"Like sheep to the slaughter." That, we have been told, is how six million Jews went to their death in the Holocaust. Almost a whole people are said to have accepted their annihilation in an inexplicable trance of national passivity.
The burden of Holocaust historiography in recent years has been to undo that image, and thereby to restore Jewish self-respect. To that end, numerous cases of heroic resistance have been documented, from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to the forests of Eastern Europe and even within the death camps themselves. And if resistance was the exception rather than the rule, it is easily enough understood in context. Confronted by overwhelming force, with a scarcity of weapons, weakened by systematic starvation, and faced with the Nazi doctrine of collective responsibility, whereby whole communities could be massacred in retaliation for the rash acts of individuals, resistance was simply not a practical response.
Five million Russian prisoners of war understood this, and went to their deaths at the hands of the Germans without resistance, and yet nobody speaks of them as having gone like sheep to the slaughter. In 1939, the Poles and the Czechs did not put up a fight against the invading Germans, and yet they were not branded in this way. It is unfair, therefore, to affix this badge of shame exclusively onto the Jews of Europe, who had much less to fight with, and much more to fear from the enemy's wrath.
It would seem, then, that this ignominious phrase should be expunged from the history books. Historical truth and Jewish pride demand it.
But even if we could effectively rid ourselves of it in connection with the Holocaust, it would still not disappear from the pages of Jewish history. For the phrase "sheep to the slaughter," is not an expression that came into being during or after World War Two. In fact, it is almost as ancient as Jewish history itself.
HISTORY OF A PHRASE
Where, then, does the phrase come from?
In 1942, it was used by resistance leader Abba Kovner to rouse the Jews of Vilna to rise up and fight the enemy. Some attribute the phrase to him (see the ADL web site). But we know that he was not the first to use it. Bartlett's Quotations credits it to none other than George Washington! In a 1783 address to officers of the army, he stated that without "freedom of speech [we] may be taken away, and dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter." Perhaps, by some accident of history, Kovner stumbled onto the same inspired simile as America's first president? Or perhaps Kovner knowingly borrowed from Washington's speech? Anything is possible.
What is more likely, however, is that both Kovner and Washington were familiar with it as a phrase that appears several times in the Bible. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) invokes the phrase (as it occurs in Psalms 44:23) in reference to some of the most celebrated acts of Jewish martyrdom. Of the four hundred Jewish children who threw themselves into the sea rather than allow themselves to be taken to Rome for purposes of sexual immorality, the Talmud says that for God's sake they died "like sheep led to the slaughter." In the same Talmudic passage it is said of the seven sons of Hannah, who allowed themselves to be killed by the Greeks rather than bow down to an idol, that they too went like sheep to the slaughter.
Death to these giants of faith was something that they faced as casually as sheep going to the slaughter, free of the dread and terror.
The Maharsha in his classic commentary on the Talmud explains the phrase "sheep to the slaughter" in a manner strikingly different from what we are used to. It had nothing to do with humiliating passivity. It means that death to these giants of faith was something that they faced as casually as sheep going to the slaughter, free of the dread and terror otherwise associated with a violent demise. Theirs were acts of faith and courage, not cowardice and despair.
On Tisha B'Av, a central part of the liturgy concerns the Ten Martyrs, Rabbi Akiva and other leaders of the generation, who were killed by the Romans during the terrible persecutions that took place in the closing years of the Second Temple period. They understood that the time for military defense of Jerusalem was over. Although they did not resist the Romans physically, they continued studying and keeping the Torah, in defiance of a Roman ban that carried the death penalty. Ultimately, they accepted death upon themselves as a matter of Divine decree. Maimonides (in Yesodei HaTorah 5:4) states that no more exalted position exists in Jewish tradition than that which was attained by those ten individuals who went, as he writes, "like sheep to the slaughter."
On July 29, 1941, the Jews of Kelm in Lithuania were taken out by the Nazis to be killed. When they had finished digging the pit that was soon to be their mass grave, Rabbi Doniel Movshovitz was given permission to address the people. He told them "that they stood at that moment in exactly the same position as the Ten Martyrs." Their unshaken faith would, like their forebears', stand forever as a monument to Jewish valor in the darkest times. (Adapted from "Rav Dessler," P. 254)
"Thank you, God, for making me a Jew and not a German."
The Jews of Kelm were not the only ones. A story is told of how, during the Holocaust, the Germans rounded up all the Jewish residents of a village in the middle of the night, and brought them to a large pit to be shot. One of the Jews approached a Nazi officer and said: "In civilized countries, it is customary to give a person the chance to say a few final words before executing him."
"Granted!" shouted the Nazi officer.
The Jew looked the Nazi square in the eyes and said: "Thank you, God, for making me a Jew and not a German."
When it became clear that no effective physical resistance could be organized, the Jews of Europe summoned unimaginable reservoirs of spiritual strength. Their captors sought to break them, dehumanize them, and above all, to rob them of their faith. Yet, all across Europe, in the forests, in the ghettos, in the death camps, there was a spiritual resistance. A holy underground in which Jews daily risked their lives to study, pray and don tefilin, to blow shofar on Rosh Hashana, to bake matzah on Pesach. They struggled to maintain their humanity and their compassion for one another, often sharing their last morsels of food and the torn rags of clothing they had with those who were in even greater need. Many went to the killing grounds with the Shema on their lips. The greatness of the Jewish people, their love of God and one other, often shone through in the midst of the most inhumane conditions the world has probably ever known.
The Tachanun prayer that is said on Mondays and Thursdays reads, in part: "God of Israel...Look from heaven and perceive that we have become an object of scorn and derision among the nations; we are regarded as the sheep led to slaughter...But despite all this we have not forgotten Your Name -- please don't forget us."
The millions who perished in the Holocaust share the name of glory with Rabbi Akiva and his generation.
King Hezekiah composed this prayer during the First Temple period when Jerusalem was besieged by the armies of Sennacherib. In those words he beseeched God to save His people. God recognized the merit of a faith that transcends suffering; and the righteous king's prayer was answered in the form of a sudden plague that decimated the enemy camp overnight, causing them to flee.
In the light of Jewish tradition, the true meaning of "sheep to the slaughter" emerges. The millions who perished in the Holocaust -- our parents and grandparents -- share the name of glory with Rabbi Akiva and his generation.
And as for ourselves, it provides us with a way to approach God in our own difficult times. For, in spite of all that we have suffered, we have not surrendered our Jewishness, we have not forgotten who we are. And we shall not be forgotten.