Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.

A talk given at Stand Up to Racism, Unite against Fascism

Michael Rosen wrote a poem called Fascism: I sometimes fear…

“I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 

It will restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

 It doesn’t walk in saying, 

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

I am the child of a man displaced in childhood by the holocaust, the grandchild of a man who died from the results of his treatment in Dachau, a member of a family dislocated from its various places of origin, washed up as refugees a number of times in recent history. My known and documented roots go back in over 600 years to Byeloruss, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France and Spain, and each time the family story of leaving is one of trying to escape irrational ethnic and religious hatred with only a handful of possessions to start again.

One thing I have learned is that history does repeat itself, and that much as we may protest ‘never again’, the reality is that genocides continue, that racism continues, that hatred for the other continues. I am not a believer in the idea that the more we explain why we shouldn’t be doing it, the more people will stop doing it. It doesn’t happen in campaigns to promote healthy behaviour; it doesn’t help in campaigns against damaging behaviours.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Essentially this 5th Century Document collecting much earlier traditions is telling us that baseless hatred of the other is worse than the three most appalling behaviours it can imagine, all put together – and it destroys everything of value if we allow it to take root.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, commented on this teaching : “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh v.3)

It is one of his most famous teachings and is often quoted – if we only treat the world with love that has no base in reason but is simply freely offered, then we will rebuild it and challenge the irrational hatred by our love for the other.

But there is something rather deeper in his work that is not as often explained. He asks why it is that people have an unreasonable and irrational hatred of the other, and goes on to explain that is not, as we commonly assert, because of the behaviour of the other, but the reason and source of our hatred is firmly rooted in our own selves. All of our own selves.

He teaches that while we may give ourselves reasons for why we do not trust others, or hate them, (their clothing, their cooking, their keeping themselves to themselves, their strange belief system, whatever….) actually these are simply created to comfort ourselves and to distract ourselves from a hard truth.

The source of our hatred comes, he teaches, from our own fundamental life force, which is both the important force for our growth and development, and which we need in order to flourish and to thrive – but which is also an important element in our desire to survive, and hence it opposes everything that it experiences as different and therefore potentially threatening to our own ability to succeed in life. In other words, our baseless hatred of the other is inherent in our humanity, a perversion of a necessary trait for our survival.

At first sight this is dispiriting, but it is not impossible to deal with once we decide to recognise it. For the reality is that the fear or hatred of the other which fuels all the racism we see in the world, shares a root with our life force, which includes the love of life, the desire to thrive, to live in a good and nurturing world. They are two sides of one coin, and it is possible to transmute the hatred by seeing the good in what we default to as negative or dangerous, by seeing the humanity in the other.

Elsa Cayet was the only woman killed at Charlie Hebdo, killed because she was Jewish, albeit not a conventionally practising Jew, and while she was not religiously observant, she followed in the tradition of challenging everything she encountered, and demanded an intellectual analysis and response.

Her final article, published posthumously in the magazine, declared:

“Human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief—that is, from everything we have had to swallow, everything we have had to believe.”

The point she is making is that all too often we simply swallow the words of others, the perspectives that difference equals danger, or at least a different practise has less value than our way, a person not like us has less humanity than us. She goes on to remind the reader that we have to confront our primal fears and certainties, have to think about them, critique them, take responsibility for them, and not allow them to shape us, to sentence us to unthinking assumptions that may well lead us to hatred of the other.

I stand here, the child of a family whose paternal generations just before mine were almost entirely murdered, because of causeless hatred or indifference to suffering because of a refusal to see the ‘other’ as part of the same life force that supports everyone; whose maternal ancestry experienced the same hatred in other parts of the world in earlier times. I stand here a Rabbi who has worked within the Jewish community, active in interfaith work and intercommunity meetings, because, in part, one of my teachers truly believed (along with Rav Kook) that if we encounter the other in ordinary situations we begin to realise that their humanity is identical to ours, that the conclusion of our life force that difference is dangerous, cannot survive the meeting with such difference. I stand here to say that in our own lifetimes and our own towns and cities, the words “never again” are being drowned out once more by fear and hatred of people who are swallowing the beliefs of their deepest survival instincts without any examination of them. And we must speak out. We must insist that we look for the good, for the shared humanity, rather than focus on the different and see only that which scares us. We must demand that the values of Life – of a commitment to freedom, of valuing difference and diversity, of the inclusion of all peoples in our society, of causeless love rather than causeless hatred take precedence in our worlds.

We stand together against all who cause divisiveness amongst our communities, who shout a rhetoric of hatred, who use the fears and anxieties of people against us and our shared interest. And we stand together against those who seek to control the hatred for their own interests. Let us take on board the teaching of Rav Kook and remind ourselves that we can neutralise the damage working together with causeless love.

Talk Given at Stand up to Racism event at House of Commons 29th January 2015

Parashat Beshallach: lessons to survive national trauma in Holocaust Memorial Week.

Seventy years ago this week, the twin camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, and no-one in the outside world could ignore any longer what had been going on in territory controlled by Nazi Germany.

The western world is ready to recognise some of its collusion with what happened, but 70 years on is anxious to consign much of it to the history books, and looking at modern world events one can truly say that while some of the responsibility for the Shoah being allowed to happen is being accepted, much of it is not, and clearly nothing is being learned from it which might guide our politicians and their constituents to meaningfully help the oppressed peoples in Europe and beyond who are suffering under harsh and racist regimes today.

The Jewish world is still trying to come to terms with the events of the last century, though the pogroms and persecution are often still too recent and too raw for us to deal with yet, and we are stumbling around in the darkness of the early stages of the attempt to find meaning in what has happened to us. Post the Shoah, the trauma that our people endured, we have to assimilate something of value into our tradition and our ritual if we are to continue choosing to be Jews into the next generations. I don’t have any answers to how one deals with the experience, but reading Beshallach can help to point the way maybe, for it records the trauma of being thrust out from Egypt, the plagues which the Jews almost uncomprehendingly witnessed, the way in which the world changed so totally for them, and all security was gone – even the security of slavery. It records too the continued pursuit of them by the Egyptians, even into the inhospitable wilderness, the hopelessness and helplessness and victim positions of all those who had survived.   We read in Beshallach how the children of Israel turned on Moses, how they wished to be back in slavery in Egypt rather than in the wilderness, how they feared for themselves and their future, how they could not yet cope with what had happened to them, and did not know how to find meaning to guide them. What happened in sidra Beshallach is a paradigm for us to use to begin to deal with the Shoah. The first clue is in Moses’ speech to the people–“Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Eternal….for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more for ever”   The removal of fear which comes from the certainty that the persecutors will be disabled and will no longer threaten the victims is a vital beginning to being able to move on from the trauma of the experience.

The second clue must surely be the fact that the children of Israel walked into the midst of the sea upon dry land – as the midrash takes it the sea did not fully part until the first Israelites had taken the risk and jumped in to it, risking at the very least cold and discomfort in the darkness and swirling waters.

The third event of use to us – that there was active and knowledgeable participation by Moses in what ultimately happened to the Egyptian army – God had made their wheels stick so that their passage through the sea was too difficult and they stated very clearly that they wanted to run away from the Israelites and go back to Egypt. It was then given for Moses to choose to stretch out his hand over the waters so that the Egyptians would drown before they could escape.

And finally the fact that the survivors recognised the hand of God in what had happened to them and around them, and “they believed in the Eternal and in Moses God’s servant” – they recognised that God is present in the world, and that his purpose is served through human beings. And they sang a song of praise – they worshipped God wholeheartedly and meaningfully.

Four factors in how the children of Israel dealt with their own pain and their own survival. The removal of the fear of immediate threat, the active choice to survive, the active choice to participate in dealing with the enemy rather than relying on a greater power to sort them out, and the understanding of and communication with Gods presence.

We can take the model and use it – removing the fear and immediate threat of racist oppression by standing out against it where ever it appears, whether directly focussed on Jews or not. Making active choices to survive as Jews, teaching our children, identifying ourselves, playing a part in the Jewish community. Dealing with our enemies directly, facing up to what terrifies us and not expecting them to shelter under the protection of others. And finally through exploring and exposing ourselves with prayer, recognising the place that God has in our lives, and accepting that we have an obligation in God’s scheme of things too.

We can look at what we as a Jewish people are doing post Shoah, and find that much of it fits into the model first offered in sidra Beshallach. We have structures to fight racism and oppression. We have structures to help us make active choices about our Judaism. We have structures to make us a people to be reckoned with, a nation state, and a high profile in diaspora. And we are beginning to develop a ritual and a liturgy to remember the Shoah within our religious identity too. We’re following the pattern, but much remains to be done. We have the structures but we have to really make use of them. We have some prayers but we have to seriously pray them.

Seventy years after the liberation by the Soviets of the Jews who survived Auschwitz, we are just beginning to make a glimmer in the darkness of the pain and the confusion. The generation who physically experienced it are dead or dying and rely on us now to continue their work. We shall not let them down, but will absorb the lessons we can, and be changed as Jews because of what happened to them.

Shemini – The Eighth Day. How to make a new beginning and get on with life

The sidra continues the story begun last week, when Aaron and his sons were dedicated to the priesthood in a ceremony lasting seven days. And now, on the eighth day, it is time for them to begin their work, to offer sacrifices at the altar, to prepare the place and the people for the imminent arrival of the presence of God.

We begin with a verse that has always caught my attention. “Vay’hee bayom ha’shemini, kara Moshe l’Aharon u’le’vanav, ul’zik’nei Yisrael” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and to his sons, and to the Elders of Israel… “ (Lev 9:1)

Why does it catch my attention? Firstly because the eighth day is such a particular description – we have had a full week of seven days of preparation and now here we are with a new beginning. The eighth day always makes me think of the seven days of Creation and then – this day, the first day of the life of the world fully made. It makes me think of the mitzvah of circumcision to be enacted on the eighth day – the day a male Jewish baby is brought into the Covenant. It symbolises to me the moment of starting out, the first steps of independence once the groundwork has been laid.

So it seems right and proper that the priests should be starting their sacrificial work on this day, when the world is somehow shiny and new and all things are possible.

And then the second ‘catch’ – why does Moses call not only Aaron and his sons, but also the Ziknei Yisrael, the Elders of Israel? This is apparently a priestly activity, the instructions specifically for them to do, and yet the Elders are also there.

The Ziknei Yisrael are present at a number of pivotal events in the bible. At the burning bush Moses is told to gather the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16), at Sinai (Exodus 19:7) again they are gathered and told what God had said to Moses, in the wilderness after one of the rebellions again God tells Moses to gather them to hear God’s words (Num. 11:16). The Ziknei Yisrael are often the witnesses and the support to Moses at times of change or vulnerability. While they do not speak and seem to have no active or proactive role in the text, their presence is vital to the stability and robustness of Moses’ leadership.

So here we are, a verse denoting new beginnings for the worship system, witnessed by the Elders who have been with Moses every step of the way, and within a short time we have the story of a tragedy. The new beginning has gone badly wrong; Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron have died because they have not followed the ritual correctly, and Aaron is unable to speak, and explicitly told that he must not show his grief in a public manner.

And then the dedication ceremony continues, with Aaron and his remaining sons Itamar and Elazar fulfilling the ritual, though it is clear in the text that their hearts are not really in it. They are traumatised and unable to eat the portion marked for the priesthood. And yet, like consummate professionals, the work of the Tabernacle goes on.

I always read this section with a sense of great sadness – the death of two of his sons clearly marks Aaron and the remaining sons forever. It seems unfair that whatever Nadav and Avihu did, the consequences should have been so drastic. Moses comes over as unfeeling and demanding, focussed on the continuation of the process more than on the desperate distress of his family.

And the elders? Well they observe it all, solidly present, quietly linking the past to the future, the witnesses to the trauma of our people

The response of Moses which seems so unfeeling is maybe not as cold as it first appears. He tells Aaron and the surviving sons to continue with the important work they have to do, not to allow themselves to stop and to interrupt all that they have prepared for. They cannot indulge in paralysing grief, but must get on with life. And so they do. They are dejected and in anguish, but they get on with the work of their lives, and so the people of Israel pick up once more and continue in their journey. I am reminded of all those Holocaust Survivors who did not speak a great deal of what had happened to them and to those they loved, but who got on with rebuilding life, defining themselves not by what had happened then but by what they do now. Their response which seemed so odd when I was a child now seems sensible. They were not held back in their grief, they continued to build life. Maybe that is what the eighth day is really about. Whatever happened before there is always a new start, the history may prepare us and shape us, but it can never hold us back if we chose to see ourselves as beginning the next stage of our lives.

 

Taf Nun Tzaddi Beit Hey : May the soul of our dear one be bound up in the bundle of life. Thoughts for Kristallnacht 2013

DSCN4849

ImageIn an enormous, overgrown, forested cemetery in Breslau, lies the grave of a woman who died in that town in the Jewish Hospital in 1940. She had come, as far as we can ascertain, to be near her sister whose husband had roots there. Her parents were dead, her brother moved to another part of the country to be near a different border, all three siblings dislocated from their family and home and all three would die far from the comfort and security they were born to.

Lily’s sister and brother in law fled separately to freedom a few weeks before she herself died in March 1940.  The Jews were deported from Breslau in September 1941 and by 1943 only partners of mixed marriages and some children remained of a community that had numbered 20 thousand in 1933, Almost all those deported perished in the Shoah that began 75 years ago this week, with the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938.

Trude, the sister of Lily, escaped to safety in the USA, knowing that her sister was too weak and ill to live much longer, certainly too ill to journey. I can only imagine the last days they were together, the agony of leaving behind a dying sister while knowing that to stay would only mean that both of them would die; and the pain of the woman left in a city she did not know, with relative strangers who nursed her to the end, and who buried her with dignity, marking the plinth of her grave so that one day someone might come back to honour her properly. The grave is at the end of an older line, on a pathway, presumably the easiest place to dig in the bitter winter time for a struggling community. And recently we, her great nephew and neices found it, commissioned a memorial stone, and dedicated it on a cool autumn morning.

The stone reminds the world that here lies Anne Elisabeth Rothschild, Lily’s real name. It gives the dates and places of her birth and death, and the names of her brother and sister. And there follows the acronym found on many Jewish graves:        “ taf nun. tsadi, beit, heh.” (for tehi nishmato/a tzruro/a bitzrur ha’chaim – may their soul be bound in the bundle of life)

The acronym has found its way onto Jewish memorial stones almost  it seems to me as a response to the Christian Requiescat In Pace (Rest in Peace) taken from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass.

The acronym we have comes to our funeral liturgy through the memorial prayer “El Malei Rachamim”, a prayer which was composed in the Ashkenazi Jewish Rite following the time of the Crusades This prayer was written for the many martyrs who died simply because they were Jews, and is referred to specifically as being recited for the souls of those who were murdered in the Chmielnicki revolts of the 17th Century. We read it as a memorial prayer, asking for the souls of the dead to be bound into the bundle of life, an image I find particularly comforting as I imagine each soul to be one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven. Each thread remains important, even if it has come to an end – it keeps in place the others around it, adds to the pattern, anchors the ones to come…. It has always seemed to me a richer and more positive image than that of peaceful resting, while containing within it that desire for eternal calm and serenity alongside a sense of history and continuation.

So when looking at its source I came across the full verse in the book of Samuel, I was rather taken aback when I found Abigail saying to King David

And though someone  rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul, yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God; And the souls of your enemies shall God sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29)

Such a violent image in the second half of that verse, it takes the idea of being bound up with God in a continuing tapestry of life, of having a stake in the future while rooting the past securely and turns it on its head – now the souls of the ones who seek to destroy others are slung out as from a slingshot, to fall onto barren ground and to perish alone and without hope.

Violent and bleak, and yet I can understand why the authors of that prayer took the verse for their liturgy. I can see that while only using the first half with its warm, comforting and life affirming imagery they would have known that their listeners would also recognised the unsaid words. The people who had callously murdered other human beings simply for their being Jews would also not be forgotten by God, their recompense would not have been the certainty of being part of an ongoing tradition and community as was the lot of the victims, but a dislocated lonely and abandoned future.

As I stood with my brother and sister at the grave of my great aunt Lily, looking at the acronym that I have seen so many times in my rabbinic life, it came into focus in a different way, in the way that it must have first been written.

We mourn our dead, we mourn for the way so many lives were cut short, were filled with pain and anxiety, with separation from loved ones and disparagement and fear. But we honour them and we live lives in which the threads of their existence continue to have meaning and purpose, bringing them with us into the future.  And we remember those who brought about such horrors, and who continue to disturb and disrupt the peace and goodness of the world. And we know that somehow, somewhere, God does not forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two years ago I visited the Rumbula Forest, near Riga in Latvia, where nearly 28 thousand Jews were killed in just two days in November and December 1941, and where a heartbreaking memorial to them is hidden among the trees. Some of my own family, the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather and their children are buried in the mass graves marked out on the forest floor. Only three people survived the murder that took place here.

The visit was poignant and it was also infuriating. One reason it had taken so long to build anything here as a memorial is that the inscription on the memorial had become an issue when some Riga officials wanted language that would have obscured Latvian complicity. Eventually an agreed inscription meant the memorial could go ahead

HERE, ON NOVEMBER 30 AND DECEMBER 8 OF 1941 THE NAZIS AND THEIR LATVIAN COLLABORATORS SHOT TO DEATH MORE THAN 25,000 JEWS WHO WERE PRISONERS OF THE RIGA GHETTO – CHILDREN, WOMEN, ELDERLY MEN, AND APPROXIMATELY 1000 JEWS WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED FROM GERMANY. IN THE SUMMER OF 1944 HUNDREDS OF JEWISH MEN FROM THE “RIGA–KEISERWALD” CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE ALSO KILLED HERE.

And the memorial was finally dedicated on November 29, 2002, more than sixty years after the terrible events it bespoke.

Why so long after the event? Because it was supposed to be forgotten. There was no one who wanted to remember what had happened in Riga, and in many many other places just outside villages and towns in Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries. No one wanted to remember, no one wanted to think about it.

Our guide told us something else about why it took such a long time to build a memorial there – the story was not entirely forgotten, but the exact place in the forest had been lost. No one could admit to knowing where it might be. It took the efforts of an interested botanist, who found plants in a particular area of the forest that needed the kind of nutrition only a well blood-soaked soil could provide, to identify the place of the murder of so many innocent people. Once he had found it, the mass grave pits were identified.

Eyewitness accounts are horrific: On this particular day (30 November 1941), the air temperature in Riga was -7.5C at 7:00a.m. and 1.9 degree C at 9:00 RM. On the previous evening, 29 November 1941, there had been an average snowfall of seven centimetres. On 30 November between 7:00 A.M.  and 9:00 p.m. it did not snow.

“The Mass Shootings outside Riga, 30 November and December 1941.                               

The  actual site of execution lay about five miles outside  Riga in  the direction of Duenaburg [Daugavpils], between the highway and  the railroad, both of which connect Riga and Duenaburg. The railroad tracks and the road there run a near-parallel  course, with  the railroad tracks running to the north of the road.  The site lies in the vicinity of the railroad station at Rumbuli; its  terrain  is sandy and slightly hilly, sparsely wooded,  and forms part of the Rumbuli Forest.

In the centre of this site was a densely forested area; this was the location of the actual execution site, with prepared pits designed to accommodate about thirty thousand bodies.  The approaching  columns of Jews coming from Riga along the  highway between  Riga  and Duenaburg had to turn left from  the  highway onto  a dirt track which led up to the small patch of woods.  In the process they were funnelled into a narrow cordon, which  was formed by SS units, a contingent of the Special Task Unit  Riga, and Latvian units.

 The  columns of Jews advancing from Riga, comprising  about  one thousand  persons each, were herded into the cordon,  which  was formed  in  such a way that it narrowed greatly as it  continued into the woods, where the pits lay. The Jews first of all had to deposit their luggage before they entered the copse; permission to carry these articles had only been granted to give the Jews the impression that they were taking part in a resettlement.  As they  progressed, they had to deposit their valuables in  wooden boxes,  and, little by little, their clothing – first overcoats, then suits, dresses, and shoes, down to their under clothes, all placed in distinct piles according to the type of clothing.

 Stripped down to their underclothes, the Jews had to move forward along the narrow path in a steady flow toward the pits, which they entered by a ramp, in single file and in groups often.  Occasionally the flow would come to a standstill when someone tarried at one of the undressing points; or else, if the undressing went faster than expected, or if the columns advanced too quickly from the city, too many Jews would arrive at the pits at once.  In such cases, the supervisors stepped in to ensure a steady and moderate flow, since it was feared that the Jews would grow edgy if they had to linger in the immediate vicinity of the pits….

 In the pits the Jews had to lie flat, side by side, face down. They were killed with a single bullet in the neck, the marksmen standing at close range-at the smaller pits, on the perimeter; at the large pit, inside the pit itself-their semi-automatic pistols set for single fire. To make the best of available space, and particularly of the gaps between bodies, the victims next in line had to lie down on top of those who had been shot immediately before them. The handicapped, the aged, and the young were helped into the pits by the sturdier Jews, laid by them on top of the bodies, and then shot by marksmen who in the large pit actually stood on the dead. In this way the pits gradually filled.” (Gerald Fleming, pp78-79 in Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press 1984)

As I walked around the memorial, which includes stones on which are marked the streets from the ghetto that victims had come from, and stones with the names of some of the victims, I found the names of my grandfather’s cousins, and a stone inscribed with the name of the street in the ghetto which I had visited only an hour or so earlier and from which my great grandmother had emigrated in 1892 to escape a bad marriage and grinding poverty. I called over my sister and cousin and overcome with emotion we stood in silence thinking of those people, named and unnamed, who had died here so horribly, whose story had very nearly been hidden away so that their very existence would have been lost. And then we said the Kaddish prayer.

Looking at the stones inscribed with my maternal family name, it became clear that, while this had begun as a journey to find our roots and see for ourselves the “old country” our family had left, the experience in the forest was also a way of directly encountering what our own past would have been had my great grandmother taken a different route. Going to the forest to see for ourselves was initially part of the search for family, to honour those we had not known, to connect with a community which had once thrived and whose roots were entangled with ours. Yet it was also so much bigger an experience than connecting with a personal past.

We mourned for family we never knew who had died in that strange place in the forest, but this could not only be a personal ache as our visits to other family places had been – our grief and prayers encompassed everyone who had died in that place because of their Jewish heritage.  And even this was not enough to say – the place of the industrial scale process of murder with its belated yet extraordinary memorial prompted us to pray for all victims of genocide. In fact I think it was the story of the large quiet forest and the botanist who identified this site through the nutrient rich soil, and the so-careful wording of the plaque, as well as the long period of time between the event and its public recognition that so powerfully drove us to understand something more about the dirty secrets of genocide wherever it occurs. It is always a dirty secret hiding in full public view, an enormity sitting in plain sight and this is one reason it is perpetuated.

In our siddur is a prayer written for specifically for Yom HaShoah. It includes the lines “we mourn for all that died with them, their goodness and their wisdom which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost. The world has become a poorer place and our hearts become cold as we think of the splendour that might have been.” (Rabbi Lionel Blue in Forms of Prayer pub Movement for Reform Judaism p388)

This visit might have been a profoundly family moment, a coming face to face with branches of my family tree that had been torn from life and from the future, and it was indeed that, but it was also a profoundly human moment – everyone in such a situation deserves our thoughts, our prayers, our determination never to let anyone have to be in this situation ever, ever again and to do that we have to tell the stories, we have to remember.

While visiting the memorial in the place in the forest so nearly lost forever, I thought of the Chasidic story about remembering:

“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.”  Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction.

And I thought too of Simon Dubnow, the great historian and scholar murdered in the Riga ghetto, who is said to have said “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear.”

Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do that, and more, we remember all who have been persecuted for their religion, their politics, their sexuality, their ethnicity. We weep for them all. And more than that, we affirm our commitment to combating such persecutions, such demonising of the other, such monstering of other human beings that hides in plain sight in our own world, in our media and our social networks, in the communities where we live and in our wider human society.

From Wikipedia

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. 27 January is the date, in 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.

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Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.