Yizkor of 2024

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Mah nishtana ha-Yizkor hazeh? How is this Yizkor different from all other Yizkor’s? This Yizkor is different from all other Yizkor’s in our lifetime. It is the first Yizkor since October 7th. It is the first time since October 7th that we as a community ask God to remember individuals who has passed away. We ask God to remember a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a sibling, a relative today. But it is also a time to remember a tragedy that shook our entire nation to the core. Yizkor 2024 is not only personal. It’s also a national day of Yizkor.


There is a custom that those who do not recite Yizkor exit the shul. What’s the basis for this custom? In his sefer Sha-arei Ephraim, Rabbi Ephraim Margulies suggests that we don’t want those who don’t have anyone for whom to recite Yizkor to sit idly. He also understands a particular gemara that when someone told Abaye that his parents were alive, it created some sort of envy and this is what caused them to die and we don’t want this type of ayin hara to happen when there are people in shul sitting idly and others are reciting Yizkor. Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka, suggests that normally we should not recite Yizkor on Yom Tov because that will ruin the happiness that we should feel on Yom Tov. However, since reciting Yizkor provides a degree of comfort to those who recite Yizkor and actually brings them simchat Yom Tov, we recite it and ask those who will be negatively affected by its recitation who don’t have any deceased relatives to leave.


On Yizkor of 2024, how can any of us sit idly during the recitation of Yizkor and think, even if their parents are alive, that someone else suffered but not us? How can any of us feel that we don’t need a Yizkor to beg God to remember the greatest loss of Jewish life on a single day since the Holocaust? A week ago, we read in the hagada about how the rasha is “hotzi et atzmo min haklal” – he removes himself from the community. He doesn’t feel connected to the nation and we consider that person as if he was “kofer b’ikar,” as if he rejects a fundamental principle in Judaism. Feeling the pain and loss of those who were killed on October 7th and in the war against Hamas is definitional to what it means to be a Jew. In fact, today we will recite as a community not just a Kel Maley for those who died in the Holocaust and in defense of the State of Israel, but we will recite a Kel Maley that was composed in the aftermath of October 7th


But Yizkor is more than a request for God to remember our loved ones. Over thirty years ago, Rabbi JJ Schachter wrote an article that was published in the Torah U’Madda journal where he cited an author from a journal entitled “History and Memory.” The article distinguished between history and heritage. History seeks to convince by accurate facts, but heritage seeks to strengthen our declaration of faith through our past. And this is what we do when we recite Yizkor. Yizkor is not a biographical memory of a father or a mother. Yizkor is about invoking their memories as a merit. It is about attributing our own actions and our future good deeds to the foundation laid by those who are no longer with us. It is about committing myself to more acts of chesed because of the strong foundation that my father laid out for me. It is about committing myself to more passionate tefilla because of the strong foundation that my mother laid out for me. If memories of our loved ones inspire us to be better people, then Yizkor has served its purpose. 


If we use this Yizkor to remember Yakir Hexter and Dovid Schwartz, chavrutot in Yeshivat Har Etzion who were combat engineers who died together in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on January 8th, to be inspired by their commitment to Talmud Torah, by Yakir’s volunteerism to help children with disabilities, by Dovid’s constant desire for religious inspiration and personal growth, and that memory inspires us to push ourselves in Talmud Torah, in increased volunteerism, and in a passionate search to do better and to be better, in their memory, then Yizkor will have served its purpose. If we use this Yizkor to remember Roni Abuharon, a detective from Ofakim, who saved tens of Ofakim residents and killed several terrorists on October 7th before being fatally shot, to be inspired by his courage and heroism and commit ourselves to be more attentive to others and really be more sensitive to the plight of others in our community, to become community leaders in our own right, in his memory, then Yizkor will have served its purpose. And there are over one thousand of these stories. And there are over one thousand of these memories. Yizkor of 2024 is about remembering our individual losses, it is about remembering our national losses, and it is about utilizing their losses to inspire us to be better.


But Yizkor 2024 is more than just a national day of memory. It is a day of Hashem yikom damam. When someone dies in the normal course of events, we say “zichrono livracha” after the person’s name, meaning “may his memory serve as a blessing.” However, when someone dies for being Jewish, we say, “Hashem yikom damo” after the person’s name, meaning “may God avenge his blood.” Today is a day of Yizkor – of zichrono livracha for our relatives who died in the normal course of events. But today is also a day of “Hashem yikom damam.” It is day asking God for vengeance. We ask for divine vengeance not because we are vengeful, hateful people, but we ask for divine vengeance because what we are really doing is expressing our outrage against this crime against humanity. Yes, this was an attack against God, in some sense, because we are God’s chosen people. As such, an attack against the Jewish people is an attack against God. But it was also an attack against humanity. Leora and I participated in a rally on Friday in front of Columbia University to free the hostages and a number of speakers at the rally stressed this very point. They pointed out that we are fighting not just for Jews, but we are fighting for humanity. We are fighting for morality. This is not just about Israel. Eighteen countries have citizens that are being held by Hamas. Additionally, a Christian activist spoke at the rally, because this is not just an attack against Judaism. It is an attack against all that is good and decent. We ask for divine vengeance because we realize that it is immoral to allow a world where the acts of murder on October 7th and the acts of torture and rape and violence perpetrated against the hostages since October 7th go unpunished. It is immoral not to say Hashem yikom damam. 


And Hashem yikom damam is not just a prayer. It is a call to action. Yes, I know that it’s been six months and we are tired. And how much does it help that I went to a rally, that I signed a letter thanking a senator, that I made a phone call to protest as an alumnus of my university, especially when those who oppose us outnumber us and are more skilled than us in rallying the masses and spreading lies on social media? But we have no choice. We must fight. Bari Weiss recently wrote that our holiday from history is over. We have no choice but to fight and do what we can to shape history.  What that means for each one of us is personal and subjective. Some of us will attend rallies and some of us will write letters to political leaders and some of us will post on social media and some of us will speak to colleagues at universities and at work. But we must fight and we must not escape our responsibility to fight when we sense an opportunity. Hashem yikom damoam is both a prayer and a call to action.


Finally, I want to return to the point that I made on the first day of Pesach. There is a lot to be pessimistic about. Are we past the Golden Age of America? Should all of us start thinking about making aliya because soon it will no longer be safe here? In truth, is Israel any safer than America? Yes, there is a Jewish government in Israel, but there are an estimated 120,000 Hezbollah rockets aimed at us in the north and Hamas is still holding out in the south and Iran is edging ever so closely to a nuclear weapon with an expressed willingness to destroy us. There is a lot to be pessimistic about. It seems that either we are engaged and pessimistic or we have decided to simply disengage. But there is another option.


Yesterday we read about the miracle of the sea, such an amazing miracle that ushered a newfound faith in God and a song that the Torah introduces with the words, “Az yashir Moshe” – then Moshe will sing. Many of the commentaries try to deal with the fact that the Torah says, then Moshe will sing, in the future, instead of then Moshe did sing, in the past. The Tanchuma Yashan writes very simply, “Az shar lo ne-emar ela az yashir” – it doesn’t say ‘then he sang;’ rather, it says ‘then he will sing.’ “Le-atid lavo” – in the future, “atidin Yisrael lomar shirah la-Hashem” – the Jewish people will sing to God. The song that we sang thousands of years ago is not a relic. It is not a historical event that we make countless movies about, but it is the hope and dream of our people for thousands of years. It is a hope and dream that ushered in the modern state of Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem and it is a hope and dream that we will sing in the future when our enemies will no longer pose an existential threat to our very existence. In an interview 100 days after her son Hersh was kidnapped, Rachel Goldberg Polin said, “I still think we have so many blessings. Right now, it overflows with tears, but I know it will overflow with joy again.” She believes that she will sing again because this is what it means to be a Jew. This is our belief and this is our hope, despite all that we have endured. 


Today, we ask God to remember not just our individual loved ones who have passed. We ask God to remember a nation in pain. We pledge to be inspired to do better and be better in their memory. We pray to God to avenge their deaths so that justice will prevail and we commit ourselves to continue the fight no matter what the odds. And we pledge to follow in the footsteps of Moshe Rabbenu and Rachel Goldberg Polin, and we never give up hope to sing again. We will give tzedakah in their memory and the proceeds from today’s appeal will go to the shul’s charity fund to assist the needy primarily in this community and in other communities. And when we do all this, then we will transform the memory of our loved ones who are no longer with us, and the memory of those kedoshim who died on October 7th and in the war against Hamas, into a lasting legacy.