“The Egyptian, Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, and no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” Mark Twain asked this question over a hundred years ago, and now, after going on the March of the Living, I think I know the secret.
Aaron, Brother of Moses, is commanded by G-d to light seven lamps of the menorah in the sanctuary – intending for it to be a permanent tradition. Sure enough, here today we still have the eternal light hanging above the ark. Why? You may allude to the Hanukkah story to explain the lamps, but the eternal light started long before that, in the Torah, in Parshat Beha’alotcha which we just read today. In fact, the eternal light has been shining for a pretty long time! It gives us kavanah (intention or direction), lighting the way on our path. But also, the light reminds us of how important it is to remember. G-d commands us, time after time, Yizkor: to remember. G-d says, “Remember the day you went out of Egypt” and “Remember the Sabbath.” G-d doesn’t just ask us to observe holidays, G-d asks us to remember our history, which is important for a number of reasons. The biggest of which, in my opinion, is to remind us of how we got to where we are today.
These thoughts weren’t in my mind yet in December 2013, when I signed up for a trip called the March of the Living: a two week trip to Poland and Israel from late April to early May. As the event crept closer, I began preparing for the march. I talked to my teachers, did make-up assignments, and listened in on our required conference calls. I wrote my name on the “March of the Living” luggage tags, packed everything on the packing list and soon enough, the day came when it was time to say goodbye to the homework and friends of my simple high school life, put on my ‘March of the Living’ T-shirt, and board the plane to New York. I met my soon-to-be good friends and stepped on the plane to the experience of a lifetime. The next day, we wake up in Poland, grab our matching backpacks, and load onto the bus. Then we get off and remember this isn’t just any tour bus taking us to any museum to learn about just any history. This is Auschwitz. And even though we know we signed up for a holocaust remembrance trip, this isn’t what we expected. The sun shines, the grass grows, and suddenly you realize that the holocaust wasn’t actually black and white like it was in Schindler’s List. It’s a museum now, flowers are planted along the hedges of the walkways, there are tour guides with microphones and listening devices through which they tell you stories of the thousands killed on this very land. This is no longer a fun escape from school for two weeks. They show us gigantic piles of shoes, then of eye glasses, clothing. The worst is the pile of hair, braids on top of braids taking up half of a large room, and you picture little girls getting their hair taken away from them. You picture your neighbor, or your child, or even yourself as a little kid who wore her hair in a braid sometimes. Many of the statistics that we learn aren’t new to us, but hit harder as they’re brought to life with real stories and images. And then we sit in the grass and eat our bagged lunches and act like teenagers, forgetting that we have to do it all over again tomorrow, but mindful of the fact that we feel trapped after a few hours, and some people were trapped here for years.
That afternoon we see Birkenau, a death camp. We gather around the holocaust survivor accompanying us, and she tells us her story. 85-year-old Trudy has been going on the March of the Living for six years. She says each time she goes through the camps, it gets a little easier, always hard but always worth it to be enlightening the youth with her experiences. She ends by telling us she has hope for our generation and faith in us to pass down what we learned. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just about passing down her stories, it was about making sure that everyone my age could go on this trip. If holocaust survivors are brave, strong, and heart-full enough to take us on this journey, we all HAVE to accept their outstretched arms. We had the honor of being with Trudy for the entire trip, and she never went without a hand to hold, or a person to talk to. We all treated her like a precious gem – getting to talk to her was an honor and a treasured moment every time; she’s one of the mascots of the Jewish people and the source of our strength. Every day in Poland we toured camps and ghettos and we kept Trudy’s words in the backs of our minds at all times, knowing we had to soak up as much information as possible to fulfill her wishes of passing it on. Usually when we recall the holocaust, the most horrendous part of our history, we simply say, “Never forget.” But that’s not enough. G-d doesn’t say “Never forget the Sabbath.” He COMMANDS us to REMEMBER it. And this year I got to actively remember. On Yom HaShoah, I was marching, with thousands of others, teens and adults, friends and strangers, Jews and non-Jews, from Auschwitz to Birkenau in the steps that our people took to death. But this time, as we walked we sang, wearing matching blue jackets and proudly waving Israeli flags in the air.
The second half of our trip was in Israel, and as soon as the plane landed our emotions flipped and everyone cheered. We climbed Masada and talked about how the Jewish people killed themselves before the Romans could get to them years ago. In Poland we were walking skeletons, exploring camps in shock and horror. But here, we were alive and full of celebration because we could rejoice in knowing that we will never again have to decide between being killed by ourselves or by others. A place where so many died was now filled with so much life and gratitude for where we are now. In the days following, we got a glimpse of the magical beauty in Tsfat, and felt the pride running through the veins of each Israeli citizen on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. To remember where we came from and how we got this far, once again on Yom Ha’atzmaut I was marching, with thousands of teens and adults, friends and strangers, Jews and non-Jews, through the streets of Jerusalem towards the Kotel in the steps that our people never got the chance to take. And this time, as we walked we sang, wearing our matching blue jackets and proudly waving Israeli flags in the air.
The March of the Living is an emblem of our strength and values. Our eternal light still shines because we don’t just sit back and say “never forget.” We stand up and we march. And we remember.
“The Egyptian, Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?” Here’s the secret: Struggle. We as Jewish people are destined to struggle. Look back at our history – Abraham struggled to communicate with God, Jacob wrestled with angels, Joseph fought with his brothers… we had to get through slavery and wandering in a desert before reaching the holy land. We’re programed to struggle – it’s in our blood. But we also accept it, by instinct, and use it to fuel our success.
The only problem is… ARE we struggling? In comparison to famine, slavery, flood, wandering hopelessly through desert? In comparison to the struggles of the holocaust, when the whole world tried to demolish us from this earth? No… we’re not. We’re living our lives, with maybe the occasional eye-roll at an anti-Semitic joke or a glance into current events that show discrimination elsewhere. But how can we be passing down this huge chunk of history if, really, we can’t relate? We say WE. But really, WE didn’t escape from the land of Egypt, and WE didn't experience the holocaust firsthand. It’s hard to remember something you didn’t do yourself, and scary to think about the firsthand witnesses dying off and the future of our people being left in the hands of those who have to recall our past journeys and carve out the new ones. The best we can be is secondhand witnesses, and as we pass stories down from one generation to the next, the tales will begin to get hazy and we fear that the eternal light is slowly dimming as our recollections get vaguer. Luckily, it’s not the details of our experiences that brighten the eternal light, but our passion, strength, and will to remember to rekindle it year after year. We say WE because we’re the same People standing here today that were in the Sanctuary when Aaron first lit the menorah; the same people with the same kavanah. In order to maintain our immortality, we have to actively remember our past. We can’t ignore our struggle, we can only embrace it and move forward with preparation for more to come. We cannot improve if we don’t know what we’ve overcome, and we cannot build up without knowledge of our lowest points. I’m asking you to send more teens on this journey to struggle, to feel sadness, anger, fear, and to help them build strength from those emotions. Force our younger generation to face reality head on, and to do the mitzvah of remembering as we are commanded to do so often. By creating the March of the Living Fund, a way to send high school students on a life-changing journey regardless of their ability to pay, I’m giving us all kavanah: direction and intention. It’s the “clouds of glory” that led us through the wilderness, the eternal light that shines in our synagogues, and the insight into both our past and future that we need to keep getting stronger. Never forget to remember.
To donate to the March of the Living Fund, write a check to the JCL (memo: "March of the Living") and send to:
JCL, Attn: Paula DeWeese, 3600 Dutchmans Lane,
Louisville, KY 40205