I spent last weekend in Washington, DC, with 18 BJ Haverim (7th-grade) students. After a beautiful Shabbat full of prayer, food, games, and community building, and a walking tour of the monuments, we welcomed the new week with Havdalah. On Sunday morning, we made our final stop at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Toward the entrance of the museum there is a banner hanging with a quote from Elie Weisel: “The Museum is not an answer, it is a question.” As we walked through this dark night in the history of humanity, each student took in what they could. Their eyes said it all—horror, shock, fear, confusion, curiosity.
The museum takes you through the atrocities of the Holocaust from 1933, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, through the end of the war and liberation in 1945. Toward the middle of the museum there is a cattle car that you can walk through, one that the Nazis used to transport hundreds of thousands of people to the death camps. When I shared with a small group of students that many of the train cars used were not ordinary train cars but often were originally used to transport cattle, they looked at me in disbelief, their eyes screaming “What? Why? How? How can human beings treat other human beings like animals or even less than?” I too find myself in a state of utter disbelief each time I visit the museum; no matter how many times we are confronted by it, the dehumanization is incomprehensible. Speaking about the cattle car and seeing the reactions of the teens made me think of the short and piercing poem by Israeli poet and Holocaust survivor Dan Pagis, published in 1970, titled “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Boxcar – כתוב בעיפרון בקרון החתום”
am with my son abel
if you see my elder son
cain son of man
tell him i am
כאן במשלוח הזה
עם הבל בני
אם תראו את בני הגדול
קין בן אדם
תגידו לו שאני
Pagis captures the nightmare of the train car, the inhumane murder of millions, and the unending cycle of hate in six brief lines. He brings us back to the moment of creation, to the first mother, Eve, and to the first murder, the murder of a brother. He reminds us that Cain is the son of man—a human being, just as Abel and Eve were. He pulls us into the sealed box car with the desperate, vulnerable, and shattered mother of humanity.
This time, as I revisited the poem, the link to Eve and the creation of humanity brought me back to a debate in the Mishnah, the earliest rabbinic work. The question at hand is why God started humanity with the creation of a single person. Why not create multiple people? One of the answers given is for שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, peace among people. The Mishnah teaches that if we all come from one being, no person can say to another “my progenitor is greater than yours.” With this, there is no “other” or “them”; we are all united as human beings. Creation reminds us that not only are we made in the image of God but that we all come from the same ancestor. It is simple, it is profound, and it is so far removed from the reality of our world today. We live in a world full of hate, of bias and bigotry, of homophobia, racism, antisemitism, sexism, ableism. A world where we can always find a reason to discriminate. A world where we say it is “us” against “them,” “me” against “you”—and we all suffer from it.
Weekly, we are invited to reconnect to the idealized values embedded in creation through the celebration of Shabbat. Shabbat, as we say in Kiddush on Friday nights, is זכרון למעשה בראשית, a remembrance of creation. Not only the creation of Shabbat and our need to rest, but of our very existence—the spiritual birth of humankind, our connection to all of humanity. In some ways, on Shabbat we step away from the world; in others, Shabbat pushes us to remember how connected we are to others, not only as a nation (which we need a reminder of these days too) but as human beings. A reminder that we cannot give up the fight for a just world.
As we raise our cup to say Kiddush tonight, may we think about Shabbat as a day to remember the creation of humanity, that we all come from the same being. May we never stop questioning the injustices in our world and may we feel inspired to reach for, dream about, and do our part to create שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת, peace among all people.