Zachor. Remembrance. For Jews, it is not just an idea but a religious imperative. From Har Sinai to the present, our entire existence hangs on the fragile thread of memory. We convey to our children what we learned from our parents and what they learned from their parents before them. If the keepers of these memories falter even once, the entire chain of our tradition can be lost. Each generation is responsible for passing on the story of those who came before them. It is mission-critical, as the Jewish people’s survival depends on it.
Many people generally fail to understand that they are part of a much larger story. It is almost as if they believe they just popped into existence from thin air. Parents and grandparents and great-grandparents came before us. Their story is our story. The Jewish people’s story is a narrative of centuries of persecution, expulsion, and genocide. It is also the story of exceptional faith, resilience, and rebuilding in the aftermath of unprecedented horrors. Our ancestors’ bitter tears cannot be swept away in the river of time. The Yeshivas, Bais Yaakovs, Shuls, and Mikvaos we enjoy were not built on our dime alone. The blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before us created the world that we now inhabit.
I am reminded of the following quote from the late great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
“Biblical Hebrew has no word for history. Modern Hebrew had to borrow a word: historia. The key word of the Hebrew Bible is not history but memory. Zachor, the command to remember, occurs time and again in the Torah… There is a profound difference between history and memory. History is his story – an event that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is my story – something that happened to me and is part of who I am. History is information. Memory, by contrast, is part of identity. I can study the history of other peoples, cultures, and civilisations. They deepen my knowledge and broaden my horizons. But they do not make a claim on me. They are the past. Memory is the past as present, as it lives on in me. Without memory there can be no identity. Alzheimer’s disease, the progressive atrophying of memory function, is also the disintegration of personality. As with individuals, so with a nation: it has a continuing identity to the extent that it can remember where it came from and who its ancestors were.”
When the Satmar Rebbe visited Israel, one of his chasidim asked him for a bracha before the Rebbe returned to America. The Chasid expressed his concern that when the Rebbe departed, there would be no one for him to turn to for a bracha. The Rebbe responded, “Go to any Yid with a number tattooed on his arm and ask him for a bracha. If you are looking for a tzaddik, go to a Yid with a number.” I cannot say for sure what the Rebbe’s intentions were. While I do not doubt that the Rebbe believed in the unique capacity of the survivors to bless their brothers and sisters, I have always wondered if the Rebbe meant to communicate that those in need would do well to attach themselves to those who have survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Who better to lift up a Jew who finds himself in a time of struggle than a Jew who has been to the depths of hell and back.
There was once a Baal Teshuva with tattoos inked across his entire body. Embarrassed by the artistry that reminded him of the sins of his youth, he took careful measures to avoid having it seen by those in the community. Erev Yom Kippur presented a challenge due to the high volume of those who go to Mikvah before Yom Tov, but the young man arrived early to dip quickly to avoid embarrassment. But while walking swiftly down the tiled steps, he slipped and fell. His tattoos were on full display for those who were present. An older man at the Mikvah stepped forward. He pointed to his arm, which had been inked with the numbers of those who had been through the concentration camps. He explained that he was a survivor of Auschwitz. As he lifted the young man from the floor, he said, “This was my taste of hell. Each of us has had a challenging past. Let’s go into the water together to begin a new future.”
Avraham Avinu said, “I am but dust and ashes.” This has been the cycle of Jewish history. We are born from the dust of the earth and then we have been burned down to mere ashes. But even when it appears that we have been completely destroyed, somehow, we are reborn anew.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we would be wise to teach our children that we are a nation that has always been able to build a new future for ourselves. Time and again, Jews throughout history have maintained their faith in the Master of the Universe and rebuilt Klal Yisrael, often to even greater heights. We must communicate to our children that while they were born on top of the mountain, there are generations of Jews that made the long and difficult trek up the mountain. We must ensure that our grandparents and great-grandparents are not relegated to the anals of history but live vibrantly in the next generation’s memories. Their story is not one of weakness but of undying hope for a brighter future. In an age that has seen a dramatic increase in nihilism, what greater antidote could there be than to remember the stories of those who dared to rebuild after their entire world was wiped out before their very eyes?