A Yom HaShoah Benediction

Let’s walk backward together through some of what the last 2000 years of history have brought the Jewish people. I promise I’ll be as succinct as I can:

  • October 7, 2023: The deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
  • 1938-1945: The Shoah, from which our people have still yet to recover.
  • Late-1800s: Waves of pogroms lead to tens of thousands of Jewish deaths in Russia.
  • 1648-1655: The Cossacks massacre 65,000 Polish Jews.
  • 1516: The first ghetto is established, in Venice.
  • 1492: All Jews—nearly 200,000—are expelled from Spain.
  • 1095: The Crusades begin, and tens of thousands of Jews are killed across Europe and the Middle East.
  • 850: The Abbasid Caliphate decrees that Jews must wear clothes marking them as outsiders, shall have their places of worship destroyed, and will be banned from government.
  • 315-317: Emperor Constantine I enacts harsh restrictions against Jewish practice.
  • 70: The 2nd Temple is destroyed by Rome, and meaningful hope for renewed Jewish sovereignty in Judea soon vanishes for nearly two millennia.

Quite a story of our people, and–trust me–I could have easily listed two dozen more events. From this narrative, it feels almost inevitable that something like the Holocaust would happen–after all, Jewish history would seem to be a series of one persecution or calamity after another. But I’d like to tell you another version of our history, bringing us back up to the present:

  • 1st century: Hillel and Shammai, two of the greatest Sages of Jewish history, live and teach.
  • 200: Judah haNasi completes the Mishnah, the first collection of rabbinic law.
  • 379: Hindu king Sira Primal invites Jews to live in his kingdom safely and without persecution.
  • 550: The Talmud is redacted.
  • 912: Jews in Muslim Spain begin a new period of flourishing, often called the Golden Age.
  • 1180: Maimonides completes the Mishneh Torah, one of the finest works of Jewish law in the past 2000 years.
  • 1343: Casimir the Great grants Jews refuge in Poland.
  • 1570: Isaac Luria, one of the greatest teachers of Kabbalah, settles in Safed, gaining many disciples.
  • Throughout the 1800s: Jews are granted citizenship across Europe, in one country after another.
  • 1948: For the first time in nearly 2000 years, Jews reattain a Jewish polity in Israel.

I would ask you this: Which version of history is “right,” if there is such a thing? Which should we learn, and which should we teach?

Naturally, in typical Jewish fashion, the answer is both.

  • During the same 2nd century that Jews were harshly persecuted by Rome, those same Jews were finishing up the literary treatise of the Mishnah.
  • Only 50 years after 1516, when the first ghetto was established, was when Isaac Luria began his innovation in Kabbalah.
  • And, in a history my own family experienced firsthand: It has only been a few short decades since my grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles hid for years in closets in Poland—since my grandfather survived death marches and brutal beatings—and yet I have the privilege to stand here today, amongst friends, leaders, colleagues, and peers, as a member of a thriving, pluralistic community in Cincinnati.

In our history, there never has been an either/or—we don’t get to pick a timeline. We live with both. Our people have made it work, have kept hope, have developed into the beautiful cultures we are today alongside and despite our many setbacks. It is almost as if we are fulfilling a promise to ourselves and our ancestors made in footsteps which trod many troubled waters, a promise to which we can proffer no excuse for inaction.

I wonder, then: What will we do today, despite our struggles?

  • With regions of the world constantly wrought by war, what will we do to create peace?
  • With division the order of the day, what will we do to build bridges?
  • With vapid sloganeering appealing to so many, what will we do to have deep conversation?
  • With anti-intellectualism at a high, what will we do to advance culture and thought?
  • With the need to preserve our stories and past, what will we do to forge a bold future?

Certainly, I cannot answer these questions alone; I cannot provide the “how.” But I have faith we will find it, because history teaches us that the presence of difficulty or suffering not only is no excuse for us to not make progress, but it—in fact—has seldom long endured as an impediment. With stubborn solidarity, courage, and will, we and our allies—together—move forward. Together, we know there is no challenge we will not overcome.

To my earlier questions, I simply acknowledge and remember: We will make peace; we will build bridges; we will have deep conversation; we will advance culture; and we will, coming together, forge a bold future.


Blessed are you, Adonai our God, who accompanies us on our way, challenging us to overcome our adversity.

And together we say: Amen.