Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. The day was chosen as it is the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945.
Over the years I have attended several civic services, mainly in London. One that remains in my memory was one held in 2018 where I had the honour of hearing Gena Turgel z’l speak a few months before her passing.
Whenever she spoke, it was with a gentle strength, her story was one of triumph over darkness. What I always marvelled at, not just with Gena but all survivors, was the absence of victimhood. Yes, they had been through hell, but they would not be defined by that, they would not play the victim card, but strove to build new lives, positive lives, lives of joy and blessing.
This is in sharp contrast with many parts of society today who seem to embrace victim culture. You are told that because you were born in a certain place, or have a certain ethnicity or gender – you cannot achieve. This is a culture that looks to blame the past to freeze the future.
I tend to favour remember the past to build the future.
Survivors have certainly followed this ideal – never forgetting but moving forward, despite the horrors of the past.
This week’s parsha has a phenomenal lesson, which links to these ideas.
Parshat Bo famously contains the first mitzvah for the Jewish people. In fact the first Rashi in the Torah speaks about this:
Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Shemot. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded.
This is therefore a major moment in history. The Jewish Nation is receiving its first mitzvah. Yes, in Sefer Bereishit there were personal mitzvot commanded, such as pru urvu or Brit Milah, but here was the first mitzvah for the people.
So, what would it be? What would Hashem deem to be THE first mitzvah to give to us. Presumably one of the major mitzvot that connects us as a people – Shabbat, Kashrut, Chagim celebrations? No, as we know, the first mitzvah was Rosh Chodesh!
Why this mitzvah? It isn’t the obvious choice.
Rav Soloveitchik explains it powerfully. Hashem knew who He was speaking to. The nation had been enslaved for 210 years, they had endured lives of hardship and misery from their cruel Egyptian taskmasters. Now He was taking us out, what sort of people did He want us to become? What did he have to bequeath to us, in order for us to move forward, to leave slavery and embrace freedom.
As a slave, time is not your own. I remember watching the Shawshank Redemption when one of the prisoners, who had now been released, and was working in a supermarket, put his hand up to go to the bathroom. His supervisor looked at him sadly and explained ‘You don’t have to ask to go the bathroom’. He had been so conditioned to prison life, even when he was free, he exhibited tendencies of those imprisoned. You can take the person out of prison, but can you take prison out of the person?
It was the same for the Jewish people. What would define us? There is no question that many of the struggles of Bnei Yisrael were caused because they were the nation that had been slaves. We know that it was the next generation, the generation born in freedom that entered the land of Israel under Yehoshua.
Nevertheless, Hashem was determined to allow us to grow beyond slavery, to instruct us not to dwell on the past and allow that to define us, but to break out of our own personal Mitzraim to become an Am Kadosh – how? By being in charge of time, by deciding how to spend our days, and of course, when to declare the Moadim, the appointments in time.
That is why Kiddush ha chodesh had to be the first mitzvah, true redemption is not merely political or geographical, it is also spiritual and psychological. Hashem is telling us, you are in charge of your destiny, your decisions will determine your future, you have the ability to make a difference despite your difficult beginnings. Don’t let that define you.
Yes, we are commanded many times to ‘Remember that we were slaves in Egypt’. However, this is not in order to moan, complain and cry victim. On the contrary, it is to make sure we never act in that way to others and to have gratitude to Hashem for taking us out, making us free, giving us opportunity – neither of these ideas lends support to victim culture rather to growth culture and personal responsibility.
Whether enslaved in Egypt, trapped behind the Iron curtain, persecuted in Nazi Germany or any of the myriad tragedies that we have endured, our response, must always be, has always been: What can I do now? What does Hashem expect of me? What can I build?
I learnt so much from Gena, so did my children. I learnt the story of a survivor but more importantly than that, I learnt how, as Jews, we respond to evil and darkness. We don’t remain frozen in the darkness, we don’t blame the darkness, we don’t resent the darkness, we do one very simple thing.
We perform in spiritual and physical terms, the title of Gena’s autobiography.