This coming Monday, April 24, is Yom Ha-shoah V’ha-g’vurah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. (That last part, the Hebrew word v’ha-g’vurah, adds a reference to those who bravely resisted and did what they could to impede the progress of the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Why it is so routinely left off the day’s name, particularly in the diaspora, is an interesting question in its own right, one I’d like to address on another occasion.) But, whatever its full or less full name, the day is almost upon us. Again. Where it came from is slightly obscure, but not that interesting a tale: the need was felt early on to create some sort of memorial day on which all those who left behind no one at all to mourn their passing could jointly be remembered by the Jewish people as a whole, and the date of the 27th of Nisan was set into Israeli law in 1953 with an act jointly signed by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and Israel’s second president, Yitzchak Ben Zvi, and quickly adopted in Jewish communities around the world. It and I are therefore exactly the same age. Readers who know me personally will find that more than reasonable.
Choosing the right date was a contentious business in the beginning. The original idea was to fix Yom Ha-shoah on the day in 1943 that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The problem there was one of practicality rather than anything else: the uprising began on Erev Pesach, and it simply didn’t make sense to establish a national memorial day on the day before Passover when the entire Jewish people would be otherwise occupied and majorly distracted. Other days were proposed, among them Tishah Be’av, the midsummer fast commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem both by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and the Romans in the first century CE, and the Tenth of Tevet, a minor wintertime fast day associated with the onset of the siege against Jerusalem in biblical times. Neither ended up being adopted in Israel, but other dates have gained currency outside the Jewish world. Of these, best known probably is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, recognized by the European Union since 1950 and by the United Nations since 2005, and scheduled annually on January 27, the day Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. Other nations too have formally adopted the January 27 date, including Germany, the U.K., Sweden, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Italy. Poland, for obvious reasons, sticks with the date of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising according to the secular calendar, April 19. Austria observes its Memorial Day against Violence and Racism in Memory of the Victims of National Socialism on May 5, the anniversary of the liberation of Matthausen by the American Army in 1945. A handful of other nations have adopted still different dates; some Canadian provinces have—in my own opinion rather touchingly—adopted the Jewish date, 27 Nisan, as an annual day to remember the k’doshim of the Shoah.
What surprises me still, even after all these years, is the ambivalence with which the Jewish world itself approaches the one day on the calendar that you would think all would adopt emotionally and wholly unambivalently. Yet there is no agreed-upon liturgy for the day. The Megillat Yom Ha-shoah (“Yom Ha-shoah Scroll”) published jointly by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel and the Rabbinical Assembly in 2003, is in use in some Jewish communities but remains unadopted, even unknown, in most venues. There is no agreed-upon addition to the prayer service akin to the paragraphs added for other fast days, including minor ones, or for Chanukah and Purim. It is not anyone’s custom to fast on Yom Ha-shoah, despite the fact that all the days formally connected to the siege of Jerusalem in ancient times—days like the Tenth of Tevet mentioned above—are observed in traditional communities precisely as fast days. Nor has anyone invented any sort of ritual for Yom Ha-shoah other than the custom within Conservative Jewish communities of lighting a yellow twenty-four-hour memorial candle to memorialize the dead and to recall the yellow stars so many were forced by their German overlords to wear before being sent to their deaths. There are thus many Jewish communities, including some otherwise characterized by intense devotion to punctilious observance, in which Yom Ha-shoah passes more or less wholly unnoticed.
One obvious answer, although not one I personally find all that compelling, is that the 27th of Nisan is not the anniversary of any specific event and was chosen primarily because it falls a few days after Pesach and a week before Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, Israel Independence Day. That may sound a bit random, but the choice was neither accidental nor arbitrary. Indeed, the parallel between ancient and modern times was precisely the point: the week of Passover celebrates the redemption of the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt and their flight to freedom, and the week between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha-atzma∙ut was similarly meant to memorialize the passage from the depths of catastrophe the Jews faced in Nazi-dominated Europe to the security offered by the independent State of Israel and its mighty army. Even the specific Zionist orientation that animates the notion of the Jewish people moving from near annihilation in Europe to the exhilaration of independence in a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel has its ancient parallel in the Passover story: the Israelites, for all we Americans like to imagine them longing for freedom in the modern American sense, specifically did not long to become free citizens of some future Egyptian republic, but specifically wished to leave Egypt all together and settle in the land that God had promised to their ancestors, the Land of Israel, and there to establish themselves as a free people in its own land.
Is the ill-ease engendered by that kind of thinking about the perils of diaspora life the reason our American Jewish community has failed to find a way to make Yom Ha-shoah into the kind of annually cathartic day of remembrance it deserves to be? It might be!
We—and by “we” I mean particularly we American Jews—have, after all, managed more or less totally to suppress the “real” meaning of Passover and to replace it with the yearning for human rights and for personal freedom. Nor do we ever stress the fact that Passover by its very nature promotes the view that the need for the Israelites to be redeemed from slavery in the first place was a function of their own ancestors’ tragic error of not returning to Canaan after the famine that brought the original seventy to Egypt in the first place ended a mere five years after their arrival.
When Jacob died a dozen years after the famine ended, the Bible reports that a huge entourage of Israelites—a maḥaneh kaveid me∙od—solemnly bore his body back to Canaan. That story, generally skipped over by most as filler between the extended story of Joseph in Egypt and the account of Israel’s enslavement and subsequent liberation from bondage, is worth considering carefully. First, we read of Jacob’s death at ripe old age, unimpressive only by biblical standards, of 147. Then, after a forty-day mummification procedure and a subsequent seventy-day period of formal mourning, Joseph approaches Pharaoh obliquely through some palace officials to ask permission to return his father’s body to Canaan for burial in Hebron in the sepulcher of his grandparents and great-grandparents, and where Jacob himself had buried his wife Leah. Why Joseph, the grand vizier of all Egypt and Pharaoh’s second-in-command, couldn’t just address Pharaoh directly with such a rational, easily justifiable request is not made clear. Nor is it explained why, after being approached obliquely, Pharaoh doesn’t respond similarly indirectly…but the text couldn’t be clearer: Joseph, strangely and uncharacteristically reticent, approaches Pharaoh through an intermediary, but Pharaoh, seeing no reason for go-betweens, responds directly to Joseph almost as a friend. “Go up to Canaan,” he says reasonably and generously, “and bury your father as you swore to him you would.”
Nor does the Torah omit to describe the entourage: Joseph went to Canaan accompanied not only by representatives of the pharaonic court plus “the elders of Pharaoh’s house” and “the elders of all Egypt,” but also by the entire House of Joseph, including his brothers and his father’s entire household. Indeed, the Torah makes a specific point of saying that every single adult Israelite traveled to Hebron to participate in Jacob’s burial, leaving behind only the livestock and the children.
By leaving their children behind, they were obviously signaling their intent to return. But was that the only course open to the House of Israel? Why couldn’t they have taken the children with them and just not returned? They weren’t slaves, after all, but still welcome guests at this point in the story. And even if Joseph himself would possibly have found it difficult simply to give notice and abruptly leave Pharaoh’s employ, surely a man of his unparalleled power could have arranged for his family to return to their homeland. The famine that brought them to seek refuge in Egypt, after all, was over! And that surely had been the plan in the first place!
But none of that happened. Joseph, his brothers, and their entire entourage simply turned around after the burial and went back to Egypt. A few lines later, the Book of Genesis ends. And then Exodus begins with the arrival on the scene many years later of a Pharaoh who felt no sense of allegiance to Joseph’s people and who, fearing their huge numbers and questionable loyalty to their host nation, set himself to thinning their numbers and enslaving them. The obvious question of why the Israelites chose to live on in Egypt instead of returning to their homeland in the course of the scores of years that passed between Jacob’s death and their enslavement is left unasked and unanswered. (Just to make that a bit clearer, Joseph was fifty-six years old when Jacob died. He himself died fifty-four years later…and the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites came to the throne after—perhaps even long after—that. So there was a very long period of time when the Israelites could have gone home. Yet none did. Nor is the argument that they had to stay because God had predicted to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a land not their own for four centuries all that compelling; they could surely have left if they had wished to and allowed the divine prediction to play itself out some other way!
As we pass from the last days of Passover to Yom Ha-shoah and then to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut, I am always reminded of the way the past inheres in the present…and how particularly this is true when I ponder the patterns that repeat over and over in Jewish history. The State of Israel does not exist because of the Shoah and would surely have eventually come into existence anyway. But the notion that the precise circumstances that led to independence were integrally related to the catastrophe that decimated European Jewry during the Second World War does not leave me alone either. In the end, I think that the 27th of Nisan was just the right date: commemorating no single event, the date is suggestive of the Passover journey that precedes it and the week that leads forward to Yom Ha-atzma∙ut. Both could be rightly characterized by the Haggadah’s expression of a trajectory from g’nut to shevaḥ, from degradation to redemption. And both deserve to be considered thoughtfully and taken deeply to heart by all who would feel ennobled, not merely damned, by thinking of themselves as situated at the precise fulcrum between the past and the future, between history and destiny.