What follows are my remarks from our congregation's annual Yom HaShoah observance.
This week’s Torah portion describes the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons. According to the Torah they were engulfed in a heavenly fire because they offered an eish zara, an alien fire, a strange fire. This story is part of a long list of Torah stories that I struggle to comprehend. What was so alien about their offering that merited their deaths? Why would God punish them for offering a sacrifice? All explanations are inadequate. All commentators merely scratch the surface.
So too on this day we struggle with the death by strange fire of six million of our fellow Jews. How could God allow the death of so many millions? How could a German culture that produced such great artists and thinkers also produce such unimaginable death and destruction? How can rational and intelligent people be led to become horrific murderers? All explanations are inadequate. All commentators merely scratch the surface.
And the Torah states that Aaron could not speak after his sons’ death, “Vayidom Aharon—Aaron fell silent.” For one year following the Holocaust Elie Wiesel, the great writer, took a vow of silence. For ten years he refused to speak or write about his experiences in the Holocaust. I once heard him remark that it took him that long to find any words. He would later say that words can never truly capture or describe the Shoah. This is perhaps why most survivors married other survivors. There was then an unspoken truth between survivors that therefore need not be verbalized.
So how do we come to terms with the horror and loss? How can we voice what can not be put to words but what must be remembered? How can we fathom the magnitude of the loss? How comprehend six million lives that are no more. How can we understand 1.5 million children murdered before they even had a chance to grow to adulthood.
The loss can never be adequately expressed. Each and every time I sit down to write a eulogy I am overwhelmed by the inadequacy of words. How is it just, how is it fair to reduce a life to mere sentences and pages? How can any life be summarized? That of course is the essence of a eulogy. The hesped adds the flesh of words to the memories family members long to hold. The eulogy gives life to their memories. Yet it still feels inadequate and often unjust. 85 years reduced to pages. 92 years summarized in sentences. 44 years etched in a few words.
If one life is this challenging to summarize how much more so six million lives? How do we remember if even the remember-ers were murdered? If you recall Elie Wiesel’s Night (first written by the way in his native Yiddish in 1955) this is part of the young boy’s struggle. The young Wiesel’s father dies by his side and he does not mourn. Instead he feels shamefully relieved that his father’s life will no longer be a burden to him, that his father will no longer threaten his life. He writes: “His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last!”
So wrenching were Wiesel’s experiences (and every survivor’s experiences) that even a son could not mourn for a father. Humanity had been stripped from the souls of the victims. They were no longer sons or fathers, or mothers and daughters, or brothers and sisters, or husbands and wives. They were during those years only numbers. This is why Primo Levi’s book is better translated from the Italian to “Is this a Man?” rather than the English rendition “Survival in Auschwitz.”
The Nazis had reduced all to mere numbers. And so in the end tabulating our losses, counting one after another, until six months later we reach six million, will never give more meaning to our loss. The numbers are unfathomable and if you believe as I do and as the Talmud counsels, that each life is an entire world, then it is impossible to quantify our losses.
I am left only with this command, the command that their sacrifice calls to me. Yes I must remember. Yes we must remember. I must remember—always and with all my being. But our remembrances must be mingled with an eternal vigilance to never treat others as mere objects, to never count another human being. We must never behave as if a life can be quantified and tabulated in numbers. Each life has a name. Each life is a world.
Each and every life is sacred. Each and every human being is created in the divine image. If the fires of the Holocaust are going to summon us to something greater it must be this. Like Aaron I fall silent before the enormity of our loss. But I must not fall silent before injustice and evil. I will have the courage to make our people’s enormous sacrifice mean something, to make it point to something greater and more meaningful. Every human life is sacred!
We stand silent before the enormity of our loss. But out of this silence a command emerges. Every human life is sacred. May we hear this command each and every day!