NATIONAL HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY – THE POWER OF WORDS
On 27th January, it will be National Holocaust Memorial Day; the day set aside by the UK government for annual commemoration of the Holocaust; chosen because 27th January 1945, the date when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi horror. NHMD was established to ensure that people in Britain remember the Holocaust, acknowledge the genocides that have happened since 1945, and actively engage in learning the lessons of the past for the sake of the future. And so, since it was NHMD was inaugurated at the beginning of the millennium, it has also focused attention on the genocides in Cambodia (1975-79), Bosnia (1992-95), Rwanda (1994) and Darfur (2003).
The theme of NHMD 2018 is ‘the power of words’. We read on the website (http://hmd.org.uk/resources/theme-papers/hmd-2018-power-words):
Words can make a difference – both for good and evil.
HMD activities could focus on the impact that words had in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, through propaganda used to incite, through slogans written in resistance, and through memoirs written to record and respond to what was going on. The words that we see and hear all around us today – in newspapers, online, in conversations – the words that we choose to use, all have an impact upon us and those around us.
Words are powerful. The usual word used to designate the murder of the Six Million – the Holocaust – is actually highly problematic. If you look up the dictionary of the Hebrew Bible, known as ‘BDB’ because it was compiled by three Christian ministers, Brown, Driver and Briggs, you will find that ‘holocaust’ is the translation given for olah, meaning ‘burnt offering’. From a Jewish perspective, the annihilation of one third of the world Jewish population was not a sacred offering. It is for this reason that the preferred designation is sho’ah, meaning ‘devastation’, found, for example, in Isaiah 10:3.
The Torah is composed of thousands of words. During January this year, we will begin reading the Book of Sh’mot, Exodus, and be reminded of the resounding message that the slaves will go free. The words that we read were originally called out, so that people could hear them. Significantly, the Hebrew root, Kuf Reish Alef, means both to ‘read’ and to ‘call’, and the narratives we read in the Torah tell stories in which utterance take central stage. ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me’ (Va-eira, Exodus 9:1), Moses repeatedly proclaims to Pharaoh on behalf of the Eternal Liberator. When, eventually, the newly-liberated slaves walk on dry land through the divided Sea of Reeds, Moses and Miriam sing songs of triumph (B’shallach, Ex. 15:1-21). And then after the liberation, at the beginning of the third month, in the wilderness of Sinai, they stand beneath the quaking mountain, and hear ‘The Ten Utterances’ – aseret ha-dibbrot – known in Christian tradition as the Ten Commandments (Yitro, Ex. 20:1-14).
Jewish life is concerned with right action that is rooted in teachings, written and spoken. As we reflect on NHMD on the use and abuse of words, in particular, in the context of hate crimes of all types, and the way in which hateful words precipitate hateful deeds, let us remember the words of love, compassion and justice that we find in the Torah, not least, in the Book of Exodus, and resolve to be guided in our actions by these teachings. As we read in the first law code (Mishpatim, Ex. 23:9): ‘You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.’
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah