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November 23, 2014 | 1st Kislev 5775

Letting Go

Galilee Diary #489, May 5, 2010
Marc Rosenstein

Leaning on the lessons of the past in order to build a future, using the suffering of the past as a political argument, are like inviting the dead to participate in the democratic process of the living.
            -Professor Judah Elkanah, 1988

In the middle of the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the fields of the Jezreel valley are golden with ripening grain, the carob trees are heavy with bright green pods, there are peaches in the market, and hollyhocks are blooming along the roadsides. A friend once commented that hollyhocks make her sad, as they are the last in the sequence of spring wildflowers to bloom; they mark the end of spring, and once they appear, the dry season is about to begin. In northern climates, spring is a time of promise that leads into the lushness of summer; here in the Middle East, the joy of spring gets us only as far as the sadness of the hollyhocks, and then we have to lie low for six months and long for the relief of the first showers of fall.

The tradition defines the period of the counting of the Omer as a time of mourning, for reasons that remain unclear (a plague? the catastrophe of the Bar Kochba revolt? concern for the vulnerable ripening grain?). And modern Israel has placed within this period Yom Hashoah - and a week later Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for fallen soldiers and for civilians killed by enemy action. Interesting how nature, religious tradition, and nationalist symbols, all seem to come together during this time. As the world dries out around us, and the landscape fades from lush green to thorny brown in what seems like just a few days, we find ourselves looking back, preoccupied with sad memories and with the attempt of find meaning in them. In this dry time when nature's face is bleak, we mourn those who suffered and perished in the confrontations with evil in the past century; we remember those who were cut off and weep for the lost potential, for what might have been. And we express our feelings with traditional expressions of memorialization like reciting Kaddish, lighting candles, visiting graves.

Remembering, commemorating - come naturally. For me, as a rather rationalistic Reform Jew, they are the key to immortality - we keep the dead alive in our memory and in our rituals and symbols of memorialization. The difficult dilemma is to decide what meaning we will take from our memories, and how our memories of the past will influence our behavior in the future. It's one thing, of course to pledge to carry forward the endeavors and the values of those who went before us. But that's not the same as drawing policy conclusions, or building political platforms or foreign policy or electoral rhetoric on those memories. There seems to me a fine (or not so fine) line between consecrating the memories of our beloved dead - and desecrating them. 

Most of the political elite of Israel seem to have found opportunities on Yom Hashoah and/or Yom Hazikaron to talk about Ahmedinejad or Obama. But the question is, is it helpful to see history through mythological glasses? Was Hitler Pharaoh? Was Arafat Hitler? Is every anti-Semite Haman? Is every critic of Israeli policy Amalek? Have we Jews always been - and will we always be - victims of evil forces, or do we ever bear some responsibility for our own fate?   Glib comparisons and cheap exploitation of the enormous sufferings of those who went before us seem to me to dishonor their memory. It is tempting, at this season, to allow the Jewish traditions of memorialization to morph into opportunities for nationalistic sloganeering. The memories of the victims of the Holocaust - and of those who sacrificed their lives to create and preserve the state of Israel - deserve better than that.

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