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04/07/2022 09:26:30 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

Raphael Lemkin was born on June 24, 1900, in the village of Volkovyssky in what is currently the country of Belarus, part of the Russian Empire at that time. He was interested as a youth in the subject of atrocities, and is quoted as having said a line of blood led from the Roman arena through the gallows of France to the Bialystock Pogrom. His lifelong writings express the belief that the treatment of the Jews in eastern Poland was part of a larger pattern that went back far into history. He graduated from Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv with a degree in linguistics, and became interested in atrocities once again after the murder of millions of Armenians, to be followed up by the assassination of Talat Pasha in 1921, the primary organizer of the Armenian massacre. With no laws nor language to describe the Armenian massacre, he coined the term “genocide”, a mélange of the Greek word “genos”, meaning family, tribe, or race, and the Latin word “cide”, meaning “killing”. He was able to escape to the United States to become a law professor at Duke University during WWII, while 49 members of his family were murdered. He wrote the Genocide Convention, which was not fully adopted during his lifetime, as he died at the young age of 59.

I share this brief biography as I view the horrific images of Bucha, Ukraine, and put aside the nausea for a moment to cry out in pain that once again a genocide is occurring on this planet, and the world is not stopping it. When I first tried to think of the life experiences of Lemkin and his yeoman efforts to describe something indescribable that demanded a term for it that did not exist, my thoughts turned to the inhumanity our species is capable of and continuously models to the universe. What is it in our DNA that for some they can easily be inhumane, whether they speak words of H, mistreat animals, or kill innocent civilians? Is it a mutated gene, or is it our default posture?

By nature of the word, inhumane, we are stating that there are behaviors that are outside the normative behaviors that all humans are expected to model. In short, everyone has a choice. The cartoon of the devil on one shoulder whispering “be inhumane” into one ear and the angel on the other shoulder whispering “be human” into the other ear comes to mind. Judaism has terms for these: yetzer tov and yetzer rah. Yetzer Tov is “a good inclination” and the other is an evil inclination. Both are always present within us, and the daily challenge is which is the stronger of the two. By learning Torah and then performing mitzvot, we keep the yetzer rah at bay. But as we learn in Genesis 4:7 when God counsels Cain, “sin couches at the door”. It is always there, ready to take control. We have the ability to be in control of the yetzer rah if we so choose to do so, for all of our actions are predicated on choices. Some actions we perform on auto-pilot, without thinking about them. Others require a bit of consideration before acting. The hope would be that regardless of the action, its foundations are the foundations of Judaism, which would regularly direct us towards the positive.

Alas, we will experience in our lives those who submit to the yetzer rah, frequently with disastrous consequences. I had thought that after the greatest stain on the history of humanity on this planet, that the word genocide might be retired from usage, a vestige of a barbaric time. I was wrong, and I mourn the senseless loss of life in Ukraine. But even more, I mourn the loss of humanity in the perpetrators, and in the silence of world leaders as we once again use a word that should send chills up our spines: genocide.

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783