Yom Hashoah in the Shadow of October 7th

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How do we mark Yom Hashoah post-October 7th? Some people have rightfully argued that it is inappropriate to use Shoah language when referencing the tragedy of October 7th. As horrific as October 7th was, it is not the Shoah. The Shoah was unparalleled in its enormity, in its systematic attempt to commit genocide on such a large scale. As such, comparing the Shoah to October 7th is simply misplaced. We have an army and we have a strong army now. We have the means to fight back and defeat the enemy. To commemorate Yom Hashoah in the shadow of October 7th in some sense dilutes the magnitude of the Holocaust. We need to take time this Monday reflecting on the greatest tragedy in our modern history, on the murder of six million Jews at a time when the last of our survivors are slowly fading from the scene. That being said, I think that there is an aspect of Yom Hashoah that directly relates to October 7th and its aftermath.


Today we read about the Yom Kippur ritual service. The Torah introduces this ritual service by telling us that God told this to Aaron אחרי מות שני בני אהרון – after the death of the two children of Aaron בקרבתם לפני ה׳ וימתו – when they drew too close to God and then they died. We introduce the Yom Kippur ritual by explaining that it was commanded in the aftermath of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Rashi explains that God is warning Moshe that we may only enter the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim at specific times while performing a specific ritual; otherwise, he will suffer the same punishment as Nadav and Avihu. However, I think that there is another connection between the sin of Nadav and Avihu and the Yom Kippur ritual. The Yom Kippur ritual is very unusual. Yes, it has the standard sacrifices that we offer. But there’s something else besides the sacrifices, and that is a lottery. Now a lottery is exciting! A game of chance at the mikdash! Casino night in the mikdash! Can you imagine the scene? March Madness at the Mikdash! Everyone is given a bracket and they have to make a whole bunch of selections. Which goat will be selected? Will the scarlet thread turn white? If the scarlet thread does turn white, at what time exactly will it turn white? Will the Kohen emerge from the Kodesh Ha-Kodoshim alive? Talk about a mikdash fundraiser. But only on Yom Kippur – only on Yom Kippur is there a lottery between two goats, but not just any goats. The gemara in Yoma 52a tells us that the mitzvah is for the goats to be identical in appearance, size and value and the two goats should be chosen together. This is a very bizarre type of worship. Two goats that are identical are selected, and one is randomly selected to be accepted by God as a sacrifice and one is randomly selected to be rejected by God and sent away to the desert. Why such a strange ritual?


In his commentary to Parshat Acharei Mot, the Abrabanel quotes a midrash (Breishit Rabba 65:15) which sees the goat that is sacrificed for God as representing Yaakov and the goat that is sent away as representing Esav. After all, just like the goats are identical, Yaakov and Esav were identical. Rashi in Parshat Toldot explains that when they were younger, they seemed very similar, although at some point the two brothers parted ways in their behavior. And there are some parallels between these brothers and the goats. After all, a goat that is selected here is called a “sa’ir” which is related to “sei’ar,” meaning hairy, which is how Esav was born. In fact, Esav lived in the land of Seir. The phrase “shnei se’irei izim” – two goats from the Yom Kippur ritual mentioned in this week’s parsha, is very similar to “shnei gediyei izim” – the two goats mentioned in Parshat Toldot when Rivka prepares them for food for Yitzchak when Yaakov deceives him to receive the bracha. Yaakov and Esav may seem similar. In fact, they are so similar that Yitzchak cannot tell them apart. But they are so different. The two goats on Yom Kippur seem completely identical, but in reality, one will go to God and one will be sent away from God. There is a Yaakov and there is an Esav.


Maybe the two identical goat ritual is a direct consequence of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. The sin of Nadav and Avihu is that they were overcome with passion for God that they ran into the kodesh ha-kodoshim to serve God unauthorized. Is that really so bad? What they did emanated from a genuine love of God. On the surface, their behavior didn’t seem to be that offensive or even wrong and this is not just the failure of Nadav and Avihu. That is the failure of each and every one of us which we are confronted on Yom Kippur with the Yom Kippur goat ritual. We go through life thinking that two goats are completely identical, that our behavior is all good, and then we realize that maybe, yes, certain behaviors are good. Certain behavior are accepted by God, but certain behaviors must be sent away. The goat ritual challenges us to confront our assumptions when we think that everything is good. Everything is identical. Everything is the same. There is no right or wrong. As long as I have good intentions like Nadav and Avihu, then I’m good. No. There is right and there is wrong. 


Let me read to you the following passage: “Somewhere along the line there has been an erosion of our sense of right and wrong; that is, we have lost our belief that certain actions are wrong simply because they are wrong, whether or not they violate civil statutes… It is not that we do not live up to professed moral values; the latter-day concept is that there are no fixed, permanent moral values for anyone to profess.


Were I a theologian, I would say that we have lost our sense of sin, that we no longer believe in the existence of evil.” 


Who said this and when was it said? This was probably said by some modern thinker critiquing the current state of moral relativism, of those equating Israel’s war against Hamas in an urban setting with genocide, right? Wrong. Vermont Royster, editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote this passage in 1974, fifty years ago. The fear of ethical relativism and situational morality has plagued our society from the beginning of time. These two goats seem exactly the same. Yaakov and Esav seem exactly the same. Nadav and Avihu entering the kodesh ha-kodoshim is just like any other holy act! No! The two goats are not the same. Yaakov and Esav are not the same. Nadav and Avihu’s sacrifice is not the same as other sacrifices. And Israel’s war against Hamas is not the same as genocide no matter how many catchy cheers you can come up with! 


Yes, October 7th is not the Holocaust and we must utilize Monday to reflect on the greatest Jewish tragedy in our modern history and one of the greatest Jewish tragedies of all time, but there is a definite message that connects to October 7th and its aftermath. And that is: NEVER AGAIN! Never again! We reflect on the enormity of the tragedy and then we pledge never to remain silent in the face of antisemitism. Part of this pledge is to be aware how antisemitism starts and festers and spreads. There are real antisemites. Glatt kosher 100% mehadrin min ha-mehadrin antisemites. You will never change their minds. But there are so many ignorant people out there. So many “useful idiots” who simply identify with the oppressed without probing into the causes of oppression. Many of them just don’t know any better. And it is our responsibility to educate them. Yes, many people will not change their minds and many of them make a lot of noise, but we must continue to explain that these goats are very different. That waging a war to secure your country after being viciously attacked is very different than waging a war unprovoked. We must be able to articulate that, yes, we believe in free speech but not in hate speech and why many of the protestors at university encampments are engaged in hate speech and not just free speech. We must tell these ignorant college students that if we would say exactly what they are saying about Jews or Zionists but replace the word “Jew” or “Zionist” with “black” or “gay,” then they would consider that speech to be hate speech. If it’s considered hate speech when it’s directed against blacks and gays, then it should be considered hate speech when it’s directed against Jews or Zionists, as well.


Never again is a Yom Hashoah pledge. Antisemitism will continue to rear its ugly head. Ignorance will continue to rear its ugly head. The world will continue to engage in moral relativism and it is our continued mission to tell the world right from wrong, Yaakov from Esav, which goat goes to Hashem and which goat is sent away.