For the week of Pesach, we reminded ourselves that the central obligation of the holiday is to relive the Exodus experience, as if the movement from slavery to freedom were taking place today. The selected text of the Haggadah also reflects this goal as it is specifically about an Israeli farmer who himself is retelling the Exodus as if he, too, were there. The entire passage of “Arami Oved Avi” is written in the first person plural.
The seder’s many rituals further serve to personalize and relive our ancient story. In these ways, we as a people have succeeded in preserving the memory of our national birth and drawing timeless lessons from it to enrich our lives today, more than 3,000 years later.
Last weekend, our community marked Yom Hashoah Vehagevurah – Holocaust Remembrance and Resistance Day. Unlike Passover, there are still survivors who can tell the awful tale first-hand. However, the time is sadly coming when we will no longer be able to hear the story from a survivor. Instead, we will be forced to retell what we have heard.
If we are to draw a lesson from Pesach, the key to memory is through ritual which
allows us to personalize in a small but meaningful way what those who came before us experienced in the flesh, as if it were taking place today. As unimaginable as it might seem just three quarters of a century removed from the Shoah, my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss would claim that the Holocaust will only be remembered if all Jews can declare, “Although we were not physically there, we, too, are survivors.”
As communities, we must continue to build upon the meaningful commemorations that already take place, which generally feature a survivor’s testimony, or more and more frequently, the child of that survivor’s testimony. These evenings should include participatory rituals such as singing the songs of the partisans and the ghetto dwellers; reading the testimonies of survivors; re-enacting the burning of books (or a symbolic single Hebrew page); re-experiencing the separation of children from adults and men from women; and perhaps eating foods that serve as a reminder of the awful rations in the camps.
In all these ways and more, may we merit to preserve Shoah memory for all generations.
Rabbi Uri Topolosky is rabbi of Beth Joshua Congregation in Rockville.