I’ve been to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem about a half dozen times. Every tour to Israel includes a visit to Yad Vashem and on our recent trip, I was dreading the experience. I’ve been through enough times to remember a sense of what comes next, even with the new building that was built only a few years ago, and I didn’t want to replay that part of our story again for myself. Because Yad Vashem does not allow children under ten years old to enter, we included, as an alternative, a zoo on the trip itinerary and I secretly hoped that enough people would choose the zoo that I could justify going there instead of visiting Yad Vashem yet again. Fortunately, my wishes were foiled. Only the youngest member of our trip and his grandfather went to the zoo.
As our tour began, I anticipated my reaction. I would be saddened by what happened to the Jewish people – and millions of others – at the hands of the Nazis. I’d find hope in the stories of survival and heroism, thank God for the righteous among the nations who sought to save our people, and I would wonder why more people didn’t speak up. Our guide, Yoram, told his story of a visit to Auschwitz, a story I heard on our last trip with him, but I’d forgotten. Auschwitz is not out in the middle of nowhere. It’s in a Polish town by the same name. On one side of the street are houses, shops, the lives of people. On the other side of the street, the camp. As Yoram pointed out, when you become aware of this, you cannot accept that the people didn’t know what was happening.
There was, though, one aspect of our visit to Yad Vashem that I hadn’t expected. I usually engage with lessons and stories of the Holocaust in the context of memory. I remember what happened to our people. Occasionally, I apply that memory to an obligation to help another oppressed people, such as when I was active in educating my previous congregations and students about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. But what I experienced on this visit to Yad Vashem, I couldn’t have imagined. I felt an allegiance with and an obligation to those who did speak up, those who fought against the Nazi regime, even when it put their own lives at risk, those who saw what was happening – Jews and non-Jews alike – and refused to remain silent.
I left Yad Vashem making a pledge to myself that as the vitriolic rhetoric that pervades our political climate right now becomes more than rhetoric, I do not want to find myself on the wrong side of history. Pastor Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor who lived in Nazi Germany, is remembered for having said, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” I do not want to find myself or any of us standing alone because we didn’t speak out when we could have.
Aleinu, which is the penultimate prayer of each of our worship services, is a hope for the time of redemption, the Messianic Age, when the world will be perfect. Its traditional words, which we chant in Hebrew, but we gloss over in English say,
Who has not made us like the nations of the world
and has not placed us like the families of the earth;
who has not designed our destiny to be like theirs,
nor our lot like that of all their multitude.
This is not our translation because the Reform rabbis who translated our liturgy distanced themselves from the particularistic language of Aleinu and chose, instead, a more universal message, achieved by omitting a literal translation. I’ve often struggled with these words because, for me, chosenness is not about being better than everyone else or being glad that I’m not someone else, but rather about greater responsibility and greater accountability. In that regard, I do praise God for not making me like those who do not take responsibility for the mending of our world, those who do not believe they are accountable for the harm that their words and actions, or lack of action, causes others.
I left Yad Vashem feeling grateful that I have the opportunity not to be like those who lived across the street from the Auschwitz concentration camp and felt little or no sense of responsibility or accountability. I believe that when I recite the words of Aleinu, that thank God for not making me like some other people, that inherently implied in that text is my obligation to exist in relationship and community with others.
Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayakhel, serves as a nechemta, a comforting postscript on last week’s portion. Last week’s portion, Ki Tisa, related the incident of the golden calf and this week’s includes an obligation to observe Shabbat and instructions for the Israelites’ construction of the Mishkan, the portable wilderness sanctuary. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britian and, to the best of my knowledge, of no relation to me, teaches about this nechemta. In both places – the incident of the golden calf and the beginning of our parashah this week – the same root word is used, qof-hay-lamed, which gives us the words kahal (congregation) and kehillah (community). In Ki Tisa, the text says that the people gathered (vayikahel) around Aaron and demanded the golden calf (Ex. 32:1). This week’s portion begins, Vayakhel Moshe et-kol-adat b’nai Yisrael, And Moses assembled the entire Israelite congregation (Ex. 35:1). Last week, vayikahel and this week, vayakhel.
Rabbi Sacks highlights, “They had sinned as a community. Now they were about to be reconstituted as a community. Jewish spirituality is first and foremost a communal spirituality.” The method of Moses’ gathering them once again as a sacred community is by focusing their attention on two great centers of Jewish community, one in time – Shabbat – and the other in space – the Mishkan, which eventually gives birth to the Temple in Jerusalem and our synagogue communities today. It is our coming together, especially for this day and in this place, that kehillah, community, exists.
“Judaism attaches immense significance to the individual. Every life is like a universe. Each one of us, though we are all in God’s image, is different, therefore unique and irreplaceable. Yet the first time the words ‘not good’ appear in the Torah are in the verse, ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18). Much of Judaism is about the shape and structure of our togetherness. It values the individual but does not endorse individualism. Ours is a religion of community. Our holiest prayers can only be said in the presence of a minyan, the minimum definition of a community. When we pray, we do so as a community. Martin Buber spoke of I-and-Thou, but Judaism is really a matter of We-and-Thou. Hence, to atone for the sin the Israelites committed as a community, Moses sought to consecrate community in time and place.”
Our tradition teaches us that we do not find holiness, we do not find wholeness, we do not find God alone, when we abandon the needs of others and turn our backs on those whom we do not understand or with whom we cannot yet relate. We find holiness, wholeness, and God when we find it with others. Yad Vashem gets its name from a verse from the prophet Isaiah. It’s literal translation, a hand and name, misses the point of the prophet’s message. In this context, and in other places in Tanakh, yad vashem means a memorial and a name, or an enduring memorial. Isaiah says, “And to them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial and a name that shall never be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5). Let us not blemish the memory of our people or forget their names by our inaction or silence in the face of the persecution of others. Whether you are caucusing tomorrow or Sunday or waiting until November to make your voice heard, make it heard for holiness, for wholeness, and for peace. Shabbat Shalom.
 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Social Animal (Vayakhel 5776), http://www.rabbisacks.org/the-social-animal-vayakhel-5776/, February 29, 2016.