D’var Torah: Holocaust Remembrance Day and Kedoshim

Today I had the privilege of offering a D’var Torah on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Torah portion Kedoshim at HUC-JIR.

This week’s parasha kedoshim puts forth the dramatic claim that our every action can be holy, that our every action can bring us closer to God. The parasha lists key elements of Jewish practice like keeping the Sabbath, esoteric practices like not sewing fields with two kinds of seeds, sexual laws that we must now teach against, and the fundamental principle of loving your neighbor as yourself.

As it presents its laws, kedoshim, and the holiness code more generally, tell us:

You shall be holy, for I, adonai your God, am holy.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

If we borrow from Rabbi Leon Wiener Dow and say that Halacha is an endless effort to express holiness in every crevice of our lives, we can say that the holiness code is a basis of halacha. The holiness code makes the Jewish claim that all our actions can serve the holy way, that everything we do can be part of halacha.

But what does this claim that we can be in relationship with God through our actions mean on a day we are asked to recall the Shoah? Today and everyday, our systems of belief and action should heed the words of Elie Wiesel, who wrote in Night:

Never shall I forget the night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Kedoshim and the holiness code seem to melt away before Elie Wiesel’s words. What is the point of  committing to holiness in a world in which Auschwitz is possible? Why try to be in relationship with a God who would allow Auschwitz or with a God who couldn’t prevent it?

The first response when trying to answer these questions is to acknowledge that there is no answer. There is no solution to the problem of the Holocaust. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg went so far as to write that every theological solution “that is totally at ease with a dominant [theological] option is to be seen as an attempt to escape from the dialectical torment of living with the Holocaust. If you do escape, you open the option that the Holocaust may recur.” We should not seek to feel at peace or comfortable on a day like today, and we should be cautious when we talk about God. Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg once said that in our times everything we say about God should be said in a whisper.

And yet here we are. This week, we were reminded of how unimaginable hate continues in this world, as we saw the second synagogue shooting take place in the United States during our year in Israel. And today we sit in the shadow of the Shoah. As we go forward with extreme theological humility, we still seek some understanding, some sense of what to do next.

I believe our best-suited text for this moment is the book of Job, our biblical text that more than any other directly addresses the problem of theodicy. The book presents the story of Job, a righteous, happy and successful man, who faces a series of calamities. Job’s ten children die, he loses his fortune and he develops horrific skin sores. After Job mourns for seven days, three of his friends try to comfort him by offering eloquent speeches about how God is just and Job must have sinned. This ultimately upsets Job, who becomes sarcastic, irritated and scared. After yet another friend tries unsuccessfully to console Job, God ultimately appears before Job and demonstrates God’s power by describing all God has created.

Job then humbles himself before God. He says, according to the JPS translation:

I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eyes;

Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.

לְשֵׁמַע־אֹזֶן שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְעַתָּה עֵינִי רָאָתְךָ

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

What causes this radical and sudden shift in Job’s consciousness? How is he comforted? What does this tell us on a day like today?

In his commentary on the book of Job, Rabbi Harold Kushner makes a distinction between abstract theology and lived religious experience. Kushner writes:

The difference between [theology and religion], one explicator of Buber has suggested, is like the difference between reading a menu and having a dinner. Theology can inform and enlighten, but only religion can nourish us. For thirty-five chapters, Job and his friends have been concerned with theology. With God’s appearance out of the whirlwind, the narrative turns to religion.

Kushner believes this direct experience of God is ultimately what changes Job’s perspective. Kushner writes that “Job is satisfied, not so much by the content of God’s answer as by the contact with God.”

It isn’t an intellectual theological point that we can turn to on a day like today when we stand especially in the darkness of the Holocaust. Instead we can turn to our experience of God and our ongoing relationship with God.

This doesn’t answer theological questions about why the Shoah happened or questions about God’s powerfulness. Kushner points out that in the book of Job, when God appears, God doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions about why bad things happen to good people. These theological questions are important, but there is a significant current in our tradition that tells us that experience of God and practice matter more than abstract theology.

Instead, the best recourse in moments like this may be to turn to your practical relationship with God, whatever that means to you. And it seems to me that our tradition — and this week’s parasha in particular — are telling us that the best way to be in relationship with God is through our actions, through the radical proposition that our every act can be holy. We can turn to the holiness in Jewish traditions like the Sabbath, to the holiness in grand ethical principles like loving your neighbor as yourself, to the holiness in the minute details of our everyday life and even to the holiness of the tefillah we are in right now. By sanctifying our every action, we can be in relationship with God, even on a day like today.

And so, as we recall the Shoah, may we all find what we are seeking through our tradition’s claim that our every action can be holy; May we find guidance, comfort and resiliency through Judaism’s dramatic proposition that our every action can continue our relationship with God.

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