It started last week, immediately on the heels of the election, or maybe even a bit before: people starting to wear safety pins, as a sign to others that the wearers are those who will guard your safety with them. I hear that it’s an idea adopted from a reaction to Brexit.
In the best Jewish tradition, we can immediately see a special Jewish resonance in this gesture. My first thought was “something we can finally do with those six million safety pins we gathered a few years ago”.
Do you remember that project? Grade school age children set about collecting six million safety pins as a way of trying to envision the enormity of Jewish death in the Holocaust. It’s an unthinkably vast number of deaths, and it’s an incredible number of safety pins. What do we do with them once they’re collected, viewed, and considered?
Now we know.
It has already been suggested that Jews have an opportunity now to “pay it forward” for the kindnesses done for us during World War II. I suggest that the safety pin you might choose to wear is a potent reminder to you that as you reach out in acts that insist upon the safety of those targeted by the incoming U.S. administration, you are lifting up the life of the person – one of the six million – whose soul is carried in that safety pin.
No life is ever wasted, even when it is cut short. Those who died of inhuman cruelty in the Shoah never could know that a day would come when their lives would be carried on in an action as simple and as profound as when you and I choose to wear, and act in the spirit of, a safety pin.
All life is precious for its potential; and life fulfills its potential in supporting and celebrating all life. No life should be cut short of its potential; no life should be lived in fear; all life must be nurtured to rise toward the sun, out of the darkness. If wearing a safety pin will help you remember to reach out and live this truth despite your fear, then it is not at all an empty gesture. It is a yizkor, a way of demanding that we, and G*d, remember those whose lives were cut short in that earlier wave of darkness, and it is an assertion that we will not stand by now, fearing for our own safety, while anything like it ever happens again.
Never Again starts now.
Be aware of what you are saying if you put that safety pin on. Realize that it has a meaning that you cannot edit. Know that it declares that no one is safe unless we are all safe, and that you put yourself at risk. Learn how to effectively intervene in a way that does not make it all worse. You could get killed or injured. This is for real: life and death.
During the time of great racist hatred and fear that led to the Holocaust, the great Martin Niemoller wrote of his own awakening.
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
It is our time to speak up. Let the safety pin remind you of the life you lift up through your own words and your acts, that such words and acts are necessary and they are sacred mitzvot. Be kind, be active, be awake.
Holidays are special. Families gather, or they don’t, and either way, the past is more present with us. Pesakh occurs during the full moon and, like the ocean under that same moon, the tides of life grow more intense. It is not unusual for older people to die on the eve of a holiday. There is something about these times, when our gaze wanders further, toward the horizon, and grows thoughtful.
Jews are a people of memory, and during Pesakh, even more so. We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day, and every Shabbat – and during this time of re-living it, kal v’homer, as our Sages say, “how much more so.”
On this Shabbat morning, the holy day which is the last day of Pesakh, we will recite the prayers of Yizkor, one of four times a year when we speak ancient words that express our hope not to be forgotten after our deaths, and remember our loved ones who have gone before us. If we forget them, it seems, in some way, as if they did not exist.
Curiously, though, the term yizkor does not mean “may I remember”. It literally means “May G*d remember”. This begs the question: does G*d forget?
And such a clumsy question it is. In order to ask such a question one must presuppose an anthropomorphic G*d, a bit greater, perhaps, than the greatest human being, but not that much if this Divine Being, like us, has trouble remembering.
I invite you to let your gaze upon that question grow wider, to encompass more of the true horizon and depth of the possibility. Keep in mind that on Pesakh, as on the other Festivals, we are commanded to remember. What does it mean to pray that G*d should remember, if that prayer is not the expression of a sense that memory moves through us and beyond us, part of something greater than us – and that something which is of us and beyond us and to which we belong as waves belong to the sea is G*d?
In the Torah text for this Second Shabbat during Pesakh we read:
שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר–בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם.
Three times in a year all your zakhur shall appear before ה your God in the designated place; at the feast of Matzah, and on the feast of Weeks, and on the feast of the Sukkah; and none shall not appear before ה empty;
אִישׁ, כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ, כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ.
everyone shall give as you are able, according to the blessing of ה your God as you have known it. (Devarim 16.16-17)
The word zakhur is usually translated “males”, since the root z.kh.r can indeed mean “male”. But it also means “memory”. And memory has no gender….Three times a year, then, we are obligated to bring up, conjure up, offer up, our memories. If we do not, it is as if we have come to this great moment empty. But if we do, then all that has come before us sings through us, and we will know what it is to be Memory.
On this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, may you remember all the lives you have known, and may they sing through you – and thus may you know the fullness of the blessing you bring to the world.
This Shabbat, on which we read the first words of the book VaYikra, called Leviticus, is also called Zakhor, “remember”.
For Jews, to remember is to do. This assumption – that the mental act prompts a physical one – is encoded in the ancient Hebrew:
וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה.
It came to pass in the course of this long time that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and they cried out, and their cry came up unto G-d.
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹב.
G-d heard their cries, and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2.23-24)
Jewish tradition teaches that we are to regard stories which depict G-d in human terms for their role model value. G-d clothed Adam and Eve, so should we clothe those in need; G-d buried Moshe, so we see to it that people are properly buried; G-d provides food for all through the processes of nature, so we make sure that the natural abundance of our world reaches all who are hungry.
So too here: G-d remembers that human beings are suffering, and moves to alleviate it, and the wheel of history turns. And as a result of this ancient linguistic idiom, Judaism develops an ethic: to remember, to take note, is to act. A good person can never note a problem and simply turn away, assuming that someone else will respond.
And so it is that we do what we can to move that wheel when it is our turn, even if only by a few inches. We are not called upon to fix the problem we face, necessarily, but we are expected to do our part, as the rabbinic saying goes:
לא עליך כל המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 2.19)
So we do what we can, knowing that the only unacceptable response is the refusal to engage, and do what we can.
The Jewish ethic of remembering and doing offers us a curious question: What does it mean to say that G-d remembers? is it possible to say that G-d forgets? and for those of us who don’t think of G-d as a being who either remembers or forgets, but as a non-anthropomorphic reality or presence, what do either of those words mean?
Yizkor, “may G-d remember”, is the first word of the ritual we observe four times a year in memory of our loved ones who have died. If G-d is just a king on a throne, so to speak, then maybe that sort of divinity needs reminding. But consider it differently: perhaps we are expressing a desire for the memory of a loved one to continue to be remembered, in a way that causes an act, a change, in the world as it is, even though they are no longer with us. Perhaps what we are really saying is “may the world remember – and be affected by that memory”.
That is what brings us to the desire to see a photograph, or hear a voice recording, and know that it is extant in the world because it keeps a loved one more fully in that world. More profoundly appropriate, that is why in Jewish tradition one gives tzedakah as a memorial. Not because of the name alone, but because through the tzedakah that name is not only remembered, but good is enacted as well. And that is the moment in which we truly are sharing in a remembrance that is of G-d.
Every time you move that wheel just a bit, in memory of someone you loved, you bring that loved one into the Memory of the World.
This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot that reminds us of the approach of Pesakh – a time for Yizkor and a time for tzedakah. May you find a meaningful way to remember and to do, in honor of a memory you cherish.
This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture.
Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?
It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur).
When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.
But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor, “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.
The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.
Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci. Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third. The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?”
The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”
2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.
The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.
Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.
The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.
May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.