Back in November, when Rabbi Jan Uhrbach was our scholar at the annual Shapiro Lecture, she told a wonderful story that has stayed with me and, once you hear it, it will remain with you as well. I want to share it now because Monday, January 27th is a milestone anniversary that we all should be aware of—the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Granted, there’s nothing special about the 70th anniversary of anything—it’s just a number. Why should the 70th anniversary of an event be more significant or noteworthy than its 69th anniversary? Actually, what’s striking about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is that it reminds just how far in time we’ve come since that terrible and dark time in our history.
And now the story. Rabbi Uhrbach was talking about the importance of connecting to others when we gather for prayer and how we ought to be concerned about more than just our own spiritual fulfillment through prayer. She related how years earlier she was davening one Shabbat morning in a New York synagogue, trying to concentrate on achieving kavana (deep focus) in her prayers. A woman sitting by her side struck up a conversation with her, asking her several questions about who she was. Somewhat impatiently, Rabbi Uhrbach (who was not yet a rabbi at the time) answered her and returned to her prayers. The woman interrupted her again with more questions. Rabbi Uhrbach replied, “Ma’am, I’m trying to concentrate on my prayers…please stop interrupting me.” The woman turned to her husband who was sitting on her other side and said, “Look, dear, I’ve met this nice young woman…say hello.” Rabbi Uhrbach repeated, “Please let me daven…this is very distracting.” The elderly woman said, “You know, I have a history,” perhaps implying that she had a story worth hearing. “We all have a history, ma’am.” At that point, the elderly woman rolled up her sleeve and showed her forearm. “No, I mean I have a number…” Rabbi Uhrbach related that never had she been as mortified and embarrassed as in that moment. Here she was playing the role of self-centered worshipper trying to achieve greater piety, while ignoring the story of the person near her, who just happened to be a Holocaust survivor.
We’ve come 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, which is two generations of distance and increasingly faint memories. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz reminds us that the personal accounts of survivors and liberators are fading from our grasp, and that the sacred task of remembering is upon us with even greater urgency.
So I urge you to come to Oheb Shalom this Sunday, January 25th at 9:30 AM to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust through reflection and learning with Dr. Nili Keren, who will speak about the unique and universal nature of the Holocaust. Come to recommit to the sacred and time honored task of remembering. For if we do not remember, and tell what we know to our children and grandchildren, then the stories of suffering and heroism will be gone forever.
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