Rabbi Cohen at Cypress College on Yom HaShoah

screen cypressThe candle, the silent flame that illuminates the darkness. So gentle, so fragile, but also so powerful.

Tonight, we remember the six million Jews, one and half million of whom were children, eleven million people in total, whose lives were so quickly extinguished for no other reason but power and hate. Tonight is Yom HaShoah. How many of us know what those words really mean? We call it Holocaust Memorial Day, but the Shoah means catastrophe, destruction. And it was just that, an attempt to destroy the Jewish people, to burn them out of collective memory and future.

Heidi CypressThe flame, so powerful a tool. It was used to burn books, to destroy buildings, to burn bodies in the crematoria, the smoke rising up to the heavens as a burnt offering. But this was not an offering God sought. God wept as God’s people were destroyed – any person, any religion, anyone whose life was so violently destroyed, this was and is a Shoah, a catastrophe beyond words and understanding.

Yet, here we are today, 71 years after the war came to an end. Here we are standing together to hold on to the sacred obligation, Never to Forget and Never Again. Words that come easily to our lips, yet there is still need for action in our world because the flame of hate still exists. Each of us here tonight, we have the power and the ability to make sure the world never forgets and to bring a reality to never again. If we didn’t believe it, then why would we even come together?

Some may be here out of curiosity: I’ve never experienced a Yom HaShoah program, I wonder what it will be like? Some come out of habit: Every year I seek out a Yom HaShoah program to hear the memories as I have done year after year. Some come out of obligation: I have to listen, I have to remember, for if I don’t who will?

Rabbi Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Yom HaShoah is an opportunity to hold on to our history and remember the destruction, those who were murdered, and face a part of our history that is ugly and painful. If we don’t participate in this time of memorial, then who will? Who will remember and carry it on to the next generation? It is up to us to listen to the words of the survivors and carry forth their stories. It will not be too long into the near future when these witness’s voices will be silent. But we don’t do this only for ourselves. We do this for our world, our children, future generations – for if we only take this moment for ourselves, then what are we but voyeurs into a gruesome past. And if not now, if we don’t take these precious moments, we never will. Time moves too quickly and the intentions we create somehow get lost in the shuffle of life. So when? Now, now is the time that we remember, that we turn the flame from destruction to life reaffirming. That the flame illuminates our history and sets us on a brighter path for the future.

Our world is still filled with hate and misunderstanding. It is all of our responsibilities to be bearers of the torch for justice, compassion and respect. Genocide is not something of the past, it is happening in countries such as Syria, Darfur, Iraq, Somalia and the Sudan, these countries are all on genocide watch. And even here, in our own communities, hate exists. And the question looms, what are we doing about it? It is not enough to only be aware, it is important to be active participants.

Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Ancestors teaches, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of creation, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are given the gift of this beautiful world, yet, it is not complete. There is still so much left undone, so much loving kindness that we must put into this fragile planet and our communities. It is up to each of us to build and sustain justice, ensure equality for all, and maintain respect for all people, regardless of religion, race, or creed. We are the guarantors for future generations that they will have a world of peace, a world where they can live unafraid to be who they are and proud of the generations who came before them to ensure a life of shalom, wholeness and peace.

The single flame – in its simplicity it is beauty, in its depth it can burn. Tonight, as we are gathered here remembering the Shoah, the catastrophe that fell upon our people over 71 years ago, may we turn the flame of destruction into a light of peace. May we listen carefully to the words of our survivors and those who join us on this stage who share the light they entrust into each of us to become bearers of the light of justice, compassion, and respect.

May this be our light of blessing tonight and always.


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