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May 10, 2024

“Never Again.”  For Everyone.  And For Us.

Angela W. Buchdahl

“Never Again.”  For Everyone.  And For Us.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl


This Shabbat rests between two powerful days of Jewish memory.

This past Monday,Yom Hashoah, we remembered the brutal genocide against our people that resulted in the murder of 6 million Jews.

And this coming Monday we will mark Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, this year adding more than 1500 names to the memorial list.  

As Jews, we observe these days as ones of Jewish remembrance, 
not Jewish history.
Because despite what you might have learned, 
we Jews don’t have a history.  
We have memory.

What do I mean by this?
The verb “Remember,” Zachor! Appears 169 times in the Torah:
Remember this day, when you went free from Egypt.
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt
Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.

How many times does the word “history” appear in the Torah?
When Modern Hebrew was revived in the land of Israel, 
they had to devise a word for “history” because it didn’t exist–
it’s historia.

When the Torah references something of our past, it’s a z’chira–
from Zachor–a remembrance.
Which is something quite different than history.
You see history is someone else’s story.  It happened to them.
History exists in a book on the shelf, even after the protagonists are gone. 
But memory is OUR story. It happened to us. 
And Memory cannot exist without Rememberers.  
Every Jew is a memory keeper.  

Last month we observed one of the greatest memory-keeping exercises 
at our Passover Seders. 
If you recall, we do not tell the story of exodus as ancient history.
Instead, b’chol dor vador, in every generation we are commanded to remember that we personally were slaves in Egypt.
We taste our tears, we build sandwiches of mortar and maror
we ingest our affliction.

And the weight of that personal memory–from enslavement to redemption–
demands something of us.
But not every Jew has interpreted its command the same way.

I remember a powerful conversation our former president Abby Pogrebin 
shared in an article in The Atlantic for Passover 2022. 
She hosted a podcast with Rabbi Dov Linzer, an Orthodox rabbi, and told him that at her childhood seders, the primary command of her family’s Jewish memory of enslavement
was compassion, and her Seders emphasized the verse: 
“you shall not oppress the stranger because you were once the stranger.”

Rabbi Linzer, surprised, said that this Exodus verse does not appear in his traditional Haggadah.  Instead at his childhood seders, his memory of our enslavement demanded our vigilance and resilience, summed up in the verse: “in every generation, our enemies rise up against us to destroy us, but God delivers us out of their hands.”

This contrasting demand stemming from Jewish memory can also be found in the Jewish response to the Holocaust.  For some, our rallying cry— “Never Again” —commanded the universal call for all oppressed people, everywhere, for we were once those people.  For others, Never Again called for the primacy of self-defense and protection for the Jewish people, who in every generation, continue to be the targets of a particularly pernicious hatred.

Menachem Begin was the first prime minister of Israel who had lost close family members in the Holocaust – the Nazis had murdered his father, mother, brother and other relatives. He instituted the practice of bringing every foreign leader who visited Israel to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum, and his memory deeply informed his leadership.

In 1981, believing Israel to be under imminent threat, he ordered a surprise attack against Osirak, a nuclear reactor in Iraq.  
He famously said the first lesson from the Holocaust was: “If an enemy of our people says he seeks to destroy us, believe him.”  
For Begin, the fear of another Holocaust was real and he acted upon the command: Never Again. 

But Begin also understood that  “Never Again” was not just about the Jews.

In 1977, in Begin’s very first act as Prime Minister, he made sure Israel took in a large group of Vietnamese refugees who the world called  “boat people,” making Israel one of the first nations to grant them asylum.  He oversaw the immigration of 360 Vietnamese refugees and urged other nations to do the same, powerfully saying: “We have learned from the history of Jewish ships that wandered the 7 seas seeking shelter only to be refused. We will never forget the ship that left Germany before the Second World War broke out…no other country wanted them either, many of them brought back to the gas chambers. We as a country of Jews will not tolerate injustices done by humanity in the past, therefore we will give sanctuary to these refugees who chose freedom.”

Now for students of Israel, Menachem Begin might not be the leader you would select as a role model.
But the Holocaust was not just history for him.
It was a memory, seared in his kishkes, and it demanded a response:
Both to remember all people, and to protect our own.  

I will be honest, it’s hard to recreate a true, physicalized memory of our exodus through a Passover seder.  Even if gefilte fish is a food of oppression.  
For most Jews, our enslavement in Egypt, the expulsion from Spain, the pogroms in Europe, even the Holocaust—they feel like distant Jewish history.

But on October 7, this was branded into our Jewish memory.
We tasted our tears, we were sandwiched between injustices and suffering, 
we ingested the flagrant antisemitism.  
We personally experienced it. We ached, raged, worried and wept.
This memory has ignited an emotion, an urgency, that has surprised us. 

For months after this shared trauma, our congregation and the wider Jewish community felt united in grief, in purpose.  
But as the war continues, as hostages remain in captivity, as humanitarian aid is delayed or intercepted, as rockets rain down from Iran and Lebanon, as an operation in Rafah begins, as campus protests wreak havoc, as antisemitic speech becomes increasingly normalized and tolerated —our community both here and in Israel is fracturing over the responses to it all. 

It has gotten so bad that the dialogue on a large Jewish listserv I’m on 
has devolved into the hurling of insults of kapo or schmuck at fellow Jews. 

Putting aside the most extreme and dangerous elements from each side, 
the vast majority of Jews currently fighting each other, sometimes within generations of families, are ethical, righteous Jews, struggling with what their Jewish memory demands of them:
Is it First and foremost to Remember the Other?  Or to Protect our Family?

The answer has to be both. We are commanded to Remember BOTH.
WE are all now the Jewish memory makers of October 7 and its aftermath.  
This story is not yet fully written.

Zachor! We are commanded to remember: Do not forget what Hamas, Iran, and the other enemies of our people did, and will continue to do.  When Hamas says in its charter that it will exterminate Israel and Jews, when it promises to rain more October 7 on Israel, believe them.
Do not be naive.  There is no moral currency in perpetual victimhood.  
We have a moral responsibility to protect our people.  Never Again.

And Zachor! We are commanded to remember the Palestinian people have a right to self determination and safety in that land. Hamas is surely one of the greatest impediments to their freedom and safety. But Israel cannot be redeemed until both peoples on that land live in safety and freedom and we must do everything in our power to bring about that day. It feels impossible to imagine how that might happen right now. But we have seen, time and again, the impossible made real. Because our story is not only one of enslavement, but also our truly unlikely freedom. We have tasted bitterness and tears, but we have also tasted rebirth and redemption.  That too is in our memory.

Never Again.  Our Jewish memory demands all of this.
For Everyone.  And for Us.  

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.