Friday, January 31, 2020

The Darkness of Auschwitz

We begin with the eighth plague of locusts. This is followed by the penultimate plague of darkness.

I wonder. What is so terrible about locusts? I discovered. It was not just a few locusts that found their way into a basement or through a crack in the window. Instead it was a swarm. A locust swarm, can measure over one square kilometer and can contain 50 million insects. These locusts can eat as much as 100,000 tons of vegetation in one day. Oy gevalt!

Following this devastation Egypt is covered with darkness.

It was no ordinary darkness. It was not a nighttime sky illuminated by the moon and stars. Instead it was pitch black. People could not even see their own hands when held in front of their eyes.

Some commentators suggest that the darkness should be likened to a psychological melancholy. How else do we explain that the Egyptians did not even light candles? It was instead darkness that even artificial illumination could not dispel. Imagine the fear. Shrouded in darkness the Egyptians remembered the plagues. They were alone with the incessant hum of millions upon millions of devouring locusts. Before their eyes, they could only see images of devastated fields, and ruined cities. They could see nothing but their losses.

We too are living in the shadow of such devastation. Similar images shroud our memories.

This week we marked the seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This place was created for one purpose alone. To devastate—the Jewish people. To murder—Jews in particular.

The Holocaust devoured millions. And so we likewise inhabit the ninth plague’s darkness. We close our eyes and see only destruction. We hear millions of names, children and elderly, men and women, devout and atheists, artists and laborers. All of those taken from their homes, uprooted from the countries of their birth and murdered for one reason alone. They were Jews.

The Holocaust darkens our view.

Auschwitz continues to command our attention. In fact, the contemporary Jewish philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, argues that Auschwitz offers a commanding voice, akin to Mount Sinai. He posits a 614th commandment, a singular mitzvah added to the tradition’s 613. We must survive. We must persevere. We must be steadfast in our faith. We must not lose hope in God. We have a sacred obligation to survive as Jews.

This commanding presence sometimes darkens our view of the world. We are forever suspect of world powers, of others, most especially their intentions and designs. We see a potential Holocaust around every turn. We must be forever on guard. We think, we must look out for ourselves first and foremost. This view is understandable given this history—only seventy five years in the past. This view seems more apropos given the rise in antisemitic attacks.

Then again, I am haunted by the words of other philosophers, most notably Richard Rubenstein, who argued that after Auschwitz anything is possible. We turn the pages of our newspapers, flipping from one atrocity to another. We have become inured to suffering and devastation. Within our very own country, there is devastation. Along our borders there is suffering, and pain. We turn away.

The United States Holocaust Museum continues its tracking of genocides. It catalogs a litany of countries, and situations, where genocides might emerge. How can this still be possible? Auschwitz was of course unique, but the likes of it should never again happen to us or to any people. And yet it has. In Cambodia. In Rwanda. In Bosnia-Herzegovina. And now, once again, in Myanmar.

We continue fumbling through the darkness.

We are hardened to the suffering of others. We are ever attuned to the threats facing us. Is it possible to find a way forward? Can we find our way through this ninth plague without inviting an even more devastating final plague?

Not every act of hatred is a potential Holocaust. And yet the world forgets the lessons of Auschwitz. Not every recognition of other people’s suffering is a betrayal of the Holocaust’s memory. And yet antisemitism has once again become murderous.

Perhaps where the Egyptians failed, we can succeed. We must recognize that we still live in the shadows of this plague. We must acknowledge that this darkness still colors our view.

Then we might find one candle to illuminate a path forward.

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