In the early stages of the pandemic, I remember having conversations with friends and acquaintances about whether it was ok to do things that might seem silly, given the amount of suffering in the world. There is a sense of guilt that has hung over many people I know. For those of us who have been relatively fortunate – who have remained healthy, who have homes and jobs, and the resources to ride this out, there is an awareness that others have it much worse. That given how lucky we are, we have nothing to complain about. Underlying this there seems to be a deeper question: is it ok to experience joy during this time? If we have a choice, should we actually avoid doing things that seem to be frivolous or callous given the suffering that surrounds us?
It is not only not wrong; it can be essential. In our most challenging times, it is important to have something to live for, to nourish our spirits so that we are better able to cope. Not that we should turn away from suffering, but it is important to sustain ourselves so that we can come out the other side.
On Yom Kippur we set aside time to remember – for remembering our own family, friends, and loved ones who are no longer with us. Traditionally, it is also a time when we recall the sacrifices of our ancestors who lost their lives because of their Jewish faith.
Remembering the people we miss and recounting these stories of martyrdom may fill us with sadness. It is important to remember, and we should honor our grief. We should honor our grief. But we have already lost so much this year, and grief weighs extra heavily this year.
Some of us have suffered from illness, or watched our friends or family suffer. Some of us have lost people close to us to COVID-19. We have all had our lives upended in one way or another. Some of us have lost our jobs and our sense of financial security. We have had to rethink and reorganize the way we work, care for our families, and live our daily lives. We might be mourning the loss of the pleasures of life that we used to take for granted – the ability to socialize with friends, or to safely visit relatives who live across the country or the world. We may long for a sense of normalcy and miss dinners in restaurants, going to the theater or a baseball game, or visiting museums. We might be isolated and hungering for human connection.
I miss being able to let my children play freely with their friends and neighbors. I miss my parents visiting to see their grandchildren. I miss traveling. I miss being able to go to a grocery store or the gym without worrying that I will carry a deadly virus with me that could make me, or someone I love, seriously ill.
And it is hard not to be together in person, as a community. It was very difficult for me to accept that the holiday experience this year would be so different from years past. I miss hearing all of your voices joining together in song. I miss being able to walk around the room following the Sefer Torah, shake hands, and wish you a Shana Tova. I miss being able to see your faces when I stand up here to speak.
We are mourning our way of life, and trying to cope with the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next, or whether anything will return to “normal.”
We come into this day carrying with us all of the pain, distress, and fear of the last several months. We have all lost something. Over the past several months, as our lives have been reshaped by a pandemic that we are likely to be dealing with for a long time, we have all tried to find our own ways to cope – with our anxiety, fear, stress, loneliness, hours spent at home, loneliness, anxiety. When we are asked on this day to sit with the memory of our loved ones, the painful parts of Jewish history, and the losses of the past several months, it can feel like too much to bear at once.
The memories of loss, destruction, and rupture that we recall as part of the Yizkor service and traditionally later in the musaf service as well, are an important and ever-present part of our history, but there is another dimension to these stories. These darker episodes in Jewish history illuminate all the more the amazing resilience and creativity of our people; the ability of our ancestors to rebuild and create anew. As much as Jewish history is a history of destruction, it is also a history of resilience and reimagining.
We can also draw strength from this history – from the ways that the Jewish people have found ways to survive and reinvent in the face of suffering and displacement, and from the individual strength and courage of the people we have known personally.
I want to share a few stories with you today, of incredible people who survived terrible trauma There are countless incredible stories of survival and resilience – too many to share here – that deserve to be remembered, too. How do we cope in this moment? How can we draw on the experiences of our ancestors and memories of our loved ones, to inspire us and build our resilience?
The words that traditionally introduce the recollections of Jewish martyrs capture the depth of emotion that we might be bringing with us into this Yom Kippur:
Eileh ezk’rah v’nafshi alai eshkfah, al koroteinu hamarot einai zolgot dimah
These I recall, and my soul melts with sorrow; for the bitter course of our history, tears pour from my eyes.
In the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy, we read stories of the aftermath of the crushing of the Jewish revolt by the Roman authorities. The martyrology describes in some detail the deaths of the leaders of the Jewish community, who are forbidden from the public practice of Judaism. They hold onto their commitments until the very end, continuing to teach Torah even at the risk of death at the hands of the Romans. The practice of Judaism itself becomes an act of defiance.
But these, too, we remember…
In the midst of persecution and out of the ashes of destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai charted a new course for himself and the Jewish community. After his attempts to mediate between the Jewish rebels and the Romans failed, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai knew that the Temple would be destroyed, and with it an entire way of life. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai arranged for his students to smuggle him out of Jerusalem in a casket. From there, he went on to the city of Yavneh in the North, and established it as a new center of Jewish leadership and teaching.
The impact of the destruction of the Temple cannot be exaggerated. To many Jews living at the time, it would have felt that the heart of the Jewish people’s connection to God had been ripped out, and that now we were left untethered in this world. For Judaism to survive, it would have to be transformed.
“Once as Rabban [our rabbi] Yohanan ben Zakkai, was leaving Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehoshua who was following him, looked back, saw the Holy Temple in ruins, and remarked in despair. [Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, The place that atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!
[Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not grieve. There is another form of atonement equal to it. And what is it? Performing Acts of lovingkindness, as the prophet Hosea declared, “For I desire acts of lovingkindness, not sacrifice.”
Without Rabbi Yochanan’s bold re-envisioning of what it meant to be in relationship to God, there would be no Judaism as we know it today. Out of the ashes of destruction, he gathered the courage to prepare for the days ahead and to chart a new course for himself and his community.
This, too, I will remember.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the ending of Jewish political power, Jews strengthened and established new communities all over the world. As we know, this too was a tumultuous history – Jewish communities flourished in Western Europe, until they were destroyed through violence or exile. Exiled from England and France, Jews moved east to Germany and south to Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Pushed from Germany, they settled in Poland and eastern Europe. Exiled from Spain and Portugal, they dispersed to Holland, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Donna Gracia Mendes was born into a family of Jewish converts to Christianity in 16th century Lisbon, Portugal. When her husband, a banker and gem dealer died, she left Portugal with her family to settle in Antwerp, Belgium where she helped aid families of forced converts to flee the Inquisition. She then moved to Venice, where she was denounced by her own sister as a crypto-Jew and imprisoned. Freed from prison by the diplomatic intervention of her nephew Don Joseph Nasi, she then went to Ferrara, Italy where she reclaimed her Jewish identity. She then moved to Constantinople, bringing her nephew with her as a business partner. She became a patron of Jewish religious life in the Ottoman Empire, helping to establish synagogues and yeshivot.
Her life was disrupted numerous times, and yet she was able to fashion something new in each place she went. At each point in her journey, she took the next step she needed to survive and to ensure others’ safety as well.
This, too, I will remember.
Earlier this year, the world lost a great woman, Fanny Freund, who I was privileged to know. I got to know Fanny when I was working in the administrative office of Congregation Shaare Zedek in New York. Fanny was one of the heads of the shul’s Sisterhood, and so I would often see her in the building dropping off supplies for sisterhood events. Whenever we needed volunteers to stuff envelopes for mailings or assemble Purim packages, Fanny was always ready to volunteer. And while we worked, she told me a little bit about her life.
Fanny was born in Vienna in the 1920s to a religious and cultured family. She was involved in a Zionist religious youth movement as a teenager. When the Nazis came to power in Austria and her father was threatened, the family knew they had to leave. Fanny moved to Israel, then Palestine, on Youth aliyah in 1939, while her parents and sister traveled to France. The young Fanny attended a farm school and learned to speak Hebrew, and possibly fought in the Haganah. Her father and sister were deported to Auschwitz where they were killed in 1942; her mother had somehow gotten separated from the family and never boarded the train. She survived the Shoah and Fanny reunited with her in France after the war. They were sponsored by a cousin to move to the United States, settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She met her husband Nathan there and they were married for over 60 years. They raised their children in German Jewish community Washington Heights, building a thriving business and a loving family. She was always a welcoming and smiling face, happy to do what she could to help others well into her 90s.
All these, and many more, we will remember.
What do these survivors have in common? What is it that helped them keep going and to build their lives anew – sometimes more than once? How were they able to cope with the losses of their lives? What can we learn from bearing witness to their lives?
When we look back at the life of someone and ask ourselves how they could have survived, how did they get from where they started to where they ended up. And the answer is always by putting one foot in front of the other.
We survive by taking the next right step. There was no way for these survivors to know what would come next, but at each turning point they found a footing where they could and took that step. Like our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who left everything they knew behind to find a new life; like our people leaving slavery in Egypt behind to head to a promised land – we might not know where we are going or if we will even get there. All we can do is focus on the moment we are in, right now, and taking the step that we can see.
In our most difficult moments, we can draw from the well of wisdom of the Psalms to give words to what we feel – our deepest expressions of fear and uncertainty, our crying out for help, strength, and support. In several Psalms we imagine the support we need in the form of being steadied on our path:
God makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me besides still waters;
God renews my spirit; God guides me on the right path as befits His name.
Gam ki eilech b’gei tzalmavet, lo ira ra ki atah imadi.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are with me.
Psalm 91 speaks of this guidance as angels lifting us in their hands lest we stumble. I think of this not as being carried, but the way that a parent or caregiver holds the hands of a child who is learning to walk. The toddler takes the steps themselves, but there is someone there to offer a steadying support when it is needed.
The key image here is that we don’t need to do it alone. There is so much uncertainty – in our lives as individuals, in the world. It can be difficult, from wherever we are on our path, to feel secure and stable. What if we visualize that we are not doing it alone? Whose memory, whose strength and resilience are walking alongside you? Whose words or steadying presence can you call on when you need it?
May we always remember, and let our memory give us the courage to take the next right step.