Several weeks ago, as we sat down at our Seder tables, we read how in each generation there are those who seek to destroy the Jews as a people. This certainly was true in ancient times—from Amalek to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Later, in the Middle Ages, there were the expulsions from England and France, the ruthless Inquisition and the incessant pogroms.
But the most recent attempt to exterminate us—and the most systematic and nearly successful—occurred not thousands or even hundreds of years ago, but in the generation of our parents and grandparents. The murder of one out of every three Jews in the world was unprecedented, even by our people’s tragic standards; a catastrophe that would have extinguished the ability—or even the will—of most any other people to survive.
Yet, at the Seder, too, we learn that we did survive. More—we drew ourselves up from the oppression of slavery and emerged a free people capable over surmounting the serial challenges of wandering. We learned to redefine ourselves as Jews not as victims but as masters of our own destiny. We learned to defend ourselves from enemies mightier than we.
Still, after the Holocaust, this was by no means certain. First, there were the theological challenges. How could a G-d portrayed as loving his people remain passive while millions of his people were tortured, shot, and gassed? In the Passover story, G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but in World War II, G-d hardened the heart of the world.
In the Passover story, we read of our suffering making bricks. But the Holocaust presents no end of stories—of the child in Poland who witnesses his family executed before his eyes; the mother torn from her children, never to see them again; the teacher who had a chance to escape but chose to remain with his students sent to the death camps.
How can we possibly remember all of those stories? How can we remember those who resisted, either with guns or with simple acts of faith, such as making and lighting a Hannukah menorah in the camps?
There was also the physical question: reduced to a mere 13 million people, scattered all over the world, demoralized and downtrodden, how could we Jews remain a united, vital people? To paraphrase the prophet Ezekiel, could our dried out bones rise again? After Auschwitz and Birkenau, could we Jews ever again be whole?
Then, a mere three years after the Nazi’s surrender, in one of the most epic and inspiring events in human history, that same devastated people proclaimed their independence in the land of their forefathers, the Land of Israel.
Nevertheless, the questions persisted. At Passover, we are encouraged to ask questions and, after Israel’s creation, many of us asked: “Is the Jewish state compensation for the near-genocide of our people?” Is any state worth the price of six million of its potential citizens?
I know of few Jews who have not asked these questions. The answers vary, from the religious to the secular, from the deferential to God’s inscrutable will to the stubbornly defiant. But there are other, no less trenchant, questions we must ask ourselves.
Had Israel existed in 1939, had the gates to Zion been thrust open rather than bolted shut, would those same six million have lived? If we Jews had possessed the sovereign means to defend ourselves, would we have been so methodically massacred? Would other Jewish communities—in the former Soviet Union, in Ethiopia—threatened with spiritual if not physical obliteration have survived if not for the State of Israel? And though we can never replace those lost, would the number of Jewish people have been replenished without Israel, the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world—indeed, the fast-growing population anywhere in the industrialized world? Would Jewish learning have thrived without the vibrant academies of Israel or would Hebrew be spoken today by more people than at any other time in history? And while some argue that Israeli policies alienate young American Jews, can anyone seriously question Israel’s vast impact Israel in strengthening Jewish identity worldwide over the past sixty years? Can anyone doubt the transformative role that Israel has played in the lives of the more than a quarter of a million Jewish youth who have spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Birthright program? What would the Jewish world look like today, we have to ask, if the State of Israel had not emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust, in May, 1948?
It is fitting, then, that Holocaust Remembrance Day falls between Passover, the holiday of questions, and Israel Independence Day, our celebration of answers. Of course, even the miracle of Israel cannot furnish us with all of the answers—no more than the horrors of the Holocaust enable us to articulate all of our questions.
We know, for example, that Israel continues to face monumental threats—that the covenant of Hamas calls not only for Israel’s destruction but the murder of all Jews everywhere. The Nazis killed six million of us in six years; Iranian leaders vow to kill a similar number of us in Israel in as many minutes.
In every generation arises those who seek to destroy us and this generation is no exception. The difference today—as opposed to 1939 or 1492—is that we have a strong and resilient state. We have a flourishing democracy, a cutting-edge economy, and an unbreakable alliance with the world’s greatest power, the United States of America.
Holocaust Remembrance Day commands us to remember our unspeakable losses, but on this day, we must not forget our immeasurable strengths. Though still threatened, we will no longer be victims. While we grieve, we are also galvanized by hope. Today, we are more than merely surviving. Today, we thrive.