10 Omer 5773
5 April 2013
Yom HaShoah 5773
As we return to school and work after Pesach, this is a time of year when we acutely feel the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. These are the days of the counting of the omer (sefirat ha’omer), during which we count each of the 49 days from Pesach to the next festival of Shavuot, commemorating and marking the journey from our freedom from slavery to our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. They are also days when we beat to the rhythm of world Jewry, Jewish history, and the phenomenon of the State of Israel. Soon we will commemorate Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, and then Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
Next Monday both the Gann community and the Greater Boston Jewish community will observe Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. This day has new meaning for me this year because of my recent trip to Poland, my first pilgrimage to the concentration camps not only to remember but also to bear witness myself to the evil and the suffering of the shoah. As we approach Yom HaShoah and as I begin processing my experience, I would like to share something that continues to resonate with me—or haunt me.
Regardless of how many times I visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, in Jerusalem, I am always speechless at the part of the exhibit where you see the names of the Nazi leaders with each of their advanced academic degrees. These were not mindless people. They were the intellectual elite of society. They had been through the Academy, which was supposed to hold the promise of the Western Enlightenment ideals that science and reason would lead the way to a more humanistic, universalistic, progressive, perhaps, even redeemed world. Yet they perpetrated the most horrific crimes against the Jews and humanity that we have ever known. They channeled their intellectual creativity and scientific thinking into building the killing machine that carried out the shoah with mindboggling efficiency and effectiveness.
For those of us who are dedicated to educating the next generation, this is humbling, if not frightening. It is a stark reminder that the intellect is just a tool and can be used for good or for evil. As my colleague Rabbi David Starr pointed out, this highlights how essential Gann’s mission is: to educate sophisticated, healthfully skeptical, critical, and independent thinking students who do not just do as they are told, nor take the word of authority figures as truth. We must train our students to question and challenge even the “powers that be.”
What the world also needs from Gann Academy is for our community to develop our students’ hearts, their consciences, and their moral characters. We need to develop a generation with the moral conviction, courage, and confidence to stand up for what they believe is right even when it is unpopular and difficult. We need citizens and leaders who are willing to navigate a world of moral complexity and value conflicts with humility, and yet who strive for moral clarity and for, in the words of Oliver Wendell Homes, simplicity on the other side of that complexity.
As we face this tragic history in the coming days, one question we might ask ourselves is: How can we educate ourselves and our children to question, challenge, and appreciate complexity all the while striving for moral clarity and developing moral conviction?
Rabbi Marc Baker