A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 4.17.20

Dear friends,

Now that this most unusual Passover is behind us, we settle into counting the days to Shavuot.  As I spoke about over the first days of Pesach, the counting has additional meaning this year – we’re counting toward the next holiday – z’man matan torateinu/the time of the giving of the Torah – but we’re also counting the days to when we can get some semblance of normalcy back in our lives.  When and how that will happen is, of course, an open question. In the meantime, we, the EMJC Collective, continue to stick together and support one another, doing what we can to maintain our mission and our community.  

Our Passover services were beautiful and (unusually!) well-attended, we had robust daily minyanim for those saying kaddish, and in general, we seem to be “getting a groove” with regard to Zoom services.  I include my sermon from yesterday’s Yizkor service below.

On that note, we must pause to give thanks to Audrey Korelstein, our Master Zoom Engineer.  Audrey has been at every service, every Zoom gathering, making sure that the system is up and running, troubleshooting, and establishing security protocols so that we don’t get Zoom-bombed.  Even when people bemoan having to enter passwords, she is keeping up our defenses, preserving our security and the dignity of our services. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I keep thinking of Scotty, the no-nonsense Scottish engineer, from the original Star Trek series.  See here:


In any case, we owe her a great debt of gratitude.

We will have more links for services and more information about upcoming events in the coming week. Please be in touch if you need anything; EMJC has a cadre of volunteers ready to help you out if you need.  Also, please make sure that those who do not have easy access to computers are aware that the synagogue is here to help if anyone needs it.  

In the meantime, please stay safe and accept our wishes for a Shabbat shalom u’mevorach –  a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Rabbi Sam

Yizkor Sermon – 8th day of Passover

If you were fortunate to be in services yesterday (the 7th day of Passover), you heard my father give a talk about our people’s foundational story – the story of the exodus from Egypt – and how it may have come to be constructed.   Drawing on different Biblical versions of the story of the Exodus-to-the-Coming-into-the-Land, he demonstrated that there were competing emphases for what the kernel of action was in the years between the rise of Moses and the conquests of Joshua.  In some versions, it is God’s power over the Canaanite kings that is the focus of the story (Ps. 136) – in others, it is the giving of the Torah and Shabbat.  Some skip the action in the desert altogether (Ps. 114).

This particularly struck me because of what I had wanted to speak about today.  One of the key passages of the Passover Haggadah comes at the end of the maggid section: b’chol dor vador chayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim – “In every generation it is our duty to regard ourselves as though we personally had come out of Egypt…” This is a call to memory – to a national memory that has, to a large degree, been constructed for us.  We are enjoined to “regard ourselves” as though we had personally come out of Egypt based on the information that we have been given, or at least based on a version of the story that has been passed down to us, as per my father’s remarks yesterday.

We are the people of memory.  The Hebrew root z-ch-r (meaning “memory” or “remembering”) appears 228 times in the Hebrew Bible, and the injunction to “remember the work of creation” and “remember the exodus from Egypt” are cornerstones of our faith, our relationship to God, and our liturgy.  I stress that these are national memories, ones that we have collectively agreed to “pass on” to the next generations in order to preserve our national or religious story and our national or religious values.

But we also do the work of constructing memory-narratives on a personal level.  This happens whenever someone dies. In our tradition, we have a process for constructing this individual’s narrative: it begins right after death with the hesped,  the eulogy.  What is the purpose of a eulogy?  The Shulchan Aruch (the essential code of Jewish law) discusses this: 

Mitzvah g’dolah l’haspid al hameit kara’uy. umitzvato sheyarim et kolo lomar alav d’varim hanishabrim et halav, k’day l’harbot bechiyah, ul’hazkir sh’vacho.

“It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the mitzvah is to raise one’s voice to say over [the departed] things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying; and also one should, “l’hazkir sh’vacho” – cause people to remember the dead’s good deeds/praises. “

Right from the time of death, we are urged, commanded, even, to construct a story about our dead.  There is a discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b) about whether the purpose of the eulogy is yekara d’shachvei– for the sake of honoring the dead, or yekara d’chayei –for the sake of honoring the living.  If for the dead, then that is appropriate: we wish to send off the individual with as much honor as possible – let heaven be presented with an account of her good deeds and let her be judged on those!  

If for the living, then howso? The gemara answers that question: Nicha l’hu l’tzadikaya d’meik’rei bahu inshei – “It is comforting to the righteous when other people are honored through them.”  In other words, we understand that there is a personal benefit to us to hear about the deeds of the departed – that some of their honor, or some of the honor that we have attached to them, rubs off on us, by association.  This is a local version of z’chut avot – the merit of our ancestors; it is not our national ancestors though, but rather our familial ancestors. And just as we rely upon the merit of Abraham and Sarah, for example, to soften God’s judgment of us, so we hope that the honor of our parents, grandparents, siblings, children (chv”sh) accrues to us, so it is fitting that we should heap honor upon them!

A similar question applies our pledge (in Yizkor) of giving tzedakah in memory of the dead.  Is it for us, or is it for them?  Is the giving of tzedakah meant to satisfy some medieval notion that by donating charity in memory of the deceased, we lessen the suffering of that person’s soul in the afterlife? Certainly, that is one understanding of the custom.  Indeed, the Zohar explains that “when the Torah is out [as it is for the yizkor service], God’s love for [God’s] people is aroused, [and so] it is appropriate to say Yizkor for the deceased, as they may also be in need of God’s kindness.” 

One rabbi elaborates: “How can the dead be in need of God’s kindness? This is because [according to this line of thinking,] a person may not have fully perfected herself during her lifetime. The Yizkor service is a time when the living are able to help the soul obtain the corrections it needs, since the soul, without its body cannot perform good deeds in this world.”

This rabbi continues: “During the Yizkor service each individual pledges to give charity (tzedakah). This act, although done by the living, is recorded in the merit of the deceased. In that way the soul receives the help it needs, and the living are able to do an incredible act of kindness for their dearly departed.” (https://www.aish.com/atr/Yizkor.html)

Personally, I have never been comfortable with this explanation, and I’d like to propose an alternative to it.  I believe that, just as with eulogizing, the real benefit is not to the dead, but to the living.  By pledging to give tzedakah, we are keeping the memory of the deceased alive by supporting causes that they cared about.  What’s more, we are associating their memory with an act of righteousness – a material, tangible expression of what we have learned from them – what we have gleaned from the life we are remembering.  Our dead make us better – we have, ideally,  attached to them a story of righteousness, of goodness, of positive qualities that are worthy of emulation.   

The opening line of the yizkor prayers is a puzzle: yizkor elohim et nishmat _______ / “May God remember the soul of _______.”  We often ask God to remember things or to remember people: zchor Av hanimshach acharecha kamayim – “Remember the patriarch who was drawn to you like water,” we say on Shmini Atzeret. Zchor brit Avraham va’Akeidat Yitzchak – “Remember the covenant with Abraham and the binding of Isaac” we say at Ne’ilah.  But when we say yizkor elohim or any of these other prayers, we are not actually asking God to remember – surely, memory is a human quality, not a divine one – God knows all – memory is not a factor.  What we are doing is asking God to overlay the positive deeds of that person onto us – when we ask God to “remember that person” what we really mean is “take notice of me!  I can be a better person! No matter where I am now, I can strive for something greater! I can aim for those fine qualities of – you name it – my mother, father, sister, brother, etc…

Tomorrow, I will be performing my fifth funeral in the past 2 weeks, with still another on Sunday. Some of these are directly related to COVID-19, others not.   But many funerals means many stories.  Some of the deceased are people I knew well, some are people I knew a little, and others were complete strangers.  But in nearly every case, the stories are extraordinary – they are the stories of people’s lives! And watching the members of the family construct, or reconstruct that life for the sake of a story – the eulogy – is a great privilege, because often, they are expressing their own aspirational values through these memories.  Often, something negative about the person will slip out – “he would lose his temper sometimes” or “he didn’t know those grandchildren as well as he knew the others” – and then there’s always the corrective: “But don’t say that at the funeral.”  Right from the start, we peel away the negative qualities and get to the kernels of goodness that the life represented.  

Death is all around us right now in this terrible, frightening, historic moment.  Yizkor seems particularly poignant this year, this Pesach, this “holiday of remembering.”  As we all cope with the mounting losses, as we process memories, creating new stories, as we pledge to give tzedakah b’ad hazkarat nishmotam – so that their souls will be remembered – let us remember too, that the stories we tell others and that we tell ourselves turn into little stars that light our moral universe. 

They serve as fitting tributes to our dead, and as a bridge between those dead and our own journey of self-improvement in the land of the living.  The non-literal English translation in our siddur sums it up well: in a moment, we will read some version of the following:

In loving testimony to his life I pledge charity to help perpetuate ideals important to him. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, is his soul bound up in the bond of life. May I prove myself worthy of the gift of life and the many other gifts with which he blessed me. May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties that link me to his memory and to our entire family. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sam Levine