As we approach Yom HaShoah, I want to write not about the Holocaust, but about memory.
What is memory? How do we preserve memory? How can we, who learned of the Holocaust from the people who lived through it, make the memory important for our children and grandchildren for generations to come?
There was one civilization that preserved memory by building magnificent memorials to their dead. Those monuments endure to this day. People come from all over the world to marvel at the pyramids. What a magnificent work of art! What a fantastic achievement of architecture! What an incredible feat of engineering! Yet the names of the warriors, statesmen, and kings the pyramids were built to immortalize are long forgotten, of interest only to a handful of historians and archeologists. A people, a culture, a language vanished. And all that is left is the magnificent memorials they built to their dead.
We as a people had an encounter with that civilization – one which we commemorated just a few days ago. For 210 years, Avadim hayinu l’Par’oh b’Mitzrayim – we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. For 210 years our people suffered. How many Jews died of beatings and overwork? How many of our babies were thrown into the river? Until finally va’yotzi’einu Hashem Elokeinu mi’sham – G-d took us out of there.
Our ancestors did not build a single memorial to the victims of slavery in Egypt. Yet there is not a day that goes by without Jews around the world remembering the exile and the exodus from Egypt. We mention it daily in our prayers. We mention it in the Kiddush on Shabbos. It is the major theme of most of our holidays.
The Pharaohs memorialized by the pyramids are long forgotten. Yet Moshe Rabbeinu – our great teacher Moses, who lies buried in an unmarked grave – is remembered with reverence thousands of years later.
And it is not just by Jews. When the Pilgrims first came to America, they read the story of the Exodus from Egypt and proclaimed themselves “the new Israel.” When enslaved African Americans yearned for freedom, they sang “Go Down Moses.” Sefer Sh’mos, which tells the story of our Exodus from Egypt, is considered the most influential book in the history of humankind.
The Jews who left Egypt are still remembered not for their enduring monuments but for their enduring legacy.
What is that legacy? Seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, we stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah – the Torah that contains within it the ideals and values that are the Jewish people’s greatest contribution to civilization: truth, justice, freedom, compassion, and charity.
I often think that Hitler was obsessed with the “Jewish problem” because he understood that we as a people stand diametrically opposed to everything he stood for.
Wherever the Nazis went, they sought to destroy the Jews because they knew that as long as one Jew survived, our ideals were so powerful that they could never succeed in their goal of world domination.
The way in which we can preserve the memory of those who perished is by denying Hitler his triumph – by living the values that he sought to destroy. The Torah teaches us: “Life and death I have placed before you – blessing and curse. Now therefore choose life.”
We as a people believe not in the glorification of death but in the sanctification of life.
How do we sanctify life? We do it through Jewish prayer, through Jewish learning, through Jewish charity, through Jewish acts of loving kindness. Each mitzvah that we do sanctifies life and is another triumph over the Nazis.
Yom HaShoah programs often include the singing of “Ani Maamin,” the song that so many of the martyrs sang before their deaths. Those words were sung by people who knew they were literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death – that these were their last words on this earth and their last chance to pass a message on to us.
Think for a few minutes about what those words mean. Ani maamin (I believe) be’emunah sh’leimah (with a full belief) b’vias haMashiach (in the coming of the Mashiach). People who had every reason not to believe sang, “We believe in the coming of the Messiah, we believe in the Jewish future.” If those who had every reason not to believe could believe in the Jewish future, can we dare do anything less?
Those who perished did not ask us to glorify their deaths; they asked us to sanctify our lives by believing in the Jewish future, by building the Jewish future.
How do we preserve memory?
Not through enduring monuments, but through enduring legacies.
Not through the glorification of death, but through the sanctification of life.
By believing in the Jewish future. By building the Jewish future.
Yes, let us have monuments, memorials, and museums. But far more important, let us live the kind of Jewish lives, lives of compassion, commitment, learning, and faith that are the building blocks of the Jewish future.