With what does one associate the image of rising smoke, apart from the comforting sight of rural cottages on a winter’s evening?
It is only nine days now until Shavuot, when we will read concerning the revelation at Sinai that the mountain was cover by a dense mist as God descended towards it, and that ‘its smoke rose as the smoke of a furnace’ before God spoke amidst the lightning and the sound of the shofar and said ‘I am’, and all the rest of the commandments – that we should not kill, or steal, or hurt each other but love one another, – followed as a consequence.
For many years now a counter-image has clung to that picture and confused it, so that I cannot read those words from the Torah without thinking of it, – the smoke of the chimneys at Birkenau. Again this week I stood with members of our community amidst their ruins. The smoke, the cries, the smells, the gas, the terror are gone, except in the nightmares of those who were there and remember. But the knowledge of what was done is available to all humanity and constitutes a kind of counter-revelation, – of the merciless, sadistic cruelty by which the almost infinite sensitivity of human nerves and heart can be made to suffer, and by which love and life can be annihilated, turned to ash and smoke, in a moment.
Maybe that is why I believe that it is of the essence to seek to listen when one visits such a site. These are places ofyirah, fear. Fear in the first instance means terror, and it is surely impossible for any one who was not present then even to begin to intimate the horror, dread and brutality which once inhabited there. But beyond that hovers, assaulted in every possible manner but by no means annihilated, a second kind of fear, fear in its spiritual sense as the mystics understood it, a deep awe and respect for the human spirit and body, and for the sanctity of life and love which animates them, and for their beauty and because of their vulnerability:
The doors had been opened and the SS men yelled out, “The men out! All the men out!” There was wild confusion in the car, as women and children clung tearfully to their men…Sasha gently loosened the hands of his beautiful wife from his neck; the children – adorable little fair-haired angels – he firmly and tenderly prised away from his legs. It had to be. Outside one of the Germans had already slaughtered a child… (Fred Wander: The Seventh Well)
Perhaps that is why it is the hair which so often moves people most. It is in fact obscene that it should be exhibited, metre by metre, at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Perhaps it should be covered tenderly and put away, lock by lock. For hair is about beauty and love and, whether in the houses of the most pious Hasidim or the most secular Bundists, mothers will have said to their little children, ‘Come here darling and let me do your hair’.
I realise as I write that I’ve been mistaken. I once thought that these two kinds of smoke, these two kinds of revelation contradicted one another in every possible respect. Now I realise that in one sense at least they do not: they both command the world about the sanctity of love.
What does ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ really amount to? There’s nothing sentimental about it; on the contrary. It means struggling to create a world in which our neighbours, of any race or faith, can love their friends, their family and their children as tenderly, deeply and safely as we love ours.