With the matzah from Pesach still being digested, we are about to face a series of celebrations and commemorations related to freedom and independence as Jews and as Americans.
First we commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. We remember the six million Jews murdered by the German Nazis during World War II and the bravery of the fighters of the ghettos, young men and women who risked and gave their lives for the hope of living in freedom and dignity.
I have issues with some of the terminology we use when we talk about those tragic events. While I’m not suggesting that we change the names of any events, we should understand that Holocaust is a word that describes a sacrifice, a death for a higher purpose or cause. It is a word used by many translators of the Bible to describe the sacrifices at the Temple altar in ancient times. For example, in William Tyndale’s 1526 English translation of the Bible, the word korban-olah is rendered as “holocaust.” And in 1646, Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his “Pseudodoxia Epidemica” about the “holocaust or burnt-offering of Moses…”
For me, the word “genocide” is a more accurate term to describe what happened to the Jews during World War II, because the goal of the Nazis was the total annihilation of the Jewish nation.
Another word I object to is “liberation” concerning the death camps. I ask myself, what liberation? The fight was to liberate Europe, and only after that happened were the camps opened.
There is no documentation of any army or any country fighting specifically to liberate any of the concentration camps. We recall battles to liberate cities and villages, but even the railroads that transported the Jews to the gas chambers were not targeted by the Allies because they were not seen as military targets. In the meantime, six million Jews were massacred.
We can understand now why a week after Yom HaShoah we get so excited with Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. It is because the Jewish people got their destiny back in their hands. After 2,000 years of a cruel diaspora, we went from being powerless to becoming powerful. We came back to our homeland, to build this beautiful Jewish reality called the State of Israel.
We pay tribute to those who gave their lives for that to happen, and for the defense of our Jewish State, on the day before Yom HaAtzmaut, when we observe Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day.
In Israel, twice during the year the sound of sirens marks the moment everything stops. Even drivers in the middle of roads and highways come to a halt. People get out of their cars and stand in silence, commemorating first Yom HaShoah and later Yom HaZikaron.
The fight for freedom and independence brings us to another date in the Jewish calendar during May: Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer. When the Roman Empire occupied Judea, the students of Rabbi Akiva joined the rebellion led by Bar Kochba. A plague erupted, killing many of them, but the plague stopped on Lag BaOmer.
We learn about the bravery of those students who risked their lives not just for independence but also for Jewish continuity. The Romans forbade the study of the Torah but they continued to do study and to teach regardless, knowing that if a generation of Jews stopped learning and living a Jewish life, even if physically alive, as Jews they will disappear.
At the end of May, on American Memorial Day, we gather to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom not only of their own country, but for many other human beings around the world. They carry the message of freedom and human dignity for all humanity, as this is one of the core values in which the United States of America was created and stands. A country that is among the first to offer help when natural disasters happened at any place of the world, making people free from hunger and desperation.
As we are at the end of zman cheruteinu, our festival of freedom, may the lives of all those who fought for a better future continue to be an inspiration for all of us to do our part.