“Zachor!” “Remembrance!” is one of the most important themes in the Jewish tradition. We have just remembered our journey from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Not long before that, we remembered Amalek and read the story of Esther, stories of persecution. We are constantly urged to remember.
Our tradition doesn’t just believe that “He who forgets history is destined to repeat it.” Instead, our tradition believes that history often repeats and those who forget or ignore the lessons of history, how to cope with threats as they unfold, will not long survive when they do. We have both a justifiably paranoid tradition and a tradition that believes in miracles and preaches hope amid darkness.
We’ve learned too well that people who threaten to do us harm and have the means to do so must be taken at their word. The greatest sin of our age is not indifference to the suffering of others, it is indifference to threats that lead to the preventable suffering of others. It is seeing rail lines on their way to camps and not bombing them. It is watching genocide unfold while hoping that sanity will prevail. Failure to act against those who threaten has time and again led to a byproduct of that failure, to discussions of not “standing idly by” as those threats are put into action. Too often those threats have been made against our people. The nation and people of Israel must constantly be on guard against threats from those capable of carrying them out.
This week, we are to remember the times when threats were made against our people and carried out. We remember the victims, who perished in the flames of hatred. We remember the heroes and survivors. We remember rebels and warriors. We remember the indefatigable neshamot, the unquenchable spirits of our people who endured and survived, and we remember so many stories of sadness and difficulty, of hope and courage.
We strive to make true the words of Professor Yehuda Bauer, “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
That is the meaning of “Never again!”
We are the people who see the best in others and often having trusted in the world to stand up to evil find ourselves disappointed. We are like Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, who wrote in 1935 during the Rise of the Nazis, “There is doubt, however, that the fear of widespread pogroms at the present is well-grounded. It is probable that the masses of the Party, if not some of the leaders, original envisaged a program which would wipe out the entire Jewish community. The response of the world to the atrocity reports made it clear, however, that such a policy could never be put into execution.”
We are a people constantly hoping that history will not repeat. We do our best to foster relationships and promote peace where there is strife. Yet we do not stop there, we strive to repair our world and bring about a time when spears may be turned into plowshares, when there will be no need for weapons, for war will have ceased in our world, because people will prize each other’s humanity, each other’s prosperity, each other’s life and blessings.
We are a people gazing at our world today and seeing anti-Semitism once again on the rise, morphing as it always has, into new forms. We see it from university campuses to marching in the streets of Europe.
We are a people who yet trusts in the good of humanity in spite of all we have experienced as a people and we know that no matter how long it storms, the sun will eventually burst forth from the clouds.
We are like Anne Frank, a young woman hiding in an attic during some of the darkest days of our people’s history, saying, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart” and “I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out.”
We live in that time. We can make a difference.
We are a people who hid in attics in Amsterdam and fought in the Warsaw ghetto. We made matzah with portions of meager rations saved because maintaining our Jewish traditions sustains our faith and hope. We are a people who are a light in the darkness, who cry out when we see injustice, and who knowing that we cannot alone complete the work of making our world fit our messianic hope, nonetheless refuse to stop trying to accomplish that goal.
We are Jews.