I have just returned from Monash University where the Melbourne Jewish Community commemorated Yom Hashoa, remembering the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, may their names be blotted. Many families were seen attending together with a parent or grandparent, who are holocaust survivors. What person would not join their parent or grandparent on such an occasion? Sadly, I witnessed some families attend, as they always did, only this time without the Holocaust survivor in tow. Alas, the survivor had gone to meet their maker.
When I was a boy, attending this event was almost a punishment. It used to be held at Dallas Brooks Hall and maybe even Festival Hall before that. It tarried for what seemed an eternity. One could barely hear a non-Yiddish phrase. The evening was full of long speeches by people who spoke only the Queen’s Yiddish—the Litvishe style Yiddish so consummately enunciated by Bundists. I used to pray for the choir of old men and heaving women to emerge, for I knew that when they plodded onto the stage, it was time to sing the famous Partisan Song, that haunting melody forever etched in my mind. The lyrics were composed by Hirsh Glick, and tonight in Melbourne, we heard from Glick’s friend, Phil Maisel, formerly incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto, who personally related the scene when Glick wrote the poem, thereafter describing how Glick was murdered by Estonian prison guards after trying to escape with a group of 40 inmates.
The Rav said that every time a Jew stops and remembers the Holocaust he fulfills the positive Torah command of remembering Amalek, זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק. Times have changed. We no longer endure the long and winding speeches mainly from members of the Bund. We have also lost the heart-rending and eloquent speech from Rav Chaim Gutnick ז’ל who captivated every heart on these occasions, often on the theme of the dry bones coming to life, the עצמות היבישות of the נביא יחזקאל. Instead, the devices of multi-media are intermeshed with chosen personal testimony, interesting narrative, and soulful choirs. The commemoration does not take long, is usually very powerful, and serves the purpose of transporting many of us, back in time, amongst the Nazi killing fields.
The traditional universal day of mourning to remember and mourn Jewish tragedy is Tisha B’Av. The Rav strongly felt that Tisha B’Av should also be the day when the Holocaust is remembered. When Menachem Begin, then Prime Minister of the State of Israel, visited the Rav, one of the topics they discussed was contemporary modes of Holocaust commemoration. The Begin and Soloveitchik families were very close in Brisk, with Menachem Begin’s father being R’ Chaim Brisker’s Gabay. The Rav reportedly convinced Begin to press the Knesset to adopt Tisha B’Av as the (correct) day to also commemorate the Holocaust. A young Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was also present at the Rav’s house at that meeting, as he describes in his wonderful collection of essays entitled “Listening to God” (I highly recommend his book). Upon returning to Israel, Begin, however, faced oppostion to this concept on practical grounds, because Israeli school children would be on holidays on Tisha B’Av and Ministers felt that the commemoration would be largely uneventful with the secular public.
Ironically, whilst the Kinos on Tisha B’Av are literally crying out for a Kina related to the Holocaust, and I have been personally moved by the Kina authored by the Bobover Rebbe ז’ל, the Rav (like his Uncle R’ Velvel ז’ל but for a different reason) was opposed to us adding new Kinos since we don’t have the ability to write with the requisite authority and style. The Chassidic genre, like the Bobover Rebbe, had no trouble adding a Kina and neither did the German-derived Rabbi Schwab ז’ל of Breuer’s Shule.
An interesting question can be asked: during the time of the second beis hamikdash, did the Jews fast on Tisha B’Av? On the one hand, the first temple was destroyed, and the level of miracles was lower in the second beis hamikdash. On the other hand, is it not anachronistic to mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash whilst the second Beis Hamikdash is standing and in use? It appears that both Rashi and the Ritva in Gemora Rosh Hashono 18B held that during the second beis hamikdash they did not fast on Tisha B’Av. On the other hand, the Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnayos to the first perek of Rosh Hashono, in the third Mishna, opines that the Jews did observe Tisha B’Av even during the time of the second Beis Hamikdash. The reason would seem to be, that although we regained the right to bring Korbanos (sacrifices) in the second Beish Hamikdash, after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash, there has been and there is no end to the tragedies that befell and continued to befall our people. The Rambam held that until the Redemption, there is a direct link beginning from the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdash extending until our times. Tisha B’Av essentially commemorates the beginning of, and the continuation of, Jewish suffering. The second beis hamikdash was a temporary hiatus; it did not signal an end to Jewish suffering and so the Jews, according to the Rambam continued to fast.
The Rav, perhaps following the Rambam, felt that no new mournful days should be added and that Tisha B’Av was more than just the destruction of the Temple. Tisha B’Av signified both the beginning and the continued suffering of the Jewish nations, reaching the contemporary unfathomable holocaust of our generation.
The Gemora in Avoda Zara 17A relates the famous story of R’ Elazar Ben Durdaya. R’ Elazar performed an intense level of repentance after an encounter with a famous harlot. This lady had indicated that R’ Elazar’s Teshuva would never be accepted in Heaven. R’ Elazar tried to summon all manner of help to effect T’shuva, after which he finally came to the realisation that the only way he could do T’shuva would be through his own efforts. With that cognisance, he sat down on top of a mountain and cried until his soul left him. A Heavenly voice proclaimed that Rav Elazar Ben Durdaya had entered Olam Habo –the World to Come. When Rebbi heard this story, he began crying and remarked,
“There are some who acquire their share of Olom Habo in just a moment.”
יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת
Many ask why Rebbi cried. Surely he should have been happy that R’ Elazar Ben Durdaya had been accepted to Heaven with a “clean slate”. Reb Chaim Shmulevitz ז’ל explains that Rebbi cried in recognition of universal human frailty. Each one of us potentially experiences a gripping moment in our lives that is capable of transforming our thoughts and deeds. Rebbi cried because so few of us are able to recognise or “seize the moment”. Our generation lives with that moment. It’s in our blood.
In terms of the Mitzvah to remember and not forget Amalek, our generation was cursed through the cataclysmic and inhuman tragedy of the Holocaust. If this remembrance though means that some, especially in our generation, choose a different date to remember, or different devices to remember, so be it. I will live with their choice, and join them.
If only we could all seize the moment.