D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Rosh Hashanah evening 5781
In a Ted Talk given in Apr. 2017, the author of Denying the Holocaust, historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, remarked on the Holocaust’s standing as the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world. If this is true, if the Holocaust is so well-documented, then we should believe the words of the victims—the survivors; we should believe the words of the bystanders—like the Poles who lived in villages and towns around the death camps; and surely we should believe the words of the perpetrators, the ones who at the end said I did it, we did it.
You would think that the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world would put an end to the question: Did the Holocaust really happen? And yet, Holocaust denial is a thing. These individuals and groups often parade themselves around as serious scholars, call themselves “historical revisionists” rather than deniers, and accuse their critics of trying to suppress inquiries into historical truth.
When Dr. Lipstadt called one of these so-called revisionists David Irving, a Holocaust denier, he took her to court. To win her case she traced footnotes from Irving’s writings back to their sources. What she found were altered dates and altered sequences of events. In the end, Lipstadt won her case and Irving was found to be a liar, a racist, and an anti-Semite.
Psychologist Dr. John Grohol defines denial as the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. While a functioning alcoholic will deny they have a drinking problem as a way to rebuff personal failings, a Holocaust denier skews the truth to promote a larger world view, one in which Jews are the bad guys. Denial involves both lying to ourselves and lying to others or as I like to put it, denying is just plain old lying.
But lying or not, denial can in some situations, function as a coping mechanism that gives us time to adjust to difficult circumstances. Soldiers often need to find a way to deny how dangerous war is, or anxiety would undermine them. Denial protects parents from the reality that their children could die for a multitude of reasons. The problem is that the longer we remain in denial the harder it is to overcome. And yes, denial can kill us as well as those for whom we are responsible.
What often drives denial is fear and fear leads to rigid thinking. Even though seat belts have been available for a long time, some drivers deny the thousands of times that seat belts have saved lives, in part because of the possibility they might occasionally trap us in a burning car.
Denial can lead to despair. When we free ourselves of denial, we are able to open our eyes and throw off the despair. We can begin to accept the truth and take responsibility for our predicament. Then we figure out what to do about it.
According to Deborah Lipstadt and many others, we are living through a time where denial is thriving and truth is on the defensive. This notion is expressed in a New Yorker cartoon where the host of a quiz show says to one of the contestants: "Yes, ma'am, you had the right answer. But your opponent yelled more loudly than you did, so he gets the point."
To experience positive change in our lives we need a reason to hope. Hopelessness feeds denial and denial often supports hopelessness. It has been noted that denial of both climate change and the coronavirus has followed a similar pattern:
If you see as I do, the Torah as relevant to our lives today, it will not surprise you to know it is filled with stories of denial, including the portions we read on Rosh Hashanah. Tomorrow morning is the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac. After many years God’s promise about Abraham and Sarah having a child is finally fulfilled. But it doesn’t take long after Isaac’s birth for the happiness Sarah feels to turn to jealousy and fear. That jealousy and fear is directed towards Ishmael, the son Abraham has with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.
Having difficulty becoming pregnant, Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child with Hagar. But now that she herself has a child, Sarah becomes jealous and encourages Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, putting their lives in danger. You think maybe Sarah is in denial about her own role in this whole series of events?
The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is one of the more famous stories in the Torah – the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his favored son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to God. So much has been written about this story but it seems to me at its basic level, Abraham is in complete denial about his son’s imminent death. In the end God doesn’t allow the sacrifice to happen but how many parents would go as far as Abraham did in preparing their child to be sacrificed?
Over the next ten days we will look at denial and how it connects to three other topics that have been on mind for the past seven months – loneliness, freedom and sacrifice.
If we are lonely we can utilize denial as a way to convince ourselves to have a super spreader party and allow ourselves to engage in reckless encounters with others outside our family unit.
If we are proud we can use denial as an argument for preserving our freedom, our civil rights, and not wear a mask, as we interpret the notion of freedom for our own purposes.
If we are scared to make the sacrifices we need to make to power through this pandemic, we can use denial as a reason to not shelter in place and not do what is necessary for the betterment of our society.
Tomorrow morning, we will begin with Loneliness.
L’Shana Tova u-metukah
 Jack Wright. The Psychhology of Denial (CreateSpace, 2013) 125
 Ibid. 59
 Ibid. 133
 Ibid. 98
 Ibid. 105
 Ibid. 779
 Dana Nuccitelli. “Coronavirus Doubters Follow Climate Denial Playbook,” https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/04/coronavirus-doubters-follow-climate-denial-playbook/ (Accessed September 2020)