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Inspiration Through Sulk: Yom Hashoah

This year was my 21st Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and as far as I can remember it was indistinguishable from its predecessors—especially regarding its climactic memorial ceremony. Whether it’s the HAFTR auditorium, Beth Shalom in Lawrence, or Lamport Auditorium, my experience always seems to be the same; I sit with intense focus, listening to accounts of the unimaginable atrocities committed against my ancestral kin. When I look around the room I notice there are many people who are caught in a similar trance. But it’s fleeting. As soon as the event is over—and the flocks begin to congregate outside—the sullen faces begin to invert; by the next morning it seems as if the event never took place.

I’m not suggesting that organizers have strayed from an effective formula—despite these events’ repetitive nature, and their lack of a visible lasting effect. On that note, I think it would probably be a bad thing if attendees went into a deep depression every time they went to one of these gatherings. I have often wondered, however, why we organize and attend these events every year? Is there something tangible for us to gain by attending? Or rather, is it possible that there is nothing for us to gain at all, and we attend only to mourn; to mourn for those who perished, but left nobody behind to remember them; to mourn over a broken world, which allowed such atrocities to occur?

In my viewpoint, we would err in assuming nothing can be gleaned from such events. For starters, there are better ways of mourning, and fulfilling Kavod Hamet (the Jewish command to honor the dead), than gathering in an auditorium and listening to a panel of speakers—who were amongst the survivors—tell their survivor tales. Furthermore, there are already enough fast days, kinot (dirges), and other traditions lamenting the current standing of the world, which stands in stark contrast to our messianic ideal. Thus, if such an event were simply intended for mourning—either for the world at large, or the individuals who were lost—its existence would be extraneous, or worse, a less than ideal means of accomplishing its own assumed goals.

As a result, I feel that a tangible gain must be the primary goal of these events, and the existence of the classic “education equals prevention” approach serves as proof that others would agree. The approach, in a bid to instill utility on these Yom Hashoah events, proposes that we must continue to educate on the Holocaust, so that the world will know the repercussions of hate, thus preventing such genocide from occurring again. It sounds like a cogent analysis, yet I can’t help but feel it is in some ways limited, and perhaps exaggerated in its idealism. The argument, for example, is a perfect justification for having these events in our lower schools, ensuring that our future generations are as informed as we. It also explains the need for institutions that inform the rest of the world about what happened to our people. Yet the logic fails to explain why these events are relevant for college aged Jews who have already been exposed to countless hours of holocaust related education. Furthermore, I would  love to be able say that Holocaust education—in its current iteration—prevents genocide in Africa, but there is an unfortunate truth; it doesn’t.

Perhaps, in a bid to find meaning, the best avenue is to search elsewhere for inspiration. The 9th of Av is probably the closest thing to Yom Hashoah on the Jewish calendar, since unlike the other days that recall suffering, it is not accompanied by a subsequent redemption (ex. Passover, Purim, The Day of Remembrance). The 9th of Av, however, differs from Yom Hashoah in one crucial aspect, namely, that there is a clear message to take away from the day’s narrative. We are spiritually lacking in our exile; we must double our efforts to bring about redemption. What, on the other hand, is a clear message that we can take away from Yom Hashoah?

The answer, I believe, lies in the slogan of the day: Yizkor (You shall remember). We are obligated to remember—not because there is a happy ending, nor because it will inspire us to improve our worship and deeds. We must remember because our world is not idyllic. It does not make us weak or scarred to acknowledge the full scope of evil perpetrated against our people. It makes us strong. We can trek through the darkness, and still recover; still manage to smile, laugh, and be prideful joyous Jews.

With such a view, I feel that an insight to be gained from the Yom Hashoah event becomes apparent. We come together as the proud and stubborn survivors of an attempted genocide, unsure of what can possibly be taken away from such a stain on our history. But we don’t run away from exploring the terrible truth that occurred some 70 years ago. We accept that these horrors occurred, clutch ever tighter onto our identity, and inadvertently gain the greatest insight: Together we can do more than just mourn our losses; we can move forward, stronger, more unified, and more confident in our communal strength than ever before.