Friday, May 6, 2011

Yom HaShoah Sermon

What follows is the sermon I delivered when we observed Yom HaShoah on April 29th.

Our sacred task in the face of the Holocaust is the pursuit of memory.

I have been thinking about the question of justice.  This year is the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial and I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial.  I urge you to read this book and to watch some of the video clips posted on this blog.  Perhaps you might even want reread the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.    

Here is my question for this evening.  Is justice possible?  I believe justice is about rebalancing the scales.  It is about two things: 1. punishment and 2. restitution.  With regard to both of these categories it is impossible to rebalance the scales—in the face of the Holocaust.  Perhaps it is possible with regard to punishment for our tormentors.

This is why Israel’s punishment of Eichmann was so appropriate.  There is only one capital crime in the modern State of Israel.  It is the crime of genocide.  Eichmann was hanged and his body cremated.  The ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea beyond Israel’s territorial waters.  In the Jewish imagination there is no worse punishment than to have your name blotted out.  And so his name appears on no gravestone!  

In terms of the second category of restitution it is impossible.  How can there be recompense for the suffering of six million victims?  So many millions can not even be represented?  How can such suffering be rebalanced?  How can there ever be adequate payment for such extraordinary suffering?

This does not mean we should give up our pursuit of the tormentors or their accomplices or the companies and leaders that enabled them.  But these pursuits are more about remembering and telling the story than the pursuit of justice.  This is because the pursuit of justice in the face of the enormity of the Holocaust is especially inadequate and imperfect.  So our pursuit must be more about the pursuit of memory.

I believe remembering can serve to inspire.  It must serve to inspire us to better our world.  We must therefore speak out against suffering—wherever and whenever it might occur.  One of the most powerful exhibits at the Glen Cove Holocaust Museum is the final pictures.  One picture is the most powerful of all.  It tells the story of a friendship between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a young woman who survived the Rwanda genocide.  A Jewish man from Europe and a black woman from Africa together speak out against genocide and hatred.

This is also the power of our Torah portion’s words.  “Lo taamod al dam re’echa.  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  There is a famous midrash about the first murder, that of Cain killing Abel.  The Torah states: “kol dmay achicha tzoakim elai.  The voice of your brother’s bloods screams out to Me.”  Why is blood in the plural, the rabbis ask.  It is because murder is not just about the murder of an individual but the destruction of all their potential descendants. 

I imagine this is what Israel’s attorney general had in mind when he opened the prosecution of Eichmann fifty years ago.  He said, “Damam tzoek.  Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard.”

Each of us has a duty to save another human being in distress.  We cannot say as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  This of course is what Eichmann also failed to understand.  His notion of morality was to follow orders whatever they might be.  Our belief by contrast is that each of us has a responsibility to other human beings.  We are responsible for others!  Wherever and whenever another cries out we must not be silent.  We must rise up to help them.

That is what the memory of the Holocaust must inspire us to do.  And that is what we must pursue each and every day of our lives.  We pursue memory so that we might better our world and alleviate suffering!

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