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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

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