At this time in 1945, the war in Europe was almost over. The killing went on for another two weeks until May 8, 1945, when the German armies formally surrendered. In the weeks following this joyous event, the horrible truth of the death camps became known. Hitler’s planned extermination of the Jews had almost succeeded. Six million Jews were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators. One third of the Jews in the world were exterminated. The figure is practically inconceivable unless we put it in terms we can understand. Imagine for a moment if every human being presently living within the State of Maryland were to die. That would be the extent of the human loss suffered by the Jewish people.
There were 18 million Jews in the world before WWII. Today, the most optimistic demographers tell us there are about 14 million Jews in the world. That is why Professor Emil Fackenheim, a leading Jewish thinker in the late twentieth century, created the 614th commandment, which is “Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” Anything that detracts from Jewish survival should be resisted. The question that begs to be asked is to survive for what? Perhaps it is the ultimate expression of chutzpah for us to believe Jewish survival is so important that God requires it. While all peoples want their culture and language to survive and thrive, I doubt that the Albanians, Estonians and Montenegrins believe their survival is a Divine imperative, something which God demands. So, if we believe that God requires us to survive, the question is for what reason?
This question was answered this past week as we sat at our Seder tables and opened the door for Elijah the Prophet who, in our Tradition, is the precursor of the Messiah. It is our most fervent prayer, our sincerest hope that someday the Messiah will arrive when we open that door and our world will radically change for the better. At this moment, the Seder transforms itself from a meal about the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery to the liberation of all people in the Messianic age. Our Reform forebears eschewed the concept of a personal messiah, thinking the idea to be superstitious. They thought we would reach the Messianic age incrementally with all good people and the Jewish people at the forefront, working together for justice and peace. That vision of all of us working together for social justice may not immediately bring forth the messianic age, but it does establish a raison d’etre for our existence as Jews. The world needs us as moral exemplars, to be as the Torah says, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This is one of the reasons we count the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot, to remind us that each day brings us closer to receiving the Torah on Sinai, when we take on the responsibility for healing our fractured world. God only knows that we still need the personal messiah for whom we pray each day. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we pray and work hard enough, along with other people of good will, God will hasten that day and bring forth the universal era of love and peace. That is why there is a 614th commandment, “Thou shalt not grant Hitler a posthumous victory.” That is why the Jewish people must survive.