High Holy Days 5779
Rabbi Oren Steinitz's Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
In a few minutes, we will turn to Yizkor, our remembrance, or memorial service.
Jewish tradition seems to be overtly focused on memory and remembering. The first blessing of the Amidah refers to God as the One “who remembers the merits of our ancestors” – zocher chasdei avot [v’imahot]; The Shabbat liturgy tells us that the Sabbath serves as a double reminder zeicher l’yetsi’at mitsrayim – in memory of the Exodus from Egypt – zeicher l’ma’aseh bereishit – in memory of the work of creation; Rosh HaShannah is referred to in the liturgy as Yom HaZikaron – Day of Remembrance – and we spend one of its main liturgical units on Zichronot, the biblical verses concerning memory and remembering; before Purim we read the portion commanding us to not only remember what Amalek has done to us in the desert, but also to blot out their memory; in the last century we added two memory-related observances to our Jewish calendar – Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a Memorial Day commemorating Israeli fallen soldiers. In Israel, public Yizkor prayers contain not only the line Yizkor Elohim – may God remember – but also Yizkor Am Yisrael – may our People remember.
The emphasis on memory is not coincidental. Benedict Anderson wrote that memory is one of the main vehicles of forming a national identity – in other words, a nation, or any large community really, cannot be formed without collective memories. We simply cannot feel close to other people in a group, if we do not share memories with them. Just like our personal families are strengthened by creating memories, both positive and negative, Judaism is built on the idea that all of us, collectively, remember certain events. While a Jew who lives in Elmira does not necessarily have that much in common with a Jew living in Brazil or Singapore, both of them “remember” that many years ago, their ancestors were slaves in Egypt and God brought them out of there to freedom. It makes no difference if one even believes the story – the memory of it is engrained in us. You can be a devout atheist, but when you taste the bitter herbs during the Passover Seder, you remember that our ancestors’ lives were made bitter by the Egyptians.
In the pivotal 2013 Pew Study of American Judaism, 73 percent of the respondents claimed that remembering the Holocaust is a central component to being Jewish. The only other aspect of Jewish life that came even close to that was “leading an ethical life,” at 69 percent. Just to compare, only nineteen percent claimed that observing Jewish Law was essential to being Jewish, and fourteen percent saw eating Jewish foods as a central component of their identity. Attendance at Holocaust memorials and at Yizkor services serve as living proof – for many of us the memories of past events, especially tragic ones, is a central reason for keeping our Jewish practice. In many cases, when we asked our parents or grandparents why they come to shul during the High Holidays or why they keep one tradition or another, the answer was “in memory of the Holocaust victims,” or “to remember the ways of my ancestors.” Memory, as it seems, simply works.
But memory can be a double edged sword. It can build community, and it can paralyse it. It can motivate people to take part, but basing your Jewish identity on memory alone can also turn Judaism into a museum rather than a living, breathing tradition. A synagogue is not supposed to be a place that you attend once a year in order to remember “how things used to be back in the day,” and those who do so are in for a disappointment. Like any tradition, and any institution, Judaism does not stay static. Customs evolve, buildings are renovated, new practitioners have new ideas and new ways of identifying as Jews, worship changes, melodies are replaced, and even plaques sometimes get moved… If we come into a synagogue once every blue moon, and get angry at what happened to the traditions we remember from our childhood, we are not respecting the memories of the past, we are disrespecting those who come here every week to create new memories.
Such changes, by the way, have nothing to do with whether a community is traditional or liberal, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or any other brand. Even the Orthodox synagogues of today are very different than the ones common in the 1950’s, for instance, and Reform Judaism changed so much in the last thirty years that a new group, “The Society for Classical Reform Judaism” emerged, claiming that the Reform movement has changed too much! Change is simply a part of life – whether we intend for it to happen or not.
I don’t want you to misunderstand me. The memories of our past, near and distant, are the foundation for what we have today. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing a family who moved away come into the building, sharing their own memories of the community. If we are not careful to maintain a sense of continuity and respect for our past, we will do everyone a disservice. However, if we focus exclusively on the memories of our past, we will not be creating new memories for our children and their children. In a few minutes, we will take the time to think about our deceased relatives and friends. When you do this, try and think not only about the memories they left you, but also about the memories you want to form, and how you would like to be remembered.
Shanna Tovah, u’gmar chatimah tovah.
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