A Reflection on Congregation Beth Torah’s
Annual Holocaust Remembrance Vigil
I’ve been going to Israel for 30 years now. As much as anything I have done, the pilgrimages that I have taken and then led to Israel myself through the years have helped to root my faith in the rich soil of Biblical faith. I have heard the Holy Land described as the “Fifth Gospel.” And the truth is that when you “walk where Jesus walked,” it changes the way that you read the ancient texts.
We all want the spiritual experience of the written Word that we find in the Bible to become the Living Word that stirs in our hearts and changes our lives, and this is what a pilgrimage to Israel can help to facilitate. Theologian Rudolf Otto called it the experience of the “numinous.” It’s that mysterious sense of presence that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s the feeling of reverential awe that comes when you realize that you really are standing on holy ground, and it happens every single day on a pilgrimage to Israel.
It happens standing in an alley in Joppa outside the house of Simon the tanner where the Gentile mission got its first big push from God by the visions that He gave to Peter. It happens floating on the Sea of Galilee remembering all of the Gospel stories of storms and miracles. It happens sitting in the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus taught and prayed. It happens wading into the waters of the Jordan where Jesus was baptized. It happens reading Matthew 5 on the Mount on the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It happens winding down the stairs to the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany where Jesus showed us that He is the resurrection and the life. It happens kneeling in the Church of the Holy Nativity to touch the spot where Jesus was born. It happens sharing communion in the Upper Room. It happens walking the streets of Jerusalem on the Way of the Cross. It happens stepping into the tomb from which Christ stepped on Easter Sunday.
The next Pilgrimage to Israel is scheduled for this November – Saturday November 14th through Tuesday November 24th. If you are thinking about joining us, now is the time to get signed up. Call Barbara Saffle at Strong Travel Services – 214-361-0027 – for information about arrangements, or me for more information about where we will go and what we will see and do – 214-361-6641.
Again and again, day after day, just like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), one’s eyes are opened and one’s heart is warmed by where we go and what we do on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But one of the places in Israel where this always happens for me has nothing to do with Jesus at all. In fact, it could be said that one of the places where this happens most powerfully during a pilgrimage to Israel is actually a witness to the absence of Jesus Christ and a monument to the abject failure of Christians to take Jesus Christ seriously. I’m talking about Yad Vahem.
Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Today Yad Vashem includes a Holocaust History Museum (pictured above), a Children’s Memorial, a Hall of Remembrance of the concentration camps, and the Museum of Holocaust Art all in a wooded forest on the western slope of Mount Herzl on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.
On my first trip to Israel 30 years ago, it was the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem that literally took me to my knees, not because I so powerfully sensed God’s presence there, but rather because it’s where I agonized over an experience of God’s seeming absence. Christ’s cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46//Psalm 22:1), was all that I could think about standing in that space on that holy ground.
This unique memorial, hollowed out from an underground cavern, is a tribute to the approximately 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocaust. Memorial candles, are reflected by mirrors infinitely in a dark and somber space, creating the impression of millions of stars shining in the firmament. The names of murdered children, their ages and countries of origin can be heard being read in the background. (http://www.yadvashem.org)
Every time I go to Israel I stumble out of that dark cavern with the names of the children resounding in my head and echoing in my heart. For the last 2 years I have had this very same experience right here in Dallas. Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, one of our Faiths in Conversation partners, takes 24 hours each spring to read the names of those killed in the Holocaust in a remembrance service that they have been observing now for 15 years. This service begins with some readings and prayers. And then 11 candles are lit in remembrance of 11 million who died in the Nazi death camps.
For the past two years I have been privileged to be part of the interfaith delegation that lights the first candle in memory of the spiritual leaders who lost their lives in the holocaust. And then for the next 24 hours they simply read the names of people who died. In 15 years of doing this the folks at Congregation Beth Torah tell me that they have read out loud approximately 100,000 names, and they tell me that they intend to keep on doing this until the name of every person who died in the Holocaust has been spoken out loud. They are resolved never to forget.
30 years ago, on my first visit to Yad Vahem, I exited the Children’s Memorial and found myself in the “Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.” Here are more names, each one beside a tree that has been planted in honor of someone who hid or rescued Jews in Europe during the Nazi Regime, doing what they could to keep Jews from going to the camps. 30 years ago I was so deeply affected by the Children’s Memorial, so shattered by the history of “Christian” betrayal and brutality towards our spiritual parents, the Jews, that walking among the trees with their markers of “righteous Gentiles,” many of them Christians, began to “restore my soul,” especially when I came upon the tree and the marker in the picture above.
Corrie ten Boom’s story “The Hiding Place” (1971) was one of those books that powerfully and permanently shaped my young soul. It taught me important things about providence, faithfulness, forgiveness and courage, so much so that Corrie ten Boom became and still remains one of the spiritual giants in my own personal “communion of saints.” She is right up there with Father Damien of Molokai, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Charles de Foucauld, E. Stanley Jones and Feliberto Pereira of the Rio Grande Valley. In a time when so many Christians failed to keep faith with Jesus Christ, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, Corrie ten Boom and her family, at great personal cost, took Jews – Christ’s “own” (John 1:11) – into their home and hid them from the authorities for just as long as the possibly could. When they were finally discovered, the ten Boom’s were all sent to a death camp together with the people they had tried to save, and only Corrie would survive.
Last Saturday evening at Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, the seventh candle lit was in memory of all the “righteous Gentiles” who were lost in the Holocaust, and I thought specifically of Corrie ten Boom of blessed memory. My personal commitment to and involvement with interfaith conversation, especially with the other branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths, can be traced right back to her. You could say that I was at Congregation Beth Torah on Saturday night because people like Corrie ten Boom and her family understood that God loves the Jewish people. They are the “apple of His eye” (Psalm 17:8; Zechariah 2:8; Deuteronomy 32:10). They understood that they couldn’t keep faith with the God they knew and loved in Jesus Christ without keeping faith with the Jews. And they challenged me to do the same. But it doesn’t stop there.
Every human being is someone who is made in God’s image. Every human being is someone for whom Christ died. And every human being is someone who is being drawn by the Holy Spirit. And this means that wherever and whenever people are being oppressed and threatened, harassed and abused, Christians have got to be right there standing with them in complete solidarity no matter what it costs. “We shall not forget” was the congregational response as the eleven candles of the holocaust were lit on Saturday evening. And “we shall not forget” is a challenge that I hear as a Christian with particular force. “We shall not forget” that God in Jesus Christ loves everybody everywhere, and any action or attitude on my part that would suggest otherwise is a betrayal of Christ and a contradiction of the Gospel. DBS+