The Holocaust, The Silence and “Never Again”

This month we shall observe Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of those who perished in
the Holocaust at the hands of Europe. This past September the results of a survey conducted
about the Holocaust were released. I have mentioned this from the pulpit, and I am still unsettled about it. This
survey was commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and it looked at the
awareness of the Holocaust in the United States.

The survey seems to have encompassed over 11,000 people. It’s helpful to keep in mind this does not represent
a high percentage of the population. On the other hand, it’s the job of surveys to extrapolate and make assump-
tions based on the data. For this purpose, the number is more than sufficient to give us a true snapshot of the
state of knowledge about the Shoah. The data is staggering. It points to a downward trend in the awareness of
basic Holocaust knowledge, or what we think of as basic, including the fact that 48% of the adults surveyed
could not name a single concentration camp or ghetto. This means that nearly half of all American adults did not
have the name Auschwitz somewhere in their accessible memory. They couldn’t say Dachau. They couldn’t
come up with Warsaw or Treblinka. Among Millenials and Gen-Z’ers, 56% could not identify the name

Some 63% of adults did not know that 6,000,000 Jews perished in the Shoah. In fact, over 10% of those
surveyed believed that “Jews caused the Holocaust.” Others blamed the United States, Israel, or President
Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Holocaust. Let us remember that Israel was not yet a state. There is little positive
that comes out of reading this survey.

We condemn the silence of 80 years ago by saying “Never again.” So, what about the silence now? What
are doing to condemn this silence, a silence brought on by a lack of education and a lack of national effort
to remember. How do we make sure that when people say, “Never again,” they actually know what it is
they don’t want to ever happen again?

In the Torah, we read of detailed priestly instructions, including the prohibition from drinking while on the
job and the designations for various animals to be considered pure and impure.
The beginning of Leviticus 10 presents Aaron’s curious reaction to the deaths of his two eldest sons,
Nadav and Avihu. Although the text goes on to discuss what will happen to his sons’ bodies and how the
priests are forbidden from the same mourning rituals as the rest of the people, only two words are used to
describe Aaron’s reaction to losing two children, horrifically, at the same time: vayidom Aharon. Aaron was
immobilel. Aaron was silent.

Aaron’s sons make the unfortunate decision to go beyond the celebration and sacrifice that God has
commanded at the installment of the priests as the leaders of the Jewish people where. And for that,
Nadav and Avihu die. But what about Aaron? Certainly after the death of a loved one, especially children,
emotions can take you by surprise. But Aaron, Moses and G!d’s mouthpiece, is left speechless, and we
are left to figure out why. Many commentators suggest that the silence might have been either in protest of
G!d’s decision, in acceptance of this fate, or, perhaps, the anguish was too much for words.

It’s ok to be the strong, silent type.

It’s ok to choose your battles.

It’s ok to turn the other cheek.

It’s ok…until it isn’t.

It’s ok until those moments that demand of us to take our voices and use them strongly,
loudly, and vibrantly.

There’s so much to speak out about, it’s both depressing and overwhelming. There are humanitarian
crises happening everywhere. Genocide Watch lists 13 places in the category of “Genocide Emergency,”
including China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Azerbaijan’s invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, the
ongoing emergencies in Syria, South Yemen, Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar (where there are two
different genocides going on in two different regions against different peoples), Nigeria’s Borno State, the
Central African Republic, Somalia, and the Sudan.

In Yemen alone, some 20,000,000 face food insecurity and some 10,000,000 people facing imminent
starvation. Over 2,000,000 children need treatment for severe malnutrition. Yemen is also experiencing the
world’s worst cholera epidemic, and children comprise nearly 25% of those suffering.

Clearly there is more to “Never Again” than merely stating the words. We live in a world where there is so
much to do. We might not all be fighting for the same things, and we may not all agree on best solutions or
tactics, but we can at least move the conversation forward.
Nadav and Avihu, perhaps, did not have the best of intentions or the strongest cause to stand up for. But
at least they made some noise. Aaron was silent. One of the profound meanings we can gain from Aaron’s
silence in the face of seeming injustice is that the text powerfully asks us to find the power to stand up for
what we see as right. While we certainly cannot solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop, we can
and should use our voices. We don’t have to be silent.