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Wednesday, June 19, 2013,
11 Tammuz 5773.
|Yizkor Service 2011|
YIZKOR SERVICE 2011 – Rabbi Steven Katz
I recently read a story of Reb Ze’ev who cut and hauled trees from town to town. When his son turned fourteen, he finally allowed him to accompany him on these trips. At nightfall as they headed back, the young man made his bed on top of some logs and covered himself with a thin blanket. Every few minutes, Reb Ze’ev turned his head to check on the welfare of his son. When they hit a bump on the road, the father again looked to see if his son was safe. After hours of exhausting driving, the father switched places with his son. Later the son asked his father how he did as a driver. The father responded “You did well except for one thing. Did you notice how often I looked back to check on you. Not once did you look back to check on me.”
This Yizkor, this Memorial service, is about looking back, looking back on loved ones lost and then checking on ourselves – how much of them still guides us in our lives. How much of their wisdom, their values, their love have we poured into our lives and those of our own children and families? Both a Yizkor service traditionally part of every Yom Kippur, last day Pesach, Shavuot and Shemin Atseret service, and every yahrzeit, every anniversary of our loved one’s death are calls to remember and to check – to remember them and check on ourselves. What did our loved ones stand for and what do we stand for today – how large is the gap between us in values, in Jewish knowledge, Jewish practice and how do we go about closing it? There is never complete closure to the pain of missing. Each year there are things going on in our lives, new family members, weddings and babies, achievements – schools, uni, career, that we would love to share with loved ones lost – to share the joy, the pride. Each year there is perhaps a growing, gnawing fear that time may erode, erase our memories, as sometimes the lettering on the tombstone succumbs to the force of the elements so too there is the fear that our memories may surrender to the inexorable march of time.
But each successive Yizkor service, each successive yahrzeit should also remind us, in spite of our initial oppressive distress when learning of the death of our loved one, we have coped, we have survived, supported by a combination of family love, support of friends and community back up all enhanced by an inner personal strength and sometimes a newly discovered real and profound faith. Initially in the immediacy of our loss, in the depth of our despair and distress, especially after losing chas v’cha a child, or a lifelong marriage partner of fifty golden years or more our hands and legs trembled, tears rolled down our cheeks, we doubted that our pain could ever be soothed, softened, how could anything or anyone manage a pain that cuts both flesh and souls, how could we ever gather together the shattered shards of our life. In a real sense the pain of bereavement is never permanently removed from our soul – initially for women make up covers and conceals publicly the tears that pour down ones cheeks in private. Later as weeks become months there are no tears, but there is hurt – a wedding anniversary, a birthday, a seder night, the first yahrzeit. Eventually perspective sets in and one acknowledges, one appreciates how privileged, how blessed one was to have been nourished by that person’s love and wisdom. Initially at the funeral, at the Shiva the words of the Kaddish praising God may have stuck in ones throat – now Yitgadel, v’yitkadash – May God’s name be magnified and sanctified - seem scant praise for the love we took, the love we gave, the love we shared with those we now mourn. As the years go by we try harder to ensure the love, values and wisdom of our loved ones live on to nourish and warm a new generation.
Let me share with you this story, it is painful – I warn you – it is a true story. I have not changed a word - as it was related by Rabbi Benyamin Blech. It speaks for itself about the importance of cherishing of preserving and transmitting the values of loved ones lost.
Let Blech take up the story
“A few years ago I
was browsing in an antique store on the East Side in
What a tale it was! The Germans had rounded up all the Jews in his little town for deportation. Some believed that they were merely being transported to another site to be used for labor. But Shmuel knew that they were to be murdered. He understood that the Nazis wanted to destroy every Jew as well as every reminder of their religious heritage.
So Shmuel took a chance. He knew that if were caught, he would have paid with his life. But he did what he did so that something would remain, so that, even if not a single Jew in the world remained alive, someone might find it, and remember. He paced off 26 steps form the apple tree alongside his house, and carefully buried his treasure, a silver Passover plate.
Why did he pace off 26 steps? Because 26 is the numerical equivalent of the Name of God. Yod is ten, Hey is five, Vav is six and Hey is five. And so he figured that with this password, he would remember where he buried his beloved seder plate.
He wished he could have hidden much more. How he wanted to preserve a Torah scroll! But he had so little time, and so little space for concealing an object of value. His choice, in retrospect, seemed almost divinely inspired for its symbolism- the seder plate is the key vessel that is used to commemorate the festival of freedom. Shmuel thought, with what he later conceded was far too much optimism that miracles might perhaps occur once more, even in modern times. And from that day on, not a day went by in the Hell of the concentration camp that his mind did not dwell on his Seder plate in its hiding place.
Shmuel could never explain how he, out of all his family and friends, was the only one who survived. In his heart of hearts, he once confided to me, it may have been because he viewed his continued life on hearth as a holy mission, to go back to his roots and uncover his own symbol of survival.
Incredibly enough, in ways that defy all logic, and that Shmuel only hinted to, this survivor of 20th century genocide was reunited with his reminder of deliverance from age-old Egyptian oppression. Shmuel journeyed back to his home, found his tree, counted off the stops, dug where he remembered he had buried it, and successfully retrieved his Seder plate.
Shmuel lost his
wife and his four children in the Holocaust.
But he remarried when he came to the
THAT seder plate is what I saw in the shop for sale in the antique shop that day. “Where did you get this?” I inquired “What is doing here for sale?” I asked the owner. “Yes, I want to buy it,” I assured him, “but I need to know how you happen to have it here.”
“It was part of the contents of an estate sale by the children,” the dealer replied.
“You see, the deceased was religious, but his descendants are not. So they said they didn’t really have any need for an item like this.” End of story.
Surely children could not be that insensitive, that callous. We are being encouraged to recycle, to preserve paper, plastic for the benefit of the planet and future generations but when it comes to values we remain card carrying members of the throwaway society. We may have Shabbes candlesticks inherited from a grandmother or greatgrandmother, they may even have graced our family’s table in some remote shtetl but are they today merely adornments or do we use them to help make Friday night different, special, holy for us and our families. Do we possess a grandfather’s talles – does it sit out of sight in a talles bag stuffed in a cupboard out of sight out of mind? Or do we take it with us to shul ever on a Shabbat and in wrapping it around our shoulders do we remember, to wrap ourselves in the warmth and intensity of Jewish life which the talles represents.
Even if you do not use your Shabbes candlesticks, even if you do not make use of your greatgrandfather’s talles, never discard them or sell them as Shmuel's family did – they are reminders of a Judaism that your family cherished, embraced, loved and lived. They bind you to the heritage of your grandparents and greatgrandparents and they will bind them to your children and their children. So when you return home after this Service and reflect on the Jewish mementoes in your home, resolve to cherish the values that underpin them – they are family values, your family values – if you embrace their values they will live on and so will we.
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