A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat
by Rabbi Avi Weiss
Pesach, Yom HaShoah and Jewish Ritual
The only events in Jewish history that have been powerfully remembered are those which
have become part of Jewish ritual. Consider the Exodus form Egypt. It is
remembered precisely because of the Seder ritual
which serves as a paradigm for the way ritual works.
Rambam writes that in every generation there is an obligation to see ones self (leharot et
atsmo) as if one is leaving Egypt. Leharot comes from the root ra-ah to see.
But ra-ah in the Torah goes well beyond ocular ability.
Rather it deals with empathizing and feeling emotionally attached with that which is being
This first step of feeling the Egypt experience leads to a second, the mandate to tell the
story of the Exodus to one's children and grandchildren -- v'heegadeta levinkha.
Here, the feeling of the event is translated into the
spoken word; to actually verbalize what occurred. We do so by breaking the Seder
into two component parts. Proceeding the meal we retell the story of the Exodus form Egypt
including the first two paragraphs of Hallel. Following the meal, we recite the last
paragraphs of Hallel, which focus on the hope of Jewish and universal redemption, and by
singing songs with the redemptive
message like adir hu yivne beito b'karov.
Truth be told, this two step process of feeling and verbalizing the Exodus event is not
unique to Passover. Every morning and night, we are mandated in our prayers to
recall Egypt. At the Seder, however, we take those dimensions to a third level, that
of re-experiencing in the spirit of zekhirat mizrayim. Like the zakhor of Shabbat means
re-enacting God's resting on Shabbat, so
does the zakhor of Egypt mean re-enacting the Egypt experience. Hence, at the Seder,
we relive those moments in the past when our mothers and fathers were
slaves and were ultimately freed. We eat Matzah and the bitter herbs representing
servitude even as we consume wine and recline representing freedom.
No wonder we break the matzah. The first half remains at the Seder table as we
retell the story of the past, while the second half , symbolic of the pascal
offering in the Temple rebuilt is the final food to be eaten as we begin to speak about
yearning for redemption.
These three steps, feeling, speaking and doing, are all crucial ingredients in the way
ritual observance achieves its goal - to help us remember the past.
It is during the time of year where ritual abounds-the springtime holiday of Pesach, that
one should especially note the dearth of ritual concerning perhaps the major calamity to
have befallen our people - the Holocaust. With all of the efforts to keep the memory
of the six million alive, the Holocaust will not be remembered because, unlike the Egypt
story, it has not been ritualized.
Truth be told, Shoah memory has gone through several stages. For the first twenty
years after the Shoah, survivors and for that matter, the larger Jewish
community was silent. Survivors were still shell shocked, preoccupied with picking
up the pieces of their lives and moving on. And it must be said that many of us were
unwilling at the time to listen to their stories. It was a
kind of protracted aninut period, the period between death and burial where mourners are
exempted by Jewish law from performing all mitzvot.
It took about twenty years until the Six Day War for the community of Israel to begin
shiva and take stock of the memory of the departed. Holocaust studies and
commemorative programs sprang up everywhere.
Fifty years after the Shoah, the time period of what can be called "short term"
memory was completed. Anniversary ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth
anniversary of liberation were completed. But while survivors viewed such events as
an indication that the world had at last acknowledged their suffering, others, like the
governments and many individuals in Germany,
Poland and Austria hoped that the ceremonies would serve as a last chapter in the memory
process-a way to be finally rid of the memory of the Shoah that tainted them so
Today, we are moving from "short term" memory to "long term" memory.
Survivors, like all of us, are growing older. The camps where the horror occurred are
being Christianized. Nor can we entrust Shoah memory to the museums. While they are
certainly of great importance for memory, too many are controlled by universalists
who take their orders from non Jewish institutions like the State Department. We
dare not allow the Shoah to be politicized.
The only way that the Shoah will be remembered is through Jewish ritual; by thinking,
speaking and re-enacting the suffering of our people fifty years ago
as we do for yeiziat Mizraim. We can begin this ritualization process by having every
congregation read a short vignette about a shtetl that was and no longer is, before Av
Harahamim, at Shabbat morning services. And on Yom Hashoa we ought eat the foods of
Holocaust affliction and don the clothes of the camps.
Only when our community makes a commitment to observe these and other such rituals, will
the Shoah be etched in Jewish memory forever.
A Special Message From Rabbi Avi Weiss
Passover on the Eve of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the
State of Israel
Excerpted from Shabbat Hagadol Discourse
8, Nissan 5758-April 4, 1998
of Torah Index
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© 5758/1997. Rabbi Avi Weiss, Hebrew
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