This reorientation has affected my thinking about serious issues. I write this a few weeks before Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha-Zikaron. For all of the Jewish talk about memory, I have never appreciated its seriousness until now. When Eliav is my age, the liberation of the camps will be more than 100 years in the past – as distant as we are now from the production of the first Model-T Ford. What meaning will the Shoah have for our children and grandchildren when their own elders were born a generation after it, and likely never met a survivor?
The devastation of the Shoah, on a scale unknown before or since, calls all life into question: what meaning can life have if such suffering is possible? In a shattering passage in Night, Elie Wiesel recalls that the sight of a young boy hanging on the camp gallows led someone to call out, “Where is God now?” Another answers “Here he is – he is hanging here on the gallows.”
In reflecting upon the meaning of Pesach, the Chasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Birditchev wrote of the Talmudic disagreement concerning the world’s creation: was it in the month of Tishrei, at Rosh HaShanah, or in Nisan, the month of the Exodus? He answers: the world was created in Tishrei – but it had no meaning for humanity until Nisan, when the whole world could see suffering redeemed and human life elevated. Pesach reminds us of this possibility. Yet the seder is diminished if it merely leads us to look back. The message of that past must become alive in the present.
So, too, with the Shoah. Our distance from it is a danger only if we limit its meaning to the past. We make meaning out of the unimaginable suffering – and honor those among us who lived through it – when memory changes us, and so changes the world. The Shoah must change how we view ourselves and our responsibilities in 2008, and make us into the kind of people for whom “Never Again” is not a timid wish but a determined assertion of moral courage that guides our treatment of all peoples.
Elie Wiesel’s book is framed by a father-son relationship upended by the Shoah. In our day, one generation expresses its obligation to the past and to the next generation by remembering not only with words but with deeds, and in so doing ensures the endurance of memory. Wiesel’s book is called Night, a word that summons up images of darkness. But for the Jewish people, each new day begins at night, reminding us that every period of darkness might give birth to new light, each curse might lead to blessing. We accept our obligation to let our memories be that blessing.