Twice in our history, the 20th of Sivan was designated as a permanent fast day to commemorate massacres against our people. The first time was by Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson in 1171, after 31 Torah scholars were executed as a result of a blood libel in France. Rabbeinu Tam declared the 20th of Sivan as a day of fasting “greater than Tzom Gedalya, like Yom Kippur,” and instituted special selichos to be recited. Shortly after, the Crusades expanded and for the next 150 years would bring great devastation of Jewish communities. It overshadowed the incident of the blood libel and the fast ceased being observed.
Almost 500 years later, from 1648-1649, Polish Anti-Semite Chmielnicki launched a series of pogroms that led do the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and the loss of hundreds of Jewish communities. The Shach, Rav Shabbsai Ha’Kohen, instituted the 20th of Sivan as a private fast day for his family to commemorate their great loss. Soon after, the Council of the Four Lands, the rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, adopted the fast for all Polish Jewry in commemoration of the tragedies of what became known as Tach V’Tat.
Twice the 20th of Sivan was designated as a day commemorating Jewish tragedies, and twice the observance faded until it is now entirely obsolete.
Learning about the 20th of Sivan, one can’t help but wonder – what will become of Yom Ha’Shoah? Will it continue to be observed 20 years from now? Will gatherings, commemorations, ceremonies, and school assemblies be held, or as time passes will Holocaust Remembrance Day fade into oblivion?
Sadly, the likelihood is that Yom Ha’Shoah will go the way of the 20th of Sivan. While the Holocaust was a defining event and experience for the last two generations, evidence shows that young people today want to “move on,” put it “behind us,” and come “out from under its shadow.” The younger generation is rapidly seeing the Holocaust in the context of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Expulsion from Spain: events that are part of our past, rather than as something that happened to our parents and grandparents, a very real piece of our personal lives.
I don’t know what will happen with Yom Ha’Shoah in the future. What I do know, is that as long as we are blessed to have our precious and holy survivors, Yom Ha’Shoah is not just about commemorating an event of Jewish history and memorializing the kedoshim, the 6 million who were murdered in our past. For who knows how much longer, Yom Ha’Shoah is about the present and the opportunity to honor and express our awe at the extraordinary survivors in our midst.
Our survivors have lived through the greatest atrocities and most horrific circumstances in the history of the world. They endured unimaginable suffering, inconceivable loss, and profound pain. They rebuilt their lives with deep faith, amazing and inspiring optimism, and in most cases little to no expectation that the world owes them anything in return for what they have been through.
With the Holocaust survivors whom I have been privileged to know, I have found that there is one request they have of us, one wish and hope: they are desperate for us not to forget what they went through. They reawaken their darkest memories and become traumatized each time they share their horrendous stories. More than one survivor has told me that for days after telling their story, they cannot sleep, eat, or find a peaceful moment. Nevertheless, they open themselves up to great pain continue to tell their story with the hope and expectation that we are listening, that we will remember, and that we will continue to tell it long after they are gone.
In his Hagaddah, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:
There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures and civilizations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past as part. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory, there can be no identity.
Our survivors tell their story and give personal testimony because more than anything they don’t want the Holocaust to be relegated to history; they desperately want it to remain part of our collective memory.
In his article, “Holocaust Commemoration and Tish’a Be-Av: The Debate Over “Yom Ha-Sho’a” published in Tradition 41:2, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter traces the origins of Yom Ha’Shoah and examines the great debate surrounding its observance. Whether you feel Yom Ha’Shoah should have been established or you believe Holocaust remembrance should be incorporated into our day of national mourning, Tisha B’av, is academic at this point. The reality is that the Jewish calendar marks Yom Ha’Shoah and failure to participate in remembering is essentially a slap in the face of our beloved survivors who yearn to know that we have not forgotten their loss and suffering.
Our Yom Ha’Shoah program this year will take place on Sunday evening beginning with a live presentation via phone from Rabbi Broide and our students participating on March of the Living at 6:00 pm. The formal program begins at 7:00 pm and features a conversation with our very own Martin Judovits who will share his story of survival and renewal. Martin’s new memoir, Holocaust and Rebirth, will be available for purchase following the program.
If you have children of a suitable age, I implore you to bring them. Older people and adults have lived with and met Holocaust survivors. It is specifically children who are running out of time and opportunities to meet these extraordinary people whom they will look back at later in life and only wish they could have known better. Babysitting is available at no charge by registering with Rabbi Gershon Eisenberger at firstname.lastname@example.org
With all the pressures on our time and the endless list of things that we must get done, I simply can’t imagine a more important place to be on Sunday evening than with your children at your side honoring the survivors of our community.
Burt Reynolds describes an incident that occurred with him before he was a famous actor. He is in a bar minding his own business sipping on a beer. Two stools over sits a man with humongous upper body strength and broad shoulders. Out of nowhere, the guy starts harassing a man and a woman seated at a table nearby. Reynolds tells him to watch his language. That’s when the guy with the huge shoulders turns on Reynolds.
Reynolds describes: “I remember looking down and planting my right foot on this brass rail for leverage, and then I came around and caught him with a tremendous right to the side of the head. The punch made a ghastly sound and he just flew off the stool and landed on his back in the doorway, about 15 feet away. And it was while he was in mid-air that I saw . . . that he had no legs.” Only later, as Reynolds left the bar, did he notice the man’s wheelchair, which had been folded up and tucked next to the doorway.
Even though Reynolds was looking right at the man he hit, he didn’t see all that he needed to see.
Upon experiencing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people joyously sang, “Nachisa b’chasdecha am zu ga’alta. With Your kindness, You guided this people that You redeemed.” Nachisa, you led them with kindness, is in the past tense. Which kindness is it referring to? The simple understanding would be that Hashem performed the great miracles of the eser makos, the ten plagues and krias yam suf.
The Midrash (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) gives an altogether different understanding. When the Jewish People were enslaved in Egypt, notes the Midrash, they felt the bleakness and hopelessness of the situation, so they assembled together as a group. During this meeting they made a commitment towards one another. They pledged that with whatever else was going on around them, no matter how bad it would get, they would practice gemillus chassadim, kindness and generosity with one another.
What precipitated this commitment? Why now? The Chafetz Chaim explains that when the people realized that they could not come up with a strategy to end the persecution and that the suffering under Pharaoh was only going to increase with each ensuing day, they decided among themselves that the only way to make things a bit better and hopefully to earn redemption from above would be to be kinder to one another. Writes the Chafetz Chaim definitively, “ha’davar ha’zeh hayah siba l’geulasam.” This kindness that they showed one another was the catalyst and cause for their salvation.
The Chafetz Chaim concludes, this is the meaning of our pasuk that we say every day: Nachisa b’chasdecha, you led us out with chesed. It was our performance of and predisposition towards chesed that caused You to lead us out. When we do chesed with one another, Hashem does chesed with us. This is the meaning of the pasuk from Yirmiyahu that we say on the yamim noraim: “Zacharti lach chesed n’urayich.” Hashem, you remember the chesed of our youth? What chesed did we do in our infancy? Says the Chafetz Chaim, this refers to chesed we did in Egypt, even in the harshest of circumstances when we had every reason to be self-centered and self-absorbed.
Forty-five years ago, social psychologists Ned Jones and Victor Harris coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error” or “correspondence bias” to describe the phenomenon of people’s tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors.
In other words, when we see someone behave in a certain way, we reach conclusions about their internal personality rather than ascribe the behavior to outside factors. When someone runs through a red light we assume they are reckless instead of considering that they are driving someone to the hospital in an emergency. If we see someone kick a vending machine we assume they have anger problems whereas if we kick the machine it is because our snack got stuck. If someone is impatient in the line at the drug store we label her nasty instead of realizing she is a considerate person rushing to get home with the medicine for her sick, miserable child. When other people’s cell phones ring during davening, it’s because they are inconsiderate boors. If my cell phone rings, it’s because I’m a conscientious person who needs to be able to get a call from those who rely on me.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explained it this way, “…in everyday life people seem all too willing to take each other at face value and all too reluctant to search for alternative explanations for each other’s behavior.”
To put it most simply, we fail to cut each other slack. We tend to look for the worst in others, to be easy to anger or to be insulted, rather than give people the benefit of the doubt and to recognize that there may be something else going on that we don’t know.
Ian Maclaren, the 19th-century Scottish author once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Cutting slack, giving the benefit of the doubt, is a chesed, is kindness that absolutely every one of us can do.
Someone didn’t invite you back, or respond to your text, or say hello when passing you in the supermarket. Don’t assume the worst. With friends, co-workers, and even family members—make an effort to remind yourself that almost everyone is fighting a battle you likely know nothing about.
If we want Hashem to interact with us with chesed, to give us the benefit of the doubt, and to cut us some slack, we need to do the same for others. Don’t ever even metaphorically punch someone because even when you are looking him or her in the eye, there is likely much you don’t see.
Is this an authentic picture of what the Rabbis really had in mind when they instituted an evening with family and friends designed to nostalgically recall the miracle of leaving Egypt and our journey to freedom? I think not!
It is abundantly clear from countless sources that the purpose of the evening is not simply to ramble through the text of the Haggadah, or to compete for who has the most to say. The entire format of the Seder supports the goal of the evening, which is, at its core, to simply have a conversation.
Indeed, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik suggests that this format is what differentiates the mitzvah to speak about Yetzias Mitzrayim (the exodus) on Seder night, from the mitzvah to remember it every single day. The rest of the year we lecture, teach, and tell Divrei Torah about leaving Egypt. Seder night, we have a conversation about the experience in the form of questions and answers, give and take, dialogue and discussion. Indeed, so many of the peculiar practices of the evening are done just so that the children will be curious, ask and ignite a conversation.
I would like to offer a bold suggestion – consider asking your children to put away their Haggadahs for part of the Seder. The teachers of our community do an extraordinary job in preparing our students. The creativity, ingenuity and hard work that goes into designing the beautiful, personalized Haggadahs, and filling them with Torah thoughts is a testament to the dedication of our outstanding Rebbeim, Morahs, and teachers. We should welcome their incredible Haggadahs at our Seder table, but in moderation. If not, these Haggadahs can become a source of distraction and even worse, a source of friction when each of our children feel an obligation to read every single thought on every single page of their Haggadah at the Seder.
Of course, we should spend time sitting with each child, looking through their Haggadah, listening to their Divrei Torah, and appreciating their enthusiasm. Perhaps we can dedicate time on Erev Pesach or on Yom Tov afternoon to look at their Haggadahs more in depth and to hear the thoughts that didn’t make it into the Seder itself. But, if we want our children to get the most out of our Seder experience, it can’t just be a presentation of what they learned in school.
The Seder must be a time to have conversations that matter and discussions that can be transformative and provide inspiration that lasts the entire year. These conversations can happen with children and adults of all ages. Young kids should be engaged in storytelling in a real and personal way.
We must turn to our children and grandchildren and tell them the riveting story of how we used to be slaves, do backbreaking labor, and then we were freed through miracles. With older children and adults, the conversations should be more sophisticated. I would like to suggest a few examples of how the Seder can be a platform for great conversations.
Here are some thought-provoking questions that you can share Seder night to generate the kind of rigorous and robust discussions that our Rabbis imagined us having:
- Ha Lachma Anya: Why do we begin the Seder specifically by inviting the underprivileged to join us? Is there a connection between freedom and sharing with others?
- Avadim Hayinu: What is slavery and what is freedom? Though we are physically free, are there things and behaviors we are enslaved to? Does technology give us greater freedom or enslave us?
- Four sons: Which child do you identify with? Is the Rasha really so wicked if at least he comes to the Seder? What about the hypothetical 5th son who doesn’t even show? Are the eino yodei’ah lish’ol (don’t know how to ask) the unaffiliated of our generation, and how do we engage them?
- V’hi she’amdah: Who are the enemies of our generation that seek to destroy us, and can we identify miracles Hashem does to protect us? What is the root of Anti-Semitism and why have we always had enemies that seek our destruction?
- Arami Oveid Ami: We became a nation when living among the Egyptians. Is living in a land of freedom good or bad for Judaism? Has the freedom of this great country, America, contributed positively or negatively to the continuity of Torah Judaism?
- Ten Plagues: Can you think of a situation where you felt stuck and Hashem bailed you out? Are there miracles in your life in which you saw the guiding hand of Hashem?
- Dayenu: What does it mean to have the capacity to say enough? Are we ever satisfied or do we always crave more?
- Hallel: What are you thankful for and why? Tell stories of personal freedom and liberation.
These are just a few examples, but there are countless more conversations to be had on Seder night. Even if you disregard my earlier suggestion and insist on listening to every single Dvar Torah your child brings home, I urge you to be sure to make time to tell stories, ask questions and have critical conversations.
When all is said and done, the Seder is intended to be an exercise in emunah (faith). If we walk away from the Seder and we have not grown in seeing Hashem in our lives and feeling a connection and closeness to Him, we have failed in our mission. Make sure to have the kind of Seder that will leave friends and family wanting to come back for more of your good food and great company, but most of all for your incredible and inspiring conversations.
Last March, I tore my Achilles tendon and needed surgery. The tear, surgery, and rehab were uncomfortable, but having to miss the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington was painful. I lay in bed on painkillers, security pass and credentials around my neck, watching the conference live on my laptop. Not only did I miss the exhilarating two and a half days of the conference itself, but something felt missing from my entire year, though I couldn’t put my finger on it until this week when I once again was able to attend Policy Conference in person.
With its hundreds of breakout sessions, one can learn an incredible amount about a diverse range of topics. But that is not why I go. Sitting in the conference center and the Verizon arena with over 18,000 pro-Israel advocates is nothing short of a religious experience. The diversity in that room crosses religion, ethnicity, race, political affiliation, Jewish denomination, age, and more.
And yet, this large group of people who agree on little and in many cases have little in common, choose to put all of their differences aside and focus exclusively on what they have in common, a love and devotion to the Jewish State of Israel. I spend the conference swelling with Jewish pride and pride for what our people have accomplished in the short time we have returned to our homeland. The conference each year features Israeli innovation and technology that are changing the world. It highlights Israel’s leadership in humanitarian efforts around the world. It celebrates Israel’s values that are so closely aligned with America’s, including democracy and human rights.
I measure the conference by how many “goose bump moments” occur. Who could not be moved by Hatikvah being played by virtuoso Hagai Shaham on a repaired violin that the Nazis had forced Jews to play as they witnessed their fellow Jews march to their deaths in gas chambers. Who could not rise to their feet for the endless applause for UN Ambassador Nikki Haley as she pledged “The days of Israel-bashing are over,” adding, “We don’t have a greater friend than Israel.”
The theme for this year’s conference captured the secret to AIPAC’s effectiveness: “Many voices, one mission.” The idea of “many voices” is nothing new, but having one mission, being singularly focused on one goal, is something we don’t see often and is what makes AIPAC both special and successful. For two and a half days, nobody discusses what divides us, what makes us different, or what we can’t begin to understand about one another. AIPAC has one goal, bi-partisan support for the US-Israel relationship and for Israel’s security and military advantage, and it will not be distracted, deterred, or sidetracked from it. By focusing exclusively on one goal and creating a culture and atmosphere that won’t tolerate anyone hijacking the agenda or changing the conversation, over 18,000 very different people can feel united not only for the two and a half days, but throughout the year.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we follow this model in other areas. What if the whole Orthodox community found its common ground and we dedicated ourselves towards seeing it through, despite our differences. Imagine what could be possible if the many denominations within Judaism worked together on matters that we all agree on, without allowing our differences to deter us. Think what we could achieve.
Soon, we will all sit down at our sedarim and dip the karpas in salt water, an odd opening to a night of freedom. In his commentary on the Rambam, Rabbeinu Manoach suggests that the word karpas is closely related to pasim, the coat of many colors given to Yosef by his father Yaakov. When the enmity between Yosef and his brothers grew and they sold him into slavery, the dipped his coat in animal’s blood and presented it their father as if Yosef had been killed.
Yosef’s brothers didn’t just hate him. “V’lo yachlu dabro l’shalom,” they couldn’t even speak to him. R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra explains, “afilu l’shalom.” It isn’t just that they couldn’t talk about the issues they disagreed about. It isn’t that they didn’t want to be close, loving brothers. And it’s not that they couldn’t debate respectfully. “Afilu l’shalom” — The issue with Yosef and his brothers was they couldn’t even give each other a Shalom Aleichem. The hatred and intolerance had grown so deep that they couldn’t stand to even extend greetings to one another or to be in a room together. This expression describes a disgraceful and shameful state of affairs. They couldn’t even say “good morning,” “how are you,” or “good Shabbos” to one another, let alone attend a conference and work for a common cause together.
Rav Yehonasan Eibschitz in his Tiferes Yonasan has an additional insight on the verse in question. Translated literally, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom” means “they could not speak to him to peace.” What could that mean? Rav Eibshitz suggests that when we disagree with people, we withdraw from them and stop speaking to them. We see them as “the other,” different from us and apart from us. As our communication breaks down, the dividers rise and grow stronger and stronger.
We can never resolve conflict, find common ground, or maintain a relationship despite our differences, if we can’t even have conversation between us. Had Yosef and his brothers been talking, he might have communicated how he felt isolated and alone, and they might have explained how his tattle-telling and the favoritism their father displayed toward him were very painful to them. However, “lo yachlu dabro l’shalom.” They weren’t talking at all, so they couldn’t use speech to achieve peace, or even just civility, between them.
We begin our seder, our night of freedom and liberation from bondage, by remembering what started it all, how we found ourselves in Egypt to begin with and the source of our slavery and suffering. Sinas chinam, baseless hatred, intolerance, and animosity landed us in Egypt and, if we don’t want to find ourselves metaphorically back there again, we best learn the lesson of the dipping of the karpas and kesones pasim.
To be clear, there are important things we disagree about and there are times, places, and platforms to explore those differences and debate them. However, if we spew venom and rhetoric at one another, look to find fault, pursue our agenda in a militant fashion without respect for other views, if we try to marginalize those we don’t like or agree with, we can never come together on the things we do have in common. AIPAC proves that when we want to, we can maintain our many voices, but still pursue one mission, but everything begins with being able to communicate b’shalom, peacefully and civilly.