Words – and More

It’s not a trick question: asked to name the two profoundly important twentieth century events in the history of the Jewish people, most even minimally connected and engaged would provide the same response: the shoah and the founding of the modern state of Israel. (More on why I stubbornly insist on “shoah” as opposed to “holocaust” later.)

We could even remove the date stamp, and simply ask the respondents to name the two most important events in the history of the Jewish people in the last millennium. Overwhelmingly, the replies would be the same: the shoah and the return of national sovereignty to the Jewish people in its ancient homeland.

If anyone is wondering, I’ve marked my own history scorecard with the same answers. In a history marked with tragedy after tragedy, the shoah is in a category of its own. Nearly one-third of an entire people; by many measures, the intellectual pinnacle of centuries of learning – decimated by a state-engineered attempt at complete genocide.

The rationale behind answer number two is nearly the historical mirror image. After nearly two millennia of exile; after Hebrew had been relegated to the dusty shelves of other “dead” languages; after the loss of sovereignty and even autonomy in the land where it all began – a miraculous return.

A supremely important question for a Jewish school – and particularly for a high school – is not whether either of these events are important. Both are – of course. Both need to be explored, examined, understood, and both need to be placed in the larger context of Jewish history.

The salient question is, I believe, which of these events should be emphasized – not so much for what it is, as for what it represents. Studying the shoah – trying to come to grips with the role of “bystanders” and enablers, attempting to parse what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil – these aren’t merely theoretical pursuits. They might lead to more effective ways of combatting similar catastrophes, and that alone makes them worthy of study.

And yet. While there is obvious value in our learning about the attempted “Final Solution,” it is an inherently backward-looking endeavor. Though the founding of the state of Israel can be traced minimally to 1948 (and more accurately to the Nineteenth Century – and even prior to that), it can be framed as the quintessential forward-looking experiment. How do Jews – how will Jews – create a society in which they hold the reigns of sovereignty? How will they – how should we – mitigate “power” with responsibility? How will we get along with others – and how will we get along with each other?

I can think of no more exciting, and innately more positive, conversation in which to engage adolescents. Looking back is crucial, it’s essential. Looking forward is – it can be – energizing and empowering. Let’s remind our students (and ourselves) that the future – our Jewish future – is exhilarating. And while the starting point may be Israel, it doesn’t end there. The future of the entire community – in Jerusalem and in Scottsdale – is something to be celebrated.

About that shoah-not-holocaust thing. I recognize that “holocaust” is the word most often used to refer to the Nazis’ attempted genocide against the Jewish people, and I’m not offended when it’s employed in that context. In this instance, etymologies are instructive. The Greek term (holokauston) refers to a wholly burnt sacrifice to the small-g gods. Shoah on the other hand is a similarly ancient word, though of Hebrew origin. In the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), it’s usually meant to convey complete and utter destruction. In the Middle Ages, Jewish scholars used it to refer to a disaster.

The destruction of a third of the Jewish People was not a sacrifice to the gods or to Gd; Auschwitz was no altar. Deeming it as such is a posthumous slur to those who died. It was indeed a shoah, a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. It was not a sacrifice to appease any Gd in any heaven.

Background: for those who don’t know me (yet), I am an unapologetic logophile – a lover of words. I’m a stickler for using alumnus and alumna for an individual graduate of a school and have been known to wince when former students are referred as ‘alum’ (I’m looking into a 12-step program).

In our particular context – a Jewish school, inculcating Jewish values and imbuing our students with an appreciation for and a love of Jewish history – the choice of our words is weighted with even more meaning. While we’ve been described as the People of the Book, we could justifiably be called the People of the word. Our Biblical narrative doesn’t begin with a thunderbolt or a theological big bang; rather, our tradition says that, Gd spoke, and the world was created. Words, quite literally, have power.

Breishit (“In the beginning”) in lieu of “Genesis.” Bamidbar (“In the desert”) instead of “Numbers.” Reclaiming our language may seem subtle, but it is a revolutionary act. It says that there is indigenous meaning, inherent in our choices. This is not solely related to the use of Hebrew over other languages; which words we employ in any language conveys profound meaning.

Words matter. How we say what we say does have consequences. The Jewish wisdom about slander and gossip is insightful: once spoken, words fly off into the wind, impossible to scoop back up, their impact deleted. The words we use can soothe and calm; they can infuriate and inflame. They can also help us lay claim to – to reclaim – a nearly 4,000 year old, majestic history.

שבת שלום – Shabbat shalom


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