Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 29 April 2012

How To Commemorate

Every year the same fight happens.  Many people turn out to observe Yom HaShoah and notice that most of their frum friends either aren't at the ceremony or leave early.  This year, while talking with some non-religious friends, the subject once again came up.  Why can't the Orthodox rabbi stay for the entire ceremony, they wanted to know.  He always speaks first and then runs out.  Why don't Orthodoxy people observe Yom HaShoah?  Don't they know how disrespectful they're being?  Don't they care about "the six million"?
Every year we try the same tired answers.  We talk about Tisha B'Av, we talk about how remembering the Holocaust on that day puts it into a historical context with our other sufferings and gives us something to learn about it and we assure people we don't disrespect the martyrs of Churban Europa.
And this year I got tired of doing that.  I don't like being on the defensive, especially when I'm sure I'm in the right.  As a result, when the subject came up I tried a different tactic.
I started by pointing out, much to the shock of the non-religious folks in the room, that I thought observing Yom HaShoah was disrespectful to the victims of the Holocaust and that I was avoiding the community ceremony as a way of honouring them.
And then after the shouting quieted down I explained what I meant.  What kind of commemoration is the contemporary Yom HaShoah service?  I mean, when you really think about it, exactly how seriously should one who defends it be taken?
(I will note at this point that I am referring to diaspora services, not those in Israel)
Think about it.  Yom HaShoah may mean "Holocaust Day" but other than for the planning committee of the program, it's really "Holocaust Hour".  The programs generally start in the evenings after dinner.  They last 1-2 hours and consist of speeches from community leaders and local municipal and provincial officials.  We hear over and over about how valued we are as a community and, of course, "never again".  Cambodians, Rwandans, Tibetans and South Sudanese are never invited to point out that "never again" has happened again and again.  Then a children's choir sings "Ani maamin", a couple of survivors are trotted out (as a child I recall one year no survivors could be recruited so a woman who had been born in Canada but could speak fluent Yiddish gave the speech because she sounded like a survivor and knew lots of them) and their stories are told. Someone plays the violin and then Kaddish is recited en masse.  Finally there is Hatikvah and O Canada (the latter may or may not get sung in the US) and everyone goes on.  In a good year, there are snacks on the way out.
That's it.  That's the commemoration for the Six Million.  It's timed so as not to require any actual personal sacrifice on the part of the participants, not even to miss dinner.  It's done with a minimum of prayer and a maximum of platitudes and empty rhetoric.
Now let's contrast this with Tisha B'Av, a day which also recalls events in which large proportions of the Jewish people were slaughtered by our enemies.  After an introductory fast day we prep for the main event by restraining our diet and directing our thoughts for three weeks.  Tisha B'av itself is a 25 hour event with a specific schedule to ensure all the appropriate topics have been covered.  We fast and restrict ourselves in a way that is sometimes stricter than Yom Kippur.  We recite a book of the Bible, Eichah, and what seems like an endless procession of Kinnos.  We struggle to understand the enormity of what happened and our role in it as well as why the final redemption has not yet occurred.
Is there any comparison?  Is it any wonder why so many frum Jews don't take Yom HaShoah seriously?
Perhaps if the people who invented the holiday had picked a different day to show their awareness of Sefirah and its limitations, perhaps if they had declared it as a fast day incumbent on all Jews and developed a liturgy to fill the day with prayer, contemplation and memorials for the Six Millions, perhaps then we would have had more enthusiasm in adopting it.  But a  one-two hour social event?  Please.  That's not the way to remember what happened and honour those who were involved.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Quest For Holiness

It isn't that hard to figure ou what the meaning of Judaism is.  God Himself tells us that we should become holy because He is holy.  Our Chazal have provided ample examples of God's holiness and how we can emulate it.  If that's the case, why are we, as a Torah-observant community, failing in so many ways to reach that goal?
I would venture to suggest that it's because the three main branches of the observant community -Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionist and Chareidi - have filtered the quest fo holiness right out of our daily lives.
Oh to be sure there are the routines we all go through.  We say "Modeh ani" and put on ou tefillin every morning, we mumble the requisite berachos before we eat, and so on but how many times a day do we stop and consciously make those acts part of a question towards a greater level of holiness?
This happens across the spectrum, from left to right.  Want some quick examples?  I was recent at a Pesach hotel where we, the guests, were fed for 8 days like Hansel and Gretel.  By dinner time on the 8th day of the holiday I had no further interest in food and I wasn't the only one.  But one hour or so after the end of the holiday, where were the occupants of the program?  Most of them were in line waiting for pizza and other chometz-enriched goodies.  From the eagerness of the people standing in line you'd almost think we'd been fasting for a week, not gorging.
How about Yom Kippur?  We spend much of the 25 hours it contains standing and praying for forgiveness from our Maker.  We fast, avoid leather shoes, and pour our hearts out in prayer.  Then, as the post-hoilday Maariv ends what do we do?  We make a run for the kitchen to eat something.
Just like on Pesach where we've spent 8 days elevated ourselves to a higher level through our avoidance of chometz only to throw it away the first chance we get, so too we end Yom Kippur by clambering down right back to the level we started at.
Why?  Because for many of us Pesach isn't about spiritual growth and distancing oneself from the gashmius in one's life.  It's about not eating bread, going psychotic in cleaning the house and trying to come up with the most impressive d'var Torah one can which means that the minute the holiday and its restrictions end we carry nothing away.  Same thing with Yom Kippur.  Are we really trying to emerge out the other end of the day closer to an angelic state, clean of sin and closer to the Creator, or are we just going through the motions because that's what "the book" says we have to do.
In the coming weeks leading up the Shavous perhaps we should think about this failing so many of us are susceptible to.  Instead of avoiding certain things during Sefirah because the Mishnah Berurah says we have to, might we contemplate avoiding them because of a sense of understanding of why those restrictions are there in the first place?
And why are they there?  Chazal tell us that 24 000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died during Sefirah because they didn't show respect for one another.  Sefirah restrictions aren't there because Chazal and the Poskim had nothing better to do than come up with new rules (on the other hand, don't get me started on quinoa and kitniyos).  They wanted us to spend this time focusing on how we can better treat our fellows as we quest spiritually from yetzias Mitzrayim to matan Torah.  I might venture that someone who holds by every restriction in the books during Sefirah but never contemplates this point hasn't really observed Sefirah but has simply gone through the motions.
Now I know this is a difficult thing to consider.  Constant self-awareness, constant reflection on one's actions including the habitual ones are incredibly hard.  The greatness of our Avos is due to their ability to surmount any difficulties and achieve that state.  We who are as nothing compared to them cannot hope to reach that level but on the other hand, Rachmana liba ba'ey.  God wants the heart and it is the effort that He rewards, not necessarily the results.  Perhaps we can try to inject some understanding into our actions so as to make them more meaningful and improve our lot as a nation.