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Yom HaShoah & Shemini

Decades ago the olah, the burnt offering sacrifice, described in this week’s portion, was translated as the holocaust offering. For obvious reasons this translation is no longer used.   The olah offering was entirely consumed by fire on the sacrificial altar.  The Hebrew is derived from the word “to go up” because the sacrifice’s smoke ascended to heaven.  The ancients believed that such sacrifices kept the world finely balanced.  

The Holocaust is referred to by the Hebrew term Shoah.   This is usually translated as “catastrophe or ruin.”  Unlike the biblical reference that refers to a sacrifice we offer, the term Shoah suggests the destruction it indeed was.  It is a term however that appears infrequently in the Bible, but fittingly is found in the Book of Job. 

There, the word appears in one of Job’s laments.  “Of what use to me is the strength of their hands?  All their vigor is gone. Wasted from and want and starvation, they flee to a parched land, to the gloom of desolate wasteland.” (Job 30:2-3)  Raymond Scheindlin in his landmark translation of Job renders this verse as: “…in dearth and famine, barren, fleeing to wilderness, a horror-night of ruin.”

This captures the import of the catastrophic events of 1933-1945.  It was indeed a “horror-night of ruin.”  In addition the lamenting of the biblical hero of Job is far more fitting of our understanding of these events.   The biblical book concludes with Job’s question of “Why me?” unanswered.  God does respond to our hero, but offers little by way of explanation.  Job discovers little justification for the suffering he endures.  The Holocaust leaves us as well with these unanswered questions.

Recently Rabbi Herschel Schacter died.  He was one of the first Jewish chaplains, serving with US armed forces, to enter the concentration camp of Buchenwald.  According to The New York Times obituary (March 26, 2013), he ran from barracks to barracks shouting, “Jews, you are free!”  He also met a seven year old boy there. 

The Times describes the encounter: “With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. ‘What’s your name, my child?’ he asked in Yiddish.  ‘Lulek,’ the child replied.  ‘How old are you?’ the rabbi asked.  ‘What difference does it make?  I’m older than you, anyway.’  ‘Why do you think you’re older?’ Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.  ‘Because you cry and laugh like a child,’ Lulek replied.   ‘I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?’”

When a child loses the innocence and joy of childhood our world has been upended, when he teaches a rabbi the import of suffering, we might lose faith.

The holocaust offering described in the Book of Leviticus suggests a world where good and evil, reward and punishment are perfectly balanced, in a neat and tidy fashion.  Offer a sacrifice.  God will respond.  Such is not the world that emerged from the Shoah.  It was a catastrophe that we struggle still to understand—and even name.

The child survived the war.  He is now Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv.