Reb Yitzhak and the Ocean of Tears

Posted: July 18, 2011 in Because I love Judaism I can never be a pure rationalist
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(In memory of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach)

I’m often asked why Holocaust remembrance is so important to me and why Yom ha Shoah is the most important thing on my Jewish calendar each year. I once told you all of my deep intellectual  relationship to Robert Nozick’s essay on the Holocaust and his contention that it marks the point in human history when we know that human beings no longer have an automatic right to continue to exist because our species has proven itself unworthy. But this year, since Yom ha Shoah, I’ve been trying to understand my own feelings better. I have found a wonderful Chassidic story that I think explains it better than anything else. I want to share that with you:

The time came when Reb Yitzhak died. His son Mendele kept expecting to hear from his father in some way, even if just in a dream. No message came so about a month after his father’s death Mendele went to visit the Kotzker Rebbe to ask why he had not heard anything. The Kotzker Rebbe said that he too had expected Reb Yitzhak to contact him from Heaven and when he heard nothing he decided to go to Heaven to find him. He looked in all the palaces in Heaven and found no Reb Yitzhak. Desparately he went to the angels and asked. From them, he learned that if he wanted to find his dearest friend, he would have to search for him in a dark forest at the farthest end of Heaven. He mustered all of his strength and entered the forest. Finally he came to the end of the forest and saw a huge ocean. Leaning on a walking stick, staring out over the vast sea, was Reb Yitzhak. The Kotzker Rebbe rushed to him, embraced him, and asked what was happening. Reb Yitzhak pointed at the ocean and said: “Don’t you recognize this ocean?” Kotz replied: “No, what is it?” Reb Yitzhak said: “This is the ocean of tears. In it are all the tears shed over the centuries by God’s Holy people, the community of Israel. I can not leave this dark place. I spoke to God about the countless people who’s suffering this embodies.  When I left, I vowed to God that I would not leave this place until he has wiped away all the tears of our people!”

 Obviously I don’t think I’m on par with a great Rebbe. Nor do I believe in this type of afterlife. None the less, I’d say that Reb Yitzhak sums me up perfectly. Until the tears that have been shed over countless centuries of my people’s suffering, and the tears shed through the pain of the Shoah, have been wiped clean from the Earth, it is my responsibility to remember. Like Reb Yitzhak, I vow that I will not leave this place until all these tears have been wiped clean. I think that means remembering forever.

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