Commemoration of the Holocaust
May 4, 2016
I have taken an oath: To remember it all,
An oath: Lest from this we learned nothing. β Abraham Shlonsky
An oath: to remember. An oath that proclaims "Never again!" An oath we will swear again together tonight. An oath Jews have sworn for over 75 years; an oath we, Jews and Christians, have sworn together at this intersection for nearly half that time, for 33 years. For me, alongside three other solemn promises I have made β baptismal promises, ordination vows and Carole's and my marriage vows β this oath has shaped my life. With those other solemn promises, this oath has become the crucial lens through which I see and understand and interpret the events of our time and the course of my life. Because, what we are and what we do are not merely the products of nature and nurture, but are also a product of the promises we make and the promises we keep. When I look through that lens today, I do not like what I see.
"To remember it all β and not once to forget."
From remembering to forgetting to re-living what we have forgotten is, and always has been, a very slippery slope. Time passes. Memories dim. Horrors fade and shame diminishes. The lessons of history fade for us from vivid script to forgotten prologue to lost and separate volume. We focus on our own, on our now. We consign the need for oaths and promises to harder times and former generations. We convince ourselves that these will never happen again, at least not here and surely not now. Our commitment becomes less consistent, our vows less insistent. Rather than be hassled or else, in the name of politeness, we silently tolerate or blithely ignore the "little things" β the under-the-radar things β that grew and evolved until we needed such vows in the first place.
An edgy joke; a "minor" slur; and coded political innuendo β these we overlook or rationalize or dismiss or explain away. When opinion-shapers serve us scapegoats, we are too polite to challenge them, but we soon begin to identify ourselves by who we are not rather than by whom we are with. Togetherness becomes separateness; separateness becomes otherness and "never again" becomes β "Oh, no, not here; oh, no, not now."
In the Bible, in Torah, we read of such a time of forgetting. It begins on a hopeful note, in the final chapters of Genesis and the conclusion of the story of Joseph. Egypt, saved from famine and governed by Joseph, is thriving and Joseph, having gathered his family to be safe and secure there with him, is quietly, peacefully dying. Amidst such hope, he asks of them a pledge, a sacred, solemn promise, that "when God takes account, yes, account of you, β you will surely remember me."
Time passes; forgetting begins anew and eight verses, the Book of Exodus delivers its verdict: "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Yosef," and old horrors, now forgotten, are once again made new.
Ours is in a time for easy forgetting: Survivors are few, generations β the Shoa generation; America's "greatest generation;" the generation that dreamed and founded and built the State of Israel β are each passing away, with new generations who do "not know Yosef" now taking their place. As this time of forgetting ripens, we must strive to remain together because together we are strong, indivisible and have nothing to fear. We must train our ears always to hear;
sharpen our eyes always to see and open our mouths always to speak β together β for each other β at every time and in every place where separateness is asserted; otherness, exploited; and the singling out, exclusion or expulsion of some diminishes and destroys all.
In this time of easy forgetting, let us make our pledge to ourselves and to one other and keep it and repeat it, trusting the One and praising the One who "always takes account, yes, always takes account of you;" of us together.
Please rise and let us read together, "I have taken an oath" on page 261.
I have taken an oath:
To remember it all, to remember, not once to forget!
Forget not one thing to the last generation
when degradation shall cease, to the last, to its ending,
when the rod of instruction shall have come to conclusion.
An oath: Not in vain passed over the night of the terror.
An oath: No morning shall see me at flesh-pots again.
An oath: Lest from this we learned nothing
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
At Central Synagogue
in the City of New York