Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Never Forget – From the Forest to the Trees


Operation Inspiration

In 1951, the Knesset of Israel established the 27th of Nisan as Yom HaSho’ah v’HaGevura, the day of the catastrophe and heroism, memorializing those who perished in the Holocaust and in honor of their bravery in the Ghetto uprising. While many great Rabbonim were against establishing a day of mourning aside from Tisha B’Av, which is the source of our exile to this day, Yom HaSho’ah is observed by a wide swath of Jewry around the world.

This day resonates with many Jews who are otherwise only limitedly affiliated, because they have relatives who were murdered, or else survived brutal torture. One such person is the reason for my writing this today.

Subcribe to The Jewish Link Eblast

On Yom HaSho’ah, I saw a photo of a woman’s arm. On it was tattooed the number assigned to her by the Nazis ys’v in the concentration camp. Directly next to her arm was the arm of a younger male. Tattooed on his arm, in bolder print, was the same number as the woman (presumably his grandmother) and beneath it were the words in Yiddish, “Zolst kein mol nisht fargessen,” which in English would be, “Never Forget!” It pained me to no end.

First of all, there is a prohibition in the Torah to tattoo one’s self. Though its applicability in various circumstances is a matter of discussion, in terms of whether the prohibition is a Torah one or only Rabbinic, the purpose of the Nazis tattooing the Jews was to cause them mental anguish that they would have a permanent violation of this law. For someone to purposely get a tattoo in solidarity with a survivor is well-meaning but misguided.

Second of all, the tattoo on his arm seemed to be his resistance to what the Germans tried to do to the Jewish People, his grandmother included. People make the argument that the Jews in Europe were almost complicit in their own demise by not fighting back against the Nazis (though many did join resistance groups and partisans that hid in forests and such.) I am saddened that the only thing he took out of what she went through was that people hate Jews.

Which leads me to the phrase, “Never Forget.” In Judaism, we don’t tend to forget easily. We constantly remember things like the Creation of the world, our Exodus from Egypt, and most specifically, we are adjured to NEVER FORGET the day we stood at Sinai and received the Torah. Between Pesach and Sukkos, we remember that the students of Rabbi Akiva died and we observe a mourning period, and in the summer, we have the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av when we mourn the destruction of the Temples. Why, then, do we think we will forget the millions who died in the Holocaust? More importantly, what exactly is it that remembering is supposed to do for us?

There is an expression in English, “Not seeing the forest for the trees.” It means that one who wishes to view the forest’s beauty can be annoyed that his view is obstructed by a tree, without realizing that the tree is part of the forest he’s trying to see. To me, the Holocaust is a very large tree in an even larger forest. The pivotal need, which I feel many miss, is to recognize that this tree is part of the larger forest.

For many, Never Forget is the battle cry of the Jews who won’t be fooled again; who won’t let the Germans or any other haters attempt to wipe us out. It leads to, “Never again!” – a promise we can try to fulfill but which is really not in our control. But I wonder: what happened to those who said, “Never Again!” after the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash? The Inquisition? The Cossack massacres? Did everyone simply forget what happened and fall for the same old tricks?

The answer is of course not. Those who follow Torah as their guide recognize that these events are all just trees in the forest of our exile, brought about by our own failures as individuals and communities. Yes, we do and have done wonderful things, but we’ve never completely turned around the failure of our nation.

On the 9th of Av, the Jewish People cried when they heard the negative report of the spies Moshe had sent into the land of Canaan. Instead of trusting in Hashem, they trusted in these men who denigrated the land Hashem promised them. Exile was decreed, and we’re still suffering.

To me, what we need to never forget is not what anyone else did to us, because they are only messengers of a loving G-d, having to mete our bitter medicine for our own good. It is mind-boggling how these tragedies could be good, but our tradition assures us this is the case.

When we mourn during Sefira, we acknowledge that the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students weren’t an unfortunate result of some pandemic, but were of their own doing, because they didn’t treat each other with proper respect. When tragedies befall us, we must never forget that they are there to remind us of what we are supposed to be. If we learn the lessons, we can put an end to the pain.

The victims and survivors are heroic, indeed, and those who survived were saved from the clutches of the enemies for purposes only Hashem, Himself knows. The hope, however, is that what they and their families remember is that the Holocaust was not something we could have stopped by physical means. Like all the other tragedies to befall our nation over the millennia, the only solution is to return to Hashem with all our hearts and be kind and respectful of each other.

It is my sincere hope that we can all begin to see the world around us as Hashem urging us to be the best we can be, and recognize that He is not trying to drown us, but teach us how to swim.


© 2023 – All Rights Reserved

Did you enjoy this column? Feedback is welcome and appreciated. E-mail info@JewishSpeechWriter.com to share your thoughts. You never know when you may be the lamp that enlightens someone else.

Leave a Reply