As Jews, we normally think of memory as a blessing. But on a night like this, it is hard not to think of memory as a curse. It is a burden we have to carry, that 6 million of our people were slaughtered while the world watched. It is a darkness that we will never escape. It is ever present in our history and in our psyche as Jews. It is a darkness that gives a choice, to dwell in it or to respond to it. Barely 70 years after the War, we have barely begun to find our voice, reconciling what happened with our faith and our desire to carry Jewish life forward. With every passing year, as memories fade, and the numbers of survivors continues to shrink, our call to respond to the darkness becomes ever more clear. We cannot allow the world to forget. Memory is like the flames we lit tonight. They flicker, and ultimately they fade unless we add fuel for them to burn. As Jews who are commanded to keep a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, we must keep the flame of memory alive. Ignorance and Holocaust denial is spreading like a virus. As first-hand witnesses are becoming fewer in number, we cannot allow the darkness to reign. We must shed light on it for the world to see, so they will know in every generation here after, what happens when senseless hate based on lies and irrational fears is left unchecked. As Jews we know for a fact it happened to us, and we also know it can and has happened to other peoples around the world. Hatred and fear of the other is leading to death and destruction all over the world. It happened to us, so we have a special calling not to let the world fall into darkness, not to allow any group to be persecuted. We bear a unique burden to be a light to the nations, to cast light into dark places. For when we say “Never again,” we mean it never again– to us, never again to anyone, anywhere. With a mission such as this, our tradition invites us to be God’s partners in completing creation.
After the attack this past Saturday at the Chabad near San Diego, the courageous rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein called to his congregation and to the rest of the world saying the only way to remove darkness is with light. He asks us all to be more God-like as we actively work to repel evil. We can follow in God’s ways, seeing that light is the beginning of goodness.
The Torah tells us, in the beginning, there was only darkness, and the first act of creation was to separate light from darkness. In the beginning there was only darkness. Light became the catalyst for all life on Earth, and God saw the light and said “it is good.” Indeed it is very good. This is as much a spiritual truth, as it is a scientific truth. In complete darkness, plants, animals, people do not thrive. In the order of creation, light paves the way for everything that follows. And darkness still exists. We confront this in our morning prayers when we say, Blessed is God who creates light and who creates darkness…. Blessed is God who creates darkness. It is hard to reconcile. In fact, the Isaiah verse, on which this prayer is based, compares light to peace and darkness to evil. Just the same, we offer praises to God, for darkness too is part of creation. Without darkness, we would not have the contrast of day versus night, and creation would never have reached the seventh day, our Shabbat, a day of holiness standing in contrast against the ordinary.
This is not to say that we are obligated to accept darkness. We just know that, sadly, darkness is an inescapable reality. This is also not to be so banal as to say, without the dark times, we could not enjoy the bright times. You know how people say, “It’s always darkest before the light.” Such theology at Yom Hashoah would demean the memory of the 6 million victims. It would be disrespectful to the survivors and to the descendants of all the victims. What I am saying is– we cannot escape darkness, but goodness, like life and like Shabbat are created by the contrast of light against darkness. I believe this was the call of Rabbi Goldstein, after the attack on his synagogue in California. He called upon his congregation, and Jews everywhere, working with all willing partners, to push away darkness with acts of light like, repelling senseless hate and violence with education, activism, tzedakah, and Tikkun Olam. These things cannot take away the darkness completely, but they can create a strong light to overpower and contain the forces of darkness.
So let us all join together, because against the inevitable darkness, we have no choice BUT to be sources of light. As God’s partners in renewing the act of creation, we can push aside the destructive forces of ignorance and hate, as we work to replace them with wisdom and life. We have to say loudly and clearly, “no more!” No more Poways. No more Pittsburghs. No more Auschwitzes. No more Birchenaus. No more senseless attacks like the mosque in New Zealand or the churches in Sri Lanka. No more destruction of churches in Louisiana. No more baseless hate. No more discrimination. No more genocide. No more. Never again.
This is our calling on this night of remembrance, Yom Hashoah u’gevurah, to push aside the darkness of the Shoah with gevurah, heroic acts which bring light where none exists.
And so I conclude this evening’s service with a prayer from the evening Shema section of the Mishkan Tefillah prayerbook. It is a poem by the poet Leah Goldberg who emigrated from Lithuania to Tel Aviv in 1935, on the eve of the destruction that swept through Europe. She lived at a terrible hour of change and wrote words which speak to us across the years:
This is an hour of change.
Within it we stand uncertain on the border of light.
Shall we draw back or cross over?
Where shall our hearts turn?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,
Or cross over?
This is the hour of change, and within it,
We stand quietly
On the border of light.
What lies before us?
Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,
Or cross over?
And so we pray, that together as brothers and sisters, we will confront the darkness, and push it aside, as we cross over into a place of light.
Baruch atah Adonai, hamaariv aravim. Blessed is God who causes the contrast between night and day.
May we remember the darkness. May we always bring light. And may our work turn the memories of all those we lost into an eternal blessing. And let us say, “Amen.”