendar.

In 1951, the Knesset ignored the Chief Rabbinate's decision to incorporate commemoration of the Shoah into the existing calendar of traditional Jewish days of mourning. The first Knesset proposal was to hold Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) on the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943) but that was rejected because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Passover. You might imagine that the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto drew inspiration from the Passover story in selecting the night before Pesach as the date for their rebellion. In reality, they selected April 19th because the Germans entered the ghetto that day and were determined to deport the remaining Jews of Warsaw as a gift to Hitler whose birthday was April 20th.

The Knesset finally established Yom HaShoah on the 27th of Nisan, eight days prior to Yom HaAtzma'ut, a day that runs dafka - in the face - of the traditional Jewish calendar's association of joy in the month of Nisan, and the Chief Rabbinate's decision for the 10th of Tevet two years prior. Choosing to commemorate Yom HaShoah during the month of Nisan - a month that is supposed to be filled with the joy of Passover - reflected a desire to choose a different narrative than the one that forms the basis of two thousand years of Jewish history.

It is curious to note that the official name of Yom HaShoah is Yom HaZikaron LaShoah v'HaGevurah, Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism.

The second, less known, phrase of the day's name derives from the Knesset's decision to make the day about, "a day of commemoration of the Jews who perished and for those who showed resistance and heroism" (official Knesset website - emphasis added).

What is implied in the second part of the name is an effort to re-interpret the meaning of the Shoah - an event that represents the ultimate devastation when Jews were powerless to defend themselves - into a story of both weakness and power. That the Warsaw ghetto uprising was an act of bravery and light amidst darkness and evil is indisputable, and important. But, seen in a sea of blood and slaughter, and understood in the context of six million men, women, and children who were the victims of state-sponsored, systematized murder, the uprising was significant much more for its symbolic, rather than practical, value.

The modern state of Israel chooses to remember this moment of Jewish heroism in the Shoah because the lesson Israel learns from the Shoah is that it is Jewish strength and heroism, not God, that will save the Jews.

In Israel, one hears the sirens of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron (Israel's memorial day for fallen soldiers) and sees on television stories of death and tears and sadness. The calendar creates a beginning, the utter blackness and death of the Shoah, a middle, the courage and sacrifice of those who died fighting, and an end, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, the day of Jewish independence and freedom.

But in the competing, traditional Jewish narrative, the story continues. Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, like Yom HaShoah, runs against the grain of the traditional Jewish calendar. Yom Ha'Atzma'ut is a day of celebration that occurs in the midst of a period of mourning, the first 33 days of the Omer during which traditional Jews remember 20,000 students of Torah who perished. On Lag B'Omer, the dying came to an end and, in another few weeks, Shavuot arrives and traditional Jews celebrate standing before God at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The traditional Jewish narrative tells us that the freedom of Passover is not only freedom from slavery, but freedom with a purpose: to serve God.

Which narrative is "true?" Do Jews celebrate the God of history who saves from Egypt and gives the Torah at Sinai?

Or, after the Shoah, does the story end at Yom Ha'atzma'ut, having given up on a saving God and, instead, saved ourselves? The question at the heart of these competing calendars is not academic; it is critical to the Jewish future.

As the twenty-first century begins, do Jews find themselves with a state of their own, a safe haven for the first time in two thousand years, but existentially alone in the wilderness? No Jew with a modicum of knowledge of the suffering and persecution that befell Jews for thousands of years would turn away from our newfound ability to defend ourselves. We have independence, for which we should be grateful, but at what cost, and for what purpose?

On Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, I sing Hallel prayers, another liturgical statement: we officially praise God for giving us a new beginning. But as I sing to Him, I am haunted by His absence 70 years ago when we needed Him the most. Does Yom Ha'Atzma'ut lead to Sinai? Can Israel forgive God and find Him in history again?

Yom HaShoah will take place this year on Monday, May 2nd, 2011. Yom HaZikaron will take place on Monday, May 9th. Yom Ha'Atzma'ut will take place on Tuesday, May 10th. This was adapted from an article that appeared in the journal, Conservative Judaism, Spring 2009.


Jewish life, Judaism, Shoah, Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, Yom HaShoah

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From the article "I am haunted by His absence 70 years ago when we needed Him the most. Does Yom Ha'Atzma'ut lead to Sinai? Can Israel forgive God and find Him in history again?"I pray that this author revisits Scripture. The real question is where was humanity? God is sovereign however He does not override an individual's free will. How many individuals blindly followed a charismatic leader rather than search their own hearts and seek out God to truly determine what was right and wrong? Hitler claimed to be a Catholic yet he violated every mandate of Jesus. Scripture says that you will know a person by their fruits (outward actions). Scripture says that what is in one's heart comes out in how one speaks and ultimately behaves. God was and always is in a voice that has been speaking since before He created man. God wasn't silent. When you read the words of Scripture you know. He gave comfort and rest to those who sought Him in situations where there was no comfort and rest. But when God speaks; whether it is in regards to our choice between what is good and what is evil according to His foundation, or whether it is in regards to our struggling to find our faith and trust in Him despite what we are seeing and experiencing in the natural world, and we don't listen, once again, Scripture is quite firm. God will not override our free will. He does not take control of our minds; it is up to us to turn our minds to Him. If He took control of us, we would all be robots, not the free thinking people He created us to be.

Today the world has the audacity to exclaim “Why didn’t they fight back? Why didn’t they rush the armed guards? Why didn’t they attempt mass suicide?” The world refuses to realize that courage and heroism is often expressed in the individual’s will to live; to seek to survive and build a better life, a better world for himself and his future family. The world dares to forget that numerous heroic uprisings did occur.

The remnants of Hitler’s inferno came back from the grave to build a new nation, a nation conceived in blood and tears, a nation which loudly proclaims, “We will not be silent, Jews return to your own home, our gates are eagerly awaiting you.” These survivors dedicated themselves and their children to a new purpose; the atrocities of the past, the inhumanity of mankind, could not extinguish the Jewish spirit.

Our young must be told that we have always fought tyranny, we did not die like sheep for the slaughter. The Jewish nation has experienced the inferno of humanity. Jews have been criticized, labeled, stereotyped and maligned, we have experienced anguish and peril, many have tried to murder us; others to missionize our young and yet, through it all, we unlike any other people, have survived. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG