Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


The Pope with Rabbi Lau
at the ceremony - in
foreground - back of my
father's head
Pope Benedictus the 16th is visiting the Holy Land this week, stirring some trouble - immense traffic jams being the least of it. The Holy Father has disappointed many here - Jews, Arabs who were hoping for a spiritual message, but instead encountered a timid diplomacy.

On Monday, my father was invited, among a small group of Holocaust survivors and government officials, to attend the pope's ceremony of remembrance to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad VaShem - a mandatory event for every dignitary visiting Israel. I got to go along as my father's escort - a little celebrity-struck, and curious to witness this occasion, hoping, like many others, that something important will be said, some significant gesture to help heal the many hurts that still linger in this dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, and between all people of faith on this crazy holy land. It's not every day that one gets to see a Pope up close. And it's not everyday that the leader of the Catholic Church, who also happens to be a former member of the Hitler Youth, is invited to address the world inside a Memorial Tent for the Holocaust.

The Memorial Tent is situated in the middle of the Yad VaShem Museum, up on the top of Jerusalem's Memorial Mountain. It's a vast, dark chamber, made of concrete, where names of extermination and concentration camps are engraved in a rock on the floor and an eternal torch made of steel serves as the main source of light. It was set up with rows of white chairs towards the back. Security men stood every few feet. Swarms of reporters and camera crews were positioned inside and outside the tent, usually so quiet and somber.

Inside the tent we spotted my father's younger brother, Uncle Yisrael - Chief Rabbi Lau, who is currently the Chairman of Yad Vashem. In this capacity he was to be the one to officially welcome the Pope during the ceremony and present him with a gift. "Remember how we met the former pope in Rome? We talked in Polish for 45 minutes." My father sighs. "He was a good man." "It won't happen this time," my uncle replies. "I just got a copy of his speech. Gurnisht." (Yiddish for 'nothing'.)

It was a quick affair, mechanical and polite, a papal-puppet show of sorts - featuring a pope in white, a rabbi in black, a choir in black and white, a wreath, a candle, several lofty words, handshakes, cameras constantly clicking like gunshots. Keeping it cut and dry and solemn and simple, His Holiness and entourage of 40 cardinals in hot pinks and reds were in and out of the Holocaust Museum compound in 45 minutes as hundreds of policemen in blue exhaled a deep breath of relief.

The problem, as it was discussed all over the media these past two days, wasn't so much what he chose to publicly remember and proclaim at Yad Vashem, but rather what the Vatican chose not to say - and what not to remember.

He chose to remember the Patriarchs, the fathers of Monotheism. During his speech, in a very thick German accent and a small voice, lacking emotion, he called on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to remember the names of all their children. He invoked the call of Abel, humanity's first victim of brotherly hatred. And he chose to end in silence, "Silence to remember, silence to pray and silence to hope."

It was hard to understand him, even though I was only a few feet away. I jotted down key phrases and looked around - faces were stiff, eyes were dry, President Peres was fidgeting; my uncle was looking down at the floor.

Silence is sometimes noble and golden, but in this case, the Pope's choice to prefer silence was ominous. The man whose past is murky in regard to this dark chapter in world history - the Pope whose handling of Holocaust Denial among senior clergy has come under international attack - that same man, Pope or not, should not have remained silent inside that tent. Not a word of empathy, responsibility or accountability came out of his thin lips. He stood in silence, choosing to forget or ignore - but everybody else who was there remembered and noted.

"It's all politics," M., a reporter, shrugs as we discuss the event outside the tent, minutes after it is over. "The Vatican is walking a thin line between Israel, the Palestinians, the Church and the world - it's practically a ballet. He's a prima-ballerina. And he's got to stay safe and bland. And anyway, he's boring and has no charisma. Just forget about it...move on."

Forgetting about it and moving on is what's going on in this week's Torah episode, 'B'har B'chukotai' - where the art of remembering and the need to forget draw the map of human suffering and aspirations. Chapter 36 in Leviticus wraps up the third Book of Moses by describing the bad news - how disobedience of God's law will lead Israel into destruction, hunger, murder and exile.Verse after verse of horrors detail punishments that one can see on display in the halls of any Holocaust museum - prophecy turned into history - everything we'd love to forget about, but can't. And what of hope? At the end of tragedy, promises the Bible, there will be peace, and the promise of well being will be remembered. The one to remember in this narrative is God, who will 'suddenly' realize the reign the darkness on earth and bring it to a close.

"I will then remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the earth." (Leviticus 36:42)

God gets to remember and change history. We, mere mortals, made in God's image, are likewise reminded to do the same: remembering will bring about redemption. The past, no matter how awful, is acknowledged, honored, remembered - and redeemed.

In the middle of the Memorial tent, on Memorial Mountain, the real remembrance was present, even if the words were silenced; Even if no redemption touched our hearts. The Holy Father, invoking the fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, left remembrance of their slain descendants to the Great Father himself. Off he went to his next official event, a tired old man in a white dress and red slippers, perhaps bearing on his shoulders a cross too heavy and way more responsibility than any human should.

On our way out to the parking lot, my father and uncle meet up again. "Nu - just as I told you - nothing important." They shrug, and smile, and we walk away. Later that evening he is interviewed on TV, calling the visit "a shame - and missed opportunity."

"What will you remember about this event?" I ask my father as we're leaving the Holy Father behind, driving back home through roads lined up with policemen busy dismantling the security fences. He thinks for a minute: "I will remember that we came here together - a survivor of the camps with his youngest son. That's what I choose to remember."


  1. amichai,

    it is ironic that this pope, who took the name Benedict, chose silence instead of "good words", diplomacy over compassion. even just reading this, it seemed painful. your father and uncle have the truth of it.

  2. Stacey BlankMay 14, 2009

    What you wrote was profound and moving (tears at the end) - bringing the national together with the personal along with an important message of Torah. Thank you!

  3. AnonymousMay 14, 2009

    Your father's answer is maybe the only answer to
    anyone who down plays his responsibility to what happened to the Jews in Europe sixty years ago. Against all odds, against The Germans' plan , despite the Pope's ignoring of it, Jews and Judaism did not turn into a museum artifact as planned by Hitler.Here the next generation of Jews continues to thrive and be fruitful.

  4. AnonymousMay 14, 2009

    Thank you for helping me to remember why I am still passionate about Jewish Education. May we all get to be with our children, together as Jews, survivng because we DO remeber. We will keep the world remembering and pass on the treasure of our tradition to future generations.