In the field of Jewish ethics, Reb Simha Bunum suggests a way for the human being to balance humility and self worth:
“Rabbi Bunum said to his disciples: “Everyone must have two pockets, so he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to the words:’For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left:’ I am earth and ashes.”
Anochi Afar va-efer (from Gen. 18:27)
Bishvili nivra ha-olam (from Sanhedrin 37a)
[from Volume 2 of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, p. 249]
The comic strip “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” by Zach Weiner has a slightly more complicated take on the same basic idea:
I brought a group of college students to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills Michigan today. The experience of visiting Holocaust museums always leaves me uneasy. While walking through the exhibit and listening to the docent, I am constantly asking myself, ‘What is the intended outcome of such a visit? What impression is it meant to give the visitors?’
The tour began with a nod towards the Armenian holocaust, with a look at a special exhibit by an Armenian artist. The implied message is, ‘See, Jews are not unique. It happened before, and no one noticed. There has always been tremendous evil in the world, and unless we recognize the signs and take action, it will happen again we will be guilty of complicity.’ At the same time, however, we wonder why, if Jews are not unique, there are no museums of the Armenian Christian Holocaust? Why don’t they remember and shout out warnings to the world, as we do?
The tour guide made the point over and over again that Jews are not unique. ‘Who is the Jew,’ he asked. ‘Every and any one of you,’ he answered. The average citizen who knew what was happening and let it happen made the Holocaust possible. You have to believe that it can and will happen again. You have to believe that you might be among the next set of victims, unless you understand how to watch for the signs and how to take action.
Then we approach the introduction to the permanent exhibit, pausing at a list of Jewish Nobel prize winners. A sign points out that Jew make up less the one percent of the population, but comprise 25 percent of the Nobel prize recipients. We are asked to imagine what the world destroyed when 40 percent of world Jewry was wiped out. We are invited to imagine how much better the world would have been if the brilliant potential of European Jewry had been allowed to flower.
I wonder what my students took away from the experience. I wonder what the two predominantly (or completely) non-Jewish grade school groups who were also visiting today took away from their experience. Did they absorb the message that Jews are better and smarter than other people, and therefore our tragedy is monumentally worse than the Armenian Holocaust? Or did they absorb the message that the same philosophy that gives birth to Jew hatred also spawns hatred of people of color, people with disabilities, and/or people of any minority religion?
The exhibit seems to want it both ways. On one hand, Jews are just like anyone else, and the next victim could be you. Other other hand, Jews are a unique treasure.
We realize that Jews have ritualized memory and the importance of remembering things, good and bad, to a depth possibly unmatched by other ethnic or religious groups. Deep down, however, I think there is deep Jewish ambivalence about what to do with the Holocaust memory. We have been trained by Passover and Purim and Yom Kippur to reenact our most important memories in order never to forget them. On the other hand, we recognize that the Holocaust was an intensely painful and deeply dysfunctional period of our history, and we understand that unlike our other historical memories, this one does not have a positive lesson unless we can convince other people to join with us in taking responsibility for the evil and guarding the world so it will never happen again.
Students — Tell me: How do you understand the experience you saw and heard today?
What do you do and say when your enemy falls?
Do you follow the advice of Proverbs 24:17, ” If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice?”
Or do you follow the advice of Proverbs 11:10, ” When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.”
Do you follow the practice of the Pesah seder and spill drops of wine and tears over the loss of life?
Or do you sigh with relief that a man dedicated to evil and death has been eliminated from our world?
Do you bless God, the righteous judge?
Do you bless God who breaks the enemy and humbles the arrogant?
Did you rejoice, or would you have rejoiced on this day 66 years ago when Hitler’s death was announced?
Did you take a breath in wonder at the coincidence of Osama Bin Laden’s death on that anniversary, on the oh-so-grim day that we remember the Shoah?
Along with that sign of relief and that grateful breath, let me just say that I am grateful to our President and our armed forces for their persistence. May it be understood as a message to Islamic fascists that attacks against our country will not go unpunished.