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Kristallnacht - A Torah Response

Author: Esther Ehrman, Cheshvan 5765/Nov 2004

The Jewish people remember the events of Kristallnacht when Jewish properties throughout Germany and Austria were smashed and Synagogues throughout the Nazi land were burnt to the ground.

Why do we commemorate such events? Might it not be easier, perhaps healthier to forget them and move on? What do we teach our children? Is there a Jewish response to the many attacks perpetrated from time immemorial on the Jewish people, by Pharaoh, the Romans, Haman, the Inquisition, pogroms, Hitler?

One answer lies in the promise made by the Almighty to deal with the perpetrators; 'He will avenge the blood of His servants and will render vengeance to His adversaries' (Deut.32,43) as Moses assures the people just before he dies. We know also from the blessing given to Abraham by the Almighty: 'I shall bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you' (Gen.2,3), confirmed by the blessing given by Isaac to Jacob: 'He that curses you shall be cursed and he that blesses you will be blessed' (Gen.17, 29). It is a theme that recurs throughout he Bible. We are sure that the injustice of attacking the defenceless people in a pogrom situation will be redressed by the Almighty.

There is another response. It is mandatory to read one particular section in the Torah to the entire congregation, men and women, in the Synagogue, every year. It is the following section:

'Remember (zachor) what Amalek did to you by the way, as you came out from Egypt. How he met you by the way and smote your rear, all that were weak and enfeebled in the rear, when you were faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies roundabout in the land which he Lord has given you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven; you shall not forget' (Deut. 24, 17-19).

What is the function of that zachor (remember)? Is it enough to mark the date in the calendar? The Torah asks us to 'remember' a number of things. There is 'Remember the Sabbath' of the ten commandments. We take that to mean our formal sanctification of the Sabbath. If children have done something wrong, we say: are you sorry? Say so. There is a value in the formal acknowledgment. We are told to remember Miriam who was punished with temporary leprosy for speaking slander about her brother Moses. We remember it to stop ourselves from such activity. Most frequently, however, we are told to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. And we are told specifically that we must treat 'the stranger' well because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. In other words we know what suffering was entailed.

I would suggest that we are commanded to remember Amalek and everyone else who sought to destroy us 'when we were weak' to teach us that Jews must never do what Amalek did and what every other imitator of Amalek did. Justice will be meted out by the Almighty. The Jewish people must never behave like Amalek.