Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Adam's Absence
A couple of weeks ago, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I was doing a project with my middle school students for our memorial assembly. One of them had finished his work, so I showed him a poem by the renowned Israeli Holocaust survivor and writer, Dan Pagis. Entitled Written In Pencil In the Sealed Railway Car, this haunting poem imagines the biblical character, Eve, as a victim of Nazi brutality, quickly scribbling an unfinished note to the world as she is carried off to a concentration camp in a cattle car:
here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him i
A couple of my more curious students walked over to join the discussion, so I asked them: “What do you think about this?” “Eve and Abel are here in the poem, and Eve is trying to get a message to Cain, Abel’s murdering brother. But where is Adam?” As we traded ideas, one of my students said, “Maybe Adam – which in Hebrew means a person - is a symbol for the many people who were absent when we Jews needed them to help us. Maybe Adam’s absence is a reminder of what happens when people don’t show up, anytime one group is trying to destroy another one.”
I’ve read this poem many times, but this never occurred to me. Cain, literally the son of Adam in Hebrew, holds forth in his murderous fury because Adam his father – humanity - fails to do anything to hold him back. Holocaust scholarship has demonstrated that many Germans and other Europeans did nothing to protect the Jews during the Holocaust due to antisemitism, fear, survival instinct, and self-interest, turning their backs on their closest neighbors and friends to keep themselves alive. It was the rare individual who stood up for Jews and others against the Nazi regime. Outside of Europe, particularly in the United States, we have consistently taken our cues about non-intervention in the Holocaust and other global genocides from the American government, which contrary to Dan Pagis, has historically failed to imagine humanity's capacity for such horror. In her outstanding book on American foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power cogently demonstrates how Washington, the media, and our citizenry downplay the prevalent reality of global genocide, preferring to see instances of it as unfortunate conflicts between equally guilty parties or as lost causes impermeable to our intervention.
I'm ashamed to say that I too slip into this lost cause mentality all the time. Like my fellow Jews worldwide, I mouth the words, "never again" when discussing the Holocaust and I extend that slogan to all genocides. I grow outraged reading the stories about the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uighur in China, the Yazidis in Iraq and Yemen, to name but a few. Then the numbness, the mental fatigue and the despondency envelop me, I take another sip of my morning coffee and I hastily turn the page in the paper: my imagination switches off. I'd like to believe that if I were faced with having to hide people being persecuted in our own country, I would do so, but who knows what he or she would do in such an extremely dangerous situation until faced with that situation? However, the more immediately relevant question for us Americans is how to respond to the genocides far away from our borders right now?
Jewish tradition is helpful here. It teaches that it’s not our task to finish the work, yet it’s also not our prerogative to desist from that work. None of us is going to stop every genocide or ethnic cleansing from happening, nor are we obligated to take on such an enormous task. Yet what if each of us chose to speak out against one of these atrocities happening in our global backyards? It is easier to be Adam the absent one, to stand on the side of that railway car reading Mother Eve's scrawled message and whimper, "There is nothing of value that I can do." It is much harder, yet absolutely imperative to forbid the fratricidal legacy of Cain to erase the words of Eve and her descendants, the innocent victims of ethnic and political hatred.
Dan Pagis imagines Eve writing this bizarre, amputated sentence:
"If you see my other son//Cain, son of man//tell him i...."
What did Eve want to tell her son the murderer?
What do we, humanity's bystanders at the ghastly scene of genocidal atrocity, need to tell Cain?
Perhaps this: "We will no longer permit you to keep killing your brother, for you are your brothers' keeper."
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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