Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת פנחס, תש״פ

Parshat Pinhas, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, July 11th, 2020

How NOT to Talk About the Holocaust

For those who attended our service on Saturday morning last week, I appreciated your cooperation in wearing face masks to our building and in keeping your physical distance so that we could connect socially and spiritually. For those who attended from home and for everyone here on Zoom, I appreciate your care for your health and the health of others. As I have been repeating since the beginning of this pandemic, we take our precautions at Agudath Achim because of that crucial Jewish value of pikuah nefesh, preserving both our own lives and the lives of those around us.

On Monday, Mayor Adrian Perkins voiced our city’s support of its citizens’ lives with a mandate for all to wear masks when visiting businesses. On Tuesday, in a video arguing against the mayor’s mandate, local State Representative Danny McCormick argued, “The government needed a villain. People who don’t wear masks will be painted as the enemy just as they did to Jews in Nazi Germany.” *Breathe.* Regardless of how you feel about wearing face masks or a mask mandate, McCormick’s statement should make you angry.

On the most basic level, McCormick’s comparison is simply inaccurate. Today, every person in Shreveport, regardless of whether or not a mask is worn, has access to the same goods and services, health, safety, and food. Yes, there are inequities in each of these arenas which we must address, but none have to do with wearing a face mask. In Nazi Germany, the Jewish people and millions of others were persecuted apart from others in society, with limited access to the resources needed to survive. Today, if a person wants to choose not to wear a mask, she can access all the same resources as her neighbors by way of takeout and delivery.

In Nazi Germany, whether or not a Jewish person chose to wear star, she was in constant danger of not only illness and starvation, but of physical violence from the very people whose job it was to protect her community. She was in constant danger of being sent to a concentration camp or a death camp or beaten or stolen from because of the tradition into which she was born. Today, if a person chooses to defy the mask mandate, she might not be allowed to enter a business until she covers her face, but there is no danger of beatings or murder.

When Mr. McCormick claimed in an interview after his video that he was not speaking about the Holocaust - rather, of Germany just before the Holocaust - he went even further in belittling the trauma suffered by so many millions. The agony and death of the Shoah did not begin with the camps, but with the ignorance of an entire society. The death of eleven million, not just from gas chambers, but from the hunger and violence suffered by so many long before they could even make it to Auchwitz or Berkenau, cannot be set against the discomfort of a piece of cloth on a face.

I hope I have made it clear that Danny McCormick’s comparison of those defying wearing masks with the Jewish people in the time of Nazi Germany is completely inappropriate and inaccurate. However, even pushing the content of McCormick’s statement aside, he had no right to make his comparison in the first place. I find that the medieval commentator Rashi explains why so much better than I could alone. In our parashah this week, we will hear the story of how the daughters of Tzelophechad stand up for their rights as property owners. In his commentary, Rashi explains that this was one of the few areas of Torah not written in the hand of Moses. Rather, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah, wrote their story themselves, as their female experience gave them a perspective that Moses could not see without them.

Our State Representative’s comments were not supported or inspired by the Jewish community. They were not even made in support of the Jewish community. In his statement, McCormick appropriated a story that is triggering and fraught with emotion for the Jewish people as a whole so that he could push an agenda far removed from our experience. The lessons learned from the Shoah are not his to rewrite and repurpose - we, the Jewish community, along with other communities persecuted throughout Europe at the onset of the Shoah, have the crippling but important responsibility of writing our Shoah Torah. Moses and endless generations of Israel were able to learn about the real personhood of women from the Torah of the Daughters of Tzelophechad. So too, the Torah of the Shoah is for others to learn and even fight for, but certainly not to re-appropriate for purposes other than combat of hatred, bigotry, and persecution.

This week has been fraught with public, troubling speech about the experience of the Jewish people, ranging from the insensitivity of a quick comment made by this State Congressman to the blatant anti-Semitism of an NFL star. Our job when we hear offensive or anti-Semitic speech, whether from friends or public figures, must be to own our identities, to explain to the world why such speech is hateful, even if it wasn’t meant to be so. Please remember that these difficult explanations are not just for our own sake but for the sake of all those who may be hurt by hateful speech.