Never forget. This is a familiar trope in the Jewish community, and as Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day approaches on April 28 the phrase can be heard more frequently. We teach the message to young school children in Jewish schools and to adult tour groups at Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums worldwide. Some would argue the phrase has been overused and that the Judaism of today is too focused on Shoah (Holocaust) remembrance - about death - and not enough on a living Judaism. That would be a true claim if it referred to the simple quantity of times “never forget” finds its way to the modern-day Jewish educational settings, communal lexicon, or as the foundation for discussions on the need for Israel’s existence. The problem is that many of us have ignored the real message of this call to action.
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What does “never forget” mean? In the Torah we are taught, “Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear...that thou shalt blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.”(Deuteronomy 25:19)
“Remember … and blot out the memory. ... Do not forget.” The Torah’s commands seem contradictory. What does it mean to “blot out the memory” yet “not forget”?
Read closely, the Torah is commanding us to take our rage and victimhood and turn it into healing for others, for tikkun olam, repair in the world. The command is to blot out the memory of the abuse and the evil - and therefore to blot out of ourselves the tendency to be apathetic toward victimization, suffering and indecency. By always remembering that we understand victimization, we are meant to protect those most vulnerable - because have we experienced vulnerability. We are called to never allow any people - especially those who are weak or vulnerable - to suffer such indecency.
Yet, we have still not internalized these lessons. When the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year, Tablet Magazine published a beautiful multimedia article featuring nine survivors living in N.Y.C. who tell their stories. These stories were presented in an effort to, as Jewish Americans, remember the Holocaust “without forgetting its survivors.”
As we are taught in Deuteronomy, we must take this memory a step further. Beyond remembering, we must erase the evil of oppression and suffering from the world. This includes erasing the suffering of Shoah survivors who remain in poverty today. A testimony from a Senate hearing earlier this year noted that one in every four of the 140,000 survivors living in the United States is at or below the poverty level. The community services organization Selfhelp suggests an even bleaker picture, putting that ratio at one in every two, and adding that three quarters of the victims of Nazi persecution live alone. In Israel, the picture is no better: one in four survivors is considered poor, and one in three live alone.
In Judaism, remembering means action. On behalf of these survivors we have a responsibility to live the words we read from the Torah on several occasions throughout the year. We must stand up to assist these victims of Nazi horror, raise their quality of life, and ensure our Jewish community aids them toward a life of true dignity - and not one of more suffering.
Of course, the lesson of Amalek is not about Holocaust survivors alone. It is a commandment that should guide us toward reaching out to all who are most vulnerable, those who society deems not valuable or worthwhile. These are the people of Israel that Amalek attacked – the feeble, those in the rear, who are there for their own protection.
This Yom Hashoah, let us not victimize our Shoah survivors again, but have their stories remind us of the clarion call of our Torah: Remember in order to heal the world for those who are weak, vulnerable and who suffer; do not forget you know what it means to be a victim; and use your collective memory to compel you toward action.
Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabielianna.com