Thank you for inviting me to speak today, Rabbi Maderer.
I am always struck by the beauty and solemnity of this moment, this Yizkor Memorial service that is so meaningful to all of us. It is a time to remember our loved ones within the context of this solemn day of Yom Kippur, as our congregation gathers as one. And whether you are here in our sanctuary or joining on live-streaming, we are as one.
And as we like to say in the beginning of our services, this is a time to take a deep breath…and release…as we put aside the cares and stresses of our daily lives and we fully focus on the lives and memories of our loved ones who have died during this past year, or in years past. This is why we are here, both physically and virtually, to recite the names of the loved ones we have lost, and to honor their memories.
Each name represents a life. Each name was a person – a loved one of someone who is part of our congregational family.
This service is named for the prayer we will recite shortly, the “Yizkor” prayer: “Yizkor Elohim nishmot…” “May God remember these names…” In this prayer, we are asking God to remember our loved ones, praying that God will watch over them and protect their souls. But at the same time, “the implication is that this act of remembrance also constitutes a guarantee of the continuation of the Jewish people, beyond just those we remember. [Rabbi Aaron Panken].
We recite the names of our ancestors to honor their memory, but also to emphasize one of the most important concepts of Jewish tradition, to honor the idea of “L’dor Vador,” “from generation to generation.” In the news recently, there was a story about the attempt to rescue the historical register of Jewish burials from the modern-day Romanian city of Cluj-Napowka, which had been stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The United States government recently recovered these documents and plan to return them to their communities of origin. They contain priceless historical information. They contain Jewish funeral scrolls and records that were taken from the Jewish Communities in Romania, Hungary, Ukraine and Slovakia during the Holocaust. [Article in NY Times by Colin Moynihan, July 26, 2021].
Why is this so important? Because they contain the names of loved ones who died, just as our Yizkor list contains the names of our loved ones. Those rescued burial records represent invaluable cultural religious artifacts that should be properly returned to the few survivors of their original Jewish communities. Burial records, hand-written in Hebrew and Yiddish. These lists include records from cities largely destroyed in the Holocaust.
One of the survivors was born in hiding in a cellar during the war, as his mother miraculously escaped the Jewish ghetto of Cluj. He is now the president of the JC of Cluj – and he said, “very little belonging to our JC’s survived WWII.” He called the burial registers “very precious for the history of our community.” It is their memory. The word Yizkor comes from the Hebrew word meaning “memory” – “to remember.”
Here we have a story of a group of descendants of the victims of the Holocaust who have worked tirelessly to get these burial records returned – 76 years later! They contain the names of their own loved ones, and the names of Holocaust victims, who are no longer here to mourn their dead whose names are on these lists. It makes us realize how blessed we actually are to be able to be here with each other as we mourn our dead.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Holocaust is the fact that all of the future generations of those 6 million victims were never born. Imagine what the world would have looked like if those millions of Jewish children and their children’s children had been given a chance to be born and had lived. The world would have been a very different place. I am reminded of one Jewish couple from Greece who miraculously escaped from Nazi death camps, and later had a child named Albert. Albert Bourla grew up and became the CEO of Pfizer pharmaceutical company and he led the effort to produce the first Covid vaccine, which has saved millions of lives already. How many other Jews like Albert Bourla may have been born, had they been given the chance?
But there are so very few left to say kaddish for the victims, and to honor “L’dor Vador” “from generation to generation.”
This is why it is so important for the surviving remnant in Cluj to get their burial records returned to them, so they can remember – so they can say Yizkor – so they can say Kaddish for them – so their memories will not disappear, so their memories will be a blessing.
But it is also important for us to include the 6 million plus victims in our prayers, and to never forget. While it is impossible to literally say kaddish for 6 million + people we never knew, we can start by honoring the memories of our own loved ones – at Yizkor services/ and every day of our lives.
This is why we are here today. To remember our loved ones who have passed on – and to keep their memories alive, “L’dor Vador” from generation to generation.
People wonder why Judaism has survived for so long. I believe it is because of our long-standing dedication to this concept of L’dor Vador. It is as old as the Book of Psalms, believed to date back almost 3,000 years. In Psalm 146, we read:
“Yimloch Adonai L’olam
L’dor Vador – Hal’lu-Yah!”
“The Eternal will reign for all time, Your God from generation to generation – Hal’lu-Yah!”
And that Psalm became enshrined in one of the most important prayers in all of Jewish liturgy, in the “T’filah” / simply known as the “the Prayer.”
The end of this prayer speaks powerfully to us today: “L’dor vador nagid gadlecha…” “We will teach God’s greatness l’dor vador – from generation to generation. And to the end of time, we will affirm Your holiness.
This prayer is recited and sung many times throughout our High Holy Days- and every time we say that prayer, we are making a solemn vow to be responsible for keeping Judaism alive and thriving for all time. Each of us is a link in “shalshellet ha-kabbalah” “the chain of Jewish tradition.” As we read in our machzor, “It is up to each of us, parents, grandparents, teachers to share its teachings with the next generation. The chain of transmission l’dor vador, is woven not just by sages and scholars, but by all who cherish Jewish heritage and tradition. In our topsy turvy world, the Jewish people must continue to uphold the sanctity of God and teachings of Jewish wisdom. Each generation imparts the Jewish message of empathy, compassion and justice to the next. Thus, we offer our next generation a solid moral grounding to sustain them over the years.” [Mishkan HaNefesh – Rosh Hashana p. 185].
As critically important as this is, we know that in today’s world it is so difficult to ensure the future of the Jewish people. We face so many challenges. On the one hand, there is rising antisemitism. And on the other hand, there are the challenges of the rising secular world, with all the surveys telling us that there is a waning interest in religion of any kind.
Some observers say the future of Judaism is in jeopardy, and that assimilation and intermarriage are going to lead to our downfall. But I have a different opinion. Some congregations, like ours is on the cutting edge of an open and welcoming approach – embracing all seekers with open arms – creating new pathways to provide meaning and connection to all who enter our sphere, a sphere of a vibrant and living Judaism – to inspire us to pass on our heritage L’dor Vador, from one generation to the next.
A synagogue does not belong to a single generation. It is a place of history, which gathers up the faith of the whole people and proclaims the spirit of God which has united our people as we have hoped, and suffered and believed across the centuries. [After A. Scott Berg].
The act of remembering our loved ones through the Yizkor prayer and by saying Kaddish for them, constitutes a guarantee of the continuation of the Jewish people well beyond just those we remember here today. In remembering and in asking God’s remembrance, we request divine help in continuing our people’s trajectory beyond ourselves to achieve the ultimate aims of our people’s history. [Panken].
And as the sun sets this day, the light illuminates a little more of the path that lies before us, as the passage of each year further defines our effort. In one decade after the other, we see that the silhouette of our people’s history spreads across time, and into our own lives. [after Berg]. And we know it is up to us. It is our task, our responsibility, our sacred honor to see it through to the next generation.
Today, we pledge to keep the memory of our loved ones alive, and to keep Judaism alive, to keep the Jewish community alive. And to keep this congregation strong.
Yizkor, in the end, is not a prayer for the dead, but a promise / by the living. [Panken].
MATERIAL GATHERED FROM: Mishkah HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, Rabbi Aaron Panken prayer in Yizkor Service, CCAR Press, New York, 2015. New York Times article, “Historical Jewish Records Seized,” by Colin Moynihan, July 26, 2021. Mishkan Ha Nefesh, Rosh Hashana, “We will teach Your greatness,” CCAR Press, New York, 2015. Wilson, by A. Scott Berg, Penguin Random House, New York, 2013.