By the Waters: Yom Hashoah 2011

Invocation, Sonoma County Yom Hashoah Commemoration 2011

Good afternoon. Shalom aleichem.

It is again my great honor to offer an invocation for today's observance of Yom Hashoah. We gather today, as we do yearly, to tell and hear our stories. We do our best to honor this testimony by listening, taking in what we can, and finding some hook by which we can remember and share it.

Armed with cameras and computers, we can ensure that future students of the Holocaust and human history will be able to unlock and explore the individual experience of many survivors, and of the survivors' survivors as well.

And yet, as time inevitably wears away at memory, so much specificity will be lost. So much dear specificity has already been lost. But I believe that if our individual stories do give way, they will give way to a big story, a great collective story, as brushstrokes give way to the painting. It will be a story that begins with the Shoah, but doesn't quite end there. A story of loss, yes. But also of courage, resilience and renewal. This story is still being written.

["By the Waters of Babylon" by Evelyn de Morgan (1883)]

We do, though, have a model that can instruct us. Over 2500 years ago, Jerusalem was conquered and our Temple destroyed. The Jews who survived were deported to Babylon. It was a calamity beyond any our people had faced. The end of a kingdom, a way of life; the seeming end of a community.

We no longer know the individual suffering or bravery of any particular Jew of the time. But we know the big story, the epic sweep of this event and its aftermath. Because it's not just a story of loss but also of survival and renewal.

The Babylonian Exile set the stage for a new Jewish world in which we read Torah publicly. And in which we pray familiar prayers communally. And in which our thinking is guided by the law and lore of Talmud. The Destruction of the Temple remains a symbol of loss, but also of the grit and genius of our people.

And we remember the Temple of Jerusalem because the story, the big story, has come down to us with song and poetry and practice. Every year we mourn with familiar words. Eychah yashvah vadad ha'ir — "How lonely sits the city that was full of people," we recite from Lamentations, "how she has become like a widow." We honor the suffering of the bereft, displaced Jews. Al naharot Bavel — "By the waters of Babylon," we can still hear them sing in Psalm 137, "we sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion."

So now it is our turn. It is for us, and our students and our children and those who come after them, to write our big story. The story of our People — what we lost, how we mourned and, we pray, how we once again came to flourish. An enduring story of loss and renewal. 

And so may we be blessed to write this story with such power and beauty that those who follow in 100 years — or 500 or 2500 — can hold this newest, greatest calamity in their hearts; that they can appreciate how it changed the face of Judaism in ways we can't at this moment even predict; and that they will know how in the aftermath we sat together by the waters of the Mediterranean or the Pacific; in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires and Miami and Santa Rosa. And we wept. And we remembered.


Sing: Babylon

Much appreciation to Lorenzo Valensi, Anna Belle Kaufman and Alicia Cohen for lending their voices and musical skills to this invocation today.