Yesterday many Jews observed Holocaust Memorial Day. Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah, literally the “Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism,” is celebrated on the 27th day in the month of Nisan, a week after the seventh day of Passover, and a week before Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers). It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising as well.
For me, this day feels quite personal. My family is quite small because of the Holocaust. My mother, her sister and her parents escaped Czechoslovakia and went to Israel. One or two other relatives went to Peru. That’s it. (My father was already in Israel with his mother.) Everyone else was killed by the Nazis.
My mother’s grandmother gave her a ring just before the train left Prague for Trieste, Italy. She handed it to her through the window. My mother never saw her again. I now wear that ring.
My mother took me to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem when it still had a room with six million black tiles and an eternal flame for every concentration camp. She told me who in her family died in each of the camps. I’m still moved to tears when I think about that day.
Since the Holocaust, my mother no longer believes in God. She, like many Jews, suffers from what I call the real Shoah. Shoah means catastrophe. Yes, it’s a catastrophe that so many people died during the Holocaust, but to me the greater catastrophe lies in the fact that so many Jews lost faith in God.
Some say many Jews had already lost faith in God. So, the fact that Jews were being killed in gas chambers and burned or shot and buried in mass graves simply confirmed what they already believed: God did not exist. If he did, he wouldn’t have let such a thing happen to his Chosen People.
Only the faithful…those observant Jews who retained a strong belief in God…remained faithful throughout and after the Holocaust. Their belief in God and their faith was sorely tested, but it kept them going. It gave them hope. It gave life meaning despite the meaningless death they saw around them.
Their faith allowed them to believe that God’s hand must be in their lives in some way, shape or form. They might not see it or understand the events around them, but they had faith that one day they might understand.
Today, like the less observant Jews during the and after the Holocaust, many people suffer from a shoah of faith. We saw this after 9/11, for example. Most American’s could not grasp why God would let this terrorist act happen.
However, everyday people suffer crisis of faith. I have seen it in those closest to me. Falling into debt, death of loved ones, loss of jobs, feeling burned out make them feel hopeless. Then they get angry at God. They think God is doing this “to them.”
After they are done feeling like the victim, they decide God doesn’t exist. “If there is a God,” they say, “why would he allow such things to happen. Why doesn’t he hear my prayers? Why doesn’t he see the good things I do and reward me?”
Like the Jews during the Holocaust, however, they don’t really believe any longer in Divine retribution.
They also can’t see beyond the moment. They don’t believe anything happens for a reason…at least not the terrible things happening to them. “What reason could there be for those things to happen?” they ask.
They can’t see that the loss of the job they hated allows them to find a new one they enjoy. They can’t see that their spending habits or choices about where to live allowed them to get into debt; they are not being victimized. They can’t see that their unresolved issues with their dead loved ones cause them to feel depressed.
They lose faith. And then they cycle downward. Things get worse. Their life, their work, has no meaning. They experience a shoah of faith.
As Rabbi Wayne Dosick says, “The way to faith is through faith. The way to faith is though doing faith.” We must, “Do faith,” he says.
How do we do faith? Just as the Jews swore, “Never Forget,” we never forget…God. We place God before us always. Shiviti Adonai l’negde tamid (I place God before me always). We pray ceaselessly, as Jesus taught. We look for the signs of God’s hand in our lives…both in the good and in what we judge as bad.
And we try to look backward with 20-20 vision. As a Jew, I can look back and say that possibly without the Holocaust my people might never have mustered the energy to create the state of Israel. They might never have changed their mentality…their nature…so that they would say, “Never again…never again will we let such a thing happen.”
Someone else might say, “If I hadn’t have lost that job, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the terrible situation I hated and changed careers….or found a new job…or moved.”
We must learn to do faith, to have faith, to see God’s hand in our lives, indeed, to see and feel God every day…no matter what happens in our lives and in the world. Without that, indeed, we are alone in a meaningless world.
And that is a shoah….a catastrophe.