Today is Yom HaZikaron LaShoah VeLaGevurah, and though – as every day – my task is to study today’s daf (Yevamot 52) and to find or conceive an insight that resonates with me and – I hope – with others, the mood of the day affects my learning in terms of the words that I read, the voices that I hear, and the messages that speak to my soul.
I see the word מאמר – and while it refers to an oral declaration of marriage, it reminds me of our duty to speak up and bear witness about the Shoah.
I read the word פרחה – ‘depart’, which though used in reference to yibum, is often used throughout the Talmud to describe the parting of body and soul upon death, and I then think of the many souls who departed their bodies in the most cruel and inhumane situations.
I note the phrase כתב לה על הנייר או על החרס – ‘if he wrote to her on paper or on earthenware’, and while this too is mentioned here in relation to marriage, I think of the many testimonials of men and women, written on scraps of paper in ghettoes and on the stone walls of concentration camps, testifying to the fact that they were there.
And I see the word תיקו – which is a word used at the end of an intense rabbinic debate raising many questions and providing few if any answers and which appears twice in our daf, and I also know that in terms of the Shoah, we have many questions and few answers.
But then I take a step back and consider Massechet Yevamot, and while there are many concepts that we have encountered in this tractate that are hard for us to comprehend and that have since led to significant shifts in how we apply these laws today, overall it speaks of what we do in response to death – to which our Massechet answers with its own version of ‘choose life!’.
In conclusion, and to quote Rabbi Sacks: “If you were to ask what our response to the Holocaust should be, I would say this: Marry and have children, bring new Jewish life into the world, build schools, make communities, have faith in God who had faith in man and make sure that His voice is heard wherever evil threatens. Pursue justice, defend the defenceless, have the courage to be different and fight for the dignity of difference. Recognize the image of God in others, and defeat hate with love. Twice a year, on Yom ha-Shoah and the Ninth of Av, sit and mourn for those who died and remember them in your prayers. But most of all, continue to live as Jews.” (Radical Then, Radical Now p. 184)