Liberation, Pesach, and Yom HaShoah
We Jews do a lot of counting down and moving toward things.
After the second seder — count them, one two — we’re counting questions, counting sons, counting and recounting and re-recounting plagues, as if they’re 2020 voting machines, as we begin to count the omer, moving toward the revelation of Torah on Shavuot.
But less than two weeks after the first seder, we get to Yom HaShoah, from the evening of Monday, April 17, to nightfall on April 18.
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One of the lessons of the Holocaust is that if you want to commit genocide, you should start by dehumanizing people. Turning them into numbers. (That’s why the concept of names, not numbers, is a major concept in Holocaust education.)
I was reminded of that by a book that Abe Foxman gave me; there’s an image of it in the story about his Yom HaShoah talk.
It’s a large book, and it’s heavy. After the first three pages, it consists of just one word. Jew.
The book is stark. Maybe it’s just my eyes, but when I look at it, the three letters blur and swim. There’s really nothing to focus on, because everything on every single page is exactly the same. The pages aren’t even differentiated with page numbers. It’s all just Jew Jew Jew.
There are six million Jews in this book.
Dictators, fascists, Nazis around the world have learned that the more you think of people as less than human — you can begin by calling them animals, as has occurred in our own public discourse in these last few weeks — the more easily you can imagine dispatching them. And if you turn them into abstractions, black marks on a white page, well, who’s going to miss them?
Compare that with the work that members of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom are doing with a Ukrainian family. And please note that we know that it is not the only shul to be doing similar work; in fact, quite a few local institutions are doing similar wonderful work.
When people here in the United States work with refugees — from Ukraine, from Afghanistan, from Syria, from wherever people have to flee — that work becomes intensely personal. We’re not talking about agencies, whose work is important but by definition bureaucratic, but people, families or small groups of friends. They come to see the refugees not as symbols but actual living breathing people, with all the quirks and oddities and specific history that each of us has.
Instead of seeing people as numbers, they’re taking numbers and turning them back into people. They’re rehumanizing abstract facts and restoring them to the world of three-dimensional breathers.
That’s a very real form of