It’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. From the elementary school next to our apartment building, we can hear children singing songs commemorating the death of six million Jewish people during the Nazi nightmare of atrocities. At ten in the morning a siren sounds and the country immediately comes to a standstill. We stand at attention. On the roads, at shopping centers, through every activity of life all Israel stops to remember those who perished for no reason other than being born a Jew.
Ironically appropriate, today was also the funeral of a faithful member of the Tents of Mercy Congregation. I’yevah, or Eva, was of Russian background and found the congregation through friends of her generation, fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Of those who gathered at her grave outside of Haifa, the majority were also senior citizens. Clearly one prevalent thought was—when’s my time? One day it will be me.
At the cemetery I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a large headstone with my mother’s family name: Mendelsohn. Resonating in my soul was the reality of being part of a people who’ve been in exile for century upon century, and finally come home.
I don’t have a tidy conclusion. The unavoidable connection is that life leads to death leads to life. My beloved father used to call it “the inevitable.” One day, barring the intervening re-appearance of our Messiah, we will all find our way to the grave. Yet our life, when invested in others, brings forth more life. The death of six million—in a way none of us can fully handle— led to the founding of the State of Israel only three years after the last victim died. Next week we will observe another day of remembering. This one focuses on the Israeli soldiers who sacrificed themselves for the existence of Israel—a miracle on the stage of history that could only have happened because men and women withheld not their lives from violent death.
When I try to imagine being in one of the death camps, or fighting the War for Independence, Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, or most recently the conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza, I am gripped. The pause for the siren, also sounded on the Day of Remembrance (only one week after Holocaust Remebrance Day) puts me back in history. But the sensation I’m looking for is present tense. How would I feel to confront a concentration camp, bullets, canons, or the chaos of battle? Am I made of such stuff? In every age, there is are opportunities for selflessness. In all of our places of life and service we can choose to avoid vulnerability or to embrace the courageous step. History beckons.