The Responsibility of Freedom and the Power of Language: A Shabbat Message by Rabbi Berkman for Parashat Beshallach and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 26, 2024


This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion in which our ancestors sang what became known as “The Song at the Sea” (Shirat HaYam), having experienced the miracle of crossing the parted Red Sea, from slavery into freedom. Since that moment, through our long desert wanderings and the vast history of our people that has followed, we have held the responsibility of that freedom. We accepted at Mount Sinai a covenant in which we partner with God to bring justice, healing and compassion into this world. 

This Shabbat we also observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day, designated by the United Nations General Assembly to remember the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the millions of other victims of Nazi persecution.

This year, as we come to this day, we face a deep and growing ignorance of the Holocaust, denial of that history, and the resurgence of virulent antisemitism throughout the world. We also face a mind-boggling and very dangerous misappropriation of the term “genocide” as Israel fights to defend itself against the truly and self-proclaimed genocidal organization Hamas and to free the 136 remaining hostages from captivity in Gaza. While there is certainly room for thoughtful critique of the ways Israel has conducted this war, the charge of genocide is not credible, and is in fact dangerous.

As the number of first-hand witnesses to the Shoah continues to dwindle, and the ignorance and denial of this history grows stronger, it is important first of all to understand how serious a challenge this is. Please see this link for a recent study of young people’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the Holocaust, and this link for a study conducted in 2020 about the Holocaust knowledge of younger generations more broadly. 

There are, of course, bright lights in this world – doing small acts of justice, compassion, and honoring the few Holocaust survivors who remain. Here is a moving short video about a young person who regularly delivers Shabbat dinner to a 102 year old Holocaust survivor. 

I could never have imagined needing to commemorate Interational Holocaust Remembrance Day by uplifting the voices of reason against the case at the Hague charging Israel with genocide, but the need for education and understanding is urgent. I want to share with you the following speech by my teacher from the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Tal Becker, who is the Legal Adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. On January 12th, he gave the opening address to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as Israel’s representatives presented its defense against South Africa’s allegations of genocide by Israel in Gaza and its call for the court to order an immediate halt to IDF operations there. I urge you to watch or read his remarks at this link.

On this International Holocaust Memorial Day, the pursuit of justice for all is more urgent than ever. We must remember the power of language, of using words correctly, because genocide is born of false rhetoric, and to use the phrase heard widely since October 7th: “Never Again” is now.

Another piece for you to read and consider this Holocaust Remembrance Day is a message from Kenneth Jacobson, Deputy National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, about the dangers of using Holocaust analogies in this moment.

This Shabbat, we will do what our people has always done, even in times of  anxiety, mourning, and threat. We will remember the past and we will celebrate life – the life of the trees and the sustaining cycles of nature as we celebrate Tu Bishvat this evening, the life of our community, as we sing, pray, eat and schmooze at Shabbat b’Yachad, and as we mark a joyous moment in the life of one of our TOS families with a beautiful Bar Mitzvah tomorrow.

I am so grateful for our community of life, light, and love as we continue to live out our sacred responsibility as a free people to fight for justice, security and peace for all. As we celebrate our freedom, may we pray for the freedom of the hostages ripped from their lives on October 7th, and the freedom for all human beings in Israel, in Gaza, and around the world who want life, security, peace and freedom for all. May our actions and also our words be used in the service of those goals.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman