The two weeks following Pesach include two significant modern observances. Yom Ha-Shoah u’G’vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) occurs this year on April 19, and Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Israel’s Independence Day) is observed this year a week later. (Both dates are adjusted because the “official” dates fall on Shabbat.) Each commemoration is of equal importance, though, quite obviously, not of similar observance.
It is significant that Yom Ha-Sho’ah has evolved into a civic observance in the United States. The Days of Remembrance are proclaimed annually to remember the victims, Jewish and otherwise, of the Nazi reign of terror. Large and solemn ceremonies are conducted at the Capitol and among various branches of the military and the government. Our own city of Alexandria was the first to initiate an annual civic observance, which will take place for the fourteenth consecutive year. Plan to be there on April 17 at noon in front of City Hall. The ceremony began at the direction of Jim Moran, who was then our mayor and is now our representative in Congress. He has been invited to be the featured speaker this year.
For most of the world, sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust is a simple and automatic matter. No one other than bigots and sociopaths considers the systematic murder of the six million to be justified or defensible. Tears flow easily for the victims, and admiration leaps forward for the brave souls who resisted and the survivors who revisit their own nightmares so that the world will not forget. It is hard to find a more heroic figure than our own Charlene Schiff whose childhood was interrupted and replaced with surreal terror. She is heroic for surviving, and more heroic still for exposing her vulnerability so that her family and our large extended family will not be forgotten. She, too, will speak on April 17.
But within a week, the opinion of Jews seems to shift from sympathy to discomfort – or even disapproval. Our city finds resonance in our grief, but not in our redemption. The founding of the State of Israel and its subsequent history are central elements of our lives. To be sure, Israel’s history has had its share of high and low points, but it seems that these days much of the world insists on ignoring all but the lowest points, and stripping them of their context. World leaders and public figures who shed a tear for the dead have nothing but harsh judgment for the living. To love the Jewish people, to admire us, to celebrate our spirit means more than sharing in our grief. It means embracing us in our struggle to regain faith and footing in this world – a process which takes human beings more than an instant.
Israel’s Independence Day often becomes an excuse for others to lecture us on what we should have learned from our history, and especially from the Holocaust. As if we didn’t know. We know that one lesson of the Holocaust is what happens when power is not used ethically and responsibly. It leaves the vulnerable unprotected. And we cannot afford to illustrate that lesson again for others, just as certainly as we cannot afford to forget our ethics and responsibilities when we hold power.
The proximity of these two days of commemoration helps us illustrate the two essential values of our tradition. They are present in Torah, in Shabbat, in everything we do, and they are writ large on our calendar at this time of year. They could be the motto of the survivors we so admire. And they are simple: Always remember. Choose life.
And anyone – Jew or non-Jew – who doesn’t understand them both doesn’t understand either one.