Writings from the Rabbis

Benediction on International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Jan 27th 2020

Rabbi Steve Wernick presented this benediction at a reception on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, hosted at Toronto City Hall.

I would like to take a moment to begin by being mindful of Vera’s testimony. She was 19 when she was liberated and tonight we mark 75 years since. Vera, may you and the other survivors merit to live like Moses, our teacher, to 120. Or as Israelis say today, ad meah k’esrim — to 100 as if you were 20.

Let’s be mindful that our ability to hear direct testimony from survivors is diminishing. So take a couple of breaths and focus on one thing you learned tonight. Focus. And when you leave tonight, share it with at least one other person. Take a couple of breaths.

Zakhor — “We come here to remember those who cannot be forgotten. We have come to speak of that which cannot be spoken, but must not be left unsaid. We have come to remind not others but ourselves of what was done and what was not done. We have come to ask questions that cannot be answered but cannot be left unasked.

We know how to remember the dead we have known. We know how to commemorate the death of one person. But all of us are mourners; all of us recall not one, but six million ones, not alone those we have known, but those no one can know the names that are forever lost” (Rabbi Reuven Hammer, printed in Sim Shalom for Weekdays).

“The frightening part of the Holocaust, about Nazism,” writes Moshe, a child of survivors, “is that it was everyday nice people who went home at 5:30, who hung up their hats, who had dinner, who went to church on Sunday. I wonder if I can meet the challenge of telling my own children, and my children’s children, about the Holocaust. If I am fortunate enough to be alive that long, I will tell them that Evil is part of the ordinary, we can’t push it away and out of our existence, we can’t just say it’s an aberration. We have to confront Evil. It’s part of life, part of our existence.”

This is what Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, called the banality of Evil. Eichmann was not a fanatic or a sociopath. He, and many others, were average and mundane people. We expect Evil to be a monster, but it is not. We each have the capacity for Evil when we just “follow orders” or “follow the crowd” and cease to think for ourselves; to speak up when others will not; do not.

Yes we must remember, but we remember in order to act. That’s why this evening is so important. That’s why I want to thank you Mayor Tory, City Council and all the elected officials here this evening. And let me thank those in law enforcement and those who serve our country, wearing the uniform and protecting the values we profess this evening. Remembrance without action is insufficient. Thank you.

Let us close with a Personal Prayer written by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev that speaks to the banality of Evil. It asks us to turn inward and guard our souls against anti-Semitism, racism and hate; to keep it marginalized and not normalized.

Please place your feet firmly on the ground. Take a moment; a breath; and pray with me.

“O Lord, save us from being envious of one another and let not the thought of envying others enter our minds nor envy of us enter their minds. On the contrary, enable our hearts to see the virtues of our neighbors and not their faults, and inspire each of us to behave to his neighbor in the way that is upright and acceptable to You.

And let not any hatred of one another enter our hearts. Strengthen our bonds to You in love, because it is known to You that all we do is meant to satisfy You, for this is our main intention.

If we have insufficient sense to direct our heart to You, teach us to know Your good will in truth. And more than all this we offer our supplications to You, O God full of compassion, to accept our prayers in compassion.”