The Sustaining Power of Our Memories
Yizkor Sermon, Pesach 2019
Today and yesterday, the last days of Pesach, commemorate the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Children of Israel crossing on dry land.
We are told that as the Jewish people were getting ready to leave Egypt, Moses, the leader of the people, was busy with one important task. He needed to fulfill a promise made to Joseph hundreds of years earlier. Joseph the second youngest of the sons of Jacob who was sold into slavery to Egypt by his brothers rose to become the viceroy of Egypt his brothers promise that when the time of their exodus came they or their offspring would take his remains with them and make sure he was buried in the and of Israel.
Moses was busy collecting the remains of Joseph to fulfill the promise years earlier.
Joseph’s directive is interesting. It is not surprising that Joseph would want to be buried in the Land of Israel, not in Egypt. He could, however, have asked to be taken to be buried there immediately after his death, as Jacob did. Joseph certainly had the political clout to o. He chose, however, to do something different.
He asked brothers to make a promise binding for the future. he question is why?
Perhaps Joseph in his wisdom realized that this way he would be able to give the children of Israel strength to not despair. Joseph was communicating a message to the next generations of our nation still in Egypt: “Do you know how confident I am that this is just a temporary situation and redemption will come? I am willing to bet my burial in the Land of Israel on it. This message of absolute confidence would sustain the people throughout their time of suffering and persecution.
But there is more. If Joseph would have immediately been buried in Israel then the memory of Joseph and what he represented, a deeply connected and principled Jew who stood out as the greatest of leaders in a foreign country compromising his identity, would have faded quite quick of sight out of mind. He insisted on staying in Egypt, even after his death. This way, his memory stayed with the Children of Israel. This memory would be a source of strength during their years in Egypt would guide them would sustain them.
Because that is what memories have the power to do times in an even more powerful way than anything we may do in real time.
Memories of our history, of those that came before us, they occupy a most significant role in our faith.
Memories have the power to guide and sustain us.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks shares: If you examine carefully the walls of Jerusalem, you will see a curious phenomenon. Jerusalem was destroyed many times. But each time, its walls were rebuilt from the stones of the ruins of the earlier walls. Out of the ruins of the past, Jerusalem has been rebuilt out of the fragments of the memories of the past, the Jewish people have been reborn.
In a matter of a few days Yom HaShoah will be upon us and we will remember the Holocaust and all of those that perished. Those memories- will sustain us as we live for what they died .
One of the greatest Chassidic masters of pre-war Poland was Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943), the Master of Piaseczno. In his Polish city of Piaseczno he founded one of the largest Jewish schools in Poland. He ran a school with thousands of children’ father, mother, and best friend. In 1940, Rabbi Klonimus Kalman was deported with his family by the Germans to the Warsaw ghetto. There he wrote a precious book called "The Holy Fire", Eish Kodesh, which recounted the teachings he gave in the darkness of the ghetto. He buried the book in a milk barrel underground the ghetto. In 1943 he was shot near Lublin. His entire family was exterminated. After the war, his manuscript was discovered by a construction worker in Warsaw and was given to the Warsaw Jewish community. In 1957, someone finally realized what it was; it was sent and published in Israel in 1961.
The famous Jewish composer Shlomo Carlebach related this story:
When the book Eish Kodesh came out after the war was over, I couldn’t believe its beauty, it so pierced my heart. I asked everyone, “Where are those children? The precious children who heard these teachings every week in Warsaw? I would love to meet even one of them.” I was told that nobody survived.
But one day, a few years ago, I was walking down Rechov Yarcon, a street near the beach of Tel Aviv. There I saw a man with a hunched back; he looked so broken and crushed. His face was beautiful, so handsome, but his body was misshapen. He was sweeping the streets. I had a feeling this person was special and so I said, “Shalom, peace unto you.”
He replied to me in the heaviest Polish accent “Alaichem shalom.” I asked if he was from Poland. And he said, “Yes I’m from Piaseczno.” I couldn’t believe it—Piaseczno. I asked if he had ever seen Rabbi Klonimus Kalman, the Master of Piaseczno. He said to me, “What do you mean, have I seen him? I was a student in his school from the age of five until I was eleven. When I was eleven, I was sent to Auschwitz. I was so strong they thought I was seventeen. I was whipped and hit and kicked and never healed- that is why I look the way I do now. I have nobody in the world. I’m all alone. My entire family was murdered.” And he kept on sweeping the streets of Tel Aviv.
I said, “My sweetest friend, my whole life I’ve been waiting to see you, a person who saw the Master of Piaseczno, a person who was one of his children. Please, share with me one of his teachings.”
The man glared at me. “Do you think you can be in Auschwitz for three years and still remember any teachings?!”
“Yes, I’m sure of it,” I said. “Rabbi Shapira’s teachings—they pierce your heart?”
The man went to the water fountain to wash his hands. He fixed his shirt, put on his jacket, and then said to me one more time, “Do you really want to hear it?”
I nodded in the affirmative and so he began. “I want you to know that there never was such a Shabbat as this one in our childhood town of Piaseczno. We danced, hundreds of us, as our Rebbe led us in a song to greet the holy Shabbat. At the Shabbat meal Rabbi Shapira taught between every course. After every teaching this is what the master would say: “Children, remember! The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.” And he repeated this line over and over again.
The man sighed. “You know, my parents were gone, my entire family, no one exists anymore. I was in Auschwitz all alone and I wanted to take my life. I remember deciding I was going to run to the electrified fence and at the last moment I could hear my master say, “Kinderlach, children…do somebody else a favor. Do somebody a favor.’”
The man looked directly at me and said: “Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz at night? People are lying in indescribable pain, and nobody even has any strength to listen to their stories anymore. I would walk from one person to the other and ask, ‘Why are you crying?’ and they would tell me about their children, their wives, the people they’d never see again. I would hold their hands and cry with them. Then I would walk to the next person. I hope it gave them strength, I know that is where I found the strength to continue for another day.
The man continued: After the war I made it to Tel Aviv. I had no one in my life. Most people were afraid to approach me because of the way I look. And there were times that I just wanted to give up. I would go down to the beach and I would take off my shoes. I would step into the sea and I would slowly walk. I would go up to my nose in the ocean, ready to drown, but in those moments I couldn’t help but hear my Rebbe’s voice saying, ‘The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. Remember, my precious children, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.’”
The man stared at me again for a long time and said, “You know how many favors you can do on the streets of the world?”
And he kept on sweeping the street.
Memories guide us and memories sustain us Yizkor. It is our opportunity to keep those memories alive make sure they stay with us and never fade. Memories of our loved ones and what they lived for. We ensure these memories live on inside of us as they give us strength in every area of our lives.