Remember and Forget

On Yom HaShoah, I always face a personal conundrum.   On the one hand, the phrase “Never Forget” entered the Jewish lexicon regarding the Holocaust decades ago, and serves as a reminder that we never become complaisant about the root causes and significance of what took place during the Holocaust.  On the other hand, I always ask myself whether or not the phrase “Never Forget” requires that one never allow the Holocaust to recede into the background of our consciousness, or if the phrase merely reminds us that to never assume that the Holocaust can never take place again.  Indeed, as we think about how the Holocaust should be taught in the twenty-first century, we are challenged to think about what it means to teach a new generation what it means to not forget a horrific moment in our people’s history.

Over Shabbat, I read Yaffa Eliach’s wonderful book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, which records a number oral Hasidic traditions of amazing events that took place amidst the depths.   On the first page of her book, Eliach includes the following excerpt from the teachings of Rabbi Israel Spira, the Rabbi of Bluzhov:

  • When Pharaoh restored the chief butler to his position as foretold by Joseph in his interpretation of the butler’s dream, he forgot Joseph. “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgot him“ (Genesis 40:23). It is obvious that if the butler forgot Joseph, he did not remember him. Yet, both verbs are used, remembering and forgetting. “The Bible, in using this language, is teaching us a very important lesson,“ said the Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira to his Hasidim. “There are events of such overbearing magnitude that one ought not to remember them all the time, but one must not forget them either. Such an event is the Holocaust.”

I have never read a passage that more perfectly describes a meaningful answer to the tension I outlined above.   On the one hand, we must never forget the Holocaust, for doing so would dishonor the memory of the innocent victims who died, and put us and others at-risk to become victims of similar tragedies in other times and places.  At the same time, not forgetting the Holocaust need not necessitate that we always remember, that we never allow ourselves to create new worlds of hope and holiness.

With this in mind, I hope that you used Yom HaShoah today to challenge yourself to remember that which we should never forget.  And tomorrow, I hope that you will embrace the challenge of never forgetting an event that is oftentimes too painful to remember.  May this day be a meaningful one for all of us.

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