Rabbi Gary Pokras
Yom HaZikaron laShoah v’laG’vurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) is one of only a few modern Jewish observances established by the State of Israel. As a day of mourning, it is a fast day marked by public memorial ceremonies that include candle lighting, psalms, songs, poetry, mourning prayers, and public speakers (usually survivors or their descendants and community leaders). A Torah service or reading is not usually part of this observance, yet nonetheless, a short Torah portion is assigned to Yom HaShoah.
I did not have a seat at the table and can only imagine the enormity of the task before the committee charged with selecting a passage. What is the Torah we need to hear on this day?
We may not have the minutes from their discussion, but it is clear they chose well:
“When you are in straights and all these things find you in time to come, you shall turn back to the Lord your God and heed His voice. For the Lord your God is a merciful god. He will not let you go and will not destroy you and will not forget your fathers’ covenant that He swore to them. For, pray, ask of the first days that were before you, from the day God created a human on the earth and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, has there been the like of this great thing or has its like been heard? Has a people heard God’s voice speaking from the midst of the fire, as you yourself have heard, and still lived? Or has God tried to come to take Him a nation from within a nation in trials and signs and portents and in battle and with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with great terrors, like all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? You yourself were shown to know that the Lord is God, there is none besides Him. From the heavens He made you hear His voice to reprove you, and on the earth He showed you His great fire, and His words you heard, from the midst of the fire. And since He did love your fathers He chose their seed after them and brought you out from Egypt through His presence with His great power, to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you from before you, to bring you to give to you their land in estate as on this day. And you shall know today and take to your heart that the Lord, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is none else. And you shall keep His statutes and His commands which I am about to charge you today, that He do well with you and with your children after you and so that you long endure on the soil that the Lord your God is about to give you for all time.” [Deut. 4:30-40]
There is so much here to discuss, and all from only ten verses of Torah: the implied connection between Egypt and Nazi Germany; the reminder that there is only One God, and that no human beings or nations can, in the end, stand up to the power of the Divine; the command for us to stay true to the covenant, and to follow God’s ways; plus, a hint that we are only truly secure in our own land. In addition, there are two thought-provoking descriptions of how we heard God’s voice speak to us from within the fire. And finally, there is the promise of the future, no matter how bleak the present may seem.
In the years to come, I look forward to parsing out and exploring some of these themes with you. For this year, I encourage you to explore the text on your own, and I pray that it may be a source of comfort and strength on this most somber of days.