By Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
How can anyone adequately respond to the brutal murder of six million people? It is impossible.
In that case, if nothing we say will suffice, is the appropriate response simply silence? Did not Shimon ben Gamliel in Ethics of the Fathers teach: “All my days I have grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a person than silence”?
In 1921 the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published by Ludwig Wittgenstein, formerly a pupil at the same school as Hitler.
The book is based on notes Wittgenstein compiled while he was a courageous (and frequently decorated) soldier in the First World War and subsequently a prisoner of war.
It is a slim volume of 75 pages, modestly intended by its author, without unnecessary fuss or wasted words, to resolve all the problems of philosophy. Its final and culminating proposition famously states, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.
The Prophet Isaiah wrote millennia earlier: “He was oppressed, though he humbled himself, and opened not his mouth.”
Faced by the unspeakable, horrific ordeals that they went through, many Holocaust survivors were stunned into silence and kept their memories to themselves. Some waited decades before revealing their experiences to family members and friends for the first time and many others died leaving their stories untold. Is silence the right choice for us?
The Book of Leviticus describes the sudden deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest. We are told: “Vayidom Aharon” – Aaron responded to this tragedy without a sound. No words could encapsulate his deep sense of grief; no descriptive terms could do justice to the memory of these two precious souls. Aaron’s silence was a sign of the inadequacy of language, but was also a mark of agonising restraint and respect.
If such was the reaction of one father to the painful deaths of two treasured individuals, how can we adequately respond to the deaths of six million, to the attempt to destroy our entire people and way of life and consign the relics to museums?
In stark contrast to Aaron, we find a Biblical example of silence condemned as moral stupor.
After Joseph correctly interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s Chief Baker and Butler, he appealed to the butler to mention his plight to King Pharaoh.
Alas, on his release which was predicted by Joseph, “Pharaoh’s Chief Butler did not remember Joseph and he forgot him.”
The plight of an innocent Hebrew languishing in a dungeon was of no consequence to the Egyptian Minister. His silence kept Joseph incarcerated for two more intolerable years.
King Solomon in Ecclesiastes taught that “there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent.”
While silence can in some circumstances bespeak noble self-control, it can also signify suppression, oblivion or cowardice.
Next week, Holocaust Memorial Day will mark the 70th anniversary of the day on which Auschwitz was liberated.
We stand in the shoes of Aaron, struggling to articulate appropriate thoughts, feelings and sentiments.
While no words can come close to adequately describing the depth of suffering, we may not, under any circumstances, repeat the sin of Pharaoh’s butler.
We must loudly protest against the unjust suffering of innocent victims of torture and terror, past and present.
We must teach compassion and tolerance and encourage kindness, selflessness and loving acceptance of all who are created in the image of God.
In the face of Holocaust denial, we must testify against the crimes of the oppressors and defy those who would silence us, who hate to be reminded of the truth.
Above all, we must do our utmost to guarantee that the horrors of the Holocaust will not stain the world again.
The end of the Second World War, however, did not see the last of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man.
Events of the past few weeks highlight the extent to which the civilised world today is threatened by the cruel intentions of would-be mass murderers.
The inescapable reality of the challenges we face renders it all the more urgent for us to be passionately vocal and to declare: we care about the suffering of innocent victims of terror.
We will not tolerate anti-Semitism, nor any form of racism or discrimination.
We protest to our last breath against the purveyors of hatred, cruelty and violence.
We owe that clamour to the generation that we lost.