Today is both International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat. The coinciding of a solemn commemoration with a celebration of the trees and fruits of Israel makes me reflect on all the tenacious ways that new life is sometimes brought forth from barren situations.
The first time I took some visitors to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, they were hungry and so I asked at the Information Desk about whether we could buy lunch there. “Food?” the elderly woman at the counter said with amusement. “In a Jewish place? Of course!” As I paid for the food, the cashier said to me, “Smile forever and have a good life.”
On another occasion, when I was volunteering as a research assistant at the former concentration camp Majdanek, the educational coordinator served me a piece of cake and some tea. Of course I received it gratefully, but as soon as she left the room, I asked myself, “Can I really eat cake in a former concentration camp?”
After the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting, I was at a Jewish concert during which a rabbi suggested that some of us might have suspected that the event would be cancelled. To this he said, “If we cancelled our celebrations because of tragedies that happened in Jewish history, we would never celebrations because every day there’s been something, though we move on, we dance on because we believe the people of Israel live!”
As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Great is our sorrow and great is our task. Let us rescue the heart of man, the heart which may reach up to the heart of heaven.”
This is what the living owe the dead and this is how an olive tree that has been crushed and broken brings forth its oil to light up the darkness of the world.