What does the Torah say about… Holocaust Memorial Day?

With Rabbi Naftali Schiff.

AS A RABBI who is actively involved with Holocaust education, I have always been fascinated by the fact that classical Hebrew does not have a word for “history”.

So much so, that modern Hebrew uses the modern term historia. An oft-quoted reason for this is that history is “his story”, whereas we Jews prefer the term zikaron, meaning memory.

Perhaps, however, we need to ask ourselves why memory is so important. Are we remembering just so we don’t forget?

I would like to suggest that, as Jews, we need to remember so that we don’t let history and her events pass us by. This week’s sedra starts with Yitro hearing about the miraculous events of the Exodus and joining the Jewish nation.

Many people heard about these events, but Yitro uses them as an impetus to do something. The same holds true for Moses, who experiences an epiphany when he first notices the suffering of his brothers then stops and does something about it.

A similarly seminal event occurs later on as Moses is out tending the flock of Yitro, when the unusual sight of a burning bush stimulates Moses the shepherd to stop, take note and eventually enter dialogue with God Himself.

These great visionaries do not allow events to pass them by, rather they stop, listen, observe and, educated by the lessons they learn, they act. The power of history is not merely in the memory bank, rather to the extent that it informs our actions in the present. The Torah itself mandates a number of mitzvot as a zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim, a remembrance of the Exodus – Shabbat kiddush, seder night and tefillin, to name but a few.

But in all these cases, the purpose of remembrance is not merely so that we shouldn’t forget. Rather, they are pedagogical tools to focus and even inspire us on a daily, weekly or even annual basis to live a better life, one where we connect with our individual and national heritage and its vision for the betterment of society.

As Jews, we have been on a long journey, one that has spanned millennia and stretched over the four corners of the world. We have had ups and downs, good times and bad, and all of those experiences have played their part in forging our national identity.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to stop and reflect, not just on the horrors of the Shoah and the magnitude of the loss, not dare I say, “merely” to remember or to utter lofty clichés, but also on the lessons we can learn and the actions we can take. Our Yizkor moments are always coupled with a call to accompany memory with action (tzedakah – the giving of charity).

So too, on this, the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we realise we were not just freed from Hell on Earth, but rather we were liberated to proactively make that Earth a better place.

• Rabbi Naftali Schiff is founder and director of JRoots and CEO of Aish UK