And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt'.
It was the moment for which they had been waiting for more than two hundred years. The Israelites, slaves in Egypt, were about to go free. Ten plagues had struck the country. The people were the first to understand; Pharaoh was the last. G-d was on the side of freedom and human dignity. You cannot build a nation, however strong your police and army, by enslaving some for the benefit of others. History will turn against you, as it has against every tyranny known to mankind.
And now the time had arrived. The Israelites were on the brink of their release. Moses, their leader, gathered them together and prepared to address them. What would he speak about at this fateful juncture, the birth of a people? He could have spoken about many things. He might have talked about liberty, the breaking of their chains, and the end of slavery. He might have talked about the destination to which they were about to travel, the “land flowing with milk and honey”. Or he might have chosen a more somber theme: the journey that lay ahead, the dangers they would face: what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom”. Any one of these would have been the speech of a great leader sensing an historic moment in the destiny of Israel.
Moses did none of these things. Instead he spoke about children, and the distant future, and the duty to pass on memory to generations yet unborn. Three times in this week’s sedra he turns to the theme:
And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say . . . (Exodus 12:26-27)
And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)
And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him. . . (Exodus 13:14)
About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators. That is what made Moses not just a great leader, but a unique one. What the Torah is teaching is that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured. So Jews became the people whose passion was education, whose citadels were schools and whose heroes were teachers.
The result was that by the time the Second Temple was destroyed, Jews had constructed the world’s first system of universal compulsory education, paid for by public funds:
Remember for good the man Joshua ben Gamla, because were it not for him the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel. At first a child was taught by his father, and as a result orphans were left uneducated. It was then resolved that teachers of children should be appointed in Jerusalem, and a father (who lived outside the city) would bring his child there and have him taught, but the orphan was still left without tuition. Then it was resolved to appoint teachers in each district, and boys of the age of sixteen and seventeen were placed under them; but when the teacher was angry with a pupil, he would rebel and leave. Finally Joshua ben Gamla came and instituted that teachers be appointed in every province and every city, and children from the age of six or seven were placed under their charge. (Baba Batra 21a)
By contrast, England did not institute universal compulsory education until 1870. The seriousness the sages attached to education can be measured by the following two passages:
If a city has made no provision for the education of the young, its inhabitants are placed under a ban, until teachers have been engaged. If they persistently neglect this duty, the city is excommunicated, for the world only survives by the merit of the breath of schoolchildren. (Maimonides, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 2:1)
Rabbi Judah the Prince sent R. Chiyya and R. Issi and R. Ami on a mission through the towns of Israel to establish teachers in every place. They came to a town where there were no teachers. They said to the inhabitants, “Bring us the defenders of the town.” They brought them the military guard. The rabbis said, “These are not the protectors of the town but its destroyers.” “Who then are the protectors?” asked the inhabitants. They answered, “The teachers.” (Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:6)
No other faith has attached a higher value to study. None has given it a higher position in the scale of communal priorities. From the very outset Israel knew that freedom cannot be created by legislation, nor can it be sustained by political structures alone. As the American justice Judge Learned Hand put it: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” That is the truth epitomized in a remarkable exegesis given by the sages. They based it on the following verse about the tablets Moses received at Sinai:
The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets. (Exodus 32: 16)
They reinterpreted it as follows:
Read not charut, engraved, but cherut, freedom, for there is none so free as one who occupies himself with the study of Torah. (Mishnah Avot 6:2)
What they meant was that if the law is engraved on the hearts of the people, it does not need to be enforced by police. True freedom -- cherut – is the ability to control oneself without having to be controlled by others. Without accepting voluntarily a code of moral and ethical restraints, liberty becomes license and society itself a battleground of warring instincts and desires.
This idea, fateful in its implications, was first articulated by Moses in this week’s sedra, in his words to the assembled Israelites. He was telling them that freedom is more than a moment of political triumph. It is a constant endeavor, throughout the ages, to teach those who come after us the battles our ancestors fought, and why, so that my freedom is never sacrificed to yours, or purchased at the cost of someone else’s. That is why, to this day, on Passover we eat matzah, the unleavened bread of affliction, and taste maror, the bitter herbs of slavery, to remember the sharp taste of affliction and never be tempted to afflict others.
The oldest and most tragic phenomenon in history is that empires, which once bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, eventually decline and disappear. Freedom becomes individualism (“each doing what was right in his own eyes”, Judges 21:25), individualism becomes chaos, chaos becomes the search for order, and the search for order becomes a new tyranny imposing its will by the use of force. What, thanks to Torah, Jews never forgot is that freedom is a never-ending effort of education in which parents, teachers, homes and schools are all partners in the dialogue between the generations. Learning, talmud Torah, is the very foundation of Judaism, the guardian of our heritage and hope. That is why, when tradition conferred on Moses the greatest honor, it did not call him ‘our hero’, ‘our prophet’ or ‘our king’. It called him, simply, Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher. For it is in the arena of education that the battle for the good society is lost or won.
'Why Holocaust Day is important for everyone in Britain today'
Civilisation lives by memory. What we forget, we can repeat. What we remember, we can guard against. Only by handing on to our children what we have learned, often at great cost, do we stand a chance of turning history into a narrative of hope instead of an endless cycle of hatred and bloodshed. That is why I and many others have given our support to the creation of a national memorial day to one of the defining crimes of the twentieth century.
The Holocaust was a Jewish tragedy. I will never forget the chill of evil I felt as I stood amid the factories of death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where at the height of the destruction whole communities of Jews who had lived with their neighbours for centuries were gassed, burned, and turned to ash. To this day, when I walk through the streets of Vienna, Warsaw or Berlin, I sense the ghosts of an entire murdered generation, among them more than a million children. Like many Jews born after those events I carry with me the knowledge that, but for an accident of history, I would not have been here today.
Were it only a Jewish tragedy, however, there would be no need for a national day of recollection. The Jewish community already has its own Holocaust Day on which we light a candle and say a prayer to the memory of those who died. That, for us, is a necessary act of mourning, a collective grief observed. But the Holocaust was also a human tragedy. The great writer Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz entitled his recollections If This is a Man. By this he was making an important statement. What the Holocaust must teach us is not what it means to be a Jew, but what it means to be human and to acknowledge the humanity of others. In that sense it was and is a universal story and belongs to the memory of mankind.
The fifty-six years since the liberation of Auschwitz have not diminished the need to remember. If anything they have made it all the more imperative. Racism and xenophobia have not died. Genocide and ethnic cleansing still scar and shame the human arena. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia - which of us can forget the scenes of strewn corpses, mass graves, fleeing children, terrorised populations, about which we once swore, 'Never again'? Racial, ethnic or religious animosities sleep lightly if they sleep at all, and are all too easily woken. Would that these were problems of the past, but they are not. They show every likelihood of being one of the gravest challenges of the twenty-first century. Following the collapse of Soviet communism, commentators reflected on the likely shape of a post-Cold War world. Two competing theories emerged. Francis Fukuyama famously predicted the 'end of history'. The global economy, international markets and the information revolution would spell the end of ideological politics. We would all be too busy pursuing wealth to have time or energy for the great political struggles of the past. Life would be boring but peaceful. Trade would domesticate the passions that once led to war.
The Harvard historian Samuel Huntington thought otherwise. The future would see what he called 'the clash of civilisations'. Modernisation did not mean Westernisation. In the absence of compelling political doctrines, people would turn to more basic sources of identity and difference - ethnicity, culture and religion. Thus far, dozens of local conflicts have proved Huntington right. Globalisation has gone hand in hand with a new and aggressive tribalism. The threat of world war may have receded, but the killing continues unabated.
Does it ever end? Are fear of and violence to the 'other' written into the human script? Are we naive to suppose that things could be otherwise? Does history have the inexorable logic of a Greek tragedy? At the heart of the great faiths, and of Western civilisation generally, is a sustained protest against despair. Mankind is a learning animal. We are not destined endlessly to replay the tragedies of the past. What we can acknowledge we can rise above. But only if we have the courage to look unflinchingly at the road that begins in prejudice and ends in hell on earth.
The message of Holocaust Memorial Day is simple. There are many faiths, cultures, languages and races, but we have only one world in which to learn to live together and it is getting smaller every year. How many more people will have to die in the Middle East, Kashmir, Northern Ireland or the Balkans before we learn that those who are not in our image are nonetheless in G-d's image? That in diminishing others we diminish ourselves? That we are enlarged, not threatened, by diversity? Looking back on the past half-century, one fact stands out like a beacon of hope. Those countries and faiths that have genuinely confronted the Holocaust have made real progress in fighting prejudice and rendering it inadmissible to the mainstream of politics and culture. Holocaust Memorial Day is a way of ensuring that this message will not be lost with the passing of time. We have walked too long through the valley of the shadow of death. Once a year let us remind ourselves and our children what happens when we forget that the people unlike us are still people, like us.
(From The Times - January 2001)