‘Distant memories, of a time not long ago, vibrant shadows of an era we would want to know.
In our minds an image glowing, true tzadikim in every town, and the sounds of learning, were ever growing. All has vanished never to be found.
Somehow, slowly, the sun is rising once again, building boldly can we recapture what was then.
We’ve set our hearts to form a plan, unrelenting so much to regain, can see the future from where we stand. Let’s move close, rekindle the flame.’
These are the opening words to the song Torah Today by Yerachmiel Begun and the Miami Boys Choir.
The words are very personal for me.
Exactly Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, on 25th January 1995, I stood at Hillel House in Euston as Education Head of UJS to launch the project ‘50 days for 50 years’ with this song. It was a project that thank God revolutionised Holocaust education and gave birth eventually to 60 days for 60 years, 60 days Israel and 70 days for 70 years which collectively involved nearly ½ million Jews across the Jewish world.
We had launched the idea at UJS conference a few weeks earlier and for both the launch in Euston and at conference we had used the words to the song above. But why that song?
To us, it summed up the dual nature of the project. Firstly, to remember the past.
We will never be able to comprehend the murder of over 6 million of our family by the Nazis and their collaborators. As Rabbi Sacks wrote in his intro to the book 25 years ago:
‘Six million human beings, among them one and a half million children, had been shot, gassed, burned or buried alive for no other reason than that they were Jews. Where once there had been community after community of sages and scholars, poets and mystics, intellectuals and visionaries there was the stench of death. As Jews we mourn, and still today we refuse to be comforted.’
We must remember the past, that was the 1st stanza of the song.
However, the second stanza spoke of a different idea. It spoke about building the future.
I found out many years later that the song was written in memory of the Holocaust but for a very special occasion. The song was released in March 1990, and in April 1990, the 9th Siyum Ha Shas took place in Madison Square Garden.
As the song says:
‘Their life is learning, they strive with great intensity, others advancing, each day a daf devotedly.
On that night they gathered, to show what matters, the Torah world stood as one with pride,
In silent reflection with one direction, you could feel that time was on our side.’
As I write this I and hundreds of thousands of others have just begun the learning for the 14th cycle of Siyum ha Shas.
The 50 days’ project was simple in its idea – every student received a name of a victim of the Shoah and was asked to learn Torah in memory of that person for 50 days for the 50 years that has passed since the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945. As I said in my introduction:
‘For fifty days I urge you to get involved, learn, question and grow. Not just for the past, for a Jewish life that never had a chance, but more importantly for you, a Jew in 1995 who has limitless possibilities. We have a chance in the next seven weeks to really remember our past and in those same seven weeks we have a chance to help build the future, the Jewish future, our future.’
Those projects, the song, the rebuilding were mainly about one thing – Torah.
And now we come to 2020.
Yesterday the world came to the State of Israel to remember. Some 40 heads of state took part in a the 5th World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. At least 47 world leaders, including 26 presidents, four kings (from Spain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) and four prime ministers were there. Watching the ceremony at Yad Vashem, you could not help but hear the words of the prophets from 1000’s of years ago.
‘And the children of your enemies shall go to you with respect, and those who despised you shall prostrate themselves at the soles of your feet, and they shall call you ‘The City of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.’ Instead of your being forsaken and hated without a passerby, I will make you an everlasting pride, the joy of every generation. Isaiah 60:14
It began with the President of Israel Ruby Rivlin, expressing to the world the simple statement that we have come home:
‘Honoured guests, the State of Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust. This is our home and this is our homeland. It is where we came from and where we returned to after 2000 years of exile. Israel is a strong democracy and a proud member of the family of nations.’
Then Bibi Netanyahu explained to the world as Rav Soloveitchik had in his epic work Kol Dodi Dofek, that the Jewish people has been reborn and we are a proud strong nation:
‘But for the Jewish people, Auschwitz is more than the ultimate symbol of evil. It is also the ultimate symbol of Jewish powerlessness. It is the culmination of what can happen when our people have no voice, no land, no shield. Today, we have a voice, we have a land and we have a shield. Today, our voice is heard in the White House and in the Kremlin, in the halls of the United Nations and the American Congress, in London, Paris and Berlin, and in countless capitals around the world, many of them represented here by you. Today, we have a land – our ancient homeland which we brought back to life, to which we ingathered the exiles of our people, and in which we built an advanced and powerful state. And today, we have a shield. And what a shield it is. Time after time, the strength of our arms, the courage of our soldiers and the spirit of our people have prevailed against those who sought to destroy us. Our hand is extended in peace to all our neighbours, and a growing number of them are seizing it to build with Israel bridges of hope and reconciliation.’
Then there were the nations of the world. Our future King, here in the UK Prince Charles expressed his sense of connection to our people and our land:
‘For my own part, I have long drawn inspiration from the selfless actions of my dear grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, who in 1943, in Nazi-occupied Athens, saved a Jewish family by taking them into her home and hiding them. My grandmother, who is buried on the Mount of Olives, has a tree planted in her name here at Yad Vashem, and is counted as one of the Righteous among the Nations – ḥasidei ummot ha`olam – a fact which gives me, and my family, immense pride.’
However then came the most remarkable speech and fulfilment of the prophecy – the president of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier, got up in front of the world and in Hebrew recited the Shecheyanu blessing!!
He then said, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz,
‘I stand before you all as President of Germany – I stand here laden with the heavy, historical burden of guilt. Yet at the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, for Jewish life flourishing in Germany. My soul is moved by the spirit of reconciliation, this spirit which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel, for Germany, Europe and the countries of the world. The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, you should measure us.’
So, in 1995 – the focus was Torah.
In 2020 – the focus was Israel.
Torah and Israel, two central aspects of our nation – yet the true connection is even more powerful.
In the start of this week’s Parsha Hashem speaks to Moshe. ‘I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’ (Shemot 6: 9)
The word for heritage is Morasha, it is similar to the word Yerusha which means inheritance. Yet the two ideas are very different. The Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Batra 8:2) speaks of yerusha as something that comes easily. When a person dies, leaving a yerusha, the heir need not do anything other than receive the gift. Morasha, however, requires much more.
Remarkably The Torah only describes two things as a Morasha – a Heritage. Israel, here in Parshat Vaera and in Parshat Vezot Habracha – Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Yaacov – Moses prescribed the Torah to us, an eternal heritage (morasha) for the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4).
So we have the two concepts of Torah and Israel, they alone are our morashot, our heritage.
Two weeks ago in Daf Yomi (Berachot 5a) we learnt a further link that there are three gifts that God gave the Jewish people that can be acquired only through commitment and suffering: “Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come.” And we understand very well that neither Torah nor the Land of Israel can be easily acquired.
As the world remembers 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, we must never forget but we should also look at this anniversary with a mixture of pride and gratitude. In those 75 years we have achieved so much, we have returned to Israel and built it into a country that is helping transform the world for the better. We have returned and rebuilt Torah, with more people studying and learning in the history of our people.
However, we must realise that all is not ideal. The hatred of our nation and our people is not showing signs of weakening and the assimilation and apathy of our people is on the increase despite all the Torah advances.
However, we must also realise that the solution to both these problems is a connection to both Torah and Israel. The Morahshot of the Jewish people. As I have said on these pages before, it has now been shown that a weakening of connection to Torah is accompanied by a weakening of connection to Israel. Our enemies wait for that weakness and it gives them the oxygen they need for the hatred to breathe.
Our mission has not changed – we must always remember the past but we do that by focussing on the future, building our connection to our morashot – to Torah, Israel and the Jewish people or as it has been said – Am Yisrael, B’ Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael – The nation of Israel, in the land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.