Last night Middy and I went to Chicago’s Symphony Hall to hear a program called “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin”. This was a benefit concert for the Jewish United Fund /Jewish Federation of Chicago Holocaust Community Services program. This program helps Holocaust survivors in Chicagoland to live out their sunset years with hope and dignity. In fact, there were three hundred survivors at the concert. The Symphony Hall concert was a mult-media performance that told the story of Maestro Raphael Schacter and his choir of 150 fellow prisoners at the Terezin concentration camp outside of Prague. Terezin was a “show camp” for the Nazi’s, designed to convince the world that Jews who had been herded into concentration camps for extermination were in fact being treated humanely. They therefore allowed some measure of artistic and literary expression by the inmates. Maestro Schacter, a Jewish pianist and conductor from Prague, brought the score from Verdi’s “Requiem” with him to the camp when he, himself, was interred there. Using that one score, he taught his 150 singers the music by rote, and performed the Requiem 16 times in the camp. The final performance was held before visiting members of the International Red Cross and the Nazi SS.
What was “defiant” about performing the Requiem? In learning the score and performing the music with only a piano accompaniment, the Maestro and the members of the choir asserted their humanity in the face of Nazi Germany’s attempt to strip that from them. The words to the Requiem, sung directly to the SS attending that final performance, were words that the camp inmates could sing, but could not say. The words of the Requiem take on a particular poignancy when one considers the setting for the performance:
What can a wretch like me say?
Whom shall I ask to intercede for me,
when even the just ones are unsafe?
A written book will be brought forth,
which contains everything
for which the world will be judged.
Therefore when the Judge takes His seat,
whatever is hidden will be revealed: nothing shall remain unavenged.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like for the Jewish inmates of that camp to be able to sing those words to their SS tormentors sitting before them in the audience?
This evening is the anniversary of another day of defiance. This Shabbat marks a special Sabbath, called “Shabbat Ha-Chodesh”, or “The Sabbath of THE Month”. The very first commandment that G-d gave to the Jewish people as a whole took place over 3000 years ago this day. The Jewish people are still enslaved in Egypt. They have witnessed nine plagues, and still they have not been liberated. Moses tells them, “This day shall be the first day of the first month of the year for you.” This too is an act defiance, for it establishes a calendar for the Jewish people. Although they are still enslaved, they will no longer mark time by the rhythms of their oppressors. A calendar is a symbol of independence, of freedom. Slaves must adhere to the calendar of their masters. A free people takes on the responsibility of organizing its own time.
Thus, still in Egypt and still slaves, their liberation begins with a conscious act of resistance. In declaring their freedom to choose their own calendar, they have taken the first step toward liberation. This teaches us that freedom cannot be merely bestowed from the outside. Freedom requires that people actively participate in their own emancipation. Moses gives further instructions to the people. On the tenth day of the new month, each family, or groups of families, are to take a lamb and set it aside. They are to watch over it, and four days later, at twilight, they are to slaughter the lamb and place some of the blood on the doorposts of their homes. Then they should eat the lamb, along with matzah and bitter herbs as part of a sacred meal.
Having declared their own calendar, a monumental act of rebellion, the Jewish people will now act not on Pharaoh’s instructions, but on Moses’ instructions from G-d. This marks the first time that the Israelites will act on their own initiative. The action that they will take – the sacrifice of a lamb – is also a tremendous act of bravery, for the lamb is a sacred animal in Egypt. Thus, sacrificing a lamb as part of this Jewish ritual is a mark of repudiation of the majority culture and an assertion of a different set of values from that of their Egyptian masters!
But Rosh CHodesh – the new month – not only symbolizes defiance, it symbolizes renewal as well. Just as the moon renews itself every month, so the Jewish people, at times on the edge of extinction, rises up to renew itself in every age. This too is the message of the Holocaust. When a wicked empire sought out destruction, our people met them with defiance in whatever way possible. We preserved our humanity and our sense of worth, and renewed ourselves in the State of Israel and in communities throughout the world.