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PESAH YIZKOR 5781 

א"תשפ יזכור פסח
APRIL 4, 2021 
RABBI PHILIP S. SCHEIM 
 

In his recently published autobiography, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau relates an experience from his childhood, when, as an eight year old, with five hundred other young survivors of Buchenwald, he was temporarily housed in a convalescent home in Ecouis, France. He describes how dignitaries would frequently visit the orphans of Ecouis, and how those visits became tiresome, notwithstanding the good intentions and the gifts that the visitors brought with them. One such occasion, when speaker after speaker at a ceremony were ignored by the 500 youth obligated to attend, a final speaker captured their attention. He himself was a survivor, having lived through Auschwitz, while losing his wife and children. His focus now, after having lost everything he held dear in the world, was orphan children. For that reason, he came to Ecouis, to see how he could be of help to these 500 orphans. 

In Rabbi Lau's words: 

At that moment... five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage. He was one of us. We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy. Tears choked his throat. He gripped the microphone and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking. He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish: "Kinder, taiyereh kinder ... (Children, dear children)" -then he burst into tears. 

It was painful to hear this adult man weeping into the microphone, but he achieved a miracle -along with him, our own cheeks also dampened with tears. We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps. Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza steathily wiped his eyes with his sleeve. We each stole a glance right and left, and discovered that our comrades were breaking down as well. Then the dam broke. All at once, the lawn of Ecouis was transformed into a literal vale of tears. The Jewish guest took his seat on the platform, and we all cried - healthy, liberating tears. 1  

Reflecting on this event, some six decades later, Rabbi Lau quotes one of the oldest orphans, 25-year old Aaron Feldman, who spoke on behalf of the orphans. His words: 

We would like to thank you. Not to thank you for coming, because we did not want this visit. Not to thank you for the gifts, because we did not want them. We want to thank you for the greatest gift of all, which we received from you just a few minutes ago, and that is the ability to cry. When they took my father and mother, my eyes were dry. When they beat me mercilessly with their clubs, I bit my lips, but I didn't cry. 1 haven't cried for years, nor have I laughed. We starved, froze, and bled, but we didn't cry. For the past few months, before and since the liberation, I have had the feeling that I am not a normal person, nor will I ever be. That I have no heart. That if I can't cry when I am supposed to, I must have a stone in my chest instead of a human heart. But not any more. Just now I cried freely. And I say to you that whoever can cry today, can laugh tomorrow, and he is a mentsch, a human being. For this I thank you. 2  

It is not revolutionary to suggest that crying, after experiencing loss or tragedy, is a healthy phenomenon. All who have known loss, and certainly, the many of us who will say Yizkor prayers moments from now, understand that tears are a natural response to the pain that death of loved ones imposes upon us. Not to cry, or not to be able to cry often reflects an inability to come to grips with that harsh reality. As much as it may upset those around us - for that reason, some authorities opposed saying Yizkor on Yom Tov, since the tears of the bereaved could disturb the Yom Tov joy of those who witness them - as much as our tears may be upsetting to others, when they can be shed, they need to be shed, since, as Aaron Feldman, in Rabbi Lau's recollection noted, tears can be the first stage of healing, that bridge that leads us מיגון לשמחה, from the abyss of anguish to a world in which we can again experience simhah, in which we can again know happiness.

The Prophet Jeremiah offers an image of our Matriarch Rachel crying from her grave, over the misfortune of her descendants in exile from their land. ֵמאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם  the Prophet tells us, Rachel was inconsolable. She would not be comforted, she would not cease her sobbing. It takes God Himself to bring an end to her tears, as He reassures her: "Don't cry.ְ  ושָׁ֖בוּ מֵֶאֶ֥רץ אוֹיֵב  Your children will return from the land of the enemy. ויֵשׁ־תִקְָו֥ה לְאַחֲִריֵת֖ך ...ושָׁ֥בוּ בִָנ֖ים לִגְבוּלָם There is hope for your future [because] your children will return to their own land.” (31:17) 

The Jews would return to Israel, Jeremiah reassured them. They would return to cultivate the land, to resettle the cities, to bear generations upon generations carrying on in the traditions of their ancestors. (Jer. 31:13): “ ְוהָפַכְתִ֨י אֶבְלָ֤ם לְשָׂשׂוֹן וְנִ֣חַמְתִ֔ים וְשִׂמַּחְתִ֖ים מִיגוֹנָם  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them and cheer them in their grief.” 

Tears, the Prophet teaches us, represent the first stage of recovery from historical and personal trauma. First tears, then liberation. Like the orphans at Ecouis with Israel Lau, tears enable them to deal with the enormity of the burden of experience that they carry, that will remain with them their entire lives. But once the initial tears are shed, after they are finally able to cry for their lost loved ones, their lost childhood, their destroyed communities, only then are they able to turn the page of their personal haggadot so seared with pain, and make it to a better place, a place where hope, where future can be found. 

One of the most beloved portions of the Passover Haggadah is the ancient hymn Dayenu. Even though many households struggle to fit the words to the tune, it invariably makes it to our Seder tables. Nobody skips Dayenu, even though it seems to make little sense. In Dayenu, we pay tribute to God for all of the favors He has done for us, specifically, the liberation from Egyptian enslavement, surviving the wilderness hazards, receiving the Torah, entering Israel and building the Holy Temple. That is well and good, but the wording of the poem forces us to make sense of lines such as: “Had He divided the Sea for us and not led us through it on dry land, Dayenu, we would have been satisfied!” Taken literally, we are struck by the image of half-miracles, that would not have taken us far enough to safety for us to have been satisfied. Commentators have suggested that we are obligated to appreciate each step on the road to freedom, even when he steps, in isolation, would not have sufficed. 

That may have worked for earlier generations, but most likely the orphans at Ecouis, celebrating their first Pesah after liberation, and other survivors of the Holocaust would have found Dayenu hard to swallow. Evidence of such ambivalence appears in 1946, at the Seder of survivor Yosef Sheinson, who produced a Haggadah for use at a displaced persons camp in Germany. Sheinson’s Haggadah is a powerful, searing text, combining traditional language with the very fresh experiences of the assembled. Perhaps the most starling portion in Sheinson’s Haggadah, read at the Munich Seder of 1946, is his rendition of Dayenu, from which I briefly quote:

אלו נתן לנו את היטלר ולא הקימו לנו גטאות-דיֵּנוּ - Had He given us Hitler but no ghettos, we would have been satisfied. אלו הקימו לנו טגאות ולא הקימו לנו תא-יזגים -דּיֵּנוּ Had He given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematoria, we would have been satisfied. Had He given us gas chambers and crematoria, but spared our wives and children - ַדּיֵּנוּ - we would have been satisfied.... Had we been satisfied.

We are told that many Sedarim took place that year in Germany, among the thousands of Jewish displaced persons. Most likely followed classical, traditional patterns, similar to the texts that we used a week ago. But Yosef Sheinson’s Seder stands out in Jewish history as a moment of critical spiritual and national transformation. Look. It was no longer sufficient to reflect upon ancient memories of God eventually having rescued the Israelites, step by painstakingly slow step. Those words for Sheinson, and many of his fellow survivors, could no longer comfort. How could they, in 1946, after what they had experienced, after what they had lost, after what they had witnessed, say “Dayenu - we were satisfied,” without choking on the word?

Sheinson’s conclusion makes his direction, and his separation from past liturgical tradition, abundantly clear. The classical version states: “ - All the more so, how grateful are we for the countless blessings of God given to us!” Yosef Sheinson’s version concludes: “All the more so, since all this has befallen us, we must make Aliyah... bring an end to the exile, build the Chosen Land, making a home there, in Israel, for ourselves and our children forever.”

What happened at a Seder in Munich in 1946 was nothing less than a rejection of the passive approach to history reflected in the traditional Dayenu, and a passivist theology that teaches us that God will provide, will rescue, will send a redeemer.... all we have to do is wait, wait, and wait a bit longer. All we have to do is be patient. 

What was Sheinson’s Haggadah really saying? Can there be any sense of dayenu - any measure of satisfaction, of contentment, of reassurance, in the shadow of the murder of six million Jews, of one-and-a-half million Jewish children? No way. God, at this moment in history, deserves no Yishar Koah, no thank-yous, no commendations. Sheinson’s concluding line suggests an end to passivity, to waiting – we will endure whatever hardships are entailed by making Aliyah - because we are going to build a country. We are going to establish a homeland for every future generation of Jews – and guess what – we are not going to wait for the Messiah to lead us - we have waited long enough, we are not going to wait any more! 

Reflected in the Sheinson Haggadah is a radical departure from past – a departure not limited to one song, one Haggadah. In essence, it is the story of the Zionist revolution. 

The State of Israel was proclaimed five years before I was born. My entire life has been lived with there being a State of Israel. My generation, and those subsequent to me, have never known what it would be like for there not to be a State of Israel. We can’t imagine it. But many of you here today can, because you lived through its creation - you may remember, if you were old enough in 1947, listening to the radio as the United Nations’ vote to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab entity was unfolding live. You may remember Ben Gurion’s proclamation of the state on Erev Shabbat, May 5, 1948. If you do remember, you were witness to the establishment of that which had not been seen in Jewish history since the defeat of Bar Kochba in the mid-second century CE – a state that would be ours, with all of the myriad of problems, crises and tensions that statehood, surrounded by hostility, would bring. 

You, who were alive in those years, who bore witness to the creation of Israel, know what it was like for there not to be an Israel. Those of you, especially, who endured the Shoah, who lost so much, sometimes everything that was precious to you in the universe, your families, your home towns, your childhood, your friends – you knew that the time had come to stop saying Dayenu the way we had for so many centuries, you knew that we could no longer be satisfied pleading for the mercy of host nations, who, when push came to shove, could not have cared less about us - it would no longer be dayenu, it would no longer be good enough for us to wait patiently for God’s next intervention in history.

So, today, on the final day of Pesah, as we prepare for Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, we become the inheritors of a new Dayenu - a new song of gratitude to God, to Whom we are grateful for giving us the courage, the vision, the skill, the hutzpah necessary to transform dream into reality.

In a famous Talmudic story [BM 59:] whose details need not concern us now, God offers his opinion, through a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice, and God’s opinion is rejected. לא בשמים היא, Rabbi Yehoshua reminds God, the Torah is no longer in heaven. It is now ours, from which to extract our understanding of the law, our interpretation of tradition. 

How does God react to this colossal act of audacity, with His own opinion being rejected by an earthly court? The Talmud describes how Rabbi Nathan encountered Elijah the Prophet and asked him that very question - what did the Almighty do when His children ignored His opinion? Elijah’s answer:   קא חייך ואמר- God laughed and said -צנחוני בני, צנחוני בני - My children have defeated me, My children have defeated me!” 

I believe as well, with all my heart, that God laughed with the children thriving in the streets, kibbutzim, towns and villages of Israel - even though His people didn’t wait for the Messiah to come, to return to the land. Rather, God would have happily proclaimed:  “צנחוינ בינ, נצחוינ בינ - My people have defeated me, they have defeated me.” They have chosen to act rather than wait. They have shown determination, not timidity, they have shown courage, not resignation. Through loving defiance, they have refused to relinquish a dream. How could God, in the face of such resilience of spirit, do anything but rejoice? 

History, we know, has given us abundant reasons to cry, to mourn the millions torn from us in modern times and throughout our long and so-often tortured history. Sometimes, even crying eluded us, the pain was so great. But once those tears were shed, our souls were once again freed to dream, to toil for a better tomorrow. 

We are resilient as a people beyond all reasonable expectation. We have hung tough through the storms of history, the tides of hatred, the dangers that have always lurked. We have always been determined to see better times. Now that we have come this far, we know that the day of the truly sincere Dayenu - the day of the affirmation that we have made it, we have overcome, we have prevailed - we know that – קרב יום  – that day draws near. 


  1.  Israel Meir Lau, Out of the Depths, 2011, pp. 89-90
  2.  ibid., pp. 90-91
  3.  A Survivor’s Haggadah, JPS, 2000, pp. 62-63

 

 

Yom Kippur 5781

יום כיפור יזכור תשפ''א

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5781

September 28, 2020

Rabbi Philip S. Scheim

 

Yaffa Eliach tells the story of a night of horror at the Janowska Road slave labor camp. [1] Thousands of Jews were ordered to run to a field. Reaching their destination, they discovered two huge pits. The S.S. and Ukrainian guards had decided to have a night of sport at the expense of the starving and exhausted Jewish prisoners. They were ordered to jump over the pits, a next-­to-impossible task were they in good physical shape, let alone in their current condition of weakness and ill health. Those who would fall into the pits would be shot.

Rabbi Israel Spira, the Rabbi of Bluzhov, stood on the field that terrible night. Standing next to him was a non-practicing Jew whom Rabbi Spira had befriended in the camp.

The secular Jew tried to convince the rabbi not to jump. “We have no chance – why should we entertain them? Let’s just sit in the pit and wait for the bullets.”

Rabbi Spira would not agree. “If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must.” They reached the pit, and Rabbi Spira turned to his younger friend and said: “We are jumping.” When they opened their eyes, they were standing on the other side of the pit.

“Spira, we are here, we are here, we are alive!” his friend repeated over and over. “There must be a God in Heaven. Rebbe, how did you do it?”

Rabbi Spira answered: “I was holding on to my Zekhut Avot, to my ancestral merit, to the coattails of my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, of blessed memory. But tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit.”

“I was holding on to you,” his friend replied.

What was he holding on to? To the hand of Rabbi Spira, which linked him to the tradition from which the secular Jew previously had viewed himself as disconnected. In clinging tightly to that which he had spent his lifetime, until then, rejecting, he came to realize the need to reconnect to the Jewish past, in order not only to escape the horrors of that dark and bitter moment, but, even more important, to find meaning in the everyday passages and pursuits of life.

I recall how several of you, perhaps some of the few of you physically present this morning in our pandemically diminished congregation, and many more of you connected with us through technology – I recall how several of you told me when we met before a parent’s funeral, that you would need help with the words of the Kaddish, because Hebrew wasn’t your specialty.

I, most likely, in reply, would have said two things to you: first, that you were not alone, that many if not most of the individuals I meet in your situation share the same need; and, second, that I would be there to help you, and that in the not-to­o-distant future, because of practice, you would be the one to assist future mourners, as they also, at first, struggle over the words of Kaddish, over the daily prayers, over tefillin, and the other rituals that they, like you, would be encountering either for the first time in many years, or, perhaps, for the first time ever.

Today, I would say a third thing to you. What really mattered when you stood that sad and terrible day of your life at graveside, as earth and tears fell over the coffin bearing your parent, your loved one – what really mattered was not that you needed help with the words of Kaddish, rather, what mattered was that you felt it important to say Kaddish, to have a minyan at your home  – when that was possible – to go through the week of shivah - even when, to that point, Jewish rituals may have rarely intersected your life experiences.

Why you felt that need at that time, I am convinced, is the very same reason the secular Jew felt compelled to hold tight to Rabbi Spira’s hand in order to make that jump over the pit of death.

At a time of loneliness - and no time is more lonely than that following the death of a loved one – we need that hand to hold onto – we need that link to past, to our ancestors, to our tradition. It is that link that fortifies us, that helps give us the strength to take those first few difficult and pain-filled steps to the next hour, the next day. It is that link that reminds us, just as Rabbi Spira’s firm grip reminded his friend, that, even when we think we are utterly alone, we are not – we are in the company of those who came before us, we are in the company of K’lal Yisrael,  the totality of the Jewish people, we are part of something far greater than ourselves, we are not alone.

Look. The words we traditionally say to a mourner connect the grief of the moment to those who mourned for ancient Jerusalem: “המקום המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים – May God comfort you among all of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” You see, even in mourning, we are not alone. We have company. We have a link to ancestry, to past, to those who came before us.

Just as the current pandemic literally prevents us from holding onto the hands of those outside our immediate bubbles, there are times when the symbolic, spiritual hands of our forebears seem out of reach as well. As comforting as spiritual communities may be – circumstances, be it what the world is experiencing now, be it the incessant pressures of life in challenging times, be it our personal preoccupations with day-to-day needs not being met, circumstances can perpetuate our sense of isolation, our alienation from community, from others. 

Later today, in the Minhah service, we read the story of Jonah. Jonah, given an assignment by God to warn the people of נינוה העיר הגדולה, of Nineveh, the great city, that they were facing destruction because of their wickedness, is afraid to do what God has asked him to do, so he flees. He travels in a direction opposite to the itinerary God has given him, he sets sail for Tarshish. He travels farther and farther away from his mission, farther and farther away from God; and while aboard ship, of course, the great storm, and Jonah  singled out  as the culprit. It is then that his teshuvah, his return from hiding begins. “ עברי אנכי,” he announces to his fellow passengers, “I am a Hebrew – ואת ה אלקי השמים אני ירא, אשר עשה את הים ואת היבשה – and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven who made both sea and dry land.”

It is only once Jonah reasserts his identity as a Jew that he musters the confidence to fulfill his mission, to lecture the Ninevites concerning their sinfulness. Elie Wiesel has written:

As a Jew, Jonah feels strong enough to confront the world and influence its future. As a Jew he [now] feels he has certain things to tell the nations of the earth....Jonah, beaten by life, humbled by God  [finally] opts for life, however filed with anguish, in order to prevent others from dying.

Jonah, friends, has come out of hiding. In coming to terms with his identity, in returning to God, he renews his concern for the suffering of his fellow human being, Jew and gentile.

The Mahzor Vitry, emanating from the eleventh-century French Talmudic scholar Simhah ben Shmuel, shares the story of Rabbi Akiva who, in a dream, we are told, saw a man, covered in filth, carrying a very heavy load of wood on his shoulder. In his dream, Rabbi Akiva asks the man to stop. “Why are you working so hard,” he asks him. The man answers: “I am from the dead. Every day I am forced to chop, gather and carry this heavy burden of wood.”

“What did you do in life to merit so heavy a punishment?” Rabbi Akiva asks him.  He answers: “I was a tax-collector. I used to favor the rich and oppress the poor.” “But tell me,” Rabbi Akiva persists, “have you discovered, in that world, any way in which I can help you, anything I can do to alleviate your pain, your burden?”

The man answers: “All I can say is what I have heard: If I had a son who could stand up in the congregation and proclaim publicly: ברכו את ה המבורך - ‘Blessed be the Lord who is to be blessed’ - to which the people would say: ברוך ה המבורך לעולם ועד - ‘Blessed be the Lord who is to be blessed for ever and ever’ - if I would have such a son, I understand that my sufferings would ease. But I left no son. Yes, when I died, it’s true, my wife was pregnant, but even if she had a son, there would be no one to teach him.”

That was all that Rabbi Akiva had to hear. Upon awakening, he resolved to find out as much as he could about this man and the child that he never knew. He finds the town in which he lived, and that, indeed, he did sire a son, a boy who was abandoned by the community, uncircumcised and unschooled. Rabbi Akiva personally provides for his needs, circumcises him, teaches him, until he is able to stand up in the synagogue and say “ברכו את ה המבורך.” This he does, and the congregation blesses him. He then continues: “יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא and the congregation responds: “יהא שמה רבא מברך....” The earliest record we have of a Mourner’s Kaddish recited by a son for a parent. [2]

This story, explaining the origin of the קדיש יתום, the Mourner’s Kaddish, is the story of alienation overcome; the alienation between parent and child, the alienation between child and God. It is precisely through tradition, through prayer, that this boy is able to establish a link to the father that he never knew, and in so doing, to become part of the minyan, the congregation and community of Israel. And in a more normal circumstance, when a child knows a parent, when the relationship was normal and long-lasting, how much the more so does Kaddish prevent that generational link from ever be broken.

On several occasions I have seen Kaddish recitation for a parent, for a child, for a sibling, for a spouse, bring a bereaved human being out of isolation - for often one’s instinctive reaction at a moment of loss is to withdraw into oneself and sever relationship with the outside world – but Kaddish is the undoing of alienation, the mechanism for bringing a Jew who hurts out of hiding and back into life. And one has only to visit our daily minyanim to encounter those who continue to attend services long after their Kaddish period has ended, for whom Kaddish was the means of overcoming alienation not only from others, but from much of Jewish practice as well.

The continued popularity of Kaddish, even when so many other traditions have fallen into disuse, speaks of our need to make that connection, to find that proverbial hand to hold, especially at moments of loss and loneliness. And many who were not expected to continue the kaddish recitation would attend minyanim at shul, join the prayers, and recite the kaddish. In today’s challenging times, as we cope with Covid-19, that dedication has been transferred to Zoom minyanim, not the way our sages, or any of us six months ago would have imagined, but nonetheless, a powerful demonstration of holding onto the hands of those who preceded us, of using any and every mechanism available, to find comfort in that eternal connection with our tradition.

In a beautiful ethical will, Yitzhak Margolis, a Russian Zionist activist around the time of the First World War, who settled in pre-State Israel in 1921 with his family, wrote to his son Nehemia the following words: [3]

Take these five volumes, my son. They are the prayer-books for the week-days, for our festivals and holy days. Here, in these volumes and in this place, your ancestors, giants of spirit and humaneness, poured forth their hearts. When you open these wondrous books before you, you [will] feel as though their presence encircles you, watches over you, and hears your whispered prayers.…

We are about to say Yizkor. We are about to engage in an act of collective and individual remembering. We are going to remember those who have died, who bequeathed us life-sustaining  memories. Some of those memories are of deeds of charity, of kindness. Some of those memories are of walking together to shul on cold winter Shabbat mornings. Some of those memories are of a magnificent Shabbat table, a home lacking in wealth but filled with hospitality and warmth. Some of those memories are of bitterly hard lives, but lives nonetheless filled with the spirit of love.

You who were witness to these lives remember them with clarity and certainty. But part of your task, is to hold on to the symbolic hands of your forebears, to pass on the values they cherished to the generation that follows. In saying Yizkor you are bearing witness to what you saw, to what you felt, to what you experienced. Your children can only do the next best thing. They will, with God’s help, bear witness to your act of witnessing. But they also become first hand witnesses to the lives you lead, the examples you set, the Yiddishkeit you practice, making you, making us into witnesses and teachers at the same time. They will want to hold on to you as they face the challenges, and as they, God willing, experience the joys that await them.

It is through the perspective of memory, both immediate and ancient, that the struggles of today becomes worthwhile. May we, today, blessed and strengthened by precious memories, prove equal to the challenge of  transmitting those memories into tomorrow’s world.

 


[1] Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Oxford 1982, pp. 3-4

[2] Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish, 1998, Digital edition pp. 64-66; also Artscroll Kaddish, 1980.

[3]Jack Reimer and Nathaniel Stampfer, So that Your Values Live On, 1991, p. 77

Rosh Hashanah 5781

Saturday, September 19, 2020

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Shavuot 5780

SHAVUOT : TORAH IS LIFE  by RABBI PHILIP S. SCHEIM 
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Yom Kippur Yizkor 5780

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

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Kol Nidrei 5780

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

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Rosh Hashanah I 5780

Monday, September 30, 2019 

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Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779

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Kol Nidrei 5779

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Rosh Hashanah II 5779

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Thu, 15 April 2021 3 Iyyar 5781