The occasion of Yom Hashoah brings upon us moments for unfathomable contemplations. Within recent history, a force arose mighty and terrible enough to slaughter millions of lives. But as that terror unfolded others reacted with unprecedented courage and strength to save what lives could be saved, that some might pass through and make with the gift of life, beauty. Both the horrors and the resilience are worthy of meditation.
What makes a person, a culture, capable of such acts? Seventy or so years stand between our days and the Holocaust. Has humanity changed? Could it happen again?
I am no sociologist, and I find the evidence of their metrics inconclusive. Amid Trump’s campaign, as swastikas appeared in playgrounds, fear was stoked, and many interpreted those signs as a tsunami of anti-Semitism and a return to the days of Nazi Germany. But such interpretations are rooted in the fear planted deep in the heart of the witness, not in sociology. There is another method of survey that one might use to judge the state of the world, and its capacity for good and evil. Instead of looking without, let’s look within. And though the pool of evidence is singular, still it is vast.
The rabbis speak of an evil inclination that exists in every single human being. They ask - When is the evil inclination planted in a human being? When the fetus begins stirring before birth. Though it is called [yetzer hara] evil, this force might better be termed the self-preserving inclination. Without it, they say, we’d have no drive to build a home, to marry, to have children, to make a life. But the evil inclination is sly, devilish, manifesting in guises. It begins with simple taunts: just one more, I’ll skip that today, I’m powerless to help – and simple spider stands swiftly become the thick ropes of a wagon, little evils cascading.
Anti-Semitism, fear or hatred of any other, is not something that will ever be stamped out. All the children, for many generations to come, will continue to be born with this yetzer hara. What then will face down this unceasing threat?
We are created in the divine image. Every being, no matter their race, creeds or culture, every single one is an incarnation of God. This is the antidote. The self-preserving force within us, divides the world into camps, and places blame or justifies injustice. Every creature in God’s image – this force interprets the world from love and kinship. This premise is the root of a borderless faith that we should aspire to daily. Every being is my sister, my brother – how can I use that which I’ve been given to lift them up from their suffering. Every single one.
Can the stories of the Holocaust be healing? Can we make it out of this story more resolute in our love for the other, than in our fear of them? That’s the question we’ll ask tonight. Please join me for a mighty, necessary, ceremony of healing, song, and stories, with a survivor, and the generations that have come forth from him. (Grace Church School, 86 4th Ave, 6:30 pm).
Rabbi Zach Fredman