I don’t have much time for writing today but I need to say something about Yom HaShoah. Because of my limited time, I will primarily remind you of things I’ve said before. It’s hard to describe why it’s difficult for me to even clearly function on Yom HaShoah – why it makes me so sad. I think there are several reasons, though.
First, I think that the great American philosopher Robert Nozick, summarized it best when he said: “The Holocaust is a massive cataclysm that distorts everything around it… a massive and continuing distortion of human space… It’s vortices and gnarled twistings will extend very far.” The Holocaust is not the only one of the 20th century’s utter bastardizations of moral principles; but it demonstrated what monstrosities our species can be when we allow irrationality to run amok. When we think of ourselves as “rational animals” but conclusively demonstrate our indifference to individuals who live, breath, think, and love, then the support for our “specialness” is decimated. Having proven we can be destructive on such a scale, I understand why Nozick contends that we may have, indeed, lost out rationale for believing that humans have some elevated place among the animals.
I want to repeat something that I’ve said before: “Reason is our distinguishing characteristic. But when even reason does not raise us above the murder of 2/3 of an entire segment of the European population, there is cause to question whether it makes us all that special as animals. Surely it makes us no more inherently moral than our opposable thumb”. Yes, we have now seen atrocities of equal or greater proportion in the guise of Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot and, even now, Bashir. Yes, the Holocaust was in no way the first attempt to destroy the Jews. But, the Holocaust touches me so personally because, first, it directly relates to my people, and, second, it is the event which most directly destroys my sense of optimism. We want to believe that the process of human evolution has a direction and that this direction points toward an ever greater species. But the Holocaust reminds us that this really isn’t true. We are orders of magnitude more technologically advanced than our predecessors. But the question is whether all of this technology makes us more caring, respectful, loving, unified beings. The Holocaust and other 20th century genocides provides pretty strong support for the sad conclusion that the answer is “no”.
I want to remind you of another thing I have quoted before. It is from a poem by Abraham Joshuah Heschel, written about the 1933 Nazi book burning. The final line of the poem says: “On this, your blasphemous holy day, hatred is your sanctity.“ True, this is specific to a single event. But it reminds us of what we should have noticed and what we should have ended long before the final solution. What began with a book burning ended with death camps that could murder and incinerate 10,000 human souls each and every day. When we let hatred take over, we can destroy entire worlds. And, if our species has the capacity for this much hatred then we obviously are not the innately special, exalted, anointed beings that we want to believe we are; or even viable stewards of the planet.
I am not saying the we do not have the capacity to be a great species. Surely we do. What I AM saying is that every single human being who cares about continuing to exist as a species, needs to USE our rational faculties every single minute of every single day, in the service of respect, human rights, and acknowledging the unique dignity of every other member of the species. I don’t know if we have that capability and, if we don’t, I guess I need to let it be okay that our species may perish. But I will say that, personally, I refuse to give up just yet. Every Yom HaShoah, I rededicate myself to not giving up. This begins with remembering the past.
Remember the Chassidic story with which I began writing on this blog? The one about Reb Yitzhak? – The Kotzker Rebbe goes to search for Reb Yitzhak in heaven and finds him at the end of a dark forest overlooking a huge ocean. Kotz embraces Yitzhak and asks him about this vast sea. Reb Yitzhak says:“This is the ocean of tears. In it are all the tears shed over the centuries by God’s Holy people. I can not leave this dark place because I spoke to God about the countless people who’s suffering this embodies and, when I left, I vowed that I would not leave here until God has wiped away all the tears of our people!” That, to me, is the point of remebering our past; remembering six million Jews and the 4 million others who were murdered by the Nazis; reading names and praying the mourners kaddish on Yom HaShoah: to NEVER FORGET until all the tears of countless human souls have been wiped away.
So, today, on Yom HaShoah, let us all rededicate ourselves to remembering the horrors of irrationality gone wild and to working toward unity through rational action and individual respect for the dignity of every human being.
We remember them!