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Yom HaShoah Sermon

Before we turn to our concluding prayers I would like to offer a few words about Yom HaShoah and our commemoration of the Holocaust. My thoughts turn to the upheaval in the Ukraine, where my grandfather was born. In the past week alone, there have been reports of a synagogue being fire-bombed in the south-eastern city of Nikolayev, the desecration of the tomb of Dov Ber Schneerson, brother of the late Lubavicher Rebbe, in Dnepropetrovsk and the vandalizing of the Holocaust memorial in Sevastopol. Those incidents followed the distribution in Donetsk of a leaflet calling on all Jews to register with the self-declared, pro-Russian authorities. Separatist leader Denis Pushilin, whose name appeared on the leaflet, denied that his organization was responsible and the document’s authenticity has yet to be proved.

I continue to wonder, can I see today’s events in any way but through yesterday’s lenses? I still recall the fields of Babi Yar, my eyes see those fields and ravines where Jews were slaughtered. In two days time 33,771 Jews were murdered by the Nazi killing machine. Some were even buried alive. The images of piles and piles of human beings are forever imprinted on our Jewish souls.

Yehuda Amichai implies that such images become fragments of history that could prove to be our Jewish time bomb. Over the centuries we accumulate broken shards of history that eventually so weighs down our souls that we might explode. His poetry asks, Is it possible to remember history while not remaining forever beholden to it? Is it possible live by the words zachor—remember and not only look back but also look forward to a brighter and better future. Is it ever possible to transcend history? This is part of the question that the Zionism wishes to address. And therein lies the tradition’s criticism of the enterprise I so admire. Only the messiah can transcend history. Only God’s messenger can overcome the shackles of centuries of injustice. And so we are left to wander and muddle through history, writing great poems and perhaps even better novels, I think as well of AB Yehoshua’s Mr Mani. We wander through history. Its weight can at times feel overbearing.

Leon Wieseltier observes that President Obama so wants to overcome history that he continues to turn a blind eye toward it. He accuses the president of abandoning countless oppressed people, most recently those in the Ukraine. He writes:
Obama’s surprisability about history, which is why he is always (as almost everyone now recognizes) “playing catch-up,” is owed to certain sanguine and unknowledgeable expectations that he brought with him to the presidency. There was no reason to expect that the Ayatollah Khamenei would take Obama’s “extended hand,” but every reason to expect that he would crack down barbarically on stirrings of democracy in his society. There was no reason to expect that Assad would go because he “must go,” but every reason to expect him to savage his country and thereby create an ethnic-religious war and a headquarters for jihadist anti-Western terrorists. There was no reason to expect Putin to surrender his profound historical bitterness at the reduced post-Soviet realities of Russia and leave its “near abroad” alone. There was no reason to expect that the Taliban in Afghanistan would behave as anything but a murderous theocratic conspiracy aspiring to a return to power. And so on. Who, really, has been the realist here? And what sort of idealism is it that speaks of justice and democracy but denies consequential assistance (which the White House outrageously conflates with ground troops) to individuals and movements who courageously work to achieve those ideals?
Wieseltier opines, "Obama’s impatience with history has left him patient with evil."  Those words haunt me. History can be tiresome. It can be draining. It can feel as if it is pulling you down. But if we forget, we abet evil. If we refuse to light a candle year after year, then our tormentors can rise again, perhaps with different names, and in different lands, but they will flourish, if we turn aside, if we choose silence.

And yet I continue to wonder, how might I live in the present while remembering the past? How do I bless today, how do I bless this Shabbat and look cheerfully toward tomorrow while still clinging to yesterday’s wounds. That remains our most daunting task.

And that in the end is why the tradition has the last word. Zachor is a command. Remember! I have no choice but to remember.