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D’var Torah – Shabbat Shemini d’Pesah 5782

April 22, 2022

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Shabbat, the seventh day of Pesah
By Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine (’19)

One of the key passages of the Passover Haggadah comes at the end of the maggid section: b’khol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim – “In every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as though they personally had come out of Egypt…” This is a call to memory – to a national memory that has, to a large degree, been constructed for us. We are enjoined to “regard ourselves” as though we had personally come out of Egypt based on the information that we have been given, or at least based on a version of the story that has been passed down to us.

We are the people of memory. The Hebrew root z-kh-r (meaning “memory” or “remembering”) appears 228 times in the Hebrew Bible, and the injunction to “remember the work of creation” and “remember the exodus from Egypt” are cornerstones of our faith, our relationship to God, and our liturgy. I stress that these are national memories, ones that we have collectively agreed to “pass on” to the next generations in order to preserve our national or religious story and our national or religious values.

But we also do the work of constructing memory-narratives on a personal level. This happens whenever someone dies. In our tradition, we have a process for constructing this individual’s narrative: it begins right after death with the hesped – the eulogy. What is the purpose of a eulogy? The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 344:1) discusses this:

Mitzvah gedolah lehaspid al hameit kara’uy. Umitzvato sheyarim et kolo lomar alav devarim hameshabrim et halav, keday leharbot bekhiyah, ulehazkir shevaho.

“It is a great mitzvah to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the mitzvah is to raise one’s voice to say over [the departed] things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying; and also one should, “lehazkir shevaho” – cause people to remember the dead’s good deeds/praises.”

Right from the time of death, we are urged, commanded, even, to construct a story about our dead. There is a discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46b) about whether the purpose of the eulogy is yekara deshakhvei– for the sake of honoring the dead, or yekara dehayyei –for the sake of honoring the living. If for the dead, then that is appropriate: we wish to send off the individual with as much honor as possible – let heaven be presented with an account of her good deeds and let her be judged on those!

If for the living, then how so? The Gemara answers that question: Niha lehu letzadikaya demeik’rei bahu inshei – “It is comforting to the righteous when other people are honored through them.” In other words, we understand that there is a personal benefit to us to hear about the deeds of the departed – that some of their honor, or some of the honor that we have attached to them, rubs off on us, by association. This is a local version of zekhut avot – the merit of our ancestors; it is not our national ancestors though, but rather our familial ancestors. And just as we rely upon the merit of Abraham and Sarah, for example, to soften God’s judgment of us, so we hope that the honor of our parents, grandparents, siblings, or even children (חו”ש) accrues to us, so it is fitting that we should heap honor upon them!

A similar question applies to our pledge (in Yizkor) of giving tzedakah in memory of the dead. Is it for us, or is it for them? Is the giving of tzedakah meant to satisfy the medieval notion that by donating charity in memory of the deceased, we lessen the suffering of that person’s soul in the afterlife? I appreciate that this explanation resonates with some, but I have never been comfortable with it. I believe that, just as with eulogizing, the real benefit is not to the dead, but to the living. By pledging to give tzedakah, we are keeping the memory of the deceased alive by supporting causes that they cared about. What’s more, we are associating their memory with an act of righteousness – a material, tangible expression of what we have learned from them – what we have gleaned from the life we are remembering. Our dead make us better – we have, ideally, attached to them a story of righteousness, of goodness, of positive qualities that are worthy of emulation.

The opening line of the yizkor prayers is a puzzle: yizkor elohim et nishmat ploni / “May God remember the soul of _______.” We often ask God to remember things or to remember people: zekhor av hanimshakh aharekha kamayyim – “Remember the patriarch who was drawn to you like water,” we say on Shemini AtzeretZekhor brit Avraham vaAkeidat Yitzhak – “Remember the covenant with Abraham and the binding of Isaac” we say at Ne’ilah. But when we say yizkor Elohim or any of these other prayers, we are not actually asking God to remember – surely, memory is a human quality, not a divine one – God knows all – memory is not a factor. What we are doing is asking God to overlay the positive deeds of that person onto us – when we ask God to “remember that person” what we really mean is “take notice of me! I can be a better person! No matter where I am now, I can strive for something greater! I can aim for those fine qualities of – you name it – my mother, father, sister, brother, etc…”

The recitation of Yizkor on Pesah takes on a heightened layer of meaning: the holiday that is deliberately and self-consciously about memory, about the telling of a national story, meets a service that is about personal stories. In my role as clergy, after the death of a congregant, I have the extraordinary privilege of sitting with the family and watching them recall and reconstruct a life for the sake of a story – the eulogy. In these moments, as often as not, they are expressing their own aspirational values through these memories. Occasionally, something negative about the person will slip out – “he would lose his temper sometimes” or “he didn’t know those grandchildren as well as he knew the others” – and then there’s always the corrective: “But don’t say that at the funeral.” Right from the start, we peel away the negative qualities and get to the kernels of goodness that the life represented.

This Shabbat Pesah, as we pledge to give tzedakah be’ad hazkarat nishmatam – “so that their souls will be remembered” – let us remember too, that just as the story of the exodus and our years in the wilderness are the Great Guiding Lights of our religion, so too the life-stories of our dead that we tell others and that we tell ourselves turn into little stars that light our personal moral universe. They serve as fitting tributes to our dead, and as a bridge between those dead and our own journey of self-improvement as we walk through life.

Shabbat shalom and hag same’ah!
Sam Levine is the rabbi and cantor of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. He received rabbinical ordination from AJR in 2019 and cantorial investiture from JTS in 2004.