Commentary: Days of Remembrance remind us that doing good can undo evil

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Great evil challenges us to become great human beings.

During World War II, the United States became the greatest military champion of the world, fending off the “axis of evil” and bringing Adolf Hitler’s diabolical dreams of destruction to an end. But by the time the dust of war settled, more than 6 million of my people had been slaughtered in the coldblooded genocide known as the Holocaust.

Today, the pandemic of senseless hatred continues to infect our fragile societies, albeit in new-yet-old perverse permutations. It doesn’t matter from which ideological citadels or tribalistic base instincts our prejudice crawls out from. Hate is hate. And all morally minded citizens must take a stand against this fear-inspired enemy — discrimination — which threatens peaceful coexistence for everyone, everywhere.

As my friend, the Rev. Patrick Desbois, world-renowned Holocaust researcher and recipient of the Lantos Prize humanitarian award, once told me, “The more the world is aware of these crimes, the more we can prevent this evil (from) replicating itself.” In other words, the blazing flames of bigotry must be quenched with the soothing waters of education.

In 1979, the U.S. Congress established the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust as our nation’s annual commemoration and dedication to learn from this dark chapter in history. More importantly, these days serve as catalysts for us to take action in ways both large and small to prevent the hell on Earth that can occur if tyrants, dictators and unchecked hatred are allowed to roam freely in our cities and our minds. This is precisely what we owe the victims of the past and the heroes, who were both the Holocaust survivors and their saviors.

I’ve personally always felt my people have been the “canary in the coal mine” and that what has happened to the Jews throughout history is an indicator of what will befall all vulnerable minority populations who look, dress, speak or behave differently than the self-proclaimed standard-bearers of civilization. Throughout centuries of persecution, oppression and exile from our ancient homeland, the Jewish people have clung passionately to the democratic teachings of Torah, which promote freedom, social equity and sanctity of all life.

This is the lesson of the first-century Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, who was asked for his response to anti-Semitism by the Roman dignitary, Pappus ben Judah. The venerable sage responded that the Jewish people are like fish and the Torah is like water. The nets of fluid anti-Jewish prejudice may surround us, but if we were to abandon the water, we would surely perish. More recently, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a legendary 20th-century Hasidic leader and American refugee of the Holocaust, taught me that the vaccine to heal the world of supremacist extremism is to remind the world that, in the beginning, God created only two human beings. This was done so that all future generations would know that no matter what excuse we conjure up for thinking we’re better than the other, we all come from the same great-grandmother and great-grandfather.

As a chaplain representing the Jewish faith, I believe it is my duty to serve as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). I believe that seeing the good is seeing the God in our fellow human being. And I believe that out of darkness comes light and that we, united in our diverse states of being, can work together to create a world in which we treat each other as God’s children. In this way, we reveal the unity within our community. As retired Army Chaplain Brig. Gen. Israel Drazin once remarked, “It is the goal of all of the commandments. If we showed respect for all living beings and all that God created, wars would cease, and the world would be at peace.”

In conclusion, I’d like to point to another U.S. Congress resolution, signed into Public Law No. 102-14 by former President George H.W. Bush in 1991, which honors the legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and asserts that the “Seven Noahide Laws,” transmitted through God to Moses on Mount Sinai, are ethical values for everyone, regardless of religious faith. These laws include the freedom to believe in one God, to value all human life, to protect animal life, to respect the property of another and to establish a fair judicial system. President Ronald Reagan also signed a similar proclamation in 1987, affirming that these seven laws contribute to the historical tradition of positive values that have “been the bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization.” These universal values are termed Noahide Laws because in Jewish theology, all human beings descend from Naamah and Noah, who built an ark to save life during the biblical flood.

The point here is that it doesn’t matter what religion, ethnicity, cultural background or divisive identification labels we place on ourselves. We can share common values. We can share cherished memories. And we can never forget the power within each one of us to bring justice to the world.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote in reference to the Holocaust, “One individual had brought the world to the brink of destruction, but for the mercies of the Master of the Universe, who ordained that ‘the earth shall stand firm and not fall.’ Such is the power of a single human to do evil. A thousand times over is the power of each one of us to do good.”

Capt. Levi Welton is a chaplain of the 436th Airlift Wing at Dover Air Force Base.

Editor’s note: An act of Congress created Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust as the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust. This year, the event was commemorated April 8 by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with observances and remembrance activities held nationwide April 4-11.

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