The Significance of (Jewish) Memory

17/03/2010 at 20:36 Leave a comment

It does not happen very often, but occasionally you run across a story that is so powerful that you want to share it with everyone you meet…


Rabbi Jack Riemer

It does not happen very often, but occasionally you run across a story that is so powerful that you want to share it with everyone you meet. And if you are a rabbi, you want to share it with your congregation.

I found such a story recently, and I want to share it with you today.

Let me tell you in advance that I have not changed a single word in this story. I have not done so because this is a case where ‘kol hamosif gorea’—whoever adds anything takes away. This story speaks for itself, and it needs no embellishment from me or from anyone else.

It is a painful story—I warn you. And it is a story so incredible that you may be temped—as I was—not to believe that it really happened. But the man who told it to me tells me that every word in this story is true, and I believe him.

This is the story, as it was told to me by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Blech:

“A few years ago, I was browsing in an antique store on the East Side in New York, when I spotted an all-too-familiar object. I recognized it immediately, even before I spotted the family name clearly etched on its border. How could I not know what it was when I had been so involved in its story. After all, my eulogy of Shmuel, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, had focused on it.

What a tale it was! The Germans had rounded up all the Jews in his little town for deportation. Some believed that they were merely being transported to another site to be used for labor. But Shmuel knew that they were to be murdered.  He understood that the Nazis wanted to destroy every Jew as well as every reminder of their religious heritage.

So Shmuel took a chance. He knew that if he were caught, he would have paid with his life. But he did what he did so that something would remain—so that, even if not a single Jew in the world remained alive, someone might find it, and remember. He paced off 26 steps from the apple tree alongside his house, and carefully buried his treasure—-a silver Passover plate.

Why did he pace off 26 steps? Because 26 is the numerical equivalent of the Name of God. Yod is ten, Hey is five, Vav is six, and Hey is five. And so he figured that with this password, he would remember where he buried his beloved seder plate.

He wished he could have hidden much more. How he wanted to preserve a Torah scroll! But he had so little time, and so little space for concealing an object of value. His choice, in retrospect, seemed almost divinely inspired for its symbolism—the seder plate is the key vessel that is used to commemorate the festival of freedom. Shmuel thought, with what he later conceded was far too much optimism that miracles might perhaps occur once more, even in modern times. And from that day on, not a day went by in the Hell of the concentration camp that his mind did not dwell on his Seder plate in its hiding place.

Shmuel could never explain how he, out of all his family and friends, was the only one who survived. In his heart of hearts, he once confided to me, it may have been because he viewed his continued life on earth as a holy mission—to go back to his roots and uncover his own symbol of survival.

Incredibly enough, in ways that defy all logic, and that Shmuel only hinted to me, this survivor of 20th century genocide was reunited with his reminder of deliverance from age-old Egyptian oppression. Shmuel journeyed back to his home, found his tree, counted off the steps, dug where he remembered he had buried it, and successfully retried his Seder plate. It became a symbol of his own liberation as well. With it he celebrated dozens of Passovers, until his death a few years ago.

Shmuel lost his wife and his four children in the Holocaust. But he remarried when he came to the United States and he had a child with his second wife. And every year he had a seder, and at the seder he proudly told the story of this seder plate, and how he had buried it and recovered it again after the war. He must have led twenty or more sedarim with his new family over the years, and at every one he pointed to this seder plate with pride.

THAT seder plate is what I saw in the shop for sale in the antique shop that day. ”Where did you get this?” I inquired. “What is doing here for sale?” I asked the owner. “Yes, I want to buy it,: I assured him, “but I need to know how you happen to have it here.”

“It was part of the contents of an estate sale by the children,: the dealer replied. “You see, the deceased was religious, but his descendants are not. So they said they didn’t really have any need for an item like this.”

End of story.

It is a story that no one could have invented. If they had, people would dismiss it as a fantasy: the seder plate that a father had hidden in order to preserve it from the Nazis being thrown away after his death by his children?

That couldn’t be!

No children could be that insensitive, that callous, that forgetful.

Rabbi Blech puts it this way: “If you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s, you know how horrible it is to live without an awareness of what came before. We don’t have a name for a condition that describes lack of awareness of our collective past. And yet, the voluntary abandonment of historic memory is surely as destructive.”

And then Rabbi Blech goes on to say: “How I wish that the insensitivity of my friend, Shmuel’s children was untypical, an act of callousness not duplicated by others. But the sad truth is that we are part of a ‘throwaway culture’ that shows equal disrespect for used cars, used furniture, and used family treasures. What was sacred to the past has little meaning to the present. Memorabilia have lost their meaning because we have lost our respect for memory. So what if my grandparents used this kiddush cup or this mezuzah or this seder plate for so many years? We have no space for it, and we have no need for it. As if usefulness were the only reason to hold on to something that enables us to connect with the past!”

Rabbi Blech says: “The ring with which I married my wife may not be the fanciest or the most expensive ring in the world, but I hope that it stays in my family as a legacy of the love that we shared, and I hope that perhaps that it will be used again by my grandchildren, so that we can be present at their weddings, even if we are no longer among the living. The cup with which I usher in the Sabbath every week may reflect the poverty of my youth, but I still hope that it will be passed on to the future as a testament to the importance of religious values in our family. If what we treasured is held sacred by our children, then perhaps the values that we lived for will also be recalled with reverence.”

Rabbi Blech says that this is why he weeps for his friend, Shmuel, whose family sold his seder plate and thereby made themselves into orphans in history, cut off from their past. And this is why, he says, he retells Shmuel’s story every year at the seder. He believes that it captures the essential meaning of this holiday, which is: to remember because it is only by remembering who we are, and where we came from that we can hope to have a future.

Are you as moved by this story as I am?

I hope so, because for me this story summarizes and symbolizes what Pesach is about and what Yizkor is about.

Pesach is the time when we retell the story of how God took us out of Egypt, and made us His people. And on the day when we forget, or neglect to tell that story, we will no longer be Jews.

Let me tell you just one more simple story that I believe explain what Pesach is really all about.

It comes from the days before there was a State of Israel. The British, in 1937, formed what they called the Peel Commission to study how to resolve the struggle between the Jews and the Arabs. One of the people who was called to testify before this commission was David ben Gurion, who was, at that time, the head of the Jewish Agency.

One of the commissioners asked Ben Gurion a very simple question. He said to him: “Your people has been separated from Palestine for nearly two thousand years. Why do you still remember it? Why can’t you forget about this place and look for some other less controversial place in which to live?”

Ben Gurion’s answer was: “Because we are a people of memory. We Jews don’t forget.” And then he gave an example to prove his point. He said: ‘Several centuries ago, Columbus and his sailors came to America. Does anyone know exactly what day they  arrived? And does anyone know what they ate on board their ships? We may have studied their story in History class, and we have memorized the date of their arrival for an exam, but when the exam was over, we forgot. But ask any Jewish schoolchild anywhere in the world what day the Jews left Egypt, and what they ate that night, and he will tell you that they left on Pesach, and that they ate matsa that night. We are a people that eat today what they ate then, in order that we may remember. And that is why we cannot trade the land that we have remembered so long for some other place.”

We are the only people that I know that still eats the same food that our ancestors ate on the day they were liberated in order that they may always remember the day they went out of Egypt. A Jew who has amnesia about his history is not a Jew.

And since this is Yizkor, permit me to personalize this point a little bit more. We are a people who remembers—or who ought to remember—not only our lives as members of the Jewish people, but also our lives as members of our own families. And that is why the mementoes of our family are so very precious.

I have a tablecloth, whose cash value is not very big. But I would not trade it or sell it for all the money in the world, because this is the tablecloth that my parents brought with them when they came to America. They didn’t have very big trunks, and they did not have porters to carry their luggage, and so they only took those thingsl that were the most precious to them, and this tablecloth was one of the things that they brought. And shall I give it away?

No way! Because every time I look at it, I think of my parents and I remember their love.

I have a siddur that I love to use on Friday night when I make Kiddush. If you look at it, you will see that the page that has the Kiddush on it is stained with wine. The reason is because my father, in his old age, suffered from an illness that made his hands tremble. And yet, he would not think of not reciting the Kiddush. And so now, every time I open the siddur to the page on which the Kiddish is found, and see those wine stains, I think of him, and I remember the love that he had—for shabbas, for Kiddush, and for us.

And so, if there is anyone here today who has such a precious heirloom in his or her possession—whether it is a wedding ring or a menorah or a seder plate or a kiddush cup or whatever it is—I plead with you never, never to sell it, but to treasure it and honor it—in the only way that you can ever honor a Jewish sacred object—which is by using it. And then, when your time comes, I urge you to give it to your children so that they can treasure it and honor it too.

For if you do, then you will make them heirs to noble memories. I don’t know how much or how little you will leave them in material things, but this I do know: that if you leave them these tokens of your heritage, and if they use them, and if they do not sell them as Rabbi Blech’s friend, Shmuel’s family did, God forbid, you will have left them a precious legacy that will bind them to you and to your parents and to your parents’ parents, and that will bind them to their children and to their children’s children.

We are now about to recite the Yizkor prayer. As we do, precious and holy memories will come flowing into our hearts. May I suggest that we not only say these words, but that we resolve to treasure the mementoes—the mementoes and the values—that they left for us. For if we do, then they will live on, and so will we.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

13 March 2010/27 Adar 5770 — Shabbat Vayakhel/Pekudei — “Doing the Unalienable Work” Relating with/to Israel — post from Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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