We are in the season of the Jewish calendar when celebration and mourning are upon us in rapid and sometimes confusing succession, from the joy of Passover freedom to the darkness of Holocaust commemoration, followed a week later by Israel’s Yom HaZikaron (memorializing its fallen soldiers) and the following day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, marked with fireworks and parades in the Jewish state.
Though such mood swings may seem jarring, in fact they reflect life’s non-compartmentalized realities. On any given day we might, and often do, experience happiness and sorrow. And so it is that with the completion of Passover, the Festival of Freedom, the 27th of Nisan (May 1 this year) marks the day chosen by the Israeli government to memorialize the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust. (Originally, the Knesset chose the 14th of Nisan for the occasion, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, but the date corresponded to erev Pesach, so it was moved to after the holiday.)
There is much concern in our community that Yom HaShoah, and indeed the Holocaust itself, are losing their emotional impact more than six and a half decades after war’s end. Does the fact that millions of Jews were slaughtered simply because they were Jews seem possible to young people today living in such freedom and openness?
Fortunately, there are Holocaust courses in the curriculum of high schools and universities throughout the country, dozens of museums and other formal forms of remembrance in this country, and oral and visual interviews with 50,000 survivors (through Steven Spielberg’s foundation) to ensure that the tragedy will be neither forgotten nor denied.
Though Yom HaShoah has no formal or widely institutionalized ritual, it is usually observed with a solemn remembrance, including the lighting of yahrtzeit candles and the recitation of Kaddish; many programs feature a talk by a Holocaust survivor, recounting his or her experience in a way that personalizes the tragedy that took place during World War II.
For those who seek a biblical text to frame the ceremony, we can think of none more appropriate than Chapter 37 of the Book of Ezekiel, for it provides an eternal connection among Passover, Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut.
It is during Passover that we read in the synagogue the Prophet Ezekiel’s description of the Valley of the Dry Bones, with its vivid and haunting imagery of skeletons coming to life in the land of Israel.
We need not tease out the symbolism here between the horrors of the Holocaust and the rebirth of the State of Israel three years later, after thousands of years when Jews wandered and suffered without a home of their own.
The Prophet Ezekiel writes:
“And He [God] said to me, ‘O mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up our hope is gone; we are doomed.’ Prophecy, therefore, and say to them: Thus said the Lord God: I am going to … lift you out of your graves, O my people, and bring you to the Land of Israel … I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.’”
Let us mark this solemn occasion of Yom HaShoah with the hope and prayer that those who perished live on in our commitment to keep the flame of Jewish history, tradition, culture and faith burning brightly, from generation to generation, for all time.