Today is Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Memorial Day. All four of my grandparents are Holocaust survivors so the day is highly personal for me. I grew up with the Holocaust looking over my shoulder, hearing stories from family members about the terror that Germany inflicted upon Europe’s Jews. My maternal grandfather, in particular, spoke about the family members he lost so often that I feel like I know them personally.
From a religious perspective, addressing the Holocaust is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Our best efforts at theodicy seem wholly inadequate. Just thinking about why God allowed it to happen sends a cold chill down my spine. There is no comforting or uplifting way to make sense of a deeply senseless tragedy. Some Yom Hasho’ah programs try. They emphasize Jewish heroism in the camps or focus on how survivors miraculously rebuilt their lives. Many sing Hatikvah as a way to connect the Holocaust to the founding of the State of Israel or Ani Ma’amin to affirm their faith. It’s of course true that the heroism of many during the Holocaust is profoundly humbling and the miracle of Jewish rebirth in North American and Israel is remarkable. Still, the sheer magnitude of the tragedy is far too overwhelming for me to talk about courage, hope, and even faith. For me, Yom Hasho’ah is simply a day of mourning and crying.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik articulated how the Jewish approach to mourning helps to guide us in properly channeling the natural emotions that accompany tragedy and despair. Rather than rise above our emotions, we are commanded to embrace them and let them guide us to repentance.
Judaism does not want man to rationalize evil or to theologize it away. It challenges him to defy evil and, in case of defeat, to give vent to his distress. Both rationalizing and theologizing harden the human heart and make it insensitive to disaster. Man, Judaism says, must act like a human being. He must cry, weep, despair, grieve and mourn as if he could change the cosmic laws by exhibiting those emotions. In times of distress and sorrow, these emotions are noble even though they express the human protest against iniquity in nature and also pose an unanswerable question concerning justice in the world. The Book of Job was not written in vain. Judaism does not tolerate hypocrisy and unnatural behavior which is contrary to human sensitivity. Pain results in moaning, sudden fear and shrieking. The encounter with death must precipitate a showing of protest, a bitter complaint, a sense of existential nausea and complete confusion. I want the sufferer to act as a human being, God says. Let him not suppress his humanity in order to please Me. Let him tear his clothes in frustrating anger and stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.
May we never forget the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. May we forever honor their memory.