This year, January 27th will be a complex moment: both, International Holocaust Memorial Day and Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees – so, a day for commemorating the horrors of the Sho’ah and a day for celebrating new life.
On the surface, the contradiction could not be greater. But when we turn to the Torah readings that precede January 27th, we find clues that bridge the chasm between death and life in the tale of the Exodus from Egypt.
More of this in a moment. Why was January 27th chosen as the date for the nations of the world to commemorate the Sho’ah? After all, Kristallnacht, the ‘night of the broken glass’, 9th-10th
November 1938, when the Nazi persecution of the Jews of Europe turned to violence in Germany and Austria, seems a more immediate choice? Alternatively, one might argue that once the Nazi top brass agreed on ‘the final solution’ at the Wannsee conference in January 1942, each and every day during the next four years until the Nazis were defeated in April 1945 was a day of unimaginable torment.
What made January 27, 1945 distinctive was that it was the day that the Red Army entered Auschwitz and liberated the camp. In other words, it was the day that marked the beginning of the end. So, perhaps, compared to all the other possible days of commemoration, from 9th November 1938 onwards, 27th January might be seen as the day when the flame of hope was rekindled. Just as – blossoming almond blossom trees in Israel apart – Tu Bishvat marks not the spring, but the hope that spring is on the way, January 27, 1945, might be understood as a sign that liberation was on the way.
If we turn to the Exodus narrative: Long before the plagues finally overwhelmed Egypt, reaching a crescendo of destruction in this week’s parashah, Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16) which recounts the last three plagues – locusts, darkness, and the death of the first-born – the seeds of the challenge to the oppression of the Hebrews were sown in acts of human courage and defiance; the impulse to intervene and challenge injustice. Hence, the courage and defiance of the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, who refused to obey Phaorah’s command to kill the new-born Hebrew baby boys (1:15-21); hence, the sense of outrage that propelled Moses to kill a taskmaster that was beating a slave (2:11-12).
Nevertheless, the focus of the Exodus narrative in the Torah, amplified later in the Haggadah, is on the role of God in liberating the slaves. When Moses encountered the Eternal One at the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames, the Eternal said to him: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; / and I shall come down to deliver them out of the hand of Egypt …’ (Sh’mot, Ex. 3:7-8a). At the beginning of the next parashah, the encounter continues with a declaration that includes four promises of redemption: ‘I am the Eternal and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you from there bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements, and I will take you me as a people and I will be your God’ (Va-eira, Ex. 6:6-7a). And then, when the Israelites were unable to hear the promises of freedom that Moses brought to them because the ‘harsh bondage’ had caused kotzer ru’ach, a ‘shortness of spirit’ (6:9), the ten plagues that followed conveyed a more potent message. Finally, when the ex-slaves arrived at Mount Sinai at the beginning of the third month following their departure from Egypt, another dramatic declaration expresses the accomplishments of the all-powerful God in poetic language: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on Eagle’s wings and brought you to Myself’ (Yitro, Ex. 19:4).
But what about the human actors in the story? God is not a ‘Superman’ with ‘a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ – or an Eagle. God works through people: ‘But the midwives feared God and did not do as a king of Egypt had spoken’ (1:17) Another way of putting it is that being created b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God’ (B’reishit, Genesis 1:27), means that each human being is tasked to ensure that all human beings are treated as images of God. We are meant to intervene to challenge oppression and injustice, just as Shifrah and Pu’ah intervened, just as Moses intervened. While at the beginning of B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, we encounter a theology of Guardianship expressed in the responsibility of the first human to ‘tend’ and ‘keep’ the garden (Gen. 2:15), Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus confronts us with a theology of Intervention. When we look at the world today, there are so many sites of injustice and oppression. Thinking of the horrors of the Sho’ah, the plight of the Uighur Muslims, in particular, held as slaves in concentration camps, tortured and compelled to submit to re-education, demands our concern and our intervention. A cultural genocide – and a full-blown genocide in-the-making if the horrific treatment of the Uighurs is allowed to continue unchecked. Fortunately, campaigns have got off the ground, so we have an opportunity to participate and make a contribution. As we read parashat Bo this Shabbat and mark Holocaust Memorial Day and Tu Bishvat on the 27th, let’s embrace a theology of intervention as Liberal Jews and make a commitment to act.
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