Speech: Lest we forget
[Yom HaShoah–Holocaust Remembrance–speech, Orlando Jewish Community Center, April 15, 2012. ]
by James Coffin
The biblical book of Joshua contains a story that highlights the importance of not forgetting.
As the Hebrews prepared to enter the Promised Land, they still faced one major obstacle: The flooded Jordan River stood between them and their destination.
The Bible says that when, as an act of faith, the priests who were carrying the ark stepped into the swollen waters of the Jordan, the river upstream stopped flowing, and the river downstream flowed on. The entire camp of Israel walked through on the dry land thus created — much like an earlier generation of Hebrews had walked through the Red Sea.
Something so miraculous — something so out of the ordinary — deserved to be remembered. So God told Joshua to have a man from each tribe go back into the waterless river and pick up a large stone from the riverbed. The stones would be used to build a monument where they camped that night.
“In the future,” Joshua told the men, “when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant. . . . These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
Subsequent generations needed to remember the crossing of the Jordan because it was so wonderful. But at times, terrible events also need to be remembered. Precisely because they were so terrible.
When we cease to remember — when we forget the level to which ordinary human beings are capable of stooping — history is in grave danger of being repeated. All it will take is for the right circumstances to exist. This has been demonstrated in several genocides even since the Holocaust.
There are times to celebrate the wonderful things of the past. And there are times to solemnly remember the bad. It’s appropriate that today we’ve come to together to solemnly remember.
I commend the organizers of this event and the organizers of similar events in years past. I commend those who will organize such events in the far-distant future. Without these reminders, our children will never ask, “What is the meaning of this memorial?”
If at some point in the future we fail to provide appropriate reminders, and if, in the absence of those reminders, our children no longer seek explanations and understanding, then the stage is being set for a tragic chapter of history to be re-enacted.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to the Jewish community for working so tirelessly to ensure that never happens.
James Coffin is executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.