Sermon by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Shabbat, 13 April, 1996
This Shabbat inaugurates a tradition. The commemoration of the Holocaust will henceforth be the focus of the service on the Shabbat nearest to Yom HaSho’ah. We already took steps towards this end some years ago, but now the community has followed suit and many congregations are dedicating this Shabbat to the event.
It is right that Yom HaSho’ah be marked in the synagogues, becoming part of the religious calendar like Chanukah, Purim, Tishah B’Av and Tzom Gedaliah. It is the synagogue which is the place for a communa Yahrzeit, a national Yizkor. This is where there is a setting of reverence and sanctity, where the poignant E-l Male Rachamim interweaves with the faith of the Kaddish.
What should we say this year on Yom HaSho’ah? It is, after all, fifty-one years after the Holocaust. They say time is a healer. The words are glib and do not help much. People ask, “How can it still hurt so much?” But we are a traumatised people. Like Jacob, we look at the bloodstains and refuse to be comforted. Like Jeremiah, we cry, “Look and see if there is any pain like my pain!” We needed years to be able even to talk about it; now it sets the agenda of Jewish life.
That agenda develops and changes. The needs of the moment do not remain static. One task is more or less attained; another takes its place. For instance, it seems that the years of bitter effort to persuade the world that the Holocaust did actually happen have not been ineffectual. The deniers have not given up, but few people take them seriously any more.
Further, the dedicated work of researching and recording the issues and events of the Holocaust has borne considerable fruit. Everywhere in the world there are museums and commemorative projects to ensure that the horror of the Nazi years is recorded and will impel itself upon the attention of future generations.
These items remain important, but there are urgent additional tasks. First is the task of recording and preserving what there was before the Sho’ah. Pre-Holocaust Jewish life throughout Europe was a great and diverse civilisation. Survivors need to record their memories. Researchers need to delve and find material about those communities, their streets, their buildings, their leaders, characters and ordinary people; their mores, melodies, culture and community spirit.
All need to be preserved, or else Hitler will achieve the posthumous victory of wiping out not only millions of people but every trace of the lives they led. In the United States not long ago was found a full set of the synagogue music of the pre-war congregation of Danzig. Now faithfully rendered by a cantor and choir in Israel, the Danzig musical tradition survives. Hitler, who could not stand the thought of decent, pious Jews quietly assembling in the synagogue to sing the Lord’s praises, is in the hell reserved for the inhumane; but through their music, the Jews of Danzig survive.
A second major agenda item is the celebration of the continuing Jewish presence. Hitler sought to annihilate us; we are alive. We do not and dare not minimise the tragedy. But against all odds, Jews and Judaism have survived. Israel came into being. New centres of Jewish life are flourishing, including Australia. Jewish tradition is resurgent. Jewish learning is more widespread than ever. Yes, we have problems. Yes, there is apathy, indifference, iqnorance, outmarriage. But the overall picture is far from unhealthy. At the same time as we weep at the E-l Male Rachamim, we should learn to laugh with joy at our national Shehecheyanu, our praise of God who protected and preserved us.
To preserve, to celebrate – both are tasks on the post-Holocaust agenda. Another, just as great, is to protest unremittingly against the inheritors of the evil ideologies of which Nazism is the worst representation. In 1945 we thought we had succeeded in making the world safe for humanity. We were too optimistic. Every decade since then there have been men and movements that embraced an ideology of destruction with ethnic wars, racism and prejudice.
We were slaves in Egypt, therefore as the Torah reminds us – we have to save others from slavery. We Jews cannot do it all by ourselves, but we have often been the voice that summoned decent people to the cause of good, and we can and must do it again.
But you eradicate evil not merely by dwelling upon it, but by encouraging the power of good. Said Jonah Gerondi, the way to repentance is to ensure that whatever part of you performed a sin, that part is now used to do good. If you sinned with your feet by running after evil, now use your feet to hasten to mitzvot; that’s what he said. If your eye sinned by seeing what should not be seen, now use it to see only the good in other people, however different they are from you.
This prescription gives shape to the post-Holocaust agenda. Whichever category of human beings have been adding to the evil, that group should now be addressed and urged to repent by using its power to act constructively and bring healing and blessing to the human race.
Reliqion, for example. Christianity aided and abetted the Nazis. Whatever their attempts at self-justification, the churches failed to stand up decisively against the evil. Today a sheaf of religions fail to repudiate ideologies of destruction clearly enough. The new task of all religions must be to focus on those aspects of their teaching which emphasise tolerance and harmony, and work to make them a reality.
Milton Steinberg used to say that Jews were confronted by a choice, either to continue with their historic mission or to shut up shop. The problem today is that the Holocaust will not let us shut up shop. We mock the memory of the martyrs if we seek a quiet life without Jewish commitments, agonies and ecstasies. Today we really have no choice. We have to continue with our historic mission – celebrating God and embracing the Jewish agenda. The Shabbat that marks Yom HaSho’ah can and must be the reminder of what we have to do.