By Josh Weinberg
There is no Hebrew word for “history.” Yes, some often use the Greek translation Historia while speaking modern Hebrew, but that word has no textual linguistic significance as a Jewish concept. Fortunately for us, the Bible offers us three such terms to help capture what we mean when referring to the past.
The first is the term Toldot (תולדות), or “lineage.” This gives us a reflection of who came after who, providing a genealogical accounting of historical progression.
The next term is Divrei HaYamim (דברי הימים), or “chronicles.” As the last book of our Bible, this is simply a chronicling of the transpired events and tells a story – factual or otherwise – of what happened, which some view as a historical record.
The third, and most powerful, is Zikaron (זכרון), or “memory.” The book of Exodus reminds us to memorialize transpired events or memories by writing them in a book. This then leads to the necessity of erasing a memory.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר, וְשִׂים, בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ: כִּי-מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק, מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם
“And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14)
As we mark today as a day of remembrance of the Holocaust and of the heroism that took place during it, we embark on a week-long journey through the greatest polar extremes of modern Jewish history – from total destruction to a rebirth with the establishment of the State of Israel.
Israeli Reform Rabbi Mordechai Rotem teaches us that the seven days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day should serve a similar purpose to the ten days of awe between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He calls these days, “Shivat Yemai Teudah,” which roughly translates as, “The Seven Days of Bearing Witness.” He explains their meaning in the following way:
“During the Seven Days of Bearing Witness… the nation of Israel needs to, as a community, examine themselves, check from year to year how much they have succeeded in fulfilling the destiny that has fallen upon them, their mission, the legacy of death of the Holocaust, and the legacy of life of Independence Day.
Essentially, during this coming week we must undergo a process of national introspection similar to the personal introspection during the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Awe. Now, we must evaluate ourselves on a collective scale to see, as Rotem suggests, how we are measuring up to our two biblical commandments to remember.
On Yom HaShoah we must grapple with the implications for two possibly contrasting themes.
We must remember what Amalek did to us and that, as we just read on Pesah, in every generation there arises an enemy to obliterate us.
In addition, we must also remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and because of that we must not oppress the stranger in our midst.
Today, we must remember that there was a distinct and deliberate force which systematically embarked on an effort to completely rid the world of the Jewish people, and thus we must take very seriously any inkling of a threat to our safety and security. We must take all threats seriously and must not rest until we are assured that those existential threats are deposed.
So, too, must we not forget. So, too, must we constantly challenge ourselves as a society and push for constant self-reflection and be reminded that we, as Jews, are commanded to remember and to act. Despite moving further away from the actual events and transitioning to a time period when primary witnesses will be only a remnant available through documented accounts, the Holocaust still plays a major role in the consciousness of many Israelis on both an individual level and a national scale.
Our story tells us that out of the ashes of the Holocaust, we were able to overcome all odds and create a vibrant and thriving Jewish and democratic state. We know that the work is not over, that Israel is working to overcome the evils of racism and intolerance, and that our challenge is for the memory of our past which must serve as a guiding force in directing our future.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of ARZA.