Zachor — "You Shall Remember"

Shalom Chaverim (Dear Friends),

Earlier this week I had the privilege of joining renowned historian, Boston's own Dr. Jonathan Sarna, for a The Vibe of the Tribe podcast conversation about "Pandemics Past" and how American Jewish history can shed light on our current situation.

As Mark Twain reportedly said, history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Or, in the words of the theme of the Passover holiday that just concluded, "B'chol dor v'dor;" in every generation we are required to see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt ourselves. Perhaps nothing is more quintessentially Jewish than our obsession with memory and retelling stories from generation to generation. Why?

In part, this is in service of the past and of our ancestors, the giants on whose shoulders we stand, so their lives and experiences and sacrifices and teachings will never be forgotten. But we also tell their stories for us. We root ourselves in the past so we know where we come from and so we feel part of a People and a story that gives meaning to our lives. We learn lessons from the past to help us interpret and make meaning of the present, which in turn informs the choices we make today as we write the story of tomorrow.

My conversation with Dr. Sarna was a crash course in the role that pandemics and plagues have played in the lives of American Jews. The conversation was also a reminder of what it means not only to study history, but to live it. Dr. Sarna tells stories as if he was there and describes (often obscure) people from the past as if he knew them personally. He shared painful examples of choices that communities made during times of economic hardship that had negative, unintended consequences for an entire generation. And, he shared inspiring examples of leaders who were remembered years later for their service and self-sacrifice to communities in times of crisis.

It was particularly poignant to have this conversation during the week of Passover, for Dr. Sarna's stance toward history mirrors the Jewish tradition of not only retelling, but continually reliving our past.

We now emerge from Passover into an extended period of commemoration and celebration as our calendar beats to the rhythm of the Jewish People here, in Israel, and around the world. This begins next week with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which should be particularly powerful this year as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

As the generation who actually experienced this horrific history grows older, it truly is a mitzvah and an obligation incumbent on all of us, to hear their firsthand accounts whenever we possibly can. It is also a sacred responsibility to remember the darkness of the Shoah (Holocaust) and to ensure that the lights of our beloved survivors and the 6 million who were lost will never go out.

There will be several opportunities to commemorate Yom HaShoah during virtual ceremonies in the coming days, including a Sunday morning commemoration with our sister city, Haifa, and later that afternoon with our partner organization, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), for a virtual Yom HaShoah remembrance and reflection and on Monday evening with several area congregations. I hope you will join me and others across our community and the world for these and other meaningful ceremonies.

As Passover concludes amid continued social distancing, may we continue to stay connected to one another, and to find meaning and inspiration in the various forms of storytelling, and commemoration, and celebration in the weeks to come.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Marc Baker

Marc Baker

About the Author

CJP President and CEO Rabbi Marc Baker is an educator, writer, and leadership mentor who is devoting his life to Jewish learning and building Jewish communities.