Monday, March 31, 2008

Yom HaShoah Meets Earth Day

The Jewish Week 04/21/2006

This year, Earth Day (April 22) and Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 24-25) fall just a couple of days apart, giving us an opportunity to explore some connections between the two.

In Jewish tradition, respect for the health of the environment and concern for the dignity of human beings go hand in hand. The Nazis were notorious for their pillage of both the land and its inhabitants, and Eastern Europe is paying the price for that to this day. Judaism is so concerned about the earth that we have our own annual Earth Day, Tu b’Shevat, not to mention a weekly one, Shabbat.

Several years ago I visited the site of Dachau, the concentration camp just outside Munich. I say that I visited the “site” of Dachau, because it wasn’t Dachau. Yes, the name was there, right next to the infamous inscription, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Yes, the barbed wire was there, and the barracks, remarkably well preserved, and the ovens. Yes, there were memorials to the dead, marking mass graves of nameless victims. But it wasn’t Dachau.

Dachau was hell and this wasn’t it. There were flowers at this place, surrounded by fresh-cut grass. I could hear birds. I even saw a butterfly, which confirmed for me that this was not Dachau, for the famous Holocaust poem tells us that there were no butterflies in the death camps.

If this was not hell, then what was it, and why did it suddenly look so lovely, so natural? Was this a cruel trick by God, a vain attempt to reclaim that which God had ceded to the beast in humanity in 1933? Or was this God’s apology, this smattering of forget-me-nots and daisies embedded in cemetery sod, a plea for forgiveness, too little and too late?

Or maybe God was hoping, beyond hope, to give Jews one last chance to regain the illusion of an attainable paradise on earth, a thin veneer of April hope covering the reality of August hell.

“Here,” God is telling us, “I can’t give you redemption. All I can give you is this spring-like illusion. Let it ease the pain of your wanderings. Take it.”

On Yom HaShoah we say to God that this plan, however comforting and kind, can’t possibly work. We reject the illusion. We have seen hell first-hand; it won’t be forgotten. Time will not heal this wound. If renewal is possible following the Holocaust, a God who was absent during it cannot bring it about. God, who could not save the Jews, will also not redeem the earth. If renewal and hope are at all possible, only human beings can facilitate it.

Anyone can grow a few forget-me-nots.

There are two seemingly contradictory verses in Psalms: Psalm 24 tells us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” while we read in Psalm 115, “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth has been given to humankind.” This discrepancy can be resolved by drawing from it this lesson: Once upon a time, the earth was the Lord’s, but since the Holocaust, it is ours and ours alone.

Before the Shoah, when the earth still belonged to God, we, who had once experienced Paradise first-hand, could only imagine Eden’s opposite. As David Grossman wrote in his masterful novel, “See Under: Love,” “We always pictured hell with boiling lava and pitch bubbling in barrels,” until the Nazis came along, “showing us how paltry our pictures were.”

Now, nothing is left to the imagination. The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it; all of it, the people, and the flowers, too. Those flowers at Dachau have become a symbol of God’s ultimate helplessness and our ultimate responsibility. We still pray, though no longer for divine intervention, but in gratitude for the basic tools provided us: warm summer days, rain in its season, the miraculous ecosystem. We look to heaven for resolve but little else, for “the earth has been given to humankind.”

And the blood of our brother Abel is screaming from that very earth. We must care for the earth because our ancestors and martyrs are buried within it. The earth is not only their legacy to us; it is them — their bones, their blood, their illusions, their dreams, and their follies. Their cries seep through the ozone layer. Their tears fall as acid rain. Defoliated rainforests uncover their nakedness. We cannot go anywhere without walking on their bones. We must tend to their graves.

The earth is not only ours, it is us. Chief Seattle, a Native American leader of the last century, wrote, “This we know, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.” And in time our bones will rest there too, serving as a firm platform upon which our grandchildren will walk.
In caring for our planet, we sanctify the names of those who died and affirm life for those not yet born. We do it not out of the illusory hope that the world can be as it was, for we shall never return to Eden. We do it because we have to, because it is our responsibility. No one else will do it for us. And if we succeed, if the world becomes a better place for our grandchildren, then we’ll have taken a small step toward resuscitating a measure of hope. This is the best we can hope to accomplish in the aged of scorched flesh and earth.

So this year, I’ll mark Earth Day and Yom HaShoah with sadness and grim determination.

Because as a Jew, a human being and a guardian of the planet, I have no other choice.

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