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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Idan Scher

A Lesson to Uplift for Holocaust Education Month

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

On Nov. 7th, I attended a reception hosted by the Prime Minister of Canada, following an apology that he formally offered for Canada's refusal to accept Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939. The Prime Minister spoke at the reception and one of his most moving points was a thank you to the Jewish community for always being first to condemn evils in this world, such as limits to religious freedoms, infringement of human rights, and genocide.

We often speak of the many lessons that humanity must learn from the Holocaust. But there is a powerful and uplifting lesson that we so often forget to reference.

I think the Prime Minister touched on this lesson in his thank you to the Jewish community and I expanded on it recently.

I spoke in my synagogue on the very unique and powerful Shabbat of Saturday, November 3rd. It was the first Saturday after the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre and the worldwide Jewish community shared in a Shabbat of Solidarity on that morning. Congregants at our synagogue were greeted by three Imams and one of their young sons, Ibrahim. They came to show their support and to stand together with us. Upon entering the sanctuary, in addition to the many new and comforting faces that joined us, political representatives from every level of government were in attendance. It truly was a Shabbat of solidarity.The following is an excerpt from my speech on that very moving day:

In the aftermath of horrific events like the one that happened to the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, it is important to reflect on what message our leaders will share with members of our community.

On Sunday October the 28th, the Ottawa Jewish community hosted a standing-room only memorial at the local Jewish Community Centre. Towards the end of the evening, all in attendance were led in singing a song titled "Ani Maamin," or "I believe."

The words are some of the most well-known words in our faith that roughly translate to "I believe with a complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, I believe."

The time of the Messiah in Jewish terms is an era of Divine goodness in the world that will be brought through human action and effort. It is the era famously described by the Prophet Isaiah: And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift upsword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

We sang these words with a tune that is both haunting and awe-inspiring, a tune that has taken its rightful place as one of the epics of our people. It is today more important than ever to recall where this tune came from.

It's the story of a member of the Modzitz Hassidic group; Azriel David Fastag was a composer and singer in the Modzitz Hassidic community, then based in Deblin, Poland. He was well-known throughout the areas of Warsaw and Lublin for his melodic voice. Many would flock to the synagogue where he and his brothers would lead the services on the High Holy Days.

Azriel David also composed music and whenever he would complete a new melody he would immediately send it to his Rabbi of Modzitz, known in Yiddish as the Modzitzer Rebbe. It is said that the day a new niggun (melody) by Azriel David would arrive in Modzitz was a festive day for the Rebbe.

Despite this vibrancy, the hellish days of the Holocaust arrived and Azriel David was brutally forced onto a cattle car headed to the Death Camp, Treblinka.

Conditions inside the cars were unimaginable, with men, women, children, and even babies, gasping for air, crying, and even dying then and there.

Amidst this indescribable nightmare, Azriel David's eyes were closed and to the shock of all those around him, he began to sing. He started softly in a voice that was barely audible and then gradually sang louder and louder. As if he was once again leading the prayer service on Yom Kippur, as tears rolled down his face, he sang. At first there was shocked silence as his fellow Jews listened to this song of hope in the darkest depths. But then one voice joined and then another until the entire car was singing this piercing melody. The song travelled from car to car as this caravan to death all joined in this powerful prayer.

At Azriel David's request, two young men committed to bringing this new song to the Modzitzer Rebbe, who thankfully escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and ended up in New York. One of these young men was killed as he escaped the train while the second survived and succeeded in this mission.

On the first Yom Kippur after the war – one of Judaism's most sacred days – the Modzitzer Rebbe sang Ani Ma'amin, surrounded by thousands of survivors. With their eyes closed, eyes that had seen the unimaginable now filled with tears, they sang this melody. The Modzitzer Rebbe introduced this song saying: "With this niggun the Jews went to the gas chambers and with this niggun, we will march to greet the Messiah."

The story itself is hard to believe, how this precious song survived the Holocaust to become such an important part of our liturgy. But even more unbelievable is this story of courage and strength. The story of this song should inspire groups and nations around the world.

Here they were on their way to their death, and yet, they were singing these words. They were singing words that envision a totally different world, a better world filled with goodness and kindness. A world that 6 million Jews never lived to see.

I think of that first Yom Kippur and the thousands of survivors in attendance who lost everything; their husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, daughters and sons. Yet, they sang this song. They refused to give up hope. With an unbreakable spirit they sang this song and envisioned a better world. Not only did they envision and hope for a better world, but with passion and conviction they committed themselves to building a better world. Through this conviction, the State of Israel was founded, and in communities around the world, Holocaust survivors would help both Jewish institutions flourish and as well build infrastructure of goodness in their broader communities.

For so many survivors the only way forward was for humankind to take on the responsibility of ensuring that our collective goodness overwhelms the evil in our world. In other words, it is the active responsibility of every good person the world over to not just envision but to ensure "Never Again" is a reality.


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