Just about a week ago we celebrated our salvation at the division of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing songs. The Gemara says:
The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)
Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. The death of the Egyptians seems to be a moment for silence, or at the least not a time for singing. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson of compassion. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the appropriate response for the death of a friend or a loved one.
As a parent the voice of God admonishing the angels stings. It is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:
Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)
I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?
With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this past week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down on that topic. I am not saying we should silence, forget, or deny history for a moment the atrocities of the Holocaust. The opposite is true. There is a certain urgency now more than ever to tell those stories. Sadly we are in the waning years of having survivors in our community. We need them to share their stories before they are gone.
While we need to hear their stories about how they survived near death, it is even more important to learn how they lived. My friend Rav Josh Feigelson recently pointed out:
The 2013 Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found that 73 percent of respondents said that “remembering the Holocaust” was “essential to being Jewish,” the highest item on a list that included “leading an ethical/moral life,” “caring about Israel,” “observing Jewish law,” and “eating traditional Jewish foods,” among others.
If we are blessed to hear their stories we need to hear their whole story. As Rav Josh pointed out we, “unwittingly brought about a Jewish self-image in which Auschwitz is not just on par with Sinai, but comes to displace it.” We need humility and inner fortitude to hear the faint voice of Sinai. It takes a moment to learn how Jews have died, it takes a lifetime to learn how we should live.
In conclusion I want to point out the difference between what we want and what they the survivors need. We want them to talk, but do they want to talk? Aaron was silent at the death of his children. Surely we are humbled by the presence of survivors. We are here to listen to anything they want to tell us. We need to need to give them that time and space to speak, even if they like Aaron want to be quiet.