Overcoming Darkness: Examples and Inspiration from Jewish History
To commemorate this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Trust “encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide.” Hence, I wish to reflect on examples of how people have stood up for their human rights and freedoms, even by way of martyrdom. I aim to focus on selected examples from Jewish history in which people triumphed against ‘darkness’ by proclaiming, reaffirming, and commemorating their faith; to inspire the human pursuit of sparking and preserving light to overcome darkness.
people triumphed against ‘darkness’ by proclaiming, reaffirming, and commemorating their faith
Among the forefathers (patriarchs) of Judaism was Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. Jacob (Israel) was the son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Before his death, Jacob feared that his twelve sons would not remain faithful to Judaism. To reassure him of their devotion, they proclaimed to him: “Hear, O Israel” (“Shema, Israel”; שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל), “God is our Lord, God is one” (“Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad”) In response to their commitment to continue the faith of their forefathers, Jacob responded with relief: “Blessed is Adonai’s glorious majesty forever and ever.”
Throughout their history, the proclamation of the Shema prayer became the ultimate declaration of faith of the Jewish people, the descendants of Jacob’s sons. As Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains, Shema “is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night. It is said when praising God and when beseeching Him. It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say. It is the last words a Jew says prior to death.”
The late Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, who was also a graduate of the University of Oxford, described the proclamation of the Shema as “the greatest of all commands… the last words spoken by Jewish martyrs as they went to their deaths.” In Jewish history, there are numerous examples of people’s faith and devotion triumphing over darkness, even when the cost was martyrdom. For example, reference is commonly made to the ten martyrs who were slain by the Romans for their religious practices in the period of the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple. One of these was Rabbi Akiva, a leading Jewish scholar of the first and the beginning of the second century. Rabbi Akiva practiced and taught Judaism even though it was forbidden by Roman law. When the Romans found out, they sentenced him to a painful death. They took a large iron comb and began to scrape off his flesh. As he was being tortured, Rabbi Akiva joyously recited the Shema. His bewildered students asked: Rabbi, how can you praise God amidst such torture? Rabbi Akiva replied: “All my life, I strived to love God with all my soul. Now that I have the opportunity to fulfill it, I do so with joy!” With his dying breath, he sanctified God’s name by crying out the words of Shema.
In Jewish history, there are numerous examples of people’s faith and devotion triumphing over darkness, even when the cost was martyrdom.
As mentioned in Britannica, “the deliberate execution of an estimated 5,700,000 Jews by the Nazis during World War II dwarfed all previous ordeals of martyrdom. In current Jewish literature, the victims are regarded as martyrs since they died for the sole reason of being Jews. In contrast to previous occasions, they were not given the alternative of saving their lives by abjuring their faith.” Yet, numerous victims preserved their faith despite their ordeal. For example, Isaac Sevi, a Holocaust survivor, recalled as follows: “I never lost faith. Every night, I said ‘Shema’. Even in the barracks of Auschwitz.”
Following this Jewish tradition, from an early age I also learned and followed this customary proclamation of faith. As a further reminder of this custom, on the walls of my family’s home was always the artwork titled ‘Hear, O Israel’; an oil painting by my father, Jacob Pichhadze. It portrays a person during prayer, making his proclamation of the Shema.
Equipped with sources of inspiration, and guided by lessons from the past, each one of us can contribute to this life our own sparks of light in order to overcome darkness.
There are of course numerous other examples from human history that could be referred to and from which inspiration could be drawn. Any one of these examples reveal the ability of humanity to preserve faith and stand up against darkness, even when faced with the worst circumstances and risks. For the betterment of humanity, we should learn from the past in order to avoid repeating mistakes and to pave the way for a better future. Equipped with sources of inspiration, and guided by lessons from the past, each one of us can contribute to this life our own sparks of light in order to overcome darkness. For the sake of our personal and collective interests, may we all be successful in fulfilling this shared human need, aspiration, and obligation.