January in the far reaches of the northern hemisphere tends to be a grim month. Darkness seems pervasive – and then, as the month wanes, National Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th, inaugurated in the UK in 2000.
As we contemplate the devastating horrors of the Sho’ah, we may feel overwhelmed. How can we fathom the scale and the depth of human depravity? Two months ago, the anniversary of Kristallnacht on 9th November, reminded us of the night that the persecution of the Jews of Germany and Austria turned violent. 27th January signifies a very different moment; the day that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945; a day that signalled the beginning of the end. Of course, the death marches were still to come, as the Nazis evacuated speedily to flee the advance of the Allied forces. Nevertheless, 27th January 1945 marked the moment when Hitler’s postulated ‘Thousand Year Reich’ began to crumble.
9th November 1938 and 27th January 1945, both turning points; the latter, like the invisible sap rising in the trees as we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, a sign in the midst of winter that spring is to come. This year, Erev Tu Bishvat falls on 27th January. So, as National Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated, 27th January will also be a time to acknowledge new life however hidden it may seem.
Further, this year, the month of January as a whole, Shabbat by Shabbat, from the 2nd through the 30th, tracks the most formative and transformative experience in the life of the people Israel: The Exodus. So, first, the final portion of B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, relates how Jacob and the rest of the family went down to Egypt to join Joseph (Va-y’chi). Then the story continues with the descent into slavery and the encounter between the Eternal and Moses at the burning bush (Sh’mot). Next, the Torah turns to the plan to liberate the slaves and the beginning of the assault on Egypt with the first plagues (Va-eira). Events then reach a crescendo with the last plagues and the preparations for the departure of the slaves, including an account of the first Pesach (Bo). Finally, we read about the Exodus itself, culminating in the passage through the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and the first stages of the journey through the wilderness (B’shallach).
So, this year January will be a reminder that even when seemingly overtaken by death, Life is a dynamic, ever-emergent force that cannot be suppressed. Since March 2020, we have all felt overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to so many deaths, both in Britain and around the world. It is hard not to feel despairing, and yet we must dare to hope: that vaccination will put an end to lockdown and that, over time, although bearing our scars and losses, we will return to the rhythm of our daily lives, and as the slogan puts it, ‘build back better’; not least, because of all that we have learned about caring and sharing during the coronavirus crisis. And if January still feels very bleak, let’s give our capacity to be hopeful a boost on the 20th when the 46th President of the United States is inaugurated. However difficult and challenging 2021 may turn out to be, even in the midst of January blues, life is beginning again.