Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who perished in the Holocaust.
We remember them all. We remember each and every Jew beaten, tortured, hung, shot, burned and gassed during the six darkest years of our history.
It's hard to sense the sheer scale of the destruction. On Sept. 11, 2001, history was changed by a terrorist attack in which 3,000 people died. During the Holocaust, on average, 3,000 Jews were killed every day of every week for five-and-a-half years. And the killing didn't stop with just Jews: the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, gypsies and gays were murdered because they were different.
The Holocaust was exceptional in the scientific precision with which it was carried out. It was unprecedented in the sheer scale on which it was conceived. But what made it different from other mass murders was that it served no interest. At the height of the slaughter, the Nazis diverted trains from the Russian front to transport victims to the extermination camps. As Emil Fackenheim once put it, the Holocaust was evil for evil's sake.
Today we remember…
The Hebrew vernacular -- the language of the Jewish people – gives us three distinct and paradoxical names for a cemetery: 1) Beit Hakvarot, meaning a home for burial. 2) Bait Olam, meaning a home of eternity; and 3) Beit Hachaim, which means a home for the living.
Why the need for three diverse names for a cemetery, for that inexplicable place signifying, in George Harrison's words, that “All things must pass, none of life's strings can last”? What is the significance behind the three conflicting names conferred by Jewish tradition on a cemetery?
Death and Life: Three Perspectives
These three titles – a home for burial, for eternity and for the living -- represent three ways in which we can interpret death. These three interpretations are symptoms of three ways in which we can interpret life. The way we define life, is the way we define death.
If we define life as an exclusively physical experience, an opportunity to maintain, nurture and gratify our material and physical selves; if life is merely about tending to the appetites of our bodies, then death – that unfathomable moment when the body turns lifeless – constitutes the tragic cessation of life. The cemetery, then, is a home for burial. A life has, sadly, reached its final chapter.
“It ain't over 'til it's over,” Yogi Berra taught us. But in the cemetery, “it’s over.”
But there is another possible perspective on the meaning of life: Seeing life as a spiritual experience, in addition to a physical one. If life is also about nurturing and nourishing our souls, our spiritual identity, our inner spark of G-d, then death, as irrevocable as it is, is not the absolute interruption of life.
Tragic and horrendously painful? Absolutely yes. The end of one's existence? Absolutely not. Because a soul never dies. It continues to live, love and feel in another dimension, on a spiritual plane, one that cannot be grasped through our senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling or tasting. Yet, the soul, a fragment of the Divine, is not subjected to death, only to travel from one realm of experience to another.
In this perception of life and death, a cemetery is a home of eternity. The body is interred, but the soul remains eternal.
Yet there is something even greater we can achieve. If we, those left behind, use the passion and the values of our loved ones who are not here with us, to inspire and affect our daily lives and behavior, then the cemetery becomes a “home for the living.” By inspiring and touching the daily lives and choices of their children, students, friends, relatives and communities, they are in some very real sense still alive. Their own dreams and ideals continue to exist, in a very tangible way, in the earthly lives of the people touched by their love and goodness.
Three Ways of Remembering
What is Yizkor? What does it mean to remember?
To begin with, of course, it is about remembering our loves ones who have been taken from us.
But how will we choose to remember them? Will we give them once again a heartfelt goodbye, expressing how much we miss them and how the void is still so palpable? Will we pay tribute to a soul eternally lodged in heaven, linking ourselves to the Divine aspect of our loved ones which never dies? Or will we, in some small but genuine way, bring our loves ones back to life, by sustaining their dreams and commitments in our own physical and earthly daily lives?
Of course, it is not a choice of eitheror. All three are appropriate and authentic. Each has its own place in the majestic and tragic pathways of the human heart.
Remembering the Six Million
This, then, might be the question we, the Jewish people living in 2009, must answer to ourselves and our children:
Will we allow Auschwitz and Treblinka to remain homes of burial? Or will we lovingly embrace not only the deaths but also the lives, the dreams and the passions of the six million?
Will we merely create beautiful and heart wrenching memorials and museums for dead Jews, or will we bring them back to life through our own? Will we publish documentaries about a world that was and has been reduced to ashes, or will we recreate their majestic and sacred world in our own?
Only you and I, those who are fortunate to still possess the gift of physical life, can and will decide whetherthe Ground Zeroes in our long and bloody history will remain a home of burial and eternity, or will become a home for the living. Will we have the courage to put a living smile on the faces of our ancestors on high, who sacrificed so much to ensure that the people of Israel would survive and thrive?
Close your eyes and you might hear the whispering voices of six million souls:
“Give your children and yourself the gift of Jewish life, of Jewish tradition, of deep and vibrant Judaism. Share with them the gift of Torah, the gift of loving kindness, the gift of Shabbat, the gift of Mikvah, Kashrut, Mezuzah, Tzedakah (charity). Give your sweet daughters the gift of Shabbat candles and grant your precious sons, the gift of daily Tefilin. Fill your homes with books of Torah and holiness.
“Bestow upon your children the infinite richness of a Jewish education. That way, in their daily lives, we will continue to live."
No, this will never bring us comfort for the unfathomable tragedy. But it will deprive Adolf Hitler from claiming victory.