August 7, 1997
Yom Ha Shoah
Discomfort with the Day Itself
The objections to Yom HaShoah are several. Among them is the factthat, while the Holocaust commemoration day is widely presented as a"Jewish" holiday, such as Passover or Purim, in reality, it is theresult of an Israeli government proclamation. That may endear it toJews who see the Jewish state as having the status to determineglobal Jewish practice. Many Jews, however, whether motivated bydeeply held spiritual or entirely secularist principles, do notconsider any temporal state so empowered.
Add the fact that the date chosen for Yom HaShoah is in the Jewishmonth of Nisan, when public mourning is considered improper by Jewishreligious law, and the discomfort among many religious Jews over thesummoning of Holocaust images and Jewish tears on that day becomesfully understandable, indeed -- at least to this writer --compelling.
Recalling Other Holocausts
But if not Yom HaShoah, then when?
The answer is a clear one, at least to sensitive students ofJewish history. For they know that, while the loss of Jewish life inthe Holocaust may well have been unprecedented in scope, there havebeen other major catastrophes over the course of our people'sexistence. And they know, too, that a day on the Jewish religiouscalendar has been reserved for thousands of years to commemorate ourworst national tragedies, a day of unbridled Jewish mourning: theninth day of the month of Av -- the fast of Tisha B'Av.
On that day, Jews forego food, drink and other pleasures. Soimportant was the mourning status of Tisha B'Av that the ancientrabbis declared it -- alone among rabbinical fasts -- to incorporateYom Kippur-like stringencies, including the fast's start on theprevious evening.
Observant Jews grieve on Tisha B'Av over the destruction of bothancient Jewish Holy Temples in Jerusalem; each conflagration, andsubsequent slaughter and exile of Jews, took place on that date,though the two events were hundreds of years apart. The Jewish rebeloutpost at Betar also fell to the Roman army on Tisha B'Av, in 135C.E. England expelled its Jews on that day in 1290; France banishedits Jews on the very same day on the Jewish calendar, in 1306. Dittofor Spain, in 1492.
Even events with no overt connection to the ninth day of Avitself, though, if sufficiently tragic, have merited incorporation inTisha B'Av's tearful commemoration. And, so, special poetic dirgeslike those recited each Tisha B'Av about more distant misfortunes --such as the Crusades or the public burning of thousands of volumes ofthe Talmud in the Paris city square -- have been composed about theHolocaust and are widely utilized in the Orthodox Jewish world.
As it happens, however, the ninth of Av is no arbitrary date withregard to the Holocaust. Hitler may or may not have instituted hisFinal Solution, as some claim, on that day, but one thing is certain.The roots of Germany's anger and war footing in 1938 clearly lay inthe angst that plagued its politicians and populace over the terms ofthe treaty that ended World War I, the "Great War," which might,therefore, well be regarded as the true genesis of the Holocaust --and which broke out in 1914. On Tisha B'Av.
Memory, Tenacity, Unity
Today, there is much, and valid, Jewish concern that the scope andhorror of the Holocaust never be forgotten. There once may have beensimilar concern about the destruction of the first and second HolyTemples in Jerusalem, or about expulsions from Western Europeanlands. Those national tragedies, however, are still keenly rememberedand meaningfully mourned in Orthodox shuls around the world --because they were empowered by their association with the deeplyrooted religious observance of Tisha B'Av. No one can predict iftears will be shed by Jews on Yom HaShoah centuries hence. Butshould, G-d forbid, the Messiah tarry that long, such tears willsurely fall on every Tisha B'Av.
Including the Holocaust in the Ninth of Av's litany oflamentations imbues it with the force of a religious observance andpowerfully ensures its memory. And, so, instead of resenting someJews' discomfort with some Yom HaShoah gatherings or with Yom HaShoahitself, perhaps all Jews should consider taking a small but sure steptoward Jewish unity by joining together in a pan-Jewish focus on ourcentury's overwhelming Jewish tribulation -- and on those of earliergenerations -- on the religiously designated day of Jewish nationalmourning. This year, Tisha B'Av falls on Aug. 12.
Those who truly mourn the Holy Temple's destruction, the sages ofthe Talmud teach, will merit to witness its rebuilding. Despair, inother words, properly focused, can be a midwife to redemption.
May all Jews merit to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy thatG-d "will wipe tears from every face" soon, in our days.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for AgudathIsrael of America.
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